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US professors: Support for Israel eroded

jerusalempost Abe Selig, 29 June2009

Unwavering support for Israeli policy has eroded dramatically both on American college campuses and within the United States as a whole, according to a group of American university professors who on Sunday concluded an academic exchange program here, sponsored by the Yitzhak Rabin Center.

“The project had been planned for eight months and this is the first group of political science professors to arrive here from America,” said Dalia Rabin, daughter of the late prime minister and director of the Rabin Center. “The goal, which I think we accomplished, was to show them the complexities of the issues facing Israel, and the Middle East, and develop a better understanding of the core issues facing all sides.”

The professors described the week-long crash course as a “fact-finding mission” intent on “educating the educators.”

While some said their preconceived notions about the issues facing the region had only been sustained, they all agreed that the trip was meant to strengthen their knowledge of the area – be it through a helicopter ride from border to border or a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad in Ramallah – and return to the classroom with a better grip on the challenges facing Israel, including its changing relationship with the US.

“The mood in the United States is changing,” said Richard Samuels, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of MIT’s Center for International Studies. “And it’s changing in ways that I think deserve a lot of attention, especially from an Israeli point of view.

“The ability to count on unquestioned support – we’re talking now not for the State of Israel, but for the government’s policies – I think has eroded, and I think has eroded very dramatically,” he said.

Samuels and his colleagues also pointed out that the debate over Israel on many college campuses is often confused with a debate over Israel’s right to exist – something they all categorically rejected was the case.

The debate, they said, was over Israel’s policies – most recently during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza – and which was now heavily focused on human rights issues.

“There was a time when Israel had a near-monopoly on [the human rights issue],” Samuels said. “And that’s long ago gone. The human rights issue has become as large, for many people, as the security issue. And as it has inflated vis a vis the security issue, the standard narrative as become less persuasive.”

Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, added that the “mood” Samuels had alluded to was translating into a US foreign policy shift in the region.

“I think that this use of the word ‘mood’ is particularly appropriate,” Kupchan said. “I think that 10 years ago, the center of gravity was to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t think that’s true anymore.

“I would say that at least in the classroom – and I think this is reflective of the country as a whole – US policy in this part of the world is now up for grabs in a way that it was not until recently. I think the US is still going to be a very stalwart ally of Israel, but the terms of that relationship are changing.”

Nina Tannenwald, an associate research professor of international relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, explained that the Israeli self-perception of an underdog was no longer a widely accepted narrative outside of Israel – another factor which now must be taken into account.

“I’ve been struck by the way the Israeli self-narrative of a besieged underdog, no longer resonates to outside observers,” she said.

“That was a narrative that I think had a lot of truth earlier on in Israel’s history, but I think there’s a widespread perception that that self-narrative doesn’t resonate with the outside world, given that Israel is now the world’s 14th or 15th most powerful military country,” she continued. “And so there’s a disconnect between how Israelis see themselves in their situation, and how observers outside see it, and that is a disconnect that needs addressing.”

Asked if she felt that Israelis themselves still held such a self-narrative, Tannenwald said that while it did go both ways, the “besieged underdog” narrative was still dominant.

“I think there is a common theme among Israelis [that says], ‘We’re a small country, we’re the only democracy in the Middle East, look at all these Islamic countries around us,’ and we know that trope very well. I think there are more nuanced analyses among Israelis, but there is a dominant trope among the government leadership, among the traditional, very strong pro-Israel supporters in the United States, where this [underdog] narrative dominates, and I think it needs to be updated.”

“During the early part of the trip, that trope dominated,” Kupchan said. “And I think the group’s reaction was that not only does it need to be updated, but that it’s actually counterproductive, that it leads to a kind of worldview and a set of Israeli policies and practices that are in some respects the cause of…why there is this opening up of the debate in the US. Because there are people who believe that an Israel that is guided uniformly by that narrative, will pursue policies that are neither in Israel’s interests nor America’s interests.”

That said, the professors all agreed that their knowledge of the region had been vastly improved by the trip, and that they were taking home many ideas and issues over which to “percolate” – in a way that would be productive both to the education of Americans and helpful to Israel, as an ally and friend.

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