Sounds of Friday in the Old City

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.

As we follow the Friday tradition of walking the Stations of the Cross, turning the corner along the narrow, cobbled Via Dolorosa in the Old City, our ears and hearts are opened by the layering of sounds: the Latin chant of the Franciscan Fathers, the muezzin’s Arabic call to prayer and the Hebrew greeting of “Shabbat Shalom” offered by the faithful as they hurried to the Western Wall to usher in the Sabbath. How better to reflect the mind-blowing multiculturalism that is Jerusalem.

We are about to begin an American Jewish Committee Project Interchange U.S. university presidents’ travel seminar. Formed in 1906 to promote “democratic and pluralistic societies that respect the dignity of all peoples,” the AJC has for nearly 30 years organized seminars in Israel aimed at “current and emerging U.S. and international leaders.”

Our purpose: to learn more about the higher education and broader environment of modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories, toward potential academic collaborations. We are here to listen, to understand, to walk through open doors and knock on those currently closed. The recently issued U.S. State Department Travel Warning for this area only makes this exploration more urgent.

We have no illusions about the impact of our exchange effort, but neither do we minimize its potential. We have long believed that higher education can be an extraordinarily effective diplomatic tool, either as an exercise of “soft power” or, more generally, as a strategy to cross apparently unbridgeable chasms. In every culture, every parent wants a better life for every child and one pathway to this betterment is through education. The enormous interest worldwide in higher education and the ferocity of its globalization are testimony to the benefits it brings. What better way to bring together the young people of disparate cultures than through the conversations within and the friendships forged outside the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, the soccer field? And what of the place of American institutions or those of other “developed” nations?

As Nicholas Rostow noted recently: “The best approach for the United States is to do what it can to advance the cause of peace between Israel and all its neighbors, and to assist the parties in the resolution of all the issues that divide them on the basis of rights for all, Israelis and Palestinians.”

We hope that our interchange project will make a contribution in this direction.

As we learn more about Israel, the Palestinian Territories and their leaders, educators and researchers, we look forward to sharing our impressions. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom and Happy Fourth of July.

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