An Urgent Need for Israel Studies

By Michael C. Kotzin

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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Across the country, college students are returning to campus from their winter breaks. Many, however, will be returning to classrooms where Israel is often a target of hostility and too seldom a subject of fair-minded academic consideration.

The manner in which Israel and the Middle East are taught about in the nation’s university classrooms has increasingly come to the fore as one of the most difficult and far-reaching challenges facing the Jewish community. On many campuses there is instruction on various aspects of the Arab world, but there are no courses on modern Israel. Often the subject is treated only with reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict, frequently by instructors with pronounced pro-Palestinian leanings. Even in classes in other fields of study, faculty members with an anti-Israel animus regularly inject their political biases. Students sympathetic to Israel speak of the one-sidedness of reading lists and the hostile points of view espoused by faculty members, and of concerns about their grades should they object.

The extent to which faculty can or should be restrained when it comes to the expression of partisan points of view in the classroom is a sensitive issue. While some academics argue that political proselytizing has no place in the classroom, university officials are generally reluctant to take steps to prevent it.

One answer to this crisis is for members of the Jewish community to support the creation of academic courses on modern Israel, including its philosophical underpinnings in Zionist thought, its connections with a historic Jewish presence in the land, its culture and society, and its relationships and conflicts with its neighbors. Some donors have already begun to recognize the importance of expanding Israel-related offerings on campus, as evidenced by the recent establishment of an Israel studies center at New York University and the endowment of a chair in the subject at Brandeis University. But much more needs to be done.

For its part, the organized Jewish community can do more to encourage such efforts. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is currently examining ways that it can work with local philanthropists to help ensure that academically credible offerings that are not unsympathetic to Israel will be made a more standard and universal part of regional university curricula. Hopefully other local Jewish communities will follow suit.

It is, of course, nothing new for members of the Jewish community to provide financial support to universities. The generosity of members of the community in this area is notable. Much of that giving, however, has had nothing to do with Jewish communal interests. When it does, it generally has benefited Jewish and Holocaust studies.

The proliferation of Jewish studies programs has brought courses in Jewish history, thought and culture to numerous universities. Many donors who support this field take particular pride in noting the acceptance of Jews in America, which the tremendous growth of Jewish studies both reflects and advances.

Holocaust studies, as Emory University historian Kenneth Stein has noted, began to be vigorously promoted within academia in the 1970s, when the Holocaust became an increasing focus of attention in the larger society. Jewish support for study and teaching in this area was motivated by a strong sense that it was necessary to prevent the Holocaust from being forgotten, as well as to ensure that it would never be repeated. Study of the Holocaust was perceived not only as a question of remembering the past but also as having bearing on the survival of the Jewish people in the future.

At the time, Israel studies was not seen in the same urgent light — despite the widespread fears for Israel’s survival, first on the brink of the Six-Day War, and then during the early stages of the Yom Kippur War. Jewish communal largesse in connection with Israel was conveyed via philanthropy aimed at helping the people of Israel. When such giving had an academic connection, it was to assist Israel’s own universities.

Meanwhile, money from the Arab world and the federal government created university-based Middle East studies centers that, as Martin Kramer showed in his 2001 book “Ivory Towers on Sand,” have come to be dominated by ideology-driven faculty members unfriendly to Israel.

Today, it is the future of Israel that is the most significant existential issue facing the Jewish people. As Israel comes under attack, as its right to exist is challenged, and as its history and actions are radically distorted in many quarters, it is increasingly clear that there is a profound need for American university students — the voters, opinion molders and leaders of tomorrow — to be taught about Israel in a comprehensive fashion and a non-hostile environment. And for that to continue to happen, a generation of teachers and scholars must be trained from a point of view that differs from that which currently prevails in much of academia.

The solution is not a simple one, as tensions surrounding some Jewish studies programs in America suggest. On the one hand, there are those members of the community who see Jewish studies programs as primarily serving communal needs by providing Jewish education to younger members of the community who may not have received it from other sources. On the other hand, there are those faculty members who see themselves as simply working in one academic field among many, and sometimes even feel that they must resist projecting the image of serving the community lest their academic credibility and status be jeopardized.

Such issues will likely come into play regarding Israel studies programs as well. But these and other complexities aside, it is increasingly clear that serious steps must be taken to provide funding for courses in Israel studies. University officials — who should care about their institutions’ academic credibility as well as their image in the community — need to know that when they solicit Jewish donors for large gifts, this is an area that should be offered as waiting for support. Members of the Jewish community who are already prepared to make substantial gifts to colleges and universities need to be urged to support Israel studies on campus. And all community members with an abiding concern about the fate of the Jewish people need to be encouraged to add this area of giving to their philanthropic portfolios.

Michael C. Kotzin is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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