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June 23, 2015 12:00 pm

Israel Studies Confab Gives Canadian University New Narrative on Jewish State

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The Loyola Campus of Concordia University in Montreal. Photo: Thomas1313 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Loyola Campus of Concordia University in Montreal. Photo: Thomas1313 via Wikimedia Commons. – In 2002, Montreal’s Concordia University was home to infamous riots preventing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking. In 2015, the same university hosted the largest annual international academic gathering for the field of Israel Studies. What a difference 13 years makes.

Many of Israel’s considerable advances for the benefit of humankind were showcased earlier this month during the 31st Annual Meeting of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS) at Concordia. Outgoing AIS President Menachem Hofnung called this year’s event “the largest assembly I have presided over.”

Among the highlights of the conference was Israel’s counterterrorism technology—something the Jewish state developed largely out to necessity, given its hostile neighbors. Yagil Henkin, a military history instructor at the Israel Defense Forces Command and General Staff College, described the difficult lessons learned by the IDF during the 1982 Lebanon War and subsequent conflicts that took place between Israel and Hezbollah.

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While all the tactical battles in that war were won by Israel, there was no preparation for what was described as a “war of attrition.” Hence, new techniques had to be found to win a war that could not be ended through conventional means. Many Israelis—and by extension, others—that would have otherwise been victims of terrorist attacks have been saved through such techniques. One specific technique Henkin spoke about was the way in which the IDF maintains the Hezbollah terror group as a “reliable enemy,” accepting its presence as long as it does not attack or infiltrate Israeli territory. Attacks against Hezbollah have been limited to specific targets, while the IDF has been careful not to stay in Lebanon for extended periods of time. This new strategy has resulted in significantly fewer Israeli casualties from Hezbollah attacks since the 1990s.

Michal Kobi, a senior lecturer in the Department of Israel and Middle Eastern Studies at Ariel University, described the learning curve associated with tackling jihadi terror. He noted techniques that have been collaboratively developed by the U.S.-based RAND Corporation think tank and Israeli intelligence offices to bridge the knowledge gap on terrorism between military and political leaders, since such a disconnect has resulted in the compromised efficiency of Western governments in fighting jihadi terrorism. Kobi outlined one solution in which political leaders assert complete control over their respective militaries, while governmental mechanisms are put in place for political leaders to take the concerns of the military into proper consideration.

Jamila Elnashef—a social theory, social stratification, and qualitative social research scholar at Tel Aviv University—highlighted the improvements in the quality of life for Israel’s Muslim Arabs since the country achieved independence in 1948. Major improvements include the creation of a previously non-existent economic middle class and substantial freedoms for Muslim women in Israel that are unparalleled throughout the rest of the Middle East. This new Muslim identity was defined, according to Elnashef, as “an active agency in which Israeli Muslims seek to work with Jewish and Arab sectors.”

Israeli medical advancements and assistance were also showcased at the AIS gathering. Dr. Richard J. Deckelbaum founded the Israel-based Medical School of International Health, a collaborative program between Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Columbia University in which both institutions have invested significant academic resources. Centered on cross-cultural medical practice, it engages in life-saving programs in the Middle East, such as working with the Ramallah Children’s Hospital to vaccinate Palestinian youths, working to reduce the prevalence of obesity in Gaza and the West Bank, and running nutrition programs that improve the quality of life in communities within and outside of Israel.

Deckelbaum noted, with some regret, that there is still a danger of reprisal against Arabs who seek to live and work peacefully with Israel.

“Many refuse to accept co-authorship credits or acknowledgment from Israeli authors when publishing medical articles and reports,” he said.

But fears of reprisal do not deter all who seek to learn more about Israel. Mennaallah Abukhadra, who is pursuing her doctorate in Modern Hebrew Language and Literature at Cairo University and is a fluent Hebrew speaker who could pass as a native Israeli, attended the Montreal conference seeking to learn more about Israeli society. Though she came in a non-official capacity and not as a representative of Cairo University, she described how the university is home to about 1,300 students who seek Hebrew-language degrees. According to Abukhadra, there are many in Egypt who want to learn more about Israeli society than the simplistic narrative of “the Israeli enemy” that dominated the academic discourse in Egypt for decades.

“I truly want to go to Israel and learn about the people there. If I could go and just take one Hebrew course there, then I would be truly happy,” she said.

Canadian Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler, in a keynote address at the conference, spoke of the absurdity of calling Israel “an apartheid state.” Relating his experiences as an observer in the Canadian delegation for the United Nations Human Rights Council, he said that Israel was the subject of every meeting in spite of any other global developments.

As someone who was involved in taking down the real apartheid in South Africa back in 1981, Cotler described the anti-Israel analogy as a manifestation of one of “the oldest and most absurd of hatreds.” While there is room for legitimate criticism of Israel, the Jewish state is a country with much to be proud of in terms of advancing human rights and improving the quality of life for all humanity, he said. At Concordia University, a venue once notoriously hostile to Israel, that point was driven home with frequency and vigor during the AIS conference.

Bradley Martin is a contributor to the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and a graduate of Concordia University, where he completed his MA in Judaic Studies after having completed a double BA in Specialization History and Judaic Studies.

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