Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

Learning from experience

Imagine having the opportunity to choose a college course taught by a professor who knew Thomas Jefferson, or who participated in the Revolutionary or Civil War, or was an adviser to the president.

Most American professors have never been practitioners of the subjects they teach and their knowledge comes from books and documents and little or no personal experience. Political scientists, for example, teach courses without ever engaging in politics or being involved in political decision-making. Middle East studies faculty regularly complain that the formulators of Middle East policy ignore their views. This should come as no surprise given that many American departments have become dominated by anti-American and anti-Israel ideologues who are out of touch with political reality.

One of the great things about the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) program to bring visiting Israeli scholars to the United States is that many of these professors have the practical life experience most American faculty lack.

Some senior Israeli professors, for example, fought in the pre-state underground, participated in the War of Independence and knew Israel's founding leaders. Most American students and professors have no direct experience with war, but many Israelis fought in Israel's formative wars and continue to be called for reserve duty. Other Israeli scholars not only teach and write about decision-making, they served in policy-making positions, advised prime ministers and were involved in the country’s decision-making process on issues ranging from national security to education.

This personal experience is one of the unique attributes visiting Israeli scholars can bring to their classrooms. I'm not talking here about engaging in advocacy or espousing any particular ideology, but, rather, exposing students to events and processes they personally witnessed. Last semester, many visiting Israeli professors were asked about the Gaza operation and they could explain the circumstances leading to the fighting as well as their experience during previous conflicts with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. These Israelis could also communicate what it is like to live under the threat of rocket attacks. For example, one professor from Ben-Gurion University explained to his class what his students and faculty colleagues were experiencing while fighting was taking place in Gaza. He could also convey the feelings of Israeli parents who, like him, had a son in the army and a second one called up for reserve duty.

Israeli scholars make a difference on campus in very tangible ways, from exposing students for the first time to an Israeli, to explaining aspects of Israeli politics, history and culture they've never heard before, to serving as a resource for students looking for answers in response to the misinformation they hear from the media and other professors. They can help students better understand the political conflict; however, one of their most important contributions is to explain Israel’s complexity rather than focus on the narrow prism of conflict that dominates how Israel is represented on campus and in the media. 

AICE could have invited only political scientists and historians to explain the conflict, but the goal is to give students the opportunity to take courses from visiting Israeli scholars who can present Israel as it is, as opposed to the caricature they see in the press and hear about from campus propagandists and anti-Israel faculty. 

Thanks to far-sighted and generous donors, AICE has brought more than 100 Israeli professors to more than 50 campuses in the last eight years. These professors have come from nearly two dozen different disciplines ranging from law to education to musicology. 

What better way can you think of to help make the study of Israel as commonplace as the study of France, China or any other country?

Visiting Israeli professors provide students with the extraordinary opportunity to learn from individuals who have not just been witnesses to history, but are also participants in the formation of a still young and developing nation. Exposure to Israelis, to scholarship on Israel and to the complexity of life in Israel is the best antidote to the delegitimization of Israel on campus.