Academics and funders see a $15 million gift to establish a center for Israel studies at Brandeis University as a first step in a new philanthropic push to beef up Israel education on American campuses.
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation has committed $15 million to Brandeis to create an interdisciplinary Israel curriculum that includes Israel’s history, economy, language, culture, demography and politics. The school will raise another $15 million to complete the project.
The grant comes as Jewish students and communal officials are grappling with anti-Israel sentiment on campus. It also comes at a time when Middle Eastern studies programs funded by Arab sources are growing and research suggests that many of the problems stem from professors with anti-Israel biases even more than student activists.
While Holocaust studies and Jewish studies took root at college campuses during the late 1960s, Israel rarely developed as a separate academic subject. This has meant a dearth of academic scholarship and publications on modern Israel.
“People now feel that this is really lacking, especially now that Israel is in the news every day,” Brandeis’ president, Jehuda Reinharz, said of Israel education on campus. “The kind of ignorance about the field of Israel studies is just astounding in the Jewish community as well.”
The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis will be headed by Ilan Troen, who came to Brandeis from Ben-Gurion University. It will offer its first undergraduate and graduate-level classes in the fall. Once it is up and running at full capacity in several years, it should pump out 10 doctoral candidates per year, according to Lisa Eisen, national program director for the Schusterman Foundation.
Donors have spent significant dollars in recent years to create smaller centers at universities such as the University of Maryland, University of California at Los Angeles and American University. Donors have also endowed chairs for Israel studies at several other institutions.
But the $15 million Schusterman gift is believed to be the largest single donation in that direction, and the eventual $30 million Brandeis hopes to spend on the center will dwarf the other efforts.
The foundation hopes to encourage other major donors to invest in Israel education programs.
“The Schusterman Foundation in consultation with other philanthropists is interested in transforming the way Israel is taught in North America by expanding the number of available programs out there,” Eisen told JTA. “I think there is momentum. And I think more and more philanthropists are becoming aware of the need for this.”
A study released earlier this year by the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group of Jewish organizations concerned about Israel’s image on campus, said that Israel studies are in a state of crisis at American universities.
There are some 125 Middle Eastern studies centers on college campuses. But out of some 4,000 American institutions of higher learning, only nine have Israel studies centers, nine have Israel studies chairs, and 16 have visiting professors teaching about Israel, according to the study.
Of the 386 institutions the coalition surveyed in 2006, 53 percent did not ! offer an y courses about Israel, 77 percent offered either one or none. That means that of 17 million college students annually, only 9 million have an opportunity to take any class about Israel, according to the survey.
According to the survey, Ivy League schools and major universities are no different than community colleges in the number of courses they offer.
In the past, Jewish philanthropists focused on creating Holocaust and general Jewish studies programs. Even Brandeis, which was founded by Jews and which has the most extensive Jewish studies program of any liberal arts campus, had trouble finding money to start a serious Israel studies program, according to Reinharz.
“It was not for lack of trying,” he told JTA. “We should have had this 25 years ago. But this is not something that donors and foundations and others were willing to give money to, and it was not something that was on top of people’s agenda.”
The new fund-raising drive stems from renewed fears about Israel’s security since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000 and a feeling that Israel is losing the battle for the minds of college students to pro-Arab sentiment.
There is also a sense that professors in classrooms are a bigger problem in shaping an anti-Israel climate on campus than pro-Palestinian student groups holding demonstrations, said Mitchell Bard, the director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the author of “Will Israel Survive?”
“They are the ones educating the students, not the guerilla theater, or the battles between students over apartheid walls or checkpoints, or demonstrations and counter-demonstrations,” he said.
Beyond the push among large foundations, other initiatives are taking shape as well.
In Chicago, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has raised more than $1 million to pay for Israel studies programs at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago an! d Univer sity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
And it has set up a postdoctoral program at Northwestern University, according to the federation’s executive vice president, Michael Kotzin.
“It is a rather new phenomenon,” Kotzin said of the push to raise money for Israel studies programs. “We do it here on a local level. Then there is a national effort as well. They are two different approaches, but they were both generated during the same period, post-2000. The need started to be identified, and it has been sharpened in the past few years.”
Bard said there is a movement to establish 12 Israel studies centers across the country, which he estimates would cost about $100 million in total.
Kenneth Stein, the director of Emory University’s Middle East Research Center and its Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, said the time is ripe for such expansion.
The field has come a long way since 1998, when Emory and American University became the first two American universities with Israel studies centers, he said.
“What you have now is a group of very committed, very wealthy Americans, who are both of the multimillion-dollar donor category and the hundred thousand dollar category, who believe that Israel is part of the Jewish future and past and yesterday and tomorrow,” he said.
“I suspect that we will have some more gifts coming down the pike of the caliber of Brandeis.”