In response: The benefits of academic Israel programs

In response to Olga Gershenon’s critique of one-sided programs that bring American academics to discover Israel, one writer counters that those very programs are actually a step in the right direction, both due to the openness by which they are run and by the people they attract. 

By Brent E. Sasley

Olga Gershenson wrote a strong critique in these pages of three programs that aim to bring academics from around the world to Israel. Her criticism centers on the accusation that these programs, all funded by Jews, Israeli, or right-leaning individuals and organizations, present a sanitized version of Israel that highlights the positive and emphasizes Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, while neglecting the negative – particularly the occupation. She ends with a call to counter this narrative with a more balanced one, out of concern that academics will be subject to continuing “propaganda.”

I attended two of the three programs (the Brandeis University and the Tel Aviv University ones), and think that Gershenson raises a reasonable point. But, like much else that is exaggerated when discussing the sensitivity of this topic, she ignores the nuances of these programs in favor of a one-dimensional assumption that balance (in terms of time and resources spent on something) equals fairness.

There is no a priori reason to assume that because Palestinian scholars appear less frequently as guest speakers in these programs or that there are fewer trips to the West Bank, that the thorny questions of whether Israel is as democratic as it purports to be, or how bad the occupation really is are ignored or glossed over.

It must be remembered that participants in these programs are responsible adults who have spent their careers thinking critically about things and who can read the speaker and topic lists as well as the travel agenda for themselves. To be fair, there were individuals in both programs who were more inclined to see only the good in Israel and rationalize away the bad. But they were a tiny minority. In other words, these were not gullible or impressionable children who were about to parrot the government’s talking points about the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel.

In fact, they came away with a more moderate view of Israel – a critical ingredient for professors trying to teach a sensitive subject and mediate arguments in an arena designed for all voices to be heard. Some in our groups included professors who were outright skeptical of everything they heard, and challenged the speakers and the organizers on specific topics and arguments. My fellow participants and I held many late-night discussions considering viewpoints of the speakers and their arguments, debating different interpretations of them. Nobody in my experience came to these programs with a completely blank slate and left filled with Revisionist Zionist ideas about the Land of Israel or the necessity of a halakhic state.

Gershenson further ignores the efforts of the speakers to account for nuance, counter-arguments, and alternate narratives. Some directly raised questions about “narratives,” and how we need to be aware of differing ideas and opinions out there. We discussed the Nakba as much as we did the War of Independence. We considered the Israeli massacre of Arab farmers who weren’t aware of the curfew imposed on them and were shot when they returned from their fields as much as we did Hamas suicide bombings. We visited Deir Yassin as well as Yad Vashem. We watched films highlighting the glory of early Zionism, the disdain with which Holocaust survivors were treated, and the Palestinian struggle to retain their dignity and hope.

Other professors easily took questions about their own ideas and priorities, engaging the audience with them. And although one or two were less willing to consider that their accounts might be incomplete or even wrong, the speakers themselves were well aware of the sensitivity of the subjects we discussed, and open to critiques. They did not behave as though they were scientists in an experimental setting trying to convince us of something we wouldn’t otherwise believe. They were genuinely interested in having us consider Israel in depth and in different ways.

Are these programs perfect? Of course not – I even had a few conversations with the Brandeis program’s organizers about the lack of attention to foreign/security policy. I don’t think Israeli politics can be understood without some discussion of the security network that plays such an important role in decision-making. Did I take that to mean nobody thought security policy was important or needed discussion? Of course not.

While balance in the sense of promoting a better understanding of Israel was certainly tilted toward exposing a less hostile attitude toward it, I experienced fairness in my time during these programs. That fairness – the consideration of multiple viewpoints and ideas, and wondering if there was a single “right” way to think about things – permeated everything we did.

Gershenson is correct when she states that there is room for a Palestinian version of these programs. It is reasonable to expect that such a program would visit the sites of disappeared Palestinian villages, the separation barrier, torn-up olive trees, and watch Israeli soldiers bully Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints.

But if the point is to provide a deeper look at a society and polity that is often mischaracterized and misperceived around the world — and surely Palestine and Israel both are — then the programs I attended that Gershenson is faulting are a step in the right direction not only because of the openness by which they were run, but by the nature of the participants themselves.

Brent E. Sasley teaches Israel and Middle East politics at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs on Israel and Jewish identity at Mideast Matrix and Open Zion. Follow him on Twitter.

Countering single-narrative academic tours on Israel