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PACBI-Why Interrogate Israel Studies in the Academy?


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1 November 2012

Why Interrogate Israel Studies in the Academy?

For several years now, universities in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere have been establishing academic programs and centers, faculty chairs, fellowships and scholarships, study abroad programs, journals, and other activities and schemes in Israel Studies.  There is no doubt that the proliferation of Israel Studies is linked to the increasing prominence of academic activism on university campuses around the world inspired by the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural Boycott of Israel and the impressive spread of the wider boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
While the academy has become exposed to many kinds of questionable funding sources that we might oppose, we want to stress here the close connection between Israel-related initiatives and the Israeli establishment’s push to whitewash its violations of international law and crimes against the Palestinian people by rebranding Israel abroad as a center of liberalism and thriving academic life.  Pro-IsraelHasbara (“public explaining,” or propaganda) initiatives have been well funded by the Israeli government and Zionist foundations, with strategic advice from organizations such as the Reut Institute, an influential Zionist think-tank.  A recent investigation into Israel studies shows that while it is not an entirely new academic field, it has been particularly in the last decade that Israel’s deteriorating international image has prompted the establishment of new initiatives.[1] 
Critics might point to other country- or area-specific centers and programs to claim they are no different, but these do not serve state interests in a direct way as Israel studies does, where Israel relies on such programs to normalize and reframe its presence in the international academy.  Funders of such programs have been explicit on the political aims of this funding.  For example, Lord Weidenfeld, former Chef de Cabinet of Israel, welcomed the Yossi Harel Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Sussex University, named after a Mossad spy-provocateur who sought to escalate conflict with Egypt during the 1954 Suez crisis, as 'vital in the fight against anti-Zionism.’  Indeed, Israel Studies 'is very important to have in some key universities, particularly those with an anti-Israel presence’, he told the Jewish Chronicle (01.03.12).[2]  In other words, this relation between Israel and the global academy is part of a concerted effort by Israel  and its international lobbies to use the academy for its political goals of maintaining and shielding its colonial and apartheid system of oppression against the Palestinian people.
In the United States, there is a robust effort to institute Israel studies through a multi-faceted array of academic programs, centers, endowed chairs, fellowships and scholarships, faculty training, and visiting lectureships.[3]  The Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA, for example, has a fellowship program for academics and graduate students; training programs for teachers and university professors; an artist-in-residence scheme; and a publications series, among other activities.[4]  Other examples of Israel Studies programs and centers in the US and Canada are those at Brandies University[5], Concordia University[6], and the University of Calgary.[7]
In Europe at large, the European Association of Israel Studies was established in 2011 with funding from the Pears Foundation, based at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London for the first four years.[8] Other programs are found at Manchester University, Leeds University (all funded by the Pears Foundation) and at Oxford University (Stanley and Zea Lewis Family Foundation).[9]
To counter these programs it is important to have a well-studied strategy and to initiate campaigns that are based on detailed research about the purpose and intent of the programs, departments, chairs or other Israel related initiatives.  For this reason, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), has appealed to global partners through a document titled, “Interrogating Israel Studies in the Academy: A Call for Action,” to build campaigns against these programs and positions as a part of academic boycott initiatives on university campuses.[10]
Our appeal aims to expose Israel studies as driven by glaring political agendas that undermine academic integrity and stem from pro-Israel considerations and motivations in the face of the increasing international condemnation and isolation of Israel as a racist, colonial and apartheid state.  Our concern is to highlight the way Israel studies often conflicts with the more or less universal values of the academy.  As the BRICUP briefing document states,
[the] hasbara agenda profoundly contradicts the mission and basic values of universities.  They are committed to excellence, integrity and rigour in both research and teaching. This aim distinguishes universities from PR companies, advertising agencies, policy-based think-thanks, in-house research units, commercial R&D units and the like.  It forms the core value of universities to the wider society.  Research and teaching therefore must be carried out in ways that are not, nor seen to be, captured by special interests of any kind. Universities have a fundamental responsibility to students, tax-payers, donors, and the wider public in this regard.  Their intrinsic value and wider reputation would suffer to the extent that they disregard this responsibility….Israeli PR has goals fundamentally at odds with the university’s mission.  Such funding also generates a conflict with the ethical codes and standards that some universities are attempting to formalize.   Academic integrity and freedom are under threat at every stage: in accepting such funds, selecting staff, setting the curriculum, research topics, framing issues, etc.   Staff may well feel under pressure to keep quiet about such concerns.  Such funds concern all those who wish to uphold basic academic standards in an era of greater austerity and private fund-raising.[11]
To defend the basic mission of the university, we have a responsibility to question the aims and conditions of a new program, center, or post in Israel Studies, regardless of whether or not it has already been established.  Our call to action directed at conscientious academics, staff and students in the academy is an appeal to: 1) identify Israel studies in the academy in their area, and assist us in collating this information so we remain updated about each specific local context; and 2) launch local campaigns against Israel studies as part of an academic boycott against Israel.  Such a campaign would work to refuse the normalization of Israel in the academy around the globe, bring attention to Israel’s violations of international law and human rights, and play a key role in spreading the culture of boycott against Israel in the academy.


[1]Ben White, “The Case for Israel (Studies): It’s not Hasbara. Honest.” Mondoweiss, June 21, 2012. http://mondoweiss.net/2012/06/the-case-for-israel-studies-its-not-hasbara-honest.html.  White provides a useful chronology of academic hasbara efforts, mainly in the United States.
[2]BRICUP, “Universities rebranding Israel’s image: Hasbara posts in Israel Studies threaten academic integrity.”See http://bricup.org.uk/documents/HasbaraStudiesBriefing.pdf
[3] Ben White, op. cit.
[8]BRICUP, op. cit.
[9] BRICUP, op. cit.
[10]http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=2027; this has been adapted from the briefing document by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) cited earlier, and with the permission of BRICUP.

[11]BRICUP, op. cit. 

Posted on 01-11-2012


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