The Case for Israel (Studies): It’s not hasbara. Honest.
A notice for the upcoming Association for Israel Studies annual conference in Haifa. (Image: Association for Israel Studies)
In April 2011, I wrote a post for Mondoweiss on the role played by Israel studies in ‘rebranding’ and fighting ‘delegitimization’. My sources included the Reut Institute, and the think tank subsequently responded to my piece – which I then dealt with in a further post. I was thus interested to read a new briefing by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) on the same topic, published last month under the title: “Universities rebranding Israel’s image: Hasbara posts in Israel Studies threaten academic integrity”. With the Association for Israel Studies (AIS) annual meeting scheduled to take place in Haifa next week, it seems a good opportunity to revisit the topic.
A call to action
The visibility of Israel studies as a discipline is not new. The AIS was founded in 1985 “by scholars fed up with bias against Israel in the Middle East Studies Association”, origins which are important for understanding more recent developments. According to the authors of ‘Jewish Polity and American Civil Society’: “The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the established professional association of Middle East scholars, also had a well-founded anti-Israel reputation. The Israel Studies Association was formed to provide an alternative forum for Middle Eastern scholars.”
But it has been particularly in the last decade that a desire to tackle Israel’s deteriorating international image has spurred concerned donors and faculty members to establish new initiatives. A key moment came in 2003, when the then-President of Brandeis University Jehuda Reinharz issued a “Call to Action” in which he lamented “the rise of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiment on some university campuses”, including “demands for divestment of university funds from companies doing business with Israel and a boycott of Israeli scholars”.
Reinharz called for “an ambitious agenda that would enable the American Jewish community to counter the intentional misinformation and demonization of Israel and Zionist history”, proposing “the creation of first-rate, scholarly Middle East centers around the country” to “bring balance to the study of the Middle East on college campuses”. According to New York University’s Bethamie Horowitz, Reinharz’ report “created the rationale for the founding of the Israel Studies Center at Brandeis”.
By 2005, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education described how “in recent years [American Jewish philanthropists] have sought to counter what they see as a pro-Palestinian propagandist view of Israel by endowing chairs, centers, and programs in Israel studies”. Indeed, it was “the perception of the Arab-Israeli conflict on college campuses that led to the creation of [Prof. Ilan] Troen’s chair at Brandeis”. The same year, Troen – a key figure in Israel studies – pointed to a decline in Israel’s image going back to the 1990s, and thus “explained there arose a need to create academic programs that were neither extremely politicized against Israel nor exercises in pro-Israel public relations.”
As a 2011 Ha’aretz report put it, “several Jewish donors have taken it upon themselves to address the problem [of the deterioration in Israel’s image on campuses]” by “establishing research institutes and Israel studies programs”. A substantial document published by the Israel Campus Coalition (ICC) in 2007 called ‘In Search of Israel Studies’, made the same point: “frequent complaints of hostility toward Israel within [Middle East study departments]… has stimulated the creation of Israel studies programs”.
That causal link between concern about increasing Palestine solidarity and ‘anti-Israel’ sentiment and the establishment of Israel Studies initiatives is made by those involved. The philanthropist behind a $1.5 million gift that established the University of Maryland’s chair in Israel studies said in 2007 that “he underwrote the new position in an effort to counteract what he characterized as a proliferation of ‘warped’ images regarding the Jewish state”. Likewise, the Israel studies centre at the University of California was set up after an approach to the university by the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, whose COO Martin Blank explained:
The American academic institutions have a large Muslim student population. And these students don’t tend to have fond feelings toward Israel…Berkeley and UCLA, tend to have politically liberal faculties. And with that liberalism, as stupid as it might sound, comes substantial dislike of the State of Israel, because of its ‘terrible treatment of the Palestinians’.
In 2010, Dr. Yoel Rapport, from Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, praised what he called “an institutionalized Jewish response to the Arab takeover here”, and went on to speak “of the growing academic interest in Israel as a response to smear attempts made on campuses against the Jewish state”. Last year, Ronald W. Zweig, professor of Israel studies at New York University’s Taub Center for Israel Studies, told The Jerusalem Post that “at least some of the motivation behind the establishment of these centers is the desire to counter the ‘hostile atmosphere about Israel’ on various campuses”.
One significant initiative has been the Visiting Israeli Professors (VIP) program, a partnership between The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). As well as placing scholars at U.S. universities, Schusterman also provides “scholarships for graduate students to pursue Israel-related studies”.
In a Brandeis study called ‘Expanding the Study of Israel on Campus’, the advocacy context for the VIP programme is clear. One of AICE’s “immediate goals” is to “enable these VIPs to take an active role in the public arena, portraying on and off campus an honest picture of the Zionist enterprise”. One of the intended “longer-term outcomes”, meanwhile, is “to motivate host institutions to continue to expand the presentation of Israel Studies in an academically sound fashion and help them become places where balanced and reasoned discussion of Israel can take place”.
Even AIPAC have taken note. A little-known program called ‘iVest’ – “AIPAC’s Initiative to Reposition The American Campus as an Asset to the Pro-Israel Movement” – is “designed to create permanent ties to Israel through tangible multiple connections”, including by “increasing Israel studies opportunities on campus”. Although there is not much about iVest online, the wording in this document implies that AIPAC is itself involved in promoting Israel studies.
Operation Cast Lead and BDS
The massacre of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008-2009 prompted a new wave of Palestine solidarity on campuses worldwide – and for some, Israel studies was part of the counter-attack. In February 2009, Prof. Neil Netanel – the director of UCLA’s Israel studies program – affirmed that the “antidote” to phenomena like a “symposium on ‘Human Rights and Gaza’” is “already in place right on campus”. The aforementioned report on AICE’s VIP initiative notes that while the work began in 2005-06, “the reasons for establishing the program and continuing its work remain salient”, since “in 2008-09, campuses experienced a resurgence of anti-Israel propaganda activities (Israeli apartheid walls, etc.) stirred by the war in Gaza”.
Meanwhile, as the campaign for the academic boycott of Israel has grown, pro-Israel advocates have sought to harness Israel studies as a means of fighting back. As Troen told far-right Israeli news site Arutz Sheva in 2004:
Clearly there’s a political reason why this is happening now. There is a recognition of the need to understand Israel better, of the growing hostility towards Israel in U.S. academy, the movements on campuses for boycott and divestiture, accusations that it is an illegitimate apartheid society…
Two years later, Troen made the link between “the academic boycott” and “the willingness of donors to give funds toward this cause”, in a Ha’aretz piece titled ‘A different way to fight academic boycotts’ and subtitled: “Jewish donors establish Israel studies centers to improve country’s image”.
An example from the UK is the Leone Ginzburg Research Fellowship in Israeli Law, Politics and Society at Oxford University. According to its first holder, Emanuele Ottolenghi (a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), it was in 2002, at “a difficult time for Israel in the world of academe…with the launch of an academic boycott against Israeli universities”, that “an anonymous donor decided to support Israel studies” at Oxford. One of the “conditions” was “a series of public lectures…whose prime purpose was to shed light on the current conflict and put Israel’s predicament into the right context”.
Israel studies also figures in the strategies of anti-boycott specific campaigns (and note that the AIS conference in Haifa next week features a panel on “Exploring Effective Responses to Calls for Academic Boycotts of Israel”). At an Israel Foreign Ministry organised conference in 2009, a BDS-focused working group – co-chaired by Mitchell Bard, signatory to the introduction to ICC’s ‘In Search of Israel Studies’ – produced recommendations under the heading “Vision – 5 Year Plan”. This included “encouraging more Israel Studies on campus as part of a broader rebranding”, whileideas for “Going on Offense” included “Developing Israel Studies as an academic discipline”.
Smart hasbara: rebranding and teaching complexity
In my post last year, I highlighted the Reut Institute’s recommendations for Israel advocacy, and the significance they attached to Israel studies as part of rebranding.
in the context of Reut’s current work on how to fight the delegitimacy of Israel, the suggestion to create chairs of Israel studies in leading UK universities could act as an important component of Israel’s strategy.
promoting Israel studies on campus and ‘branding Israel’—a strategy aimed at associating Israel with positive characteristics unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict—are central to improving Israel’s international standing and countering delegitimacy
This idea to “brand Israel away from its image as purely a place of conflict” by “promot[ing] Israel Studies Departments at universities” is part a smarter strategy whereby it is not frowned upon –indeed it is encouraged – to discuss Israel’s ‘flaws’. As Antony Lerman put it in a post on Israel studies at SOAS and the Pears Institute, it is “a soft advocacy philosophy, one that incorporates a degree of critical scrutiny of Israel’s past and present”. In this regard, there is an instructive section of the hasbara guide Israel: A Playbook for Hillel, which under the section “Partnering with Faculty and Academic Departments”, notes:
Dynamic speakers who are regarded as being part of the center-center [sic] left Zionist movement in Israel can be very successful in situations like this, particularly when the class is diverse and the Professor is towards the political left. Clearly, these speakers may be critical of government’s policy while in Israel, but when speaking abroad clearly understand that their mandate and mission is to be identifiably pro-Israel. We must be extremely careful in our selection of speakers.
This approach is widely reflected: from the donor behind the UCLA Israel studies program who believes “the solutions don’t lie in these [campus advocacy] organizations”, to London’s Prof. Colin Shindler, author of an apologia for Zionism, who says: “I teach complexity”. In the David Project’s recent reappraisal of hasbara strategy on campus, they emphasised less crude, longer term aims like “training more professors to teach about Israel, organizing pro-Israel faculty on campuses and endowing chairs of Israel studies at key universities”.
Thus when Troen told a reporter in 2005 that “We don’t do hasbara”, the denial contained truth, but also a diversion. More revealing (presumably unintentionally) was remarks by an adviser to a 2009 Israel studies seminar in China who – while claiming it was an “accidental strategy” to pick more liberal academics – put it like this: “We didn’t want the seminar to be too much hasbara” (my emphasis).
In a piece on Ynet in 2010, Troen commented: “The Americans like Israel because of its democracy and media openness. This is what we present to the students”. This is the hasbara role of Israel studies in a nutshell. The focus on ‘complexity’, ‘flaws’, and ‘diversity’ may look sophisticated, but the desire to put forward the image of a ‘normal’ democracy is all about masking the facts of ethnic cleansing and ongoing settler colonialism, and thwarting growing global resistance to that ugly reality.
First published by Mondoweiss.