SOAS’s New Israel Studies Posts: Promoting Academic Excellence or Israel Advocacy?

Two new academic posts in Israel studies are to be created at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, funded with a grant of £485,000 over 4 years from the Pears Foundation, which describes itself as a ‘British family foundation rooted in Jewish values’. At the same time, a European Association of Israel Studies is being set up, also supported by Pears, with the Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, Colin Shindler, as its chair. The Guardian report gives Shindler’s rationale for the expansion of the subject area at SOAS:

Shindler . . . 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’.

‘The Middle East conflict is always a hot subject that people want to understand because it’s so convoluted,’ he says. ‘People want rational responses. They are fed-up with slogans and one-sided approaches.’

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.’

Expanding the objective academic study of Israel’s history, politics, foreign policy, society and culture at such an important institution can only be a good thing. As Keidan acknowledges, however, there is sensitivity surrounding gifts to universities in the area of Middle East studies, heightened recently following the opprobrium the London School of Economics brought upon itself for accepting a controversial £1.5 million donation from Saif Gaddafi. But Pears is already involved in funding what could have been a controversial academic initiative at London University – the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck – and have shown that they can keep their political inclinations to themselves by appointing Professor David Feldman whose approach to the subject is fiercely independent and goes against the grain of some very prominent figures in the field, with whom Pears may well be in sympathy.

Nevertheless, 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 Israeli Haaretz 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.

This raises the question of whether Pears can draw a clear line between its different forms of engagement with Israel. Where does advocacy stop and completely disinterested academic sponsorship begin? I have no doubt that SOAS will not allow anything other than the highest standards of independence and objectivity to guide the procedures they will follow to appoint the two new academics. However, more subtle, self-imposed constraints on the decisions that SOAS as an institution will have to make in relation to Israel studies may well come into play. And with Pears following what one might call a soft advocacy philosophy, one that incorporates a degree of critical scrutiny of Israel’s past and present, the foundation may judge that what transpires in the Israel studies field at SOAS suits their pro-Israel agenda.

And for all Professor Shindler’s wish to get away from the ‘megaphone war’, the fact is that he, like so many other academics in this field, engages in public debate and controversy on the politics of the conflict – he from from a pro-Israel angle. This is inevitable. Academics must be free agents in terms of expressing their political views and if they do so it’s very likely that it will be in relation to the academic subject matter with which they are dealing.

I’m sure that these additional academic posts will expand the choices open to students at SOAS who are interested in exploring Israel studies and it is to be hoped that some first rate, critical research work will ultimately be one of the products of this expansion. But it’s rather silly to pretend that there is some kind of Chinese wall between the Pears Foundation’s Israel advocacy ambitions and its motives for funding these appointments at SOAS. Pears and SOAS, like so many other bodies funding Middle East studies and the universities gratefully taking their funds, are treading a very thin, fragile and dangerous line.

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