When people ask me about the situation on campus, I explain that the most serious problem is not anti-Israel student activists, it is faculty. We have a two-fold problem: Anti-Israel faculty and departments can be found across the country while opportunities to learn about the real Israel are limited. The bad news is that the anti-Israel faculty problem may be getting worse. The good news is that the field of Israel Studies is booming.
The first programs in Israel Studies (at Emory and American University) were established in 1998. It took at least five years before a third center was created (at NYU). Meanwhile, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) was stimulating new growth and interest in the field by sponsoring more than 100 visiting Israeli scholars at more than 50 universities, placing postdoctoral fellows in Israel Studies with mentors at major universities and building a cadre of young scholars to fill new positions through the AICE Scholar Award program for graduate students. This program, along with the generosity of donors at other institutions have helped to create at least 29 centers, chairs or programs of Israel Studies in the United States, nearly all created in the last 10 years.
Another indication of the growth in the field can be seen in the number of courses related to Israel that are offered today. In 2006 an astonishing 53% of the major universities offered zero courses on Israel and 77 percent offered zero or one. Four years later, after the creation of new centers of Israel Studies, the growth of the Brandeis Summer Institute (which trains faculty to teach courses on Israel), and the expansion of AICE’s visiting scholar program, a Brandeis study found a 69% growth in courses that focused specifically on Israel in the same 246 institutions surveyed earlier. AICE’s visiting professors alone generated nearly 150 new courses.
Perhaps the most successful program can be found at the University of Maryland (UMD), which hosted one of AICE’s first visiting Israeli professors in 2006-7. Thanks to the generous support of Amb. Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn, Jack and Barbara Kay and others, an endowed chair and center for Israeli Studies was established soon afterward. Today, the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies is led by Yoram Peri, the Abraham S. and Jack Kay Chair in Israel Studies. Peri is a former political advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, founder and former head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, and former Editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily, Davar.
In less than a decade, Peri has built the only Israel Studies program in the country with both a minor and a graduate program offering an M.A. and a Ph.D. (in partnership with other departments). The number of students taking courses in Israel Studies at UMD during the 2013-2014 academic year, for example, was 526. Peri says this is the largest program in the country, which should not come as a surprise given that Hillel ranks Maryland as the school with the third largest Jewish population – approximately 6,600 undergraduates and graduates (about 18% of total enrollment). Students are also encouraged to study in Israel and may count the courses they take there toward the minor.
One of the most important developments in the field is the shift in focus away from the conflict to a broader examination of Israel in all its complexity. One reason Israel’s image has suffered is that it is framed almost exclusively in terms of the relationship with the Palestinians, usually in a distorted fashion that places all the blame for the conflict on Israel. UMD, however, treats Israel like other countries and offers courses in Israeli history, politics, society, and culture, as well as the conflict. Students can study topics such as the Israeli economy, immigration to Israel, the Bedouin and other minority groups, civil rights in Israel, Israeli cinema, women in Israel, and literature. Viewing Israel through a variety of lenses allows students a more complete and accurate picture of Israel as it exists rather than the rose-colored glasses portrayal of pure partisans or the demonization propaganda of detractors.
UMD has an advantage over most Israel programs by virtue of its proximity to Washington, D.C. with its government officials and other policy makers and thinkers who can offer real life experience in the field to complement the scholarship of local and visiting academics. The Washington Israel Seminar, for example, brings scholars from universities around the Washington area who study Israel to discuss, develop, and cooperate on research and projects. UMD also hosts the official journal of the Association for Israel Studies, the Israel Studies Review, with Peri as editor-in-chief.
UMD is also crafting new and innovative programs with Tel Aviv University, including the creation of courses on Israeli history and conflict resolution taught simultaneously in Tel Aviv and College Park. Graduate students also have an opportunity to take courses at TAU to fulfill requirements toward their doctorates.
UMD’s program in Israel Studies is exceptional, but what is exciting is the number of other programs that are growing in this field. The only impediment to more explosive growth is the lack of institutional and philanthropic support. Once Israel Studies receives the type of support major college athletic departments, professional schools and libraries enjoy, students across the country will finally have the opportunity to learn about Israel from the best professors and not be limited to taking courses from professors more interested in delegitimizing Israel than doing scholarly research.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.