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Tamara Traubmann | Haaretz | 24 May 2006

The Australian millionairess Lee Lieberman is worried about how Israel is studied in foreign universities – “through the narrow perspective of the Palestinian conflict.”
To change the situation and allow Israel to be viewed differently, she recently decided to establish a new chair in Israel studies at Monash University in Australia.
Lieberman also established two other chairs in Jewish-related areas at Monash, one of Australia’s prominent universities: one in contemporary Jewish life and the other on Jewish civilization with a focus on history.
Lieberman, whose family owns a major interest in Paz and the First International Bank, raised $10 million to endow them.
During a visit to Israel last week with Monash’s president and the head of the center that is to host the chairs, Lieberman presented her new initiative, which she said was “not hasbara (public relations),” which is anathema to the academic world, but “to develop an accurate, multidimensional understanding of the history and contemporary development of Israel.”
The move is part of a growing phenomenon in recent years to establish Israel studies centers in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe. At least 12 such centers and institutes – nine in the U.S. and one each in Canada, Germany, and Russia – exist.
The main reason for the trend is political, according to scholars. Academics in the U.S., Europe and Israel say that in recent years, links with faculties at Israeli institutions of higher education are becoming less and less desirable.
This is “not only because of calls for an academic boycott, opposition to the occupation, and the discrimination of Palestinian citizens of Israel,” said Professor Smadar Lavi.
Lavi, an anthropologist, has studied and taught at the University of California for the past 20 years and is well versed in the university’s academic system.
She believes that another reason is the Zionist and post-Zionist bias of research in Israel.
Post-Zionism is still within the Zionist framework, and only within this paradigm is research “permitted” in Israeli academia.
“Maintaining this ideological threshold, and the emphasis on toeing the line with other members of the faculty club, usually comes on account of daring and intellectual vision needed for ground-breaking research,” she said.
“Sometimes the centers are established as a result of pressure by the administration on the department,” said Dr. Michael Oren, a historian and senior fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center.
“There is no doubt that hostility toward Israel exists today, and the academic boycott has certainly contributed to the willingness of donors to give funds toward this cause,” said Professor Ilan Troen, a researcher of Zionism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva and director of the Israel Studies Center at Brandeis University, a renowned pro-Israel institution.
Lecturers for free
Many academics in Israel say Israeli academia is very successful – both here and abroad. But Dr. Laurence Michalak, head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley for over 20 years, paints a different picture.
In contrast to Berkeley’s Israel-bashing image, Michalak said that during his tenure about a quarter of the lecturers at the center and the department of Middle Eastern Studies were given by Israelis, adding “we loved them because they were free. They were on a lecture tour, and were funded by the Israeli government.”
These days, it seems that the no-cost factor is not enough. Since February, the center at Berkeley hosted 19 academic lectures – only one was given by a speaker from Israel.
Academics in the U.S. say that numerous Israeli lecturers are present on American campuses, but they are often on the outskirts of academic work, at centers and institutes rather than in the university departments themselves that represent the focal point of the humanities and social sciences worlds.
Similarly, Israel studies are part of centers and institutes that often are funded by philanthropic contributions by Jews.
As a result, some claim that the establishment of such centers creates “ghettoization”: places that are of interest mainly to Jewish students, which host Israeli and Jewish academics and are funded by Jewish philanthropy, without their becoming central to academic life.