The eminent doyen of Middle East Studies Bernard Lewis noted that the success of Edward Said's book, Orientalism, was in being able to transform a term that had always referred to an area of academic specialty focusing on societies and cultures of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia into an expression of political abuse. As Lewis prophesied, shortly after its publication, Said's Orientalism began changing the face of Middle East studies across North America for the worse, most especially in the way many Middle East scholars began teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict purely through a pro-Palestinian lens.
Today, the environment is worse than ever. An open and true debate on Israeli society and Israel's quest for peace would be marked by true intellectual balance between the speakers. It would be understood that there is no fitting use of terrorism, or any acceptable notion of eliminating a living, breathing state like Israel.
But balance in debates now means bringing in Israeli faculty members who advocate for a pro-Palestinian position — and they are meant to argue the Israeli side of the issue!
Many Israeli academics have built their reputations on scholarship that is critical of Israel and Israel's existence. These are the academics who are given center stage by the Association for Jewish Studies and Middle East studies centers, which frequently host them for conferences or provide visiting professorships. This gives Israeli scholars the visibility they seek while allowing their hosts to claim balance in presenting an "Israeli point of view."
Given the extent and saturation of this type of "scholarship," which has even begun to trickle down to our high schools, Philadelphia has begun two new initiatives in an attempt to create a systemic change in the way we teach about Israel. The first is a newly formed partnership between the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Center for Israel Education, directed by Professor Kenneth Stein of Emory University, a leading scholar in the field.
The gist of the partnership is a three-year project where Stein's CIE will work with the Federation and its community partners — namely Gratz College, ACAJE and the synagogues throughout the city — to help improve the way we teach and talk about Israel, in addition to bolstering how we infuse Jewish education with material about Israel. The growing distance between American Jewry and Israel, especially among members of the younger generation, underscores the need to fill this void and show the importance of making "Jewish" and "Israel" go hand in hand.
In addition, starting this fall, the David Project's high school course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, geared for high school juniors and seniors, will now be recognized for college credit as a freshman-level undergraduate course at Gratz College.
The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership is a non-profit educational organization in Boston that has been working to promote a fact-based understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The popularity of the project grew as a result of the burgeoning problems in Middle East studies, as well as the need to hear another voice not found in many high schools and on college campuses.
These initiatives are a response to the obvious lack of balance in academia, especially in Middle East studies departments, where so-called scholarship consistently fails to examine, much less condemn, terrorism or jihadism, thus creating an atmosphere that enables intolerable ideas to become accepted as normative.
This state of affairs needs to be confronted by all those concerned about the health of academia, as well as the continued well-being of Israel.
The wake-up call for the Jewish community at large is being heard locally. Organizations here have begun to take proactive steps on these critical issues, as well as perhaps serve as models for other similar-minded groups around the country.
Asaf Romirowsky is the manager of Israel and Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.