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Made-in-Israel success stories at IDC

First published in the Canadian Jewish News

This past semester, I taught in an Israeli university for the first time, teaching American history at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, while on leave from McGill University. Best known for hosting an annual anti-terrorism conference, the IDC is the Start Up Nation’s startup university. This 20-year-old initiative mixes a cutting-edge entrepreneurial spirit with a friendly, communal tone.

The campus characterizes this fusion. The renovated, low, barracks-style buildings in the middle, remnants of the anti-aircraft air force base it was, generate a nice kibbutz-y feeling. New, beautifully maintained buildings surround the older campus, putting modern Israel in conversation with traditional Israel.

This being an Israeli university, for the first time in my teaching career, I had a student whose wife gave birth during the semester. I had another student request a last-minute extension, because a terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv bus keep him busy where he works at the Kirya, the defence headquarters in Tel Aviv.

In a school with 1,700 foreigners from over 80 countries among the 6,500 students, my class sometimes felt like what my mother calls, a “regular United Nations.” My small seminar had two French students, one Brit and one Turk, amid the expected mix of North Americans and Israelis. During our final class, the traditional debate about whether elites or the masses should shape foreign policy expanded into a debate about whether wisdom resides with the many or the few. Two Americans questioned the electorate’s judgment. We were all moved when our Turkish student discussed democracy’s fragility, and the importance of protecting it, given how easily it can be subverted.

The IDC is Israel’s first privately funded, not-for-profit institution of higher learning. In the entrepreneurial spirit that courses through the place, significant fundraising has welcomed thousands to the school on scholarships. The Israel at Heart Ethiopian Scholarship Program is particularly impressive. In addition to subsidizing tuition, it coaches Ethiopian-Israelis from freshman year through the post-school job hunt. My friend from Montreal, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who now works as the school’s director of international external relations and is organizing a new IDC outreach initiative in Canada, notes, “Every year, we see kids go from immigrant homes with illiterate parents to jobs at Herzog, Fox, Neeman or other leading Israeli firms, in one generation. It’s amazing.”

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Operation Moses, the start of this unique non-racist moment in western history when a majority white population willingly, voluntarily, happily brought in tens of thousands of willing black African immigrants, these are the kinds of made-in-Israel success stories IDC represents and the media overlooks. Moreover, the freedom-oriented democratic values the IDC and Israel represent explain the special, growing bond linking Israel with Canada.

On his recent Middle East visit, Foreign Minister John Baird was greeted in Ramallah with a not-so spontaneous demonstration pelting him – and implicitly all Canadians – with shoes and eggs, reflecting Palestinian contempt. The demonstrators – and by extension the Palestinian Authority – were dissing Baird, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canadian people and the democratic values that unite Israel and Canada.

By contrast, Israelis welcomed Baird warmly. Fulfilling the IDC’s old-new vision, Baird’s itinerary included high-tech centres and Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market, known as “the shuk,” for a good, old-fashioned falafel. 

Just as we should be sure to make the IDC headline about the birth of a new generation of students, not the terrorists who disrupted my student’s routine; just as we should make the Israel headline about daily life at the IDC, the shuk and the high-tech world, not the rare violent disruptions; we should make the headline about the Baird visit, the love he felt in Israel, not the hatred he experienced in Ramallah.