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Fulbright program strengthens bonds between Israeli-US academia

Posted By Karin Kloosterman On March 12, 2008 @ 8:18 am In | No Comments

Neil Sherman, executive director of the USIEF in Israel: “Advancing the understanding between people is the basic goal.”Organizations – and even countries – ambitiously plan to cooperate and advance cultural understanding across borders. While some may aspire, there is no better success story than the United States-Israel Educational Foundation (USIEF).

Established by the governments of the United States and Israel in 1956, the USIEF administers Israel’s participation in the US-initiated Fulbright Program. A Fulbright is a scholarship, awarded to only the best and brightest academics in the world.

Through education, the Fulbright gives fellowships and scholarships to teach and train both American citizens and citizens from 150 different nations. Israel, which also contributes financially to Fulbright, is one of the lucky nations to be a part of the program.

Last year 36 American Fulbright fellows journeyed to Israel to engage in research, mainly from the social sciences field, and 45 Israelis headed westward to the US.

Says Neil Sherman, the executive director of the USIEF in Israel to ISRAEL21c: “Passed by congress it has a foreign policy goal and is under the Department of State. Advancing the understanding between people is the basic goal.”

There are no political motives behind the research that gets funded, and stipends can be anywhere from $20,000 to $35,000.

Historically the program was set up by the US in 1946 by Senator J. William Fulbright after World War II. He was asking, “How do we avoid a worldwide catastrophe,” Sherman explains. Today, a highly competitive fellowship is a foot in the door to some institutions of higher learning and is an enriching educational experience for most.

“It’s a very high status fellowship,” says Sherman. “If you see a mention of it in a university magazine, [a Fulbright fellowship] is a big headline.”

Although there is no doubt that the influx of American researchers to Israel enhances the country’s educational milieu, Sherman easily sees the benefit of having Israelis stationed at US campuses.

“Israeli students are in demand in the US. They bring skills and intelligence,” he says. And although the Israeli educational system can be improved, it consistently produces “high-quality, outstanding people,” Sherman notes.

“Israelis usually study after the military. They are older and the experience in the army teaches them how to be responsible,” he continues. “They tend to be more goal-oriented and less looping around than US students. Israeli students bring a special outlook to the US.”

Since its establishment, over 1,000 US citizens and 1,300 Israelis have taken part in Fulbright exchanges. In the US, Fulbright alumni continue to make their mark in the academic world. Israeli Fulbright alumni wear the biggest boots in Israeli academia, government, medicine and the arts.

Prominent Israeli recipients include Prof. Aharon Barak, former president of the Supreme Court, Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, former ambassador of Israel to the US and former president of Tel Aviv University.

On the US side, prominent US Fulbright-Israel alumni include, Prof. Alan Leshner, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Prof. Barbara Weinstein, from the University of Maryland College Park; and Prof. David Dobkin, dean of the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University.

“It was a seminal journey,” wrote Ronny Someck, an Israeli Fulbright fellow (1992), who participated in the University of Iowa International Writing Program.

Now an award-winning Israeli writer with international acclaim, he added: “Since then I’ve travelled to dozens of festivals and poetry events all over the US, Canada, and Europe… but you never forget the first time. That’s when I was given the keys, and you can open locks with them.”

Another Israeli fellow is Prof. Asher Koriat from the Psychology Department at the University of Haifa. An internationally renowned researcher in cognitive psychology, and a 2002 Israel Prize Winner, Koriat earned a Fulbright scholarship in 1965 to study at the University of California.

“I was lucky and extremely fortunate,” he wrote. “A Moroccan fellow from Israel arrives at Berkeley, at the heart of the most influential and controversial days – The Flower Generation, the resistance movement against the Vietnam War, and the early age of the large computers.

“It was a once-in-a-life time experience and exposure, which I will never forget,” said Koriat.