When Prof. Uriel Reichman set up the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya 25 years ago, its charter declared that Israel’s first nonprofit, private institution for higher education would train its students in freedom of thought and leadership and work to attract Jewish and other students from all over the world.
Then, in the spirit of the times, imbued with hopes for regional peace — in 1994 Israel was in the midst of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians and the same year signed a peace agreement with Jordan — the charter also declared that it would work to lower “the walls of hostility” in the Middle East, host students of all religions from the area and the world, and strive toward peace.
“Over our 25 years of work we have ticked off all we have set out to do,” Reichman, 77, the president of IDC, said in an interview from his offices on the campus in Herzliya. The only thing that the private college had not fulfilled, he said, was its dream of playing a part in regional peace because all efforts to reach an agreement with the Palestinians have so far failed.
But now, Reichman said, the college will hopefully be able to tick that box too, and do its part for the region. The university is planning to set up a new, private not-for-profit innovation and entrepreneurship graduate school in the coastal city of Paphos, in Cyprus, with the blessing of Mayor Phedonas Phedonos.
“The municipality has agreed to provide and build the facility and we will set up what we hope will become a study center for all the nations of the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said, referring to Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, as well as “whoever else” wants to come.
The so-called Startup Nation has made a global mark thanks to the technologies and startups that have sprouted within its borders. There are more than 6,600 startups in Israel’s small and connected economy, 14 times the concentration of startups per capita in Europe. The nation ranks number one globally in R&D expenditures per GDP, and attracts the highest rate of venture capital funding per capita in the world — some $674 per capita in 2018, according to a report by Start-Up Nation Central (SNC) and PwC Israel.
According to the report, there are 539 multinational corporations from 35 countries operating in Israel’s tech ecosystem, with these firms seeing the startup-heavy country as a go-to place for new ideas and entrepreneurial culture. They are also snapping up Israeli firms.
Reichman’s hope is to set up MA programs with the top minds from Israel and abroad to teach, among other subjects, AI, big data, and the intersection of law and tech. The center will also address the main issues the Middle East faces — subjects like water, food and agriculture management, solar energy, and oil and gas.
Paphos airport is just a 40-minute flight from Israel, he said, making it easy for faculty from the Israeli college to teach in the new facility.
The classes will aim to attract leading business figures from the various countries and thus create a network of business ties and friendships that could lead to economic cooperation in the future. “I don’t delude myself that this will bring peace,” Reichman said. “but I believe it will create connections between people, and may advance us one step forward to a nonviolent and non-confrontational Middle East. In spite of everything, people are similar to one another. And once they connect, it will be a win-win for all.”
Chances of the initiative succeeding are greater because it is not politically backed, he said. “We are not politically affiliated with anyone, We are a private and independent academic institution that’s not funded by the state.”
The building is expected to be ready in August or September, he said. “We have to make sure that the study fees will cover the expenses; students who can’t afford to pay will need to get scholarships to attend the program and for that we will need to raise funds. The lecturers will be our lecturers, and other specialized lecturers from the Middle Eastern countries and beyond.”
“This is the vision… we are on the way. We need to raise donations to cover the costs. The city will give us the infrastructure and the building.”
The IDC, believes Reichman, is best placed to take on this venture, as it has spearheaded innovative thinking and entrepreneurship within its walls in Israel.
From a small college with only 240 students operating in the barracks of a former military base, IDC Herzliya has developed into a sprawling campus, home to some 8,000 students, of whom 2,000 come from 87 other countries. In 2018 the IDC was granted permission to set up a PhD program in law, paving its way to becoming the first private university in Israel.
In the interview, Reichman talked about the challenges of training students for the future. In a world in which technology changes very fast and affects all kinds of businesses, how can educators prepare students?
“Our role is to empower students,” he said. “Teach them to believe in themselves, become entrepreneurs so they can cope with anything they face and also solve problems, without waiting for answers from the government. They must be trained toward creativity and leadership.”
The IDC has spearheaded academic disciplines, for example entrepreneurship and counter-terrorism. Its school of entrepreneurship is among the first in the world and the only one in Israel to grant a bachelor’s degree in the field.
In the Media Innovation Lab (milab), part of the communications department, students from a variety of disciplines were working last week on projects dealing with human-computer interaction. One group was creating a robot designed to help improve bus passengers’ interaction with the driver; another was working on a ride-sharing program in which shared music could help break the ice between users of the service, increasing its appeal.
On another floor, in IDC’s entrepreneurship building, exchange students from the MBA program of Columbia University in New York were holding activities as part of a program that aimed to help them get a closer look at the Startup Nation.
Reichman added that the IDC was setting up what he called a new “nucleus of innovation” program to attract researchers, faculty and students to work together on a variety of fields including AI, robotics, big data, applied brain research and the question of how regulatory frameworks need to be changed to adapt to the impact of technology. The nucleus will attempt to predict the future of technology and its social impact, he said. “Technology can be harmful,” he said, ways must be found to mitigate the potential damage.
Reichman, who received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a doctoral degree in law at the University of Chicago, also served from 1985 to 1990 as the dean of the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University.
In the mid-1980s he initiated and led a team that formulated a proposal for an Israeli constitution. The proposal, set out in 1987, included reforms such as the direct election of the prime minister, constituent elections, a Bill of Rights, and a new definition of the relations between religion and state.
Reichman subsequently chaired the Movement for a Constitution in Israel and led the campaign to have the proposed constitution accepted and implemented. As a result, the Knesset passed legislation in 1992 that turned part of the proposed constitution into Basic Laws.
What does he think of the efforts of Likud lawmakers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to radically weaken the Supreme Court? Likud members of parliament and Netanyahu are reportedly working to guarantee the premier immunity for prosecution on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three criminal cases, and are seeking to pass legislation that would weaken the High Court of Justice so that it won’t have the power to strike down efforts to protect him.
Reichman said he is “very worried” for Israel’s democracy. “If Israel had a constitution many of the problems that the nation is facing today would not have arisen,” he said.