Another academic year has come and gone and the big news was that there was little news from the campus. This was a year dominated by positive stories, the enthusiasm for Barack Obama and nationwide Israel at 60 celebrations.
The year began with fears that professors Walt and Mearsheimer would infect students with their venomous inventions about the Israeli lobby, but they barely caused a ripple. Their long-term impact in the classroom as their book is adopted in Middle East courses may yet be corrosive, but their immediate impact was nil.
There were the usual handful of anti-Semitic incidents to report, but nothing unusual in terms of either quality or quantity. The truth is that anti-Semitism is not a problem on American campuses.
The story inside the classroom remains something different. Faculty advancing their own personal agendas, typically with an anti-Israel slant, remain entrenched across the country. Some progress was made toward redressing the dramatic imbalance between professors with little or no expertise demonizing Israel and genuine scholars of the country's history, politics and culture. The new Schusterman Center for Israel Studies was inaugurated at Brandeis, bringing the number of US centers to nine. In addition, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) sponsored 26 visiting Israeli professors across the country who taught roughly 100 new courses, exposed hundreds of students to factual information about Israel and contributed to public education though dozens of community lectures and articles and appearances in the media.
AICE is also encouraging the next generation of scholars by supporting a number of postdoctoral fellows in Israel studies and graduate students. In 2008, five new grad students won Schusterman Israel Scholar Awards to help them complete their degrees in Israel-related fields and another 8 former winners had their $15,000 awards renewed.
This was also the year where one small victory was achieved against the crusading anti-Israel professors when Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul. This has not slowed him down as a speaker on campus as he now claims to be a victim of Walt/Mearsheimer's nefarious Israel lobby.
Another professor with controversial views did win tenure at Barnard, but the university learned there is a price to pay for rewarding professors whose research focuses on demonizing Israel as alumni protested and withdrew their financial support. Donors have begun to vote with their checkbooks against their alma maters when they demonstrate an insensitivity toward the treatment of Jewish students and the politicization of teaching about Israel. Pseudo scholars still try to hide behind the mask of academic freedom, but it is becoming more difficult as donors and alumni begin to hold schools accountable for upholding standards of scholarship.
The venerable Middle East Studies Association, which was hijacked long ago by the anti-Israel faction and become so politicized that it is not taken seriously by reputable scholars, is now facing a challenge from some of the leading intellects in the field, such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, who have formed a rival association, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, that held its inaugural meeting in 2008 and hopes to supplant MESA as the home for scholars rather than polemicists.
For years the situation on campus was referred to as a war. While one battlefield is among the faculty, the more visible fights have been on the quad between student groups. The majority of Jewish students remain frustratingly ignorant and apathetic, but the ones who are engaged are as smart and passionate as any who came before. Many organizations are actively cultivating these students and doing their best to multiply their numbers. Pro-Israel students have the upper hand at most colleges as they have both passion and the facts on their side and the anti-Israel groups are finding their peers unresponsive to their apologetics for Arab intransigence and terror.
Birthright remains the most exciting and important engine for stimulating a connection to Israel. The program continues to struggle with the challenge of following up with their alumni and sustaining their enthusiasm, but students who have participated in the program often become campus leaders and those who do not still offer great hope for the future.
So long as the conflict continues in the Middle East, a proxy war will continue on the campus. Inside the classroom, much remains to be done, but the development of the field of Israel studies is slowly starting to make a difference. Beyond the classroom, the challenge remains to educate and energize the millennials to become lovers of Israel, warts and all.