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December 20, 2013 2:38 pm

Israel and the Disparity Between Academia and Commerce

avatar by David Bergstein

Warren Buffett meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. Photo: Wikipedia..

Members of the American Studies Association announced Monday that they had voted by a margin of 2:1 in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. According to the ASA’s website, their rationale for said boycott stems from, “Israel’s violations of international law and U.N. resolutions.”

Such academic boycotts against Israel have occurred for years in Britain — the most infamous example taking place in 2002, when two academic journals fired Israeli professors from their boards on account of their nationality. The ASA’s vote marks the second such occurrence in the US, with the Association for Asian American Studies being the first to do so in April. However, additional academic boycotts may be on the horizon, as the New York Times reported that the Modern Language Association is set to debate “a resolution calling on the State Department to criticize Israel for barring American professors from going to Gaza and the West Bank when invited by Palestinian universities.”

By stark contrast, Israel is receiving unprecedented support from the business world, with American companies in particular demonstrating interest in establishing partnerships with Israeli companies and investing in Israel.

Warren Buffett has touted Israel as the “most promising investment hub” outside the US, and in May his own Berkshire Hathaway invested $2 billion for a 20 percent stock ownership of Israeli toolmaker, Iscar (he previously owned the other 80%).  As reported by Forbes magazine in 2012, “of its (Iscar’s) 3,000 Israeli employees, roughly half are Jewish and half Arab.”

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In November, Apple Inc. acquired Tel Aviv-based PrimeSense for a reported $350 million.  The move marked the second acquisition of an Israeli company by Apple, having purchased flash storage chip maker Anobit in 2012.

In July, Israeli navigation company, Waze, was acquired by Google for a reported $1 billion. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, has said that “investing in Israel was one of Google’s best decisions.” In the last three years, Apple, Google and Facebook have acquired 10 Israeli companies.

So why the disparity between the worlds of commerce and academia?

I submit that academics have the luxury of operating in theory, while those in business have the burden of applying theory to real world problems. In other words, idealism as opposed to realism. When I conferred with some of my business associates as to why Israel is consistently denigrated on campuses but lauded on Wall Street, they concurred. In short, they felt that academia is not accountable, in the succeed versus fail sense of the word, while commerce most definitely is.

Academics can point to Israeli policies in the West Bank and immediately declare them unjust. But without considering critical details — not the least of which being that Israel faces continuous imminent threats to its own existence by numerous enemies sworn to annihilate the Jewish state — or submitting anything resembling a viable alternative, those type of assertions are idealistic and impractical.

A theory that does not work in practice is, by its very definition, a flawed theory. This is something that separates those who succeed in the world of business from those who fail. The same cannot be said for academia.

Academics can posit theory upon theory, all of which may have broad appeal on the surface and seem quite enticing. Yet, rarely do we see whether or not a theory succeeds when applied in the real world. The academic boycott is a perfect example. Though considered largely symbolic by academia, the boycott can be interpreted as a signal to those without a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of Israel and its policies that such actions from Israel’s strongest ally are acceptable. The potential domino effect from one or two small academic boycotts could eventually threaten Israel’s security, its economic development, and its existence.

What will be said of the academic boycott, should such a worst-case scenario unfold? Will the academic boycott be viewed as the impetus for such a calamity? Most likely, the academics who endorsed the boycott will continue operating in their ivory towers, unfettered and without regard for whether future theories will be presented despite their flaws.

The state of Israel must remain vigilant and proactive, otherwise it will cease to exist. The same is true in the business world. Israel and American commerce have formed a mutually beneficial partnership. When will the same be said for Israel and American academia?

David Bergstein is the CEO of Cyrano Group.  He is a board member of the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing Los Angeles County youth with safe facilities, planned programs, and the vital tools they need to thrive and succeed in life.  He is founder of the Leonard and Sarah Bergstein Learning Center at the Conejo Jewish Academy.

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