Behind the Headlines Professors Hear It As It is
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Behind the Headlines Professors Hear It As It is

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The first Israeli seminar of a new American group, the Zionist Academic Council (ZAC), ended here last week with its 30 participants, faculty members from colleges across the United States, all feeling that they had been presented with unadorned, straight-from-the-shoulder impressions of Israel’s problems.

The mission organizers, officials of the American Zionist Federation in New York and of the World Zionist Organization head office in Jerusalem, evidently went to such extents to ensure that none of the mission members felt they were being exposed to a “snow job” that some members, at least, felt there had been too much of the negative, the critical, the divisive, in the presentations the mission heard.

But by and large there was recognition that the mission had sought to and succeeded in involving its members remarkably deeply in the Israeli scene considering the limitations of time. The mission opened in Beersheba and for the first day the professors were shown facets of the city and met with some of its social and political leaders.

In one “political day” the group was briefed by a leading journalist, Teddy Preuss of Davar, on the post-election scene; met with Haim Barlev, who was Commerce and Industry Minister under the previous Labor Party government; conferred with Shmuel Katz, Premier Menachem Begin’s information chief and personal confidant; and talked to Meir Amit, a leader of the Democratic Movement for Change and former chief of Mossad, Israel’s internal intelligence agency.

Other highlights of the mission included a day devoted to studying the Israeli-Arab situation, with a visit to the village of Baka el-Garbiya and talks with Israeli experts and with neighboring Kibbutzniks as well as with village leaders.


The underlying belief of the mission organizers, said Josh Halberstam of the AZF, was that “nothing sells Israel better than Israel itself.” The ZAC, Halberstam explained, was set up only five months ago with the purpose of reaching out primarily to the estimated 50,000 Jewish faculty members in American universities. “We hope to get ten thousand of them actively interested in Israel–of course on different levels of commitment,” said Halberstam.

The main thrust of the Council’s work will be outside of New York, he added, since in the metropolis itself Israel’s message is carried through sufficient other media. But further out, there is “glaring ignorance” among Jewish academics and intellectuals–both of things Jewish and of Israel specifically. Halberstam said, and it is to “assault this ignorance that the Council was set up.”

He explained that the Council is distinguished from the “American Professors for Peace in the Middle East” which is officially neutral. “We’re not neutral,” Halberstam said. “We’re Zionist….” At present, the Council has some 200 paid-up members, which is not bad for a start, he added.

The most effective way of “spreading the word” on an academic level, said both Halberstam and Prof. Michael Churgin of the University of Texas (at Austin) Law Faculty, is on a one-to-one basis of talking, arguing and convincing. That is what Council members and supporters are urged to do.

But beyond that, there are weekend conferences, debates, “occasional papers”–on a much higher level,” Halberstam and Churgin said–“that the often unsatisfactory material put out by the official Israeli legations.”


Churgin acknowledged frankly that the advent of the Likud government in Israel has made the job of her friends on American campuses harder than ever. Most American academics, and perhaps especially Jewish academics, are left-liberal in their views. They have long been uncomfortable with Israel’s occupation of the post-1967 areas and to now have this occupation enshrined in official ideology makes matters worse from their viewpoint, they observed.

Also, much disapproved of is Israel’s refusal to recognize Palestinian political rights, and Jerusalem’s ties with Pretoria, they said. Churgin seemed to imply that one effective counter-argument used by men like him in their informal informational work on Israel’s behalf is the fact that many Israelis themselves disapprove of some or all of the government’s policies.

The ZAC mission got a good deal of exposure to dissenting opinion, meeting with both politicians and private individuals on the left of Israel’s political spectrum. They also gained a first-hand impression of informed and authoritative West Bank Palestinian opinion from Hebron Mayor Fahd Kawassmeh.

But not all members of the group believed Begin’s ascent to power was an awkward development information-wise. Some supported the Premier’s political line, while others held that he would at least enunciate a clearer policy than the previous government.

Halberstam stressed that as far as he and other professionals were concerned the success of the ZAC would be measured not by how many Jewish academics could be convinced to adhere to the Israel government’s line, but by how many could be involved in Israeli affairs, “to argue about them, shout, criticize or whatever, but be involved and be committed….”

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