Blogs Days 1 and 2

December 6th, 2016

Note: A delegation of University Provosts and Deans is in Israel with AJC Project Interchange. The delegation is accompanied by Melanie Maron Pell, Director, AJC Director of Regional Engagement.

Blog Days 1 and 2

Day 1

Our delegation of University Provosts arrived in Israel today and is eager to begin our experience tomorrow in earnest. We arrived in time to see the sun setting over the sparkling Mediterranean and enjoyed our first dinner together in an old and fascinating section of Tel Aviv that marked the early expansion out of Jaffa. At dinner, we got to learn a bit about each other (and about our guide who we have dubbed “the most interesting man in the world”).

Questions about diversity on campus in Israel, on the recent U.S. elections and on “what keeps Israelis up at night” have already begun to swirl, and we will begin to explore those questions and others tomorrow with our first formal sessions and our visit to Tel Aviv University. The participants expressed what an honor it was to be given this opportunity. “I feel like I won the lottery,” said one.

Tomorrow will be an exciting day (and everyone is also excited to experience their inaugural Israeli breakfast) but for now we will try to sleep away the jet lag. Laila tov! (Good night!)

Blog Day 2

Our day began with a fascinating introduction to Israeli history, politics and society with Dr. Einat Wilf of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Einat spoke of the culture of innovation and of Israel as a “Start Up Nation” as directly connected to the foundational ideology of Zionism - only in a society born of such a revolutionary vision could such innovation be possible. The innovation of Zionism was the belief that you can change the course of history and of your own destiny through sheer human will and determination.

Einat also described the complexity of trying to define what it means to be a Jew, and by extension, what it means to be a “Jewish state.” She said the best way to summarize this is to say that Israel as a Jewish state means it is the one state in the world that gets to argue about what it means to be a Jewish state. (This is also why Israel has no choice but to be a democracy - how else could it engage in this debate?).

These questions of complex identity were particularly fascinating to the group, and one participant noted that this better understanding of the complexity of Jewish identity would help her better understand the Jewish students on campus and some of the challenges they may face. Another participant expressed “relief” at learning that it is so complex as she grappled with her own struggle to understand her Jewish colleagues’ notion of “Jewish identity.”

Following Einat, the group received a comprehensive briefing by AJC Director Avital Leibovich on Israel’s neighbors and strategic challenges presented by those neighbors. The most eye-opening take away from this session for all of the participants was the realization of how much is NOT in the news and how limited our understanding of the situation is despite being avid consumers of news and information. “I wish I could send every faculty member and every student to experience this and hear this information,” said one participant.

Another participant was profoundly struck by the normative reality of Israelis who live with 120,000 Hezbollah rockets pointed at them from Lebanon as well as simultaneous threats from Syria and Gaza. He said that Tel Aviv reminded him of San Diego and yet it would be unimaginable for Americans to live with such threats just across the border.

We then spent the afternoon at Tel Aviv University where we met with the Vice President and Director of International Programs and learned about the university and about international collaborations and exchanges. Participants then had one-on-one meetings with Israeli colleagues in similar fields.

Our evening concluded with a lovely “salon”-like reception in a private home with an array of fascinating guests from academia and the entrepreneur and venture capital world. We heard some beautiful music from a noted Ethiopian Israeli singer and enjoyed great food, wine and company.

The delegation returned with much to consider as they prepare for another full and fascinating day.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Project Interchange.