Middle East studies in the News
How Not to Promote Israel Studies
by Martin Kramer
For a very long time now, supporters of Israel have been unhappy with its treatment in American academe, and understandably so. The sympathies of those academics who actually teach the Middle East run in the opposite direction. The solution, according to some, is in the promotion of Israel studies. In a recent issue of the Forward, my old friend, Michael Kotzin, has made a plea for philanthropic support of these studies. His conclusion:
It is increasingly clear that serious steps must be taken to provide funding for courses in Israel studies. University officials—who should care about their institutions' academic credibility as well as their image in the community—need to know that when they solicit Jewish donors for large gifts, this is an area that should be offered as waiting for support. Members of the Jewish community who are already prepared to make substantial gifts to colleges and universities need to be urged to support Israel studies on campus. And all community members with an abiding concern about the fate of the Jewish people need to be encouraged to add this area of giving to their philanthropic portfolios.Indeed. But when donors come to add Israel studies to their philathropic porfolios, they should know that academic administrators can be pretty sharp dealers on their own turf. Indeed, some programs on offer are as close as academe gets to a scam.
This thought is prompted by the inauguration, this spring semester, of a visiting Israeli professorship at Berkeley. It was established with the support of Helen Diller, a Berkeley alumna whose fortune (and that of her husband, Sanford) was made in real estate (Prometheus Real Estate Group). The two of them have given generously to a wide range of enlightened causes. (Parallel to the Berkeley gift, she gave Ben-Gurion University an equal sum to construct a new humanities building.)
In an interview, Helen Diller said she had been motivated by the pro-Palestinian activism on campus: "You know what's going on over there. With the protesting and this and that, we need to get a real strong Jewish studies program in there....Hopefully, it will be enlightening to have a visiting professor and it'll calm down over there more." An official of the local Jewish federation echoed the sentiment: "Israel has become, somehow, the politically correct whipping boy of academia on this campus....Having an Israeli professor as a permanent fixture on the U.C. [Berkeley] campus provides Jewish students and faculty with a sense of validation." The local Jewish paper ran a celebratory editorial: "What makes [the Diller] family's $5 million grant to establish a permanent visiting professor from Israel even more significant is that the professor will not only be a presence on campus. The professor will also be a resource to the entire community." Diller again: "I feel, through education, both sides will come out with a more positive approach to the situation. I'm hoping to even get the (pro-Palestinian) students to take the courses."
Well, that's not likely to be a problem, because Berkeley's academic committee chose Professor Oren Yiftachel as the first Diller Visiting Professor. Yiftachel is a professor of geography at Ben-Gurion University. He's also a shining light in the post-Zionist pantheon, a "critical scholar" whose criticism runs overwhelmingly in one direction: against Israel.
I'll let you judge for yourself. Start with his article "'Ethnocracy': The Politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine," where he makes the argument that Israel, far from being a democracy, is an ethnocracy—a state predicated on an ethnic preference that cannot be reconciled with democracy. (This is also the title of his next book.) Continue to his article "From Fragile 'Peace' to Creeping Apartheid," where he argues that Ehud Barak's peace offers were humiliating to the Palestinians, and that Israel is heading down the road of apartheid South Africa. This quote pretty much summarizes Yiftachel's position:
The failed Oslo process, the violent intifada and—most acutely—Israel's renewed aggression and brutality toward the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, have cast a dark shadow over the joint future of the state's Palestinian and Jewish citizens....The actual existence of an Israeli state (and hence citizenship) can be viewed as an illusion. Israel has ruptured, by its own actions, the geography of statehood, and maintained a caste-like system of ethnic-religious-class stratification. Without an inclusive geography and universal citizenship, Israel has created a colonial setting, held through violent control....Occupation and settlement, which necessitate ever intensifying oppression of Palestinians with or without Israeli citizenship, have clear potential to make Israel gradually cave from within.
Yiftachel has called for "a conceptual shift, from Jewishness to Israeliness as the core of the country's national identity." To that end, he advocates the cancellation of Israel's Law of Return, and the effective abolition of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. In a presentation at Stanford, he said that while he now supports a two-state solution, he thought that Israelis and Palestinians would eventually form one state.
This is the person summoned to Berkeley, supposedly to validate Israel for its Jewish students and faculty. (His course title: "Nationalism, Territory and Identity: Ethnic Relations in Israel/Palestine.") Now I don't question Yiftachel's qualifications to be a visiting professor at Berkeley. In fact, there are enough qualified Israeli post-Zionists and "critical scholars" to fill the Diller Visiting Professorship for the next fifty years, if not longer. But is that what the Dillers had in mind when they made their gift? Bringing to Berkeley a caravan of critics of Israel, who just happen to be Israeli professors?
Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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