By Zach Itzkovitz
John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the president of Morehouse College, recently returned from an eye-opening, weeklong educational tour of Israel, where he met with leaders in higher education, government and business.
While he was the Israeli consul general to the Southeast, Ambassador Opher Aviran extended a personal invitation to Wilson, whom President Barack Obama appointed to head the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in 2009.
Several of the people Wilson spoke to in Israel stood out to him. Among them:
- Liat Maoz, a leader on the Israeli Council of Higher Education. “She has the task of figuring out what to do with the higher-education needs of a number of groups and subgroups,” Wilson said, “from Ethiopian Jews to ultra-Orthodox Jews.”
He was fascinated by the question of whether Israel should develop small institutions with unique missions, like Morehouse.
- Mahrata Baruch-Ron, the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv. She was brought to Israel in 1984 during Operation Moses, when thousands of Ethiopian Jews were evacuated from Sudan during a famine. Wilson was intrigued by the journey from African famine to Israeli prominence.
“What a fascinating story about the power of transformation in Israel and the possibilities,” he said.
- Fadi Swidan, an Israeli Arab. As the director of the Nazareth Business Incubator Center, Swidan reinforces Israeli Arab technology and business ventures. Wilson said Swidan understands the entrepreneurial culture in Israel as a pathway for Arab citizens to acquire influence and importance that otherwise might be difficult to find.
- Abraham Nov, a Latvian Holocaust survivor whom Wilson found inspiring. The Morehouse president said Nov learned to play the violin at a young age and became the protégé of a Nazi officer, who protected him.
After the war, Nov traveled to Jaffa, where he taught Arab Christians. George Deek, an Israeli diplomat, was one of Nov’s students. Wilson met Deek and Nov together to hear their overlapping stories.
Wilson’s trip included a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial. He was struck not only by the stories of destroyed lives, but also by the building’s architecture, a structural symbol of the museum’s stories and of the ability to deal with dark memories.
“They’re not focused on the past and a grievance narrative,” Wilson said of the people he met. “They’re focused on the future and a kind of agency narrative — they have agency as players to create the future rather than being aggrieved by the past. At Morehouse College, we see ourselves as a powerful institution bent on creating the future, and when we do that, we will correct the past.”