Hebrew U jumps to No. 17 in ranking of top Asian universities


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem ranked No. 17 in a new ranking of Asian universities — the highest-rated Israeli university on the list.

The university’s placement in the 2016 Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings released Monday represented an eight-spot jump from the previous year.

The Hebrew University also was the highest-rated university in the Middle East.

“To emerge as Israel’s number one university and 17th across the entire continent of Asia is a major achievement and something to be celebrated,” said Times Higher Education Rankings Editor Phil Baty in a statement provided to The Hebrew University. “Hebrew University has shown particular strength in research impact – our analysis demonstrates that its research is pushing the boundaries of knowledge and is being cited globally.”

The ranking of Asia’s 200 top universities judges the institutions on the basis of 13 criteria, including teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

The National University of Singapore topped the list, followed by the same country’s Nanyang Technological University and Peking University in China.

Israel placed six universities among the top 100, making it the second-largest number from a Middle Eastern country behind Turkey with seven.

The other Israeli schools were Tel Aviv University, ranked No. 20; the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa (36); Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (67); Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (79), and the University of Haifa (87).

With Israeli-EU relations strained, Netanyahu looks toward Asia


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, sat kiddy-corner in armchairs at this week’s international climate summit near Paris, talking and laughing.

“We have the best of relations, and they can be made even better,” Netanyahu told Modi at the meeting.

To which Modi responded, “I am happy that often we can talk easily on telephone, we can discuss everything.”

A brief encounter between Netanyahu and European Union foreign policy envoy Federica Mogherini was far frostier. Mogherini approached Netanyahu in the hallway, and they shared little more than a handshake.

The contrast reflects an Israeli warming to the East, just as its relations with Europe have cooled amid disagreements over the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program. In recent years, trade between Israel and Asia has shot up, while Israel and Asian powers have made diplomatic overtures toward each other. And even as Israel’s strongest diplomatic ties remain with the West, there are signs of a pivot eastward.

Israel is considering “an eastern option if things don’t go the right way with Europe and the United States,” Alon Liel, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told JTA. “In the last year and a half, there wasn’t a peace process, and in Europe there was disappointment that there wasn’t a peace process.”

Israel has long had amicable relations with Europe, ranging from defense cooperation to economics. Today, the European Union collectively is Israel’s biggest export destination, and Israel competes in European athletic and cultural competitions such as soccer tournaments and the Eurovision musical competition.

The ties are also historical. Israel was founded on the European model of a democratic nation-state. Many of Israel’s citizens are of European descent.

Recently, those ties have deteriorated. Israel almost withdrew from the EU’s Horizon 2020 program, which funds scientific research and innovation,  due to a disagreement about funding projects in West Bank settlements. And it bristled at a French proposal this year to have the United Nations Security Council oversee Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

European-Israeli relations are at a low point now over recently released EU guidelines to label goods produced in Israeli settlements. Israel has lambasted the guidelines as approaching a boycott. In response, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has cut off all coordination with EU institutions on issues related to the peace process.

“We regret that the EU has chosen, for political reasons, to take such an exceptional and discriminatory step, inspired by the boycott movement,” read a Foreign Ministry statement on the labeling guidelines. “This recent step raises questions regarding the role that the EU aspires to play.”

Israeli relations with Asia, meanwhile, have been on the upswing. Israeli exports to Asian countries tripled between 2004 and 2014, totaling $16.7 billion last year — one-fifth of Israel’s total exports. Last year, Asia surpassed the United States as Israel’s second-biggest export destination behind Europe.

Meanwhile, Japan didn’t sell its cars in Israel until the 1990s in order to avoid a boycott in the Arab world. But last year, trade between Japan and Israel rose nearly 10 percent, to $1.75 billion. Israel also increased government grants for joint Israeli-Japanese research by 50 percent this year. Netanyahu also met with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Paris this week.

Israel and China, which established formal relations only in 1992, are working on a free-trade agreement, and Netanyahu created an Israel-China task force within his office this year. Last year, Israel had a so-called “China Week,” when a variety of Chinese government officials and business leaders visited Israel.

India’s Modi has said he plans to visit as well. Meanwhile, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee traveled to Jerusalem in October, becoming the highest-ranking Indian official ever to come to Israel.

“We are very deeply part of the West in many, many ways, but we look to the East,” Netanyahu said at the state dinner during Mukherjee’s visit. “We appreciate Europe, but we admire Asia.”

In 2013, then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said during a visit to China that increased trade could open an avenue for “economic diplomacy” with the world’s most populous country. As opposed to Europe, Bennett said, Chinese companies don’t let the Israeli-Arab conflict get in the way of business.

“They never once asked us about the Arabs, or the Palestinians, or the occupation, or the shmoccupation, or anything else,” he said in a video statement. “The only thing that interests them is Israeli high-tech and Israeli innovation.”

India abstained from endorsing the U.N. report on last year’s war in Gaza, which accused Israel of possible war crimes. All European countries on the U.N. Human Rights Council, meanwhile, endorsed the report.

But analysts caution that Israel should not view India and China as alternatives diplomatically to Europe and the United States. Before Modi took office last year, India had historically been pro-Palestinian, supporting Palestinian causes in the United Nations, and Asian nations have generally taken less of an interest than Europe and the United States in Israeli foreign affairs.

While the U.S. has a longstanding policy of vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. Security Council, China typically votes against Israel. Given the size of China’s economy, analysts say a few more billion dollars in Israeli trade likely won’t mean a Chinese veto.

“Economic relations are driven by the business sector, not because the government wants to give priority,” said Oded Eran, the former director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “We need to remember that China and India are very pragmatic, but they haven’t changed — and I doubt if they will change their vote in the U.N. because of improved economic relations.”

How many Jews on Earth?


Could the 7 billionth person on the planet be Jewish?

According to the United Nations Population Fund, the Earth welcomed its 7 billionth resident on Oct. 31. Statistically, the newborn was most likely a boy in India or China. The symbolic title was given to Danica May Camacho, born two minutes before midnight in Manila in the Philippines.

There is no reason, however, it couldn’t have been Ava Sarah Keyrallah, who was born later that evening in Paris.

“Every single second, four to five new babies are born in the world,” Sergio DellaPergola, a professor of population studies at Hebrew University, told JTA by e-mail. “It is difficult to say exactly which baby was the 7 billionth inhabitant of Earth. But why not dream that it might have been a Jew?”

The daughter of a French Jewish mother and a Lebanese Christian father, the 7-pound Ava Sarah joined a world in which one in 510 people is Jewish, but where the Jewish world as a whole, according to demographers, grows gradually and unevenly.

That Jewish world is one increasingly defined by a small number of population centers, according to a study by DellaPergola titled “World Jewish Population, 2010.” Approximately 80 percent of Jews live in Israel and the United States, and the nine countries with more than 100,000 Jews constitute 91.1 percent of the total worldwide Jewish population.

Further, Jews remain exceptionally urbanized, with half living in just five cities and two-thirds living in 11 cities.

“Jewish population stands at somewhat above 13.5 million and very slowly grows—only thanks to Israel’s component, now approaching 43 percent of the total world Jewry,” DellaPergola said.

Israel, the world’s most fertile developed nation, is the engine of Jewish population growth. Like the rest of the world, Israel saw a massive decline in fertility rates during the 1970s and 1980s due to increases in public health and education for women. Unlike the rest of the world, however, Israel stabilized in the early ‘90s and since then has maintained a fertility rate of 2.9 children per woman.

“Israel has an unprecedented birth rate,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University whose current research involves demographic studies of American Jewry. “Women, even highly educated women, have high birth rates.”

By 1995, according to the World Bank, Israeli women for the first time began having more children than the rest of the world. And last year, Israel surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the most fertile developed nation in the world.

At the beginning of 2010, Israel had a Jewish population of 5.7 million.

Counting Jews outside of Israel is no simple task. Where Israel has a government census, Jewish communities in the Diaspora must rely on less rigorous and consistent methods, which leads to disagreements over numbers.

Just two weeks ago, an otherwise productive conference at Brandeis temporarily turned to finger pointing during a debate over the decision of the Jewish Federations of North America not to fund a census of the Jewish community.

In general, demographers agree that the Diaspora population is in decline due to low fertility rates. Other factors changing the Jewish population include migration, “opting out” of Jewish life, intermarriage and choosing not to raise children as Jews.

According to both DellaPergola and demographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, the apparent exception is the United States, where the American Jewish population has been stable.

“In the long term it should be decreasing, yet it’s relatively constant,” Sheskin said, noting fertility rates that are below replacement levels but citing immigration from the former Soviet Union as one possible reason for the population’s stability.

The two disagree, however, on the overall number of American Jews. DellaPergola says it’s 5.2 million, which is the number found in the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. Sheskin’s study found 6.5 million, but he doubts his own numbers, estimating a total of 6.2 million.

Saxe, on the other hand, has confidence in the 6.5 million figure, which he arrived at in an independent study. But unlike Sheskin, Saxe says the population trend is increasing due to intense outreach and improved Jewish education.

“We believe that what is happening is that families and households that include Jews are more and more making the decision to raise their kids Jewishly and Jews are more likely to acknowledge their Jewish heritage and Jewish identity,” he said.

Even if the population is shrinking, Sheskin says, there is still a bright side for young Ava.

“Jews are a tiny percentage of the world,” he said. “They’re going to continue to decrease—and win Nobel Prizes.”

Blue and White in Bangkok


I had one night in Bangkok, and I was definitely feeling humbled by the traffic. My bus idled, stuck in one of this Thai capitol’s infamous daily snarls. I had little idea where in the city I was or how far there was to go, only a destination. And, most agonizing of all, I had less than an hour before Shabbat.

Shabbat in Bangkok? What business does a partisan of the 613 mitzvot have in a city of 1,000 temptations?

For the most part, jewelry. Though its first Jewish settlers were refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s and Europe in the 1930s, both groups mostly left after the war, according to the World Jewish Congress. During the 1950s and ’60s, a mixture of Sephardim from Syria and Lebanon and Ashkenazim, both groups drawn by the city’s bustling jewel trade, put down roots. Most of them pray and meet at the Even Chen [Hebrew for “precious stone”] Synagogue in the Jewel District.

But I was more interested in the other major Jewish group currently routing through Bangkok: backpackers. An estimated 15,000 Israelis come through here every year. Some, if not all, make their way to Khao San Road. Chabad has a house there, offering Friday night services and dinner. I was looking forward to both, if I ever got there.

Fortunately, my stop came soon. And immediately, I knew I had reached the fabled backpackers’ paradise. Khao San Road and its neighboring streets and alleys are like a college town without a college. Internet cafes jostle for space with international calling booths, five types of foot massage, cheap laundry drop-offs, and pushcarts bearing pad thai. Signs cater to every nonprurient desire of a college-age Western kid.

A lot of them also cater to the post-Israeli-Army kid. Many are in Hebrew, advertising everything from “kosher” falafel to travel packages to cheap phone calls to Israel.

My Lonely Planet guide book was comprehensive enough to list Chabad House for its kosher restaurant, but I wanted more than dinner. I wanted a place to stay where I could meet up with Israelis hitting Bangkok on their ritual post-Army world walkabout. Another look, though, revealed that the guidebook actually mentioned the Panang guest house as being “frequented by Israelis.” I made a beeline there, only to discover it was all booked up.

Drenched in sweat, I trekked over to Panang’s franchise operation, Panang II, only to find it was no longer a restaurant-cum-guest house (a typical arrangement here), but now just a restaurant. A few more inquiries, a few more minutes toward the swiftly approaching sunset, and I finally found a vacancy at the Marco Polo, a hostel with tiny, no-frills rooms.

After a quick shower, I hurried into the Chabad House building I’d passed repeatedly in my quest for lodgings. But there was neither signage nor sign of dinner or services. I went up to a local worker there and tried asking in my pidgin Thai about dinner. It didn’t work. I tried English. No luck. Finally, I said the word “Shabbat,” and she responded, “Malon Viengtai! Malon Viengtai!” [Hebrew for The Viengtai Hotel]. Apparently, she was prepared only for Hebrew inquiries.

The Viengtai was easy to find, but the specific location of Shabbat still eluded me. Nothing Jewish in Bangkok is easy to find. I’d learned that earlier while looking for the Chabad kosher shop and bakery that mainly services its restaurants and school. The Web site information had seemed to put the bakery, as well as the Jewish Center, at an address that numerically didn’t exist. Finally, a phone call brought out an employee to guide us into the alleys and sub-alleys where the places nestled.

Under the halachic supervision of Chabad Rabbi Yosef Kantor and the culinary supervision of his wife, former Angeleno Nechama Kantor, the bakery/shop contains an eclectic smattering of Jewish essentials (wine, challah), luxuries (liqueur, fresh-baked rugelach) and local Asian exotica (rice noodles, coconut milk).

Finally, I located the upstairs ballroom set aside for the night’s festivities. Gathered there already were some 60 young Israelis, wearing everything from tie-dyed T-shirts to cut-off jeans to nose-piercings and hair wraps.

No sooner had I sat down, though, than the Chabad rabbis and leaders, who were definitely dressed for shul, announced Minchah services. They announced it only in Hebrew; in fact, the night’s proceedings all took place in Hebrew. I guess the assumption was that everyone here was Israeli.

Before dinner was over, the rabbis handed out song booklets, and soon the room roared with tunes, some familiar, some unfamiliar. Then a rabbi gave a d’var Torah, and it was here, quite frankly, that my Hebrew reached its limits.

Before the evening was over, I had met a handful of young Israelis, as I’d hoped. Some had been traveling for a month, some for a year. All had plans for continuing on in Asia and beyond. All thought it was self-evident, when I asked, that Shabbat at Chabad was what you did on a Friday night in Bangkok, even if that wasn’t the only thing you did with the evening. Their day of R&R was just beginning, even as mine was drawing to a close.