Countering single-narrative academic tours of Israel

A number of programs bring international professors to Israel, shaping the way they teach their students about the country and conflict. What’s missing is a Palestinian narrative. But can any alternative program match the all-expenses-paid tours and luxurious accommodations offered by the hasbara-centric Israel programs?

By Olga Gershenson

In the last few years, a new discipline by the name of Israel Studies has emerged on the academy scene. The field, which includes politics, society, and culture of the State of Israel, is a rather new development which has resulted in an effort to train faculty in the field and to encourage them to teach courses in it. Today, there are several educational programs that do just that, and since these programs arguably influence how Israel-related subjects are taught to a whole generation of students, it is worth looking into them.

The Brandeis University Summer Institute for Israel Studies hosts professors on campus for a series of seminars, and then takes them to Israel, for a grand-tour of the best it has to offer: historic sites, museums, universities, meetings with politicians and cultural figureheads. Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) will take you on a 10-day, all-expenses-paid tour of Israel, using it as a case-study to learn about “terrorism and the threat it poses to democratic societies.” The Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University runs an annual workshop for university faculty on Israel and Middle East. It is a 12-day education and travel program that takes participants “to visit key sites, cities and regions where important events in the modern history of the region took place.” These programs are wonderfully organized and well funded. As a participant, you’ll be placed in five-star accommodations, wined-and-dined, and, in some cases, even rewarded with a sizable stipend. What’s not to like? Indeed, professors come back happy and content, incorporate the content into their own courses and recommend the programs to their colleagues.

So far so good. But here is a thing: all of these programs will give you an Israeli narrative of Jewish-Palestinian relations. The assumption is that Israel must remain a Jewish state, that a Law of Return is just, that Israel is a democracy, and that its continuous occupation of the West Bank for over 40 years is necessitated by the security concerns. Moreover, in that narrative Israel is posed as a peace-seeking country whose repeated effort at the just resolution was only thwarted by Palestinian terrorism and misguided leadership.

Claims of non-partisan nature and highest academic standards notwithstanding, all three programs have a political agenda: they use academic knowledge to support Israel and its policies, usually in smart and subtle ways. And yes, they make gestures towards fair representation. Brandeis Institute started recently including short forays into the occupied territories and token meetings with Palestinian politicians. Similarly, the Tel Aviv University program offers lectures not only by Israeli, but also Palestinian scholars. This might be a positive development, but the overall perspective of the programs remains that of pro-Israel advocacy.

This is obvious if we look at the funding: the Brandeis program is supported by pro-Israel advocacy organizations, such as the Schusteman Foundation, whose explicit statement is to “…support the State of Israel and repair the world.” Repairing the world is an inspiring mission, but supporting the State of Israel is a political platform. FDD is also predominantly privately funded, with an official agenda, “to help free nations defend themselves.” Despite carefully worded assurance that it is non-partisan and not anti-Islam, its rhetoric is fueled by a neo-conservative agenda. So it should come as no surprise that FDD’s take on Israel is unequivocally supportive as well: “Israel is a long-standing ally of the United States in an increasingly unstable Middle East. It remains one of only two democracies in the region, with a powerful military, and a vibrant, sometimes fractious society that has struggled for decades to reach accommodations with its neighbors.”

Clearly, what is needed is a counterpoint to the pro-Israel advocacy programs, where a college professor can learn a Palestinian narrative. The problem is finding such a program.

The only agency offering a program that presents a Palestinian narrative is Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP). However, FFIPP mostly focuses on students, for whom they organize internships and educational programs. Interested professors are allowed to join, after paying tuition and airfare. FFIPP’s program is excellent, but it can hardly compete with the luxurious all-expenses-paid pro-Israel advocacy programs. Instead of five-star hotels, on FFIPP trip, a night in a hostel bed is a best-case scenario, and shower is not always an option. Only highly-motivated faculty would find it appealing. No wonder that in the last several years, only very few professors have joined FFIPP’s inspiring program. This is not to criticize FFIPP — their mandate is different and they serve it with distinction. But it is to say that more programs are needed to educate professors about the Palestinian narrative as much as about Israel’s. Without this important counter-point, the existing programs will remain what they are now — propaganda sugar-coated as education.

A reference to TAU’s Moshe Dayan Center as “staffed mainly by ex-military and ex-security specialists” has been removed due to the statement’s inaccuracy.

Olga Gershenson is Associate Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.