Students call or text home about the hostility toward Israel they feel on campus. The media publicizes speeches, protests and guerrilla theater that may only feature a small number of students, but still sets off alarm bells in the Jewish community. These are the public manifestations of problems on some campuses, but they are also relatively insignificant compared to the impact of faculty who engage in political propaganda and Israel denial outside and, sometimes, inside their classrooms.
Students cycle through schools every four years and, often when the chief instigator of anti-Israel activities graduates, the campus calms down. Faculty, however, are much like Supreme Court Justices; once they get tenure they are ensconced indefinitely and can only be removed in extraordinary circumstances. This means that a professor can spend decades promoting a personal agenda to thousands of students who, in most cases, don’t know better.
Students who are ill-informed about Israel may accept whatever they are told by the “authority” on the subject. Knowledgeable students may take issue with what the professor says, but the professor gets the last word and the student’s argument is unlikely to be accepted by their classmates. Most students are afraid to speak up at all; they are shy, lack confidence and are insufficiently informed.
Fear is the greatest impediment to students challenging their professors. One organization set up a hotline for students to call if they were having any problems in class, but it was shut down because only a handful of students called. The main reason was their anxiety about the potential impact on their grades and their future if their professors knew they complained.
Israel’s detractors recognized decades before the pro-Israel community that universities are an important place to invest to shape the opinions of future generations. Thus, Arab individuals and states have contributed more than $1.4 billion to American universities, most of it since 9/11. Prior to 2000, investment in Israel Studies was trivial, and only two centers existed. In the last eight years philanthropists started to discover the important role faculty play and the lack of courses on Israel and qualified professors to teach them.
The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) has been a major catalyst behind the growth spurt in Israel Studies in the United States. AICE has brought more than 100 visiting Israeli professors to 68 campuses where they typically teach 2-4 courses on Israel, engage in public education and demonstrate to both the university and the community the value of a full-time scholar in the field. Today, 22 programs, centers and/or chairs in Israel Studies are hosted at schools across the country. One of the secrets to the success of the AICE program has been to find the best scholars in a variety of fields, who can educate students about the complexity of the region through the lenses of a variety of disciplines. Moreover, the universities choose which scholar they want to host, according to their needs and standards. If these scholars behaved like some of their colleagues and pursued a political agenda, the program would never have worked, much less attracted schools such as Yale, Berkeley, Michigan and Stanford.
As the field grows, young scholars will be needed to fill positions. Toward that end, AICE held an annual competition for graduate students and presented 5-10 Israel Scholar Awards to the most promising students in the field. Forty awards have been given out and, of those who have completed their PhDs, 11 have found teaching positions at places such as Oxford, Princeton and MIT. There is still a lot of work and investment that needs to be done to give Israel Studies the prominence that Jewish or Holocaust Studies have achieved, and to compensate for the Middle East Studies departments that ignore or vilify Israel.
Though we still only hear about problems in classrooms from the occasional student who is willing to speak out and report the issue, we don’t know what goes on in most classrooms. The Israel deniers in the academy, however, have begun to expose themselves by participating in student protests and joining other faculty in condemning Israel, signing petitions calling on their university to boycott Israeli institutions, and advocating that aid to Israel be curtailed.
One indication of the depth and breadth of the problem is that no fewer than 1,600 professors at more than 500 schools have expressed their enmity toward Israel through public statements, petitions and letters. We know that some of these professors bring their views into the classroom and exert influence beyond the university through their writings, off-campus activities, and appearances in the media.
Universities and other stakeholders (e.g., students, taxpayers, donors, and trustees) have an obligation to ensure that all professors are accountable and that academic malpractice is not tolerated. This does not mean silencing professors with whom some may disagree. The best response to professors who are classroom propagandists and engage in shoddy scholarship is to invest in good scholars who can educate students about the full complexity of Israel’s history, politics and culture.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews.
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin
Think others should know about this? Please share