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In This Summer Camp, Professors Learn How to Teach About Israel

It wasn’t your typical Jewish summer camp: There were no campfires, no songs, no “bug juice” — and the participants weren’t teenagers. For the most part they were middle-aged, tenured and tenure-track professors, engaged in an intensive three-week program to learn how to teach courses on Israel.

The Summer Institute for Israel Studies, in its second year at Brandeis University, brought together 21 scholars from a diverse group of schools. It included Catholic universities such as Seton Hall and DePaul; large public universities such as UCLA, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Michigan State; prestigious smaller schools such as Middlebury and Brown; and very small colleges, such as Sweet Briar in Virginia.

The goal was to learn how to teach about Israel — not in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but, according to S. Ilan Troen, a professor of Israel studies at Brandeis, “to ensure that a more serous and balanced study of Israel be available at universities.”

Troen, the institute’s director, said he wants to transform the study of Israel from an academic abstraction to the study of “a living society.”

The program helps about 20 academics a year prepare to teach about Israel.

“Each year we’re talking about 20-30 new courses, with hundreds of students taking them. Each time we do a seminar, we’re reaching thousands of students,” he said. “If you understand that these professors will be teaching year after year for 30 years, the multiplier effect is tremendous.”

To enroll in the all-expenses paid program, participants must commit to teaching a course on Israel. They can participate only with full approval of their campus administrators, who must confirm the desire to have Israel studies in the school’s curriculum.

The academic “campers” have come not just from American universities but from Brazil, England, Australia and even Turkey.

In a phone interview from Israel just before the start of the seminar, Troen told JTA that he recently returned from Turkey, where he attended a class taught by one of last year’s seminar participants.

“There were about 40 students in his class and, on the day that I arrived, they were engaged in a debate on how to resolve the issue of Jerusalem between Muslims and Jews,” he said. “The passion in the room was extraordinary. Muslim students in a Muslim country were arguing the Jewish side.”

The discussion was based on real learning, Troen continued.

“They had read, they had studied. I don’t know where else that could happen in the Muslim world — thanks to the fact that the teacher had been through our program,” he said.

This year’s seminar, which began June 15 on the Brandeis campus in Waltham, Mass., involved two weeks of intense seminars with leading Israel scholars, morning, afternoon and night.

During the third week, participants traveled to Israel for “on-the-job” experiences orchestrated by Troen, including visits to Bedouin villages in the Negev, a Palestinian university in eastern Jerusalem and Sderot, an Israeli border town that frequently is the target of Palestinian rocket attacks.

The study of Israel on college campuses has become a hot-button issue, particularly following a documentary charging anti-Israel bias in Columbia University’s Middle East studies department. But Troen is wary of being drawn into that argument.

“Our ‘students’ don’t teach the Arab-Israeli conflict but, rather, Israel as a total society,” he said. “Israel is an incredibly complicated place. Israeli life is more than a sound bite on CNN. The reductionism that comes from the American media can lead to extremism.”

At a luncheon halfway through the program, seminar participants shared their experiences of what’s happening on their own campuses in relation to the conflict around Israel, Israel studies and Israeli-Palestinian debate.

The biggest problem many said they face isn’t with pro-Palestinian students and faculty but with American Jewish community members outside campus, who often are surprised and enraged to hear critical comments about Israel at academic events — even from Israelis.

Kaylin Goldstein, a professor at the University of Miami, told how a program entitled “Difficult Dialogues,” which featured an Israeli Jew and an Israeli Arab, disturbed many community members in the audience.

“They were expecting to hear a pro-Israel advocacy speech from the Israeli,” she said. “It was not a difficult dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It was a difficult dialogue between Jewish community members interested in Israel, and the reality of Israel.”

Many seminar participants said campus dialogue between pro-Israeli and anti-Israeli students and faculty is civil, despite strongly held views.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, “the discussion is very polite. The community creates a polite consensus,” professor Theodore Sasson said.

At Brown, professor Micah Gottlieb said, “students are open-minded to hearing and considering different perspectives.

“It’s extremely civil,” he said, contrasting that with his experience as a student and teacher in Canada, where he said he encountered virulent anti-Semitism.

At Brooklyn College, professor Robert Shapiro said, members of the Jewish community — including many Orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants — make up more of the audience at campus events than do students.

Fred Astren, a scholar of medieval Jewry at San Francisco State University, called the summer institute “an eye-opener,” giving him the opportunity to engage with top scholars in the field of Israel studies, such as Aviezer Ravitzky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Other scholars presenting included Elie Rekhess of Tel Aviv University, Shai Feldman of Brandeis University and Gabriel Sheffer of Hebrew University.

Astren said his strategy for dialogue with students is “to take the conversation about Israel off the plaza and into the classroom.”

Caryn Aviv, a professor at the University of Denver, said she appreciated a presentation by Brandeis sociologist Shulamit Reinharz on the political and social role women have played in Israel, and welcomed the introduction of gender studies into Israel studies.

The addition of the week in Israel is vital to the institute’s success, exposing participants to the “rich discourse that exists in Israel,” Troen said.

“We need the study of Israel to be more than an abstraction, more than an intellectual exercise,” he said. “The way to do that is to experience the society.”

Support for the institute comes from many different sources, including the American Jewish Committee. Steve Bayme, director of the AJCommittee’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, called the group a “junior partner” in the Summer Institute.

“The real problems regarding Israel on campus are more about ignorance and less about hostility,” said Bayme, who lectured at the Summer Institute on “Israel and World Jewry.” “It’s not about advocacy, it’s about engaging the campus academically, teaching about Israel as a vibrant, democratic, diverse country.”

“There are very tangible results,” he continued, pointing out the number of courses on Israel studies now being taught on campuses across America. “We are penetrating America’s campuses.”

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