Why Israel Studies Matters

This is part one of a two-part series.

ClassroomAn Anti-Defamation League study spanning the first two years of the new millennium found a shocking 320% increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents on campus in the beginning of 2002, with 63 reported incidents nationwide in the first five months alone. The incidents, according to a recent study conducted by the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), marked the start of what would become a significant transformation in the atmosphere on many college campuses across the nation in the years to come.

Forty academics on 34 campuses were interviewed for that study, a White Paper written by the executive director of the ICC’s Center for Academic Engagement, Prof. Sam Edelman. The report found that 80% of those surveyed agreed that more courses on Israel would improve faculty engagement with campus Israel advocacy, and 100% felt that it was crucial to bring academics to Israel in field- or discipline-based trips.

“The need for Israel studies […] was partly stimulated by the anti-Israel activities going on around the US associated with the Second Intifada,” said Mitchell Bard, CEO of the America-Israel Cooperative Enterprise (AICE.) While many Jewish communities focused on what students were doing outside of academia, Bard and his associates argued that the real problem was inside the classroom, where professors in many departments, especially Middle East studies, were using their classrooms to advance political agendas that usually were hostile toward Israel. Bard suggested that one way to overcome the problem was to make sure that there were good scholars of Israeli politics, history and culture who students could turn to in order for an accurate, scholarly portrayal of Israel.

“One thing that was shocking was to see that there were professors in disciplines that had nothing to do with the Middle East who would sometimes inject their opinions into their classrooms,” Bard said. “So you would have people in language or in geography or in some other department expressing their political views.

“There was a long history of Middle East studies departments becoming very hostile towards Israel and having no one who could teach about Israel. “It was apparent that even if a student wanted to learn about Israel, they couldn’t on many American campuses,” Bard added. “The way to change the situation was to create programs in Israel studies, endow chairs in Israel studies and bring visiting Israeli professors to teach.”

Since about 2003, AICE has brought over 100 visiting Israeli professors to more than 50 campuses.

Bard and Edelman note that programs at New York University, Brandeis University, UCLA, University of Maryland and American University, among others, have steadily increased Israel courses. Edelman also pointed out the importance of hybrid Jewish studies/Israel studies programs, like those found at the University of Illinois and Indiana University, for instance.

Bard also noted that one goal of the visiting scholars program has been to create interest that would lead to more permanent investments in Israel studies on campuses across the country, and he says that has proven successful.

“In the last three or four years, there were new chairs created at San Francisco State, and American University is about to host its first chair,” Bard said. “There is going to be a new chair at [the] Ohio State University, and many of these chairs and programs grew out of our visiting scholar program. After we had visiting professors at UCLA, Berkeley, Maryland, SFSU, American and a few others, those grew into more permanent positions, chairs and centers.”