Israel Studies Gain on Campus as Disputes Grow

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.

Even as disputes over the Middle East roil Columbia University, the school is announcing the establishment of its first chair in Israel studies.

A search committee will meet for the first time this week to begin seeking a professor to fill the Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi chair in Israel and Jewish studies, named after the elder statesman of Jewish studies at Columbia.

The new professor will be the latest in a string of Israel studies professors appointed to American colleges in the past several years. Along with Columbia, the University of Wisconsin; University of California, Los Angles, and American University are expected to name Israel studies professors soon. In the past two years, New York University, Brandeis University and the University of Calgary, among others, have made similar appointments.

The new faces come from a variety of academic disciplines, but all have focused their work on the State of Israel.

Concerns about anti-Israel rhetoric on campus have led to the widespread perception — often expressed by Jewish organizational officials — that pro- Israel voices are being overwhelmed and beaten back on American campuses. This image is at least partly belied by what most experts agree is a sudden burgeoning of Israel studies on American campuses. In addition to chairs in the field, the growth has included a new network of Israel studies centers, academic journals and scholarly conferences.

“In place of the sense of crisis, there should be a recognition of a growing interest in Israel from the academic point of view,” said Michael Stanislawski, Columbia professor of Jewish history, who is heading the search committee for the new professor.

Most of this development has occurred in the four years since the outbreak of the second intifada — and the growth is still in its early stages. According to a chart assembled by the Association for Israel Studies, an organization with 200 members, a dozen centers for Israel studies operate in North America, with some 10 endowed chairs in Israel studies. Almost all of these have been created in the past decade. Significantly, they represent only a fraction of the opportunities for studying Israel on American campuses.

Last summer, the recently appointed chairman of Israel studies at Brandeis, Ilan Troen, initiated a summer seminar for college professors interested in teaching courses on Israel. The president of the Association for Israel Studies, Joel Migdal, teaches at the University of Washington, which has neither a chair nor a center for Israel studies. But in the last decade, his own university has taken on four professors who teach courses about Israel.

“All of a sudden it’s sort of blossomed to the point where we can have in-depth courses,” said Migdal, who is a professor of international studies. “Before, you could have a single course on Israel and that was it.”

Recent debates at Columbia have provided a very different picture of the atmosphere for studying Israel today. Some Jewish groups and academics have criticized the makeup of Middle Eastern studies departments and their tendency to present a pro-Palestinian, some would say anti-Israel, perspective when discussing Israel.

At a conference convened by Jewish community leaders in early March, Martin Kramer, who has been a leader in the fight against pro-Palestinian academics, said, “These radicals once tenured began a systematic purge of Middle Eastern studies.”

“By the late 1990s, radicals could look smugly up and down their hallways and see only like-minded colleagues,” added Kramer, who is currently a senior associate at the Moshe Dayan Center in Tel Aviv.

The appointment at Columbia will likely be seen as a response to the bad press the university has received as a result of complaints from Jewish students that they were intimidated by pro-Palestinian professors. The controversy began this past October with the first public showing of “Columbia Unbecoming,” a documentary in which students’ complaints were collected by an off-campus pro-Israel group, The David Project. A spokeswoman for Columbia said that a report from a committee studying the students’ accusations is expected in the next two weeks.

University officials said that the four donors who are providing $3 million for the new chair were brought together before “Columbia Unbecoming” was released. Stanislawski, who chairs of the Columbia search committee, said that the endowment of the Israel chair demonstrates Columbia’s long-standing commitment to fostering the study of Israel, which he thinks has been obscured by recent press coverage of the school.

“The idea that Columbia is a place that’s unfriendly to Jewish students or Israel studies is a calumny,” said Stanislawski, who is the associate director of the university’s Center for Israel and Jewish Studies.

Stanislawski said that his center currently has 13 full-time professors affiliated with it, teaching courses on all aspects of Zionism and Israeli history. The new full-time professor will be joined by a new visiting professor from Israel.

Neither Stanislawski nor any other current Israel studies professor denies that the recent fount of donors willing to support Israel studies is a product of recent discussions about the rising anti-Israel sentiments on American campuses.

At UCLA, the Israel Studies Program was founded a year and a half ago by Sharon Baradaran, a lecturer in Asian politics at UCLA. She has worked privately to raise more than $1.7 million from the Los Angeles Jewish community to endow a chair and fund a host of visiting professors. She initiated the program with a dean at UCLA’s International Institute after hosting a salon at her home during the summer of 2003, when the discussion focused on the growing criticism of Israel at American universities.

“I realized that the answer to these sentiments is not shutting down the Palestinian student groups or anti-Israel speakers,” Baradaran said. “That’s not what American universities are about. The answer lies in further education — to have a more systematic education in Israel, apart from the rhetoric.”

All the Israel studies professors interviewed agreed that one of the goals of the field is to take the focus in the region off the Israel-Palestinian conflict and shift it to the broader topic of Israeli culture and society. But some current professors voice concern that donors might think they are paying for an advocate of Israel.

Ron Zweig, the new Israel studies professor at New York University, said that before he took the job he made the university promise that he would never be forced to speak at a political event on Israel’s behalf.

“Our objective is not to do something equally politicized on the other side,” said Alan Dowty, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. Dowty recently took on a new chair at the University of Calgary. “Our idea is to go back to the academic ideal of scholarly research.”

Many explanations have been offered for why Israel studies has not blossomed, but most current professors agree that it had less to do with anti-Israel bias on campus, and more to do with academic politics and the whims of Jewish donors.

In the 1960s, Jewish donors poured money into Holocaust studies — for which there are now dozens of chairs — and Jewish studies, which is represented today on scores of American campuses. At that time Israel did not captivate the attention of donors, professors said.

Migdal, from the Association for Israel Studies, said that academics chose not to enter the field because it was too narrow. He said the general trend in the humanities has been toward more thematic, transnational research and away from the study of single countries. This has meant that there are relatively few American-trained professors ready to occupy all the endowed chairs suddenly opening up. Both New York University and Brandeis looked to Israeli academics to fill their positions. But Migdal said that with the creation of jobs in the field, students are starting to gravitate toward it.

Not everyone thinks that the growth is going to solve the broader concerns that sparked this development. Kramer, from the Moshe Dayan Center, said the issue can only be resolved by addressing what he described as the anti-Israel and anti-American bias of Middle Eastern studies professors.

“The answer to flawed Middle Eastern studies isn’t Israel studies, it’s better Middle Eastern studies,” Kramer said.

But Kenneth Stein, an Emory University professor who took over one of the first Israel studies chairs in 1994, said that Israel studies offers something besides a political remedy. “It’s the story of a people who changed and were changed by a movement at a particular moment in history — of Jews moving from being on the margins to being at the center.”



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