Although there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, New York University’s plans to open a campus in its capital, Abu Dhabi, is being welcomed by Israeli and Jewish faculty.
“This is a period of very much improved relations between Israel and the Gulf states,” said Itamar Rabinovich, NYU’s global distinguished professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies and Israel’s former ambassador to the United States. “Israelis — mostly businessmen — do go to Abu Dhabi. … I have not spoken with anyone who has spoken against” the new NYU campus in Abu Dhabi.
Ron Zweig, an NYU professor who holds the Taub Chair in Israel Studies and is an Israeli, applauded the NYU-Abu Dhabi connection. “It’s a perfectly logical thing for NYU to be doing,” he said. “I don’t think there is a particular Israeli angle to this at all.”
But the question of whether the United Arab Emirates, which will bankroll the new campus, would permit NYU’s Jewish and Israeli faculty members to teach there was raised last month in a New York magazine article.
But Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of NYU’s Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, said that issue was dealt with at the very first discussion with UAE officials.
“All of the issues about Israelis and Jews were ironed out on day one of the [committee] discussions,” he said. “And the president of NYU appointed an Orthodox Jew [Schiffman] as a committee member from the beginning. The president made sure I would personally meet” Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a crown prince who is founder of the UAE.
“NYU would not go there without the right to have Israelis come to the campus, and we have received positive assurances,” Schiffman said. “The university plans to test those assurances quite early.”
That could be as early as September, according to John Sexton, NYU’s president. He explained that although the first classes of the yet-to-be-built 2,800-student campus in Abu Dhabi are not slated until September 2010, the NYU-Abu Dhabi Institute, a major research and conference facility, is to begin operating in September. It will initially be located in an existing cultural center that has conference and classroom space.
Even if the UAE denied visas to some professors with Israeli passports, Zweig said he would not be so concerned.
“I respect the right of Abu Dhabi not to rock the boat in the Arab world,” he said. “They have enough issues in establishing a liberal arts university with full academic freedom, equal rights between men and women — all of the things that characterize an American university campus. Adding this issue I think is not very wise.”
Zweig pointed out that there is a great deal of interest in the Arab world in Israel itself “and not just in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
“Anybody who reads any newspapers from any of the Gulf states — especially the English-language papers — will be aware of a general discussion in the op-ed columns and elsewhere,” he said, “of the need to consider strategic alliances with non-Arab countries in the Middle East.
“So there is a great interest in Israel, not the stereotyped hostility that one might be led to expect from the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is an openness.”
Sexton pointed out that the “crown prince said his goal is that by 2020, NYU Washington Square and Abu Dhabi will be two of the world’s top 10 universities. He wants Abu Dhabi to be one of the world’s idea capitals. Our mandate is to bring outstanding students from around the world to Abu Dhabi. He sees this as opening his society.”
NYU and Abu Dhabi announced their joint venture last October. If it goes as planned, it would make NYU the first major research institution to open a comprehensive liberal arts university in a foreign country, according to NYU officials. Groundbreaking for the campus is still months away.
The new campus is to be “a dozen square blocks and include residences, a gym and theater and the Institute,” Sexton said. “They plan construction to be done by December 2010 or December 2011.”
Sexton said he plans to teach a course on the doctrine of the separation of church and state to students on both campuses. He will teach the class each Tuesday to students in New York and then fly 14 hours to Abu Dhabi each Friday night to teach to students there on Sunday before flying back to New York.
Sexton said the crown prince’s deep pockets will enable the Abu Dhabi campus to provide financial aid to students who would not qualify for it here.
“Harvard, Princeton and Yale are high-endowment schools and they are making [scholarships available] to middle-class and poor students,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to do that. But he [the crown prince] said he would match whatever the best financial aid policy is.”
Sexton added that as NYU began meeting with Abu Dhabi officials about the partnership, “I spoke with leaders from Israel, including the ambassador to the UN from Israel and a former university president of Israel, and they all spoke to me about Abu Dhabi and its leadership being one of the great hopes for enlightenment.
“The advice I got from them and from my trustees who have been there — and the Clinton and Bush administrations — pointed to the specialness of this place.”