At a time when issues related to Israel are stridently debated on the college campus, knowledge empowers scholars to open their hearts and minds to greater understanding. With that in mind, this summer a seven-day study tour to Israel, Scholars as Bridge Builders, helped 14 professors from New York City colleges gain greater insight into the complexity of Israeli society.
The tour included professors from Brooklyn College, Lehman College, and New York University. It was part of the Faculty Engagement Initiative, a program of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC), with support from UJA-Federation of New York. JCRC is a nonprofit in UJA-Federation’s network.
“As a scholar I thought the best thing I could do was go and see what people have to say,” said Anne Rice, assistant professor of African and African-American studies at Lehman College. “The chance to speak with many academics and going to different places in the country afforded so much understanding in a short time.”
The group visited Sderot, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and met with Israeli professors from Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University, Technion, and Western Galilee College. They also visited Palestinian professors in Ramallah and Rawabi. The study tour met with scholars of conflict resolution, peacemaking, political science, water dissemination, urban planning, geography, and other fields. It also addressed Israel’s diverse society, including Ethiopian, Russian, and Haredi communities.
For Patrick Egan, associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University, the trip tapped into his interest in Israel as a democracy. “I study American politics and found Israel’s story as a young democracy interesting from a political science perspective,” he said. “I appreciated that the tour treated us as critical thinkers and encouraged us to ask questions, to explore the complexity of issues.”
“I also gained a better understanding of the diversity of Israeli society,” he added. “I knew there was a significant population of Arabs as citizens of Israel, but I was unaware of efforts to integrate Arabs and improve their standard of living.”
Rice said their visit to Western Galilee College, which has many Arab-Israeli students, underscored for her how the school is making an effort to serve the Arab population. “Many of the students come from an underserved background the same way many CUNY students do,” she said. “Western Galilee College is helping in similar ways that CUNY helps our students — through tutoring, mentoring, and careful attention to cultural background. The college is making bridges of connection in the community.”
That experience helped shape Rice’s perspective on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. “In terms of BDS, you don’t want to burn bridges with the institutions that are collaborating and coming up with solutions,” she said.
What’s Ahead for the Fall Semester
Some professors have plans to incorporate ideas from the summer study tour into their fall classes.
Egan, who studies opinion polls and teaches a graduate course on public opinion, was intrigued by a Palestinian scholar who has conducted surveys of people from the West Bank and Gaza for 12 years. The scholar works closely with his counterparts in Israel who ask similar questions of Israelis, to see how the two populations agree or disagree. “I plan to use some of the data from the Palestinian survey as an illustration of what we can learn from polls,” he said.
Egan also plans to use examples of the Israeli government’s proportional representation system as it compares to the two-party American system in his undergraduate class on American politics.
Rice plans to use examples from the study tour in her African literature course, which has a theme of migration this year. “I was fascinated by African migration to Israel, not just Ethiopians, but also economic migrants that I’m researching now, and it’s really going to enrich my curriculum,” she said.
Rice was impressed by the array of intellectual endeavor in Israel that she saw and the wide variety of views she was exposed to. “It wasn’t simplified. We met with people who might describe themselves as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian,” she said.
This fall the Faculty Engagement Initiative plans to invite professors from Israel to New York City colleges, said Shahar Sadeh, director of the initiative and facilitator for the summer tour along with Rabbi Yehudah Sarna, spiritual leader at the Bronfman Center of New York University.
“Professors are the permanent residents of a college or university who set the tone, who people look up to,” Sadeh said. “This initiative enhances the discussion about Israel on campus.”