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Report: Faculty Hold the Key to Improving Israel’s Image on Campus

May 20, 2004
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The belief that students are the main instigators of anti-Israel activity on college campuses is wrong — it’s actually the faculty.

At least, that’s the premise of a soon-to-be released report by the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group of 27 Jewish organizations that aid pro-Israel activists at U.S. colleges, and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, a group that aims to bolster the U.S.-Israel relationship.

A few high-profile anti-Israel or anti-Semitic acts on some campuses have created the misconception that anti-Israel activity is widespread and directed by students, said the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise’s executive director, Mitchell Bard, who prepared the report.

But such flashpoints are rare, Bard says.

“The real problem is more insidious because it’s not as visible, and that is the absence of scholars who can teach about Israel in a way that is factual and even remotely sympathetic to Israel,” said Bard, whose report suggests ways to increase pro-Israel scholarship about Israel at U.S. universities.

Befuddled by the implacability of Arab governments, Middle East scholars sought to blame the conflict on Israel, said Martin Kramer, whose “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America” is quoted in Bard’s report.

That alleged bias has been compounded by Arab funding of many Middle Eastern Studies departments, and the landmark publication in 1978 of Columbia University professor Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” which argued that Westerners who studied Palestinians viewed them through a racist or imperialist lens. That hugely influential book spurred a trend of academic inquiry that largely was anti-Western and sympathetic to the Arabs.

Bard’s report, which was to be released this weekend at Hillel’s International Lay Leadership Conference in Washington, comes as the question of anti-Israel bias among faculty has gained prominence.

The Columbia University administration recently created a faculty committee to examine the extent of permissible free speech by academics.

Heated debate on the U.S.-led war in Iraq, particularly after a professor speaking at a university teach-in wished “a million Mogadishus” on American soldiers, prompted the creation of the committee, the university provost’s Alan Brinkley, told JTA.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger said he didn’t believe free speech could excuse intimidation in the classroom, and he asked the committee to examine the issue. But the committee found no evidence of “systematic bias in teaching on the campus,” Brinkley said.

Many Jews, however, maintain that there is a systematic bias against Israel throughout the academy — and no quick fix.

“Students come and go,” but “faculty can be there for generations, so they really have a huge impact on what happens on that campus,” said Rachel Fish, New York regional director of the David Project, which teaches about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in high schools, colleges and communities. “How the administration deals with that needs to become an item on the agenda.”

Fish should know. As a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School last spring, she informed the administration that one of the school’s donors, United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Zayed, also funded an anti-American and anti-Semitic think tank.

But the problem goes beyond the issue of anti-Israel faculty who turn the classroom into a bully pulpit, Fish said.

“Jewish faculty are absolutely reluctant to speak up” for Israel, she said. “If they don’t have tenure, they fear that if they speak up it’s committing career suicide,” she explained. “Those who do have tenure don’t speak up because they feel they won’t be viewed as legitimate scholars anymore.”

Faculty behavior will change only if the impetus comes from within the university, Fish and others said.

“Somebody coming in from the outside and challenging a faculty member means nothing. Somebody coming in from the inside, a peer, someone who can challenge your tenure, your next promotion,” carries meaning and pressure, said Ed Beck, who teaches psychology at Alvernia College in Pennsylvania and is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an international faculty network that tries to counter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic teaching.

But some say that pushing for pro-Israel faculty members could undermine the integrity of the academy.

The topic has created a stir among Jewish faculty on Internet discussion groups and was the topic of a panel discussion at the last meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, said Norman Stillman, who teaches Judaic history at the University of Oklahoma.

“On the one hand, we all have our private views, loyalties and political affiliations. On the other hand, many of us are old-fashioned enough to believe that our job at the university is not to propagandize but to discuss issues with academic dispassion,” Stillman said.

Still, the Israel on Campus Coalition would be within its bounds to seek a “more rounded presentation” about Israel on campus, Stillman said.

For his part, Bard doesn’t just provide case studies of responses on various campuses and examples of faculty- driven initiatives, but offers a range of recommendations for “reclaiming Middle East scholarship.”

Bard stressed that the purpose of his report isn’t to oust or criticize professors that rail against Israel, but to foster more accurate scholarship on Israel.

For example, his group has created a scholarship fund that would give matching funds to universities that hire U.S. and Israeli academics as visiting professors and offer scholarships to students who want to become scholars on Israel.

He also proposes that pro-Israel scholars mentor faculty, train faculty from non-Middle East studies departments to teach courses on Israel, and endow chairs and departments in Israel studies.

Bard said American Jewish philanthropy helped invigorate Jewish studies and Holocaust studies, which now boast dozens of chairs and departments.

“The creation of chairs and Israel studies centers have the greatest potential for long-term influence on the course of scholarship, the development of new talent, and support for pro-Israel students,” Bard wrote.

Stillman — who affiliated himself with Jewish studies primarily because of the anti-Israel hostility and “at times barely veiled anti-Semitism” prevalent in Middle East studies departments — agreed.

“No discipline or subdiscipline has any firm anchorage within a university unless it is either a recognized program or full-fledged department,” he said.

But not everyone agrees with Bard’s approach.

“It sounds to me like a very clear attempt to politicize academic departments,” said Hasdai Westbrook, editor of New Voices magazine, written by and for Jewish students.

Political activism has its place on campus, but not in academia, said Westbrook, who stressed that he had not yet seen the report.

But Bard says his proposal may just be a stopgap solution — and not the only one. Those involved say the report is simply a start toward showcasing the issues and taking a stab at solutions.

Bypassing Middle East studies departments to find professors who can teach fairly about Israel will create a cadre of Israel scholars who eventually can affect hiring and teaching patterns in Middle East studies, he said.

Ed Beck, who teaches psychology at Pennsylvania’s Alvernia College and is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an international faculty network that tries to counter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic teaching, thinks the Israel on Campus Coalition should offer faculty the resources and training it currently invests in students.

Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition and Hillel’s Center for Israel Affairs, agrees that faculty need to be seriously involved for change to take place.

But he acknowledges that most professors feel that becoming members and advocates of Jewish groups would compromise their work.

In trying to shift the behavior of faculty on Israel, “there is no silver bullet,” Firestone said.

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