Breaking Glass Ceilings, in Several Languages

Professor Michael Zinigrad, a physical chemist, was recently chosen as vice president for academic affairs at the institution where he teaches. This is equivalent to rector, but that title is reserved for full-fledged universities: Zinigrad works at the controversial institution in Ariel, considered a "college" by Israel academia, but known as the Ariel University Center of Samaria to the Justice Ministry and abroad. The latter title is accepted in Russia, where the Ariel institution has close scientific ties and joint publications. Russia, as we have seen of late in the wake of the war with Georgia, tends to recognize the self-definition of small, controversial entities.

Thus it happens that the Hebrew side of Zinigrad's business card states "Vice President for Academic Affairs," while the English side says "Rector." Zinigrad has made history in a small way in both languages: by becoming the highest-ranking recent Soviet immigrant in both academia and senior management.

Zinigrad has broken a glass ceiling, and has turned a simple academic appointment into a story. It is no accident that his specialty is advanced materials design.

He takes a different approach even to the issue of immigrant scientists: "We are no doubt under suspicion," he says, "but I always tell my colleagues that they should imagine brilliant Mongolian professors coming to Moscow, without even knowing Russian. How would we relate to them?"

In Israel, the immigrant scientists were viewed with hostile caution. Masses of scientists arrived from the former Soviet Union during a period of academic crisis, few options were open to them, and the veteran academic establishment closed its ranks for fear of competition. Only a few top scientists were able to enter the academic institutions, with the help of special immigrants' stipends. There is no data stating how many immigrants are senior faculty members. Supposedly under the cover of egalitarianism, which makes no distinction between veteran and newcomer, the universities refuse to provide figures. Those who have been awarded the special stipends, the cream of Soviet scientists whom Israel got for free, are given the opportunity to work and pursue their research, but did not become faculty members. They are always second class, they say.

Into this vacuum came the college in Ariel, which appeared not to stand a chance. It did not have any teachers or researchers; meanwhile, the immigrant scientists did not have anywhere to work. Like the Avis advertisement, "We try harder," at Ariel they really did try harder.

One of the first faculty members to be recruited was Dr. Michael Zeitlin, an expert on crystallography, and chairman of the presidium of the Academy of Science. "Even though you can sweep streets for exactly the same salary, here you will also get a chair and a desk," Yigal Cohen-Orgad, a former finance minister and now the college's steering committee chairman for 18 years, generously offered him. Zeitlin not only came, he also found a large samovar in the trash, which he used to grow his first crystal. Last week, with the pride of an Olympic champion, he proudly displayed a large red medal he received for winning second place in a prestigious international crystallography competition.

He is not concerned by Ariel's location, for either political or security reasons. "I'm from Tajikistan," he says. "I know Muslims, and I know war zones."

The immigrant scientists will continue to come. "They haven't done us any favors, and we haven't done them any favors. We needed each other," says Cohen-Orgad. At the end of 1991, 90 percent of the faculty was Soviet immigrants. One of these lecturers was Dr. Michael Nisnitz, an applied physicist. He decided to come to Ariel while still in Moscow. He had considered moving to the Barkan industrial zone, but could not find it on a map.

To this day he sounds grateful for the opportunity he received in Ariel. Five years ago his son Amatzia-Andre was killed in a terror attack at the Ariel junction.

"It's hard, almost impossible, for me to teach Arab students," he says, "but I know I have come to an institution that is special in every respect," he says.

Some figures: Ariel has 10,000 students, including 500 Arabs. One-quarter of the senior faculty is Russian-speakers, and 14 out of the 64 professors are recent Soviet immigrants. These are unprecedented figures, and invite scientific cooperation with the Confederation of Independent States, in part by virtue of personal relationships. Specialists in material development, for instance, hold a joint annual workshop with colleagues from Russia, and they alternate countries.

Though Russia does officially oppose the Israeli occupation, this fact has not prevented its top scientists from coming to the Jewish settlement in the West Bank, even in the midst of the second intifada. At that time, a leftist Web site published Zinigrad's picture, claiming he was holding the conference on the blood of Palestinian children.

Zinigrad competed against a veteran Israeli professor for his position of vice president/rector. But he was not chosen because he is an immigrant. And he has changes in store. One of the secrets of Russian science instruction has to do with methodology: Every teacher must undergo pedagogical training beyond his scientific education, and Zinigrad will try to bring this to Ariel. Incidentally every room of the Ariel University Center in Samaria has an Israeli flag proudly on display. The orders came from the administration.