At tense time for U.S.-Israel relations, University of Haifa program inspires lively debate

By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org 

Click photo to download. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro speaks Nov. 20 at the inaugural event of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa. Credit: Gil Hadani/Allpix.

HAIFA—On Nov. 20, students, administrators, professors, and honored guests at the University of Haifa anxiously awaited to hear keynote speaker Daniel B. Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, update the audience on the U.S. position regarding the Iran nuclear program talks in Geneva, a tense situation with relevance to the university’s new Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies. 

Iran and the P5+1 powers, including the U.S., over the weekend would eventually reach an interim agreement that was heavily criticized by Israeli leaders. But ongoing U.S.-Israel disagreements on Iran did not overshadow the festivities and excitement at the Haifa event celebrating the inauguration of an academic program that is the first of its kind in Israel. The 21 students enrolled in the program, whose formation was first reported by JNS.org in August, presented a video demonstrating how its intensive seven-course curriculum—designed to educate the next generation of Israeli leaders about Jewish-American cultural history and the U.S.-Israel relationship—provides an unprecedented opportunity to inspire passionate discussion and discovery throughout Israel and abroad.

“Two Jews—ten opinions, two Israelis—50 opinions,” Nave Dromi, a current student in the inaugural class, tells JNS.org. “Everyone speaks out, discussions are lively.” 

Dromi’s description of the classroom atmosphere and a recent debate she had with her professor illustrate the depth of understanding that students seek through the program. “We were speaking about the role of American Jews pre-holocaust, during, and after. For me, it was difficult to understand because I felt as though there was something to do, it just didn’t happen. I disagreed with people who said things were going in a way that we can’t be critical of. My teacher challenged me, he gave me examples that put me in the situation, and kept asking questions,” she says. 

In their first semester, the program’s students have attended the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Jerusalem from Nov. 10-12 and have also visited the Knesset. Program organizers hope an upcoming 10-day trip to the U.S. will ensure that every student is immersed in American culture and experiences a different perspective on Israel. 

“This is a very diverse, very promising group of students,” Professor Gur Alroey, Director of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, tells JNS.org. “Already professors are commenting that we’ve never had a group with so much energy.”

Likewise, Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, whose $1 million commitment to the program was matched by the University of Haifa, is confident that his organization has made a sound investment. 

“My father taught me that if you invest in people who are passionate and dedicated to what they do, you will find success,” Ruderman tells JNS.org. “Professor Alroey has picked students who are ambitious and committed. They have a vision.”  

A collective student vision for a better, more sophisticated U.S.-Israel relationship will be articulated and debated throughout the program. Current student Ran Bar-Yoshafat points out some challenges for the U.S.-Israel relationship that he hopes to confront. 

“I think right now it’s crucial for Israelis to understand how the political system works in the USA,” Bar-Yoshafat tells JNS.org. “Israelis don’t realize the power of Congress and almost see America as a monarchy type of state where the president has the keys for four years. I am [also] not sure Israelis understand the difficulties American Jews face, being a minority and trying to balance between their lives as Americans and their identity as Jews. Israelis need to learn how to build bridges between the people of America and the people of Israel.”

Students Dromi and Bar-Yoshafat are both critical of America’s handling of Israel’s sensitive security needs. They are conscious that tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and inaction in Syria may have strained the U.S.-Israel relationship. Israelis are frustrated with the U.S. for “not understanding Israel’s need for security, not understanding [Israel’s] small ‘personal space,’ and not being forward when [Israelis] feel they should be,” Bar-Yoshafat says.

Dromi adds, “The Middle East has a different way of seeing things, and how you approach and negotiate problems. In Syria, we got nothing. Right now the civil war continues. Sometimes actions speak more than words and not making a call is a decision.” Analyses of current events have an important place in the program, as students seek answers and historical rationales to the most pressing questions about U.S.-Israel relations. 

During his remarks Nov. 20, Ambassador Shapiro demonstrated American awareness of Israeli’s collective fatigue in the face of so many chronic existential threats. But he also attempted to refute fears that Israel’s alliance with the U.S. is in jeopardy, and expressed optimism that innovative ventures like the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies are strengthening U.S.-Israel ties. 

“We have a lot of work to do, together,” Shapiro encouraged the inaugural class. “The bridge that we are opening tonight, here at the University of Haifa, will connect Israelis and Americans, improve communication, and strengthen the bond between Israel and the United States, helping prepare the next generation of educated and engaged Israelis to steward this special relationship.”

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Posted on November 25, 2013 and filed under Israel, U.S., Features.