In 2000, as my Jewish identity finally began to blossom and my awareness of current events followed suit, the Second Intifada broke out in Jerusalem. At that point, I decided pretty quickly I was interested enough, even invested enough, in Israel that I wanted to work on it for the rest of my life. That included its neighbors. That included its people. That included its history, culture and religions. Things progressed from there.
In May 2009, I graduated from Rutgers University with my Bachelor's in Middle Eastern Studies and had even been published in an academic journal. I focused on Iran, Shiite Islam and even Iraqi refugees. Israel was my activism. I spent hour after hour, day after day in Hillel working on Israel activities and becoming an ad hoc go-between with the Arab and Muslim student groups on campus. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as a classroom focus, I particularly avoided. Every semester at Rutgers, a different instructor taught the class. I thought it was too risky to trust any single professor when so many students would walk into the class carrying so much baggage. I stayed objective, quiet and tried my best to moderate my opinions.
But that is not the attitude on campus. There is plenty to say about how Palestinian activists and their supporters have acted on campuses across North America the last several years. But that is not what I want to discuss. The Jewish students on campus are often divided based on their political beliefs on their community's defense of Israel. Neither of those things have anything to do with the classroom, and that is what is undermining Israel activism on the American and Canadian campus.
To be honest, I was always annoyed with groups like The David Project, Stand With Us and Hasbara. They had their goals in mind, but the goals became more important than inquiry and became more important than the truth. Even when they were right, they would act as though they were wrong. They began to believe they were merely defending Israel, and that to bring in academia and introspection would be dangerous for the cause.
Never mind the anti-intellectualism I sensed from these groups, and which most of Hillel's staff and student leaders sensed as well. Most students did not bring detailed knowledge to the table when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much less Israeli domestic issues. There were dozens of students immersed deeply in the Jewish Studies department, but hardly with an Israeli focus, much less a political one.
I spent my time in the Middle Eastern Studies department. As an Orthodox Jew whose political views were pretty known to the other students, it might have been a bit confusing to see me drop a courtesy visit to the Ramadan iftar (break-the-fast) the department hosted one night. But it didn't influence how I wrote or how much I would defame Hezbollah when the opportunity or the need came up. The fact I let myself read a little bit of Noam Chomsky's views on Israel or read about Israel's alliance with the Iranian Shah in the 1970s indeed helped me as a campus activist. It also let me remember I could support Israel and even support beating the crap out of Hezbollah based on sound, researched and accurate information. I did not need to depend on propaganda, and that attitude served me well putting together a peace rally with Lebanese students and having Israel represented in an Arab-organized Middle East Culture Festival.
But Jews on campus are few and far between when it comes to being active in the field of Middle Eastern Studies. There are plenty who think they are immersed in it, taking Political Science or Israel classes. But they aren't taking internships or writing a thesis in the MES departments. They aren't getting to know the professors. They are underrepresented against the majority Muslim population in those fields.
I have written about Hezbollah and Iran, and there is much more to be said. Our pro-Israel campus organizations are not promoting the rigorous research that an Israeli university would expect. They avoid the details, paranoid Jewish students will not have a pristine, perfect image of the Jewish state and go running to support the enemy. Because of that, they even leave out information from their marketing ploys that would make Israel look even better or its enemies look even worse. The message would be too complicated they say, so we cannot even allude to encouraging studying it.
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ has over 30,000 undergraduates. I couldn't name you more than ten Jews who studied half-time in the Middle East Studies departments and got to know the professors.
I made a mistake when I was on campus. I avoided learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the classroom and potentially contributing something worthwhile to the inevitable classroom discussions and debates that would have ensued. It could have changed the perceptions of Jews and Arabs in that room, or at least given everyone something extra to think about. Unfortunately, we do not have a culture of intellectual meeting places on the campus when it comes to this. Most cooperation involves campus activism on some neutral issue, or something akin to the vague notion of peace.
American and Canadian Jews still undecided on their majors should consider the field. They should feel no pressure to confirm or deny any opinion. The community needs a dedicated intellectual core that will, by the very fact they are there, dilute the viciousness of campus politics. There are indeed very biased professors on campus, but they cannot ignore the authoritative views of their best students. As so long as Jews, who might ask questions their Arab classmates will avoid, keep themselves out of the field of Middle Eastern Studies, the complaints of bias will continue. Your opinions will matter little without the built-up background of a student scholar. That much should be required of a student who cares about Israel.