How Not to Promote Israel Studies

For a very long time now, supporters of Israel have been unhappy with its treatment in American academe, and understandably so. The sympathies of those academics who actually teach the Middle East run in the opposite direction. The solution, according to some, is in the promotion of Israel studies. In a recent issue of the Forward, my old friend, Michael Kotzin, has made a plea for philanthropic support of these studies. His conclusion:

It is increasingly clear that serious steps must be taken to provide funding for courses in Israel studies. University officials—who should care about their institutions’ academic credibility as well as their image in the community—need to know that when they solicit Jewish donors for large gifts, this is an area that should be offered as waiting for support. Members of the Jewish community who are already prepared to make substantial gifts to colleges and universities need to be urged to support Israel studies on campus. And all community members with an abiding concern about the fate of the Jewish people need to be encouraged to add this area of giving to their philanthropic portfolios.

Indeed. But when donors come to add Israel studies to their philathropic porfolios, they should know that academic administrators can be pretty sharp dealers on their own turf. Indeed, some programs on offer are as close as academe gets to a scam.

This thought is prompted by the inauguration, this spring semester, of a visiting Israeli professorship at Berkeley. It was established with the support of Helen Diller, a Berkeley alumna whose fortune (and that of her husband, Sanford) was made in real estate (Prometheus Real Estate Group). The two of them have given generously to a wide range of enlightened causes. (Parallel to the Berkeley gift, she gave Ben-Gurion University an equal sum to construct a new humanities building.)

In an interview, Helen Diller said she had been motivated by the pro-Palestinian activism on campus: “You know what’s going on over there. With the protesting and this and that, we need to get a real strong Jewish studies program in there….Hopefully, it will be enlightening to have a visiting professor and it’ll calm down over there more.” An official of the local Jewish federation echoed the sentiment: “Israel has become, somehow, the politically correct whipping boy of academia on this campus….Having an Israeli professor as a permanent fixture on the U.C. [Berkeley] campus provides Jewish students and faculty with a sense of validation.” The local Jewish paper ran a celebratory editorial: “What makes [the Diller] family’s $5 million grant to establish a permanent visiting professor from Israel even more significant is that the professor will not only be a presence on campus. The professor will also be a resource to the entire community.” Diller again: “I feel, through education, both sides will come out with a more positive approach to the situation. I’m hoping to even get the (pro-Palestinian) students to take the courses.”

Well, that’s not likely to be a problem, because Berkeley’s academic committee chose Professor Oren Yiftachel as the first Diller Visiting Professor. Yiftachel is a professor of geography at Ben-Gurion University. He’s also a shining light in the post-Zionist pantheon, a “critical scholar” whose criticism runs overwhelmingly in one direction: against Israel.

I’ll let you judge for yourself. Start with his article “‘Ethnocracy’: The Politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine,” where he makes the argument that Israel, far from being a democracy, is an ethnocracy—a state predicated on an ethnic preference that cannot be reconciled with democracy. (This is also the title of his next book.) Continue to his article “From Fragile ‘Peace’ to Creeping Apartheid,” where he argues that Ehud Barak’s peace offers were humiliating to the Palestinians, and that Israel is heading down the road of apartheid South Africa. This quote pretty much summarizes Yiftachel’s position:

The failed Oslo process, the violent intifada and—most acutely—Israel’s renewed aggression and brutality toward the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, have cast a dark shadow over the joint future of the state’s Palestinian and Jewish citizens….The actual existence of an Israeli state (and hence citizenship) can be viewed as an illusion. Israel has ruptured, by its own actions, the geography of statehood, and maintained a caste-like system of ethnic-religious-class stratification. Without an inclusive geography and universal citizenship, Israel has created a colonial setting, held through violent control….Occupation and settlement, which necessitate ever intensifying oppression of Palestinians with or without Israeli citizenship, have clear potential to make Israel gradually cave from within.

Yiftachel has called for “a conceptual shift, from Jewishness to Israeliness as the core of the country’s national identity.” To that end, he advocates the cancellation of Israel’s Law of Return, and the effective abolition of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. In a presentation at Stanford, he said that while he now supports a two-state solution, he thought that Israelis and Palestinians would eventually form one state.

In the overheated year of 2002, Yiftachel spent several weeks speaking on U.S. campuses with a Palestinian professor from Bir Zeit University. One witness to Yiftachel’s campus roadshow (at U.C. Irvine) described him and his Palestinian cohort as “a far greater threat to the image of Israel in this country then their more rowdy compatriots, because they understand the art of propaganda. They scrupulously avoid the code words that tend to turn off all but the most committed Israel-haters…[Yet] they proceed to lay out the ‘facts’, for those who are unfamiliar with the facts, in a such way that any reasonable person would conclude that Israel is a monstrous obstacle to peace in the Middle East.” Yiftachel would disagree that he’s a threat, believing that Jewish organizations are the real problem. After his lecture tour, he reached this conclusion: “A well-organized system of Jewish and right-wing Christian organizations (actively supported by right-wing Israeli elements) is working on American campuses, exerting heavy pressure on media outlets, and operating dozens of Internet sites.” They had “hijacked the agenda.”

This is the person summoned to Berkeley, supposedly to validate Israel for its Jewish students and faculty. (His course title: “Nationalism, Territory and Identity: Ethnic Relations in Israel/Palestine.”) Now I don’t question Yiftachel’s qualifications to be a visiting professor at Berkeley. In fact, there are enough qualified Israeli post-Zionists and “critical scholars” to fill the Diller Visiting Professorship for the next fifty years, if not longer. But is that what the Dillers had in mind when they made their gift? Bringing to Berkeley a caravan of critics of Israel, who just happen to be Israeli professors?

Yet what is to prevent Berkeley from doing just that? Nothing. Indeed, the visitorship was planned so haphazardly that it emboldened Berkeley to defy the donor’s intent from the very first appointment. It did that, in part, by admitting the head of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies into the three-person selection committee for the visitorship. Anyone with experience in academic administration will tell you that most battles are won or lost by the selection of committee members. The director of Berkeley’s Middle East center is bound to be someone hostile or indifferent to the aims of a Zionist donor, and this is certainly so in the case of the present director. It’s a novice’s mistake to situate an academic program or project in such a way that your adversaries can influence or hijack it.

The committee’s composition gave the Middle East center the inside track. Yiftachel had spoken at a conference at the center in 2001, and he brought his Israeli-Palestinian roadshow to the center in 2002. (An account appears as a cover story in the center’s newsletter.) Yiftachel was the kind of Israeli that an Edward Said-boosting, Saudi-connected Middle East center could not only tolerate, but embrace.

Now I don’t fault the director of the center, Professor Nezar AlSayyad. I was an academic administrator, and I know the drill. You take the money, you cut the donor’s strings by invoking academic freedom, and you turn the resources to what you think is worthy. The fault here lies with the ineptitude or inexperience of the donor’s negotiator. Foundations have lawyers and advisers to make sure their gifts do what they’re supposed to do. And they’ve got to stay sharp even on a disarmingly peaceful, leafy campus, because it’s very hard to beat an academic player at his own game, and on his own court.

Which is why, all things being equal, it’s better to work with institutions you trust, and that already have a record of doing your thing with their own resources. Outside money is wasted in an attempt to cut across the political grain of a department, program, or center. It works best at reinforcing a priority that the professors have already set for themselves. By these standards, Berkeley’s Middle East center wasn’t a candidate for Israel studies or a visiting Israeli professorship, and it still isn’t.

Someone might say that I’ve judged the Diller Visiting Professorship too hastily, on the basis of only one appointment. I don’t doubt that there will be future appointments more in tune with the donor’s intent and the community’s expectations. But I think the structure of the thing assures that the vast majority of appointments will fall between the far left and the not-quite-as-far left. Whether, on balance, these Israeli professors will validate or invalidate Israel for Berkeley’s students is an open question. But until the question can be answered, the lesson of the Berkeley case for Jewish philanthropists is self-evident. In academe, as in real estate, buyer beware.