Even as college students in North America and Europe call for boycotts of academic institutions that support Israel, two high-profile collaborations with Israeli universities that are currently in development suggest that the rest of the world is more interested in tapping local know-how than shunning it.
Plans were unveiled earlier this week for the Cornell-Technion Innovation Institute and the state-of-the-art campus that will house it on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. The Institute will offer a master's of science program in connective media - think Facebook and Google - with a degree awarded jointly by the two universities.
"I believe that this is a major breakthrough not only for the Technion but for the entire Israeli higher-education system," Technion President Peretz Lavie told Anglo File on Thursday.
The Technion has a track-record of collaborative research with Cornell and other U.S. universities, especially in the fields of engineering and environmental studies, but this project represents a true coming-out for the Technion, according to Lavie.
"When we are at the capital of the world in New York, having been picked by the city to energize the economy and start a new institution that will be a world leader and a new model that every other university will look up to, it makes this boycott issue seem grotesque," Lavie said, referring to demonstrations by pro-Palestinian groups against Cornell over its ties to the Technion. Academic boycotts of Israel are part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanction movement that has spread across university campuses in recent years. In just one recent example, the student council at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, voted in August to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions in light of Israel's "discriminatory policies and actions which violate the very basic human rights of Palestinians."
Cornell President David Skorton was not available for comment this week, but in New York last June he delivered a speech to the American Jewish Committee in which he called the Technion an ideal partner. "We have seen what the Technion has accomplished in Israel - its amazing ability to transform research results into successful enterprises," Skorton said. "Those strengths in technology and entrepreneurship will be an essential part of our efforts to create a hub of innovation that will ultimately boost the economy of New York City and the state."
Applications are now being accepted for the inaugural class, said Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs. The program will open in August 2013 and students will study at a Google-owned facility in Chelsea until the new campus officially opens in 2017.
Another major project that bucks the current boycott trend is the Advanced Technologies Park, a partnership between Ben-Gurion University and U.S.-based public-private development company KUD International, along with the municipality of Be'er Sheva and the Israeli real estate company GavYam.
The purpose of the park, as described on its website, is to enhance economic growth in the Negev, nurture start-ups and attract research and technology companies to locate their operations in Israel. Deutsche Telekom has already signed on as a tenant. The first of 20 buildings has been raised and will open this summer, according to a spokesman for the university.
The seeds for the reportedly $2 billion project were planted during a fall 2005 trip to Israel by U.S. construction leaders that was organized by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee. Marvin Suomi, CEO of KUD, was one of a dozen developers on the trip who met with Ben-Gurion University's then-president, Avishay Braverman. Standing on the roof of the engineering building, Suomi said that Braverman shared his vision for one day constructing a research center alongside the university and told Suomi he was the man for the job.
Suomi said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles that he and the KUD board members immediately embraced the idea and were never deterred by politics from moving forward with the project.
"Our concern was what it was going to be like to work with the Israeli land authority and with local authorities," he explained. "As much as Israel encourages investment from abroad, it also is a bureaucracy."
Since 1982, Project Interchange has introduced thousands of leaders in numerous specialized fields to their Israeli counterparts. Presidents Skorton and Lavie actually met for the first time in July 2010 while Skorton was the co-chair of a Project Interchange seminar for U.S. university presidents. They spoke briefly then and later became close while drafting their winning joint proposal for the tech campus, Lavie said.
Sam Witkin, Project Interchange executive director, who was traveling in Israel this week with a group of American counterterrorism officials, expressed pride in the number of "impact projects" that have come about as a result of such trips.
"I think that the part we play is simply that we help bring parties together," he said. "What transpires later, we're often very happy about it."
In addition to these massive undertakings, there are other, smaller signs that Israeli universities are attracting positive attention from abroad. Last month, Bar-Ilan University signed a memorandum of understanding with McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to encourage joint research projects and student exchanges. And, with support from Project Interchange, the University of California at Irvine recently signed seven bilateral academic agreements, including three with Israeli medical schools.