Inside view of Israel leaves US university presidents wanting more

A delegation of top educators explored collaborations with Israeli institutions, and got a better understanding of the region’s political issues

Project Interchange's US university presidents' delegation to Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Project Interchange's US university presidents' delegation to Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)

Seeing is believing — and understanding. Last week, a delegation of American university heads visited Israel, some of them for the first time, to get a better understanding of the many things they have heard about Israel. “I read the book ‘Start-Up Nation,’ and I found it to be very exciting,” said delegation member Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “Now I have a chance to actually see how it operates.”

The delegation was organized by Project Interchange, an educational program of the American Jewish Committee. Project Interchange brings opinion leaders and policy makers to Israel for a week of intensive travel and learning, giving them the opportunity to go beyond the headlines and get a sense of what Israel is really all about. The program includes discussions with leading Israeli figures, including government and military officials, business and NGO executives and academics, meetings with Arab-Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and sessions on education, immigrant absorption, social welfare programs, economic development, rule of law, human rights and the peace process, among others.

That recipe proved to be a winning one for the delegation’s chairperson, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi of the University of California, Davis. “I saw quite a lot of innovative technologies at Israeli universities,” Katehi said. “We at UC Davis have had professors collaborating with Israeli scholars, especially from the Technion,” and she hopes to expand programs to other universities, including Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University. “I was really impressed with the Weizmann Institute. It’s a very well-run institution,” she added.

Another site that impressed Katehi, whose school is known for its viticulture program, was the Golan Heights Winery. “In California, we have wineries that were in business for 60 plus years before they were able to produce the quality wines that the Golan winery has taken only thirty years to produce. The quality of wines, as well as the fact that a wide variety of grapes are grown in the region, unlike the case in most areas where only a few varieties are grown, are a testimony to Israel’s agricultural technology.” But, Katehi added, UC Davis could share that pride. “I discovered that the winemaster and several other people at the winery had actually studied at UC Davis.”

Agricultural technology was also on the mind of University of Nebraska Chancellor Perlman. “Israel is clearly the leader in drip irrigation, so we have something to learn about that,” although not all the techniques developed in Israel may be applicable to the far greater scale of agriculture in the midwestern states of the US. “We are also looking at genetic research in plants, another area where Israel excels.”

Furthermore, “there are many programs we could work with Israeli universities on,” including a brain biology institute, Perlman said. Tel Aviv University is setting one up, as is the University of Nebraska, noted Perlman, “and we would love to be able to work together with them.”

Louis Agnese, Jr., president of the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, was here on his second visit. “I came to get an overall view of the Israeli education system with a view towards setting up collaborations with Israeli universities in a variety of areas.”

One thing that Agnese would very much like is to attract Israeli students, undergraduate and graduate, to study at his school. “We are a Catholic university that has many Jewish philanthropic supporters, with a campus where about 10% of our students are Muslim and a similar Jewish population, but we don’t have any Israeli students. The fact that Israelis have gone through the army and have had a variety of life experiences before going to university gives them a maturity that is beyond students from other backgrounds. I believe they would be a positive contribution to our student body.”

Israelis have all heard about what seems to be a major movement against cooperating with Israel on college campuses, but according to the university heads interviewed, that movement is not as widespread or significant as it seems. Certainly not in “the heartland,” said Agnese. “In most of the US the attitude to Israel is not like it is on the coasts.”

Perlman said that the situation was similar on his campus. “Most students don’t pay attention to the events in the Middle East. I know Israelis find that hard to believe, but the issues in Israel get very shallow treatment in the American media, and most students have other things on their mind.”

The situation is somewhat different at UC Davis, said Katehi. “We have had issues on campus between Jewish students and Palestinian students, but we have been able to manage it so far. The conflict there is reflected here, as it is on other campuses.” But Katehi does not believe that there would be a major protest movement against collaboration with Israeli institutions. “If anything, there would be pressure for us to have equal collaborations with Palestinian universities, which we would be prepared to have.”

For the university heads, and for Project Interchange, getting to know the issues in the Middle East beyond the headlines is perhaps the most important purpose of the trip. “Many people in the US wonder how it is that after so many years of talks the Palestinians and Israelis have not been able to come to an agreement,” said Katehi. “It’s clear that there is a deep lack of trust, even though there are good historical reasons for that.”

Agreeing with Katehi, Agnese said that the two sides had often been close, but had never been able to close the deal. “There’s so much history to be overcome.”

On the delegation’s itinerary was a visit to Ramallah, where the group met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

“Ninety-five percent of the Palestinians want the same thing that Israelis want, it seems to me, and that’s to be able to feed their families,” said Agnese. “But if we are going to get anywhere, the Palestinians are going to have to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. After that the two sides can get to the point where they can make a deal.”

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