Israel studies 101: Undermining Palestine in Western academia

Israel studies 101: Undermining Palestine in Western academia
Comment: The rise of 'beyond-the-conflict' hasbara is a PR exercise which cynically seeks to erase Palestinian culture, writes Hilary Aked.
4 min read
07 Jan, 2016
Philanthropic foundations donating to Israel studies often have clear links to Israel advocacy [Getty]

University courses on Israel and Palestine have always been popular with students in the US and Europe.

But supporters of Israel have long been critical of the approach these courses take - and the Middle East studies departments that tend to teach them. Since the late 1990s, they have helped a new academic discipline to emerge, in North America and the UK in particular: "Israel studies".

The field of Israel studies first appeared in the US in 1998, according to one of its key advocates, Mitchell Bard.

A former employee of major pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, Bard now leads the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), which brings visiting Israeli professors to US campuses, and has commissioned studies assessing, among other factors, the impact of taking Israel studies courses on students' views of Israel.

In the past few years there has been an acceleration in the number of Israel studies courses and posts being created.

Funders have been investing heavily in expanding Israel studies ever since

Why? One critical context is the Israel lobby's long-standing and growing concerns about the perceived "anti-Israel" atmosphere on many college campuses.

In 2009, Bard called for "encouraging more Israel studies" as part of a five-year plan outlining strategic responses to the "delegitimisation" of Israel allegedly spread by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in a co-authored paper written for an Israeli-government convened conference.

Sure enough, funders have been investing heavily in expanding Israel studies ever since. Around 730 Israel-focused courses existed at US universities in 2014, according to one study, a 25 percent increase on the number in 2008-9. In the UK, at least five universities had at least one Israel studies scholar in post.

Individuals and philanthropic foundations donating to Israel studies often have clear links to Israel advocacy. For example, the Schusterman Centre for Israel Studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts is funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, which also funds - among other Zionist groups - the Israel on Campus Coalition, a campaigning network which exists to strengthen the explicitly pro-Israel movement on campus.

It would be wrong to suggest that donors are simply imposing their will on reluctant universities

How, then, have donors been able to establish these posts and courses at universities? External benefactors have long had huge influence on privatised US universities.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, state funding for higher education has been slashed in recent years, forcing British universities, anxious about financial sustainability under the strain of neoliberalism, to seek increased private funding too.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that donors are simply imposing their will on reluctant universities; in fact they collaborate with scholars within universities whose politics already match their own.

Where other academics, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, have attempted to resist their approaches, universities have not generally seen it necessary to heed the concerns or consult especially widely with other departments.

Meanwhile, they have deployed a discourse of academic "objectivity" to counter any concerns voiced by the public, alumni and media, even where donors - such as Lord Weidenfeld in the UK - have spoken explicitly of their political goals in funding such programmes.

It should be remembered that there are also centres for Palestine studies in both the US and UK, with claims to objectivity no greater or weaker than Israel studies.

But where Palestine-centric courses, which revolve around the experiences of Palestinians in historic Palestine, cannot avoid the historical fact of the state of Israel, the concern is that the very framing of Israel studies courses treats Palestinians as a peripheral nuisance.

If in their emphases, these courses situate Palestinians as an incidental minority rather than the indigenous population, they will be obscuring the colonial nature of the situation. If by funding them, donors hope to further the cause of "beyond the conflict" PR messaging, by separating the state of Israel from its decades-long oppression of the Palestinians, this will have been achieved by silencing Palestinians, and rendering them marginal, if not entirely invisible.

If newly appointed Israel studies scholars enhance links with Israeli universities, countering the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, they will be undermining this powerful and growing grassroots civil society initiative pushing for a just peace through freedom, justice and equality.

If, for Palestinians, "existence is resistance", the epistemic violence inherent in the framing of Israel studies can be seen as an attempt to erase Palestinian culture and deny Palestinian political claims.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.