Israeli academics will always be welcome in the United States, and while there are occasional incidents of hostility toward Israel on American campuses, there is no “big pattern,” University of Miami president and former US health secretary Donna Shalala told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night.

“I joined the presidents of the major American universities to denounce the boycott of Israeli academics. I sent a personal letter to the presidents of universities here, as did the other presidents, promising there would be no boycott in the United States and that Israeli scholars would always be welcome in the US,” said Shalala, a third generation descendant of Lebanese Maronite immigrants, who was the first Arab American to serve in a cabinet position and also the first to serve as a president of a major American university.

Shalala, who is currently in Israel with a delegation of US university presidents sponsored by Project Interchange, added: “I believe that we were appalled by any such suggestions.

Whether it’s disinvestment or a boycott against Israeli academics, it’s inappropriate and not worthy of any educational institution. I know of no American university that would support such a boycott.”

Speaking about the sometimes hostile atmosphere toward Israel on US campuses and occasions on which Israeli speakers have been heckled, Shalala said: “There may be incidents, but I have been president of three universities – Miami, Wisconsin and Hunter College – and there is an atmosphere of tolerance in our universities. Certainly those of us who lead institutions make it very clear that everyone is welcome. I don’t see a big pattern, even though there are reports [of such incidents] periodically.”

Shalala said while she believed it was a minority that is behind such incidents, it is imperative to remain “on the alert for anti-Semitism and to make it very clear that it’s unacceptable and to denounce it whenever it occurs.”

Shalala, who first came to Israel as a backpacker in the 1960s and also taught English at UNRWA camps in Lebanon, said she felt it was important to bring as many non-Jews as possible to visit Israel in order to “hear Israelis talk about their dreams and what they are trying to achieve as well as to meet Arabs.”

While in Israel, the delegation of university presidents met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and academics, and Shalala said they had explored opportunities for cooperation with Palestinian academic institutions. She said there had been no opposition to this from Israel.

“One of the things we were doing here, the college presidents, is looking for opportunities, and we met with some of the heads of Palestinian institutions, and we are going to look for some opportunities where we can be helpful.

We met with the American ambassador and indicated that we want to be helpful. I think that helping to strengthen higher educational institutions is one element towards peace, from my point of view, because it raises everybody, and anything we can do to raise everyone is what we will try to do.”

Shalala also revealed that she would be meeting with officials from Bar-Ilan University, which was recently selected to establish a medical school in the Galilee, to examine the possibility of cooperation with the University of Miami’s medical school.

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