In an effort to educate their fellow students and the greater college community on what Israel is really all about, a group of Harvard students are organizing that university’s first-ever Israel Conference. “We want the world to see Israel as we see it,” Yaniv Rivlin, a Harvard student and one of the event’s organizers, told The Times of Israel. “We want the world to see Israel as the innovative place we know it to be.”
Israel is a hard sell at Harvard. There are many anti-Israel activists on campus, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where Rivlin is working toward a master’s degree in public policy, earlier this month held a “One State Conference” that pilloried Israel and Zionism and advocated the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state to be replaced with a “free and democratic Palestine.” The boycott, divest, and sanctions (BDS) movement has a significant presence at Harvard.
It’s against this backdrop that Rivlin, along with other nine Israelis studying at Harvard, decided to tell the story of Israel’s contributions to the world. “Seeing the situation on campus, we Israeli students brainstormed and came up with the idea of the Israel Conference,” said Rivlin. “There is a German Conference, an Asian Conference and an Arab Conference at Harvard. Why not a conference about Israel?”
The idea was hatched several months ago, and the pro-Israel and Jewish community at Harvard, including Jewish student organizations like Hillel, embraced it.
The two-day conference, set for April 19-20, will focus on the contributions Israel has made to technology, agriculture, energy management, medicine, and a plethora of other areas. A star-studded list of personalities, including “Start-Up Nation” co-writer Dan Senor, former US Ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross, and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, will speak on Israel’s contributions to modern life.
Other speakers include serial innovators like Dov Moran (formerly of the cellphone company Modu, and now head of Internet TV start-up Comigo), Yariv Bash (CEO and co-founder of SpaceIL, the Israeli team competing in the Google Lunar X-Prize), Jon Medved (founder of Vringo), Habib Hazzan (co-founder of Al-Bawader fund, the first investment fund focused on the Arab private sector in Israel), and many others. The conference will also feature panels analyzing why Israel is such an innovator despite its being surrounded by enemies, and how to move the peace process forward using technology.
To encourage that latter idea, the conference is sponsoring a Peace Innovation Competition open to the general Harvard community, which encourages students to think of innovative ways technology can be used to advance peace in the Middle East. “The longer we remain deadlocked, the less likely it is that there will be a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The region needs new and innovative ideas to stimulate and inspire thinking outside of the box,” Rivlin said. In order to encourage those ideas, the conference will give away $1,000 to the student with the best proposal.
“We have gotten some great ideas so far,” said Rivlin. “All of the ideas are grounded in reality, much more so than the ideas presented at the One State Conference… I have asked them about the dichotomy between their calls to boycott Israel and their continued use of the many technologies developed in Israel that they depend on, but have never gotten a straight answer.”
Rivlin expects his event to have its share of protesters. “We expect them to be there, and we will invite them to look past their prejudices and learn about what Israel really is like.” A little education goes a long way, said Rivlin. “Students from the Kennedy School who came to Israel last year were amazed by what they saw,” he said. “They had no idea about the Israel I and my friends grew up in, the Israel that immediately sends out help when a crisis breaks in the world, the Israel whose technologies do so much for the world.”
As far as Rivlin and the other organizers are concerned, the conference is apolitical, but he realizes that politics immediately becomes an issue where Israel is concerned. “We realize there are issues, and we don’t shy away from them,” he said. “We believe in the power of technology to help bring peace, and that is the direction we want the conference to take. We don’t want to dwell on the past — instead we want to build a tomorrow that can benefit everyone in the region, and the world, using the technology and innovation that Israel has created.”