The establishment of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies on campus has received mixed reviews from the Brandeis faculty. While some professors fear that the center will promote a biased and narrow view of the country due to the pro-Israel ideology of the foundation that endowed it, others argue that the center is academically sound.
This summer, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation established the center with a $15 million grant. The foundation, established in 1987, is "dedicated to helping the Jewish people flourish by supporting programs throughout the world that spread the joy of Jewish living, giving and learning" according to the mission statement on the Foundation's Web site.
"The principle that concerns me is that these centers are openly centers for advocacy, that is they are not there to study the country of Israel," Professor Mary Baine Campbell (ENG) said.
She said the worries the center will promote the view of the Israeli government, instead of the broader interests of the worldwide Jewish population.
"To establish a $15 million center to promote one view of the situation [is] a very unusual academic thing to do," Campbell said.
Lynn Schusterman, founder of the Schusterman Foundation, said concerns over anti-Israel sentiments and anti-Semitic tendencies on college campuses motivated her to establish several Israel Study Centers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma.
"I hope [through] education will come understanding," she said. She further explained that through the center, she hoped students would become more familiar with the history of Israel.
Schusterman added that she would envision the center offering multiple perspectives on modern Israel.
Prof. Ilan Troen (NEJS), the center's director, insisted that it would study all aspects of Israel.
"The fears about it being colored by political bias are just baseless," he said.
Troen said he aimed to make the center "the most important and best place outside of Israel for the study of Israel." He explained that the center would reach this goal through the instruction of students, publications such as an Israel Studies journal, lectures, symposia and high-profile speakers. The center will also sponsor fellowships and offer travel money for research projects.
"This is just another center," Troen said. "We will not be the only [such] center, we will be the first and, I hope, the best."
Lisa Eisen, national program director of the Schusterman Foundation, emphasized that the foundation wouldn't proscribe the faculty how or what to teach at the center.
She explained that the foundation maintained "that if Israel is studied from an academic perspective the same way that China or Russia or any other country would be studied, different viewpoints will come out, and people will draw their own conclusions."
Brandeis, however, could better use $15 million to provide for more classroom spaces and similar university needs, Campbell said, adding that many institutions on campus already fill the same ideological niche that the Israel Studies Center will.
"[This] is not a gift that responds to the actual problems that the University has," she explained. "We have a Crown Center for Middle East Studies, we have the Steinhardt Center for the study of American Jews, we have NEJS, we have a lot of study going on that is related to the Jewish mission of Brandeis...and rightly so."
Campbell suggested that Brandeis' donors receive more guidance, and that alumni who wish to make a donation should ask the University how they could best benefit their alma mater.
"I'm not sure who at Brandeis would have solicited a center for Israeli Studies," she said. Campbell called it "wonderful" that chief Fundraiser Nancy Winship stated last February that the University doesn't "make any [academic] decisions based on donors' wishes" in response to the debates over former President Jimmy Carter's visit to campus last January.
Campbell said she questioned the University's direction in recent years, explaining that "from various events, public statements, donations, solicitations and so on, as though the University is coming to see itself in an ideological way, and this will take us off the map."
"I really worry about Brandeis' reputation," Campbell said. "We're becoming in fact what is neither a secular institution particularly, nor an institution devoted to truth, even unto its innermost parts, which ought to be the motto of every university."
Troen said he thought the center would deal very well with controversial issues involving Israel and the Middle East conflict.
"You can't teach a good course on Israel without bringing up the variety of conflicting opinions regarding Israel, and I don't see why that would change outside the classroom," he said.
Referring to the journal, he explained that it would represent multiple perspectives in the conflict. As editor of the journal, he said he was supported by a board of scholars with both Israeli and Arab members.
Prof Sylvia Fishman (NEJS) agreed with Troen.
"[The center] will treat issues with intellectual integrity and detailed research," she said. "Why should I be concerned [just] because it has the name Israel?"
Prof Gordon Fellman (SOC), however, expressed concern over the center's academic aims.
"My concern is that it may be yet another effort to do positive PR for Israel," he said.
Fellman added that he wondered whether the new center was trying to avoid or deal with problems facing the Jewish community.