Israel advocates have often complained of a pro-Arab tilt in Middle East programs at American universities, but now academics at a university in California are doing something about it. The International Institute at the University of California Los Angeles — prodded by a concerned political scientist — is launching an Israel studies program, which its creators hope will be “the most comprehensive and systematic” program for the study of the Jewish state in America.
While Israel is often the focus of academic scrutiny, there has been no teaching, research and community program at an American university focusing solely on the state in all its multiple facets.
Already in place are two undergraduate courses, visits by prominent Israeli and American scholars, and a community lecture program. In the works is a major international conference on Israeli democracy.
By 2007, Israel studies expects to have assembled an interdisciplinary faculty and to have created a prestigious academic chair and library — and hopes to be poised to offer an undergraduate degree.
Whether or not the UCLA program becomes a model for other universities remains to be seen, but Israel studies programs have the potential to transform a part of the academic landscape some Jews have long seen as troubling.
While there well-established Jewish and Middle/Near East study centers already exist at UCLA and a number of East Coast universities, “Israel itself doesn’t get focused attention and tends to get lost as an appendage to other programs,” said UCLA political scientist Steven Spiegel, one of the backers of the idea.
Aside from academic considerations, there is a strong feeling among many professors — and certainly within the Jewish community — that Near East departments on many campuses, though not UCLA, are dominated by pro-Arabists.
“Professorial posts in too many Middle East centers on too many American campuses are funded and occupied by pro-Arabists, and when they invite Israeli speakers, these are often more hateful of Israel than are the Arabs,” Yuval Rotem, who recently left his post as Israeli consul general after five years in the western United States, said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.
“This situation, plus pro-Palestinian student movements on many campuses, can’t be changed by the occasional seminar on Israel’s plight or discussions among Jewish organizations,” he said. “It’s a long-range problem. Knowledge is a cumulative process and only a permanent study program on Israel can provide it.”
The initiative, drive and seed money for the Israel studies program has come from Sharon Baradaran, an Iranian Jew living in Los Angeles, and herself holder of a doctorate and a university teacher in political science.
“It started more than two years ago, after the Israeli-Palestinian clashes in Jenin, when the media reported a lot of false and slanderous information about the behavior of the Israeli army,” Baradaran said in a phone interview.
Upset by the reported distortions, she invited a group of friends — including Rotem, American academics and Israeli officers who had participated in the Jenin battle — for an informal discussion at her home.
Every two or three months thereafter she reconvened and expanded the salon, inviting visiting Israeli politicians and scholars. The discussions grew more urgent as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents were reported on numerous American campuses.
“I had the idea that while there were study centers on China, Russia, Latin America, Africa and many other areas at the UCLA International Institute, there was none for Israel, whose history, culture and political impact certainly warranted its own study program,” said Baradaran.
She and some of her influential salon friends presented the concept to UCLA’s vice provost, Geoffrey Garrett, dean of the International Institute, and to the school’s chancellor, Albert Carnesale. Both men reacted enthusiastically, but noted that in these difficult times, no university funds were available for the program.
Baradaran was not fazed. She and Steve Gamer, external affairs director for the institute, mapped out a fund-raising drive to come up with a $5 million endowment for a permanent academic chair, visiting scholars program, campus and community education, policy forums and conferences — and to develop a curriculum on Israel for school teachers at all levels.
The Israel studies program, and future center, will be named in honor of the hoped-for $5 million donor.
In the meantime, $800,000 has been raised for the program, and seed money to invite distinguished scholars has been provided by the family foundation of Younes and Soraya Nazarian, Baradaran’s parents.
This month, Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was the visiting scholar program’s inaugural lecturer.
While the fund raising is progressing, two undergraduate courses in the Israel program are already in their second year. One is “History of Israel: 1948 to Present,” popularly dubbed “Israel 101.”
The second is a course on Israel-Diaspora relations, in which students at UCLA and Tel Aviv University hold “joint” video-conferencing classes to explore each other’s culture, politics and attitudes.
Fredelle Spiegel teaches the class, which was initially funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Directors of the Jewish studies centers at the University of Southern California and UCLA see the developing Israel program not as a competitor, but as an ally.
“I’ve always emphasized that the more high-quality research and teaching on Israel and Jewish life we can get, the better it is for everybody,” said Barry Glassner, director of the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.
David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who participated in the planning of the Israel program, said, “Israel is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world, and a better comprehension is vital to the intellectual and general communities. What better place to have the Israel program than in Los Angeles?”
Myers’ center at UCLA has organized an extensive campus and public program for the 2004-2005 academic year, including lectures, seminars and workshops on local Jewish history, Jewish-Muslim relations, Yiddish and Sephardi culture, and the Holocaust. For information on programs or financial support for the Israel Studies program, contact Steve Gamer, International Institute, 11343 Bunche Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, Calif., 90095-1487. His phone number is (310) 206-8578, or e-mail email@example.com.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.