Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, who assumed the presidency of Bar-Ilan University in October, is a former Israeli minister of science and technology who is also a mathematician and a community rabbi. The son of Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Hershkowitz said he wants to strengthen Bar-Ilan’s focus on Jewish identity by attracting Jews worldwide in order to make it the “university of the Jewish people.”
A former chairman of the Jewish Home Party, he was elected to the 18th Knesset. He also serves as rabbi of the Ahuza neighborhood in Haifa.
Q: What is your reaction to the backlash created after the American Studies Association and two other small academic groups called for a boycott of Israeli universities?
A: Academic boycotts are against the whole idea of science, which is the ultimate language that bridges gaps between nations, cultures, religions and languages. A real scientist would find the use of scientific boycotts an abuse of science. That is why major universities and the most prestigious universities condemned this boycott.
Do you believe the call for a boycott had much impact?
I don’t think it had any impact. In fact, judging by our experience with previous boycotts in Great Britain, it works the other way — it has a negative impact on those who employ it.
Many Israeli universities draw students from around the world. Is that true of Bar-Ilan?
We do and we intend to increase it dramatically. My vision is to turn Bar-Ilan into the university of the Jewish people. I want to open most of its programs — all of our prestigious programs — to English-speaking students. Most of them are not currently in English. And my idea is to also offer students from overseas — those interested in studying for a bachelor’s degree, as well as graduate students — space in a dormitory that would be off-campus but just across the street.
How many overseas students do you have?
A few hundred on all our campuses. We have 26,000 students on the main campus and we have four extensions, which brings our total to over 30,000 students.
How many overseas students do you envision attracting?
I’m talking about thousands. I’m talking about a large-scale program _ a special initiative that is very important for the Jewish people.
How will you do it?
If you compare our programs to the cost of programs in the United States, ours would probably be half — including room and board. And the main advantage of coming here is to be able to study at a first rate university in a Jewish environment among Jewish students. One of the challenges Jewish students have in the diaspora is that most of their fellow students are not Jewish — and the risk is clear in terms of marriage.
Will teaching in English present problems for the faculty?
I don’t expect to have any problem. Many of them have English as their native language and the universal language of science is English. We publish our research results in English, and we all go on sabbaticals and attend conferences in English.
Would Israeli students have separate classes?
Israelis would be in the same class and on the same campus. I also assume that some of the overseas students would prefer to study in Hebrew or might want to acquire a new language. So I expect there to be a mixture of students in English and Hebrew programs — and this is another advantage.
What else might attract overseas students to Bar-Ilan?
It is the largest university in terms of students and the largest in terms of the variety of programs offered. We cover everything you can think of: natural sciences, exact sciences, social sciences, law, an engineering school, medical school and the largest department in the world of Jewish studies. We are known for our advanced Jewish studies.
All of our departments have both graduate and undergraduate courses, and in recent years the ratio between graduate and undergraduate has grown towards the graduate.