Scholars raise questions about free academic study tours to Israel
Kavita Khory, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, was set to participate in an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel this summer when she learned that because of her country of birth – Pakistan – she would be subject to special scrutiny. After being informed that she would need to carry additional documentation indicating she had been “pre-screened” at the Israeli Consulate in Boston, Khory, a U.S. citizen, backed out of the invitation-only trip, which was organized by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, in Boston, one of many entities that sponsors tours of Israel for university professors.
Khory nearly left things at that. Her experience wasn’t unique – the U.S. State Department warns that American citizens thought to be of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim origin may face additional questions at Israel’s border checkpoints – and her decision not to participate in the trip was a personal one. “I figured I wasn’t going to make a big deal of it,” she said. “It was my decision to go, and my decision not to go.” But the broader ethical questions regarding participation in such free academic tours weighed on her. In late July she penned a post for Duck of Minerva, a blog for international relations scholars, raising the following questions:
“What is our professional responsibility when colleagues are treated differently because of national or ethnic origin? How should we respond when faced with such examples of exclusion and discrimination?”
“What are the implications of our involvement in academic programs with an obvious political agenda, despite claims of fairness and nonpartisanship? How should we address concerns that our participation in such initiatives amounts to a tacit approval of brutal regimes -- a controversial but nonetheless important argument?”
And finally: “What sort of ‘firsthand exposure’ do we gain by traveling in a highly controlled environment, where every activity and event is thoroughly choreographed? How much do we learn when exposure to ordinary citizens is fairly limited?”
Such questions are not limited in their applicability to study tours in Israel. Indeed some of them could apply to accepting conference funding provided by, for example, the government of the United Arab Emirates, which does not recognize Israel and by extension Israeli passports, or taking a lucrative teaching position at a branch campus in Singapore, where gay sex is illegal. And Israel is not the only country for which foundations or governments sponsor free trips for academics and/or students. The Fulbright Program has long brought talented foreign scholars to the U.S., with one goal of the program being that participants return home with a better understanding and sympathy for American policies.
Nonetheless, the effort to get more American academics to travel to Israel – a venture that is underwritten by Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy organizations -- stands out in terms of scale and, as is often the case with issues involving Israel, contentiousness. Israel is, after all, the only country for which there is an active academic boycott movement in Europe and the United States. Questions of “balance” and suspicions of propagandizing trail these programs, in response to which their leaders state that their goal is to educate, not advocate for a particular political view.
“I’m an educator,” said Nancy Katz, the director of faculty engagement for CJP, which has sponsored six trips for scholars to Israel, each involving about 12 participants. Before coming to CJP, Katz, who has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior, taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where, she said, “I was struck by the fact that so many people’s understanding of Israel was mediated rather than firsthand. I saw there was a real need for people to experience Israel firsthand and interact with Israelis.”
“The trips are designed to give people that opportunity – to expose them to a really broad range of perspectives and give them the opportunity to ask challenging questions," Katz said. CJP declined to share an itinerary for this summer's program, but Katz provided examples of the kinds of people participants have met with on past trips, including Salam Fayyad, the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, leaders of organizations advocating for human rights for Palestinians and civic equality such as B'Tselem and Sikkuy, members of the Knesset representing diverse political parties, Supreme Court of Israel justices, journalists and authors, Israeli university presidents, and technology entrepreneurs.
Among the free study tours for scholars in Israel are ones sponsored by academic institutions – including Brandeis University’s Summer Institute for Israel Studies, which encompasses seminars in Massachusetts as well as an Israel tour – and by nonprofits or foundations, including a national security-focused trip to Israel sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the Faculty Fellowship Summer Institute in Israel, a project of the Jewish National Fund and Media Watch International. Project Interchange, an educational arm of the American Jewish Committee, also runs an annual all-expenses-paid delegation for university presidents, as well as trips for university provosts, student leaders, student newspaper editors, and Rhodes Scholars.
Bringing “opinion-makers” – current and future – to Israel has long been a strategy of its staunchest advocates. Student government leaders are also invited to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. However, John J. Mearsheimer, a critic of Israeli policies and a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, doubts that that these trips are successful in influencing the opinions of professors, at least.
“Academics are skeptics by nature,” said Mearsheimer, author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. “Anybody who goes on these trips is going to be aware that the organization that is sending them and the Israeli government are going to have a vested interest in stacking the deck, and to cut against that the organizations and the Israeli government have no choice but to expose the participants to a reasonably wide spectrum of individuals.” Once that happens, he said, it’s nearly impossible to disguise the facts, as he characterized them: that “if greater Israel is not now an apartheid state, it will be an apartheid state in due course” and that the occupation of the Palestinian territories “is inconsistent with basic Western values.” (The characterization of Israel as an apartheid state has been embraced by such luminaries as Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter but is deeply contested by those who think the comparison to enforced racial segregation in South Africa is unfair.)
Eric Castillo, the director of the Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures at the University of Florida and a scholar whose research focuses on citizenship and identity on the U.S.-Mexican border, is an example of an academic who came on a sponsored Israel tour with a skeptical perspective. “I have a ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirt, so I have a different lens when I look at the Middle East,” he said. “My empathy and advocacy for Palestine to some degree makes me automatically second-guess or question the legitimacy of any tour of Israel.”
“I thought at the very least this would be an opportunity to cause trouble and ask questions,” said Castillo, who participated in this summer's Faculty Fellowship Summer Institute in Israel, where, he said, "I held nothing back" ("I typically don't"). Overall, he thought that the trip was in fact skewed toward Israeli rather than Palestinian perspectives, but also pointed out this might be expected given that this was a trip about Israel and not the conflict per se. "I didn't feel it was propaganda," he said. "What I did feel is that it's like when you have guests in your house -- you put your best china out and leave the generic-brand soda in the fridge. You bring out the Coca-Cola."
Castillo said he was grateful to the Jewish National Fund and Media Watch International for an “amazing” trip, “but that doesn’t silence my voice and my perspective."
One of the reasons Castillo applied for the program in the first place was that several of his students had attended an Israel tour called Caravan for Democracy run by the same groups. Sharon Tzur, the director of Media Watch International, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as “dedicated to advancing Israel's image by promoting accurate, impartial media coverage of, and providing timely, factual information about, Israel and the Middle East,” said that it was through her work with college students that she realized more work needed to be done to reach out to professors.
“I said, you know what, I know how much I’ve been influenced by my professors. Before I even try to expose students who are not educated enough about Israel, I need to go to the number-one person in their lives while they’re in college who influences them, and I want them to be able to have the right or the accurate information about Israel. It doesn’t matter if it’s a professor in Middle East studies, who obviously already is educated, or if it’s a professor in psychology.” Tzur said that while the programs of course touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, her main emphasis is to expose participants to “everything else they don’t see on the news.”
Follow the Funding?
A blog post discussing academic tours of Israel that appeared in the +972 web magazine, by Olga Gershenson, an associate professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, described these programs as “[using] academic knowledge to support Israel and its policies, usually in smart and subtle ways” while making “gestures towards fair representation.” The general Israel advocacy orientation becomes "obvious" she wrote, upon examining the missions of the organizations that fund these programs.
“I’m not against Israel studies programs; I think these are great,” Gershenson, an alumna of the Brandeis Summer Institute for Israel Studies, one of three programs she critiqued, said in an interview. What she’d like to see, however, are programs for faculty "that tell the other narrative or programs that tell both narratives in dialogue or conversation or even in contestation.”
Yet questions of balancing multiple narratives are vexing when it comes to so complex a landscape as Israel. In a response published in +972, Brent Sasley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, challenged any conflation of “balance” with “fairness.”
“While balance in the sense of promoting a better understanding of Israel was certainly tilted toward exposing a less hostile attitude toward it, I experienced fairness in my time during these programs,” wrote Sasley, who attended two of the three programs Gershenson wrote about, including Brandeis’s. “That fairness – the consideration of multiple viewpoints and ideas, and wondering if there was a single ‘right’ way to think about things – permeated everything we did.”
“Diversity is what we want,” said Ilan Troen, the director of Brandeis’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, which runs the summer institute for faculty. “We want [faculty participants] to have multiple understandings. Balance suggests some kind of equilibrium. I don’t know who could find it.”
Brandeis’s program is different than the others in that it requires professors who apply to present a letter from their provost, dean or chair explaining why their participation would benefit the university. Participants in the program each develop a syllabus for an Israel studies course they’d like to teach on their home campuses. The program, which is free for faculty to attend and also carries a stipend, has had 205 participants since its inception in 2004; it is funded by private donors, including many Jewish philanthropic groups. The donors have “zero” impact on the content of the program, said Troen, who went on to note that “the notion that a donor can control the thought process of an academic is not reasonable, not tenable.”
“This is a delicate balance in Jewish scholarship generally,” said Bruce Thompson, an alumnus of the Brandeis program and a lecturer in history and literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Because historically Jewish philanthropy has been so important, Jewish studies programs and Israel studies programs as well tend to be much more dependent on grants from philanthropies and foundations than almost any branch of the academy. Therefore, there’s always going to be some tensions between the interests of donors and the requirements of academic objectivity.”
Thompson said that scrutiny of academic tours of Israel given their funding sources is warranted, but in his experience the Brandeis program, at least, stands up to the scrutiny. He posed a possible parallel case: while in graduate school he received a fellowship to study in France with the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust, whose stated aim is to promote cooperation between the U.S and France.
Granted, it wasn’t an organized tour in that case, he said, but, “Taking money from private philanthropy to study in France and come back and teach and write about French history, nobody would raise an eyebrow. I guess that raises the question, is Israel different? I suppose the answer is pretty obvious. There are all sorts of contentious issues in French history but no one as far as I know questions the right of the state of France to exist.”
“I think it’s preposterous to claim that we shouldn’t go to Israel to learn until Israel becomes the one perfect country in the world,” added Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr., who also attended the Brandeis program and is an associate professor of English at Northern Michigan University and a research fellow for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an Israel advocacy organization. He praised the Brandeis program as “a truly scholarly, academic, balanced approach meant to treat Israel as a topic for study – like we treat other subjects in the university.”