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A coalition of 31 American Jewish organizations has launched a new three-year initiative to bring Israel studies to American college campuses.
"The average American college student who wants to study about Israel cannot," explained David Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition - an umbrella organization that unites the various American groups.
According to a 2006 study conducted by the Coalition that will be released sometime in the spring, Israel studies are virtually nonexistent in American higher education. In 386 institutions surveyed, including a varied sample of top universities, state schools and community colleges, 53 percent didn't offer a single course on Israel.
"Not even [a course on] comparative politics that includes Israel among other countries," emphasized Harris.
Another 24% of schools offered only one course that included Israel studies, and the remaining quarter had up to 10 courses. "Only nine Israel studies centers and nine Israel studies chairs exist at approximately 4,000 institutions of higher learning across America," notes the Coalition.
In the wake of these findings, the Jewish organizations, including the likes of the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and others from all along the political spectrum, have begun a project that will bring both formal and informal Israeli studies to American higher education.
"The early stage has to focus on informal education," said Harris, "because formal education [such as full-fledged Israel studies departments] will take time to develop." First, the organizations will launch a public campaign to inform the Jewish community and academia of the scope of the problem. It will then launch a series of informal educational initiatives and prepare the way for formal Israel studies programs on campuses.
According to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, the organizations are pushing forward with multiple strategies for injecting the subject informally into universities.
Early initiatives include training programs for academics, such as the Summer Institute for Israel Studies at Brandeis University "that has been training professors from other disciplines to incorporate into their courses, whether in history or political science, high-level academically sound units about Israel," Firestone told The Jerusalem Post. "That's one strategy," he added.
Another strategy, which Hillel is involved in, seeks to develop "peer-to-peer education," with curricula developed by students and taught in voluntary semester-long courses, Firestone continued. The prototype was created at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where students developed the Bina Initiative, a ten-week Israel studies program for small groups of faculty and staff, "which has been shared in other parts of the country," Firestone said.
In addition to such informal projects, the Coalition will work with students to mobilize advocacy for formal Israel studies programs on campuses.
"Nothing will get as much attention from university administrators or deans as students asking for it and campaigning for it," said Harris.
Such a program, it is hoped, will help tell Israel's story on American college campuses.
"Interdisciplinary studies of Israel outside of the realm of politics and modern history, including Israel studies focused on environmental sciences, business, culture and the arts, will encourage students and faculty to view Israel outside of the all-too-prevalent prism of conflict," according to a Coalition statement.