While on his first trip to Israel during graduate school some 25 years ago, Lawrence Summers was sent out to pick cotton with the local kibbutznikim.
It was six in the morning and by 8:30 a.m. the man who has since worked his way up to becoming president of Harvard University had had enough. Luckily for him, everyone headed in half an hour later.
"It was with a sense of relief unlike few that I have had in my life that that visit ended," said Summers, who has now visited four times – including last month when he received an honorary doctorate from The Hebrew University – and distinguished himself as a friend of Israel.
In any case, the former secretary of the United States Treasury has always been a stauncher fan of the capitalist rather than the socialist approach. While in the White House, he promoted sweeping financial deregulation, engineered a massive paying down of US debt, and helped navigate the Asian currency crisis.
When it comes to Israel, for instance, he called the move "toward more market-oriented approaches," the correct one.
"I was impressed in coming here by the magnitude of the reforms that have taken place in the pension system, in reducing regulation, in privatization, by the rather impressive growth rate of the economy in the last year or two even in politically complex circumstances," he told The Jerusalem Post. "So I think there's a lot that's happening right with the Israeli economy."
What isn't happening "right" when it comes to Israel, is the demonization of the country in academic circles. In September 2002, Summers made headlines around the US for taking on the issue of anti-Semitism on college campuses. In a speech, he called boycotts of Israeli academics, fundraising by student organizations for groups that support terrorism, and the Harvard divest-from-Israel drive "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."
Summers was criticized in some quarters for abusing his position and stifling academic freedom. In his conversation with the Post, Summers countered: "Academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism, and I see it as part of my responsibility to resist what I see as intolerance."
Besides, he said, "One of the biggest surprises in response to my remarks was the number of people who complimented me for being courageous. I recognized that what I was saying might be controversial. I did not expect it to be regarded as courageous, and the fact that many, many, many people took that view and commented that they now felt freer to speak up suggests to me that on the question of inhibiting speech, speech can be inhibited by other speech but it can be even more inhibited by a climate of orthodoxy."
Uniform attitudes can be a particular problem within academic departments that focus on one region, with Middle East studies being one of them, he said.
"In general there is a tendency for area studies programs, with respect to all areas, to perhaps adopt a perspective of many in the area they are studying. I think that can be problematic," he said. "I think it's rather important in all areas of academic life we foster reasoned dissent from orthodoxy and certainly that's true with respect to Middle Eastern studies."
Extremist anti-Israel rhetoric remains an issue on some campuses, such as the current controversy involving faculty members at another Ivy League school, New York City's Columbia University. Still, Summer believes the issue has now diminished somewhat, especially when it comes to divestment.
"I'm inclined to think that the temperature has come down in recent years," he remarked. "One wouldn't want the temperature to be zero. One wants there to be vigorous debate."
Anna Solomon-Schwarz, the undergraduate president of Harvard Hillel, agreed that campus attitudes towards Israel have warmed and that "now divestment is not an issue."
The junior attributed that in part to Summer's 2002 speech.
"It played a significant role," she said. "It created a very positive vibe and a safe space for students who wanted to be pro-Israel."
"I was surprised by the volume of the chord it struck, and it may have provided some rallying point and encouragement for others who wanted to draw lines," said Summers.
But, he stressed, "It's a great mistake to attribute too much to it relative to the normal working of processes where, when things go too far, a kind of general revulsion and reversal sets in, and that more ordinary process might well have been more important than my speech" in cooling the campus climate.
It was that excess, however, that evoked in Summers a consciousness of anti-Semitism that hadn't previously been present.
"I was not brought up in a devout household and I'm not intensely religious myself. I feel fortunate to have grown up in America at a time when issues of anti-Semitism didn't press themselves on the lives of American Jews in the way they did a couple of generations ago."
He said that "issues of religion did not impinge on my existence" as a student of economics at MIT and Harvard, and then as a professor at the latter, even though "it would be inconceivable that Harvard a half century ago or a quarter century ago could have had a Jewish president."
Working on the economic team in the Clinton White House, Summers was surrounded by Jews such as his predecessor as Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, and Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, a fact that passed with little comment.
"It was not something any of us was very aware of at all until there was a proposal that came down one day on Yom Kippur that there was a desire for the president to have a photo op with members of his economic team, and reflection revealed that there were almost no members of his economic team who would be able to attend that photo op.
"What was really striking was that we had not noticed ourselves and others had not pointed it out to us in strong and vigorous ways."
Aside from the passing reference to the Yom Kippur photo op, Summers was unwilling to discuss his observance and affiliation with Judaism.
"I would rather not go autobiographical," he said. "I have always been proud of my heritage but have not defined myself principally by my heritage."
When he raised the issue of anti-Semitism 16 months ago, "I was speaking as a concerned citizen of our academic community, of our university, and, though it's pretentious to say, of our world, not as a member of a group that felt victimized. These aren't issues that I had addressed before, and these are not issues I expect will be a centerpiece of my career."
But he notes, "[Though] they were issues that had never seemed important to me before, the developments of several years ago led me to see them as being of some moral urgency."