Roundtable on Teaching Israel

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February 1, 2008
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Few recent issues touching on Jewish life have been as contentious as how to teach Israel on the American college campus. Teaching Israel touches on an array of controversial subjects — the convergence of identity issues in teaching Israel, and how to do so in a scholarly and dispassionate manner, the conflict of Israel and the Palestinians, and the impact of the Jewish communal agenda on a discipline whose faculty positions are heavily communally funded. Sh’ma asked some of the leading scholars in the area of Israel Studies to talk about how they’ve confronted these and other issues and what might challenge the field in the near future.

Susan Berrin: How has the content of your courses on Israel changed over the past five or ten years?

Ilan Troen: Today’s bibliography of materials is far richer than a decade ago, with a flood of resources that continues to grow because interest in the field is so very large. There’s a cacophony of diverse materials, an enormous competition to get out one’s message, one’s truth, because the subject is imbued with moral passion and moral judgment, which makes it a very intense field.

Ronald Zweig: In the last five years, as archives that were closed for 30, 40, and 50 years now become available, research and scholarly writing on Israel has increased. The huge public interest in our subject is not just a question of moral interest in what’s happening in Israel. There is an immense curiosity about Israel and courses on Israel are popular among non-Jews as well as Jews, which is a fairly new phenomenon.

Yael Zerubavel: The field — inside and outside Israel — is much richer, with a larger diversity of voices. And there is more room for the interplay with multiple disciplinary perspectives and literatures, which broadens the field. For example, when studying the development of Israeli national culture, we also look at it in relation to other national movements, and not only to its unique place in history.

Troen: The study of Israel is not only political history nor is it obviously only the study of the conflict. And Yael has led the field in exploring how roots and symbols and mythologies are applied to the Israeli case, which makes for a far more exciting historiography than politics. Twenty years ago, most Israelis writing dissertations about Israel dealt with politics. There was no biography and not much in cultural studies. That — at least in part — was a byproduct of the triumph of the Zionist movement and how it engaged with the obstacles that had been encountered. And that is a minority focus today. The range of topics is much broader. The study of Israel happens within a wide number of disciplines, which would have been anathema to an earlier generation.

Zweig: The generation who researched Israel during a period when Israel was conceived as being beleaguered and embattled has now passed and has been replaced by a generation of younger scholars for whom the continued existence of Israel is not a daily concern. I’m not saying that Israel doesn’t face any dangers, but the nature of Israel’s battle to survive in the international arena is not something that scholars obsess about within the field any more. We can allow ourselves to be more critical, more open. Israel, warts and all, is now very much on the table.

Zerubavel: While the majority of my students in courses about Israel are Jewish, there are also non-Jewish students. Interest in Israel has grown, in part, as a result of media attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And out of that interest has emerged curiosity about Israeli society. At Rutgers, therefore, we offer a diversity of courses that explore different aspects of Israeli history, society, and culture. We insist that these courses are not for “insiders,” and therefore, we do not speak, or teach, in terms of “we.” And we strive to present an academic and nonpartisan approach to the study of Israel and its place in the Middle East. Sometimes that’s not so clear to some students who expect courses on Israel to be different. But it’s the academic responsibility of scholars involved in Israel Studies to ensure that there is a clear distinction between the academic field and the experiences that might interest students beyond the classroom.

Troen: Brandeis’s Summer Institute trains academics from around the country to teach courses on Israel. Interestingly, we have a large number of academics who come from Catholic and Protestant institutions. We’ve had Muslims and Mormons as well. In short, it’s not Jews alone who are teaching Israel. This isn’t an insular topic; non-Jews want to understand and think about Israel and its culture and for their own reasons and out of their own curiosities.

Zweig: This year NYU is offering a course on Israel and China, and over 50 percent of the students are Asian. But the majority of courses are 60 or 70 percent Jewish as far as anyone can tell. We are not doing advocacy or reaching out specifically to the non-Jewish world with a conscious intention of propagating information on Israel. I’m sure you’re aware of this problem, but there is always the danger of adopting an advocacy role that would undermine our efforts to make Israel Studies a proper subject for the university campus.

Zerubavel: In some measure, Israel Studies is growing out of greater interest in Jewish Studies. It is also growing because of a new philanthropic interest in developing this field. We’re at a turning point, and while philanthropy offers tremendous potential for the field, it also carries a certain risk. We can benefit enormously from philanthropy, but we should also be careful to separate the donors’ intentions from our academic rigor. While we want Israel Studies to flourish as a field, as academics we must ensure that our courses are not perceived as, or don’t become, vehicles for Israel advocacy. Although there might sometimes be pressure from communal organizations or donors to move in this direction, from my experience I know that it is possible to be firm and explain that while we are creating awareness and expanding knowledge about Israel, we’re not playing an advocacy role. In fact, our credentials as dispassionate scholars are critical for the academic standing of the field.

Zweig: Though I initially came to New York concerned about the pressures we’d face from donors and the community, I’m finding that most potential donors understand that for us to be effective teachers we have to be absolutely rigid — our credibility rests on not being political or Israel advocates. The students become much more receptive to learning about all aspects of Israel and that’s ultimately what donors want.

Troen: I find a problem not with donors but with my colleagues who assume that because I’m teaching Israel I’m an advocate. And that’s where I think the real challenge is: Are you going to teach about the suffering of the occupation, about checkpoints? Are you going to invite scholars from Bir Zeit? In short, the pressure coming from inside the university is far greater than that coming from outside the university.

Zweig: We’re not considered objective unless we include the political positions of left-wing Jewish intellectuals. We should be confident in the narrative we are communicating, in the facts that we are presenting, and we should open up debate as widely as possible.

Zerubavel: As long as our work is not ideologically oriented and we present the complexity of the situation and a diversity of views, we maintain our integrity. Part of what we tackle is the view that Israel Studies, or Jewish Studies, is only relevant to people who are particularly interested in these issues. But isn’t French society or British literature relevant to a broader audience? That same principle should apply to Israel Studies. We need to establish our credentials and our credibility as an academic field and not become parochial or insulated. At Rutgers, we cross-list most of our courses with other academic programs, such as Middle Eastern studies, history, or comparative literature, and this allows us to attract more students to the study of Israel and to avoid being seen as a ghettoized field.

Troen: And we must have placements in art history, anthropology, business, and social policy — to embed the field in a variety of disciplines and not just Jewish Studies. We in larger universities can do that. However, when only one person holds an appointment in Jewish Studies, it’s much harder to offer that kind of diversity.

Zerubavel: I’m teaching now a course on the Jewish immigrant experience, and in this framework we try to explore what it means to be a society of immigrants and to compare immigrants’ experiences in Israel, the U.S., and other countries. When I lecture about national myths and collective memory, I address the tension between the desire to look at Israel as a special case (and, of course, every society has its unique characteristics) and the desire to view it with the knowledge that similar phenomena occur in every national society. As a democracy, Israel can be reduced to neither just one political viewpoint nor even two main viewpoints while the society is so diverse. Our challenge is to bridge the somewhat mythical or popular vision of Israel with its complex reality; by doing this we can effectively engage more students and faculty.

Zweig: I often wonder to what degree our generation’s experiences color our understanding or beliefs about the situation in Israel. How different are our donors’ experiences from ours, and what part do those differences play in determining their understandings of today’s Israel? Our experiences are different from those of our students. I wonder what our students really think and know about Israel before they come to our classes.

I’ve been surprised to find some Israelis in my classes who are not registered as students but come and listen with great interest to their own history.

Troen: This is important because the field will change. Many children of German Jewish or East European Jewish immigrants to the U.S. wound up as scholars of the communities from which their parents and grandparents came. They come to class without much knowledge. Israeli students often know very little about Israel’s history or culture beyond a superficial symbolism learned in their school assemblies or from their inadequate textbooks. We have opportunities to take these students (even those Israelis who think they know their parents’ experiences) and teach them the wonderfully, humanly complex study of Israel on all levels — not just the conflict, but also the integration, assimilation, identity, religion, faith, and how one expresses oneself through a variety of cultural forms.

Zerubavel: The study of Israel was promoted to a great extent within Israel itself and became ingrown. But the field has opened up to students and scholars outside of Israel. If Israelis can become experts on Chinese, American, or French society, then, along the same lines, French or American scholars may study Israel, and one cannot dismiss them just because they are not Israelis.

Troen: The people who are helping export Israel Studies are Israelis themselves. There are about 40 Israelis teaching as visiting professors in U.S. universities like Tulane and Tulsa, as well as Harvard and Stanford. This effort is subsidized by donors but grows out of the natural interest of universities. There aren’t enough people in the U.S. who can do Israel Studies. So where’s the next generation coming from? Some will be the children or grandchildren of Israelis, or students who’ve gone on birthright israel, or the non-Jews who are attracted to the topic even as Jews might be interested in Chinese Studies. That’s part of the cultivation of curiosity that is taking place in American institutions.

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Ilan Troen is the Stoll Chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis University and the first director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.

Ronald Zweig is the Taub Professor of Israel Studies at New York University and the director of the Taub Center for Israel Studies.

Yael Zerubavel is professor of Jewish Studies and History and the founding director of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University.

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