The Israeli-Palestinian conflict long ago spilled over into America’s education departments of Middle East studies. In an attempt to appear balanced in the face of charges of anti-Israel biases, some departments or programs of Middle East studies have added Israeli scholars to their ranks - a move that at first glance appears welcome.
Yet many of these Israeli academics have built their reputation on a scholarship that is harshly critical not only of Israeli policy, but of Israel’s very existence. Anti-Israel scholars who hail from Israel are cited favorably by the entire range of Israel’s critics. These range from pro-Palestinian groups like the Committee to Stop Demolition of Houses in Palestine, the Committee to Stop Torture and Breaking the Silence to Jewish anti-Zionist groups like the American Council for Judaism. They also include neo-Nazis and Islamists.
The international standing of such scholars received a boost in the mid-1980s with the rise of the so-called “new historians” in Israeli universities. These scholars sought to debunk what they claim is a distorted “Zionist narrative” in Israeli historiography. In practice, they twisted the history of Israel’s rebirth by dismissing the efforts of Arab states to destroy the newborn Jewish state as a Zionist myth, and claiming that Israel is built on ethnic cleansing and brutality toward the Palestinians.
Given this hostility to Israel’s very existence, Middle East studies departments in the United States are tempted to hire anti-Israeli Israelis. They inoculate the employer against charges of anti-Semitism while seemingly legitimizing their claims of ideological balance gained through presenting an Israeli viewpoint. All this is achieved without changing the radical, anti-Israel, Arabist prejudices of their departments.
This problem is noted by leading Middle East historian Efraim Karsh, who in his book “Fabricating Israeli History” observes that propaganda in the field of Middle East studies has become the accepted norm. In other disciplines, this would have created a serious crisis of credibility. Yet, Mr. Karsh notes, this is not so in contemporary Middle East studies. For such is the politicization of this field that the new historiography’s partisanship has been its entry ticket into the Arabist club and its attendant access to academic journals, respected publishing houses and the mass media.
Today, these “new historians” teach at many North American and European universities. In practice, it ensures that students are taught an ahistorical, one-sided interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Some recent examples illustrate the problem: Ilan Pappe, formally of Haifa University and now with the University of Exeter in England, was one of the driving forces behind the academic boycott movement against Israeli academics that began in the United Kingdom. Mr. Pappe believes that Zionism is a genocidal, racialist movement. Here he describes the founding years of the Jewish state: As resistance to colonialism strengthened, the Zionist leadership became convinced that only through a total expulsion of the Palestinians would they be able to create a state of their own. From its early inception and up to the 1930s, Zionist thinkers propagated the need to ethnically cleanse the indigenous population of Palestine if the dream of a Jewish state were to come true.
Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan this academic year. Mr. Gordon believes that Israel is not a democracy and that Israel controls the Palestinian population in the occupied territories without giving them political rights. Accordingly, the notion that the occupation is provisional or temporary should be considered an illusion concealing the reality on the ground.
o Oren Yiftachel, a geography professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a Diller Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, states that: 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. He also says that actual existence of an Israeli state (and hence citizenship) can be viewed as an illusion, and that Israel has ruptured, by its own actions, the geography of statehood and maintained a caste-like system of ethnic-religious-class stratification.
Sanford and Helen Diller endowed Mr. Yiftachel’s position at Berkeley. Helen Diller admits that she was motivated by the pro-Palestinian activism on campus: With the protesting and this and that, we need to get a real strong Jewish studies program in there, she said, expressing the hope that it will be enlightening to have a visiting professor and that it would calm down the situation on campus. Her comments, though well intentioned, illustrate the core mis-assumption that the presence of an Israeli scholar guarantees ideological balance in a department.
Sanford Diller has noted the risks involved in trusting the university to fulfill his and his wife’s wishes, and stated that it was never their foundation’s intent to supply a platform at Berkeley for someone of Mr. Yiftachel’s views, to which he and his wife are strongly in disagreement.
In Middle East studies, politicized writing and teaching have displaced scholarship, and academic freedom has been redefined as the liberty to dispense with academic standards. Hiring token Israeli Jews who share these views eliminates debate while providing the illusion of balance.
Asaf Romirowsky, an adjunct scholar for Campus Watch, is manager of Israel and Mideast affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.