The column | Haifa University, where diversity is an asset

Amos Shapira, the president of the University of Haifa, has a unique perspective on the role played by the institution he heads. All he has to do is look out his office window: In one direction, he can see Syria and Lebanon; from across the hall, Tel Aviv.

While some might understand that as evidence of the precarious geo-political situation in which the world’s only Jewish state finds itself, Shapira has a much more matter-of-fact take. Israel, he says, is part of the Middle East, in all its messy, multi-ethnic diversity — so everyone better just deal with it.

And the diversity of the university’s 18,000 students reflects that of the country as a whole. “We have ultra-Orthodox and secular, Russians and Ethiopians, the largest number of IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] officers of any university in Israel and the largest percentage of Arab students — 22 percent, the same as the country.”

That latter statistic, he insists, is a positive. He says that when he took the job as president in late 2012, some people suggested he not harp on it in public. Instead, he points it out with pride.

“The fact that we have the largest number of Arab students is well known and nothing to be embarrassed about,” he tells me. Taking out his business card, he points to the university’s logo, which is printed in three languages: English, Hebrew and Arabic. That, he says, is reality. And the University of Haifa, situated in Israel’s north, with its large Arab population, can play a critical role in promoting coexistence within the country, something that’s absolutely necessary, he adds, if Israel is ever to coexist with its neighbors.

Shapira, 65, was in town recently to meet with donors and present the case for their support. I caught up with him at the San Francisco home of philanthropist Maurice Kanbar, a longtime donor.

“I am the sixth generation in Israel,” Shapira says during our pre-dinner conversation. His grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi in the early agricultural settlement of Yesod Hama’alah in the Hula Valley, lost five children to malaria. He himself is named after a great-uncle murdered by Arab terrorists.

“I don’t have to prove my Zionism,” he continues. “My grandfather understood that if he didn’t live in peace with his Arab neighbors, there would be no peace for anyone.”

I don’t think Haifa University is an easy sell to American Jews. Haifa itself isn’t an easy sell, not being Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It’s a working-class city, with a busy commercial port instead of a Western Wall or a Dizengoff Street. But those who live and work there say that Haifa is the real Israel, one of the few mixed Arab-Jewish cities.

I happen to have a soft spot for Haifa. In the 1970s and early ’80s, when I did multiple stints as a kibbutz volunteer, Haifa was our “big city,” the place we’d go on days off to buy a falafel and maybe take in a movie. There was one fabulous cinema up on the Carmel where, on hot summer nights, the roof would retract and the entire sunflower seed-spitting audience would watch the newest Hollywood offering under a blanket of stars.

Shapira has his own history with Haifa. He earned his B.A. from the University of Haifa in 1980, and has a master’s in industrial management from the Technion. His appointment, announced two years ago, caused quite a stir because he’s a businessman rather than an academic. According to a March 2012 article in Haaretz, some critics understood the move as part of the Finance Ministry’s perceived “takeover” of the country’s universities, wrenching them out of the hands of professors to run them more like businesses.

If that’s the intention, Shapira has the credentials — three decades of business management experience, most recently as CEO of El Al Airlines and then Cellcom, Israel’s main telecommunications company. The university’s fundraising efforts were in a slump when he arrived a mere 18 months ago. His task is to turn that around.

“We’re the youngest of Israel’s research universities, and we need resources,” he says. Within the next four years, he hopes to add 100 researchers to the current crop of 650.  “It’s not a simple challenge,” he points out. “The university’s goal is excellent research and education, but in an environment that respects the ‘other,’ where diversity is an asset.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].