This week, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) had the pleasure of co-hosting with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs a delegation of Canadian university presidents to Israel. Having substantial experience in organizing niche missions – ranging from parliamentarians to high-tech journalists to professional comedians – CIJA’s team always finds it inspiring to see Israel through the eyes of first-time visitors. It’s even more inspiring when those missions include events that forge meaningful, long-term relationships between Canadians and Israelis.
On Monday during the university mission, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with its Israeli counterpart (the Association of University Heads, Israel) to further enhance bilateral ties in academia. As a result, the two bodies will identify opportunities for collaboration, seek funding sources for joint research and exchanges, and effectively promote the Canada-Israel academic relationship among their constituents. Their respective weight among leading thinkers in both countries should not be underestimated – the AUCC’s membership consists of 97 universities and colleges across Canada. Its leadership was clearly inspired by the trip. As AUCC Vice-President Christine Tausig Ford remarked:
“…this has been an eye-opening experience. We have learned about Israeli history and culture, visited university leaders and heard from star researchers in their labs. Canadian university presidents have been deeply impressed by Israel’s innovative spirit and its equally deep commitment to basic university research.”
While observers often point to the welcome phenomenon of Canadian political support for Israel, it is less commonly noted that the Canada-Israel relationship has become increasingly multifaceted in recent years. Suffice to say that this week’s MOU is the culmination of a series of collaborative projects between Canadians and Israelis.
Major Canadian universities across the country have struck formal partnerships with Israeli institutions, including the University of Toronto, the University of Montreal, McGill University, Concordia University, the University of Manitoba, and Dalhousie University (to name just a few). Since its establishment in 1994, the Canada-Israel Industrial Research Development Fund (CIIRDF) has fueled nearly 100 collaborative projects in such varied fields as green energy, cancer treatment, and desalination. Results have been impressive. To cite just one example, Canadian and Israeli researchers worked together on a 2007 study of vehicle airbag construction that revealed how magnetic pulse technology could be used to build superior airbag inflators, and with less cost and pollution.
Following on the success of CIIRDF, 2012 saw the creation of the Canada-Israel Technology Innovation Partnership – a joint initiative of the National Research Council of Canada and Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist. Just months earlier, Canada and Israel signed an energy cooperation agreement, paving the way for Canadian energy expertise to be shared with Israelis at a time when massive natural gas deposits have been discovered in the Mediterranean.
Indeed, Canadian interest in Israeli universities reflects a broader trend of mutually-beneficial cooperation. For those of us involved in supporting pro-Israel activists on campus, what lessons can we draw from the above experience?
Understandably, countering delegitimization at the university level is a priority of Jewish communal organizations across the Western world. Anti-Israel rhetoric on campus is infuriating and often creates a toxic atmosphere. We must be vigilant in preserving the well-being of Jewish students (and non-Jewish pro-Israel students, for that matter), and safeguarding their right to openly express support for Israel on campus.
At the same time, we must be cautious not to miss the forest for the trees. The message of Israel is fundamentally positive – not defensive; it reflects the values, ideas, and solutions we believe the Jewish State has to offer the entire world. As Jewish Canadians, we may not make the desert bloom as did our Zionist forebears. But we can uphold their legacy today by finding new ways to share the very best of Israel – its latest technology and brightest minds – with our neighbours here in Canada.