Academic Israel Programs and Their Critics
Academic Israel programs are not so bad and critics should not worry, says Brent E. Sasley.
It’s not unusual for diasporic communities to work to maintain a positive image of their ancestral homeland abroad. Nor is it unusual for them to sponsor educational and other kinds of trips to it. When it comes to Israel, though, everything about such trips is considered controversial, with motives, funding, and agendas dissected and argued over. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of academic programs that take scholars from around the world to visit Israel as part of a broader educational experience.
Comprised of lectures (including in the home country), visits to sites commemorating national traumas and victories, meetings with public officials, sight-seeing tours, and more discussions, these programs—funded primarily by Jewish organizations and foundations—are often accused of promoting a too-rosy picture of Israel, a biased interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the purposeful exclusion of “the other side’s” narratives and concerns. (I respond to these particular accusations here.) These debates haven’t spilled much outside of academia, but they are similar to criticisms directed at Birthright and other programs trying to enhance diasporic Jewish attachment to Israel. They are, then, worth thinking about when we consider the roles and responsibilities of academics and scholars.
Inside Higher Ed, a publication that deals with issues related to education in universities and colleges, explores these issues in a recent article. The main question, put crudely, seems to be whether a (free) trip to Israel to provide academics with a more complete and nuanced understanding of the country than otherwise available is a form of insidious propaganda designed to further a rightist pro-Israel agenda. The answer, hinted at but not fully developed in the piece, depends on how you measure outcomes.
The explicit goal of academic Israel programs is to provide a deeper, less caricatured understanding of Israel. It’s certainly true that historically-informed and nuanced information and analysis about Israel is hard to come by. The mainstream media doesn’t have the resources, time, or space to provide enough of detailed background to contemporary events, while most discussions of Israel on the Internet are driven by political or ideological objectives. There aren’t that many people in universities, think tanks, or research institutes who study Israel specifically, so there is a small pool of available commentators with a good, wide grasp of the country’s politics whose purpose isn’t to promote a specific political agenda. Providing more information to scholars, then, is certainly a worthy and necessary goal.
But how are outcomes measured? How can they be measured? Is it by number or types of publications on Israel? Where such pieces are published? The content of syllabi? The kinds of things participants say about Israel in private discussions (which can’t be catalogued)? I’m not sure there’s a clear or good answer, but I do think that assuming a goal is to clone troops of “pro-Israel” (whatever that means) researchers is too simplistic and ignores the kinds of people who participate in these programs and the particular nature of academia.
The scholars who go on these programs come from a variety of national, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. All of them study the Middle East is one way or another, but many are not Israel specialists. It’s not really conceivable that this wide variety of individuals come to such programs open to being indoctrinated.
Moreover, in my own experience and in reading public critiques of others who have participated in these programs, even the exclusion of ideas (though I can’t think of any that were shut out from discussion), people (e.g., radical settlers), and places (e.g., Palestinian villages hemmed in by the security barrier) from the trips’ agendas are noted and the reasons for such exclusion discussed. In other words, going on these trips doesn’t make one only think about a mainstream Israeli perspective. Nor does it make one “pro-Israel.”
All individuals have their own personal biases and preferences. But academics by nature are curious, interested, and critical. Simply being exposed to new and more information and ideas is always useful. And the ability to raise more questions with their students and speak from personal experience makes academics better teachers.
In short, I do recommend participating in an academic Israel program.