Israel Studies on the American Campus: A Hard Transition

Arieh Saposnik

At times, Jewish students end up facing greater challenges than students with little or no background, since learning is often preceded for them by a difficult and even painful un-learning.

It is a truism, of course, to point out that the things we choose to study and the career paths we set out upon say a great deal about who we are and how we see ourselves. But when it comes to teaching about Israel, the lines between academic pursuit and identity politics, or identity-searching, can often be particularly blurred. Few scholars of Israel Studies come to their work free of ideological allegiances and often deep emotional commitments of one variety or another. One often wonders if many of the historiographical (and other) debates between scholars of differing stripes—“Zionist,” “post-Zionist,” “non-Zionist” historians, sociologists and others—aren’t at least as much about differing emotional experiences and attachments as they are about documents, data, and the ways in which we read them.

Some of the most difficult challenges involved in teaching about Israel and Zionism on American college campuses stem from precisely this tension between commitment and detachment. These challenges, I think, are different from those posed by teaching about Israel in Jewish primary and secondary schools. Israel Studies on the university campus differs in some fundamental respects from the teaching of Israel and Zionism that takes place in the context of Jewish day schools or other Jewish educational frameworks, and these differences are rooted to a large degree in the different balances that are struck in each of these frameworks.

Indeed, the differences may at times make the two seem not only entirely separate enterprises, but in fact almost clashing ones. If the Israel encountered by students in Jewish schools is, for the most part, an integral part of the Jewish identity these schools seek to foster—and to make attractive and inviting—those same students will often have a considerably bumpier encounter with a sometimes unfamiliar-looking Israel that they will encounter at the university. Added to this is also the fact that at the university many of my students—in many cases, a majority—are not Jewish. For them, then, my job is not about teaching Jewish identity and transmitting Jewish memory. But neither is it about that with my Jewish students.

Some degree of dissonance often becomes evident at the level of even the most fundamental premises. In teaching about Zionism, for example, I have often found one of the most difficult challenges to be conveying to American students—Jews and non-Jews—the very notion of a national (not religiously based) definition of Jewishness that lies at the root of the Zionist idea. But the clash of sometimes inconsistent images of Israel hardly stops there. The Israel of academic texts, after all, is not all about heroism and unequivocal valor. The tensions between “religious” and “secular” Jews in Israel, rooted in Zionism’s contested Judaisms (indeed, the often virulent rejection of traditional Judaism, in some leading versions of Zionism), can come as a shock to some American Jewish students and can be difficult to understand and to accept.

Jewish students, in fact, often arrive in the college Israel Studies (or Jewish Studies) classroom assuming a certain advantage, especially if they have benefited from a relatively extensive Jewish educational background. At times, they are proven correct. At others, they end up facing greater challenges than students with little or no background, since learning is often preceded for them by a difficult and even painful un-learning. If a good part of the task of the Jewish school is to construct and transmit Jewish memory, in other words, the task of the university Israel Studies classroom is to teach history—and the two often share a coexistence that is uneasy at best.

Complicating this further, I myself, like many of my colleagues, have to contend with a similar tension in our research and teaching (and in our lives). Being a historian does not liberate one, after all, from being a “rememberer.” Memory and history do somehow exist side by side in our psyches, and negotiating the tensions between them is not always an easy task even for those of us who spend years—and make our livings—doing just that. As an Israel Studies scholar and teacher who often benefits directly from the interest donors have in improving Israel’s image on campus, moreover, what is my obligation to that agenda, and how can I balance it with my commitment to disinterested research and teaching?

Part of what is at stake, of course, is how we understand the purpose of teaching about Israel at an American university. As I see it, there are a variety of sound academic reasons why Israel Studies does have a real claim to a place in the American academic landscape. Israel is not only contested, controversial and always deemed newsworthy, but stands at one of the focal points of some of the most volatile crossroads in world politics, with an impact far beyond its near invisibility on most maps of the world. From my own perspective as a student of nationalism, Zionism—the creation of a Hebrew national culture (not to mention a modern Hebrew spoken language), and the creation of the state of Israel—is a fascinating human story that sheds important light on questions whose importance is hardly deniable in a world in which we still draw our maps (political, social, cultural) largely along the lines of nation-states. Zionism and Israel, moreover, are particularly striking illustrations of what was a dramatic transformation of Jewish life over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—a time in which “the Jewish question,” as it was once known, was indissolubly bound up with the question of modernity itself, with its promise and anxieties. If one of the goals of a university education is to train students to think and to progressively sharpen and hone that thinking, I see my own role as one of complicating and nuancing my Jewish and non-Jewish students’ understandings of Israel, its place in the Middle East and in the community of nations, and its position in the geographical and chronological span of Jewish life.

Israel Studies at the university, in other words, is not about promoting Jewish identity and identification with Israel, nor is it about doing hasbarah, advocacy on behalf of Israel. It is, in other words, about “history” rather than “memory.” Why, then, should it garner the support of donors interested in improving and promoting Israel’s image on campus, or of parents sending their children off to college after graduating from a Jewish school? Here, I think, the point where the interests of memory and of history, the goals of teaching Israel on a university campus and in the Jewish schools might at least partially converge. A number of organizations now seek to prepare students to counter anti-Israel claims they may hear on campus. What is often missing from this type of training is one simple ingredient: a deeper understanding of Israel’s history that is rooted in a solid base of knowledge, thought and analysis; and a familiarity with Zionist thinking and ideas as well as the concrete course of action taken by the Zionist movement—along with the many dilemmas, quarrels, and debates—to make those ideas reality.

Helping students to acquire an understanding of Israel as neither a mythical land of heroic Ari Ben-Canaans nor a scheming den of malevolence as it is indeed presented at times on some campuses is, in the end, the best service educators can provide both to their students and to Israel’s sometimes strained image. Venturing (hopefully not too perilously) from history into the realm of memory, I might even suggest that this is in itself a fulfillment in some sense of the central Zionist hope of “normalizing” the Jewish people—creating for the Jews a literal and figurative soil on which, as a “normal” people with a land of its own, they will be free to work out their own daily concerns with their social gaps, economic challenges, political divisions, and cultural successes and failures. ♦

Dr. Arieh Saposnik is the Jess Schwartz Assistant Professor of Hebrew Culture at Arizona State University and the author of Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine. He can be reached at [email protected].
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HaYidion Israel & Zionism Education Spring 2009
Israel & Zionism Education
Spring 2009