About six years ago, Martin H. Blank, the chief operating office of the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, approached the University of California, Berkeley, where three generations of his family had studied, with an offer to establish a center for Israel studies. He was politely informed that, politically, it wasn't the "right time" for it.
What was then deemed politically problematic became possible this past January with the opening of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society - an initiative of faculty at Berkeley's law school, and funded by the Gilbert Foundation.
The natural place for such an institute of Israel studies would have been the department of Middle Eastern studies, but it is an open secret - even if none of those interviewed for this article were prepared to say so in so many words - that Middle East scholars at Berkeley, as well as some of the liberal faculty members in the Jewish studies department, do not harbor great sympathy for Israel and its policies in the territories. For that reason, the institute was established on neutral territory: the law school.
"Israel is a very controversial country in our academic institutions," Blank tells Haaretz. "The American academic institutions have a large Muslim student population. And these students don't tend to have fond feelings toward Israel. The second reason is that many of these institutions, including Berkeley and UCLA, tend to have politically liberal faculties. And with that liberalism, as stupid as it might sound, comes substantial dislike of the State of Israel, because of its 'terrible treatment of the Palestinians.'"
Last year, he notes, the student senate at Berkeley passed a resolution calling on the university to divest itself of investments in a number of companies doing business with the Israel Defense Forces (the resolution was later overturned). "This is a real problem," says Blank.
The deterioration in Israel's image on campuses, including the "Israel Apartheid Week" events that have gained momentum in recent years, is of great concern to the American Jewish community. Many communities bring in emissaries from Israel in order to nurture a closer relationship between their community and Israel. Several Jewish donors have taken it upon themselves to address the problem, and not only by supporting pro-Israeli student organizations. They are establishing research institutes and Israel studies programs, bringing in Israeli speakers, and sponsoring special lectures and Israel-related events.
Leading the drive is the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which for the past decade has paid to bring Israeli academics to universities in the United States. In 2007, the foundation created the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, near Boston.
Prof. Yoram Peri was asked two years ago to head the new Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, north of Washington, D.C. In its first year, 20 students were enrolled in courses sponsored by the institute, but by the second year, the number was up to 400. Today, these students are able to choose from among 15 courses about Israel, the history of Zionism and Bedouin society. The institute also has an extensive research program and is slated to host several academic conferences in the next few years.
"Politicization of the field is one of the biggest problems," says Peri even though at his school, anti-Israel protests are relatively restrained. "There is no 'Israel Apartheid Week' here. There is a 'Palestine Week,'" he says. "When Ambassador Michael Oren spoke, there was a quiet demonstration by Palestinians who held up signs with the names of children who were killed in Gaza. Then I invited the Palestinian ambassador to speak, too, and it was fascinating because he spoke about compromise, and it was enlightening for Jews and Palestinians alike."
The Israeli consul in San Francisco, Akiva Tor, notes that times have changed. "In the '80s I studied at Columbia University under Edward Said," he says. "I told him at the time that I was about to move to Israel and join the army. His response was that everyone had to follow his conscience. Today, the discourse at universities about Israel has become quite extreme. There are those who even call the Palestinian Authority a 'government of collaborators,' and the Jewish students are suffering from this atmosphere."
In March, Tor was heckled during a visit to Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, the alma mater of International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in 2003. "The Jewish students were afraid to meet with me on campus, so we were compelled to get together at a pizzeria off campus, but the protesters showed up there, too, and told me to 'get the hell off our campus,' except that it was phrased in less nice terms than that," Tor recalls. "There are also quite a few anti-Zionist Jewish students."
The Jews who are donating money to set up institutes and programs in Israel studies are interested in exposing students to the complexity of Israel. No one will say so out loud, but university officials are at odds on the matter with donors, who expect the lecturers to be pro-Israel. "The request is totally understandable," says Blank, "but from a legal and academic point of view, it is not feasible." He also acknowledges that as a donor, selecting faculty is "not my job. People should be hired because of their academic credentials, not because they are supporters of Israel."
As far as he is concerned, exposure to information is the key. "Knowledge is power, and unless you get them knowledge, they won't know any more about Israel than what they read in the newspaper or what the screaming Arab students say at the campus rallies. It is critical to understand that Israel is an advanced, sophisticated state with lots of problems. [Students] have to be exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly."
Demand exceeds supply
The foundation with which Blank is affiliated was also involved in establishing the West Coast's first Israel studies program, at UCLA, which originated as an endowed chair with a single Israeli professor. Last year, it was upgraded to "center" status by virtue of a contribution from Younes and Soraya Nazarian, a wealthy Jewish family from Iran.
The center at Berkeley, founded with the help of an initial contribution of $750,000, features courses about Israel in a variety of university departments. Demand has exceeded supply this year. Next year, the institute will be offering six new courses, including a first-ever course at Berkeley on Israeli history and a course on religious identity to be taught by visiting Israeli psychology lecturer Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch.
"The goal is to create a community," says Prof. Kenneth Bamberger, the director of the institute, who conceived the initiative. "We have 15 professors from around the university who teach law, economics, history, sociology, business, Jewish studies and public policy, all of whom have come together to create this institute. There are so many people around the university working on Jewish studies and Israel, but there was no chance to bring them together.
"We have students working on topics from the Second Temple to environmental justice in Israel, water engineering in Israel, innovation and social networks. There are 30,000 graduate and undergraduate students at Berkeley, among them about 3,000 Jews. It means the interest is here, also for really robust learning and discussion about Israel. We started a new seminar in Israeli democracy and security, and it could accept only 35 people because we did it at the last minute; twice as many people wanted to take it. In my Jewish law class, a third of the students were students of Islamic law. It made for an amazing classroom and discourse."
Bamberger says the institute wants to avoid politicization, and simply teach about Israel. "Now we have study of Israel in Berkeley that is parallel to the study of France or any other country. It's very exciting. Daniella Beinisch [a lecturer in the law school and the institute's executive director] is teaching a course in comparative constitutional law starting next year. It offers a close look at constitutions of countries like the U.S., Germany, Canada and South Africa, as compared with Israel, with no written constitution at all, so it's an amazing thing."
The founders of the institute seem uncomfortable when the subject shifts to Berkeley's anti-Israeli image. "There is room for political activities in Berkeley," says Beinisch (who happens to be the daughter of Israel Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch). "All sorts of protest groups are usually standing in one place on the campus, and it's great. I think it's important to have the students involved, but we are trying to add an academic, educational angle to it. The idea is to impart greater resources to those people who are interested in a certain field, so that they will be able to discuss their papers, so that there will be money to send them to conferences in Israel."
Noah Stern, a third-year economics major, is president of Berkeley's Associated Students of the University of California, the student government. "UC Berkeley is definitely unique in its anti-Israel leaning," he reports. "Student groups are well organized in their efforts to demonize Israel, and there are a significant number of faculty members who could be labeled anti-Israel. Many pro-Israel students often find it difficult to share their views in their courses and often must refrain from admitting they are Zionists, because the belief that Zionism is racism is prevalent at Berkeley," Stern says.
Referring to the new center, Stern says he has not taken any courses there, but adds that, "as someone who is concerned about an honest and forthright portrayal of Israel, it is comforting to know that an institution like UC Berkeley is taking the critical steps toward creating a place where real Israel education and dialogue can flourish, away from student politics and emotionally charged demonstrations."
Yedidya Ezion, an Israeli graduate student in Jewish studies at Berkeley, describes his arrival on campus two years ago. "For me it was an eye-opener. There are many voices that we in Israel are unaware of, and that we may see as marginal. But here I have come into contact with protesting students who put up simulated 'Israeli checkpoints in the territories.' Some of them made some amazing allegations, for instance that there had been a Palestinian state that Israel went and conquered."
Directors of the new institute are now awaiting completion next year of a building near the university, to which the Judah L. Magnes Museum will be moving. The museum, which will showcase one of the largest collections of Jewish art and cultural artifacts in the U.S., will also serve as a study space for Jewish studies and for events of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society.
Marty Blank is certain that the institute could still be a target for hecklers, but is not overly concerned. "Campuses are used to protests. I was at Berkeley in the '60s and '70s, during the free speech movement - protests against segregation and the Vietnam War. Berkeley was a hotbed of protest - people were arrested, there were police and troops on campus. It was violent, and it was incredibly exciting to be at Berkeley then. Campuses in this country are nowhere near as disruptive as they used to be."