(October 6, 2022 / JNS) After decades of having the field to themselves, it’s not surprising that Israel’s academic critics are throwing tantrums over the development of the field of Israel Studies. They seem equally outraged that donors are contributing to academics who find redeeming qualities in the Jewish state. In the left-wing publication Jewish Currents, they were recently given a chance to vent against me and others who have worked to introduce students to something other than one-sided demonization of Israel by faculty.
In “The Fight for the Future of Israel Studies,” Mari Cohen wrote, “Much of the enthusiasm for Israel studies was stoked by one organization, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), whose crusading director Mitchell Bard saw as his mission to improve Israel’s image on campus.”
Guilty as charged.
Cohen quoted a Brandeis University evaluation that found AICE’s effort to encourage interest in Israel Studies has been successful. For example, “At a prestigious private university, the department chair explained that the presence of the [AICE visiting professor] showcased the need within the department to bring on a full-time faculty member.” Indeed, our work has been the catalyst for creating at least 14 chairs, centers and programs in Israel Studies. Sadly, the momentum we created came to a halt when we lost our funding.
Critics in the article attacked AICE for seeking to increase the number of courses about Israel that don’t focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I told Cohen, we wanted to “change the perception of Israel as simply a place of conflict” and did so by bringing in professors from 16 disciplines.
The new field of Israel Studies was needed because many Middle East Studies departments reject Israel as a legitimate part of the Middle East. It is not surprising, then, that these programs have become home to vitriolic critics whose animus toward Israel is reflected in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA)’s endorsement of anti-Israel boycotts. We sought to counter this pervasive bias and hate.
Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri said of our approach, “At a time when many Middle Eastern Studies Departments at U.S. universities are staffed by all sorts of anti-Israeli faculty members (ideological anti-Zionists, Arab expatriates, former Israelis with a grudge against the country they had left), this program brings a variety of scholars to American campuses who are able to present a different, and more balanced, picture of Israel.”
“Moreover,” he said, “since this group includes people from various disciplines (from social sciences and history to literature and gender studies), its members are also able to extricate the discourse about Israel from the narrow confines of the conflict/peace process and present the country, with all its problems and challenges, as a complex and vibrant society where economic development, artistic creativity, moral disputations and ‘normal’ daily life play as much a role as what is featured in headline news.”
“Participants also represent the rich kaleidoscope of Israeli society and its political divisions—secular and religious, sabras and immigrants from the West as well as from the former Soviet Union, hawks and doves—and thus testify to the great variety and pluralism of Israeli democracy,” Avineri added.
One detractor cited in the article is Tamir Sorek, who “studies culture as [a] field of conflict and resistance, particularly in the context of Palestine/Israel.” Sorek charged that eschewing the myopic study of Israel through conflict was an “advocacy tactic” and “we cannot separate Palestine and Israel.”
No, Tamir, we did not want to engage in advocacy. We wanted to give students a chance to learn about Israel in all its complexity. Everything related to Israel is not connected to the Palestinians. It is faculty who refer to the non-existent state of “Palestine” and only believe in teaching the conflict who are engaged in ahistorical academic malpractice.
Sorek’s view exemplifies the intellectual dishonesty of Israel’s critics, who would never insist that the only way to study any other country is to focus on its flaws or only one aspect of its history. Can you imagine anyone demanding that professors of Russian history only offer courses on the occupation of Ukraine?
As the Association of Israel Studies President Ari Saposnik told Cohen, “It would be difficult to study the history of France without studying the history of Germany. But that doesn’t mean that every French studies program has to become a French-German studies program.”
This is why I repeatedly emphasize that the most serious problem on campus is faculty. It is frightening that ignoramuses are teaching our children about Israel.
Cohen’s article was prompted by the University of Washington’s decision to return Becky Benaroya’s $5 million donation after it became clear that the chair in Israel Studies she endowed was occupied by someone whose activities, in the words of UW’s Jewish Studies advisory board member Jamie Merriman-Cohen, contradicted the “intention of offering a safe and open space for intellectual curiosity about Israel that would strengthen, not undermine its very existence.”
Benaroya’s unhappiness was understandable given that the professor in question, Liora Halperin, signed a statement condemning Israel for defending itself against Hamas terrorists. Among other misstatements and distortions of fact, Halperin and her colleagues denounced “Islamophobia in connection with ongoing events in Israel/Palestine.” In other words, they thought it was irrational for Israelis to fear an Islamist organization that calls for Israel’s destruction and targets it with 4,350 rockets.
Halperin is a vocal hypocrite, denouncing donors’ “pernicious pressure for pro-Israel advocacy” at a MESA conference while ignoring the hundreds of millions of dollars contributed to universities by Arab governments to promote their agendas. Contrary to what Cohen wrote, these governments did not begin their donations after 9/11 in order to counter “Islamophobia.” The cash started flowing long before with the purpose of fostering a whitewash of radical Islam and promoting these governments’ own interests. Critics, however, only object if Jews support programs that have a different perspective on Israel than the radical left-wing dogma advanced by people like Halperin.
What is especially galling is that Halperin happily accepted four grants from AICE to help her complete her Ph.D. Only after doing so did she begin complaining about the Schusterman Family Foundation, which supplied the funds, and falsely intimated that the foundation and I were trying to bribe faculty and students into becoming pro-Israel activists. Given her discomfort, she should return the money. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the check. Incidentally, despite the hysteria over the university returning the Benaroya gift, Halperin did not lose her chair.
Moreover, we never told any student or professor what to teach and they wouldn’t have listened if we tried. In our annual meetings with graduate students, they were explicitly told that it would be career suicide if they were viewed as advocates.
One of the revelations during the time we ran our program, which brought more than 100 Israeli scholars to teach for one to three years at more than 50 universities, was the asymmetry between them and their critics. While our professors believed in the academic principle of eschewing political activism in their research and teaching, Israel’s detractors had no compunction about abusing their platforms to disseminate propaganda.
Donors to Israel Studies face a problem that Arab governments do not: The possibility that their money will go to fund people whose views are contrary to their own. Critics complain about donors being instructed to structure their gifts so universities cannot take their money and ignore their intentions. Still, universities don’t have to accept the conditions if they don’t want the money.
That faculty and administrators believe they are entitled to individual and taxpayer money without any obligation or accountability is an expression of the extraordinary arrogance of the academy today. Indeed, why should a university think it’s kosher to hire a professor of Israel Studies who only wants to teach about the conflict if a donor provided funds to ensure students have an opportunity to learn about Israeli culture? Would a university feel free to hire a climate change denier with funds from a donor interested in educating students about the threat of climate change? In business, that’s called “bait and switch” and it is illegal.
As Saposnik told Cohen, “We do believe that donors who donate to a particular program have a right to have that program. That doesn’t mean they can expect that the position will turn into an advocacy position by any means. But somebody who donated to a French Studies program wouldn’t expect it to become an American Studies program instead.”
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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