“I know what the podium I stand behind represents, what Israel studies represents. I know this is a form of public diplomacy.” — Amal Jamal, “Israeli-Arab” professor of political science, Tel-Aviv University, one of two Palestinian scholars (of a total of 300 attendees) at the annual meeting of the Association for Israel Studies in Toronto in early May.
This week The Forward, a Jewish daily newspaper, published an article by Gal Beckerman that examines the swift increase of Israel Studies programs on American university campuses — often funded by wealthy Israeli donors as a reaction to established “left-leaning” Middle Eastern Studies programs. Writes Beckerman:
Roger Allen, the president of MESA, said he thinks it’s a “shame” that much of Israel studies has left the umbrella of Middle Eastern studies. He insists this has less to do with the politics of his organization than with the generally polarized political climate infecting the field and pushing people into opposing sides.
“The one thing we do expect everybody to do is to respect the parameters of scholarship,” Allen said. “The problem I see with a discipline called Israel studies is that it’s nation-based. Isn’t there an exclusivity about that?”
Some of those who first nurtured the idea of Israel studies as a separate area of academic inquiry, though, see a fundamental problem: the funding and whatever strings it might have attached. In conversations at the Toronto conference, many participants expressed anxiety about what, for example, accepting a Schusterman visiting professorship might entail. The implicit objective of such appointments, after all, is a kind of advocacy role.
Mitchell Bard, who runs the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise — the organization through which the Schustermans distribute their 20 annual grants to Israel scholars — disputes that. (He was in Toronto partly to present a paper on the influence of what he calls the “Arab Lobby.”) Bard says that there is no political litmus test for these appointments, and that the only thing expected of the academics who accept them is that they do their work and provide a picture of the complexity of Israeli society.