The Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) recently released its 2023 Global 2000 list of top-ranked institutions for higher education. As China continues its academic ascendance, American universities dominate the top tier of schools and represent eight out of the 10 globally ranked spots. And while nine Israeli universities appear within the 2000 list, six institutions, including The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which fell three spots to number 70, declined in international standing.
That two-thirds of Israeli universities experienced downgrades signals a worrying trend in the country’s higher education system. The Jerusalem Post cites, “In the past decade, Israel dropped from second place to 21st place among OECD countries in national spending on academic research and development as a percentage of GDP.”
Israel’s downturn in global order occurs at a critical time for American Jewry. The intersectional discourse involving Israel at United States universities is deleteriously impacting Jewish students. Limits imposed on once easily adopted ideals surrounding spirited debate result in the systemic silencing of pro-Israel voices across US schools.
Coupling America’s campus climate with statistics citing American Ivies’ diminished interest in accepting Jewish Americans, it is reasonable to assume that studying in Israel would emerge as an attractive alternative for US Jews. Yet, as someone whose children attend modern orthodox American yeshivas, student and parent disinterest in pursuing undergraduate study in Israel underscores an unease associated with establishments that, as the CWUR highlights, fail to meet the academic benchmarks valued by most Jewish Americans.
Trends may shift, but American students remain stationary
Despite shifting societal trends, US Jews remain wedded to the generational tradition of attaining academic prestige and professional success. Still, Israel’s universities can be crucial in restoring the country’s ties with Diaspora Jewry, provided its leaders invest in outreach efforts and resist succumbing to some of the same damaging pedagogies from which several US universities now seek to disengage.
Many Israeli universities maintain offices in the US. Given that their primary roles are fundraising for their respective establishments, domestic events largely revolve around raising money. At this month’s college informational evening at my daughter’s school, among the dozens of American universities sending delegates, only a handful of representatives from Israeli universities attended the gathering. Deepening engagement with Israel is a cornerstone of the modern Orthodox movement.
A missed messaging opportunity is recoverable for many students on future trips to Israel, at summer camps and in classrooms. Most critically, denominationally diverse institutions are increasingly squeamish about supporting Israel. As such, Israeli universities can help eclipse a cultural void by approaching students through the non-political prism of academia, thereby blunting US Jewry’s rising detachment from Israel.
The willingness of American Jewry to overlook the benefits concerning learning in Israel, including significant tuition savings and a synchronized Jewish-academic calendar, stresses the struggle Israeli universities face in remaining competitive. Several years ago, The Council for Higher Education in Israel (CHE) announced a “Study in Israel” campaign designed to increase the number of international students through efforts consisting of expanding English-speaking classes.
The organization’s latest report found approximately “10,100 international students studied in Israel” in 2020-21, constituting almost 3% of the total student population. In comparison, the international community at various US Ivy League schools hovers around 20% of the student body.
IN FAIRNESS, new and emergent Israeli institutions are devoted to strengthening the quality and depth of instruction. Shalem College, the country’s first private liberal arts college, was established 10 years ago.
Absent government funding, Shalem’s emphasis is on critical thinking rooted in exploring foundational philosophical, literary, theological, artistic and scientific works. Its founding has been a critical step in reorienting Israel’s academic landscape to recruit top talent and cultivate the next generation of Israel’s leaders.
Aside from reputational status, US Jewry’s resistance to undergraduate study in Israel stems from a rising awareness that progressive policies encountered on American campuses are slowly characterizing the academic ethos at Israel’s universities. In the US, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are responsible for fomenting antisemitism through falsely labeling Israel, and by extension Jews, as white colonialist oppressors.
It bears mentioning that incremental moves against DEI programming are evolving within the American political and academic arena. According to The Chronicle’s DEI Legislation Tracker, there are currently 34 bills being considered in almost two dozen states which, if passed, will prohibit US colleges from having DEI offices or staff.
Writing for Tablet, Armin Rosen describes waning Jewish acceptance rates at Ivies. Still, he maintains that slivers of reassurance are found through official statements at top-tier schools, which are materializing as appealing options for Jewish Americans. Rosen notes that Brown University President Christina Paxson has repeatedly spoken about the importance of having religious Jews on campus.
Adhering to the academic tradition of rigorous debate, more universities are taking principled stands advancing academic integrity. In recent months, reports of faculty members at Harvard and Vanderbilt Universities tackling the breakdown of institutional dialogue through creating organizations devoted to the free exchange of ideas are helping alter the academic order at universities.
As US officials address the dangers involving DEI proposals, several Israeli universities are resuscitating the platform’s academic role. To date, trendy slogans invoking equity and inclusion are seeping into Israeli institutional statements. Following in the progressive footsteps of US universities, Tel Aviv University established an Equity and Diversity Commission.
And years after multiple schools canceled classes following former US president Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, Israel’s prominent research universities shuttered their doors to protest the government’s judicial reforms. Incidentally, teacher strikes are a recurring theme engulfing Israel’s education system.
One month after the coalition’s judicial plans prompted a round of closings, professors forced another shutdown, demanding that university and government administrators respond to requests for salary corrections.
Contained within Israel’s role as a cultural and religious touchstone for Jewish Americans is a chance to rebrand its academic rubric. The country’s miraculous rise over the last 75 years reflects a country upholding enviable models for military, economic and technological success. The strides embedded in Israel’s story are an inspiring indicator that, in time, its global educational stature may also soon improve.
The author is an independent writer who resides in New York.