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The Ivy League’s Israel problem

The next generation of US leaders needs nuanced Mideast education, not the BDS-style courses currently on offer

The eight Ivy League universities, though unfairly, remain centers of power and privilege in the United States. The nation’s last four presidents have attended Ivy League schools, as have all nine Supreme Court justices and two-thirds of current Cabinet members, including the Secretaries of State and Defense. If the past is any indication of the future, there are a number of students presently enrolled in these schools who will one day shape American foreign policy.

So it’s especially alarming that classes at these elite institutions propagate distorted, oversimplified portrayals of Israel that could be copied from Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) posters. An examination of current course offerings reveals that Ivy League professors increasingly demonize Israel as an imperialist regime propped up by a conspiratorial Israel lobby.

“Israel/Palestine: The One State Condition,” a course taught this semester at Brown University taught by Adi Ophir, illustrates the intellectually irresponsible scholarship characteristic of Ivy League institutions. Based upon a book co-authored by Ophir entitled The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine, the course readings explain to students that Israel is a colonizing “occupation regime” comprised of bellicose Israelis who “do not resort to violence because they are subject to terrorism, but because using violence is a fundamental part of their ruling apparatus in the Occupied Territories.”

Only by eliminating Israel as a Jewish state and establishing a country where “there will be no need for a Jewish majority, nor will it be possible to ensure it” will Israeli Jews “be able to break out of the shackles of their imagination,” Ophir concludes. These assertions, cloaked in post-modern academic prose, validate the delegitimization of Israel that BDS groups hope to spread on Ivy League campuses.

Columbia University, the birthplace of anti-Israel scholarship that Edward Said inaugurated decades ago, offers a course with a similar political agenda this semester. The course, entitled “Israeli Society and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” aims to “acquaint students with Israeli society through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Despite this ostensible objective, however, the course does not wrap up with a discussion of contemporary societal trends in Israel. Rather, the class culminates with a series of polemical readings condemning the Israel lobby and United States’ support of Israel.

The Columbia professor assigns a Noam Chomsky essay denouncing the US government’s alliance with Israel, along with John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s 2006 article in the London Review of Books. In the article, the authors argue that the Israel lobby was responsible for the US invasion of Iraq, among many other nefarious plots. While the assigned criticism of the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis is quite mild, the recommended reading list includes Rashid Khalid’s Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. Khalid’s book reinforces the course’s not-so-subtle message that the US government, influenced by the Israel lobby, is culpable for the absence of a peace settlement.

Things aren’t any more even-handed at Harvard University. The syllabus for the course entitled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict” includes an outline of the conflict that explains why the professor selected Charles Smith, who has repeatedly blamed President Bill Clinton and the Israeli leadership for the failure of the 2000 Camp David peace talks, as the author of the course’s textbook.

As part of her outline, the professor identifies what she calls four “watershed moments” in the history of the conflict. While the professor names the less deadly First Intifada as one of her watershed moments, she whitewashes the Second Intifada and the associated suicide bombings, describing watershed moment number four as “the event-laden years at the beginning of the new millennium.” This Orwellian censorship of history unfortunately is all too common in academic circles.

Israel’s advocacy organizations must draw attention to the lack of balance that characterize these courses and demand increased transparency from professors who teach classes about Israel and the Middle East. Professors are notoriously protective of their syllabi, often refusing to divulge assigned readings to anyone other than the students enrolled in the course (I obtained course information only through current students, after a number of professors failed to respond to email requests for course syllabi). Educational organizations should insist that professors engage in open dialogue about their curriculum choices.

Even more vital than increased curricular transparency, however, is the need to educate students about Israel before they arrive on college campuses. Many Ivy League professors dismiss concerns about the content of their courses by asserting that their students possess the knowledge and faculties necessary to critically evaluate claims about the conflict. But a recent study by Brandeis University suggests that this perception is false.

On a multiple-choice test given to more than 600 Jewish college students planning to participate in the Birthright Israel program, approximately one out of five respondents thought that David Ben-Gurion is the current prime minister of Israel, while less than half of students knew that Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. One would presume that basic knowledge about Israel would be even lower among the general college population than among students with an interest in the Birthright program. It will be impossible for students to identify intellectual dishonesty in courses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless literacy about the region improves.

The current wave of terror spreading across Israel has made restoring balance to Ivy League courses even more imperative, as BDS campaigns on campuses aim to convince students that Israel is solely responsible for the escalating violence. BDS groups at Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Cornell, Penn, and Harvard have all organized events in the last month alone, and Israeli Apartheid Week is approaching this winter and will bring with it a flurry of anti-Israel campus activities.

Drew Faust, president of Harvard, says that a university is about “learning that shapes the future.” Faust is right. America’s next generation of leaders will need a nuanced understanding of the Middle East’s complexities if they aim to advance future peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s exactly why professors must stop excluding pro-Israel perspectives from their classrooms in the increasingly insular ivory towers.

About the Author
Mike Kalin is a former Netivot Fellow in Jewish Leadership at Harvard College and a Pforzheimer Fellow in the School Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a contributor at Cognoscenti, the opinion page of Boston NPR's news station. Mike teaches History and English at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts.
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