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The heads of several American state universities and university systems will arrive in Israel on Monday for a week of briefings by Israeli education officials, politicians and academics, as well as prominent Palestinian leaders.
Each participant represents a campus of at least 40,000 students, and some state systems of over a quarter million. At a time of boycotts by British unions and, according to some, growing anti-Israel sentiment on American college campuses, the visit by chancellors of large universities and state university systems is being treated by the trip planners, the American Jewish Committee, as an important opportunity for improving Israel's position on American college campuses.
The trip isn't about advocacy, says the AJC's Eran Lerman.
"We're going to talk about the need to sustain an open environment for debate, a reality in which support for Israel is not outside the scope of political correctness. It's important that the issue of Israel not be suppressed," he said.
"Academic life in America has become more oppressive and repressed than American society outside the campuses, and this is due to the imperative of political correctness. There are issues that can be openly discussed in American society, but universities are overly sensitive," Lerman added.
At a meeting with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, participants will discuss Israeli education and society, rather than the British boycott proposals. "American academia isn't a partner to this boycott, and defined it as inappropriate from the start," Tamir told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. Tamir added that the discussion would focus on joint research opportunities.
"If there is a possibility to do joint work that will create academic opportunities for Israeli academia, then that's important. I'm sure they'll ask questions, and they'll see that you can send students here to Israel," Tamir added.
The participants include the heads of the University of South Carolina, Rice University, University of Texas System, Texas A&M University System, the Minnesota State Colleges Universities System, University of California-San Diego and University of Illinois-Urbana-Champagne, among others.
The trip schedule includes meetings with both Israeli educators and leadership, including Tamir and renowned Prof. Shlomo Avineri, and senior Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and Al Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh.
The trip is the latest in a decades-long series of visits that brings foreign leaders in various fields to Israel to learn about the country, its situation and dilemmas. It is the second trip by American university presidents. The origin of this initiative goes back to events on US campuses two years ago, which led to a petition by 250 university presidents who deplored the use of violence, anti-Semitic elements and anti-Israel campaigns on campus.
"Given that the place of Israel in the academic world has been challenged by some voices," explained Lerman, "it's an extremely significant choice by another group [of university presidents] to come here, to learn directly about Israeli life, to meet Israeli counterparts and to appreciate the contributions of Israel to the academic and scientific world."