While the media and certain individuals and groups continue to perpetuate the myth that US campuses are bastions of anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitism, those of us working with campuses know that this is untrue. In fact, there is so much positive activity going on between American universities and Israel that most of it goes completely unnoticed.
I was attending an event at the Israeli embassy in Washington last year and bumped into a professor from the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship who told me about a 10-week fellowship program for full-time MBA students to work with the Technion Seed Incubator. The US and Israeli students work together to develop a feasibility study and commercialization plan for Technion owned intellectual property. During the program, a panel of 5-10 experienced entrepreneurs, researchers, and venture capitalists assess the students'' strategies.
A few minutes later, I began talking to a professor from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia who told me that he ran a three-week course that spends half the time in Israel meeting with government officials and industry leaders and working on projects with Israeli startup companies. The first time the course was held, only eight students enrolled, the next time 40 signed up, but the class had to be limited to 30, still making it one of the top two most popular global field trips in Darden. In 2011, the class worked on six different projects in the areas of clean tech, biotech, and high-tech.
Towson University professors Dr. Hana Bor and Dr. Karen Goldrich Eskow lead a minimester program in Israel to explore culture and service in Israel and compare that nation''s techniques with institutions in Baltimore. Students learn how Israel has developed schools and social services at national and local levels and how they have put policies and practices to work in urban areas such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Netanya, and in Baltimore''s sister city, Ashkelon.
For the last two years, Smith College Professor Justin Cammy has led a group of mostly non-Jewish students to Israel where they spend nine days studying the religious history of Jerusalem and another nine days learning about contemporary politics. Students also have an opportunity to choose internships, which have included an archeological dig in the City of David, a position at the Israel Museum, a media internship, and a job working with African refugees.
And how about the trip to Israel by 45 midshipmen and cadets from the United States Naval, Air Force, Coast Guard and Military Academies featured in USA Today. During the three-week trip sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), participants meet young Israeli military officers, learn similarities and differences in officer schooling, and build bridges for future contacts. A JINSA report on the 2011 trip noted, “What becomes clear from the [students’] reports is their relative lack of knowledge about the region prior to the visit and the participants’ desire to know more. Their understanding of the complexity of the Middle East is dramatically enhanced, as nearly all participants comment on the differences between the Israel they have seen on television and the Israel they visited with JINSA.”
The University of California at Irvine became famous after Israeli Ambassador Oren was shouted down and the Muslim student group put on a series of hate-filled programs attacking Israel. These types of incidents tend to create a long-term perception of a campus that does not reflect changes over time. In fact, since the 2010 Oren incident, UCI has hosted AICE-sponsored Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professors who report that the atmosphere on that campus has changed dramatically. This coming year, the campus will host a Schusterman visiting Israeli professor, visiting Israeli artist and postdoctoral Israel fellow. In addition, Chancellor Michael Drake traveled to Israel in April and established collaborative agreements with several universities and started to plan a workshop on water resources with Ben-Gurion University and a communications conference with Tel Aviv University.
Consider two other universities that became notorious after highly-publicized confrontations - San Francisco State and Concordia. At SFSU, in 2002, an anti-Israel mob surrounded a group of Jewish students that led many to fear for their safety. Since then, thanks in part to the efforts of the chancellor and others, what was once one of the most hostile campuses in the U.S. has turned around. Yes, the campus still has a mural of Edward Said, but, more important has been the introduction of the academic study of Israel taught by a series of Richard & Rhoda Goldman Visiting Israeli Professors and now by the recently established Richard & Rhoda Goldman Chair in Israel Studies.
Similarly, Concordia became known for hostility to Israel after Benjamin Netanyahu was shouted down in 2002. As in the case of UCI and SFSU, much of the pro-Israel community does not realize the negative events occurred a decade ago and changes have occurred. Concordia has a new Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, which “brings together faculty, researchers and students who share a common passion and dedication to the study of Israel across many fields, including archaeology, history, religion, political science, economics, art, literature, anthropology and sociology.” I met the co-director of the Institute who confirmed that the campus today is nothing like it was in 2002.
The doomsayers who claim that campuses are becoming more hostile to Israel only see the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, however, the mass of the berg is a different character altogether, and it is growing. A few years ago, most universities offered few, if any, courses on Israel; today, thousands of courses are being taught around the country. Prior to 2000, two universities had centers of Israel Studies and there was one full-time chair in Israel Studies and a couple of visiting Israeli professor programs; today, there are 15 centers in North America and approximately 20 visiting or permanent chairs in Israel Studies. AICE alone will bring 22 visiting Israeli scholars to campuses this year.
The anti-Israel forces began investing in universities decades ago, so it is not surprising the pro-Israel community has had to play catch up. Israel’s detractors seek to politicize the campus and the classroom, but we are not interested in doing the same thing from a different perspective. Our goal is to normalize the study of Israel so it is taught the same way you teach any other area of the world and that the discourse on campus is civil and based on scholarship rather than propaganda. Much work remains to be done, and when you consider the Arabs have invested nearly $300 million in universities since 9/11, it is clear more money needs to be invested into the type of programs described here so the tip of the iceberg looks like the part most of you don’t see.
Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and author of Israel Matters and The Arab Lobby.