Israel in the American Classroom

January 14, 2010

Supporters of Israel have worried of late that much of the campus discussion about the country has taken place in rallies and counter-rallies on the quad, and not in the classroom. But a study released Wednesday found significant growth in the past few years in the number of courses focused on Israel. Further, these courses are appearing in a wider range of disciplines than in the past and do not focus exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the military history of Israel.

At 246 colleges for which data were collected in both 2005-6 and 2008-9, the number of courses focused on Israel increased by 69 percent, to 548. The colleges studied included a wide range of research universities and liberal arts colleges, and a mix of institutions with larger and smaller Jewish student populations. Of the top 20 national universities in U.S. News & World Report rankings in 2008-9, all but one offered Israel-focused courses and 12 offered four or more. Three years earlier, five offered no such courses and only three offered four or more.

The study was conducted by researchers at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, at Brandeis University. Notably, the analysis of whether courses were Israel-focused (or in another category of Israel-related) did not consider whether the courses were taught in ways that were necessarily sympathetic to Israel.

The courses -- a list is an appendix in the report -- include some whose titles suggest a critical look at Israel and at least some courses that have been taught by outspoken critics of Israel. Researchers said that they were only trying to identify courses about Israel, not to apply any political litmus test.

"We're seeing a mainstreaming of Israel throughout the academy," said Michael Colson, director of Israel programs for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which sponsored the new report. He said that too much of the campus debate about Israel is divisive and simplistic, while classes can provide "a more nuanced and complex" examination of the country. He stressed that in supporting the idea of more courses on Israel, he believed that they should examine the country, "warts and all."

The foundation and others have been supporting the creation of Israel studies programs in recent years, both in places where it might be expected (like Brandeis) and places where it might be more surprising (universities in China). Some grant programs have brought Israeli professors to American campuses for visiting positions as well.

Annette Koren, the study’s lead researcher and a research scientist at Brandeis, said that the list of courses includes a wide range, on topics such as Israeli film, Israeli poetry, postmodernism in Israel literature and so forth -- much more than just the geopolitics of the Middle East. "This is the range of what one should be able to study about a country," she said, calling the additional courses part of "a normalization of Israel studies."

Koren noted that the courses are not just in Jewish studies or Hebrew departments. Of all courses identified as being Israel focused, 40 percent are in Jewish studies, but 19 percent are in history and 16 percent are in political science. Of all courses with Israel content (including some with less of a focus than the first category), only 22 percent are in Jewish studies, while 28 percent are from history and 25 percent from political science. In the two categories of courses, only 4 percent and 3 percent of courses, respectively, are in Middle Eastern studies departments.

The relationship between courses about Israel and Israel studies programs and Middle Eastern studies has been controversial at times. Many advocates for Israel accuse Middle Eastern studies scholars of being hostile to Israel or of ignoring Israel, while many of those scholars say that some pro-Israel groups get upset about any criticism of Israel and don't respect academic freedom.

Some of those advocates have pushed for Israel studies programs as a way to balance the focus of Middle Eastern studies programs -- although academics involved in Israel studies note that they have a wide range of views, and that visiting professors from Israel who have been brought to American campuses many times have found much to criticize about their country.

Robert M.A. Allen, president of the Middle East Studies Association and professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, in an interview Wednesday, said of Israel studies: "If people want to foster it and fund it, and if students want to take it, so be it."

Allen said that it was not the case that Middle Eastern studies programs have any hostility toward Israel. But he noted that the discipline is "a study of a collectivity of entities, cultures, religions, and nations, including Israel. But the thing about Israel studies is that it is very specific ... so why is it necessary?"

A concern to consider, he said, is whether a focus on Israel in courses is "the beginning of a process that would see courses in Egyptian studies, Moroccan studies, Iraqi studies. The real question is: What the basis of this and what is the ongoing purpose, other than placing the study of Israel in some specific academic category. That's the open question to which I don't have any answer."

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