Tonight, I want to present a portrait of two Israel studies programs on two different campuses to show one that largely honors the traditions of fair, open academic discourse and another that flagrantly violates them. The two campuses are the University of Illinois (UI) and Brandeis University. Given recent headlines you might think the institution violating academic standards was UI. The Native American Studies program at the Champaign-Urbana campus hired Steven Salaita, then the Chancellor fired him after personal pressure was mounted by pro-Israel alumni.
But there was another interesting development at the University’s flagship campus during this period. The Jewish studies program voted overwhelmingly to criticize the campus leadership and defend Salaita’s hiring. The Jewish studies program at the Chicago campus hasn’t been sitting on its laurels either. It’s doing what a good academic program is supposed to do in challenging intellectual constructs. It’s delving into the contentious issues around Israel and our relationship to it.
UIC hosting a lecture series entitled, Thinking Out of the Box on Israel-Palestine. The speakers cross a rather diverse spectrum academically and politically, which is as it should be. They include on the left, Charles Manekin, Antony Lerman and Sayed Kashua and on the liberal Zionist side Peter Beinart, Mira Sucharov and Hussein Ibish.
Of course, I have some important criticisms of the panels and the overall conception of the series. While it claims to include Palestine, the main speaker addressing the issue, Hussein Ibish, is a conservative Lebanese-American working for a discredited DC think tank. On the panel which asks whether liberal Zionism is dead, there are two participants who are liberal Zionists and heartily reject the claim, and only one speaker who endorses it.
There are no panels that address, even indirectly, the Salaita controversy. I’m certain this was a deliberate choice by organizers who wanted to steer clear of this mine field. But as a result, they’ve attenuated their program by refusing to address the elephant in the room. Additionally, there are no programs dealing with BDS, which is one of the most important current issues in this international debate, only made more prominent with each new Israeli attack on Palestine and Palestinians.
Only one speaker, Gershon Baskin, will address Gaza and he is an Israeli with strongly hostile views of Hamas, despite the fact that he negotiated the Shalit prisoner exchange. This program desperately needs more participation by Palestinians. You can’t have the word “Palestine” in your title and have eight Jewish speakers and only two Arab (one of whom is Israeli-Palestinian).
Despite these criticisms, this is a program that for a Jewish studies program, representing a liberal Zionist ethos, addresses important, controversial issues in a relatively balanced manner.
Not so, Brandeis University. Its Schusterman Center for Israel Studies is hosting a boilerplate pro-Israel “teach-in” on the Gaza war and BDS, A Teach-In on the Gaza Conflict and BDS Movement. For those who may not know, the Schusterman family offers tens of millions to fund Israel studies programs, Aipac campus organizing, and other forms of pro-Israel boosterism on college campuses. Though its academic giving offers a veneer of academic legitimacy, it is clearly part and parcel of the campus war being waged by the Israel Lobby on college campuses.
The pro-Israel bona fides of the speakers are a case in point. The coordinator of the event is Schusterman Center chair, Ilan Troen. Troen sees fighting BDS as part of his academic mission. His talk will document the anti-Israelism among academics who support BDS through their academic associations. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a decidedly rightist campus advocacy group, features this talk he delivered at an unofficial rump session of the MLA conference, at which BDS was debated.
Others participating include Len Saxe, who runs the Steinhardt Center on campus. Much of his research, funded by pro-Israel neocon hedge fund manager, Michael Steinhardt, is designed to offer a patina of academic respect to the Birthright Program. Steinhardt co-founded it with Las Vegas gambling oligarch, Sheldon Adelson. Saxe’s “research” invariably finds long-lasting pro-Israel impact on the Jewish identities of Birthright participants. Other speakers are Cary Nelson, the leading American academic fighting against BDS on college campuses (who sits on the University of Illinois faculty, by the way).
The campus Hillel director, Rabbi Elyse Winick will also speak on Understanding the Role of the Media During the Gaza Conflict. A website designed to fight BDS on campus featured an anti-BDS statement by mainstream American Jewish leaders that she signed. Given that she’s led Birthright tours, it’s safe to say that her critique of the media regarding the Gaza war will not include any claims of favoritism toward Israel.
The teach-in will conclude with a talk by Schusterman assistant director, Rachel Fish. She contributed to a Tablet Magazine roundtable discussing ways to rebut “anti-Israel” rhetoric during campus Apartheid Week. Her contribution was called, Expose Biased Professors and the Influence of Petrodollars. She worked for the notoriously Islamophobic David Project from 2003-2009. ‘Nuf said on that score.
Another major speaker at the Brandeis event will be Donna Divine, who teaches at Smith College. She is on the board of directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and contributed to Cary Nelson’s anti-BDS screed, The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. She documents her anti-Islam views via a paper she uploaded to her Academia.edu account a paper entitled, Victory for Hamas, Defeat for Middle East. A California pro-Israel campus blogger had this headline for a post about a SPCME event at which Divine spoke at UCSD, Renowned Middle East Scholars Bring Pro-Israel Message to UCSD.
Campus debate on the issues raised by the Brandeis event are critical. But not the in the fashion adopted by the Schusterman Center. BDS is not demonic. It doesn’t carry the plague. It is a serious issue that deserves discussion and debate. You wouldn’t know that from the hysterical way in which programs like this address it.
Given that the president of Brandeis is on first name basis with Charles Jacobs and would take his marching orders from him if it were possible to do so without public exposure and embarrassment. And given that the chair of the school’s board of trustees made very clear that Brandeis is a pro-Israel campus, including in its academic departments; it’s not surprising that Brandeis is an center of pro-Israel militancy.
There is no diversity on this panel. There are no Palestinian speakers. Since the teach-in deals with Gaza, one might expect at least one speaker who knows the place or has has done research there. As for BDS, I don’t expect fairness or balance. But to only invite speakers who publicly detest BDS? Really?
I should note that the entire subject of how Israel is addressed on campuses is part of a broad, aggressive campaign by the Israel Lobby and funded by outfits like Schusterman. Another battle in this war is taking place at UCLA, where pro-Israel activists have attacked the renowned von Grunebaum Center for Near East Studies. Juan Cole today published this rejoinder by the Center to its critics, who’ve called the latter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Liberal Jewish professors have come to the Center’s defense as well.