This past summer, Rebecca Abramson found herself a credit short of completing the sophomore-year requirements for her international affairs major at George Washington University, in the nation’s capital. Having returned recently from Israel after participating in a Hasbara Fellowship, a program that trains students to be pro-Israel activists on campus, Abramson was eager to learn more about the country. So when a family friend told her about a chance to get college credit via a website offering classes on Israel and other topics, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I thought, ‘I love Israel, so why not do a course about Israel?’” she said.
Abramson paid a $549 fee to Jerusalem Online U and enrolled in a three-credit, 16-week course called Israel Inside/Out. The course covered Israel’s history, its political system and its conflict with the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states. It had a professor, tests and assigned reading. It also featured several of the same Web videos about Israel that Abramson had watched in her Hasbara program. The chair of GWU’s history department and Abramson’s adviser both agreed to take her credits for the course, she said. Abramson expects the university registrar to transfer her credits in mid-November.
“I think I just obtained a better knowledge about the history of Israel,” Abramson said. “From that knowledge, I was able to form my own opinions about Israel and the surrounding conflict.”
But on its website and its promotional materials, Jerusalem Online U hardly portrays itself as a center for neutral academic inquiry. In fact, it boasts an explicitly pro-Israel mission that seems distinctly at odds with academic principles. In one advertisement for its services, the Jerusalem Online U site’s blog features a video of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling Congress last May that “Israel is what is right” about the Middle East. The words “Be a Part of What’s Right” appear onscreen as he speaks.
The course does include video clips and reading assignments from Palestinian academics. But compared with the Israeli input, these inclusions seem tokenistic and, at times, cherry-picked. For instance, the only reading from Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi — a prolific critic of both Israeli policy and Palestinian leadership — is an article about the Palestinian “failure” of 1948, in which he calls the Palestinians “strikingly incapable of concerted planning and effective collective action.”
In one Israel Inside/Out video session, a narrator informs students that Israel is “vilified” by the international media. “How is it that people do not see the critical role that Israel plays in the world?” he asks.
Jerusalem Online U is a product of the brave new world of online education, a world in which many educators are still feeling their way. In this world, Jerusalem Online U appears to precariously straddle the realms of academia and advocacy. Founder Raphael Shore, a Canadian rabbi living in Israel, says that, its name notwithstanding, the program is not a university but an education portal, offering classes on Israel, positive psychology, Judaism and cinema. And yet, one of Jerusalem Online U’s major selling points is that it offers courses for academic credit through Touro College, an accredited Jewish university in New York City. Now in its third year of operation, Jerusalem Online U has more than 2,000 “graduates” from 300 universities across America, according to the website. Shore told the Forward that 150 of these students have received academic credit for their work online. Officials at Touro, on the other hand, estimate a much lower number, between one and two dozen per year for the past three years.
Shore is quick to acknowledge the strong pro-Israel component of Jerusalem Online U, but he claims that the organization doesn’t let its advocacy work bleed into its academic material. For the Israel Inside/Out course, he said, Touro political science professor Alan Mond uses a series of videos produced by Jerusalem Online U about the State of Israel. These videos are also used in Jerusalem Online U’s advocacy programs. The main difference, Shore said, is that in the Touro class, the how-to videos titled “Israel Advocacy” and “Communicating for Israel” are omitted. The Touro class is also supplemented by assigned readings from high-profile Palestinian, Israeli and American Jewish academics and politicians. And yet, the syllabus on the Jerusalem Online U web site for the Touro course claims, “This course will train you to be an Israel advocate and arm you with the knowledge necessary to combat anti-Israel rhetoric.”
When asked about this phrase in the syllabus, Stanley Boylan, Touro’s vice president of undergraduate education and dean of faculties, said that he was unaware of it and that it did not reflect Touro’s mission. “All we know is that we have academic objectives to every course,” he said. “The academic objectives are not to train someone to be an advocate of a position but to be knowledgeable, to gain knowledge and to pick up skills and be conversant with ideas. It could be that students might indeed learn good things about Israel and may want to advocate on a personal level.”
Shore also said he was unaware of the advocacy phrase in the syllabus. He said that the language appeared in a different portion of the website and was unintentionally included. “The Touro College course does not train you to be an Israel advocate, and this description is not fully accurate and needs to be erased,” he said. The day after the Forward’s interview with Shore, the sentence was removed from the syllabus.
According to Zachary Lockman, a New York University professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, the main problem is not the explicit language about advocacy training, but the content of the syllabus itself. Lockman, who reviewed the Touro syllabus at the Forward’s request, said, “This strikes me as advocacy training rather than an academic syllabus.” The syllabus, he said, was “tendentious.”
Lockman cited the syllabus’s lack of scholarly articles in particular, noting that it appeared to rely on opinion pieces from far-right publications like FrontPage Magazine to show that Israel is under siege on college campuses. “At my university or any other university, I could not see this being qualified for a credit-bearing course in anything like this form,” he said. Lockman did endorse the course’s use of a textbook on the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by Mark Tessler, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, calling it a “fine survey” of the conflict.
University of Illinois economics professor Fred Gottheil, who also reviewed the syllabus, differed, saying that the syllabus “looks quite reasonable.”
Gottheil, who has published academic research on economics in the Middle East, acknowledged, “It has a very decided Israel bent.” But he added: “It is not leading the student. It is not like it is leading the horse to the water.”
The Touro course also features material that is used by Jerusalem Online U in its Israel boosterism. For instance, Jerusalem Online U recently unveiled its Step Up for Israel campaign. Spearheaded by Harvard Law School professor and vigorous Israel defender Alan Dershowitz, and by former Israeli ambassador to Washington Dore Gold, Step Up for Israel schools students about anti-Israel rhetoric on college campuses. A major component of the program is a video created by Shore, “Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus.” The video is currently screening at synagogues and Jewish organizations across the country and depicts a wave of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiment said to be sweeping American college campuses. A modified version of this film appears in the Touro course, Shore said.
“It is a little bit stronger and harder hitting than the other material in the Inside/Out course,” he said. Comparing contexts of the film he noted: “When we deal with the peace process [in the class], we say, ‘What are the issues facing Israel? What are the Palestinian issues and concerns?’ We make it a balanced program. In ‘Crossing the Line,’ the film is a little bit stronger.”
Shore, in fact, is known for his hard-hitting films. In 2008, his film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” was distributed shortly before the U.S. presidential election to millions of voters in swing states, tucked into newspapers and sent as direct mailings through Shore’s not-for-profit organization, the Clarion Fund. Hailed by some on the right as an accurate portrayal of the looming threat of radical Islam, “Obsession” was criticized by mainstream Jewish leaders as fear mongering and sensationalist. Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, American Jewry’s official umbrella group for domestic issues, told New York Jewish Week, “I don’t think the film is a fair presentation of the issue, nor do I think that was the filmmakers’ goal.”
The Clarion Fund had strong ties to Aish HaTorah, a worldwide Orthodox outreach organization with headquarters in Jerusalem. Though Aish HaTorah denied any involvement in the film or its distribution, a Jewish Week investigation found that the Clarion Fund not only shared an address with Aish HaTorah’s fundraising arm, Aish HaTorah International, but also that six Aish HaTorah officials had ties to “Obsession.” One of these officials was Shore. The film’s ties to a well-known and respected Jewish organization concerned Jewish communal officials, who worried that Jews would be seen as promoting a “clash of civilizations.”
Aish HaTorah was also involved in the early stages of Jerusalem Online U. When Shore decided to start the Web portal in 2007, he was still an employee at Aish HaTorah and originally housed the project at the site AishCafe.com. Shore said that he had not received any financial backing from the Orthodox outreach organization, but he said also that officials at Aish HaTorah were very supportive of the project, teaching online courses in the program and, eventually, paving the way for his connection to Touro.
In 2008, Aish HaTorah founder and dean Rabbi Noach Weinberg met with Touro’s president, Bernard Lander, on Shore’s behalf to cement a partnership between Aish Café, as the program was then known, and Touro College. (Both Weinberg and Lander are now deceased.) The collaboration seemed mutually beneficial: Aish Café would extend its educational offerings and gain academic legitimacy through a for-credit program, and Touro would gain from Aish HaTorah’s outreach expertise.
“We wanted to enter into the world of outreach, which at that time Aish Café and Aish HaTorah were experts in,” Boylan explained. “We wanted to [implement] outreach to a variety of students to give a Jewish education. We thought that this would be a mechanism.”
In 2009, Shore cut ties with Aish HaTorah. He said he realized that the religious nature of the organization might hamper his partnering with mainstream, secular Jewish organizations. (Aish HaTorah, it seems, remains supportive. One student interviewed by the Forward said she was recruited for Jerusalem Online U through an Aish representative on campus.) That year, Shore decided to change the name of the site. When Shore floated the idea of “Jerusalem Online University,” Touro officials balked, worried that the online portal would be mistaken for a real university. As a compromise, Shore settled on Jerusalem Online U. The word “university,” however, still appears on the website and on not-for-profit tax forms as the URL JerusalemOnlineUniversity.com. When plugged into a web browser, the address JerusalemOnlineUniversity.com redirects to Jerusalem Online U’s homepage.
With the name change came a surge in financial backing. Though Shore would not disclose the amount of money given by any one donor, he said that major contributors include Taglit-Birthright Israel founder Michael Steinhardt, former Goldman Sachs Group chairman Leon Cooperman and former America Online president Len Leader. This year, he said, Jerusalem Online U has a budget of $1 million and is extending its educational offerings to Jewish high schools.
According to not-for-profit tax forms filed for Jerusalem Online U’s parent organization, Imagination Productions, Inc., the goal of the program is “to create a Jewish movement on campus by exposing a critical mass of Jewish students (20%) to Jewish education within the next five years.”
Shore said that the organization is well on its way to meeting this goal, with college students having engaged in 50,000 hours of online learning through Jerusalem Online U. While he regrets that the online for-credit course has not been more popular, he said that “more and more” students are signing up for it and that more than 25 universities have accepted the credits.
“I don’t come from the position that there is something to be ashamed of to be a Jewish organization that is pro-Israel,” Shore said. “You have to be effective in education. To do that, you need to be balanced, and you need to be upfront when you are talking about advocacy.”
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.