Opinion: Agreements with Israeli schools a turning point for UC Irvine

Few universities have garnered as much international attention and Jewish communal concern over student-led, anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic activities on campus than the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

A history of incendiary demonstrations demonizing Israel; a revolving door of speakers sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah; accusations of harassment of, and threats to, Jewish students, and a pattern of unsatisfactory responses by campus administrators — at least until the 2010 suspension of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) for its role in the Michael Oren debacle — led this writer in a Jewish Journal cover story that year to wonder if UCI was safe for Jews. Some in the community had even accused the university itself of being anti-Semitic.

That’s why UCI’s new agreements with four Israeli universities are nothing less than historic.

During a momentous academic mission to Israel in March, Chancellor Michael Drake signed memoranda of understanding with Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University and the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, as well as a letter of intent with Tel Aviv University. These agreements recognize shared areas of academic interest and expertise and open the door to collaborative research, faculty and student exchanges, conferences and other initiatives.

Drake calls Israeli universities “natural partners” with which UCI shares a “synergistic series of competencies and approaches to problems.” Speaking with leaders of the Rose Project, Jewish Federation & Family Services’ program established in 2008 to create a comprehensive and proactive approach to addressing challenges at UCI, the chancellor cited the schools’ cultural and demographic similarities that help build strong relationships among faculty and administrators. He was clearly excited about the potential of these agreements for UCI and Israeli scholars and students.

The university is wasting no time getting started. While in Israel, UCI deans of physical science, medicine and engineering who accompanied Drake laid the groundwork for short- and long-term programs, some of which will launch this summer. Among these are student and faculty exchanges in electrical, civil and environmental engineering; visiting medical rotations, post-doctoral fellowships in the physical sciences; virtual conferences for medical school faculty; and a workshop on water resources. UCI also announced plans to establish “Communications 2025,” a major conference in Israel to explore the technologies needed for IT and communications in the next decade.

The notion that more positive discourse on college campuses can be generated through academia has fueled a number of initiatives by pro-Israel organizations, including the rapid growth in North America of multidisciplinary Israel studies programs. Embracing this approach, Rose Project leaders in 2008 began engaging the UCI administration in dialogue regarding the value a wider academic lens on Israel would have for building a civil campus climate. Significant steps with measurable progress have been achieved: Top pro-Israel speakers and Israeli officials regularly address the UCI community; Israeli journalists and academics are frequent guests in classes dealing with Israel and the conflict; the Israel Fellows Program of the Jewish Agency for Israel has added an important educational and advocacy component to the UCI Hillel agenda; and the Schusterman Family Foundation — in cooperation with the Rose Project — has established a visiting Israeli professor program that brings a scholarly, pro-Israel voice to campus to engage in broad education inside and outside the classroom.

The Orange County Jewish community has seen time and again the transformative effects of Birthright Israel, Hasbara Fellowships, Hillel and StandWithUs Israel programming – all of which are supported by the Rose Project — on participants’ understanding and perception of Israel. Now that UCI’s administration is actively seeking Israeli partnerships, a growing cadre of faculty and students are unequivocally empowered to have the kind of direct interaction with Israel and Israelis that we know will leave a lasting imprint on how they will view the country, its people and their contributions to society. Let’s hope they take up this mantle of opportunity and responsibility.

With the MSU’s notorious “Palestine Awareness Week” assumed to be three weeks away, anti-Israel speakers and their supporters will once again assemble on Ring Road to lambast Israel. And while that small but vocal group may continue to call on the university to divest from companies doing business with Israel, the UCI leadership has outright rejected calls for an Israeli academic boycott. Instead, it has set in place a positive path and vision regarding Israel that will have a profound impact on the campus climate for years to come.

Lisa Armony is a former Jewish Journal Orange County correspondent and now director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.