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Skorton and Davisson blog from Israel on higher ed's role in Middle East peace

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Claudia Wheatley

How can peace be achieved in the Middle East? One piece of the puzzle is higher education, say Cornell President David Skorton and his wife, Professor Robin Davisson.

"What better way to bring together the young people of disparate cultures than through the conversations within and the friendships forged outside the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, the soccer field?" they recently wrote in a blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Skorton and Davisson, professor of biomedical sciences at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine and professor of cell and developmental biology at Weill Cornell Medical College, have written a four-part blog about their trip to Israel, where they participated in Project Interchange's seminar in Israel for U.S. university presidents, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

Skorton and Davisson's purpose: to learn more about the higher education and broader environment of modern Israel and the Palestinian territories, toward potential academic collaborations.

The blog entries open with scenes from their trip: calls to prayer in Arabic, and the sounds of Latin and Hebrew in the old city of Jerusalem; university presidents hunched over pens and papers as they take notes during a seminar lecture; young Muslim women in hijab hurrying by on the way to class at Al-Qasemi College of Education. They also chronicled the whine of the sirens from their Palestinian security escort that rose above the noise of widespread construction as their van moved along the streets of Ramallah in the West Bank.

As part of the seminar, they spent time with leaders, faculty and staff of various educational institutions, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, the Israeli president, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a West Bank settler, journalists and writers.

Although the differences of perspective and narrative between Palestinians and Israelis may be intractable, Skorton and Davisson left convinced that higher education can be a vehicle for change, they wrote in their July 12 entry:

"Whether using molecular genetics to better understand isolated regional populations as an avenue for improved prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease; combining forces in archeological digs for increased understanding of our collective past; or unlocking the aggregate beauty and wisdom of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish scriptures -- are not the academics of our nations in a good position to approach each other with more mutual respect and hope?"

They ended their trip with a visit to the Jerusalem International YMCA Peace Preschool, which serves an equal number of Arab (Muslim and Christian) and Jewish students. The visit set the scene for their prescriptions for how American universities can help.

First, U.S. institutions can facilitate further interactions between Israeli and Palestinian colleges and universities, perhaps through trilateral arrangements involving work on American campuses. Second, these institutions can help the Palestinian territories prepare for statehood by facilitating community and economic development. Third, they can partner with Palestinian colleges and universities to develop faculty and offer new joint degrees. Last, American universities should reject suggested boycotts of Israeli universities and colleges, they said.

"It is critical that academic freedom and open disagreement be protected, even, and perhaps especially, regarding current controversial government actions," they wrote in their July 16 blog entry. "However, it is hard for us to imagine a scenario in which a boycott -- or any action that limits interactions with Israeli and Palestinian people and institutions - would be constructive and helpful, as opposed to divisive and destructive.

"As we take leave of the YMCA Peace Preschool and of Israel, we part company with new friends and colleagues -- Palestinian and Israeli -- with a renewed commitment to contribute and a promise to return."

The blog can be found at http://chronicle.com/blog/worldwise/32.