Removing a Structural Barrier to Address the Dearth of Courses about Israel on Campus

Budgets rather than politics may be the bigger challenge to having Israel Studies courses on campus.

Screenshot: Israel Institute FaceBook page
Screenshot: Israel Institute FaceBook page

By Dr. Ariel Ilan Roth

In recent years, many American Jews have pointed to an insufficient number of quality classes about Israel for university students. Some speculate that the lack of Israel Studies on campus may be a consequence of the political actions of campus movements to delegitimize Israel. Although campus movements to delegitimize Israel are pernicious, in the experience of the Israel Institute, budget rather than politics is the bigger challenge to having Israel Studies on campus. Communal philanthropy can help overcome that problem.

In the past decade, a combination of political pressure at state universities to reduce spending on the humanities and social sciences, along with lower returns on endowment funds at private universities, has significantly reduced the funds available to support the programs in history, political science, literature, area studies, and sociology where Israel-related courses are most likely to appear. Examples of universities’ cost-cutting measures in these areas include hiring freezes, particularly when it comes to critical though costly tenure-track faculty appointments; canceling courses with low student numbers – even when such courses could be run as effective seminars; and a focus on more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-oriented departments.

In such an environment, it’s unsurprising that specialized regional courses, such as those in Israel Studies, are not a university’s natural first choice for course topics. However, the Israel Institute has found that universities are receptive to in-depth, rigorous courses on these same topics when costs are defrayed. Namely, when external organizations provide resources that enable universities to explore new academic angles on Israel in credible and lower cost ways, most institutions are happy to see Israel Studies in their course catalogs. Based on our experience, the most straightforward way to create this type of academic resource on Israel for universities is to bring and fund top quality Israeli scholars at American campuses, as the Israel Institute does through its Visiting Israeli Faculty Program.

By partnering with local communities and national and regional foundations, the Israel Institute was able to bring 16 Israeli faculty members to U.S. universities this year, where they teach classes, mentor students, and engage in public discourse with both the campus and host community. These scholars are experts in a vast array of disciplines, from domestic politics and history to law, literature, sociology, and more. Among this year’s cohort is Dr. Zion Evrony, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican and a leading expert on the relations between Israel and the Roman Catholic Church, who is teaching dozens of students at the Catholic University of America. Also in Washington, D.C., Prof. Yoav Gelber is teaching a history course at American University that explores Israeli society through the lens of immigration. Next semester at UC Berkeley, Prof. Michael Shalev will be using Israel as a test case for a course on political economy. Other professors come from the humanities, like Prof. Yael Shenker, a specialist on Haredi and national religious film and fiction teaching a course on the cinema and literature of Israeli religious communities at the University of Florida.

In the past three years of this program, the Institute and its partners have supported professors as they taught almost 50 courses to over 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students, ranging in subjects from the 1948 War, dilemmas of Israeli democracy, and Israel’s foreign policy to domestic ethnic relations in Israel and Israeli feminism. Cumulatively, these professors also gave some 200 public presentations at academic and public events.

This type of program demonstrates that philanthropic dollars can be used to overcome structural barriers to offering courses about Israel at American universities and ensure students have first-hand access to Israeli experts. These philanthropically supported professors provide university students with a thorough, nuanced, and authentic perspective on Israel as instructors and with advice as academic advisors. As visitors at American campuses, they help strengthen an international academic network, laying the seeds for future American-Israeli academic collaboration with students and academic peers and helping to spark new perspectives on research and teaching. Their presence on campus serves as a strong affirmation of the value of engagement with Israeli scholarship.

Moreover, once these professors are placed, the initial investment can be leveraged by many other Jewish organizations. For example, our current cohort of professors regularly participate in Israel-related events on and off campus, and we heartily encourage university and community organizations interested in advancing informed dialogue on Israel to take advantage of these experts’ presence in the United States. (To learn more about our experts and where they are located this year, please see our Guide to Experts or email IsraelExperts@israelinstitute.org.)

Our Visiting Israeli Faculty Program showcases communal philanthropy’s force in clearing the way for Israel Studies course content on campus and, in so doing, playing a key role in ensuring that students of today have access to fact-based and nuanced information about Israel.

Dr. Ariel Ilan Roth is the Executive Director of the Israel Institute, an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to promoting knowledge and enhancing understanding of modern Israel by strengthening the field of Israel Studies. Founded in 2012, the Israel Institute works with universities and other research institutions to increase opportunities for the study of Israel and catalyze deeper engagement with the country in the academic, cultural, and policy sectors. The organization does not participate in advocacy efforts, but rather aspires to promote a flourishing and expansive field of Israel Studies through the sponsorship of visiting faculty programs, artist residencies, research grants for junior and senior scholars, online courses, public discourse events, and other initiatives. To learn more about our work, please visit www.israelinstitute.org.