Brandeis University is the latest college to open a department for Israel Studies in the United States. Many hail the development as a sign of the growing interest in the study of Israel on American campuses.
Professor Ilan Troen, originally a professor at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, was recently appointed to the new Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Brandeis now joins the Taub center for modern Israel studies at New York University, and departments at universities such as Emory University in Atlanta, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Toronto.
The Brandeis chair, the first-ever endowed chair in Israel Studies, was created "to develop an accurate historical understanding of the origin and development of the state of Israel and its place in the world."
"From the time the first modern Jews came to settle the land, they produced more literature about themselves per capita than any one - diaries, celebration books marking the anniversaries of their settlement," Troen, who comes to Brandeis after 27 years in Israeli academia at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev told Israel21c.com. "Every town, every settlement, has recorded its history, both formally, and informally through diaries and letters. There was the sense they were engaged in something meta-historical and it needed to be recorded, not unlike the early pioneers in colonial America. President Chaim Weizmann once wrote to President Truman that 'Israel is the most studied country in the world per capita'."
Despite the abundance of source material, the study of the pre-state society and modern Israel did not register on the North American university radar for quite some time. When it did, Troen relates, interest was limited to a very narrow scope such as a specific archaeological find or a social trend in kibbutz life.
The overwhelming majority of academic work on Israel has focused solely on the ongoing conflict with the Arab world since before Israel's inception. This fact, according to Troen, has completely skewed perceptions of Israel in academia. "Israel is not taught in Middle East study centers, except in terms of the conflict. Centers that study the cultures of Egypt or Morocco or Tunisia do not teach about Israel culture," he said.
"What if universities studied Russia and the United States only in terms of the Cold War?" Troen asked. "What if France in the first half of the century was only studied in relation to its conflict with Germany? What would happen would be that you would have a distorted view of the society. And that is what has happened with Israel."
Even at universities with large Jewish Studies departments the focus has typically remained on Biblical, religious, and Diaspora history, with a strong emphasis on Holocaust studies – almost universally excluding modern Israel from the lecture hall. "There are courses in Zionist thought and philosophy, about what people dreamed would take place. But little has been taught about what did take place here and what is taking place here," said Troen.
The increasing numbers of courses in Israel Studies on North American campuses is largely due to growing interest by philanthropists alarmed by the direction of intellectual discourse. "Clearly there's a political reason why this is happening now," said Troen. "There is a recognition of the need to understand Israel better, of the growing hostility towards Israel in U.S. academy, the movements on campuses for boycott and divestiture, accusations that it is an illegitimate apartheid society... campuses have become intellectually and physical hostile…with, in many cases, no counter voice, no counterbalance."
Troen noted several initiatives taking place at Brandeis. The university is currently raising money for the first center for Middle Eastern studies to grant "Israel a defined academic role as part of the Middle East, not an implant by Western European colonists, both on its own, and in relationship to the other states in the region."
Troen, who made Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) 27 years ago from the Boston area, plans to continue to travel between Brandeis and BGU – dividing his time between Brandeis and his position as Lopin Professor of Modern History and Senior Fellow at the Ben-Gurion Research Center in Sde Boker, in the Negev.
David HaLevi, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, spoke with Arutz-7 about his experience as a student of Middle East studies at is college. "If one took a stance as a Zionist, or even as a member of Israeli (Jewish) society, on campus you removed yourself from academic discourse," recalled HaLevi. "You were considered outside any rational framework and made to feel shame and guilt for siding with ‘the Jews.' Even Jewish students who were knowledgeable had great difficulty standing up to such an atmosphere both inside and outside the classroom. Israel's role in science, culture, music and other disciplines was never discussed."
While at the university, HaLevi, who went on to found K'cholmim, fought to end the intellectual discrimination against Israel. "Even though there was an option in the civilization segment of the university's core-curriculum to study Jewish Civilization – it was taught through a religious and philosophical prism, ignoring Jewish nationality, and certainly ignoring modern Jewish nationalism," said HaLevi. "Having an entire civilization segment on Judaism that so pointedly omitted Israel was not an accidental slight. One of our major attempts on campus was to rework this framework so that students and professors could at least conceive of Israel in a more neutral, broader, and God willing, positive light – by not focusing only on the war, but rather all the advances Israel has brought civilization."