Upon returning from Israel last week, the new University of California president said he wants to reconsider the system’s 2002 decision to suspend its study-abroad programs in Israel.
“It might change,” said Mark Yudof, an observant Jew and kosher-keeping legal scholar. “I told Hebrew University that it’s no secret — I’m going to take a another look” at the policy.
Yudof was one of 10 university chancellors and presidents who went on an intensive, nine-day trip to Israel with Project Interchange, an initiative of the American Jewish Committee. The group returned July 7.
Four of those 10 were from California institutions: besides Yudof, there was Robert Corrigan, president of San Francisco State University; George Blumenthal, chancellor of U.C. Santa Cruz; and Michael Drake, chancellor of U.C. Irvine.
One of the primary goals of the trip was to encourage collaboration and academic exchange among American and Israeli faculty and students.
While Yudof, who assumed his post June 16, recognized that U.C. and Israeli professors are free to communicate and collaborate with one another, U.C. students don’t have the same flexibility.
Five years ago, citing safety concerns, the U.C. system pulled the plug on its Education Abroad program in Israel. Recently, U.C. announced a shift in its policy for the fall, allowing its students easier access to non-U.C. study-abroad programs in Israel.
But will Yudof go even further and push to reinstate U.C.’s former policy?
“After the regents [meet], I will spend some time thinking about it,” he said, alluding to a regents meeting this week at U.C. Santa Barbara.
For Yudof and others, the trip to Israel was old hat; they have been six or seven times. But some of the academic leaders had never been to Israel before, and others — such as Blumenthal and Corrigan — hadn’t visited the Jewish state for more than a decade.
Blumenthal, noting that he has conducted research with a Hebrew University physics professor for more than 15 years, said he hopes Project Interchange leads to more Santa Cruz faculty communicating or working with their Israeli counterparts.
“Anything that fosters dialogue and shrinks the enormous divide is a good thing,” he said.
Other schools represented were Indiana University, University of Nebraska, University of Michigan, Temple University, Trinity College and American University.
The trip gave the academics “a profound understanding from on the ground of what life is like in Israel,” Yudof said.
The academics spent nine days looking at the Israeli and Palestinian political and academic climate, visiting universities in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheva and the West Bank.
They visited the border crossing between Israel and Gaza, Yad Vashem and various holy sites around the country. They also met with authors, religious leaders and government officials such as Salam Fayad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.
“We try to give participants in all seminars a nonpolitical, nonbiased, open look at Israel and into all aspects of society,” said Sam Witkin, director of Project Interchange.
Corrigan confirmed that “we didn’t see what you would call the ‘party line'” on the trip. He was impressed by the quality of major universities in Israel, the number of thinkers engaged in public policy discourse, and the support for female students and academics. (At one point, the trip participants met with a Bedouin woman who has started a feminist movement.)
“For me,” Corrigan said, “I’m always thinking: Where can we go in terms of education? I’m looking for opportunities to take rhetoric and put it in the context of thoughtful, knowledgeable discussions.”
Already, Corrigan has talked to one of his peers on the trip about working together to bring to their campuses several of the speakers they heard in Israel. Corrigan might also help get a biannual Israeli academic journal translated into English.
“Because the president takes interest in a topic, other people, like deans, might also take an interest in it,” Corrigan said. “The Project Interchange investment in my trip abroad may pay interesting dividends in heightening the awareness of what goes on in the classroom regarding Israel and the Middle East.”