Is the new vogue for Israel studies an academic development or Israel advocacy?

April 15, 2011


Battle of the trenches: academic boycott versus… ‘Israel Studies’

Ben White, 13 April 2011

See Tony Lerman, SOAS’s New Israel Studies Posts: Promoting Academic Excellence or Israel Advocacy?;
and Reut’s response to Ben White,  Israel is a normal country struggling to survive in ‘impossible reality’

On Tuesday, an article in The Guardian reported an “expansion” in Israel studies at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), as well as “a new European Association of Israel Studies (EAIS) to be launched in September”. During the course of the article, there are assurances that there is no ‘agenda’ behind these developments – repeated assurances.

  • “efforts…to promote a more nuanced and academic understanding”
  • “an academic alternative to…‘the megaphone war’”
  • “[People] are fed-up with slogans and one-sided approaches”
  • “We have been very conscious not to be involved in this as any form of Israel advocacy”
  • “This is advocacy for Israel studies, not for Israel”
  • “a desire to counter growing politicisation of academia”
  • “scholarship should be distinct from advocacy and polemics”
  • “It’s not supposed to be some tub-thumping bastion of Zionism”

Aside from the repetition, the “counter-polarisation” spin is undermined by the fact that the article – and those quoted in it – reads like a textbook example of Israel’s “rebranding” initiative. In 2009, The Jerusalem Post reported on The Reut Institute’s recommendations for countering “delegitimization”, including advice to “brand Israel away from its image as purely a place of conflict…[and] promote Israel Studies Departments at universities”.

On their blog, Reut staff have written that “in the context of Reut’s current work on how to fight the delegitimacy of Israel, the suggestion to create chairs of Israel studies in leading UK universities could act as an important component of Israel’s strategy.” Another post affirmed that “promoting Israel studies on campus and ‘branding Israel’—a strategy aimed at associating Israel with positive characteristics unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict—are central to improving Israel’s international standing and countering delegitimacy.” Prof. Colin Shindler and The Pears Foundation Director Charles Keidan – both featured in The Guardian report on Israel studies – were acknowledged in Reut’s “delegitimization” report and the London-focused follow-up.

Shindler is said, in The Guardian article, to believe that “the increasing interest being shown by students in different aspects of Israel, from its politics to its art and films, is part of a drive to understand the country and people outside the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict”. This is not only similar to Reut language, but also an echo of Brand Israel strategies, with PR firms entrusted with a mission “to create a brand disconnected from the Arab-Israeli conflict that focuses instead on Israel’s scientific and cultural achievements.”

Back in 2006, Ha’aretz published an article with the title, “A different way to fight academic boycotts“, followed by the subtitle: “Jewish donors establish Israel studies centers to improve country’s image”. The report quotes Professor Ilan Troen, director of the Israel Studies Center at Brandeis University, making the link between “the academic boycott” and “the willingness of donors to give funds toward this cause”.

There are parallels here with the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange (BIRAX), the aim of which “is to strengthen academic cooperation between universities in the UK and Israel” (like the Israel studies’ expansion, BIRAX has received substantial financial support from The Pears Foundation). At the time of its establishment in 2008, Ben Gurion University Professor David Newman commented that BIRAX “has a great deal to do with the boycott”, with an unnamed source affirming to The Jerusalem Post that BIRAX’s focus on “junior academics” was “not coincidental” and aimed at influencing the boycott debate in the unions.

The link between BIRAX and attempts to neutralise the academic boycott movement was made explicit a number of times, including by the then UK’s Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, in 2010 by Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis, and the current UK ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould:

I also think the clearest possible answer to people who are calling for a boycott of Israel is to promote cooperation. So when people call for an academic boycott, we push for scientific cooperation. Just when people call for an economic boycott, we push commercial collaboration and when people call for a cultural boycott, we push cultural collaboration.

As the international BDS movement grows – particularly among students and on campuses – Israel’s advocates and defenders in the UK are doing their best to stem the tide.

SOAS’s New Israel Studies Posts: Promoting Academic Excellence or Israel Advocacy?Antony Lerman, 12 April 2011

Two new academic posts in Israel studies are to be created at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, funded with a grant of £485,000 over 4 years from the Pears Foundation, which describes itself as a ‘British family foundation rooted in Jewish values’. At the same time, a European Association of Israel Studies is being set up, also supported by Pears, with the Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, Colin Shindler, as its chair. The Guardian report gives Shindler’s rationale for the expansion of the subject area at SOAS:

Shindler . . . says the decision to expand Israel studies is a response to growing demand from students to know more about the political, cultural, social and economic background to events in the Middle East and is an attempt to offer an academic alternative to what he terms ‘the megaphone war’.

‘The Middle East conflict is always a hot subject that people want to understand because it’s so convoluted,’ he says. ‘People want rational responses. They are fed-up with slogans and one-sided approaches.’

The same emphasis on this development as being purely motivated by a desire to provide information, knowledge and understanding was evident from remarks made by the Director of the Pears Foundation, Charles Keidan:

[He] stresses that the aim is to meet demand for better scholarship in the area rather than to promote a cause.

‘We have been very conscious not to be involved in this as any form of Israel advocacy,’ he says. ‘This is advocacy for Israel studies, not for Israel.’

Expanding the objective academic study of Israel’s history, politics, foreign policy, society and culture at such an important institution can only be a good thing. As Keidan acknowledges, however, there is sensitivity surrounding gifts to universities in the area of Middle East studies, heightened recently following the opprobrium the London School of Economics brought upon itself for accepting a controversial £1.5 million donation from Saif Gaddafi. But Pears is already involved in funding what could have been a controversial academic initiative at London University – the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck – and have shown that they can keep their political inclinations to themselves by appointing Professor David Feldman whose approach to the subject is fiercely independent and goes against the grain of some very prominent figures in the field, with whom Pears may well be in sympathy.

Nevertheless, despite the gloss put on this development by Shindler and Keidan, all is not what it seems. While interest in the subject among students has no doubt increased and Shindler will strongly, and with some justification, claim that he teaches and researches the subject from as academically objective a position as possible, it’s quite obvious that this move is meant to counter, at least partly, the proliferation of Middle East studies funded by Arab sources at various universities up and down the country. The notion that work done at these institutions is politically biased against Israel is common in some Jewish circles in which I am sure that members of the Pears family mix.

Keidan may well be entirely sincere in saying that the foundation is not involved in this initiative ‘as any form of Israel advocacy’, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Pears itself funds Israel advocacy both directly and indirectly. It’s true that Pears’s involvement in advocacy is rather more enlightened than the path followed by those who more or less base what they do on the belief that Israel can do no wrong. The foundation supports the New Israel Fund, for example, which provides grants to Israeli and Israeli-Arab human rights organizations. And it also began a major initiative to raise awareness in the UK Jewish community of the severely disadvantaged position of Israel’s Arab – or Palestinian, as most now call themselves–citizens. However, a book it produced celebrating Israel’s scientific achievements – Israel in the World – was a classic hasbara (propaganda) exercise, based on the view that the problem facing Israel is simply that the country’s good news stories are not being disseminated sufficiently widely and intensively and that negative developments are exaggerated out of all proportion. (A devastating critique of this approach by the Israeli Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy was published on 10 April.) Just how much money it devotes to Israel advocacy is impossible to know because, contrary to many other grant making foundations that are registered charities, Pears does not itemise all its individual grants in its annual accounts.

This raises the question of whether Pears can draw a clear line between its different forms of engagement with Israel. Where does advocacy stop and completely disinterested academic sponsorship begin? I have no doubt that SOAS will not allow anything other than the highest standards of independence and objectivity to guide the procedures they will follow to appoint the two new academics. However, more subtle, self-imposed constraints on the decisions that SOAS as an institution will have to make in relation to Israel studies may well come into play. And with Pears following what one might call a soft advocacy philosophy, one that incorporates a degree of critical scrutiny of Israel’s past and present, the foundation may judge that what transpires in the Israel studies field at SOAS suits their pro-Israel agenda.

And for all Professor Shindler’s wish to get away from the ‘megaphone war’, the fact is that he, like so many other academics in this field, engages in public debate and controversy on the politics of the conflict – he from from a pro-Israel angle. This is inevitable. Academics must be free agents in terms of expressing their political views and if they do so it’s very likely that it will be in relation to the academic subject matter with which they are dealing.

I’m sure that these additional academic posts will expand the choices open to students at SOAS who are interested in exploring Israel studies and it is to be hoped that some first rate, critical research work will ultimately be one of the products of this expansion. But it’s rather silly to pretend that there is some kind of Chinese wall between the Pears Foundation’s Israel advocacy ambitions and its motives for funding these appointments at SOAS. Pears and SOAS, like so many other bodies funding Middle East studies and the universities gratefully taking their funds, are treading a very thin, fragile and dangerous line.


Reut: Israel is a normal country struggling to survive in ‘impossible reality’

Eran Shayshon, 15 April 2011

Editor’s note: We try to be fair in these parts, and to promote a debate between parties that have rarely addressed one another. The other day we ran a critique of the Reut Institute and Israel Studies by Ben White. Reut’s Eran Shayshon asked for space to respond. He’s got it.

In his article Battle of the trenches: academic boycott versus… ‘Israel Studies’ Ben White slams the “expansion” in Israel studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, saying it is propaganda. White uses documents and blog posts that were written by the Reut Institute to argue that the initiative at SOAS constitutes part of a bigger rebranding strategy. The description of Reut as a powerful puppeteer is indeed flattering, but the reality is very different from the conspiracy theory that White seeks to promote.

We at Reut argue that it is critically important to make a clear distinction between the assault on Israel’s right to exist and criticism of Israeli policy, harsh as it may be. We argue that the assault on Israel’s right to exist is being promoted by a relatively small number of organizations worldwide, which are loosely coordinated, and which can only be found on the political periphery in most places.

Why then, is there so much resentment for Israel? Many Palestinians, who visit London, comment that the hostility towards Israel evident on UK campuses simply does not exist in Ramallah. I believe that ideological zeal to see Israel’s destruction is not the basis for this phenomenon, in most cases.

Rather, a very small number of radical ideologues is effectively blurring the lines between legitimate criticism over Israeli policy and the assault on Israel’s legitimacy by engaging wider audiences in ‘acts of delegitimization’, such as the BDS Movement. While the stated goals of the movement are peace and justice, key activist and leaders of this movement openly admit, in the past even on this very blog, that “BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.”

The result is that many fail to grasp the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no matter the circumstances, refuse to accept any justification for Israeli action. Everything is interpreted as an Israeli-Jewish conspiracy. This is why no Israeli government is ever taken as sincere when expressing its desire for peace, and the Israeli society’s tolerant approach towards the LGBT community is labeled ‘pinkwashing’. In this light, it is no wonder that a local British initiative to establish Israel studies at SOAS becomes a propaganda tool.

I do believe that a center for Israel studies is a good idea, but not because it will make students pro-Israel. I believe a center for Israel studies is a good idea because as an academic endeavour it will convey to students the nuance, the complexity, and the shades of grey that are the cornerstones of academic education. Such a center will shed light on an imperfect Israel, where there are social and economic gaps, and where tensions exist between several sectors of society. It may even show that not at all times Israel succeeds in upholding the standards set. But I am sure it will show that Israel is first and foremost a normal country, a democracy that is struggling for its survival in an impossible reality.

Lately it would seem that it is a custom for UK universities to receive funds from Islamic totalitarian regimes. Indeed, SOAS itself has been accused in the past of accepting a donation from a charity closely linked to the Iranian government. Did White see it necessary to condemn this? Not really, and in fact he made an effort to defend the Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. Did White condemn the Libyan regime’s support for the London School of Economics that was recently exposed and repudiated? Of course not, but a local initiative to establish centre for Israel studies must be a conspiracy.

What is it about an effort to offer our children an education based upon intellectual rigour that White feels so threatened by? What is it about an attempt to ensure that our children hear from both sides that White feels must be shut down? What is it about a center that seeks to educate rather than indoctrinate that White so opposes? Is it anti-Semitism? No, according to White, who argued that while he does not consider himself an anti-Semite, he “can also understand why some are.”

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