Prominent academics note: ‘There is still a deep reservoir of American young people tied to Israel'

(photo credit: MIKE LOVETT)

Academia, in any country, is usually one of the most important bodies in building a common identity, as well as delivering an in-depth lesson about a nation’s history. That is why, for the seventh and last episode in our journey of hearing about the relations between American Jews and Israeli Jews, we decided to speak to two presidents of prominent academic institutions who are playing a key role in strengthening the strategic relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. 

Ronald (Ron) Liebowitz is the ninth president of Brandeis University. A native of Brooklyn and later lived in New Jersey, he served as provost and dean of the faculty at Middlebury College. He is an expert in Russian economic and political geography. He and his wife, Jessica, have three children.

An hour-long conversation with Ronald Liebowitz, president of Brandeis University, and Prof. Ronald Robin, president of the University of Haifa, not only gave us a proper conclusion but actually highlighted a positive and intriguing ending to the joint project of The Jerusalem Post and the Ruderman Family Foundation, recognizing the 75th anniversary of Israel and its relations with American Jewry. 

Liebowitz grew up in Brooklyn and says that “like many Jewish families in the 1950s and 1960s, we moved to the suburbs of New York City, about 30 miles outside of the city, to New Jersey.” He said that his connection to Zionism and to Israel was driven by his grandfather. “He was a big Zionist,” he said. “My family also was very actively involved in knowing about Israel, through our synagogue and through our Jewish community, both in Brooklyn and in New Jersey. Israel has always been part of my life and my understanding of what it means to be a Jew.”

Robin said that his upbringing was different: He grew up in South Africa, born to a local Jewish father and an Israeli mother. His family decided to leave South Africa after a violent and deadly protest in the early 1960s. “I would say something like a third of South African Jewry got up and left [the country],” he said of that period. 

Robin’s research as part of his academic career focuses on the interface between culture and foreign policy in the US. Therefore, he also lived in the US for a period of time, where he learned about American Jewry up close. “I received a Fulbright [scholarship] and went to UC Berkeley, where I wrote a dissertation and compared Italian and Jewish migration in California.”


Prof. Ron Robin serves as the 11th president of the University of Haifa. An Israeli scholar whose research focuses on the interface between culture and foreign policy in the US, Robin is a professor emeritus of New York University. He was born in Tel Aviv but grew up in South Africa, later returning with his family to Israel when he was 13 years old.

Living in Berkeley, from a Jewish perspective, was there anything that surprised you? 

Robin: “The type of affiliation with Jewish life which was practiced in the Bay Area was very much the way I grew up as a child. There was a Jewish community there, and my wife was much involved with the synagogue where she worked. It was easy to fit in because these things were not new for me.”

Brandeis University is a fascinating model of Jewish life in the US. Founded in 1948, the year the State of Israel was established, it is an academic institution “sponsored by the Jewish community” but open to students from all religious backgrounds.

Liebowitz explained that “there really is only one Brandeis,” meaning: “a secular university, or non-sectarian, founded by the American Jewish community basing on Jewish values, with the purpose of providing Jews with access to a first-rate education at a time when they had been denied that same access prior to 1948.

“There is some confusion as to whether or not you call it a Jewish university. It’s Jewish in the sense that it’s founded upon Jewish values and by the American Jewish community, but it is non-religious, secular and non-sectarian. The word ‘emet’ [‘truth’] does appear in our shield and that’s, of course, the pursuit of truth and justice, which is so important to the Jewish world. It is a little confusing though. We have always been open to all meritorious candidates for being students and faculty members, for that matter. Now, although we’re no longer a majority Jewish population, we still hold on very strongly to our Jewish values and to our Jewish identity.”

Liebowitz said that the percentage of Jews at Brandeis is estimated between 35% and 45% of the student body.

Prof. Robin, the University of Haifa was the first Israeli university to offer a degree in American Jewish studies, called the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies. What is the significance of offering this type of program at a prestigious Israeli institution?

“As the political gap between Israel and US Jewry widens, I would say that the interest in this matter in the American community, among students and especially among the mainstream population of Jews in Israeli society, has grown accordingly. This gap, which is the result of political maneuvering between different parties, has led to a whole series of decisions here [in Israel], which have perhaps even estranged some of American Jewry from Israel. This is something that is of great concern among the mainstream Jewish population in Israel. It should be of great concern to everyone, as we’re so intimately tied to the US in any aspect that you can think of, whether it’s our foreign policy, our security, or our culture.”

Robin added that in his perspective, the program the university offers Israelis “is an illustration of how mainstream Israeli society sees this growing estrangement on the political scene as something which is detrimental to our soul.” He said that this is “one of the main reasons why this program is so attractive and that we [have to] turn away students left, right and center.”

Liebowitz said, “I agree with a lot of what Ron said, but I would say that from a general perspective, it may appear that this gap is large and that it’s growing; but I do also think there’s a deep ‘reservoir’ of connection between the American Jewish community and Israel, where even college students are still very much tied to Israel. What’s different now is the polarization of society here and how easy it is for those who object to Israel or who are pulling away from Israel, as they have the platform to do so.

“So, in other words, I do think there is a gap between Israel and American Jewry generally, but nevertheless, we’re hearing from the more vocal anti-Israel folks than we used to in the past that makes it seem that this gap might be even larger than it really is. Having said that, college campuses are, in fact, a place where there are anti-Zionist tendencies. We’ve had very few cases of it at Brandeis for many reasons, but even there, there are groups that are coalescing around the intersectionality of aligning with other student groups that feel they have been marginalized as well. And that makes it even louder than it perhaps is.”

However, Liebowitz said, he is optimistic that “there is still a deep reservoir and groups of young people who are tied to Israel; but then again, very cognizant of the fact that there are also a louder group that is anti-Zionist.”

Liebowitz said he agrees with Robin that the past decade has become very politically polarized in both countries. “When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came and spoke in Congress during Barack Obama’s administration, that created a rift. All these little things along the way made those who before were perhaps neutral, or even a little bit positive pro-Israel vocally, become less so, and I think that’s all now taking shape and adding to the issue.”

Asked if there were any events at Brandeis geared toward explaining the current complex reality in Israel with the protests and many toxic statements from both sides of the political map, Liebowitz answered that “there are now faculty members who are pushing that the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at Brandeis be a little bit more active in terms of current events and politics, instead of the traditional academic approach to Israel studies. These faculty members are trying to figure out how to tie it into other universities in Israel. So, in general, I would say yes, there is great interest on campus [about current events in Israel]. It’s been, of course, heightened as a result of this new government and also of the challenges of the judicial reform and so forth. It’s very present on campus.”

Robin interjected, “We’re trying to encourage US universities and US students to look at Israeli society through a different lens than what they see in the media. When you look at the University of Haifa, where it’s a tapestry of Israeli society, the diversity that exists there is at times not noticed because of the way it is presented on the news.”

Liebowitz said, “I have to jump in and agree with Ron in the sense that from my perspective, Israel has to be the most mischaracterized country in the world. There are so many aspects of Israeli society that are not covered in the West that get shoved aside, and the press loses interest if there’s not something crazy going on or if it is something that can feed into the popular narrative about Israel, and that is really frustrating. That’s one of the reasons why, at least on our campus, we’re thinking about what kind of events and relationships can be developed that would educate more of our students. We have a responsibility, I believe, to inform the American Jewish community as much as possible about Jewish life, as well as about Israel, because that, to me, is part of Jewish life.”

The University of Haifa’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies offers students the historical background behind the Israel-American Jewry relationship as well as a comprehensive modern-day understanding of the realities on the ground for the US Jewish community, to ensure their knowledge translates into improving the future of these two communities moving forward. The program’s main objective is to explore how to maintain the critical relationship between Israel and American Jews for the benefit of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

What do the two of you envy about the other’s role as president of a university?

Liebowitz: “Probably Haifa’s weather. I will take that any day over Boston,” he laughed. “I really admire what Ron and the university are doing. I think their whole idea about becoming the university of the North, tying in various parts and giving more and more opportunities across the curriculum opportunities, both in the classroom and outside the classroom, is quite remarkable. I think it’s a brilliant vision, and I wish we had that flexibility and mindset. So I admire that aspect.”

Robin: “First of all, [I envy] the academics. I think this is an incredibly powerful university given its size; it punches way above its weight. I very much admire it because we’re trying to accomplish the same: we’re a small university, surrounded by powerhouses, and we would like our voice to be heard. I also admire its ability to present Judaism within a social fabric that is non-denominational. I find that dramatically important for the way our faith and our culture is presented.”

In regard to the issue of rising antisemitism in the US, especially on college campuses, Liebowitz is critical of many of his colleagues across the US. “We just decided that Brandeis does have a role to play in addressing issues of rising antisemitism. As such, we’ve launched an initiative that engages university leadership presidents, provosts and deans to come to our campus and create a dialogue with other organizations that work in this antisemitism space so that they could address the issues more forcefully on their campuses. I think generally, presidents [of universities] in the US have more or less ignored the issue of antisemitism, more than other forms of hate. So it’s our motivation to expand the ability and the knowledge of these leaders on university campuses to respond.”

Why haven’t presidents of other universities done enough regarding antisemitism as opposed to other sorts of hate?

Liebowitz: “That’s a complicated question, but part of it has to do with how the Jews are seen as privileged. On campuses in particular, Jews have high positions across all professions and so it’s easy to more or less say, ‘Well, that doesn’t really matter.’ But it does matter because it has an effect on the educational experience of our students.”

Asked where both of them see the Israel-American Jewish relationship going in the next decade, Robin said that he hopes “programs like the Ruderman program will continue to set the path towards educating people, and it goes both ways. “ He added that he’s “positive about the future; therefore, I’m an educator.” But he added that the “more programs that expose people in both directions to our diversity, the more likely that this will be a robust connection.”

Liebowitz: “What is going on politically will certainly have an impact on US-Israel relations and therefore Jewish American-Israeli relations. However, even within the Jewish community in the US there’s a great diversity of thought on this, and I do believe there’s a deep reservoir of connection from large members of the American Jewish community, despite the political challenges, so I’m optimistic. I believe there will always be these ties or various reasons why these ties will be strong between the two. Now, we just have to work, as Ron said, on educating both sides – Israelis about American Jewry and American Jews about the diversity of Israel and the reality of Israel as opposed to what the narrative can be. That’s what will make a real difference.”

The interview is a joint project of the Ruderman Family Foundation and The Jerusalem Post in honor of Israel’s 75th Independence Day, recognizing its special connection with US Jewry.

For more information: Ruderman Family Foundation 

A special project of the Ruderman Family Foundation