‘An academic absorption center’

All three are well-educated Jews, in their early twenties, but the differences between them are greater than the similarities. Each comes from a different cultural environment, a different education system and a different continent. Dina Ben-Bonan was born in Madrid, finished high school there and also studied at a college of business administration. Bar Asharov studied at the American school in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and afterward, for a year, in Cape Town College in South Africa. Moriah Lifschitz was born in Vladivostok, Russia, and studied at the local university where she completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

What unites them today is that all three live in Israel, and all three are studying at the International School of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. In their backgrounds and their motives for coming to Israel, they represent three of the groups that comprise the student population of this school, about 20 percent of all those studying at the IDC.

Like Asharov, many of the students at the school are the children of Israelis who have been living abroad for years. Asharov was 4 when his parents left Israel for Kenya, where they are still living. Like Ben-Bonan (who has been studying here for three years) and her brother, Jose (who joined her this year), many others are young Jews from Europe, the United States or South America who are interested in learning about life in Israel and acquiring an academic education. Ben-Bonan’s parents were born in Morocco, immigrated to Spain in their youth and were successful there in business. They are active in the Jewish community in Madrid and often visit their relatives in Israel. Among the students of the International School, there are about 150 new immigrants like Lifschitz who prefer academic studies in English to coursework in Hebrew. Lifschitz immigrated to Israel on her own, just under two years ago.

The third side

The International School has been in operation for eight years. It was established at a time when the IDC was developing its elitist image, and attracted many senior professors who until then had worked in the public research universities, as well as students from the top decile of Israeli students. The International School was meant to be the third side of this triangle: Its students, and some of the professors, are meant to come from all over the world and provide the IDC with international prestige.

When it opened its gates in 1999, Israel’s relations with the world, including with part of the Arab world, were at a high point. That allowed even Palestinian students and Muslim students from Morocco to study there during its first year. The founders of the school wanted it to become an institution that would attract outstanding students from all over the world, not necessarily Jews, thus turning the IDC into an academic institution equal in rank to the most prestigious colleges in the world.

But the outbreak of the intifada, only a year after its opening, changed the picture. Today, say the leaders of the IDC, the school is working to bring in talented Jewish youth from abroad, and to bring back the children of Israelis who emigrated years ago. In fact, 95 percent of the 850 students in the International School this year are Jews from abroad and Israelis; the others are the children of foreign diplomats posted in Israel.

“We are an academic absorption center,” claims Jonathan Davis, the head of the school and the Vice President for External Relations at IDC. But the step taken by the school so that students would eschew the other institutions of higher education in Israel, which are also interested in attracting Jewish students from abroad, calls into question at least the idea of the “absorption center.” While foreign students who are accepted for studies in Hebrew at all the other universities must first take a preparation course to enable them to participate in their classes, the students of the IDC International School take all the regular IDC courses in English.

All the classes taught in Hebrew to students studying at the IDC schools of business administration, communications, government and diplomacy and psychology, are taught in the International School in separate classes and in English, usually by the same professors who teach in Hebrew.

“Since 1947, they’ve been talking in Israel about establishing a center for academic studies in English, which would attract Jewish students from all over the world,” says IDC President Prof. Uriel Reichman. “In fact, only a few totally eclectic things were done. One semester here, a course there. Our school is the first overall attempt to enable full and organized academic studies in English.”

“For me,” adds Davis, “this school is the fulfillment of a dream that comes after many years of frustration.” In the 1980s and 1990s he served as an immigration emissary on behalf of the Jewish Agency in Boston, Capetown and Rome, and tried to encourage young Jews to study in Israel. His success was very limited, in his opinion because the academic establishment in Israel was not willing to demonstrate the necessary flexibility.

“At the time, I sent brilliant young people to Israel, with impressive matriculation certificates that would have enabled them to be accepted to Harvard, Oxford or any other important university,” he says. “But instead of Israel jumping at the opportunity, the students were told that the universities in Israel consider only Israeli matriculation certificates, and that anyone without an Israeli matriculation certification had to study in a mechina (preparatory institute) and afterward take a psychometric exam. Most of them left Israel within a short time and went to study elsewhere.”

In any case, beyond the lofty words about Zionism and bringing Jews close to Israel, there seems to be another important reason for the existence of the International School: It provides a substantial source of income for the IDC. The tuition for the students is identical to that charged by the IDC to Israeli students: $7,500 a year (about three times as high as the tuition at public universities). The heads of the IDC point out that the families of about 20 percent of the foreign students are unable to pay the tuition, and their children’s studies are paid for by scholarships granted by a foundation established by the heirs of businessman Raphael Recanati, after whom the school is named. But even without them, the tuition that is transferred to the IDC’s coffers from the students of the International School comes to over $5 million annually.

“I hope that the International School will in fact become a source of income for the IDC in the future, but to my regret that is not yet the case,” says Reichman. “As opposed to our image, the tuition we charge our students, both Israelis and foreigners, covers only 80 percent of our ongoing expenses. The other 20 percent, as well as all the costs of infrastructure, are funded by donations.”

Zionism limited

Slightly more than one-third of the students of the International School come from Western Europe, slightly less than one-third from North America and another 20 percent each from South America and South Africa. In addition, there are also about 100 Israeli students, who seem to be attracted mainly to the opportunities of employment abroad that studies in English are likely to open to them.

It is therefore possible that the number of Israeli graduates of the school who find work abroad and settle there may in the end be higher than the number of Jewish graduates from abroad who find work in Israel and settle here. The problem calls into question its directors’ Zionist vision.

“An Israeli who wants to leave the country will do so whether he studies in Hebrew or in English,” claims Davis. “Meanwhile, the school has already brought back to Israel quite a number of Israeli professors who worked abroad for years.”

Reichman also rejects the theory that the students will leave after graduation. Although the center does not keep track of where its graduates work, Reichman says that in his estimate “over half of them stay in Israel.”

One can get a different impression from talking to the students. Students who were interviewed had a lot of praise for life in Israel, and most of them did in fact say that they “would like to” build their lives here. But they also indicated that they intended to decide only after completing their master’s and doctoral degrees abroad.

“I prefer life in Israel to life in the U.S.,” said Meital David, a native Israeli who has lived in the U.S. for most of her life and is studying business administration here. “But it’s clear to me that I’ll live where I can find work at a higher salary.”


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