On November 26, 2018, AEN hosted “Israel: Innovation Nation,” in Chicago, IL. This one-day conference featured keynote talks, discussions, and presentations about partnerships between academic institutions in Israel and the US (particularly those in Illinois and Chicago linked to the Discovery Partners Institute), and highlighted the experiences of faculty, administrators, and students who have explored Israeli innovations in science, technology, and business through research and travel.
Over thirty people attended the conference, including faculty, senior administrators, and leaders of community organizations such as the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, the American Israel Chamber of Commerce Chicago, and American Friends of Tel Aviv University.
The program began with opening remarks from Ken Waltzer, AEN’s Executive Director, and Ariella Rada, Consul for Academic and Community Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest. Waltzer and Rada both emphasized the importance of innovation within Israeli society and culture.
The first keynote speaker was Matthew Tirrell, Dean and Founding Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. Tirrell spoke about the Institute’s Water Research Initiative, developed in partnership with Ben-Gurion University and the Argonne National Laboratory, which seeks to identify and address the world’s most pressing water-related challenges.
Tirrell was followed by Andreas Cangellaris, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In a conversation with Richard Herman, Chancellor Emeritus of UIUC, Cangellaris described the motivations behind the development of the Discovery Partners Institute, namely harnessing the resources of academic institutions, government agencies, and the business community to make Illinois into a 21st-century leader in innovation. Cangellaris stressed the importance of partnering with and learning from Israeli institutions, as it is the “start-up nation,” which is “innovative because of its reality.”
During lunch, John Lowenstein, Vice President of JUF-Chicago, highlighted the benefits of bilateral partnerships with and study abroad to Israel, detailed growing pro-BDS and antisemitic activity on campus, and emphasized how faculty are critical to countering these negative trends.
In the afternoon, attendees heard a keynote talk by Jeffrey Brown, Dean of the Gies College of Business at UIUC. Brown discussed how being innovative requires “seeking out new ideas from all over the world, immersing [oneself] in different cultures, and understanding the contexts in which innovation takes place.” As “there are few places like Israel for being a center for business innovation,” it would be “intellectual malpractice” to not engage with Israel, considering Gies’ own focus on innovation. Brown emphasized that while expanding Gies’ connection with Israel is a strategic interest, he personally feels an additional responsibility to speak proactively about the benefits of engagement with Israel in the wake of BDS efforts at UIUC and other campuses.
Following Brown’s talk were three faculty keynotes. Elie Rekhess, the Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University, spoke about the importance of expanding Israel Studies beyond history and politics, using the example of a course on global water management – featuring a 10-day field trip to Israel – which he had helped to develop. Harry Yuklea, the Serling Israeli Visiting Scholar at Michigan State University, discussed his 40-year career working with Israeli start-ups, and placed Israeli innovation, technological development, and economic growth in historical perspective. Candace Martinez, Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Gies College of Business at UIUC, spoke about the interactions between culture, politics, and economics in Israel and the process of teaching her students about the Israeli start-up MobilEye in an intellectually stimulating way.
The final feature of the conference was a panel discussion on the Gies Business School’s study trip to Israel in March 2018, featuring Candace Martinez; Robert Metzger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Finance; Ryan Watkins, a current Gies student; and Rabbi Dovid Tiechtal, the Director of UIUC Chabad, all of whom participated in the trip. Raeefa Shams, AEN’s Senior Associate for Communications, moderated the panel. The panelists discussed their motivations for organizing and/or participating in the trip, what they learned about Israel’s entrepreneurial landscape, and their commitment to sharing their experiences in order to give others a more expansive, nuanced view of contemporary Israel.
Initial feedback from the conference was very positive, with participants commenting that “listening to those engaged in business discuss their connections to Israel” provided “hope and some relief from the usual work we do on BDS” and that “the conference was informative, forward-looking, with thinking outside the box.”