Nili Cohen takes over as president of Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Ruth Arnon steps down after five years at helm.

President Reuven Rivlin greets outgoing Israel Academy of the Sciences and Humanities president Prof. Ruth Arnon (center) and her successor, Prof. Nili Cohen, at his residence (photo credit: GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin greets outgoing Israel Academy of the Sciences and Humanities president Prof. Ruth Arnon (center) and her successor, Prof. Nili Cohen, at his residence
(photo credit: GPO)
When the next-door neighbors came to call at the official residence of the president of Israel on Wednesday, it wasn’t to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. It was to continue a gender breakthrough in the changing of the guard at the helm of Israel’s Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
In June, 2010, when the academy elected Israel Prize laureate Prof. Ruth Arnon as its next president, it was truly a matter of breaking through the glass ceiling.
Arnon was the academy’s first female president since its inception in 1961.
Her successor, Prof. Nili Cohen, was elected in June this year, and Wednesday was officially her first day on the job. A former rector of Tel Aviv University, Cohen is one of Israel’s leading law experts, whose wide-ranging research has broadened her knowledge of contracts, torts, restitution, comparative law, and law and literature.
The academy has a close relationship with its next door neighbor. In October last year, Rivlin participated in one of its conferences, and in May of this year, members of the academy led by Arnon, came to the president’s residence to talk about academic boycotts.
Thus when the time came for Arnon to step down and make room for Cohen. It was only natural that the executive of the academy should go next door to make it both official and ceremonial.
Quoting the late prime minister Menachem Begin, who said that the obvious should occasionally be restated, Rivlin said that he could not imagine the State of Israel without the academy and the impact of its research on the development of defense, health, and other vital areas of the country.
“We must always remember that scientific progress is of the utmost importance and is something that should not be taken for granted,” he said. Rivlin also emphasized the importance of research in the humanities Turning to Arnon and Cohen, Rivlin said: “You women represent the excellence of science and humanities in this country. Thank you for what you do for the State of Israel.”
A highly gifted biochemist and immunologist who was the co-developer of the miracle drug Copaxone used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, the extremely youthful and energetic Arnon, 82, speaking without notes, presented a fluid run-down of the manifold projects of the academy, and said that although she is leaving her position, she is not leaving the academy.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said as she pledged to continue working for and with the academy. She felt as if she had been part of it forever, she said, having filled several roles over the past 20 years – five of them as president. She is particularly proud of the fact that the academy is the adviser to the government on all issues related to science and technology.
Cohen said that she hopes to prove worthy of the position of the academy’s president.
Each of her predecessors had made significant contributions to science and humanities in Israel and abroad, she said, adding that she felt somewhat nervous trying to walk in the footsteps of early presidents such as Martin Buber and members such as Ephraim Katzir. She commented that Katzir had not been the only scientist who had been elected to be a president of Israel.
The country’s first president was Chaim Weizmann, and before that the presidency had been offered to Albert Einstein, who had declined it.
Cohen praised Arnon, who is also a personal friend, for her tremendous contribution to science and for having paved the way for many women in academia.