When Joe Metzger was growing up in Manhattan in the 1990's, his family lived within several blocks of the Palestine Liberation Organization's mission to the United Nations. Perhaps that was why, even as an elementary-school student, Metzger took some notice when then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ejected Yasir Arafat from a concert at Lincoln Center. And maybe it had something to do with the fascination Metzger felt a few years later watching a documentary on cable television about Israeli commandos' rescue of hostages at Entebbe.
Whatever the genesis or reason, Metzger carried an intense yet inchoate curiosity about Israel with him into college. It did not matter that he was a Catholic who had attended a WASP prep school and that as an undergraduate at New York University his academic concentration was in American welfare policy. He found himself in early 2005 a junior who had fulfilled all his requirements for a politics major and had the freedom to indulge his unlikely interest. "I didn't have the desire to have my opinions reinforced," he put it. "I had the desire to have my knowledge expanded."
In his desire for intellectual enrichment without political cant, Metzger had unwittingly and paradoxically placed himself in the midst of a raging academic and political controversy. For the vast majority of college students seeking a course on Israel, the path leads to departments of Middle East or Near East studies. Once there, many of those students discover that the very point of the course is to reinforce opinions, opinions that range from being plausibly critical of Israel to being virulently hostile, so much so that its right to exist as a Jewish state is impugned. The simmering dispute over this situation burst into international attention during the last academic year when a group of Columbia University students alleged in a documentary film that they had been humiliated and intimidated by several professors for questioning the instructors' advocacy of the Palestinian cause and attacks on Israel as a racist, colonialist state. (Full disclosure: I am a professor in Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.)
The Columbia situation came after years of strident, sometimes violent, opposition to pro-Israeli students and institutions outside the classroom at such American campuses as San Francisco State, as well as Concordia in Canada. The annual Palestinian solidarity conferences, held at the University of Michigan and Duke University among other major universities, have added to a widespread conviction in Jewish circles that "anti-Zionism" is the ideological convention in academe, the only safe and approvable position for an enlightened person to hold.
For the moment, at least, the Columbia confrontation has subsided. The university's president, Lee Bollinger, has placed the Middle East Studies department in a kind of receivership, stripping its right to hire professors, and a faculty committee charged with investigating the students' complaints confirmed one instance of abusive behavior by a professor, Joseph Massad. While that finding left many pro-Israel activists disappointed, it did send the message that academic freedom for professors is not a blanket license to encroach on academic freedom for students.
In a broader sense, however, the Columbia settlement left the issue of academic bias against Israel unresolved. It provided no answer to the dilemma of how to correct the political slant in classes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even when the professors involved are not as dogmatic and abusive as Massad, the fact remains that the preponderance of academic specialists in the region are experts in the Arab world, according to specialties listed on the database of the Middle East Studies Association. Jewish Studies programs, while flourishing on American campuses, tend to emphasize courses on American Jewish history and the Holocaust, often at the specification of donors. A proposal by conservatives in Congress, supported by such academic activists as Martin Kramer of Tel Aviv University, would put Middle East studies programs under government monitors who could withhold federal aid from those deemed to be imbalanced. But such a prospect appalls even many professors sympathetic to Israel, because it would set a precedent of government censorship over the academy. Even were it to be enacted, the oversight plan would do nothing to make the study of Israel more prevalent on American campuses.
Which brings us back to Joe Metzger at NYU and the most promising solution. In the course catalogue, he discovered a class on "Israel and American Jewry." It was being taught by Dr. Ronald Zweig, one of a handful of professors of Israel Studies in the entire nation. What Metzger heard in the course was far from advocacy or doctrine. In Dr. Zweig's own scholarly life in Israel, he had edited the academic journal that published some of the early work on Palestinian refugees by the controversial historian Benny Morris. On the February morning when I sat in on the NYU class, Professor Zweig was discussing the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors into Mandatory Palestine, and his account included references to the bribery and black-market operations used by Jewish organizations, as well as the rift between the United States and England on the issue. This was, in a word, history.
"This job is not about advocacy, it's about scholarship," Dr. Zweig had told me before the class. "I will not justify Israeli policy as part of my job; neither will I criticize it as part of my job. My goal is to make the students think, not tell them what to think. I'm glad when students walk away from my class feeling that I've had respect for their views. That's an obligation of professors. We have a mantle of authority and it is scandalous for us to exploit this position in order to propagate our own views."
No one professor, however, can possibly alter the larger landscape. One of the most striking and disturbing facts about NYU's chair in Israel Studies is how rare it is. For that, one cannot blame the Palestinian sympathizers in higher education. The fault, rather, lies with Jewish scholars, activists, and philanthropists, who have largely failed to take on the cause of Israel Studies—certainly with nothing like the vigor they have brought to Jewish Studies. The current imbroglios at Columbia and elsewhere have provided a kind of wake-up call after decades of lassitude.
The most significant events in Jewish life since the Enlightenment, one could argue, have been the massive immigration of European Jews to America, the destruction of Eastern European Jewry in the Shoah, and the creation and functioning of the state of Israel. The courses currently offered in Jewish Studies departments or programs offer extensive treatment of immigration and the Holocaust, but relatively scant consideration of Israel. Coincidentally or not, this diminution of Israel has occurred over the same period of time as attachment to Israel has waned among non- Orthodox American Jews, and most especially the secular Jews who were once the backbone of the Zionist movement in the United States.
The Association for Israel Studies was formed only 20 years ago and even now has a membership of just 200 scholars worldwide, 120 of them in the United States. A mere six endowed chairs in Israel Studies exist at American colleges or universities, and several are specifically for visiting professors. NYU hired Dr. Zweig, an Israeli, for its position, because it could not find an American with comparable credentials. The leading American in the field, Kenneth Stein, holds a chair at Emory University in Atlanta, but most other positions are also occupied by Israelis. And none of that will change until American universities create Israel Studies professorships and programs that will train the professors and generate the scholarship of the next generation—as has happened so markedly in Jewish Studies. Dr. Zweig's chair at NYU was created as part of a $2 million donation from Henry Taub, one of the university's largest philanthropists. The money also supports a series of lectures open to the public and fellowships for several graduate students, whom, it is assumed, will ultimately earn doctorates and enter the field themselves. "Our agenda was someone who would be effective, who would be a good communicator, and who was a knowledgeable scholar about modern Israel," said Fred Lafer, the president of the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation. "This was not a political statement in the sense we wanted someone who believed in Likud or Labor or Sharon or Peres. It just could not be someone who said, ‘Drive all the Jews into the sea.'"
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has emerged as one of the only communal organizations to grasp the significance of Israel Studies and to begin raising money for universities in Illinois to establish courses in the field. The federation's executive vice president, Michael Kotzin, explicitly linked the initiative to Jewish concerns about the ideological climate on campuses. "As Israel comes under attack," he wrote last year in an op-ed essay in the Forward, "as its right to exist is challenged, and as its history and actions are radically distorted in many quarters, it is increasingly clear that there is a profound need for American university students— the voters, opinion molders, and leaders of tomorrow—to be taught about Israel in a comprehensive fashion and a non-hostile environment. And for that to continue to happen, a generation of teachers and scholars must be trained for a point of view that differs from that which currently prevails in much of academia."
Such an appeal may indeed serve well to raise funds and raise consciousness. It raises some risks, as well, that supporters of Israel Studies should recognize. One of the major contributions Israel Studies courses, programs, and professors could make is in demonstrating that Israel is worth scholarly attention for reasons other than the national conflict with the Palestinians. For instance, Israel has created a body of literature, film, theater, dance, and popular music that, with rare exceptions such as the novelists Amos
For their children, however, Oz and David Grossman, barely penetrates American Jewish consciousness, much less university curricula. The other potential trap in a pitch like Kotzin's is that Israel Studies professors will be seen as—or, even worse, hired as—spokesmen for the state rather than as worldclass scholars in their discipline. That would compromise Israel Studies' standing as a discipline and it might well drive off some of those very students, like Joe Metzger at NYU, who come seeking intellectual honesty rather than a different kind of dogma.
"I suspect that the AIPAC sort of strong, unbending advocacy—intolerant advocacy—has alienated many uncommitted young Jews," Dr. Zweig said. "My idea is: Forget advocacy, let's discuss the ideas. Let's have the kind of discourse we have all the time in Israel."
Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of five books, including "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry" and "Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life."