Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Further Thoughts on the Hannah Diskin Affair, AICE, and Israel Studies

Richard Silverstein published recently a post on the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and the Schusterman Foundations' funding of Visiting Israeli scholars to teach Israel Studies in this country. I have no desire, certainly not at this busy time of the semester, to repeat some of the things he wrote.

I also do not want to give the impression that the scholars brought by AICE are all on the right. On the contrary, they span a range from Zionist left to Zionist right, with some of them doing important revisionist history of the sort associated with people like Benny Morris. Some, of course, do not deal with the Israel-Palestinian conflict at all in their research. (That is part of the not-so-hidden agenda of ideologues in Israel Studies -- to steer the conversation away from the conflict.)

Given the ideological mix of the scholars, and giving Bard's group the benefit of the doubt (I am in a charitable mood on the eve of Hannukah), the less ideologically-driven may well ask,

So what's the big deal?

I mean, so what if prominent Israel scholars are brought to this country and paid (not a whole lot, by the way) to teach about Israel in the classroom. Is this such a sin? After all, there does not appear to be any overarching ideological litmus test, to judge from the current scholars. The Hannah Diskin affair was unfortunate, true; but there may have been special circumstances (spousal adjunct hires have their own sets of circumstances), and need not reflect on the program as a whole. There is an ideological agenda behind AICE, true, but this is America; it is a free country, and it is up to administrators and faculty to vet their hires.

Let me tell you what I find worrisome. When Berkeley's Center for Middle East Studies brought Oren Yiftachel to campus as a Visiting Professor, the Jewish donor and others were upset, but the community and Israel Studies were enriched. Will AICE bring scholars like him? I doubt it; one of the points of the establishment of AICE was to be able to vet Israeli scholars to make sure that they are not publicly outside of the Zionist consensus. Post-zionists, anti-zionists, one-staters, though they may be Israeli scholars of a high calibre, need not apply -- judging from the current crop of scholars, anyway.

If that will be the face of Israel Studies in this country, then it will be the intellectual ghetto that its supporters claim it shouldn't be. Who will take it seriously if everybody in Israel Studies is part of a Zionist consensus, albeit one broadly conceived? The Oren Yiftachels will still come to the United States as parts of Middle Eastern Studies programs, but they will be branded as ideological traitors because there will be no place for them in the ghetto.

Israel Studies should be part of Middle Eastern Studies -- that much Brandeis understands, although time will tell whether MES at Brandeis is ideologically pluralistic. Israel Studies, like other area studies, or, for that matter, Jewish Studies, should have no ideological agenda beyond the importance of learning about that area -- for its own sake.

I don't mind if donors give money in order to foster support of Israel. In my neck of the woods, donors give money to Jewish Studies in order to foster Jewish identity. What I mind is faculty and administrators being influenced by the agendas of the donors.

The real heroes of the Diskin affair are the students who stood up and complained about the ideological biases of their professor. Students have every right to complain -- whether about Joseph Massad at Columbia or Hannah Diskin at GW -- and it is up to chairs and administrators to see whether the complaints are justifiable.

But all the Birthright trips, Israel Advocacy sessions, Jerusalem Fellowships, and trips to Masada, will not be able to stop information of human rights violations and injustices from getting to the younger generation. And that generation is going to be a lot more critical of Israel than its parents were -- you can't stop the music, and truth will out. There are seeds of change in the air -- forget about Israel studies, look at the growth of Arabic language study in the US over the last five years -- and you won't be able to keep feeding the younger generation lukshin, or latkes, for that matter.


Richard said...

We should encourage all Israel studies scholars of whatever stripe to apply for these positions & see who is turned away & what rationale is provided.

The AICE site says scholars will participate in two academic conferences per yr. If these are hosted by AICE I'd be interested to know what the actual (& figurative) agendas of the conferences are.

BTW, one of the reasons the scholars will not be paid much is that Mitch Bard is getting a cool half-mil of the total $3 million Schusterman grant sponsoring this program covering a 5 yr period. That's 17% of the total grant just spent on a single salary!

Joachim Martillo said...

Part of the insanity of the opposition to granting tenure to Nadia Abu el Haj may have arisen because she is a Palestinian scholar that became fluent in Jewish and Israel studies and then wrote some quite insightful works in these fields.

You might wish to take a look at: Jacob Lassner and Nadia Abu el Haj.

Anonymous said...

We in Israel Academia Monitor (http://israel-academia-monitor.com) follow anti-Israel activities and publications of Israeli academics, so your posting is very relevant to us and so is a good debate.
I see no problem with what you said, my only reservation is that you fall in the same trap many other good people do: If you want a good fruitful debate on Middle East issues including Israel, you have to let critics of the Arab world speak too, since there aren't any in the academic world, we don't hear them anywhere, do we?! Its not because everyone thinks Arab regimes are fabulous.
To make my point clear, the day you'll have a true open debate within the Western academic institutions about the Arab world, this will be the day you will get what you want - a true and open debate about Israel and Zionism. You can't criticize Israel alone as you all do. It doesnt work, it makes you look not very clever.

Jerry Haber said...

I looked at your website and I saw the piece in Haaretz that mentioned you. The only campus "watch" sites I agree with are those that make sure that people's right to free speech, and faculty right to academic freedom, are preserved -- and I don't care what opinions those people have

Monitoring academics in order to expose their "sins" to a wider audience on websites is not objectionable as long as it is the ineffectual rants of some kooks.

If it has any influence, though, then it should be condemned. That goes for sites that monitor leftwing or rightwing or center academics.

Does this mean that academics should be beyond the judgment of the non-academics?

Yes. Absolutely. That is the price you pay for academic freedom.

I oppose tendentious scholarship on the left or on the right. But those judgments should be made by other academics. And they are, believe me.