The history of science and Zionism are intricately related. Both movements are rooted in the rationalism of the 19th century, which placed humanity at the heart of its own destiny.
Israel’s first pioneers were optimists who believed in the power of people to change history. Their tools would be science and technology. This was to be the New-Old Land, a utopia envisioned by Theodor Herzl that would transform the desert region into a land of milk and honey.
This is the force and strength of Zionism that led to the creation of Israel, and it’s this unbounded energy that has turned the country into the world’s leading “start-up nation.” It’s not by chance that Israel’s first and fourth presidents – Chaim Weizmann and Ephraim Katzir – were first and foremost scientists, or that a number of world-class research institutions were founded during the early years of the Jewish Yishuv, long before it was even clear if there would ever be a sovereign Jewish nation in this land. This year, the Technion – the Israeli Institute of Technology marked its centennial, while Hebrew University of Jerusalem is only a few years younger.
Some claim that Israeli higher education is “threatened” by “anti-Zionist” faculty members. But the truth is that the attention lavished on a few academics with extreme views has transformed them, falsely, into a symbol for all of Israeli academia. This does a genuine disservice to the significantly larger silent majority who are busy with teaching and research, more often than not in ways that benefit the country.
Last February, the Israeli Foreign Ministry released a report that showed the Israeli and Jewish press was distorting the importance of “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW), an annual event on college campuses around the world, by “magnifying the issue rather than playing it down.”
According to the study, “Taking the apartheid frame (and the IAW activity itself) as the starting point for our actions paradoxically may strengthen the IAW brand and message, rather than weaken it.”
A similar process is going on here.
In the name of “saving Israeli academia,” some groups are doing real damage to the image of many of the country’s most successful universities. In a world where Israel has enough enemies, it’s distressing to see time and resources dedicated to fighting this non-battle.
By all international standards, Israeli universities are a huge success story that is in no way threatened by the political views of its people.
As president of the only university in Israel created by a decision of the Israeli government – to be a catalyst for development of the Negev region – I know that Ben-Gurion University of the Negev integrates the highest standards of intellectual thinking and research with the pioneering spirit that has defined its very development. As chair of the Committee of University Heads, I see the same spirit and commitment on other campuses.
I encourage you to visit an Israeli university today and learn more about how higher education has, and is, transforming this country.
Let’s face it: Zionism is in our DNA.
Rivka Carmi is president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and chair of the Committee of University Heads in Israel.