The “incorporation of American universities” is at the root of toxic discourse surrounding the Israel-Hamas war on college campuses, University of Haifa President Ron Robin said during his visit to San Diego from Nov. 12 to 13.
In a nationwide tour of campuses, Robin met with university presidents, administrators, faculty, and student groups to express concern over the current discourse emanating from academia and academic leadership. These meetings — including with Pradeep Khosla, Chancellor of UC San Diego — aimed to address anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments that are being observed on each campus, to ensure the protection and respect of Israeli and Jewish students and faculty, and to allow a discussion around the cross-section between freedom of speech and its usage to legitimize hate speech or justify violence.
“American universities have become corporate entities,” Robin said in a presentation at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla earlier this month . “You used to go to a university to get an education. You now go to a university to acquire a profession. Everything at the university is geared towards the students who are focused on acquiring a profession, not an education.”
As such, he explained, universities have increasingly neglected the humanities and social sciences — and this void of scholarship in those academic departments has been filled by advocacy.
“If you are a corporate entity, a number of things happen. Those things that are superfluous to your wellbeing — such as humanities and social sciences — you don’t hold them to the same standards…you let them go,” said Robin. “A university should never be a site for advocacy. It’s a cloister, it’s a sort of monastery, where people are deeply involved in falsifiable theories about ideas and ethics. If something is not falsifiable, it probably has to do with advocacy and not with scholarship.”
He said that while university leaders should be expected “to stand up and make clear statements from day one” of a crisis such as the war in Israel, “The typical president or chancellor in the UC system likely spends 50% of his or her time raising money. They are removed from what happens at the university. They are like a CEO of a corporation, and as such, the moral beacon, this compass that we expect to come from university leadership, is not there.”
Robin is the 11th president of University of Haifa. He also spent 12 years at New York University serving as senior vice provost, and was responsible for the establishment of two NYU international campuses, in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. He holds a PhD in American History from UC Berkeley.
Drawing from his academic background in history, Robin compared the massacre carried out by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. “The Japanese won the spectacular battle, but they lost the war,” he said.
Addressing the perception that Israel’s intelligence community ignored warnings prior to the Hamas attack, Robin cited author Roberta Wohlstetter’s analysis in her book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. As intelligence is made up of noise and signals, it is difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction. If American intelligence officers believed the Japanese would not attack, and if Israeli intelligence officers believed the threat posed by Hamas could be managed, no information could enter their minds that would change their preconceived notions. In this situation, “strategic considerations take a backseat to wishful thinking,” Robin said.
He also cited the statement by terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins that “terrorism is theater.” Terror attacks are “staged to attract attention” and are “aimed at the people watching,” Robin noted. The Hamas attack in particular was meant to “undermine people’s confidence in the primary responsibility of the state [of Israel], to provide safety and security.”
The Israeli people “will never be the same” after this attack, he said. Meanwhile, he explained how University of Haifa is poised to play a significant role in ensuring that diverse sectors of Israeli society can unite and heal in the aftermath of trauma.
University of Haifa is Israel’s most diverse campus, with 40% of the student body consisting of Arabs, which is double the Arab share of the Israeli population as a whole. The university is “changing the nature of the Israeli middle class,” Robin said. For instance, the city of Haifa used to be stratified — with Arab residents living at the bottom of the mountain (Mount Carmel) and Jews at the top, both literally and figuratively. Now, those who possess a university education are the ones atop the mountain, whether they are Arab or Jewish. This new, robust, university-educated middle class represents “the future of Israeli society,” he said.
“We have to succeed, for the future of Israeli society hinges on the ability of Arabs and Jews…to work together for a better life and a more equitable society,” said Robin.
As far as American campuses are concerned, he lamented that antisemitism and toxic discourse in general has erupted because “we lost our path, we lost the road, we moved in directions in which we should have never moved. We are institutes of higher learning and education, and until we return to that, I don’t see how this can be rectified.”
Jacob Kamaras is editor and publisher of San Diego Jewish World.