Israel Studies are rarely centerstage at annual conferences of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA); but when they are, one can be certain that they’ll be the subject of criticism.
Consequently, my expectations were low when, in late November, I joined approximately 70 attendees in an awkwardly arranged conference room at the Washington Marriot Wardman Park Hotel for the panel “Navigating Jewish Campus and Community Debates on Israel/Palestine in the Age of Trump.”
The panel featured Shira Robinson of George Washington University (GWU), Liora Halperin of the University of Washington (UW), Stanford’s Joel Beinin, Joshua Schreier of Vassar, his brother Benjamin Schreier of Penn State, and independent scholar Sarah Anne Minkin.
This session’s intellectual weakness and politicized composition were illustrated by the fact that only two of the six panelists complaining about Israel Studies belong to the professional society of scholars in that field (the Association of Israel Studies), while at least four (and possibly all six), support the antisemitic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Robinson, a BDS supporter, set the tone for the event in her paper abstract, which complained that supporters of new positions in Israel Studies have been driven by “an explicitly ideological rather than intellectual mission,” and that “existing faculty have responded to the expansion of Israel Studies on North American campuses with suspicion and questions.”
Not surprisingly, she wrote: “this sentiment has been felt particularly among those within Middle Eastern Studies who already have an established record of teaching and writing on Israel/Palestine, and who reject the premise that one can understand the Zionist movement or the Israeli state outside of their historical conflict with the Palestinians.” Finally, she said that it was alarming “that the creation of these positions has Balkanized student enrollments in courses pertaining to Palestine/Israel along cultural, ethnic, and political lines.”
Let’s unpack her claims, starting with the assertion that funders have an ideological mission.
I can speak to this directly, because she attacked my organization’s visiting Israeli professor program as politically motivated. Over eight years, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) has brought more than 100 visiting Israeli professors to 72 different universities. In its evaluation of the program, Brandeis scholar Annette Koren concluded:
As a result of AICE initiatives, 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.
The program succeeded because AICE professors were all scholars in Israel Studies, chosen by the universities, including many elite schools (Berkeley, Michigan, Stanford, UCLA, Yale) according to their own criteria for hiring. Numerous schools asked AICE for visitors on multiple occasions, and many of the professors were so successful that they were asked to stay for an additional year or more.
Yet the pinnacle of panelists’ hypocrisy was ignoring the $1.4 billion in Arab money that has flowed to universities. Instead, panelists focused on investments in Israel Studies, which Robinson intimated were part of a Jewish conspiracy to fund the creation of chairs, programs, and centers that advocate for the Israeli government.
Anyone who understands Israeli academics, however, knows that they have no interest in advocating for their government. Robinson even admitted her own faculty position was created by donors — but these were presumably “good” philanthropists, as opposed to the nefarious ones supporting Israel Studies.
Unmentioned was that the necessity of strengthening of Israel Studies departments and offerings was prompted by the refusal by Middle East studies professors to teach courses on Israel — and their proclivity for injecting their personal political biases into the classroom.
That Robinson and others at MESA refer to themselves as teachers of “Israel/Palestine” demonstrates their bias for the non-existent state of “Palestine,” and against the very real nation of Israel. She and the other panelists favored this nomenclature and oppose the term “Israel Studies” because, she claimed, students might not want to take a course that refers only to Israel. In contrast to their supposedly objective approach, they also intimated that anyone teaching “Israel Studies” was biased and incapable of nuance.
Robinson’s ignorance of Israel Studies was further reflected in her insistence that Israel and Zionism cannot be understood outside the conflict with the Palestinians. But the conflict has not been solely with the Palestinians, nor is Israel Studies restricted to the narrow prism of the conflict. The “Israel/Palestine” paradigm is rooted in a one-sided critique of Israel.
As to Robinson’s concern for “Balkanized student enrollments,” the truth emerged when she admitted that Jewish students were enrolling in GWU’s new Israel Studies courses, while Palestinian and “solidarity students” were attending her Israel/Palestine classes. She inadvertently exposed a likely reason for this when she said, “I really enjoy engaging all of my students on their own terms and making them feel like they have a stake in the discussion, not least because of the tax dollars that the US gives to Israel.”
Ironically, the two panelists sitting on either side of Robinson — who joined in denouncing the influence of donors — were beneficiaries of an AICE Israel Scholar Award program that helped 40 graduate students pursue their doctorates. Liora Halperin received $55,000, and Sarah Anne Minkin got $30,000. Robinson was speechless when I asked if she thought that Halperin and Minkin should return the money they received — from what she had asserted was a tainted source.
Neither Halperin nor Minkin volunteered to return their awards, and Halperin had the audacity to complain that the funds that she has to allot to her graduate students is “Israel Studies money.” Had I not mentioned their grants, the audience would have been unaware of the duo’s hypocrisy in participating in such a panel.
In fact, Halperin, who denounced donors’ “pernicious pressure for pro-Israel advocacy,” holds a chair in Israel Studies that is funded by a $5 million gift by Becky Benaroya. When UW received the endowment, Halperin’s UW colleague Noam Pianko hailed it as an opportunity “to create academic relationships with Israeli institutions, to support opportunities for students to study in Israel, and to facilitate scholarly interchange between Israeli academics and UW faculty.” This is an example of how little influence donors actually have, and how the positions they fund may be given to people whose views toward Israel diverge from their own.
Panelists were also frustrated that their embrace of anti-Israel positions or organizations was not seen as a legitimate expression of their academic freedom. Minkin, for example, complained that the BDS movement is considered “non-kosher” by the Jewish community. She also saw no problem in associating with groups promoting antisemitic positions, such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Rather, she said, it should be enough for liberal Zionists to love Israel without having to disavow JVP.
Minkin’s grievances were not limited to donors and faculty: she was particularly unhappy that Jewish students dare to arrive on campus prepared to defend Israel. Lamenting that identity-building programs are teaching advocacy, she claimed that outside NGOs manipulate students by advising them to “play up their emotional pain” and “to cry a little bit at divestment hearings.”
Panelist Joel Beinin, whose vitriolic anti-Israel views are well-known, boasted that his class on the Arab-Israeli conflict typically had a disproportionate number of Jewish students, none of whom expressed a “significant issue” with his teaching. He sounded surprised when admitting later in his presentation that pro-Israel Jews no longer want to take his class, despite there being no alternative — and that he is a Jew fluent in Hebrew who has family in Israel.
Instead, he acknowledged that he now teaches Palestinians and students involved in Palestinian activism. He did not note that the Stanford Review student newspaper once ran a “Beinin Watch” column after he was “accused on numerous occasions of speaking out in support of terrorist organizations and of spearheading antisemitic practices at Stanford.”
The session’s one voice of sanity came from audience member Ilan Troen, founding director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and the immediate past president of the board of the Association of Israel Studies. He countered the panelists’ myths with the fact that Israel Studies has spread around the world to places as far-flung as China, India, Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland, because of widespread and genuine interest in Israel. “Some of these places have no Jews or Jewish money coming in,” he argued. “The power of the donors is much exaggerated; Jewish donors may try to shove and push, but they are not on promotion committees.”
Such facts did not sit well with the MESA crowd. A woman from the audience interrupted Troen to accuse him of sophistry and ignoring empirical data, an absurd claim given that Troen was the only authority on Israel Studies in the room — and the only contributor of anything other than anecdotal whining.
Joshua Schreier, who teaches Jewish Studies at Vassar, was more concerned with outside groups that hold faculty accountable and have the temerity to publicize their findings. He was especially upset with a group of alumni that formed ”Fairness to Israel” (the correct name is Alums for Campus Fairness), which circulated his openly biased syllabus. He said that the alumni assumed students might have a problem taking courses from professors with strong political positions without the alumni knowing what really goes on in the classroom.
He also confused Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, with the David Horowitz Freedom Center, in accusing outside groups of “intimidating students.” Schreier did not explain Campus Watch’s alleged role in this, but referred to Horowitz’s controversial poster campaign, which included putting Schreier’s likeness on a poster that labeled him an “anti-Israel activist,” supporter of Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP] and BDS, with the hashtag “Jewhatred.” He was also upset that pro-Israel speakers, such as Bret Stephens and Bassam Eid, were invited to campus.
Panelist Benjamin Schreier, Joshua’s younger brother — a Penn State professor with no expertise in Israel Studies — attacked Hillel. He was outraged that Penn State’s Hillel director expressed concern about a program he had organized on the 2015 stabbing intifada. The director “freaked out” about the one-sidedness of the event and wanted to balance the panel politically with a speaker whom Schreier disparaged as “an intellectual for hire from one of the groups Daniel Pipes works with; not Campus Watch — the more legitimate one [the Middle East Forum],” apparently unaware that CW is a project of the Forum. “This guy I guess had a Ph.D., so the Hillel director thought that would pass muster,” Schreier added, bragging that he shot the idea down. Schreier also castigated Hillel for simplifying the discourse on Israel by dividing it into supporters and opponents of the country’s government.
These panelists, like MESA in general, believe that critics of Israel are protected by academic freedom, while scholars remotely sympathetic to Israel, or given to challenging the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel dogma are not.
The good news is that MESA’s members are clearly panicked that they no longer have a monopoly on teaching about the Middle East. The study of Israel naturally belongs in Middle East studies, but the ideologues who either wish to exclude it or relegate it to one-sided criticism, made the creation of a separate field of Israel Studies necessary. Now, on a growing number of campuses, students have the option of taking courses with scholars who are not only knowledgeable about Israel, but have some affection for their subject.
The bad news is that the room was full of professors and graduate students committed to ensuring the continued dominance of their distorted, ideologically-driven and anti-Israel views.