Faculty Pose the Greatest Danger to Israel on Campus

The plight of Jewish students on college campuses has appropriately received increasing attention in the last two years. Highly publicized incidents, such as the mob that surrounded Jewish students at San Francisco State, the shouting down of Bibi Netanyahu at Concordia, and checkpoints and guerrilla theater at schools such as Georgetown and Berkeley have created the false impression that such behavior is the rule rather than the exception on college campuses.

For educators and the professionals who work on campus, the greatest challenge is not training students to respond to Israel’s detractors, but educating them about the history and politics of the Middle East so they can become independent thinkers who love and understand Israel, warts and all. This challenge is not being met because of the absence of scholars who can imbue this knowledge, and because most of the faculty teaching about the Middle East today are hostile toward Israel.

The prevalence of outspoken anti-Israel professors is the most insidious danger to Israel’s standing on the campus. Students and advocates come and go, but faculty remain for years and shape the campus environment and the minds of students. I can tell you the person who taught my course on the Arab-Israeli conflict at UC Santa Barbara 20-odd years ago was incredibly biased. I was back to speak there last year and discovered to my chagrin that the same professor is still teaching! So that professor has had 20 years to pollute students’ minds, which is far more dangerous than the nonsense that students may engage in. UCSB also has a beautiful new Middle East studies center. All you need to know about that institution is that the inaugural speaker was Hanan Ashrawi.

Faculty critical of Israel also tend to be extremely vocal and active while pro-Israel faculty usually are reluctant to participate in campus debate. This is certainly not true on all campuses, but it is the case on the majority. For a variety of reasons, including intimidation, lack of knowledge, political correctness, and concern for their image on the campus and in their fields, pro-Israel faculty are hesitant to engage in public or even private support for students, or to take on their colleagues. While some anti-Israel faculty in subjects completely unrelated to the Middle East will use their classrooms as forums for propaganda, such behavior by pro-Israel faculty is unheard of.

Here are a few examples of the problem:

• 1,500 academics signed a petition warning of a possible impending crime of humanity; that Israel would expel large numbers of Palestinians during the fog of the Iraq war.
• Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who was accused by French Jews of fomenting anti-Semitism, has been hired to teach peace studies at Notre Dame.
• A professor in Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures gave a lecture in which he argued that Zionism is a European colonial system based on racist principles with the goal of eradicating Palestine, and that Zionists are the new Nazis.
• At American University, an anthropology professor used a comic book as a text that is in the vein of Der Sturmer. Another professor crossed out the word “Israel” on a student’s exam and wrote in the margin, “Zionist entity.” Another handed out maps of the Mideast without Israel on them.
• At one southern university, a philosophy professor teaches a Humanities course entitled, “Living under Occupation.”

Though Jews comprise a significant share of academic positions, very few are involved in teaching about the Middle East, and some of those who do are unsympathetic to Israel. It is possible to point to positive experiences in institutions that have, for example, strong visiting scholar programs in which Israelis can often have an exponential impact in a short period of time on a particular campus. A handful of influential (Jewish and non-Jewish) U.S. scholars has also been active and often had an impact beyond their campuses. Overall, however, a severe shortage exists of scholars who are qualified to teach about Israel and who have any sympathy for their subject.

The Israel on Campus Coalition, as well as a separate task force of individuals with experience in academia and working with students, are studying the problems with faculty and proposing treatments for what ails the academy. This is a long-term project and one that is not meant to be a panacea. Certain aspects of the academic structure and culture, such as the ingrained anti-Israel bias in Middle East studies departments, and the perception that academic freedom is a license to teach almost anything about Israel, will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

Rather than try to fight these endemic structures, the best strategy is to provide alternatives for educating students about Israel. This requires the creation of endowed chairs in Israel studies, creating a fund to support graduate training in Israel studies and related fields, training scholars whose specialities may be in other fields, but who could be taught enough about Middle Eastern affairs to allow them to offer courses through their departments, and establishing programs for visiting Israeli diplomats to teach in local colleges.

The Jewish community adopted a similar approach to respond to the failure to teach about Jewish history and the Holocaust by successfully establishing dozens of departments of Jewish and Holocaust studies and supporting research and providing scholarships. It is time to do the same for scholarship about Israel.