Borderline Views: Studying Israel on campus

Borderline Views Studyi

Tomorrow, my colleague Professor Colin Shindler will deliver his inaugural lecture as the new professor of Israel studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. This comes against the backdrop of the intense academic boycott debate which has taken place in the UK over the past four years and, more significantly, takes place at an institute which has figured most prominently in many of the pro-Palestinian activities and events during this period. Shindler has not been promoted to the chair in Israel studies, the first of its kind in any UK university, because he is either a left-wing critic of Israel or because he is a right-wing blind advocate of everything Israel does. He has been awarded the chair because he is a first-rate scholar who has written books on Israeli society, culminating in a History of Modern Israel which was published recently. Moreover, Shindler is known by his many students, Jews and Arabs alike, to be a balanced lecturer, explaining the arguments of all sides without coming down in favor of any particular position while, at the same time, enabling the student to go away with additional knowledge and information about the country's history, society and culture. I LECTURE frequently on European and British campuses. Invariably, whether the topic of the lecture has anything to do with Israel or not, I am always approached by students at the end of the lecture who bemoan the fact that the discussion of Israel/Palestine on campus has become transformed into a polemical and highly politicized arena. Many of the students are Jewish who come along simply because the lecturer is from Israel and they feel an affiliation, regardless of what they themselves are studying and whether it is relevant or not to the lecture. They too are critical of the fact that all they ever hear is a political tirade - be it pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli - and that what they want is information and a balanced presentation so that they - young, rational, intelligent adults - can make up their own minds and adopt their own political positions without having someone trying to force it upon them. The same is true in my many meetings with university principals and chancellors throughout the UK. Most of them have little interest, either positive or negative, in Israel and are fed up with the way the boycott debate has been forced upon them by a small radical group of academics who have hijacked the UCU - the trade union to which most UK academics belong. They too bemoan the fact that they are constantly bombarded with requests to allow conferences to take place which are highly political in nature, or that they are pressured by political and community lobby groups into cancelling conferences which focus on one side of the conflict only. Whatever they decide, they are always accused of being biased toward one side and/or denying the right of academic freedom of speech and debate. What they want, and would be prepared to support, are high-quality balanced courses which present the history and the politics of the Arab-Israel conflict, explain the contrasting and contested narratives of both sides and allow the students to digest and analyze the information for themselves. THERE HAS been a significant growth in the adoption of Israel studies programs in recent years. This has been particularly the case in North America, where new programs have started up at UCLA, Maryland and Berkeley, to complement existing Israel studies chairs at Emory, New York University, Toronto, Georgetown, Harvard and a host of other academic institutions. One of the leading Israel studies institutes is the Schusterman Center at Brandeis, headed by Prof. Ilan Troen, who is also the editor of the leading analytical journal in this field, Israel Studies, published jointly by Ben-Gurion University and the Indiana University Press. The Association of Israel Studies, a North American based network of scholars whose research and teaching interests are focused on Israel, meets once a year in either North America or Israel. Its meetings are attended by hundreds of scholars, whose own perspectives on Israel and Israeli society range from the left-wing post-Zionist to the right-wing neo-Zionist, from the proponents of one state to supporters of Greater Israel and the settlement network. Political differences aside, they meet to share their scholarship and their understanding of the immense complexity of what Israel is all about. There is also a move afoot to create chairs of Israel studies at a number of leading UK universities, although raising funds for new academic ventures of this type in the present economic climate is not simple. What is critical, however, is that these chairs, be they in North America or Europe, do not become transformed into centers of pro- or anti-Israel advocacy, but that they draw the very best in academic scholarship and intellectual debate. That is not to say that there is no room for political debate and intensive differences of opinion. One would expect that these chairs would, occasionally, invite public speakers to argue their respective positions - after all, universities are also about raising political awareness among students. But first and foremost, it is for professors of Israel studies to educate their students, to provide them with information and data, to present balanced and contrasting analyses of the political context, before they start inviting the ambassadors and the politicians to push for their own corner. Whether Israel studies as such is a discipline in its own right is open to debate among scholars, but no more or less than whether American or European studies or any other form of area study has its own conceptual and analytical tools. In the highly charged atmosphere of many university campuses today, what is lacking is a serious balanced debate. It is to be hoped that the creation of many new Israel chairs and, if there should be such a move, the creation of chairs in Palestine studies as well, will redress the imbalance which exists today and which has turned many of the universities into extensions of the battlefield rather than the places of learning they are meant to be. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.