The Importance of College Classes about Israel

Photo courtesy: Israel Institute.

The new Board Chair of the Israel Institute explains why the mission of bringing accessible, high-level courses about Israel to university campuses is so crucial

By Daniel B. Shapiro

The American Jewish community facilitates many opportunities to expose our young people, and increasingly, our non-Jewish friends and partners, to Israel through travel and other experiential education programs and exchanges. These are important, meaningful initiatives that deserve to be continued and expanded.

What still needs improvement is in-depth education about Israel. There are significant efforts in place to help day schools and camps teach children more comprehensively about Israel. However, only a subset of young people, even within the active Jewish community, let alone those beyond it, have access to these types of organized educational opportunities. Moreover, even when available, the type of teaching that is pedagogically appropriate at the K-12 level is insufficient to equip learners with the knowledge they need to engage with Israel meaningfully into adulthood in this modern age. What is critically needed is access to Israel education at the university level.

It is on college campuses that many young people develop their own sense of identity, where they explore issues that excite and drive them, and where they become engaged politically on a broad range of issues, Israel among them. This stage is precisely when in-depth academic engagement has the greatest impact, which is why I feel so strongly that having classes about Israel available during students’ college careers needs to be a key area of focus for the American Jewish community.

My own experience as an undergraduate at Brandeis University taught me that great college courses resonate deeply. They do not tell you what to think, but rather teach you how to think, how to interpret sources, and how to conduct rigorous analysis to reach your own conclusions about issues you are encountering outside the classroom. Having those skills in relation to Israel is of the highest importance, particularly at a time when Israel is often discussed in social media soundbites and casual conversations on campus in ways that leave students either underinformed at best or actively misinformed at worst. Classroom learning about Israel from exceptional faculty members is a critical way to ensure that students are educated and well-prepared for sophisticated discourse on Israel, as they would be on any other subject.

On January 1st I succeeded Amb. Itamar Rabinovich as the Board Chair of the Israel Institute. The Institute, which Itamar founded in partnership with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in 2012, is an organization whose mission is to enhance knowledge about Israel by supporting university courses. Each year, Israel Institute-sponsored classes teach nearly 3,000 students about modern Israel at leading campuses in the United States and around the world. The subjects of these classes range from history and political science to sociology and cultural studies, which all explore the topic of Israel from different angles. In these classes, in myriad ways, students have the chance to learn about the diversity of Israel’s people, the intensity of its politics, the complexity of its society, and the challenges and opportunities in its relations with its neighbors.

Enrolling in Israel Institute-sponsored classes has been shown not only to measurably increase student knowledge about Israel but also to inspire students to want to take even more classes about Israel, seek out ways to engage with Israel outside the classroom, and even to travel to Israel.

I have chosen to serve as the Institute’s board chair because I believe that providing the space for college students to learn about Israel through rigorous college courses is one of the best ways of elevating the discourse about Israel on campus and beyond. Formal Israel studies courses do not replace the many different ways in which “Israel on campus” needs to be addressed, but they are a central way that we can make sure that what students know about Israel does not come only from tweets and headlines. It is a way of fostering a meaningful connection to the topic of Israel, rooted in knowledge and understanding.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel.