Leaders and Correspondents: Palestinian, Israeli, American

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 whine of the sirens from our Palestinian security escort rises above the noise of widespread construction as our van moves along the streets of Ramallah in the West Bank, headed toward Jerusalem. We have just spent an uplifting hour with Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority. An eloquent, American-educated economist, Fayyad is planning and executing a variety of focused community development projects, improving transparency of the Authority’s finances and solidifying West Bank security in Palestinian hands — all toward preparation for statehood.

Later that day we spend an equally positive hour with the president of the state of Israel, Shimon Peres. An enormously experienced and widely respected leader, he has served as Israeli prime minister, founded a center aimed at fostering Arab-Israeli joint ventures, and is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Interestingly, he emphasizes the importance of education and discovery, outlines a new Israeli neuroscience initiative, and points to the goal of “democratization of the fruits of research.”

The next day we share lunch with James Cunningham, U.S. ambassador to Israel, just back from Washington where President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met to great fanfare. With appropriate caution, the ambassador, too, acknowledges progress and conveys hope and optimism.

Each of the three leaders acknowledges that the differences of perspective and narrative between Palestinians and Israelis may be intractable. However, relevant to our mission, they all point to higher education as a vehicle for change. We see further emphasis on postsecondary education and research throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a way toward even greater economic development through innovation, and, perhaps more important, productive interactions between the peoples of two increasingly separated communities.

One impression hard to escape is that governments alone are unlikely to find a formula that will ensure a lasting peace. Joint ventures toward mutual goals, no matter how difficult, must play a role. Whether using molecular genetics to better understand isolated regional populations as an avenue for improved prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease; combining forces in archeological digs for increased understanding of our collective past; or unlocking the aggregate beauty and wisdom of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scriptures –  are not the academics of our nations in a good position to approach each other with more mutual respect and hope?

We have a chance to test this assertion in a fascinating discussion with three prominent journalists – Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian with  The Jerusalem Post; Israeli Ronnie Shaked of Yediot Ahronot (Israel’s largest Hebrew language daily), and Ethan Bronner of The New York Times. These knowledgeable and street-smart observers describe how things have changed, but also how they have stayed the same. Although their perspectives differ wildly in some respects, all see a meaningful role for higher education in finding a way forward.

So, it is more important than ever for faculty colleagues throughout the world to resist and oppose academic boycotts against Israeli institutions, to reject fatalism, and, instead, to enlist faculty, students, staff and higher-education leaders throughout the world to connect with colleagues in Israel and the Palestinian Territories: facilitating bidirectional student and faculty exchange; combining our aggregate knowledge, skills, resources, and spirits; learning about each other one interaction at a time.

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