At the annual conference of the Association for Israel Studies, which took place in Toronto in early May, one of the first sessions was titled “State-Minority Relations.” Two of the panelists presenting papers on the topic were Ilan Peleg, a professor of government and law at Lafayette College, and Dov Waxman, a young associate professor at Baruch College. The third was Amal Jamal, a tall, elegantly dressed Israeli-Arab professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, who was going to speak on the “disillusionment of citizenship.”
Early into the session, it was clear that the speakers largely concurred. Each said that relations between Israel’s Arab and Jewish populations had degenerated since the second Intifada, and that Israel’s minority was alienated and disenfranchised. But Jamal made the point more dramatically than the others, speaking as much out of frustration and rage as out of any academic expertise. The situation resembles “Germany in the 1920s,” he said, and if something is not done soon, the future for Israeli-Arabs (or “Palestinians,” as Jamal called them) was bleak — “apartheid, expulsion or genocide.”
But Jamal distinguished himself in another way. Before his formal presentation, he described his difficulty with the decision even to attend the AIS conference. Seven Israeli-Arab scholars had been invited and only two were present among the more than 300 participants in Toronto. Jamal said he had received e-mails imploring him not to go. The others had given in to that pressure.
“I know what the podium I stand behind represents, what Israel studies represents,” he said. “I know this is a form of public diplomacy.”
The growth and development over the past decade of what has become known as Israel studies owes much to politically motivated donors who have endowed chairs, imported dozens of visiting Israeli scholars, and set up Israel studies institutes across the country, from Harvard University to the University of California at Berkeley. For these donors — among them, prominent Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman — the academics are pro-Israel soldiers on the heated battlefields of American campuses. To the academics, a comment such as Jamal’s stings, because it awakens a deep anxiety about the forces that have allowed their field to grow.
That growth is striking, and the strong showing at the AIS gathering in May is just part of it. Over the last decade, the new field has emerged as an entity separate from both Jewish studies and Middle East studies. There are now eight institutes or centers for Israel studies in North America, with 11 endowed chairs and dozens of visiting professorships. Every chair, and every institute, bears the name of a rich benefactor; the Schusterman family alone funds 20 visiting Israeli scholars every year.
As a result there has also been an explosion in the number of Israel courses now available at universities. In January, a study commissioned by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that among 246 American campuses surveyed, there was a 69 percent increase in the number of courses focused primarily on Israel from the 2005-2006 academic year to the 2008-2009 year — from 325 to 548. And only 28 percent of these courses deal with the Israeli/Arab conflict. The majority explore Israel from a more neutral perspective “as a culture, society, political system, and historical entity rather than solely as a locus for international conflict.”
At the time, Lynn Schusterman said, she regarded the survey as confirmation that her efforts to encourage a “thoughtful discussion” of Israel “free from bias and intimidation” are working.
“Right now, you have at least three dozen professors around the country working solely on Israel studies,” said Yoram Peri, the Abraham S. and Jack Kay Chair in Israel Studies, and director of the new Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. “And it’s not only the courses that they give. It’s public lectures. It’s working with students. It’s their presence.
“For instance,” he said, “I had a sabbatical at American University. There are students there who went to Israel on [Taglit-]Birthright [Israel]. Now they come back to the States and there’s no continuation. So I told them, let’s meet once a month or so in an informal way over coffee. We’ll talk about what’s going on in Israel. They loved it. For them, it was a great thing. So it depends how active the professor is. But this is the Schustermans’ goal.”
The common perception is that Israel studies developed as a reaction to a politically heated, leftist environment on American campuses. In fact, it started as a way to confront a different kind of political pressure.
A group of social scientists in the mid-1980s whose academic focus centered on Israel were increasingly frustrated that their research was clouded by the need to toe a certain Zionist line. Like the Israeli ”new historians” then emerging, they wanted to look at Israel’s politics and society in a nuanced way.
“The study of Israel was pretty damn parochial,” said Myron Aronoff, a retired professor at Rutgers University who was the first president of the AIS. “Partly, it was a function of the influence of Zionism; partly, it was a function of this notion of Israel exceptionalism. So to try to look at Israel in a more theoretical way, in a broadly more comparative way, just to treat it like you would treat any other society or political system, that was a novel way of doing it.”
The academics’ first meeting, in 1984 at Dartmouth, consisted of about two dozen professors and their families.
Israel studies remained a small, intimate domain until early in the 2000s, when the field began to take on new significance for those concerned about the role of Israel on American campuses. Martin Kramer is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the soon-to-be president of Shalem College in Israel. He described how the larger political polarization around the time of the second Intifada in 2002 affected Middle East studies departments, where most scholars of Israel were situated.
“There was a decision that making Israel studies subject to the jurisdiction of Middle Eastern studies, as far as appointments and departmental authority, would produce the opposite effect,” Kramer said. “It would create still more nodes of anti-Israel studies. If you have Rashid Khalidi [a controversial pro-Palestinian who serves as the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University] on the appointments committee for a chair on Israel studies, it would be like appointing Martin Kramer to the search committee for [faculty for] Palestinian studies. It would be considered absurd.”
And so donors were convinced that the best way for them to combat anti-Israel sentiment would be through endowing chairs and setting up institutes. The irony was that many of the scholars who were able to take advantage of this new infusion of resources were themselves on the left in their political orientation.
At this year’s Israel studies conference, it was clear that a majority of the academics held views on the liberal end of the political spectrum. But even some of these scholars felt that Middle East studies had become too rejectionist for them. Many had stopped attending conferences of the large Middle East Studies Association. Waxman, of Baruch College and author of a book, “The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity,” said he began to feel that to present any paper on Israel at MESA conferences, one had to first make the proper denunciatory comments about “colonialism and apartheid.” At the AIS conference, there was much criticism of Israel, but it seemed to stop at a certain Zionist line, never questioning the existence of the state.
Roger Allen, the president of MESA, said he thinks it’s a “shame” that much of Israel studies has left the umbrella of Middle Eastern studies. He insists this has less to do with the politics of his organization than with the generally polarized political climate infecting the field and pushing people into opposing sides.
“The one thing we do expect everybody to do is to respect the parameters of scholarship,” Allen said. “The problem I see with a discipline called Israel studies is that it’s nation-based. Isn’t there an exclusivity about that?”
Some of those who first nurtured the idea of Israel studies as a separate area of academic inquiry, though, see a fundamental problem: the funding and whatever strings it might have attached. In conversations at the Toronto conference, many participants expressed anxiety about what, for example, accepting a Schusterman visiting professorship might entail. The implicit objective of such appointments, after all, is a kind of advocacy role.
Mitchell Bard, who runs the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise — the organization through which the Schustermans distribute their 20 annual grants to Israel scholars — disputes that. (He was in Toronto partly to present a paper on the influence of what he calls the “Arab Lobby.”) Bard says that there is no political litmus test for these appointments, and that the only thing expected of the academics who accept them is that they do their work and provide a picture of the complexity of Israeli society.
“Our priority is finding the best scholars to present the depth and breadth of Israeli history, politics and culture,” Bard wrote in an e-mail. “We don’t tell anyone what to say or how to say it. Over 40 schools, including the nation’s elite, would not come to us or keep our scholars often a second year if they were not good scholars and teachers.”
One of the ways that the recipients of such funding negotiate the demands on them to somehow represent Israel on campus is by telling themselves that their courses and extra curricular activities help present the country from all its varied angles. This way they feel they are both doing justice to their intellectual freedom — doing the work they would do anyways — and fulfilling the mandate of their chairs or professorships.
“We are academicians and most of us try to build very tall walls,” said Emanuel Adler, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair of Israeli Studies at the University of Toronto and organizer of this year’s conference. “We aren’t ambassadors. And yet, one of my biggest pleasures is when, at the end of a course, a Muslim or Arab student comes up to me and says, ‘You opened my eyes.’ That’s what I tell the people in the community who are concerned that I am not more of an activist on campus. By opening their eyes, I am doing the job.”
Still, some people, including Ian Lustick, the Bess W. Heyman Chair of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the founders of the AIS, worry that money is distorting the field he helped start. For one thing, he thinks it is contributing to an Israeli brain drain. To appease donors who worry that American professors studying Israel are too left wing in their politics, Lustick said, universities often pick off the most accomplished Israeli scholars for these newly endowed positions. Whatever their politics, he said, their Israeli identity makes them more palatable to donors. Indeed, Israelis now head most of the institutes and centers that focus on Israel studies.
Because of this, donors, in collaboration with universities in North America, are “contributing to the free fall of Israeli universities, greatly enhancing the prestige of these programs at the cost of Israeli higher education,” Lustick said. “And it’s all driven by the fund-raising and weird propaganda.”
Lustick has a bigger worry. He never envisioned the field of Israel studies to be an end in itself. The idea was to provide a support system for scholars working on Israel in various disciplines — not, as he put it, “to create a ghetto.”
“There’s still a role for the Association for Israel Studies,” Lustick said. “But not as the endpoint of scholarship and not as a fortress to defend Israel.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman