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Israel has image problems; anti-Israel professors have scholarship problems

November 24, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM—Israel’s image in the world is less than desirable. How bad? is difficult to answer. There have been no serious threats of sanctions by major governments. The efforts of academics to declare boycotts have failed due to more reasonable colleagues.

None the less, it is troubling to know about shouting against Israelis who have appeared at academic forums, and faculty members at distinguished campuses who use their classrooms to promote extremism as opposed to the provision of knowledge needed to judge conflicting views. The slogans of some students and faculty members recall the vilest anti-Semitism.

It is no surprise that Jews, including traveling Israelis, are prominent in this distortion of the academic mission. Not only are Jews and Israelis heavily represented on leading campuses, but contrariness comes along with Jewish genes.

It would be a mistake to view the anti-Israel campaign as a Jewish plot. Other elements that feed into it are the increasing presence of Muslims throughout western countries and on campuses. There is also academic superficiality and fashion, and the thin knowledge of what happens outside a lecturer’s personal experience and library.

Israeli campuses are not free of the mad screamers, and its media include representatives of the crazy left- and right. Yet this country appears saner than others. Balance comes with considerable knowledge of its problems.

Israelis have paid a heavy price for their sophistication. More than 20,000 soldiers and civilians have died on account of Arab violence. A rough comparison with populations would make that equivalent to 2 million Americans. Add to that the large numbers with family memories of the Holocaust or having to flee from Arab countries.

Americans writing to me claim knowledge about military affairs on the basis of conversations with soldiers, and knowledge of Israel’s problems on the basis of conversations with individuals who have served in the IDF. Their feelings of certainty say something not only about their own superficiality, but hint at the problems of Americans who try to assess what their military should be doing in distant places.

The argument here is not that Americans are not intelligent, but that their situation makes it difficult to do well the tasks they set for themselves. Those include fighting in foreign cultures, or commenting on what Israel should be doing.

When an American claims that he knows a great deal from talking with a few soldiers or former soldiers, I think of the people I know in Israel. Few of them are not former or present soldiers.

Familiarity with Arabic and dealing with close neighbors for more than six decades contribute to Israel’s assets in military intelligence. There is also a willingness to be assiduous in recruiting and managing informants. It is not easy or pleasant work, and accounts for casualties among the handlers and informants.

Military as well as political experience prevails among policymakers. Among the attributes acquired by exposure to military service by civilians and officials is distrust or skepticism. An early lesson is that fewer than 10 percent of soldiers are combatants, and that individual fighters have a worm’s eye view of what happens. Wisdom involves an understanding about the multiple ways of viewing reality, and the biases likely to be associated with individual sources.

Yet another feature of Israeli society is at least a partial freedom from the innocence that prevails in societies with ideological commitments to being multi-cultural and avoiding anything approaching ethnic profiling.

Some Israelis suffer from the sins of those whose ethnicity they share. They are more likely to be stopped by the police for a documents check, and feel themselves harassed where there is a screening of those entering a store, restaurant, government building, or the international airport.

Israelis wonder about the hang ups of Americans who do everything they can to explain Major Hasan’s killings as those of an unbalanced individual rather than an affiliate of Islamic extremism.

In a situation when no one should believe that there is complete and wholly accurate information about an issue of national security, it is essential to tolerate extensive discussions among individuals with information that is relevant, although partial. By this standard, the 2008-09 attack against Gaza was better prepared than the 2006 invasion of Lebanon. The Gaza operation has also enjoyed greater support in the Israeli public. That it comes in for such intense criticism internationally is among our frustrations.

What the distortions of Goldstone and others indicate is not reasonable differences of opinion, but the shallowness and decadence of public bodies, universities, and media personalities that can be so certain of views that are partial at best.

It is sad that Israel’s image suffers so greatly. From an academic perspective, it is even sadder that Americans and Europeans suffer from universities that have lost their commitment to reasoned deliberation.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University


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