Report Shows Israel Studies Flowering on Campus

By Gal Beckerman

Published January 14, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010.
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American college students who want to study the poetry of Yehuda Amichai or the films of Amos Gitai are in luck.

The number of Israel studies courses being offered on American college campuses has ballooned over the past few years, according to a new study commissioned by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a leading Jewish philanthropy that itself can claim a large measure of credit for the field’s rapid growth.

The study, conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, surveyed 246 campuses across America and compared the results to a similar survey it had conducted for the 2005-2006 school year. The study found a 69% increase in the number of courses focused primarily on Israel, from 325 four years ago to 548 in the 2008-2009 academic year.

The study’s authors report that there has been a move toward studying Israel “as a culture, society, political system, and historical entity rather than solely as a locus for international conflict.” According to the study, only 28% of Israel studies courses are focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“This study shows that there are more students and more professors taking more courses at more universities about modern Israel,” said Michael Colson, director of Israel programs at the Schusterman foundation.

The growth of Israel studies has been spurred by widespread Jewish communal concern over anti-Israel bias in classrooms and pro-Palestinian activism on campus. In recent years, Jewish foundations and donors have stepped up efforts to fund the study of Israel at American colleges and universities.

“Our foundation has been deeply invested in expanding opportunities to learn about Israel in academic environments that invite thoughtful discussion free from bias and intimidation,” Lynn Schusterman said in a statement about the release of the study. “I am gratified to see a growing commitment to the study of Israel, in all its richness and complexity, taking root in classrooms across the U.S.”

According to the study’s lead researcher, Annette Koren, there are a number of reasons for the growth and increased diversity of Israel studies offerings. At the top of her list, she said, are the programs funded by the Schusterman foundation. The foundation funds a program, run through the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, that brings some 20 Israeli academics to teach in the United States each year. It also supports the Summer Institute for Israel Studies at Brandeis, which prepares another 25 scholars to teach courses related to Israel on their campuses.

Koren also said student demand has played a big role. She pointed to another program supported by the Schusterman foundation that has aided this phenomenon: Birthright Israel. “It builds a hunger,” Koren said.

But, she added, Jewish studies courses “are not just heritage courses.”

“We see a lot of non-Jewish students in these classes. It’s not just Jewish students that are being attracted to them.”

The study found that schools that have large Jewish populations and those that are highly ranked (the study uses the college rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report) are more likely to have greater numbers of courses focused on Israel.

For scholars working in the field of Israel studies, the past few years have been a boon. But Dov Waxman, an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, said that the growth of Israel studies also raises questions about the motives of the funders behind it.

“Part of the question that arises about this fairly rapid expansion of Israeli courses and centers is whether there is some sort of ideological agenda behind it, whether this is purely a response to the demands of students or whether this is mostly driven by a concern for the rising pro-Palestinian sentiment on campuses,” said Waxman, associate editor at the Israel Studies Forum, the scholarly journal published by the Association for Israel Studies.

But for Colson, the findings show that students and professors “are voting with their feet.”

“It proves that the constant portrayal of Israel as evil incarnate no longer holds traction. Many of those professors, many of those advocates, are passé and not helpful,” Colson said. “And I think that students and professors and university administrators are tired of it and are getting past that. That’s why they want to study Israel, not in the caricaturized fashion as presented, but more holistically and more sensibly.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com






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