Israelis who want a safe way to meet Iranians and Arabs should go to Orange County California as visiting professors at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). I not only came back alive, but enjoyed myself in what I had been told was the most anti-Israel campus inside the second most Muslim county in the US.
After all, UCI had become infamous for incidents showing how unwelcoming an American university could be to a visiting Israeli scholar – as when Muslim students mercilessly heckled Dr. Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador, and a former classmate and teaching colleague.
Oren, a superb historian, writer and speaker, was not allowed to get a word out of his mouth by thuggish Muslim students specially trained to keep him from speaking.
Another colleague, Dr. Josef Olmert, told me of his uncomfortable encounter on campus, even needing protection to go to the bathroom.
It turned out I did not need a helmet or martial arts moves. Perhaps.it was my joke-telling ability in Arabic and Yiddish that won over students, but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that Orange County prosecutors and UCI administrators made it clear that thuggish behavior would be punished.
Most of my students were non-Jews – Iranian, Arab, Japanese, Chinese – who had little knowledge of Israel or the complex reality of the Middle East. I tried to teach this reality in a course on Politics and Media in Israel, a graduate seminar on terrorism, and, the big winner, Israel At the Movies.
Because we were in California, land of movie makers and film students, I chose the language of cinema to teach history, sociology and politics. It worked.
From films like Salah Shabati, Kazablan, Adama Meshuga’at, Beaufort, Walking on Water and Ajami, students got a good picture of Israel, warts and all.
Walking on Water showed them there is a personal price for fighting terror and hunting Nazis, and Adama Meshuga’at showed them that kibbutz life was not always an idyllic dream.
When they saw Ajami, I asked them what they learned from a film that deals with Arab-Arab and Arab-Jewish conflicts in Jaffa, the West Bank, the Negev and elsewhere. One student said he saw socio-economic conflict – a reflexive response from those who have been told that Marx is king and that economic determinism is everything.
I laughed, looking down at my feet. Then I asked if anybody saw anything else.
Elena, an Iranian-born student who took two of my classes, raised her hand.
“It’s all about family,” she said, and then she and I explained the role of the hamula – the clan or the tribe – in the movie and in today’s Middle East, where there is no “Arab Spring,” only a tribal winter.
BY TRIMESTER’S end, Mershad, another Iranian- born woman, presented a complex power-point on internal Israeli conflicts versus the need for unity in Jewish society. One of her conclusions was that the Holocaust might have been prevented had Israel been around in 1933.
“It is too bad that some of the leaders of my country [Iran] still do not really understand what the Holocaust was,” Mershad said, closing her presentation. She flashed a picture of Mahmoud Ahmadinajad on screen.
Her words alone were worth the trip to California.
As was the experience of learning from doctoral students in my terrorism seminar, including a woman who specialized in Pakistan, an expert on Italy who was now studying the strategic and ethical price of drone warfare, and a Korean intelligence officer who spoke Chinese and Japanese and served with US forces in Iraq.
It was a joy to help such students prepare their theses and power-points, learning while being paid to teach. My big regret was that I could not convince the UCI political science department to host a session for them, nor even for myself. Insensitive bureaucracy can be as deflating as thuggish student demonstrators.
The writer is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University, was strategic affairs advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, and is the Schusterman visiting professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-14.