A note before I begin this post. I am a supporter of Israel. I am a supporter of Jewish philanthropy, including philanthropy which supports Israeli social projects. I am a supporter of Israel studies on campus. But I am not a supporter of partisan teaching that conceals a political agenda. I am in favor of teaching about Israel in a non-partisan fashion that allows students to argue the merits of the issues and make up their own minds.
Washington Jewish Week recently reported that students in a George Washington University course on the Israeli-Arab conflict complained that their instructor, Hanna Diskin, was spending all of her class time promoting a highly partisan view of the conflict that favored Israel. On hearing of this, Diskin fled the classroom and quit leaving the University and department in a lurch. If Diskin had stood her ground and defended herself I think people might approach this bizarre incident differently. But her precipitous flight has led Jerry Haber and myself to do some digging and what we’ve discovered has alarmed us.
Jerry wrote a damning post yesterday about Diskin’s academic background and suitability to teach the course she was instructing. Among other things:
The instructor, Hannah Diskin, was described by the WJU as “visiting from Hebrew University”. and a “postdoctoral fellow” funded by Mitchell Bard’s American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. And indeed, Dr. Diskin is listed as a postdoctoral fellow for the current year on the AICE website…
Dr. Diskin’s cv which appears not on the Hebrew University website, but — surprise!– on the website of the West Bank Ariel College of Judea and Samaria. (Yes, that’s the one that calls itself a “university center”, despite that it is not recognized as such by the Israel Council of Higher Education)
First, Dr. Diskin, who is listed by AICE as an “AICE supported postdoctoral fellow” at GWU this year, received her doctorate from Tel-Aviv university over twenty-five years ago. Generally, the limit for eligibility of postdoctoral fellows is seven, maybe, nine years. Why would AICE award somebody like Dr. Diskin a posdoctoral fellowship?
Second, Dr. Diskin is not on the faculty of Hebrew University, so she cannot be described as “visiting from Hebrew university.” Her cv lists her as having a “teaching position” at Hebrew University from 1992-2005 in the Political Science department. That is usually code for being an adjunct instructor. Her husband, Avraham Diskin, is a professor in that department and a former chair. He is a visiting professor at GW this year. (Oddly, this was not mentioned in the WJW article.) In fact, if I understand her employment history correctly, she has never been more than an adjunct at Hebrew University or any other university inside or outside of Israel. From 2001 she is listed as the Director General of a publishing company.
Third, Dr. Diskin’s area of scholarly expertise — according to her publication history — is Polish-Christian relations. The only book that she has authored by herself is entitled, The Seeds of Triumph: Church and State in Gomulka’s Poland — a book that was published twenty years after she received her doctorate. She has coauthored with her husband several articles in one of his main areas of scholarly expertise, the Israeli electoral system. She has not authored a single article on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as far as I know.
Let me be clear again–I have no problem with someone like Hanna Diskin teaching the GW course or with the spouse of a professor teaching on the same campus as him. But the facts of this case are so egregious as to warrant full review by AICE, its funders and George Washington. When there is little or no oversight of multi-million dollar philanthropic-academic projects like AICE this is what happens. Boondoggles like the one which allowed Hannah Diskin to teach propaganda at a major U.S. university tarnish the good name of all the serious, reputable scholars in the field of Israel studies.
Haber continues his critique of the AICE program at George Washington:
My problem is not with Dr. Diskin, but with GW, which allowed an advocacy operation like AICE sponsor an adjunct instructor who is an expert in Polish-Christian relations to teach a class on the Arab-Israel conflict!
I won’t even begin to comment on the appropriateness of her assigning as one of the two books in the class, Mitchell Bard’s Myths and Facts, a highly biased and one-sided polemic that has no academic value whatsoever. Bard’s organization sponsors her, and then she turns around and assigns Bard’s book?
Nor will I speculate that the position was arranged for her by AICE as part of a package deal that brought her husband and her to GW on her husband’s sabbatical. That is not the issue. Had she been teaching in her field of expertise, or even in her area of teaching competence, without such tendentious sources, then who would have cared?
When are universities going to learn that they cannot be cavalier with accepting money from outside organizations that fund teachers who, based on the news report, do not meet the minimum standards of objectivity? Assigning the Bard book in a college classroom, if true, is a big smoking gun.
I’ve done some further research on AICE myself. The academic program it sponsors is largely funded by the Lynn and Charles Schusterman Foundation, a large Jewish philanthropic enterprise which funds a diverse set of priorities. A review of its Israel giving does show that it funds a great deal of Israel advocacy programs on campus. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it should be noted that many such programs come across as little more than propaganda apparatuses for a pro-Israel agenda. In fact, I have learned from a former AIPAC staffer that the Foundation funds virtually the entire AIPAC on Campus program (under the rubric of the American-Israel Education Foundation, AIPAC’s non-profit vehicle) including the director, Jonathan Kessler’s salary. Stacy Schusterman serves on AIPAC’s executive committee as did her father, Charles who was the group’s vice-president. The family is heavily involved with Republican Party politics.
Given the Schusterman-Bard AIPAC affiliations one has to ask whether AICE’s campus program is a subtle attempt by AIPAC to interject itself into the academic arena. A direct intervention would of course be unacceptable and seen as partisan interference in academic discourse. But Mitchell Bard is enough of an independent operator to give AICE the veneer of academic respectability it needs. I may be overstating AIPAC’s interest in this. But if that is so it is only because AICE seems so insular, opaque, and partisan. I note that AICE doesn’t even list its visiting scholars nor their designated campuses on its own website.
The Schusterman website notes it has given AICE nearly $3-million over five years to create 20-30 such academic positions each year. Mitchell Bard, a former AIPAC staffer, appears to be the sole paid staff of AICE (he runs it out of a basement office in his home) who receives $125,000 per year for his efforts (see AICE’s IRS form 990 (pdf)). I don’t know the nature of Bard’s work for this project, but it would seem to me that spending 17% of such a grant to fund one administrative position is a bit excessive. But that’s something the Foundation needs to take up with Bard if it hasn’t done so already.
AICE claims that there is an advisory board which oversees the Schusterman program. But the “advisory board” listed on its website is not an academic board. I’m guessing that there is no academic oversight of the Schusterman program by AICE.
Bard himself is a well-known pro-Israel propagandist in the AIPAC mold. No doubt this fact endeared him to the Schustermans who appear to be strong supporters of AIPAC. But a review of any of Bard’s writing in the Jewish Virtual Library website he maintains or the The Complete Idiot’s (!) Guide to Middle East Conflict which he edited shows him to be a pure partisan. What gave the Schustermans the impression that their funds would be well-spent by a character like Mitchell Bard is beyond me–unless they wanted a highly partisan pro-Israel academic program.
A clue to the ideological agenda behind AICE’s work can be found in this illuminating passage from the Philanthropy Roundtable:
Another potentially helpful development in higher education is the rise of Israel studies. This small but growing field offers college students a way to study the politics and culture of a country that sits near the center of many events. It’s not the ideal lens for studying the entire Middle East, but it does have the potential to increase knowledge about an important nation. It also offers a helpful corrective to Middle Eastern studies programs that are compromised by anti-Israeli bias.
What is deeply problematic about this statement is that without even intending to do so it concedes that AICE-type programs are meant as an attempt to address a perceived ideological imbalance in Middle East studies programs. I should note that the so-called “bias” is perceived by groups like Campus Watch, Frontpagemagazine, and AICE which are themselves accused of harboring deep-seated ideological biases.
The Roundtable article continues:
“A couple of years ago, we conducted a survey and discovered that the vast majority of colleges and universities don’t offer any courses on Israel,” says Lisa Eisen, national program director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. “Our goal is to create opportunities for students to learn about Israel both in and out of its conflict — everything from Jewish literature to modern counterterrorism — in accurate ways.”
Working through the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, the Schusterman Family Foundation sponsors visiting professorships in the United States for Israeli scholars and gives awards to graduate students who want to research topics in Israel. It currently supports programs at Brandeis, Columbia, UCLA and several other schools.
Improving the quality of university study of the Middle East faces real obstacles. “Donors need to be very careful about how they give to universities because their money can be used for purposes that are contrary to their intentions,” warns Mitchell Bard of the AICE.
Bard points to the case of Helen Diller, the wife of real-estate developer Sanford Diller. In 2004, she gave $5 million to the University of California at Berkeley and its Center for Middle East Studies to finance research grants and underwrite visiting professorships.
“You know what’s going on over there,” she said of Berkeley to a San Francisco Jewish newspaper. “With the protesting and this and that, we need to get a real strong Jewish studies program in there….Hopefully, it will be more enlightening to have a visiting professor and it’ll calm down over there.”
Berkeley didn’t seem to care about this motive. As its first Diller Visiting Professor, the university hired Oren Yiftachel — “one of the Israeli academics most critical of his country’s policies,” according to Moment, a Jewish magazine that covered the controversy. Diller was helpless. “Having given the endowment, there was nothing she could do but wince,” reported Moment.
Again, the passage is deeply problematic. First, the fact that Moment Magazine accuses Yiftachel of being one of the most critical academics of Israeli policy without any proof is dubious. Second, there are MANY Israeli academics who criticize Israeli policy, both Zionist and non-Zionist. Yiftachel is certainly not “one of the most critical.” In fact, he is but one of many. And in fact, he is a highly respected geographer at Ben Gurion University. It should also be noted that the attacks against Yiftachel emanate from the usual suspect right-wing sources, Campus Watch, Frontpagemagazine, Martin Kramer, and academic neo-Kahanist Steven Plaut. Third, the notion that a serious academic cannot teach critically about issues related to Israel and the Middle East conflict is also alarming and runs counter to the concept of critical thinking that should characterize academic discourse. Fourth, the notion that Mitchell Bard is in a better position to vet the bona fides of Israel studies professors than UC Berkeley is entirely bogus. What special academic expertise does he have that the professors at UC Berkeley don’t have? Isn’t it possible that the very bias Bard accuses UC Berkeley of practicing is mirrored in his own decision regarding AICE appointments? But with the major difference that Bard is an unaccountable one man band, while UC Berkeley at least has an academic system of vetting such appointments with layers of accountability?
I would go further. Has AICE appointed ANY Israeli academics to its positions with critical views of Israeli policy? What are the ideological views of those it does appoint? Has it appointed anyone with the critical perspectives of a Shlomo Ben Ami, Tom Segev, Neve Gordon, Martin Van Creveld, Zeev Sternhell, Avi Shlaim, Shlomo Brom, Menachem Klein, etc.? I don’t know the answer to this question. But I would challenge them to show us that they do not have an ideological axe to grind.
If the Schustermans had entrusted their money to a reputable nonpartisan academic consultant or Jewish foundation which funds Israel studies programs, I would support their program wholeheartedly. In fact, they have provided a $15 million grant to support Israeli studies at Brandeis University. This is money undoubtedly well-spent. But the AICE project appears to be little more than a boondoggle to benefit partisan pro-Israel academics (and their spouses) looking for a comfy year at a U.S. campus; not to mention Mitch Bard.
AICE’s 990 form notes that as of 2006 it funded similar programs at the following institutions:
University of Texas
Syracuse University (Maxwell School)
Washington University (St. Louis)
University of Florida
University of Arizona
It’s possible that each of these institutions have qualified people filling their AICE positions. But if George Washington can make the mistake it did virtually any campus could do the same. Again, I would urge Schusterman and each campus to redouble their efforts to vet their scholars and assure their suitability to teach the courses they are assigned. I would also examine carefully the course curricula and assigned textbooks to ensure they are not out and out propaganda like AIPAC’s Myths and Facts.
Hat tip to Muzzlewatch.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.