SUMMARY:Among the politically contentious subjects that Middle East studies scholars frequently navigate on campus, perhaps none has been more fraught than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The political climate has only intensified over the last decade. Israel/Palestine activist groups—such as Students for Israel, J Street U, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace, among others—have proliferated and expanded their membership on campuses around the country. Additionally, Jewish-American student discourse has fractured around the dual fault-lines of Zionism and U.S. policy towards Israel/Palestine, even more so since the emergence of Open Hillel as a counterweight to Hillel International’s claim to represent all Jewish students. Whether mediating debates on the conflict within the classroom, advising student activist groups, representing their institutions to the local media, or advocating for academic freedom in the face of external pressures, scholars of the Middle East, especially those without tenure, have often found themselves in vulnerable intermediary positions on their campuses.
The challenges facing such scholars seem likely to multiply during the Trump era. Accordingly, this roundtable will provide a forum for MESA members to discuss a range of new complexities that attend campus and community debates on Israel/Palestine. Specific topics include: how to protect academic freedom and open debate in the classroom; the relationship between Israel Studies, Jewish Studies, and Middle East Studies; the contested notion of “balance” and objectivity” in teaching on Israel/Palestine; the political influence of Hillel International on campuses, and its responses to the Open Hillel movement; the perils of public engagement in the face of outside partisan pressure; and the possibility of mitigating campus polarization and breaking down boundaries between self-sorting Israel/Palestine student groups.
We approach these issues as Jewish scholars of the Middle East, most of whom are also involved in Israel Studies and Jewish Studies. Both as a result of our personal backgrounds and, in some cases, the programs in which we teach, many of us also find ourselves involved to some degree in Jewish communal life on campus. Drawing on our collective experience as Israel/Palestine educators and activists, we will survey the increasingly tense political landscape surrounding Israel/Palestine on college campuses. We will also speak to the new pitfalls and challenges that await Middle East studies scholars, given the potential of the Trump administration to mount new and formidable pressures on academic freedom and open discourse on matters of U.S. foreign policy and national security.