The controversy at Columbia University over whether anti-Israel faculty members in the Middle East studies department are intimidating students in their classes has touched off a major debate over the definition and parameters of academic freedom. Is it the freedom professors have to control their classrooms, or the freedom students have to protest what they consider unfair and biased teaching methods? Or both?
But what has been lost in the ever-shriller dispute is the given that at Columbia, and many other Mideast studies departments at campuses across the country, the majority of professors and courses have a clear pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel slant. You can see it in the syllabuses of the required reading material, the backgrounds and public statements of the professors, and in many cases the funding of the chairs in the departments, often coming from wealthy Arab states or individuals.
On the issue of campus activity, much of the focus of American Jewry during the last four years of the Palestinian suicide war on Israel has been on student protests and activities. Too little attention has been paid to what is taught every day in the classroom by professors who are respected as experts and who will still be teaching their one-sided views of the Mideast conflict long after the current crop of students have graduated and gone out into the world.
The question, then, is what, if anything, can the American Jewish community do about this long-term and significant problem?
Not much, at this point, in large part because the thrust of almost all of the approximately 125 Mideast studies departments around the country is Arabist, and there are far too few qualified scholars specializing in Israel studies. But several important efforts are under way to improve the situation, however modestly.
Mitchell Bard, who chairs the task force of the Israel on Campus Coalition, advocates bringing in visiting scholars, primarily from Israeli universities, to teach at American colleges for a year or two at a time. He says it would be best to create full-scale Israel studies centers at a number of universities — New York University and Brandeis University have launched such programs — but that is a costly and long-term goal. In the meantime, he says, "we have to make inroads slowly," noting that even a dozen or so qualified scholars sympathetic to Israel can make an impact if placed at key universities, and not just Ivy League ones.
Bard has established an Israel Scholar Development Fund through the American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise he directs, and is working with American University in Washington, D.C., and UCLA to help finance positions for visiting scholars. The teachers not only would serve as top academics, Bard says, but also would participate in campus and community programs to underscore Israel's role as a vibrant democracy.
From a pragmatic approach, "the idea is not to fight to get rid" of anti-Israel professors, according to Bard, but "to offer positive alternatives."
At Brandeis, Ilan Troen, a professor of Israel studies, is training about 18 academics a year to teach courses on modern Israel. The idea is to take professors whose specialty may be Jewish studies or a related field, and allow them to return to their universities with the expertise to offer courses on Israel.
Another route has been taken by Ken Stein, director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University, who offers annual summer workshops in the history, culture and politics of modern Israel for teachers of fifth through 12th grade, primarily from Jewish day schools.
The premise of the program, begun in 2000 and sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, is that you have to know your own people's narrative before you can debate someone else's, says Stein.
He says Jewish students "have little historical context when they get to campus," not only of Jewish history but of European and American history as well, and he faults the Jewish community for not doing enough to fulfill the biblical imperative to "teach [these words] diligently to your children."
Stein says courses in modern Israel should be taught "not to correct an imbalance, but because it's worth teaching." While it is important to teach political courses about Israel on the university level, he says, "we've lost focus" by concentrating too much on the Palestinian-Israel conflict.
"Of much deeper relevance," Stern believes, is the culture, language, literature, history and values of modern Israel, which should have their place among the course offerings of universities.
"It's all about the sacrifice, compassion and conviction" of those who helped found the Jewish state, and the notion of "am Yisrael and tikkun olam [repairing the world]" that continues to motivate it, he insists.
One communal group that has committed to addressing the problem of Mideast education on campus is the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. According to Executive Vice President Michael Kotzin, the Israel Studies Project he heads was initiated last year to work with universities in Illinois and offer funding to hire visiting professors in Israel studies. Most of the money is coming from private donors, he says, with federation contributing as well.
"We see Israel's destiny as a survival issue and the campus as an important landscape," Kotzin explains.
With a doctorate in English literature and a track record as a professor at American and Israeli universities, Kotzin says he is "respectful of the academic culture" and recognizes a school's right to choose its own faculty, but believes that "academic standards have been violated or shortchanged, in many instances," and that at least some universities are willing to address that imbalance in approach to Mideast studies. Or, as others have noted, colleges are eager to accept funding for academic positions.
Kotzin says talks are in "advanced stages" with two universities in Illinois, and he hopes to have three or four on board by the fall.
As each of the academic activists interviewed were quick to point out, there are no immediate, easy or fully satisfying solutions to the very real crisis of how the Middle East is being taught on campus, and the dearth of scholars with an expertise in and empathy for Israel. The activists acknowledge that seeking to create pro-Israel academic alternatives to the more hostile Mideast studies departments may seem like an effort to "fight propaganda with propaganda," as one said, rather than the ideal of having more balance within the curriculum of courses offered on the Mideast.
But the activists feel they have to start somewhere, and each is addressing a part of the problem.
What is required is more communal attention and support, so that American students, Jews and non-Jews, have the opportunity to learn about the real rather than the reviled Israel when they get to college.