In response to the Jewish community’s concern with the growth of anti-Israel bias and pro-Palestinian sympathies on college campuses, the field of Israel Studies has grown dramatically over the past decade.
The newest player in that sphere is the Washington, DC-based Israel Institute—a new non-partisan think tank that was founded in 2012 but did not officially roll out its programs until this Tuesday. The institute is now seeking to consolidate the emerging Israel Studies field by partnering with leading academic, research and cultural institutions in the U.S. and abroad to promote the study of modern Israel.
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Itamar Rabinovich is the president of the institute, whose initial funding was provided by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
Among other contemporary issues, the institute plans to address how Israel’s national ideology, Zionism, has been twisted by the Jewish state’s detractors and is now avoided in some circles, according to Rabinovich.
“To me Zionism is the national ideology of the Jewish people,” Rabinovich said in an interview with JNS.org. “It is as legitimate as every other as any other national ideology. The issue is not to propagate ideologies. We are about the teaching of Zionism as a national movement.”
Historically, many college campuses have been problematic environments for Israel and her supporters. In his 2001 book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, American scholar Martin Kramer noted the overwhelming anti-Israel bias within American Middle East Studies programs, particularly promoted by the late Columbia University professor Edward Said.
Anti-Israel faculty members as well as student activist groups like the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have complicated life for pro-Israel students on campus by hosting anti-Israel speakers/programs, erecting anti-Israel “apartheid walls” or sponsoring Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motions.
This reality has spurred a large Jewish communal response over the past decade. A number of pro-Israel campus organizations such as StandWithUs, The David Project and others were created to combat the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment on campus. At the same time, Jewish philanthropic organizations such as the Schusterman Foundation have also attempted to positively shape the discourse on Israel by promoting Israel Studies programs as an alternative to Middle East Studies.
Rabinivoch’s academic career has taken a similar course.
“My academic field was originally Middle East Studies, but has expanded into Israel Studies,” he told JNS.org. “I followed the development of the field over the past decade or so, and it has expanded quite well. I began helping the Schusterman Foundation over the past four years, and they asked me to become the founding president of the institute.”
Over the past several years, Israel Studies programs have dramatically expanded on American college campuses. More than a dozen American universities now have dedicated Israel Studies programs, and hundreds of courses on modern Israel are offered on other college campuses throughout the country.
A recent report by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) suggested that the growth of Israel Studies programs has been a resounding success in reshaping anti-Israel attitudes.
“The divestment movement at Berkeley—which failed—was a catalyst for the creation of a new academic program in Israel Studies that is already changing the atmosphere on that campus by introducing scholarship about Israel to a place long considered ground zero for anti-Israel activity,” the report said.
“Encourage universities to offer more courses on modern Israel. This can be driven by student demand as well as faculty and donor initiative,” it added.
As part of the progression of its support for the field of Israel Studies, the Schusterman foundation provided initial funding for the Israel Institute.
“The Israel Institute will be at the vanguard of advancing the field by investing in a range of efforts to educate and engage young people with contemporary Israel in all of its richness and complexity,” Lynn Schusterman, co-chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, said in a statement.
Rabinovich’s wide-ranging career has included time as a professor, scholar and public servant. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. from 1993 to 1996, during the heyday of the Oslo Peace Accords, he was Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1996 and also served as the president of Tel Aviv University. A respected scholar on the Middle East, he has authored several books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Although Rabinovich is no stranger to politics, the Israel Institute will avoid becoming embroiled in any political disputes over Israel by staying above the fray, and will push hard for the continued growth of the Israel Studies field, the former ambassador said.
“Our goal is to spread the knowledge of Israel studies, we don’t do advocacy,” Rabinovich told JNS.org. “We are about building Israeli studies centers everywhere. We don’t think politics should be brought into the academy.”
“We are strongly focused on planning and facilitating with universities,” he added. “We will take an overview [of the field] and will work with practically everybody in the field.”
The institute opposes efforts to “politicize anything that has to do with Israel,” Rabinovich said, explaining his belief that “people can be critical of certain policies, but the Jewish people are entitled to their own national ideology (Zionism).”
“This is something I think all of my colleagues [at the institute] would also agree with,” he said.
Rabinovich also hopes to focus on aspects of the Jewish state besides the conflict, as the institute will heavily promote Israeli arts and culture, he said.
According to its website, the Israel Institute will sponsor a unique program called “Visiting Israel Artists” that allows an Israeli artist to spend a semester at an American or Canadian university.
The institute is also strongly focused on developing Israel Studies programs abroad. Rabinovich noted its efforts to foster and develop programs in Latin American, Europe and Asia, especially in China.
“It is our task to develop Chinese-Israeli academic relations,” he said. “We want to help create a cadre of Israel experts in China. China is becoming an increasingly important global power. Our task is to help people in China learn Hebrew and understand the complexities of Israel.”
A number of leading Chinese universities have recently created Israel Studies programs through the help of the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) organization, such as at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, Shihezi University in Xinjiang, Henan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and Beijing Foreign Studies University. Rabinovich said the Israel Institute hopes to host a trilateral Chinese-American-Israeli academic conference sometime next year.
The institute has already begun hosting programs and fostering partnerships between American and Israeli universities. In mid-February, it cosponsored a conference at Brandeis University on “Zionism in the 21st Century,” and has additional programs scheduled for the rest of the year. Additionally, the institute plans to sponsor doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships, sponsor Israeli academics, provide research grants, and host internships and student fellowships.
“We are seeking to help build the next generation of scholars in the field of Israel Studies,” Rabinovich said.