Home inFocus Israel Studies Grows on Campus

Israel Studies Grows on Campus

Mitchell Bard Winter 2008

Beginning as early as 1979, Arab governments and individuals understood that one route to influencing American public opinion and policy, particularly with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, is through our education system. They have since invested more than $300 million toward this end.

Concurrently, the academic study of Israel was largely ignored. While a group of scholars writing about the history, politics, and culture of Israel formed the Association of Israel Studies (AIS) in 1985, the organization functioned as a professional association that did little to promote the field or stimulate study in the United States. Worse, AIS earned a reputation for anti-Israel studies that has only recently begun to change.

It was not until 1998 that two professors independently established centers focusing on the study of Israel. The field of Israel Studies has since expanded in the United States.

A Tale of Two Profs

Kenneth Stein, a historian at Emory University in Atlanta, saw a growing demand from students for courses related to Israel beyond the language, literature, and history courses already offered. He also believed that Israel and Zionism are core components of modern Jewish history, not merely Middle Eastern history or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Stein’s center, the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel (ISMI) is a one-person center, but has hosted numerous visiting scholars and postdoctoral fellows for the last decade. It also conducts pre-collegiate teacher workshops for more than 1,000 teachers across North America.

Around the same time, Howard Wachtel, an economist by training, created an interdisciplinary center at American University in Washington, DC. Wachtel’s Center for Israel Studies has no single Israel studies professor (money is now being raised for a chair). Wachtel instead relied on faculty from other departments to teach about Israel through the prism of their disciplines. Wachtel emphasized from the beginning that Israel should be studied in the same way one would study China, Russia, France or any other country—as a country with a rich culture and history.

Beyond Bombings

One challenge Wachtel and Stein hoped to overcome was the perception that Israel is only a place of turmoil, a perception reinforced by the media. In classrooms across the country, professors often held a myopic view of the struggle for peace at the expense of exploring Israeli literature, film, economics, and other critical issues.

Outside the classroom, campus activism also reinforced the sense that the Middle East conflict defined Israel. Specifically, after the launch in 2000 of the second intifada, anti-Israel activity was observed on campuses across the country. Several high-profile incidents received media attention, such as the shouting down of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Canada’s Concordia University in 2002; the harassment of Jewish students at San Francisco State in 2002 and 2004; and mock checkpoints and “apartheid” walls to denigrate Israel at schools such as Georgetown, Michigan and Berkeley.

Anti-Israel Profs

The activities outside the classroom masked a far more serious problem that had gone unnoticed inside the classroom—the politicization of the study of the Middle East by professors who abused their positions to advance an anti-Israel agenda. The problem first received national attention when several Columbia University professors were accused in 2004 of teaching courses biased against Israel, and even harassing and intimidating Jewish students.

The notion that only the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli conflict was being presented in many classrooms was alarming to many people who believed universities to be places of scholarly discourse and objective analysis. Even more shocking was the dearth of courses offered on Israel. In a 2006 study of more than 400 universities, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) found that 53 percent offered zero courses on Israel, while 77 percent offered zero or one.

Enter the Philanthropists

The ICC study, combined with the anecdotal evidence of hostility toward Israel being taught in the classroom, prompted Jewish philanthropists to recognize the need to invest in Israel Studies. They quickly understood that separate chairs and departments were needed.

However, establishing these new institutions has been a challenge. One obstacle is the lack of donor awareness of the problem. A second concern is expense. The funds needed for endowed chairs can range from $1 to $5 million. Building centers can range from $5 to $30 million. Then, even if positions are created, another problem is the scarcity of qualified scholars to teach about Israel.

New Programs

One step toward overcoming these obstacles was the creation of the Brandeis Summer Institute in June 2004. This program invited professors who were not experts on Israel to an intensive course with leading Israel scholars. After intensive training, they returned to their schools more qualified to teach about Israel.

Additionally, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) created the Israel Scholar Development Fund to encourage young scholars to enter the field, to bring the best Israeli scholars as visitors to American campuses, and to advise donors how to ensure that universities do not misuse their investments.

To increase the ranks of qualified Israel scholars, AICE created the Schusterman Israel Scholar Awards. For years, given the pervasive anti-Israel sentiment in academia, graduate students had no incentive to write dissertations related to Israel. AICE established this award program to encourage students to produce serious scholarship on modern Israel, with the hope that they will one day fill new tenure-track positions being created in the field.

AICE also sponsors visiting Israeli scholars at American universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, and Berkley. Only scholars with impeccable credentials are invited. The Israeli scholars themselves do not see themselves as advocates and insist on maintaining their academic objectivity. The fact that universities choose who they want according to their own criteria also guarantees that academic standards are maintained. This program is successful because the cost is lower and the bureaucratic obstacles are fewer compared to permanent positions.

The hope is that once a university and its donors see how valuable it is to have an Israeli scholar on campus, they will want to have one on a regular or permanent basis. In just the last two years, centers and chairs have been established at Brandeis, the University of Maryland, UCLA, and Yeshiva University. Centers also exist at Columbia, University of Denver, and NYU, bringing the total (including American and Emory) to nine. Most of these remain one-person operations, but several are expanding. In addition, 15 Israel studies chairs have been created.

Identity Crisis

Recent gains notwithstanding, Israel Studies suffers from an identity crisis. At some institutions, turf battles have broken out between those who seek an independent Israel Studies department and those who believe the field holds a place as a subset of Jewish Studies. Specifically, Jewish Studies professors argue that you cannot study Israel without also studying Jewish history, Hebrew, and Judaism.

Proponents for individual Israel Studies departments argue that Jewish Studies should focus on the pre-modern period, American Jewish identity, and the Holocaust. They argue that the study of Israel is political, not religious, since Israel is not a theocracy. It must also be noted that while many of these battles are philosophical, some are also about control of funds.

Some opponents of centers of Israel Studies fear they will “ghetto-ize” or isolate Israel from the study of the rest of the modern Middle East. Indeed, Professor Martin Kramer, for example, argues that instead of creating new Israel Studies departments, Middle East Studies departments are in need of reform. The problem is that, in a mirror image of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, the anti-Israel professorate refuses to integrate Israel into most Middle East studies departments. Brandeis and Texas are two notable exceptions.

Israeli Brain Drain?

A final concern about the growth of Israel Studies is the potential of prompting a brain drain from Israel.

This problem may be overstated. Indeed, exodus concerns typically surround Israeli engineers, computer scientists, medical researchers—not historians and literature professors. Israel is currently teeming with social science and humanities professors; the supply of scholars in these fields already far exceeds the demand. Paradoxically, just as Israel Studies is taking off in America, it is withering in Israel. Dramatic cuts in university budgets have forced institutions to cut jobs, offer early retirement to senior scholars, and eliminate departments. Still, to discourage emigration, AICE limits its support of visiting scholars to two years.

Israel Studies and the Future

Some 70 Israeli professors applied to be visiting scholars on the AICE program in 2009-10, up from 50 the year before. The applicants are scholars of law, musicology, philosophy, social welfare, psychology, geography, and film, as well as history, political science, and sociology.

While advances are being made, problems in the classroom still exist. Scurrilous books such as Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer’s Israel Lobby are becoming fixtures in course syllabi, professors continue to abuse their classroom authority to advance their agendas, and Arab financiers continue to invest in programs that will present their skewed view of the Middle East that often whitewashes radical Islam.

Problems also exist outside of the classroom. Anti-Israel campus speakers parade across the country, while student agitators engage in guerrilla theater and other anti-Israel campaigns.

As more scholars visit campuses across the country, and young scholars enter the field, the quality of discussion about Israel on and off campus will improve. With sustained effort, the knowledge generated by Israel Studies programs will filter into the public, and have an impact on U.S. policy as well as the broader debate.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and director of the Jewish Virtual Library. His latest books are Will Israel Survive? (Palgrave) and 48 Hours of Kristallnacht (Lyons Press).