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Cornell University and the Technion prove that Israel's qualities as the 'start-up nation' are an invaluable advocacy asset

With college athletics taking the very visible role that it does, I hope I may be forgiven for relying on a sports analogy regarding views of Israel on college campuses. The observation, however, is this: There are proven game-changers out there, and for the most part our community leaves them on the bench.

The organizations working together over the past two years to reinstate study abroad in Israel for the California State University system saw ample evidence of the power of these game-changers. So, too, did Stanford University this fall, when bidding on a high-tech campus development project in New York City; Cornell, MIT, and a host of others saw the same game-changers at play, too. The chancellor of the University of California-Irvine, a campus with a longstanding reputation for controversy regarding Israel, saw these game-changers in action this winter, after many years of struggles; the President of the University of Southern California, a school with a history of fielding game-changers in sports, invited 100 others to see these game-changers for Israel with him. University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University, the University of Michigan — many of America’s top universities have begun exploring what these game-changers could mean for their game. And with the college game being as much about copycats as it is, there’s little doubt that others can and will follow.

Game-changers, in the campus Israel environment, where so much seems cyclical at best and immovable at worst — and our community ignores them? Unfortunately, in many cases, we do; but it needn’t continue that way.

Time and again, those who operate in the campus environment see that when campuses connect directly with Israel, the entire dynamic of Israel on campus is liable to change. My organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition, and its partners saw it over the course of the past two years as we worked with the administration of the California State University system to reinstate Cal State’s study abroad program in Israel. As the university administration carefully considered the implications of restoring their decade-suspended program, with the support of the pro-Israel community, they grew in confidence and excitement. By April 2011, the administration announced its intention to reinstate study abroad even as it decided to suspend its program in Mexico — for a California state university system, a remarkable position.

When a group of academics protested the decision to reinstate in Israel, purely on political grounds, in the fall, the administration had no difficulty in rebuffing their objections: now this was Cal State’s own program, was the substance of the response; and Cal State is about opening doors, not closing them. The Cal State administration felt so strongly about the importance of their joint program with University of Haifa that when the ICC and its partners suggested in January our desire to convene a summit to reintroduce the Cal State community to the long-suspended program, the Cal State administration insisted that it not take place — unless they were permitted to host the summit in their own administration building, invite all of their campus study abroad officers from their 23 campuses, and open the program themselves to welcome the invited guests to the resumption of their program.

That demonstration of loyalty and commitment is not unique. Connections to Israel and Israeli institutions have a lot to offer a university, and, when given the opportunity, academic institutions will leap to embrace such joint ventures. Israel is home to remarkable innovation, scientific discovery and exploration, and dynamic pursuits of academic excellence. The “startup nation” yields tremendous opportunities not just in the high-tech sector but in the academic environment as well. Cornell University and the Technion proved that postulate this past fall, as their joint bid to build a high-tech campus in New York City beat all comers, including the presumptive favorites from Silicon Valley at Stanford University. The City of New York is a smart investor; by choosing the Cornell-Technion joint venture, it expects to reap over $23 billion in economic activity, including $1.4 billion in increased tax revenue, 600 spin-off companies, and approaching 60,000 new jobs. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it simply: he called this Israel-campus joint venture “game-changing.”

A rendering of the planned Technion-Cornell University campus in New York
A rendering of the planned Technion-Cornell University campus in New York

Others took notice. The President of the University of Southern California, inspired by what connections with Israel could do for his campus, brought a delegation of over 100 with him to Israel this winter to identify joint projects. The Chancellor of the University of California-Irvine did similarly; after years of his campus struggling with a reputation for controversial events and disruptions regarding Israel — a reputation cemented by an ugly organized disruption of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s invited speech on the campus in February 2010 — Chancellor Michael Drake visited Israel this winter with the determined purpose to come back with joint venture agreements for UCI with Israeli institutions. He came back with three; not content, he continued to work after his return to obtain a fourth.

Indeed, at elite institutions throughout the campus community, the smart money is on deeper connections with Israel. Centers for Israel studies, such as one at the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, proliferate in law and business schools and affect the campuses around them by hosting programs, such as this winter’s high-tech conference at Berkeley, that dramatically shape the discussion of Israel on campus. At other institutions, such as Harvard University, student demand shapes high-level programs such as this spring’s inaugural Harvard Israel conference, which brought together Israeli innovators, Harvard academics, students, and the community. And at the University of Michigan—my alma mater—a handful of motivated business school students began a model of business-related engagement around Israel, the TAMID investment group, that has proven so successful that it has already proliferated to other campuses.

These programs are just the beginning: dynamic, innovative ways to engage faculty, campus administrations, and entire campus environments across the country continue to emerge. These are not “parachute in, helicopter out” speaker programs or splashy events, but tangible, long-term game-changers in the campus environment. And the campus community continues to hunger for more. Will we continue to leave them on the bench — or put them in the game?

Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.

About the Author
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive campus environment regarding Israel, and publisher of the Israel Campus Beat