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May 24, 2012 - Image 8

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2012-05-24

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Margot Gardner
Special to the Jewish News


tandWithUs-MI presented a
conference titled "Israel in the
College Classroom: Challenges
and Solutions" at the Holocaust Memorial
Center in mid-April. Co-sponsors were the
Zionist Organization of America-Michigan
Region and the Holocaust Memorial
Drs. Yael Aronoff
from Michigan State
University, Edith
Covensky from Wayne
State University and Jeff
Haus from Kalamazoo
College spoke about
their experiences in
teaching Israel-related
Yael Aronoff
classes. Because the
three schools differ
significantly and the pro-
fessors do not teach the
same courses, they each
came at the topic some-
what differently.
Aronoff said she has
some trends
on Israeli
foreign policy, politics
and society in which
the existence of Israel
is still often questioned.
Although most of her
students don't have
strong feelings about
Israel, some are predis-
to question the
Jeff Haus
need for nation states in
this global world.
Students' attitudes toward Israel also
are affected by their esteem for the United
Nations, where a majority of members
disproportionately pass resolutions con-
demning Israel; in this context, the stu-
dents tend to believe the majority can't be
wrong, she said. Students also are exposed
to lectures and classes that suggest the
U.S. needs to distance itself from Israel to
become more popular in the Middle East.
Several MSU student organizations con-
cern themselves with Israeli-Palestinian-
Arab issues, Aronoff said. While Hillel
and the Student Interfaith Council still
co-sponsor organizations like One Voice,
which advocates for a two-state solu-
tion, other student organizations whose
members largely advocate for a one-state
solution refuse to co-sponsor with such
Aronoff believes the job of a teacher is
to teach students how to think critically
rather than to tell them what to think. The


May 24 2012

professor should help the student see the
complexity of a situation and get rid of
simplifications. A specific situation needs
to be put into a broader context, allowing a
comparison to similar situations.
For example, when students question
the Jewish national symbol on Israel's flag,
Aronoff said she shows them 50 national
flags, many with religious symbols. She
asks students whether all 50 flags should
be changed because they are not inclusive
of 100 percent of the populace, or whether
it is legitimate for the majority in each
country to use symbols that privilege the
culture or religion of the majority.

Role - Playing Helps Students
Aronoff also uses simulation or role-
playing in which a student has to represent
a viewpoint opposite of the one he or she
supports; this bolsters understanding of
and empathy for a multiplicity of views. She
has used the 1967 War, Israeli elections and
Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations as the
contexts for such role-playing.
In class, Aronoff said she also discusses
how students can differentiate legitimate
criticism and debate over Israeli policies
from demonization of the country. She
explained that there is a trend toward
students being taught that Jews have
too much influence in the United States
(through lobbies, in the government and
in the media) and that this has a negative
influence on U.S. foreign policy. Students
are unaware of the historical anti-Semitic
roots of such assumptions, she said.
In connection to this, she mentioned
Stephen Walt and John Mearshimer's pub-
lication, The Israel Lobby, is now standard
reading in many courses. She said stu-
dents often are not presented with any of
the many scholarly critiques of this book
that blames the Israel lobby for the United
States war in Iraq, among other policies.
She said students also need to read these
critiques to be truly critical thinkers.
Covensky spoke next about her experi-
ences at WSU. A poet, she teaches courses
in Hebrew language, literature, Israeli
culture and film. She also is involved in a
study abroad program, "The Middle East
Experience which takes students to Israel
and the West Bank. In the years since
1987, when she started teaching, she has
experienced many events in Israeli history
such as the first and second intifadas and
Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, and
she sees the influence of these events on
the American campus.
Yet throughout all this, Covensky's
courses have been accepted and embraced
consistently by her very diverse students.
She said she has had this positive effect

Michigan college professors
discuss the challenges of
teaching about Israel.

by working hard at making her classroom
"a neutral zone,' one in which learning
takes place in an atmosphere of mutual
respect. She adheres to creating interesting
and stimulating courses with no political
agenda, and teaching with honesty and
As a result, students of all backgrounds
take her literature classes, reading writers
like Bialik, Tchernichovsky and Amichai,
and her Israeli culture course to learn
about the kibbutz, the Israeli press, tech-
nology and education.
She gave several positive student
reactions: the Palestinian student who
minored in Hebrew and continues her
studies at the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem; the Arab student who now
understands how his neighbors were
affected by the Holocaust; the American
Christian and Palestinian Muslim students
who joined an archeological expedition to
Israel; the African American students who
identify with the Jewish Ethiopian plight
and are amazed that there are black Jews;
and the Hebrew class of seven Jewish and
seven Arab students that has become a
model of coexistence.

Smaller Campus, Less Strife
Haus from Kalamazoo College said of the
school's 1,400 students only 50-100 are
Jewish. Many students who take courses in
the Jewish Studies Program come from the
unaffiliated and secular community, from
mixed marriages or have learned about an
unknown Jewish relative. Unlike MSU and
WSU, the Israel-Palestinian-Arab conflict
is not an issue on campus. Both Jewish
and non-Jewish students go on Israel pro-
grams, and One Voice, a moderate organi-
zation, is on campus.
Historian Haus teaches the course
"Zionism: From Idea to State," which
starts with biblical texts and ends with
the founding of modern Israel in 1948. He
teaches Zionism as a social, political and
historical phenomenon, tackling tough
subjects such as Zionist views on deal-
ing with Arabs in pre-state Palestine. He
said he asks his students to read closely
in class, focusing on the historical context
of the ideas because nothing happens in
a vacuum. Putting a troubling text into a
broader context makes for a constructive
rather than a divisive exercise.
Haus said he also works hard to estab-
lish his own credibility on the subject.
Some students might think that because
he's Jewish he will favor Israel. But he said
he wants to be viewed as a neutral facilita-
tor, believing the goal of the teacher is not
to be a propagandist, but to enable stu-
dents to intelligently form their own opin-

ions. He presents all sides and challenges
students to support their views. He said he
wants students to engage history critically
and constructively.
He also tries to achieve an emotional
detachment. As an historian, he tries to
restrain his own passion in favor of work-
ing to convey the passion of historical
figures like Theodor Herzl and David Ben-
Gurion. Passion comes from the learning
process, he said, from looking at the world
through the eyes of historical figures to
understand why these people felt the way
they did.

Questions, Answers
In tie eventquestion-and-answer period,
the professors were asked what advice
they would give to students wanting to
take action when faced with an anti-Israel
teacher. Haus answered that he would
encourage students to learn the facts as
best they can, and to engage the opinion
with which they disagree: Why do they
disagree with it? Where do they see the
bias? The goal is to engage the ideas, to
think about the issue and form one's own
informed opinion.
Aronoff also stressed the need for
students to have enough knowledge and
enough self-confidence before questioning
a teacher they believe is presenting dis-
torted, biased information. The question-
ing should be done in a respectful manner.
It is important that the student not only
expresses a dissenting opinion, but also is
able to flesh out his or her argument.
To the question about whether or not
professors are objective in teaching about
the Arab-Israeli conflict, and if not, how
the panelists respond to these colleagues,
Aronoff said that some are not and, for
example, use only textbooks that discuss a
one-state solution to the conflict. She sug-
gests different texts to them that present a
number of possible solutions.
When asked how high school students
can be better prepared to be activists for
Israel, Haus reiterated the importance
of their knowing historical facts — "the
best antibodies to anti-Israel propaganda.
Israel is not the entire story of Jewish his-
tory, but kids must be educated to see how
Israel fits into the broader picture'
Aronoff advised parents to check their
children's textbooks for accuracy and bal-
ance, to know what their they are reading.
After the program ended, the lively con-
versation continued as the three panelists
were joined for dinner by StandWithUs-
MI supporters. ❑

Margot Gardner is vice president of


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