WASHINGTON – Whoever visits the University of Maryland's campus could not possibly make the mistake of thinking that Israel studies department is a mouthpiece for Israeli PR efforts. For starters, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would never show the film Khirbet Khizeh. On the other hand, Dr. Yuval Benziman, who arrived here three weeks ago from Tel Aviv University would and does.
"They studied Alterman, Guri, and Yizhar, and will study A.B. Yehoshua, Grossman, and Etgar Keret. In order to tell the Israeli narrative, I teach the authors from the mainstream. I hope they understand the culture and the development, and become familiar with the basic texts of the Israeli story," says Benziman.
Taking an interest in Israel. Students in Benziman's class (Photo: Yitzhak Benhorin)
And why is Khirbet Khizeh, S. Yizhar's 1949 novella on the expulsion of Israeli Arabs from a fictional village during the War of Independence, on the syllabus? Benziman responds, "Alterman and Guri are very unequivocally nationalist literature. S. Yizhar is nearly 180 degrees from this. There, it's the beauty and purity of youth, and here it's Gidi Gov with glasses that fall off all the time. There, they commandeered the land; here, they don't manage to wade through the mud."
The students in his classes, Benziman says, are anyone interested in Israeli culture in general. "One of my Masters students is doing a thesis on an entirely different subject, but she showed interest in Israeli culture and how to research it. This cultural study is deeper and more serious than just slogans and headlines."
And yet, literature is just a small part of the change. "This is the first time there is an institutionalized Jewish response to the Arab takeover here," says Dr. Yoel Rappel to Ynet, from Boston University's Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, who spoke of the growing academic interest in Israel as a response to smear attempts made on campuses against the Jewish state. "Just like there are Asian studies, Iberian studies, or Soviet studies, there will also be Israel studies."
This trend marks significant progress. "There are some 1,300 courses on the State of Israel today in US universities. That is three times as many as there were three years ago. This is a revolution," says Prof. Ilan Troen from Brandeis University. "Half the courses are from the humanities, like film and comparative literature. This has huge value when there is knowledge of the country beyond the headlines as part of the general education. The students learn about Israel not only in the context of the conflict."
This entire process did not stem in any way from a governmental public relations effort, but rather out of growing interest in Israel on campuses that has allowed Israeli diplomats to suggest lecturers on culture, art, media, and other topics on the agenda to universities.
"We are happy to be given the opportunity," says Gali Baram, Counselor for Public and Academic Affairs at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. "We encourage Israelis – artists, dancers, scriptwriters – to talk about their work with students."
'Important for our children'
This trend is not only happening in Massachusetts. Israel studies departments exist today in every corner of the US, from New York University, Rutgers University, Maryland University, Emory University, University of Miami, through to Northwestern University, University of Texas in Dallas and Austin, and UCLA and California State University.
Prof. Troen is a professor of history and Israel studies and a member of Ben Gurion University who made aliyah to Israel from the US in 1975. Just two years later, he was appointed dean of the humanities department at Ben Gurion University. During a sabbatical year at Brandeis University, Troen was exposed to the distress of American Jewry, and subsequently worked to establish assistance funds for the establishment of Israeli studies centers at various universities, such as the Schusterman Center at Brandeis.
"It all started by the mid-90s with the clear erosion of Israel's status within the enlightened public in the West. This phenomenon projected onto Jews in the various communities who started asking questions and expressing doubts. The problem for them was less the status of the State of Israel, and more the recognition of Israel as a vital component in building the Jewish identity of Jewish youth in the US. The image of Israel as an enlightened, advanced, and ethical country is also important to our children," explains Troen.
If once the prevailing ethos was drawn from movies like "Exodus", today it is drawn from the likes of "Beaufort" and "Jenin, Jenin", he claims. "We are very critical of ourselves. Israeli authors get translated into four languages. There is a gnawing away of the image of a state under siege, but that upholds values and justice," he explains.
The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, the largest in the US and apparently in the world, has a large part to play in the current revolution. It quickly became evident that there was a lack of lecturers on Israel, a problem Troen took upon himself to solve.
"In the past seven years, we trained faculty members at 144 universities throughout the US and other countries in the world. This past summer, the Schusterman Center organized a seminar for 120 students and faculty from China who speak Hebrew and introduced themselves with Israeli names like Ofek because they took pity on us for not being able to read their Chinese names. We received three inquiries from Armenia from academics who would like to teach about the country," says Troen.
Troen explains why people around the world are interested in studying about Israel. "We are wrong when we think that only Jews take an interest in Israel, and that interest is only in the conflict. Every year, there is a large group of Christians from various denominations, as well as Muslims, mainly secular, who come to learn about Israel," he points out.
Interest in the academic journal "Israel Studies," which is edited by Troen and published three times a year, has also increased recently.
'Couldn't study about Israel even if you wanted'
Today Troen and his colleagues are celebrating a big victory. There are now more chairs for Israel studies in the US than there are France or Germany studies. Another key figure in this movement is Dr. Mitchell Bard, who published a book this month on the Arab lobby in the US. He is the executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), founded in 2006 in order to bring Israeli lecturers to universities in the US – brain borrowing, if you will.
"Up until a few years ago, 53% of US universities didn't teach even one course on Israel. In most universities, you couldn't study anything about Israel even if you wanted to," recounts Dr. Bard. In recent years, Bard and his colleagues funded the arrival of 65 Israeli lecturers for a year each.
Omri Arens. Recruiting students to study in Israel (Photo: Yitzhak Benhorin)
Whoever is interested in seeing the plan in action can look to the University of Maryland for examples. Prof. Yoram Peri, most known in Israel as the former editor of the newspaper Davar, is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and founder of Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society. After a sabbatical year at American University in Washington, Peri received offers from a number of US universities to establish Israel studies centers at them. He chose the University of Maryland.
"When I arrived here last year, there were 200 students taking courses on Israel within the framework of Jewish studies. Now, there is a separate program for Israel studies. This upcoming year, there are already 300 students and 15 courses on Israel. I opened a first degree option at the university to major in Israel studies, which includes compulsory courses on Israel's history, sociology, politics, the conflict, and culture. Beyond these, there are also other courses," Peri explains.
Peri recruited Prof. Sami Samuha, awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for sociology, to come for a sabbatical year to give a course on Israel.
'Democracy and openness'
At the same time, Peri is inserting courses on Israel in other general study frameworks within the university, such as sociology, communications, and politics.
"For literature students, I offer a course on the reflection of the conflict in Israeli literature. For students studying gender and women's studies, I offer a course on women in Israel – the history of the Israeli feminist movement, the kibbutz, the affect of war on the role of women in Israeli society."
On the backdrop of claims made in Israel that academia is politically slanted, Peri emphasizes, "My donors don't meddle in the curriculum, and I make sure that a range of academic opinions is represented, conservative and liberal. I present the various populations in Israel. There are varied lecturers from the non-radical critical Left to the religious-nationalist Right. There is a lecturer here who thinks that all the Arabs want to kill Israel and that it is forbidden to talk with them, and another one who thinks that there is no peace because of Israel's policies."
According to him, "The Americans like Israel because of its democracy and media openness. This is what we present to the students."
We also found an Israeli student studying at Maryland – Omri Arens, grandson of former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who is getting his Masters' Degree in national security. "I am interested in Israel studies and relations with the Arabs and the Palestinians. I am taking courses on US foreign policy, US intelligence, and national security. In my work on negotiation management, we are focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations," says Arens.
"There are a lot of Jewish students here. In our course, more than half the students are Jewish, and most of them have been in Israel and are familiar with it. But we also have Chinese, Indian, African American, and Arab students who are interested in learning about Israel and don't have any background on the subject," he explains.
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