The 'involved outsider'

By Dana Blander

Why is it so difficult to agree upon a constitution for Israel? Why is it that so many ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel don’t work? Do Arab citizens of Israel have the same rights and duties as the Jewish citizens?
These are just a few examples of the questions I have been asked at Tufts University in Massachusetts during the past month in my “Democracy in Israel” class.  I find these and other comments made by the students very challenging because they are asked from a unique point of view: an “involved outsider” perspective.
To my surprise, my students at Tufts are involved in the everyday reality of Israel. They are very different from the stories I heard about American students who don’t know where Israel is on the map. Not only do the students I have met at Tufts know where Israel is, they are familiar with the history of Israel and with the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They also know quite a bit about the Israeli political system. Therefore they deserve the title “involved.
Still, they look at the Israeli political reality from a stranger’s point of view. I must admit this novel perspective is challenging. Unlike teaching Israeli students who live within the “overburdened polity” of Israel and are used to the political system’s faults and peculiarities, my American students look at it from a fresh, naïve and unbiased perspective. They are outsiders, but they view it with a mixture of healthy criticism and sympathy.
I was also surprised by the variety and updated academic literature about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that can be found in the Tisch Library at Tufts, not to mention the unprecedented collection of Israeli films at the Bernstein Media Center. Apparently, this variety is not found everywhere. On a visit to a very famous university bookstore in the area, I was very disappointed to discover that there were hardly any books about modern Israel. When it came to books about the conflict, it seemed as if there was only a Palestinian side to the conflict. I don’t want to undermine these sources; I just believe that students and the general public should have access to the different faces of Israel and to the different, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives on the conflict. The more they know, the better they will understand the complexity of the situation so they can form a genuine enlightened opinion that is not just a reflection of stereotypes or half-truths.
Dana Blander is the Schusterman/AICE Visiting Israel Professor at Tufts University for the 2010-2011 academic year.