A Major in Israel

The realization that many young American Jews lack basic knowledge about the Jewish state has spurred the opening in the U.S. of a host of university centers and programs of advanced studies in Israeli history.

Prof. Ronald Zweig of Tel Aviv University (TAU) was on vacation in Australia last year when he received a surprising phone call. On the other end of the line was a colleague of Zweig's from New York University (NYU), who invited him to accept a chair in Israel studies that had been established there and that was inaugurated this academic year.

Zweig, an Israeli historian who specializes in the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, thought about it for quite a while before he replied to the offer. "My wife made it clear to me that she was staying in Israel in any case," he says. But his wavering did not last long: At the end of last year he resigned from his position in the department of Jewish history at TAU and started to teach in New York.

Today he is supervising NYU doctoral students in Hebrew and Jewish studies. Bachelor's degree students are taking a class with him about the Zionist movement and the State of Israel from 1860 to the Oslo agreements. According to Zweig, he is enjoying every moment: "The level of the doctoral students here, even in Hebrew, is equal to that of the Israelis. In general the academic culture in the United States is at a different level from that in Israel. Apart from that, I can enjoy all the advantages of this wonderful city, New York. There's no doubt that I've been given a great privilege."

In addition to the permanent position that Zweig fills, the new center for Israel studies at NYU also offers two research positions for doctoral students, a course for B.A. students, workshops and occasional lectures on society and politics in Israel. At the dedication ceremony for the center, Prof. Robert Chazan, of the school for Hebrew and Jewish studies, noted that the university hardly offers the students advanced programs in Israel studies, whereas in Jewish subjects - European Jewry, the Holocaust, American Jewry and the ancient kingdom of Israel - there is an abundance.

Prof. Ilan Troen, a researcher of Zionism from Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev, who is directing the center for Israel studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, says that until not long ago, Israel studies were something of an oddity in the U.S.

"In the Association for Jewish Studies there are currently about 1,500 registered members. By comparison, in Israel studies, during the past few decades maybe five serious researchers have emerged," notes Troen.

One of these five is Prof. Kenneth Stein, the director of the center for modern Israel studies at Emory University in Atlanta. According to Stein, it is the Jewish community that is to blame for the neglect of Israel studies in the U.S. In an interview published nearly two years ago in the Jewish-American newspaper Forward, Stein explained that in the 1960s and 1970s, the Jewish community took an interest mainly in Holocaust studies.

"One of the reasons Israel did not fare well on campuses these last few years is because students who otherwise came out of Jewish educational environments were inadequately prepared," Stein told Nacha Cattan of The Forward. "They did not know Israeli history. They did not know Israeli politics. They could argue contemporary political science, the intifada, [Ariel] Sharon, but ask them how the 1967 war came about, ask them about the reasons for Israel's creation, ask them about how the Jews established the state in the 1920s and 1930s, and they look at you with blank stares."

Flourishing institutes

In recent years, however, this picture has changed beyond all recognition. At universities all around the U.S., centers for Israel studies are opening and study programs in the field are springing up all over. The program that Troen chairs at Brandeis University opened two years ago, and Stein was appointed to his position at Emory University four years ago. This year a chair in Israel studies was inaugurated at the University of California at Berkeley, and next year a center for Israel studies will open at the university's branch in Los Angeles.

Last week, Forward reported that the prestigious Columbia University has embarked on a search for a permanent lecturer of Israel studies. Troen says that also at other places where there is not yet a permanent chair or a center, there has been a palpable rise in the number of lectures, workshops and conferences dealing with Israel. Centers and programs for Israel studies have also opened at universities in Canada (Toronto and Calgary), England (Manchester) and Australia (Melbourne). Zweig is certain that the phenomenon is only in its infancy: "This week a friend, a senior researcher in Jewish studies, said to me that what is happening now with Israel studies is similar to the big `boom' in Jewish studies that occurred in the U.S. in the 1940s. He is certain that the flowering in the field will continue for at least another eight to 10 years."

Troen says that the demographic changes in the Jewish world are one of the main reasons for the increasing weight of Israel studies in the field of Jewish studies. According to him, "within 60 years Israel's relative share of the Jewish world grew from 4 percent to 40 percent, and the specialists in Jewish studies are beginning to realize that this is where the future is." But the main catalyst for the change in direction, according to all the researchers, has not been demographic, but rather political.

The intifada that broke out four and a half years ago and the stormy demonstrations against Israel that occurred on a number of campuses in the U.S. shocked Jewish public opinion. The shock gave rise to the realization that many young Jews in America lack basic knowledge about Israel. The awareness of the dominance of pro-Arab scholars in the field of Middle East studies also increased greatly. The development of Israel studies looked like the obvious answer to these two nodes of threat. More and more prominent Jewish journalists, researchers and key activists in Jewish Federations called upon the Jews of the U.S. to contribute to the development of Israel studies at universities. Gary Rosenblatt, the publisher of magazine The Jewish Week and its editor-in-chief, wrote: The "thrust of 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" (February 11, 2005).

Michael Kotzin, one of the heads of the Jewish Federation in Chicago, published an article in January 2004 in the Forward in which he called upon the Jews of the U.S. to direct fewer contributions to Holocaust research and increase the financial aid they extend to Israel studies, because, he wrote, "today, it is the future of Israel that is the most significant existential issue facing the Jewish people."

Local funding

All of the new centers for Israel studies are funded by local Jewish communities or through private donors. In some cases the donors state explicitly their intention to bring about an improvement in Israel's image. This was the case, for example, with Helen Diller, who donated the money to found the chair for Israel studies at Berkeley. Diller, an alumna of the university, was very disturbed by the stormy demonstrations against Israel at the Berkeley campus in recent years. In an interview to the local Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, she explained that she had decided to make the donation for the establishment of the chair in order to improve Israel's image. In 2003 she donated $5 million to establish a chair for a visiting lecturer from Israel. "Pro-Israel elements on the U.C. Berkeley campus have 5 million new reasons to believe the university is listening to them," declared the newspaper.

But Diller, an inexperienced philanthropist, gave the university administration total freedom in choosing the lecturer to man the chair. The administration gave the position to Dr. Oren Yiftachel, a geographer from BGU, who is among the harshest critics of the Israeli government in the academic world. It is hard to imagine that Diller had wanted to bring to Berkeley a lecturer who proposes the elimination of Israel's definition as a Jewish state and turning it into a state of all its citizens.

In the Chicago Federation they learned the lessons. According to a plan initiated by the federation, starting in the coming academic year visiting professors from Israel will be invited to the universities in the city and its surroundings. The lecturers will come to Chicago through TAU. Three universities from the Chicago area have already signed up for the program. Naomi Levine, one of the initiators of the center for Israel studies at NYU, has said that she believes that the center will instill in students the recognition of Israel's right to exist. According to Prof. Zweig, the donors' motives have no influence on the centers' academic freedom. "I made it clear to my employers that I had not come here to engage in propaganda, but rather to conduct serious academic research. I am certain that it is possible to be objective, if we are conscientious about giving suitable representation to the opinions of all the sides," he says.

Alongside articles by Zionist scholars his students read articles by American scholars of Palestinian origins, like Rashid Khalidi, and by scholars who are critical of Zionism, like Avi Shlaim. Zweig says that in the future he intends to invite to his course a scholar from Bir Zeit University to lecture to the students.

Lack of scholars

One of the factors delaying the opening of additional centers for Israel studies in the U.S. is the lack of professional scholars. "This field has become professionalized in recent years," says Zweig. "Today it is impossible to engage in it without knowing Hebrew well and without being connected to the Israeli reality." Indiana University, which wanted to start a program in Israel studies eight years ago, changed its mind after it did not succeed in finding a scholar of repute who would agree to head the center.

NYU and Brandeis University also did not succeed in finding suitable scholars in the U.S. Thus the positions were offered to Troen and Zweig, who immigrated to Israel from the U.S. and Australia respectively in the 1970s. Says Troen: "The big challenge is nurturing a generation of Israel scholars in the U.S. But until this generation grows, the only place where it will be possible to find suitable scholars is Israel."

A respectable university in the U.S. can offer lecturers salaries that are about 80 percent higher than the salary of a lecturer at an Israeli university. However, Troen and Zweig say that most of their Israeli colleagues refuse to move to the U.S., despite the tempting financial conditions and even though the move could add considerably to their reputations.

Most of the institutions that are establishing centers for Israel studies are pondering the academic framework in which to envelop it - whether to associate it with the Middle East studies departments or with the departments of Jewish studies. At NYU, the chair for Israel studies was founded under the school for Hebrew and Jewish studies. At Brandeis, however, president Jehuda Reinharz insisted that Israel studies be part of the center for Middle East research.

Lecturers in the field say that the decision as to where Israel studies belong is influenced to a large extent by the internal relations at each university. According to them, at most of the institutions the relations between Israel scholars and Middle East scholars are polite, but cold. The center for Middle East studies at Brandeis is exceptional in its welcoming attitude, in part because it is headed by an Israeli scholar: Prof. Shai Feldman of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at TAU.