Israel Studies 101

By Alex Joffe
Monday, October 3, 2011

The modern American research university is a house of many rooms.  The field of Israel Studies, which has emerged in the past decade, occupies one of the newestand smallestof those rooms.  Israel Studies programs are meant to address a serious problem and take advantage of a large opportunity on campus.  What happens to them in the coming years will tell us something significant about Israel as a topic of study and about the American university itself.

In American universities over the past 150 years and more, academic programs and departments have come and gone.  One reason is that increasing specialization is, to some extent, intrinsic to the pursuit of knowledge.  Departments such as physics and chemistry broke off from one another as their disciplines grew too large and complex to be confined within a single intellectual and administrative space.  There have been fractures in disciplines like anthropology, where scholars of culture and scholars of biology discovered that they could no longer bear one another.

More recently, specialization has also been fueled by demands, from the subjects of study themselves, for inclusion on the academic menu.  Since the 1960's, we have seen a proliferation of ethnic and gender studies programs meant to bring the narratives of ignored or excluded groups into the larger discussion.  Jews and Jewish Studies programs in American universities have been among the leaders of this drive for inclusion through separation.

At their best, such efforts have created true and valuable diversityin the sense of new streams of thoughtwithin American universities.  They have also created walled-off compartments in which faculty can preach to choirs of student disciples (or simply to themselves) and the politicians among them can clamor for more resources, often by claiming past or present discrimination.  Unlike Jewish Studies programs, which are largely funded by Jewish donors, most ethnic and gender studies programs are paid for by the host universities themselves.  Such programs can perhaps best be characterized as having produced some scholarship and much politicking.

Israel Studies programs have a different provenance.  After World War II, U.S. universities saw the rise of "area studies," in which scholars crossed the boundaries of disciplines like history, economics, and political science in pursuit of 'useful knowledge' about a geographic region or cultural area.  Middle Eastern Studies departments emerged as part of this trend.  They are long awash in funds from, among other donors, Arab governments.  Predictably, these departments have been dominated by scholars of the Arab and Muslim worlds.  As their subjects have increasingly become the focus of world conflict, these scholars haveperhaps inevitably, in light of the current university climatebecome advocates. 

In such departments, even the few Israel specialists are almost uniformly hostile.  They tend to specialize in Israel's sins, speak in terms of the hyphenated entity "Israel/Palestine," or treat Israel as the "Little Satan" to imperialist America's "Great Satan."  This problem is one reason for the introduction of Israel Studies.

But there is also positive intellectual value in Israel Studies.  It explores a nationalist movement that emerged out of a 2000-year global diaspora and which, within only a few decades, established a modern state.  While surrounded by hostile neighbors and the vicissitudes of international politics, Israel is transforming itself economically, from socialism to capitalism.  It is a global, Western, and Middle East story; in modern academic language, it is hybridized.  All this is astonishing on its face and compels serious academic study.

Reflecting these problems and opportunities, Israel Studies programs on American campuses have now grown to number more than a dozen, along with research centers at universities including Brandeis, New York University, and the University of California at Berkeley.  The programs are largely funded by American Jews following in the steps of the philanthropic predecessors who created Jewish Studies programs to fill intellectual voids with scholarship and teaching.  The new programs are also meant to treat Israel fairly, as neither an object of piety nor a scabrous leper. 

American Jews are unquestionably dedicated to the ideals of the American university (whether universities reciprocateor deservesuch reverence is another question).  Donors to Israel Studies programs also know that their critics have knives sharpened and are ready to strike at the first sign of excessive enthusiasm.  Therefore, intellectual leaders of Israel Studies have repeatedly emphasized that their goal is academic inquiry, not advocacy.  In light of the present university environment, there is something touching, almost quaint, about their earnest expressions of dedication to the academic values of fairness and impartiality.

The early efforts have not always been successful.  Part of the reason is that the larger campus environment has changed for the worse in recent years.  Israel is increasingly anathematized by professors preaching to their classes and well-organized student activists who construct "apartheid walls" around campuses.  Any misstep could strangle an Israel Studies program in the cradle.  The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism made a similar misstep by sponsoring a conference on Muslim anti-Semitism.  The Institute's act of assertively pointing out the obvious gave internal critics at Yale the ammunition they needed to have the program shut down.  Israel Studies programs could face other dangerous minefields.  For example, they could be subverted by anti-Israel faculty who, when criticized, will claim that their academic freedom is being violated.

But Israel Studies could also succeed.  As Israel looms larger in current affairs, there have been demands from studentsthe double-edged sword of "relevance"for a study of solutions.  Just as important, the modern university, which has become both a vast research engine for American capitalism and an ambitious social engineering machine, is being questioned as never before.  The university's extraordinary costs and its equally extraordinary reign of political correctness are no longer immune from criticism. 

In this newly skeptical environment, Israel Studies programs promise to represent Israel seriously rather than as a cartoon villain in a post-colonial morality play and to use the best intellectual tools to hearken back to nearly-vanished ideals of academic integrity.  These programs could help light the path toward a broader university reformation.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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