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 excited voices of the kindergarten students and their trilingual teachers make us all smile as our group of American academic leaders visits the Jerusalem International YMCA Peace Preschool, on the last day of our Project Interchange U.S. Presidents’ Seminar in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In the preschool, which serves an equal number of Arab (Muslim and Christian) and Jewish students, young people don’t seem to know they’re from different backgrounds and are supposed to hate each other. They are just friends.
Is this scenario applicable to the larger society? Is there a place for more programs with direct – and meaningful -- contact between people to lay the foundation for a political peace process that can work? After meeting with leaders, faculty, and staff from numerous educational institutions, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, the Israeli president, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a West Bank settler, journalists, writers and, finally, the Peace Preschool, we believe that leaders of private business and education – from kindergarten through graduate and professional school -- need to design and implement initiatives to bring together the people of Israel with those of the Palestinian Territories – especially its young people.
Wishful thinking? Sentimental? Perhaps. But decades of unending, seemingly intractable tensions based on diametrically opposed perspectives on Israel’s legitimacy and conflicting, centuries-old land claims, as well as the constant stresses of terrorism and military occupation have depleted many of the options that seemed so promising after the Oslo accords.
What specific contributions toward peace and mutual prosperity can be made by educational institutions?
First, and most relevant, is the need for people from widely divergent cultures to better understand each other through day-to-day interactions. This is, of course, one rationale for the globalization of higher education in general and it is especially urgent in the Middle East. Many approaches can be used, but the most direct is student and faculty exchange between individual Israeli and Palestinian institutions. If direct exchange is too difficult politically, American colleges and universities could facilitate such exchange by trilateral arrangements in which students from the Israeli and Palestinian schools could work together on a campus in the United States.
Second, helping prepare the Palestinian Territories for statehood requires an enormous number of projects and processes related to community and infrastructure development as well as progress on many challenging problems – from medical care to water management. Such progress could be facilitated by joint research and outreach by Israeli and Palestinian academics, again facilitated by trilateral arrangements through American universities.
Third, improving the institutional capacity of Palestinian colleges and universities, based on faculty development, the offering of new joint degrees and other approaches, is an imperative for improvement in the education of all of the region’s young people. Innovative programs, such as the partnership between Al-Quds University in Jerusalem and Bard College in New York, offer models to consider.
Finally, we believe it is critical to reject the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Our time in Israel demonstrated in bold relief that Israelis – academic and otherwise – are not a monolithic group with a slavish dedication to a party line. Far from it. The press is free and expert, the dialogue blunt and honest, the opinions varied and passionately held. Many in and outside of Israel have mixed feelings about specific governmental policies and actions, from the blockade of Gaza to the security wall. So it is critical that academic freedom and open disagreement be protected, even and perhaps especially regarding current controversial government actions. However, it is hard for us to imagine a scenario in which a boycott – or any action that limits interactions with Israeli and Palestinian people and institutions - would be constructive and helpful, as opposed to divisive and destructive.
As we take leave of the YMCA Peace Preschool and of Israel, we part company with new friends and colleagues – Palestinian and Israeli – with a renewed commitment to contribute and a promise to return.