The Making of History /An Ivory Tower View of Israel

An increase in courses related to Israel in foreign institutions most of which surprisingly don't deal with the political situation.

Last week, a team of researchers at Brandeis University released some unexpected findings about Israel's place in the curricula of American institutions of higher learning. It emerges that in the past three years, there has been a dramatic growth - of 69 percent - in the number of courses that focus on Israel. Together, the more than 300 colleges and universities surveyed in the study offer over 1,400 courses related in some way to Israel, including over 500 courses that focus specifically on the country. All told, these institutions have approximately three million students, of whom some 250,000 are Jews.

Furthermore, the researchers found a conspicuous increase in the number of courses related to Israel even among those institutions where relatively few Jews are enrolled. Such courses have also proliferated at highly prestigious American universities such as Harvard (from two courses to six), Princeton (from one course to five) and Yale (from three to six).

The study does not include data on the number of students enrolled in these courses, but the researchers did report that most of the courses are full. They do not offer any explanation for the phenomenon.

It is customary to assume that campuses in America are buzzing with "anti-Israel" activity - meaning, demonstrations against the occupation policy of the Israeli government. This is true: Seldom does one see a demonstration in favor of, say, the Hebron settlers.

Some leaders of U.S. Jewish communities define their Jewish identity in terms of the policies of the government of Israel, and are inclined to view any criticism of the country as an attack on Jews. Some see the criticism voiced by college students as a sign of ignorance: If these young people knew more about Israel, the leaders believe, their criticism would be more moderate.

Since time immemorial, this has been one of the basic assumptions of all Israeli governments: that criticism stems from lack of understanding. This belief has, in turn, sustained the need for hasbara, that peculiar Hebrew term that means something between "information" and "propaganda," a magic word that had been part and parcel of the Zionist enterprise since its advent. Of course, one could say that such a supposition is old-fashioned and naive, and could instead posit the thesis that the more people understand what's happening in Israel, the more critical they will be of its government.

Whatever the case, the increase in the number of university courses about Israel does not necessarily reflect an academic phenomenon per se: It stems from the willingness of various Jewish foundations to underwrite such courses - that is, to cover the expenses of paying lecturers, who are often brought in from Israel.

These foundations do not attempt to intervene overtly in determining the content of the courses; the universities ostensibly maintain their academic independence. But in many instances, it seems as if these organizations have bought a "slot" in the course catalog: Instead of being told by the universities which instructors will be hired, the foundations themselves propose names to the schools.

The scholars who conducted the study, which was itself funded by the Schusterman Family Foundation, note with special satisfaction that most of the courses about Israel do not deal with its political situation, but rather with Israeli culture, including literature, music, cinema and cuisine. So this is an Israel without Palestinians - as many Israelis, as well as many American Jews, would like it to be.