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.