The supporters sipped on wine, nibbled on cheeses and crudités, and quietly admired the private residence decorated with large paintings, sculptures and antique furniture, as well as elaborate chandeliers and china displays.
But while the friends of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev event was certainly a social occasion, the speaker and the program addressed a sobering subject. That was the vote taken in May by the University and College Union of the United Kingdom to boycott Israeli universities, and all that such a measure would mean for a young society that thrives on learning and teaching, and has yearned from its birth to be part of the international community.
The speaker, a longtime professor of social work at Ben-Gurion, argued that when it comes to the proposed British academic boycott against Israel, the best defense is a good offense.
"My response is that, when you hear the word boycott, you roll up your sleeves and double your efforts," Richard Isralowitz, a visiting scholar at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, said in an interview before his presentation. "One has to be on the alert. What happens in England could easily become an issue in other European countries and elsewhere."
For the 59-year-old, New Jersey-born academic, the best way to inform others about the value of Israeli research — and regardless of one's political ideology, the folly of boycott — is through increasing exchanges, contacts, and collaborations between Israeli and foreign universities.
The BGU event served, in part, as a planning session for a large fundraiser set for November. Isralowitz offered a pep-talk on increased giving to the university, as well as information about collaborative programs between Rutgers and BGU.
Since arriving at Rutgers, Isralowitz has helped secure funding for a program where graduate students in social work can visit Israel for course credit.
In April, he also led a delegation from the Rutgers School of Social Work to Israel, that included the school's dean, to study issues related to emergency preparedness. Isralowitz said that, through the US AID Middle East Regional Cooperation Program, he's helped foster collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian academics on research related to substance abuse and other health-related topics.
'It Will Only Get Worse'
The broader Israeli academic community has become deeply engaged in the issue.
The International Advisory Board on Academic Freedom was formed in 2005 at Bar-Ilan University in response to an earlier round of proposed boycotts by two groups that have since merged to form the University and College Union of the United Kingdom. In the past two years, the Israeli organization's dual mission of forging international cooperation and confronting the British boycott on the ground has greatly expanded, and the board is soon expected to merge with the Israeli Academy of Sciences.
Isralowitz claimed that while most Israeli academics support this overall approach, a vocal minority has expressed sympathy for the proposed boycott in the hopes that it would have an impact on Israeli policy vìs-a-vìs the Palestinians. On the other hand, some have suggested cutting off all ties with British universities — something he feels would be equally counterproductive.
"That's a very natural, Israeli reaction," said Ofir Frankel, executive director of the advisory board, which is based in Tel Aviv but counts 3,000 members from colleges around the world. "Of course, I take it personally. I'm a Jewish Israeli who grew up here. But if we ignore the problem, it will only get worse."
A number of British university leaders have denounced the boycott. For anything practical to take effect, the resolution must be approved by the union's membership. A series of meetings and debates is expected to take place in the next few months.
"We do not really feel that this boycott has much effect as a boycott. Students will continue to study in the U.K.," said Frankel. "But the issue runs deeper. We're not only talking about an academic boycott. There was a major wave of boycotts passed in England this year. There is a real danger that extremists are leading naive people who just want to help the Palestinian cause."
Last month, the advisory board on academic freedom selected David Newman, a British-born political-science professor at BGU, with representing Israel's academic interests in London, and working to head off the boycott's implementation. Newman, who taught in England last year and attended the union vote on the boycott, decided that he needed to stay another year and continue his work.
"Whereas the radicals in this union want this boycott to take place, the universities are dead-set against it, not because they love Israel, but because it does harm to their universities and to academic freedom," explained Newman from Israel, where he's spending the holidays. "There has been such a strong backlash in the U.K. They realize that by choosing the academic community, where there is cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians, a lot of Brits feel they have picked the wrong community."
Still, he warned of the possibility that the recommendation will be approved, and that some semblance of a boycott could actually happen.