A Small Nation With Great Strength, Challenges, and Hope

David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, and his wife, Robin L. Davisson, a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College, are traveling in Israel as part of a conference on higher education. The couple is writing about their trip for WorldWise.

The American university presidents are now students, hunched over our pens and paper, as the distinguished professor at Tel Aviv University explains the nuances of Israeli politics and the peace process. Young Muslim women in hijab hurry by on the way to class as we meet with the vice president at Al-Qasemi College, an Islamic academic institution in Baqa el-Gharbiya. The mayor of Haifa welcomes us with an explication of his plan for economic development through the encouragement of higher education. Professors and administrators at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology share their approaches to technology transfer and entrepreneurship in what has been termed the “Start-Up Nation.”  The president of Hebrew University, the oldest university in Israel, reminds us that Albert Einstein and Martin Buber served on their early governance board (as did Sigmund Freud) even as he reacts to another proposed boycott of Israel. Professors from Al-Quds University in the West Bank share their aspirations and frustrations as a prominent Islamic institution in what they consider an occupied country.

The range of successes, opportunities, and seemingly intractable issues we have experienced during the first 72 hours of our Project Interchange U.S. presidents’ travel seminar in Israel is staggering. Each scene reflects the realities of what was proudly described to us as a “modern, Western, Middle Eastern, democratic, Jewish state” of 7.5 million people, smaller in area than the state of New Jersey.

Israel’s success in higher education is obvious: the development of several world-class universities in less than a century. The challenges are obvious, too: a palpable brain drain from institutions whose resources are sorely limited by substantial expenditures on national security; the ongoing tension between two narratives – Israeli and Palestinian – each with a claim on the land, and the effects of this tension within the Israeli professoriate, a small number of whom support a boycott of the country; and the ongoing question of legitimacy of the State of Israel that underlies some discussions throughout the world.

What strikes us most powerfully is the sense of hope among so many of those we’ve met. Even as they ask, as one Israeli university leader did, whether the language we speak as academics can bridge seemingly intractable divides. And whether we can harness the power of collaborative research and student exchange for peace.

That’s the critical question underlying this odyssey.

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