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January 25, 2016 6:39 am

To Change Campus Culture in Relation to Israel, Look to the Faculty

avatar by Mitchell Bard, Asaf Romirowsky and Samuel Edelman

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 "Israeli Apartheid Week" in May 2010 on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

“Israeli Apartheid Week” in May 2010 on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

A number of articles have been written about a new organization that is going to work with faculty to address problems on campus related to Israel and the treatment of Jewish students. While the group understandably wants to present itself to funders as something new and exciting, the truth is that a number of us recognized that faculty is the key to changing the campus environment inside and outside the classroom a decade or more ago, and have been diligently working with faculty for years to expand the field of Israel Studies, respond to Israel’s detractors, and deter and defeat the campaign to boycott, divest, or sanction (BDS) Israel.

As academics, we understand that faculty hold the real power in a university and for too many years we have witnessed that power being abused by professors with anti-Israel political agendas. These faculty sometimes use their classrooms as bully pulpits to advocate personal views and to intimidate students who typically lack the knowledge to rebut the “authority’s” position and fear retribution if they speak out.

While we understand the importance of preparing students to handle the challenges they face from Israel’s detractors among their peers, we believe this is necessary but not sufficient to change the climate on campus from one that is, at best, apathetic and, at worst, hostile toward Israel, to an environment where civil discussion and the transmission of scholarship about Israel is the norm.

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The situation has grown worse in recent years as more and more faculty (more than 1,500 at last count) have become advocates of boycotting Israel. It is truly horrifying that professors at the nation’s leading universities are poisoning their campuses with the anti-Semitic views associated with the BDS movement. In some cases, whole departments are infected and it has become increasingly common for university affiliated bodies to sponsor anti-Israel speakers and conferences. The virus is spreading now to professional associations where the vocal minority of BDS supporters are seeking to convince their colleagues to boycott Israel.

Fortunately, serious academic associations, such as the American Historical Association, have the integrity and, frankly, the intelligence, to see through the arguments of the BDS advocates and recognize their goal is not to help the Palestinians, or to bring peace to the region, but, rather, they seek the destruction of Israel.

Without fanfare, we (AICE, SPME, ACfI) have worked mostly behind the scenes to defeat the BDS campaign and to proactively create opportunities for students to learn from the top experts on Israeli history, politics and culture. AICE, for example, brought more than 100 Israeli professors from 23 different disciplines to 72 campuses in eight years. These professors reached thousands of students, introduced nearly 150 new courses and were the catalyst for the creation of new chairs, centers and programs in Israel Studies at schools such as Ohio State, Maryland, UCLA, San Francisco State, Wake Forest and Berkeley. “As a result of AICE initiatives,” the evaluator from Brandeis concluded, “Israel has moved from its place as an isolated ‘extra-curricular’ topic into mainstream classrooms and core curricula. In addition, the way Israel is discussed on college campuses has shifted. AICE programs have succeeded in incorporating rigorous scholarship and debate into discussions on Israel that were previously dominated by polemical hyperbole.”

While AICE has focused on bringing Israel’s best scholars to the United States, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) has devoted its time to building a global network of faculty who can be called upon when needed to respond to BDS campaigns and acts of academic malpractice. All of this work has been done by informing, motivating and encouraging faculty to use their academic skills and disciplines on campus, in classrooms, and in academic publications to develop effective responses to ideological distortions, including anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slanders, which poison debate and work against peace.

In tandem with SPME is the year old Academic Council for Israel (ACfI) made up of faculty, staff and administrators on more than 110 colleges and universities in the United States.  These academics, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are often the advisors to pro-Israel student groups and active in support of both Hillel and Chabad on their home campus. They have committed themselves to bring a better, more accurate and clear understanding about Israel and its neighbors to their campus. Many of the academics in the Council also are the quiet force behind the effective fight against BDS in academic professional organizations. They are the faculty who helped defeat anti-Israel resolutions in the Modern Language Association, the American History Association and the American Library Association. Many of the faculty fighting to persuade their colleagues in the American Anthropology Association come from the ranks of the Council.  Finally the Council has become a virtual think tank about how to better change the atmosphere on our campuses and to move us away from being reactive to proactive in talking about Israel on our campuses. The members of the Council have also been effective in providing support for the AICE visiting Israeli scholar program, and coordinating and collaborating with Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

AICE, SPME and ACfI have come together to create a coordinated, collaborative effort to more effectively change the atmosphere of our colleges and universities with regard to Israel and the Jewish community. We are concerned with the growing impact of anti-Israel professors on our campuses, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as the introduction of new faculty and curricula driven by an anti-Israel ideology. Because of these concerns for the future of our colleges and universities we have joined forces.

We can’t help wondering if parents would send their children to schools that have become fertile ground for anti-Israel agitation if they had any idea of the views of some of their teachers. We want to make sure that both students and parents are well-informed before they choose a college. We also want to:

  • Ensure that once a student enrolls in a college, he or she will have the opportunity to take courses about Israel from scholars in the field.
  • Instill our students with confidence so they can stand up to any challenges from Israel’s detractors, whether they be students or faculty.
  • Provide a safe environment where students know that the university has zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.
  • Encourage students to explore and discuss Israel in all its complexity.
  • Inspire students to take advantage of all the opportunities for intellectual, personal and spiritual growth that colleges afford.

It is unfortunate that so many funders choose to reinvent the wheel rather than invest in existing organizations that have been working for years in the trenches without fanfare. We are pleased to be collaborating to address the serious issues related to faculty, and hope that new faculty organizations will join and strengthen our collective effort.

This article was originally published by SPME. 

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  • Daniel Edelman

    To the extent these are government-run universities, consider whether the practices in question are subject to challenge under the First Amendment as discrimination on the basis of race or religion or governmental interference with or condemnation of religious belief. (Jews are considered a “race” for purposes of civil rights statutes, and the right of Jews to settle Israel is an integral part of our religion.)

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