April 23, 2011

Israel studies at SOAS

I thought I already blogged this. Apparently SOAS has created two posts for a new Israel studies course. A resident zionist at SOAS, Colin Schindler, is a happy bunny. According to The Guardian:
Colin Shindler, professor of Israeli studies at Soas and future chair of the association, says the decision to expand Israel studies is a response to growing demand from students to know more about the political, cultural, social and economic background to events in the Middle East and is an attempt to offer an academic alternative to what he terms "the megaphone war".
Antony Lerman is a little perplexed:

The same emphasis on this development as being purely motivated by a desire to provide information, knowledge and understanding was evident from remarks made by the Director of the Pears Foundation, Charles Keidan:
[He] stresses that the aim is to meet demand for better scholarship in the area rather than to promote a cause.
‘We have been very conscious not to be involved in this as any form of Israel advocacy,’ he says. ‘This is advocacy for Israel studies, not for Israel.’

......despite the gloss put on this development by Shindler and Keidan, all is not what it seems. While interest in the subject among students has no doubt increased and Shindler will strongly, and with some justification, claim that he teaches and researches the subject from as academically objective a position as possible, it’s quite obvious that this move is meant to counter, at least partly, the proliferation of Middle East studies funded by Arab sources at various universities up and down the country. The notion that work done at these institutions is politically biased against Israel is common in some Jewish circles in which I am sure that members of the Pears family mix.
Keidan may well be entirely sincere in saying that the foundation is not involved in this initiative ‘as any form of Israel advocacy’, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Pears itself funds Israel advocacy both directly and indirectly. It’s true that Pears’s involvement in advocacy is rather more enlightened than the path followed by those who more or less base what they do on the belief that Israel can do no wrong. The foundation supports the New Israel Fund, for example, which provides grants to Israeli and Israeli-Arab human rights organizations. And it also began a major initiative to raise awareness in the UK Jewish community of the severely disadvantaged position of Israel’s Arab – or Palestinian, as most now call themselves–citizens. However, a book it produced celebrating Israel’s scientific achievements - Israel in the World - was a classic hasbara (propaganda) exercise, based on the view that the problem facing Israel is simply that the country’s good news stories are not being disseminated sufficiently widely and intensively and that negative developments are exaggerated out of all proportion. (A devastating critique of this approach by the IsraeliHaaretz journalist Gideon Levy was published on 10 April.) Just how much money it devotes to Israel advocacy is impossible to know because, contrary to many other grant making foundations that are registered charities, Pears does not itemise all its individual grants in its annual accounts.
And a letter to The Guardian Education section raises concerns about impartiality:
Harriet Swain's article "Lessons on Israel" (12 April) carries the lead-in: "A new association aims to fulfil growing demand from students for knowledge about the Middle East". If that is the case, why does it promote Israel studies rather than Middle East studies? And if it is neutral with regard to Israel/Palestine, then why is the European Association of Israel Studies not called the European Association of Israel/Palestine since 1948 studies? The backer of the new Soas Israel studies posts, the Pears Foundation, is said to be rooted in Jewish (not Middle Eastern or Palestinian) values; the foundation's attitude towards Zionism is not mentioned. One can only speculate.

Sophie Richmond,
London N8
I don't think we can only speculate.


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