Faculty Members, University Campus and the Jewish Community – Why Should the Three Go Together?

By Dr. Shahar Sadeh

In recent years the world has witnessed an increase in efforts to delegitimize Israel and Israelis. Much has been and will yet be written on the manifestations of the global BDS movement, as the challenge is growing and complex. Much of the writing was or will be drafted by faculty members who became “experts” on the subject, oftentimes unintentionally, as they were standing against the tide. Over time they became aware that, unfortunately, they were not alone.[1] They describe, in all too many examples, how Anti-Zionism and Anti-Israelism appear on campus, and how this phenomenon might be addressed. The phenomenon is developing in tandem with worldwide trends of populism, extremism (of both the Right and Left), Anti-Semitism and more, with American parallels. While anti-Israel sentiment is clearly also fed by events taking place in Israel, developments on the local level, on each college campus, are equally as significant.

The delegitimization of Israel is connected to issues of self-identity, campus group dynamics, students’ search for “a cause” and other characteristics that have less to do with Israel and more with identity politics. Those politics apply to and are promoted by both students and faculty members, on and off campus. Unfortunately, the more this reality becomes visible (and vocal) on campus, the less likely faculty members are to discuss it in class, especially if it is not their field of research and if they feel positively about Israel’s existence. Over the last few years I often heard faculty reiterating that they intentionally avoid speaking about Israel in their classroom. They feel unequipped and fear their class might be “hijacked” by students who promote an anti-Israel agenda. They fear being “tainted” or stained by their peers with regard to their Israel-related opinions. So it is understandable that they keep quiet, even though this goes against everything a university should be – an open, free and safe space for exchange of ideas and viewpoints. While one essential role of faculty members is to support students and create those spaces, it may be very difficult to do so when they require support themselves.

The Jewish community views its connection to Israel as crucial and has therefore shown its willingness to transmit this connection to future generations through good faith financial investments. It has created student activities pertaining to Israel, such as clubs, organizations, and trips to Israel for Jewish students – and even non-Jewish students. Yet the Jewish community relations field has a few lacunas, areas in which it doesn’t thrive, one of which is working with college professors. Professors are a reservoir of knowledge, morals, potential activism, professionalism and influence over generations of students. Unlike transient students, professors are often the permanent residents of campus. While students are considered malleable, impressionable, and transformable, the Jewish community doesn’t appear to prioritize educating the educators. Why is that? Why, especially in a community that prides itself on the premises of debate and ongoing study, do we not invest in the “usual suspects,” the educators? While there are certainly difficulties in doing so effectively, it should be accomplished if we intend to foster a better campus climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students. No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, the influential role professors have, can have, or should have on their students is undeniable.

At the national level there are a few organizations that create opportunities for faculty to become more involved with the issue of Israel outside traditional academic settings. Some are more academic than others; some focus on academic freedom and fighting the delegitimization of professors who support Israel; some are charged with enhancing academic relations with Israel; and some try to do it all. Only a few organizations focused on working with faculty members are local in nature and can consider local context, setting, and social fabric and see the professors’ network within a particular local community.

These are some of the reasons the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) launched its Faculty Engagement Program in November 2014. We were tasked to create nuanced discussions about Israel and the Israeli Palestinian conflict amongst university and college faculty in New York City. We identified and underscored the importance of cultivating relationships with faculty members. Our mission from day one was the creation of a space (“safe space” or “brave space” – one can choose their preferred terminology) for faculty conversations on Israel-related issues that stand at the core of public discourse. Through academic panels with Israeli and Palestinian speakers, crash courses on Israel Studies, and faculty study tours in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the program provides opportunities for faculty to engage with the subject while accounting for its many complexities. It allows professors to have multiple and ongoing interactions with the subject matter and increase their understandings in-depth.

In our community, “Combating BDS” has become an overused slogan, and evokes images of having “boots of the ground” to oversee the “campus battlefield” in which only oppositional positions exist. We do not view professors as troops in any battle. On the contrary, we see them as mediators, as those who are able to bridge and discuss complex issues from a variety of differing viewpoints. This is why we named our study tours to Israel “Scholars as Bridge Builders.” We believe in scholars’ activism, potentially having one foot in academia and one in the world of change making, building bridges between “real” spaces or discursive ones. While many would prefer that “classrooms should remain outside politics,” reality continuously shows us that this is not the case. Just to be clear, our program does not shy away from discussing BDS. In fact, the Faculty Engagement Program has at least one facet in which it directly counters the boycott movement in the most straightforward way: We say no to academic boycotts. Furthermore, we work collaboratively with Israeli (and Palestinian) academics. Through these relationships, we are defying the potential effects of the BDS movement upon professors and ultimately their students.

Over the last three years we have organized 45 events on 12 New York City campuses hosting Israeli and Palestinian speakers which have been attended by hundreds of faculty members. We held five “Scholars as Bridge Builders” study tours to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with 75 faculty participants, some of whom (Jews and non-Jews alike) reported feeling “transformed” by the intense experience. Some participants have gone back to visit or teach, while others have incorporated Israeli sources into their study and coursework. We conducted three Israel Studies academic courses for professors teaching them how to “deal with Israel” in their classroom and much more. It is no secret that many of the professors in social science and humanities (where most of our participants are coming from) are progressive and left leaning in their political views. They are committed to social justice, political and human rights, equity and equality. We are not seeking to indoctrinate our participants which would be inappropriate, especially for academics. Rather, our exposure – balanced, interesting, and comprehensive – brings results. This doesn’t mean that scholars who have participated in our programs will let go of their criticism of the Israeli government; the opposite is more likely. But we do know that they’ll care more, they’ll know more and therefore – as any good critical thinker – they’ll have an opinion, and whatever the criticism, it will be well informed.

Mobilizing faculty members is not a simple task. While faculty groups make the best companions for travel – intrigued, sharp, smart, creative thinkers – the institutionalized nature of the academy and the academic thinking makes it hard to create a visibly profound fast change. A deep, effective, educational process takes time to sink in, to be absorbed, rethought and later on consolidated. Upon return from our study tours, we make sure to continue supporting these processes and our alumni professors, in a hyper-local fashion, with more on-campus interactions related to the ones we’ve experienced in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Surveys we conducted a year after a study tour (on top of the “before and after” ones we regularly conduct) show that teachings and research agenda of participants were changed following the tour and that their exposure and learning on the subject matter continued, both by our programs and through other opportunities (e.g., several professors who participated in our programs applied to programs offered by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University). Of course, we have encountered many logistical challenges related with our program (i.e., finding the correct timing for events, tours or courses in tandem with the calendars of private, public and Israeli universities, with breaks, exam periods, etc.). That said, we have been able to overcome them all and invent, create, tour, discuss, learn and eventually mobilize professors in a highly successful way.

Attempting to enhance scholars’ knowledge and activism and on the issue of Israel is not an easy task. But engaging in the effort is exciting, relevant, and no less important than working with decision makers or other high level stakeholders and leaders. We know from our track record that we are not only positively affecting the campus atmosphere here in New York. Our work also benefits the State of Israel and Israeli scholars. The program rejects the “black vs. white,” “good vs. bad” prevalent discourse and portrayal of Israel. Rather, we embrace the “grey,” complex, complicated, and at times annoying and over-layered reality. As always, results are not guaranteed. It is an educational effort that is based on trust and on a belief in education, free thinking, the role and power of individuals and of the academia.

It is not a given, definitely not for donors, to trust and invest in such an uncertain result. Fortunately, the Faculty Engagement Program at JCRC-NY has received generous support over the years, first and foremost from UJA-Federation of New York as our main partner and ardent supporter, as well as from some of their wonderful giving circles, Solelim, Neshamot and Nedivot. We are also fortunate to benefit from open-minded private donors and family foundations who view our approach as holistic and effective, understand the need to create support for Israel in non-traditional ways among faculty members on campus, and eventually create a ripple effect for growing circles of students, scholars and the public.

As we have seen and witnessed, when executed correctly, the ripple effect is dramatic. The potential of this program and its underlying premise is vast, and the return on investment is all the more fascinating.

For more information please contact Dr. Sadeh at: sadehs@jcrcny.org

[1] For example see: Pessin and Ben Atar (2018), Nelson (2014, 2016).

Dr. Shahar Sadeh is Director, Faculty Engagement Program at JCRC-NY.