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The struggle for acceptance of Israel Studies at universities

A new handbook on Zionism has grown out of a disputed history about the legitimacy of academic courses about Israel.
Colin Shindler
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Collage with bearded man in black and white and ornate universituy buildings in colour

Theodor Herzl and Oxford university (TJI collage)

Published: 20 June 2024

Last updated: 20 June 2024

When courses on Israel Studies first began in universities several decades ago, they were depicted by some as teaching a fictitious, invented subject – nothing less than an offshoot of the hasbarah industry. For those in communal leadership, it was often seen as just that – an opportunity to promote Israel within academia.

The problem was that independently-minded academics – and especially Jewish ones – often refused to follow a conventional pathway and viewed the academic classroom as a sanctuary for debate and analysis. Academia in their eyes was not an adjunct of the communal endeavour.

There was, therefore, a world of difference between informatzia (information), hasbara (explanation) and ta’amula (propaganda).

For many academics, the goal was to strive for objectivity in this sensitive area of discourse but also to demonstrate that there were different interpretations of episodes and events. There were no definitive “alternative facts”, as the devout of Trumpland would say.

However, not all academics in some subject areas were unable to divorce their personal views from their professional responsibility. For some, facts became secondary to achieving ideological goals. Teaching a course for some became a political crusade. The advent of Israel Studies in academia during the 1980s was thus seen as a red rag to a bull for many involved in Middle East Studies.

For some academics, facts became secondary to achieving ideological goals. Teaching a course became a political crusade.

They saw the Middle East as solely defined by the Arab world and often including Iran and Turkey. Since some perceived Israel to be an heretical interloper in the Middle East, it logically followed that Israel Studies should not gain entrance – and that Palestinian Studies was to be preferred in the world of academia. Ironically, it was this unofficial exclusion that led to the emergence of Israel Studies as a discipline in Europe and in other parts of the world.

Things were different in the United States, however, where philanthropy was more farsighted. During the 1980s, the Association of Israel Studies, consisting mainly of North American and Israeli scholars, was established. Twenty years later, I became the first professor of Israel Studies in the UK at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London – an institution not known for its interest in Israel unless it was related to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In 2009, academics – Jewish and non-Jewish – gathered at SOAS to establish the European Association of Israel Studies. All this came as a surprise to both Jewish communal leaders in the UK, as well as to scholars of the Middle East at British universities.

Many British Jews have habitually regarded SOAS as a den of antisemitic iniquity. The Trotskyists at SOAS, however, regarded the existence of Israel Studies as clear evidence of the work of the international Zionist conspiracy. Both stereotypes existed at one and the same time.

Yet despite such perceptions, Israel Studies has actually gone from strength to strength. In a few weeks, a major global conference on Israel Studies will take place in Europe. Some 600 scholars will gather from the four corners of the earth to give papers on a plethora of subjects.

My own experience at SOAS at the turn of the century was that for many, coming from the Arab, Islamic and developing worlds, views on the Israel-Palestine conflict were often fixed as soon as their flight landed. The intellectually curious and more open-minded, however, came to my courses and began to understand through their studies that the tragedy of the war between Israelis and Palestinians was not simplistic but complex, not black or white, not right or wrong.

The Jewish Independent

It could not be resolved by slogans, sit-ins, encampments and resolutions but by self-education and acting on it. One student, now an ambassador for a leading Arab country, wrote brilliant essays about figures such as Jabotinsky.

Some 40 scholars from all over the world have contributed to the handbook on Zionism, which runs to 600 pages.

While I never experienced any instances of antisemitism at SOAS – even during periods of high tension in the Middle East, the same cannot be said for numerous Jewish students who arrived at SOAS. They were often shell-shocked at the hostility they experienced – and many drifted to my classes at the beginning of the academic year.

These students suddenly realised that they had to ask themselves pertinent questions about their Jewish identity and how they understood Israel. For many, it became a rite of passage, emerging knowledgeable at the end of their three years.

I taught a course on Zionism which, on the one hand was not a “hot” subject like the Israel-Palestine conflict was, but on the other drew in those students interested in an aspect of Jewish history. It attracted several Polish and German students, eager to understand their shared history with the Jews.

Two years ago, the academic publisher, Taylor and Francis, asked me to edit the Routledge Handbook on Zionism, which will be published at the end of this month. The book is aimed at university students who are taking courses in Israel Studies, Mediterranean Studies, Middle East Studies, Jewish studies. It would also attract the serious general reader who is interested in Zionism and its origins. Some 40 scholars from all over the world have contributed to this work of 600 pages. My intention in taking on this project was that it would be an important contribution to Israel Studies.

The structure of the work evolved gradually. It features a breadth of topics such as Zionism in the Arab world, the Ben-Gurion perspective, Jewishness between religion and secularism, the kibbutz, the Zionist Right, the struggles of women such as Ada Fishman-Maimon and Lea Goldberg in a male Zionist world, Hebrew poets and early Hebrew cinema.

The historical attitudes of Marxism and Bundism towards Zionism are also examined. One section of the book is devoted to “Zionism in Repressive States” and scholars have written about Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Soviet Union, apartheid South Africa, the ayatollahs’ Iran and the anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland after 1967.  

Some have examined subjects as diverse as Christian Zionism in the US and the Zionism of 'new Jews' in PNG and the Solomon Islands.

Other contributors have examined subjects as diverse as the enthusiasm for Christian Zionism by evangelicals in the US and the Zionism of “new Jews” in far-flung locations such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

As the editor, it was always a difficult question as to which subjects should be addressed and which should not. A distinction was therefore made between classical Zionist discourse and the later history of the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine). The bottom line was always that the work should be comprehensive and accessible to both a student audience as well as to the serious reader.

During the evolution of the book, the doyen of writers on Zionism, the Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avneri, died at the age of 90. I had originally asked him to contribute to this work but he said that he was not feeling up to it.

His many works on Marx, Herzl, Moses Hess – and in particular his The Making of Modern Zionism testify to his insight, expertise and erudition that have educated generation of students and colleagues including many of the contributors to the Routledge Handbook on Zionism. Our book is therefore dedicated to his memory.


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