Visit to Israel and the West Bank 2013: Days 1-3

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As I write this blog it is 830 at night in Jerusalem. The sun will be going down shortly and bring an end to the Sabbath (Shabbat). Israel’s work week begins on Sunday (which is like our Monday), and runs till Thursday. Friday is like our Saturday, and as of sundown much of the city shuts down as families gather for Shabbat celebrations.

Israel is, however, a complex country and there are plenty of non-religious people, significant Christian and especially Muslim populations, and businesses including hotels and restaurants that remain open even on Shabbat. One feature of hotels is the Shabbat elevator which runs between floors from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in such a way that the observant do not have to push buttons, which is prohibited for them. (I am reminded of my late grandfather, an orthodox Jew who spent his life in London, England, and on Shabbat would neither use the ‘lift’ nor drive or even ride on the bus; he would walk to synagogue for services).

This is not my first trip to Israel. I was first here in 1978, when I was an undergraduate at Queen’s, and my family marked a golden wedding anniversary in Jerusalem for my grandparents Adolph and Regina. More recently, I was here 3 years ago on a delegation with then Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Currently I am on another delegation, this time with several other university heads from both AUCC and the U15 group of research intensive universities. AUCC Vice-President Christine Tausig Ford is on the trip, as is U15 Executive Director Suzanne Corbeil. For most of the group (the exceptions are myself and St Francis Xavier University’s Sean Riley) it is a first-ever visit. I’m back in large measure to pursue some of the linkages that were made on the 2010 visit and to reconnect with academics, administrators and researchers I met then. On Monday I will join with University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon in signing on behalf of the AUCC a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Tel Aviv. Queen’s also has a new bilateral MOU with the University of Tel Aviv’s Law School, and I will be spending time there later this week.

Day 1 (Thursday July 4)

We arrived via Toronto about noon on Thursday and met our guide Michal (an Israeli) and tour coordinator Dylan (who is based in Toronto). After a 12 hour flight nobody was especially fresh, so the first afternoon and evening allowed some cleanup time at the hotel and then a walk through the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem before an early(ish) dinner.

Day 2 (Friday July 5)

The day began with a briefing on entrepreneurial activity in Israel, famously described in a recent book as the ‘startup nation’. There is a huge amount of R and D here, and venture capital is quite easy to raise. Over the past 20 years the country has become a leading high-tech location, second only in some areas to Silicon Valley or perhaps Boston (which I recently described in the Queen’s Alumni Review) in its production of successful–and, necessarily, some failed–startups). Many foreign companies such as Intel have purchased Israeli startups and set up plants here.

The day included a visit to the downtown market (a sea of people!) at lunch and then a walk through the rest of Jerusalem’s old city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a visit to the Western Wall. Our guide, Michal, is a fount of historical and local knowledge.

The heart of the day was my first visit to Yad Vashem, the complex devoted to Holocaust studies which now includes the relatively new National Holocaust museum. Designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the Museum proper begins with a narrative film (silent) montage depicting pre-war European Jewish communities and life, an image that gradually fades from view as the visitor progresses through the various galleries of the triangular-shaped building. Among the displays I noted was the carnage wreaked by the Nazis on Tarnow, a town in Galicia (now part of Poland) from which my paternal great-grandfather emigrated to Britain in the 1890s. I have to admit that this visit, perhaps unsurprisingly, overshadowed pretty much everything else I saw that day.

In the garden at Yad Vashem

In the garden at Yad Vashem

Day 3 (Saturday July 6)

Today included a float in the Dead Sea

a market stall in Jerusalem on Friday around 1 pm

a market stall in Jerusalem on Friday around 1 pm

and a walk through the Masada, both of which I had done on my 1978 visit. The business part of the day included a trip to the West Bank, specifically to one of the Area A regions (under Palestinian civil and military control) to visit Birzeit University.

Sighted this ibex on the wall outside the base of Masada

Sighted this ibex on the wall outside the base of Masada

This was my 2nd visit to Birzeit; after the last visit we signed an MOU to increase graduate student mobility. Birzeit is widely regarded as one of the best if not the best Palestinian university, with an enrolment of about 10,000 students. The buildings are mainly relatively new and largely privately funded. We were able to meet the Dean of Engineering, Dean of Grad Studies, the VP Academic (whom I met in 201o) and the President. Our host was Canada’s representative to the Palestinian Authority. Birzeit is starting up a new PhD program in social sciences and has an interest in developing an entrepreneurship culture among its students. It also has a keen interest in having Canadian academics spend some time there offering courses, which can be given in English and over a short period of 1-2 weeks. Associate Vice-Principal (Research) Dr Cynthia Fekken, who is also on this trip (and is depicted below having a brief ride atop a West Bank camel) will be following up on this MOU once we return to Canada.

Cynthia Fekken hitches a ride on a camel

Cynthia Fekken hitches a ride on a camel

Tomorrow we get much more heavily into the business meetings, so watch this blog space for updates every couple of days.

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