The Israeli academy: unity amid divisions

Matthew Reisz reports on Anglo-Israeli scientific collaborations against the backdrop of a campaign for a boycott

July 17, 2014

Source: Shonagh Rae

Almost everything about Israel is controversial, but few would dispute that its universities are dynamic, high-tech and internationally minded

We are standing in the office of Yaakov Nahmias, director of the Center for Bioengineering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, looking out on to a vast building site where the ambitious $150 million (£88 million) Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences will soon begin to take shape. Designed by Foster + Partners, the architectural firm founded by Sir Norman Foster, the building will combine the local Jerusalem stone obligatory in the city, glass walls and a sheath of aluminium netting evocative of neurons.

Nahmias is describing his centre’s programme in BioDesign: Medical Innovation – which brings together clinicians and engineers with business students so that scientists learn to focus as much on the market for their innovations as on the medical benefits per se – to a British academic delegation led by David Willetts, the universities and science minister. Biotechnology is the fastest-growing business sector on the Tel Aviv stock exchange.

The minister is a notably enthusiastic student, offering many comments and questions from the back of the class, as Nahmias moves on to his own research projects, including one to create a human liver in a Petri dish with a view to developing stem cell technologies for transplants.

From the top floor of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, 90 miles away in the coastal city of Haifa, the outlook is rather more attractive, with a wall of windows facing the bay and the Mediterranean beyond. The president, Peretz Lavie, tells us that his institution has played a central role in “changing the Israeli economy from agriculture to high-tech”. He gives a brief presentation on the recently announced plans for the Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology in China, which should be welcoming its first students from this academic year. And he politely asks the British delegation, which includes Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, and several vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors, for any advice they might have about overseas campuses and international partnerships. He also fills them in on the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, now being built on New York’s Roosevelt Island, and consciously intended by former mayor Michael Bloomberg as the East Coast’s answer to Silicon Valley. (It is probably a sign of the Technion’s eminence in its field that it is welcomed as a partner even though, as a public university, it cannot bring any funding to the project.)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flared up in recent weeks with a series of rocket attacks into Israel and air strikes on Gaza. As Times Higher Education went to press, thousands of people had fled their homes in Gaza and Israel was massing troops on the border, amid diplomatic efforts to reach a truce.

Almost everything about Israel is controversial, but few would dispute that its universities are dynamic, high-tech, entrepreneurial and internationally minded.

Along with about 300 scientists, the British delegation travelled to Israel earlier this year to attend the second BIRAX (Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership) conference on regenerative medicine.

This is a flagship £10 million initiative for Anglo-Israeli scientific collaboration run by the British Embassy and British Council in Israel. The first conference and call for tenders led to seven Anglo-Israeli partnerships – including Nahmias’ project with Holger Gerhardt of Cancer Research UK to “understand and build the human liver” – aimed at developing techniques likely to lead to breakthroughs in treating diabetes and brain and Parkinson’s diseases. The second conference was designed to report on progress and forge new relationships for the second call for proposals.

“Science has been put right at the heart of the UK-Israel relationship,” says Matthew Gould, British ambassador to Israel. “We had 50 high-quality applications even when BIRAX was a completely new scheme, with 10 really excellent and deserving of funding. It is predicated on one thing only, excellent science, [assessed] through an incredibly stringent peer-review process, academic steering committee and a fantastic UK-Israel science committee with four Nobel prizewinners.” It is also hoped that BIRAX can be used as a foundation for developing further collaborations in fields such as nanoscience, neuroscience and water research.

Siddharthan Chandran, director of the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, explains how BIRAX funding has enabled him to team up with Tamir Ben-Hur, head of the department of neurology at Hadassah Medical Center, to combine their different approaches to multiple sclerosis.

“We met socially six or seven years ago while I was at Cambridge,” Chandran recalls. “We have a mutual interest in the disease, but he is much more expert on the inflammatory aspects and I focus on the neurodegenerative aspects. Our project brings together the two sides and considers whether stem cells can help. The funding scheme catalysed a project that would never have happened otherwise.”

While BIRAX is a major development in its own right, it also provides an interesting opportunity to look at broader trends within Israeli higher education. 

There were almost exactly 125,000 students in Israeli universities in the academic year 2012-13, with 74,000 taking bachelor’s degrees, just over 38,000 on master’s degrees and about 10,500 working towards doctorates. Along with dozens of largely teaching-based academic colleges, both public and private, the sector consists of the Open University of Israel and seven mainstream public universities. (The heaviest hitters are the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, which both just make it into the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-14, in joint 191st and joint 199th places, respectively. The Technion Israel Institute of Technology is not far behind, within the 201-225 group.)

There is also, however, the highly controversial Ariel University. Based in a West Bank settlement over the Green Line in the Palestinian territories, this former college was granted full university status in 2012, just prior to an election. (Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this, and the move was criticised as an attempt to consolidate Israel’s presence in the West Bank.)

In a presentation in the same year, Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee at Israel’s Council of Higher Education, argued that the sector had moved from the elitist university system of the 1990s towards a trade-off between quantity and quality during the rapid growth seen in the “bumpy decade” of 2000-09. This was followed by a multi-year plan for Israeli higher education, introduced in 2010, with two central planks: promoting excellence in teaching and research; and improving access both for “minorities” (meaning Arabs, Druze and the 4,000-strong community of Circassians) and for Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

If one leaves aside the heated politics of the region, many of the concerns expressed within Israeli universities sound familiar to visiting Brits (even if one ignores funding and pensions, which probably worry academics all over the world). Take, for example, the status of the humanities and the alleged dominance of instrumental attitudes towards higher education.

Although his institution shares a city with the Technion, recalls Yossi Ziegler, senior lecturer in history at the University of Haifa, “10 years ago the decision was taken [by Haifa] to go for a science faculty. You can see why they thought it was the only chance to play in the big arena of national funding. But people warned it would be at the expense of the other faculties and now it is obvious. All major funding goes into science…Government and major elements in Israeli society are no longer prepared to subsidise non-practical subjects.”

Equally familiar are concerns about the financial imperative for universities to pursue overseas students, although in Israel this has acquired an extra dimension. David Katz, professor of early modern European history at Tel Aviv University, fears that “the language wars are about to begin again”.

Shonagh Rae illustration (17 July 2014)

If one leaves aside the heated politics of the region, many of the concerns expressed within Israeli universities sound familiar to visiting Brits

“When I first came here 36 years ago,” he explains, “if a student wanted to write a doctorate in English, you needed the signature of 100 rabbis. It was a big issue: in a Jewish state, nobody can write anything except in Hebrew. But at a certain point it became ludicrous. Imagine writing an article about stem cells or French history in Hebrew – nobody’s going to read it.” 

Today, pressures to attract international students have led universities to put on courses in English. Yet these pragmatic moves, reports Katz, have “caused outrage and debates in the Knesset about ‘What is going to be the language of higher education?’ It’s not an issue in Turkey or Holland, but in Israel it’s linked to Zionism and the state. What looks like an ideological dispute is at its heart only about money for universities. [But] nothing here is discussed on its merits, it’s always connected to these issues of the Jewish people.”

An article on recent developments within Israeli universities is not the place to discuss the morality or legality of Israeli settlement or defence policy and the separation wall (a box below looks at changing educational policies towards the country’s minority citizens). Yet it cannot avoid the academic boycott and the wider boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, particularly given the BIRAX counter-effort to set up new partnerships. The campaign gained additional momentum with the vote of the American Studies Association in the US, at the end of last year, to participate in “a boycott of Israeli academic institutions”.

Keen to promote student exchange, Ambassador Gould points to “a heart-breaking sharp downward trend” in Israelis studying in the UK, which he puts down partly to “false perceptions” that UK universities are hostile to Israel. In response, he has attempted to “crowd out the bad news by creating good news”, both through BIRAX and through receptions at his residence, where Israeli alumni of British universities get to meet the next cohort of potential applicants. One of the leading private funders of BIRAX also commented at the conference that he was “keen to be involved precisely to undermine all the BDS nonsense”.

Both the ethics and the effectiveness of the boycott remain ferociously contested. Only academics at the radical fringes of the Israeli academy have actually expressed support for a boycott. Neve Gordon, who teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, did so in a Los Angeles Times editorial in 2009, though acknowledging that it brought up “questions of a double standard (why not boycott China for its egregious violations of human rights?) and the seemingly contradictory position of approving a boycott of one’s own nation.” Since 2011, however, a Law of Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott has made it illegal to speak out in this way.

But what is the effect of the boycott on the large group of Israeli academics who are strongly critical of government policy but still hope to speak and publish wherever they want without abuse or even aggressive barracking?

Ziegler believes that “it doesn’t have a real effect, although it has a psychological effect: it leads to speculation about [foreign academics’] motives if someone fails to respond to an email or decides not to attend a conference, but no one has ever said to me: ‘I’m not coming to Israel because you are bastards!’…I haven’t even personally met anyone who has said that he or she has been affected by the boycott.”

Katz agrees that the BDS campaign has had virtually no effect on him: “People recognise that we should not be punished on a personal level for such an awful government.” He only remembers a single occasion, in 1997, when he was invited to give a lecture in Glasgow and the student union asked his host, Bernard Wasserstein, to ensure he didn’t speak about the Palestinian issue.

Wasserstein responded: “He’s actually speaking about Christianity in the Middle Ages, but I will not make that promise.” This led to a huge dispute, resolved only just before the start of the lecture.

Looking back to his youth in America in the 1960s, Katz remembers occasions when students issued demands for no compulsory Latin, more chips in the canteen and, almost as an afterthought, the immediate removal of all troops from Vietnam. Much of the support for the boycott, he suspects, is just as thinly rooted.

Many left-leaning Israeli academics are at least as concerned about internal pressures on them to follow an approved Zionist line, although this agenda seems to have been pursued more actively while Gideon Sa’ar was minister of education from 2009 to 2013.

Someone on the front line is British-born David Newman, dean of the Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. He has been closely involved in the BIRAX programme from the start (and would like to extend it into the social sciences and humanities). He is firmly on the Left in Israeli politics and has long been involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Palestinians. He is also an active opponent of the academic boycott, which he doesn’t see as “moral or ethical” (“if you do it to bring about some kind of Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, you are doing exactly the opposite”). Furthermore, although “Israeli headlines play it up a great deal”, Newman doesn’t see the BDS campaign as very significant: “I have heard examples of Israelis shouted down and called ‘Nazis’. Yes, there are individuals who don’t want to work with Israelis or attend a workshop, but in the bigger picture it is really marginal.”

“The most the trade union activists [in the UK] can hope to achieve is to pass a motion recommending that universities boycott Israel,” Newman recently told an interviewer in The Times of Israel, “but the chances of the universities ever implementing a boycott is zero…Most university vice-chancellors just want the issue to go away.” The BIRAX delegation would seem to confirm this.

All this represents a difficult balancing act. In the past, Israelis who were strongly critical of their government but also opposed to the boycott, Newman said in the same interview, were able to rely on the arguments “that all of Israel’s universities are inside the Green Line and that the boycott has nothing to do with helping Palestinians”. Today, he admits, “the government decision to recognise Ariel has made my position much more difficult”.

This sent “a general message about attitudes to the West Bank, opposed to withdrawal and settlement evacuation”, and many Israeli academics on the Left or centre Left avoid all contact with the newly upgraded institution. (“We refuse to have anything to do with Ariel,” confirms Katz. “We don’t even allow the name to appear on posters.” The Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities also condemned the upgrade and attempted a legal challenge.) Since an Israeli university is now in effect being boycotted from within the country, it is arguably far harder to make the case that outsiders shouldn’t take part in boycotts.

Newman’s own views have also made him a target for a number of “monitoring groups”, such as Im Tirtzu and Israel Academia Monitor, which name and shame academics whose politics they disapprove of, leading some to complain of a “McCarthyite” atmosphere within Israeli universities. Although he calmly describes them as “more than a minor irritation but not a significant threat”, there have certainly been ferocious personal attacks on him and attempts to shut down the politics department at Ben-Gurion.

Speaking at a conference in 2013, a founding member of the board of governors at Ben-Gurion, Michael Gross, recalled how he had “made a personal pledge to [Israel’s first prime minister] David Ben-Gurion that [he] would always support” what became Ben-Gurion University. Yet today, he lamented, “elements of the university are now completely out of control and are working against both the interests of the university itself and the country to which it belongs…the Faculty of Social Sciences in general and the department of politics and government in particular [are] now a bastion of ultra-left-wing and anti-Zionist activity.” Newman himself was flagged up as the person who “single-handedly engineered the anti-Israel department of politics…in its present form”, which served as “an anti-Israel propaganda and indoctrination centre”.

As long as the question of Israel/Palestine remains perhaps the world’s longest-running and most fiercely contested dispute, the Israeli academy will be deeply divided within and deeply criticised from without. According to Willetts, however, BIRAX demonstrates that even within this contested space, it is possible for the UK and Israel to create an “engagement of intellectual equals” to address urgent medical challenges where “we can both gain and humanity can gain”.

Shonagh Rae illustration (17 July 2014)

Widening access: minority students in Israel

A 2013 report by the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Israeli Council for Higher Education aims to provide “a comprehensive response to the barriers faced by Arab students” at Israeli universities.

The document, Pluralism and Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: Expanding Access for Arabs, Druze and Circassians in Israel, is frank about the scale of the problem: “Arabs make up approximately 20 per cent of Israel’s population and 26 per cent of the relevant age cohort for higher education. However, their participation in the higher education system is significantly lower – about 12 per cent.” In addition, estimates suggest that “only about 2-3 per cent of the academic faculty members…are Arabs”.

Explanations for these disparities include lower levels of Hebrew among those who learn it at school but don’t speak it outside; lack of information and guidance; and a psychometric test used for admissions that some claim to be discriminatory. The report also notes that Arab families tend to be poorer than Jewish ones, and the effect of this in a country that requires students to finance most of the cost of their degrees is exacerbated by issues such as the cost and availability of public transport and a “well-developed supply of scholarships for Jewish students” but not for Arabs.

Since 2010-11, the Planning and Budgeting Committee has made a concerted effort to widen participation among Arab Israelis, although it remains to be seen how far its wide-ranging policies and proposals will contribute to “a long-term breakthrough”. But it is worth looking briefly at what the Technion Israel Institute of Technology has achieved.

When confronted with protesters claiming Israel was an apartheid state, the Technion’s president, Peretz Lavie, recently told a conference in Germany that it had introduced a new “structured programme” for non-Jewish students in 2002. This included “pre-academic enhanced education in English and mathematics”; a support system allocating an older “buddy” to first-year students; and a counselling service “to overcome cultural and educational barriers”. This had led to an increase in the number of Arab undergraduates at the Technion from 994 in 2001 to 1,780 in 2013 (rising from 11 to 18 per cent of the total undergraduate body). Dropout rates per year among Arabs had declined from 28 to 12 per cent between 2003 and 2013, while their gender balance had moved from 39 per cent to 49 per cent female.

Lavie was also enthusiastic about a recent initiative whereby Hossam Haick, a young and charismatic professor of chemical engineering, had produced the first massive open online course on nanotechnology in Arabic. Available since March, this has attracted hundreds of hits across the Middle East, including war-torn Syria, as well as more widely.

“Hossam had tons of emails,” Lavie reports, “some from people who refused to believe he was an Israeli citizen from an Israeli university given permission to give a course in Arabic on the internet.”

Widening access initiatives have also been introduced as part of wider plans to bring ultra-Orthodox Jews into the mainstream of Israeli society (notably by requiring them to do military service). This has led to controversy when universities, joining forces with religious colleges, have agreed to offer courses in gender-segregated classrooms.

There remain significant challenges. Although most of his new cohort of male-only Haredi students are adults and some have four or five children, they often lack basic study skills, according to Hilik Limor, professor of media studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“They don’t know how to sit in a classroom and listen, they don’t know how to take notes during lectures and they don’t know how to prepare themselves for examinations or how to write an exam,” he says. Yet they are also “eager to learn, to absorb information and to bridge the knowledge gap between themselves and secular society”.

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