The eminent doyen of Middle East Studies Bernard Lewis noted that the success of Edward Said's book, Orientalism,
was in being able to transform a term that had always referred to an
area of academic specialty focusing on societies and cultures of the
Middle East, North Africa and Asia into an expression of political
abuse. As Lewis prophesied, shortly after its publication, Said's Orientalism
began changing the face of Middle East studies across North America for
the worse, most especially in the way many Middle East scholars began
teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict purely through a pro-Palestinian
Today, the environment is worse than ever. An open and true
debate on Israeli society and Israel's quest for peace would be marked
by true intellectual balance between the speakers. It would be
understood that there is no fitting use of terrorism, or any acceptable
notion of eliminating a living, breathing state like Israel.
But balance in debates now means bringing in Israeli faculty
members who advocate for a pro-Palestinian position -- and they are
meant to argue the Israeli side of the issue!
Many Israeli academics have built their reputations on
scholarship that is critical of Israel and Israel's existence. These
are the academics who are given center stage by the Association for
Jewish Studies and Middle East studies centers, which frequently host
them for conferences or provide visiting professorships. This gives
Israeli scholars the visibility they seek while allowing their hosts to
claim balance in presenting an "Israeli point of view."
Given the extent and saturation of this type of "scholarship,"
which has even begun to trickle down to our high schools, Philadelphia
has begun two new initiatives in an attempt to create a systemic change
in the way we teach about Israel. The first is a newly formed
partnership between the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and
the Center for Israel Education, directed by Professor Kenneth Stein of
Emory University, a leading scholar in the field.
The gist of the partnership is a three-year project where
Stein's CIE will work with the Federation and its community partners --
namely Gratz College, ACAJE and the synagogues throughout the city --
to help improve the way we teach and talk about Israel, in addition to
bolstering how we infuse Jewish education with material about Israel.
The growing distance between American Jewry and Israel, especially
among members of the younger generation, underscores the need to fill
this void and show the importance of making "Jewish" and "Israel" go
hand in hand.
In addition, starting this fall, the David Project's high
school course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, geared for high school
juniors and seniors, will now be recognized for college credit as a
freshman-level undergraduate course at Gratz College.
The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership is a non-profit
educational organization in Boston that has been working to promote a
fact-based understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The popularity
of the project grew as a result of the burgeoning problems in Middle
East studies, as well as the need to hear another voice not found in
many high schools and on college campuses.
These initiatives are a response to the obvious lack of
balance in academia, especially in Middle East studies departments,
where so-called scholarship consistently fails to examine, much less
condemn, terrorism or jihadism, thus creating an atmosphere that
enables intolerable ideas to become accepted as normative.
This state of affairs needs to be confronted by all those
concerned about the health of academia, as well as the continued
well-being of Israel.
The wake-up call for the Jewish community at large is being
heard locally. Organizations here have begun to take proactive steps on
these critical issues, as well as perhaps serve as models for other
similar-minded groups around the country.