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Session R4861 (Navigating Jewish Campus and Community Debates on Israel/Palestine in the Age of Trump), 2017
The past 15 or so years have witnessed the creation of nearly 30 new academic positions/institutes in Israel Studies across North American universities (as well as a handful in Europe, Australia, and Russia). This phenomenon has posed challenges for Middle East Studies scholars and programs. In the late 1990s, private groups like the Schusterman Foundation and the American-Israeli Cooperation Enterprise (AICE), which have spearheaded the fundraising for and advocacy of these new positions and institutes, correctly perceived a dearth of robust course offerings on Israeli society and history—including within Middle Eastern Studies programs. The enhancement of our capacity to teach about this subject is certainly laudable in the abstract. At the same time, an explicitly ideological rather than intellectual mission has driven the proliferation of most, if not all, of these positions. As explained on its website, one of AICE’s stated goals has been to “aid…efforts of students and faculty attempting to counteract anti-Zionist rhetoric and activities.” Given this objective, and given the expansion and growing sophistication of independent scholarship on Israel/Palestine within the academy over the same period, it is not surprising that existing faculty have responded to the expansion of Israel Studies on North American campuses with suspicion and questions. This sentiment has been felt particularly among those within Middle Eastern Studies who already have an established record of teaching and writing on Israel/Palestine, and who reject the premise that one can understand the Zionist movement or the Israeli state outside of their historical conflict with the Palestinians. To be clear, a number of excellent scholars have been hired to fill these new posts in Israel Studies. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that many strong applicants whose work diverges from the ideological imperatives and assumptions of their funders have been consistently turned away. Of equal alarm is the way that the creation of these positions has Balkanized student enrollments in courses pertaining to Palestine/Israel along cultural, ethnic, and political lines. Since these trends are unlikely to disappear in the near future, it is worth reflecting openly on the fraught and at times controversial relationship between the fields of Middle East Studies, Israel Studies, and Jewish Studies.