Rachel Neiman
July 30, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Rising anti-Semitism on US campuses is one issue that Project Interchange is meeting head-on by creating seminars for outstanding students.The word “interchange” is defined as “junction” but can also mean “mutual interaction; the activity of reciprocating or exchanging” and even “reverse a direction, attitude, or course of action.” All three definitions apply in the case of Project Interchange, a US-based educational organization dedicated to introducing non-Jewish opinion-makers to Israel, in all its complexity and diversity.

Project Interchange was founded in 1982 by Debra Herman Berger of Chevy Chase, Maryland. For almost a decade prior to that, Berger had become increasingly concerned about how few people knew, or cared to know, about the situation in the Middle East. After a Sabbatical year in Israel in 1980-1, which coincided with the first intifada, Berger came up with a deceptively simple idea: first-hand encounters for policy makers to inform them about Israel.

Berger began designing programs that conveyed the Israeli reality as complicated and multi faceted, and the message and seminar platform remain a cornerstone of the project. Realizing that politicians weren’t the only people of influence in society, she began cultivating leaders from other spheres: teachers and students, ethnic and religious.

In 1992, Project Interchange became part of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) under an agreement that joins Project Interchange and AJC while providing for a separate institute that maintains programming independence. Ten years on, Project Interchange expanded to include international attendees, and this year international activity actually surpassed that of the US.

More questions than answers

“We tell them ‘you’re going to come back with more questions than answers,'” says Doria Gold, Program Associate at Project Interchange, who notes that since its founding, the project has brought over 4,500 prominent persons to Israel on week-long seminars, each tailored to address the delegation’s specific interests.

For example, the leaders from the Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture visited Yad Vashem, Israel Museum, Diaspora Museum and the Palmach Museum to learn not only about museums in Israel but to facilitate knowledge exchange and networking opportunities for Israeli and American museum professionals. In addition, the seminar addressed Arab-Jewish coexistence, pluralism, the Middle East peace process, education and immigrant absorption.

The seminar for a delegation comprising leaders in the global construction industry highlighted infrastructure and development in Israel, US-Israel relations, foreign policy, strategic, and security issues. Participants met with leaders from the Israeli public and private sectors involved in planning, infrastructure development and construction. One alumnus of the trip is now working with Ben Gurion University and the Beersheva municipality on an advanced technologies park project.

Rising anti-Semitism on college campuses is one issue that Project Interchange is meeting head-on by creating seminars for university chancellors and presidents, and for outstanding students.

Meeting rising opinion leaders

“We’ve sent Rhodes Scholars for the last seven years because they are the rising opinion leaders,” Gold tells ISRAEL21c. “We’ve had college student body presidents from the Plain States, many of whom had never met a Jew before the trip. We’ve brought over editors of leading university and college newspapers.

“We know that there are a lot of restrictions on going to study abroad in Israel and we thought that if they saw the intellectual activity on campuses in Israel they might work on easing those restrictions. Plus there are opportunities for research cooperation that we wanted them to see,” she adds.

Sometimes there are overt examples of success, Gold says. “For example, as a result of last year’s seminar, the president of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana found funding for student exchanges with Israeli institutions of higher learning, creating educational programs within the university, as well as a lecture series in which the chancellor teaches about various countries, commencing with Israel.

The president of Rice University now has a visiting Schusterman scholar from Israel. And Mary Anne Fox chancellor of the University of California at San Diego has been very vocal about the restrictions on UC students studying abroad and is encouraging students to find ways to study abroad.”

This July, Project Interchange brought 10 American university presidents and chancellors to Israel. Hosts of the week-long event included Mark G. Yudof, incoming president of the University of California, and Mary-Sue Coleman from the University of Michigan.

Apart from visiting Israeli universities, participants also visited Al Quds University in Abu Dis (under the Palestinian Authority) to discuss Palestinian education and governance. The group got a chance to explore Israeli historical and archeological sites, and discuss issues of security, the peace process, and the role of the US in the Middle East.

ISRAEL21c met with them shortly after a briefing with the US Ambassador to Israel, Richard H. Jones, in Tel Aviv. It was Coleman’s first time to Israel, despite the fact that as a biochemist she’s been collaborating with Israeli researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science for a number of years. Coleman made sure to pay them a personal visit on their home turf, hoping to reach out and foster additional connections: “They are working at the cutting edge and our scientists want to collaborate with them,” she says. “They are good scientists. They are advancing human knowledge. That’s exciting.”

The trip, she says has “been a great opportunity to learn about complex issues.”

Yudof estimates that he’s visited Israel about six or seven times. Israel, he notes “has fabulous universities,” and is a “leader in science and technology.”

The fact that Israelis speak English well, and now have numerous courses being provided in English, is a “big breakthrough” for fostering further cross-collaboration between American and Israeli overseas programs. Specifically, Yudof mentions the tech transfer opportunities at the Technion – Israel Institute for Science and the Weizmann; the medical opportunities at Hebrew University’s Hadassah Hospital, and the breadth of legal courses available at Tel Aviv University.

Although Project Interchange’s international seminars are only a year old, they’ve begun to have an impact as well. Discussions about educational exchanges with Israel are now underway following groups visiting from Indonesia and Thailand. During the visit of a group of Vietnamese foreign policy advisors, it was announced that Vietnam would open an embassy in Israel. “And the Spanish alumni lobbied for the Socialist party to reexamine its Israel platform and became involved in a protest against the Iranian Embassy in Spain,” says Gold.

Other times, she adds, success is measured in more subtle ways. “We view success as people talking about their experiences and sharing them. Starting the conversation and seeing how the trip affects them. We want people to understand that it’s complicated.”

Additional reporting by Karin Kloosterman

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