Saturday, November 19, 2011

Naomi Zeveloff at The Jewish Daily Forward wrote an article entitled "Is Jerusalem Online U. a Real College"?

The article is trying to create a controversy about how an Israel education and advocacy website has had some of its materials used by Touro College for a small number of students to gain credit.

The headline itself is proof of how little interest the Forward has in telling the truth, because buried in the eighth paragraph the founder of JOU says quite clearly that the website is an education portal, not a university.

Zeveloff's ire seems to be that JOU "boasts an explicitly pro-Israel mission that seems distinctly at odds with academic principles."

Only two classes from JOU can gain credits at Touro, and only one of them, "Israel Inside/Out", is what is making Zeveloff so upset - so much so that she has a follow-up article where she attempts to marshal academic experts to agree with her that such a class should be considered problematic.

I have not taken the course myself, but the list of people giving lectures - while they may be biased - hardly exhibits the fluff that Zeveloff implies. They include Sir Martin Gilbert, Professor Bernard Lewis and Dr. Daniel Pipes, Professor Alan Dershowitz, and Bassem Eid, the executive director for The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group along with others who are without a doubt staunchly pro-Israel like Caroline Glick.

It seems that being angry at a single course in a college that offers hundreds of courses - and the implication that somehow because of that course one should question the academic strength of the entire college - shows far more about the reporter than it does about Touro.

For example, one person that Zeveloff quotes in each of the two articles is Zachary Lockman, NYU professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, who said that the syllabus for this course strikes him as "tendentious."

Perhaps. But a quick look at NYU's Middle East courses* reveals one called The Emergence of the Modern Middle East, taught this term by Nahid Mozaffari. In that course, only one book is recommended that discusses Israel specifically - and that book is "A History of Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples" by Ilan Pappe. In the introduction to that very book Pappe writes:
My bias is apparent despite the desire of my peers that I stick to facts and the "truth" when reconstructing past realities. I view any such construction as vain and presumptuous. This book is written by one who admits compassion for the colonized not the colonizer; who sympathizes with the occupied not the occupiers.
Which means that according to NYU, the only book worth reading in this course that talks about Israel is written by a pseudo-historian who freely admits that he is not interested in even the pretense of bias and who is against the very idea of Israel.

To me, the idea that a course on Israel in a Jewish school is biased towards Israel, where the contents and goals of the course are open for everyone to see, is far less offensive than the idea that students at a multi-cultural school are force-fed a biased version of history in their courses under the guise of being fair and balanced.

And this is only a tiny example. Who can expect that Joseph Massad's classes at Columbia have anything good to say about Israel, when he states ad nauseum that Israel is racist and colonialist? Indeed, Columbia's new Center for Palestine Studies is apparently a way to bash Israel under the guise of academia.

JOU, on the other hand, does not try to hide its agenda. Zeveloff spends quite a bit of time finding nefarious-sounding connections between JOU and Aish HaTorah and other pro-Israel organizations and funders, all in an attempt to give the reader the impression that something is really rotten there, without quite finding anything substantial.

I am not saying that "Israel: Inside/Out" is a fantastic college course, or that it represents the pinnacle of academic standards. But in a world when students at even Ivy League schools can find dozens of classes that teach nothing and hand out A's as if they were candy, it hardly seems controversial that a Jewish college gives credit for a pro-Israel course.

I would argue that Zeveloff is far guiltier posing as an objective journalist while writing these two hit pieces than Touro or JOU are in openly offering a single for-credit course that is biased towards Israel.

(Disclaimer: I have done some graphics work for JOU, including this poster for an educational initiative they have for Jewish high school students. And one more disclaimer: A long, long time ago, under a different name, I wrote a funny article that ended up being used as source material in at least one college course.)

*UPDATE: A reader who has taken the NYU class I mentioned says that Dr. Mozaffari's class at NYU also uses Efraim Karsh's Palestine Betrayed as required reading, even though it is not mentioned in the syllabus. He also says that she was very welcoming of student input into potential bias and works hard to give as fair a portrayal as possible. I am very glad to hear it.

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