“The impact of BDS is still manageable but the future is not bright,” Prof. Joseph Klafter, president of Tel Aviv University recently told The Jerusalem Post.
As the young university is celebrating its 60th anniversary this week, Prof. Klafter sat down with the Post to discuss the BDS movement, strengthening ties with China and India, and establishing Tel Aviv University as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship.
Regarding the BDS movement, TAU’s president said he believed the government still needs to solidify a central strategy to combat the phenomenon.
“When it started in the UK it was on a small scale but the noise was larger than the impact; but when it crossed the ocean and became widespread in the US it became very worrisome,” he said.
“We were too confident I’m afraid, being with such an academic presence we did not think there could be cracks in this historically long relationship and here the cracks came from unexpected directions,” he added.
Klafter explained that in its present state the BDS movement is mainly concentrated among student organizations calling for a boycott, while at the faculty level Israel is still highly regarded scientifically.
“The problem is that these students are the next generation of the faculty members and they will bring with them this thinking and herein lays the problem,” he explained.
The TAU president said that he has an “open line” with his US counterparts, the presidents of leading universities. “We visit there, they visit here; there is a lot of cooperation and a willingness to help [combat BDS],” he said.
Still, he asserted, the larger picture is troubling.
“Universities can do only what is within their capacity and radius of influence and we suggested that one way is to bring more and more groups here to visit the campus and visit Israel and see who we are and see that the title of Apartheid is as far from reality as can be,” he said.
According to Klafter, “the best way to counter BDS is to bring as many young foreign students to Israel as we can.”
“If we manage to create more and more visitations, conferences, panels, even debates here, the effect does not grow linearly, because people talk to people,” he said.
In recent years, the university has begun attracting more international students from the US and Europe but also more students from China and India.
According to Klafter, there are some 1,500 international students at the university, accounting for some 10% of the undergraduate student population – a number he intends to double in the near future.
Klafter said that while historically, Tel Aviv University, like all Israeli universities, was traditionally connected to the US and to Europe, a new trend has emerged which is seeing universities looking East.
“It has been clear in the past few years that we have to look east to the growing economies, which also includes investment in academia at a serious level,” he explained.
As such, the university took a strategic decision to place an emphasis on building ties and collaborations with Eastern countries, primarily India and China.
“In India we established an India-Israel Forum, where the university acts as a catalyzer between business people in India and Israel,” he said.
The Forum meets annually, once in India and once in Israel, bringing together the academia and business sectors for a discussion surrounding global issues such as cyber, water issues, food security, and health issues, he explained.
Klafter, who visits India at least twice a year, said that the university has built a “very strong” relationship with India, in academia as well as in business and government sectors.
In addition to this close cooperation, there are many Indian students studying at the university’s international school in English.
“Around half of the electrical engineering class [in the International School] is Indian students,” he said.
With regards to the relationship with China, Klafter said the university has established a strong presence with the country as well.
“We made a decision early on to emphasize the top tier [of academia]. We have agreements with about 30 leading universities in China,” he explained.
One of the university’s major agreements is with Tsinghua University in Beijing, which saw the establishment of the XIN Research Center, a $300 million joint center for innovative scientific research and education in nano-technology and nano-medicine.
The Center, which aims to promote pure scientific research, has already seen numerous collaborations among Israeli and Chinese researchers, Klafter said.
He explained that there are plans to further expand and deepen the relationship, including through the establishment in 2020 of a new cutting edge nano-building on the university’s Tel Aviv campus.
TAU also signed an agreement with Peking University in Beijing to establish a center in the areas of food security and food safety.
In addition, TAU and Nanjing University established a Center for Jewish Studies in China and a Center for Israeli Studies in China with Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.
“There is a lot of interest to study Israel and Jewish studies in China,” he added.
In parallel to the collaboration, Klafter said that Tel Aviv University has become a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship among Chinese academics and delegates.
“About seven years ago, the mayor of Nanjing read a book called The Startup Nation,” he said with a smile. “Having been impressed he decided to bring his entourage to Israel and toured around and visited many universities and decided that Tel Aviv University would be their home.”
What resulted has been an influx of Chinese delegations visiting TAU on a nearly weekly basis.
“We have become a big hub for all these entrepreneurs in China to come here and be trained and experience the Israeli ecosystem,” he said.
To date over 2,000 Chinese alumni have come to study at TAU, prompting the establishment of the TAU Alumni Association in China.
“They see us as their anchor here in Israel and for us they are our ambassadors in China – it is a win-win situation from this perspective,” he said, adding that “we never dreamed it will evolve into such a level of activity.”
The university’s position as an innovation hub has spread far beyond Chinese recognition as in recent years it has been named in numerous international rankings among the top innovative universities in the world.
“We are present in the world of startups,” Klafter said. “And this is a step of confidence that we are doing something right.”
“This is based on what has been here already but also strategically we would like to push forward this entrepreneurial eco-system,” he explained.
To that end, the university has launched a number of courses in innovation and entrepreneurship and has established a facility for incubators and accelerators, known as TAU Ventures.
Another unprecedented endeavor has seen the university undergo a major restructuring from 125 schools and departments to only 30 – a move to encourage interdisciplinary interaction.
“All this is happening on the background of having a massive increase in donations and unprecedented building on campus in a way we have not experienced before,” he said.
“We are on the verge of a new journey, with a new structure and we are pursuing the unknown – we do not know what it will evolve into but we are ready to explore,” he said.