It took a long time for the American Jewish community to focus on the Israel-Palestinian battles that have been playing out at universities around the country the last three years. But now that a number of communal organizations are working to bolster advocacy for Israel by helping students counteract pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrations, rallies and petitions, the most serious threat to the Zionist cause is coming from another corner of the campus: the faculty.
There is no question that the impact of a respected professor teaching a history or political science course and framing the Mideast conflict in ways hostile to Israel is far more lasting, and insidious, than students holding an "End the Occupation" protest on the Quad. Students come and go, but professors remain, shaping the views of their charges year after year. And the sad truth is that a disproportionate number of university faculty members, including Jews, are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and often hostile to Israel.
There are numerous reports of professors questioning the legitimacy of the State of Israel, in class, and students feeling too intimidated to challenge them, for fear of ridicule or reduced grades. Academic freedom goes a long way, particularly on traditionally liberal college campuses, where Israel has gone from David to Goliath since the Six-Day War of 1967. The Jewish state is commonly perceived as a brutal occupier of the Palestinian people and stumbling block to Palestinian freedom and statehood. Too few students have the knowledge, or courage, to offer a counter view.
Ed Beck, president of the Susquehanna Institute in Harrisburg, Pa., notes that a history professor at Ohio State University proclaims that the State of Israel is based on "historical mythology." A professor at Vassar turned down a request to join a pro-Israel organization, saying he would not support any group that promotes a "low-grade war of genocide against the Palestinian people." And both of these men are Jews.
In an effort to address the increasing number of anti-Israel incidents and teachings on college campuses, Beck helped found a group in June 2002 called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. The organization claims 600 members, from a wide range of academic disciplines and from some 200 universities across the U.S. and in other countries. The goal, Beck says, is to "educate, network and empower" faculty members to be "knowledgeable mentors and authoritative resources" for colleagues, students and others on campus.
But Beck admits it's been tough going. His initial mailing was to 25,000 faculty members with Jewish names, and only a few hundred responded positively, he says. "Many pro-Israel professors are feeling isolated, threatened and intimidated" to speak out for Israel, according to Beck. "It's just not politically correct on college campuses today to be an advocate for Israel." Other professors, he said, "have problems" with the policies of the government in Jerusalem, and feel that supporting Israel is perceived as an endorsement of Ariel Sharon and George Bush, two highly unpopular figures on campuses. "The line has been drawn," said Beck, who has taught psychology at various universities for 35 years. "If you support Israel, you are considered a right-wing extremist."
Several other faculty-initiated groups are working to balance the overwhelming pro-Palestinian support, particularly in how Mideast history and the Arab-Israeli conflict are taught. In a sense, Middle East studies have been hijacked, with most departments decidedly pro-Arab, in part because a number of prestigious chairs in the field are subsidized by Arab governments, organizations or individuals.
In response, Daniel Pipes, a scholar of Islam and a pro-Israel activist, has launched Campus Watch, a Web site that "reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them," according to the site. The five problems it addresses are "analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students."
Critics accuse Pipes of "McCarthyism" for naming professors he says are anti-Israel, but Pipes insists he has every right to challenge the writings and teachings of academics on the merit of their work. "Academic freedom does not mean the freedom from criticism," he asserts.
Andrew Marks, a professor of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University, heads the International Academic Friends of Israel, an organization that seeks to counter academic boycotts against Israeli professors, primarily in Europe. And Mervin Verbit, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, founded the Israel Studies Project almost two years ago through the university. Its goal is to improve Israel's standing in academia by creating a board of highly respected professors, organizing academic conferences on the subject of the Mideast and developing models for curriculum.
Verbit says he is "trying to win back the middle" among faculty not familiar with the Mideast, "people of goodwill" who can best be reached by their peers because, he notes, "professors only listen to other professors."
Not surprisingly, there are turf battles among the academic groups and conflict between some of them and the organized Jewish community, which has long been critical of Jewish academics for being removed from communal life. The academics, in turn, say they become professionally compromised if they appear to be active in Zionist causes.
Such disputes are upsetting to Rabbi Eric Lankin, director of religious educational activities for United Jewish Communities and a mentor to Ed Beck's Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. "It's exciting to see an upstart group fueled by volunteers, and I am trying to help them as they bump up against the establishment organizations." Rabbi Lankin says it's unfair to expect volunteers to know how to function within the complex framework of the Jewish organizational world, raise their own funds and meet time-consuming demands for extensive reports.
"Volunteers can only bring their passion," the rabbi says, and the community should be helping to provide the infrastructure for their efforts.
Complicating this whole issue is the fact that there are few experts in Israel studies on the university level, and most of those in the field, including Israelis, are among the school of post-Zionists highly critical of Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians.
What is needed is a coordinated effort between pro-Israel faculty and the Jewish community to find a new means to educate college students about Israel. Mitchell Bard, chair of the faculty task force of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group created and funded by a number of prominent Jewish organizations and philanthropists, warns that "the ingrained anti-Israel bias in Middle East studies departments, and the perception that academic freedom is a license to teach almost anything about Israel, will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse."
Bard is one of a handful of activists with academic credentials seeking to create a mentoring program, training student activists. He also would like to see funding for young scholars and visiting professors who defend the legitimacy of Israeli statehood, and for coordinated speakers programs on campus.
It is frustrating, if not impossible, to assess the degree of anti-Israel bias taught in the guise of history on our university campuses, but such is the reality. We must respond with a long-term strategy that will assure that the next generation of college students can learn the truth about Israel and its history.