The Problem with Israel-Studies Departments

May 12, 2022 | Scott Shay
About the author: Scott Shay is the co-founder and chairman of Signature Bank and the author of several books, including Conspiracy U (2021).

In February, the University of Washington returned a large donation to Rebecca Benaroya, who had earmarked the money, among other things, for funding a new Israel-studies department. The incident set off a debate about “donor intent versus academic freedom,” writes Scott Shay.

When the University of Washington returned a $5 million gift intended to start an Israel-studies department, the reason was simple: the professor tasked with running the department had no intention of teaching a balanced perspective on the history and current governance of the state of Israel. He was, instead, a staunch supporter of the pro-Palestinian movement—and the university put his anti-Israel viewpoints ahead of student education and donor intent.

Academic integrity must be protected as much as academic freedom. The University of Washington story is instructive. As reported by Forbes in mid-April, . . . the donation was for the purposes “of endowing a chair, whose holder ‘will demonstrate a strong commitment to studying, teaching, and disseminating knowledge about Jews and Judaism, as well as the modern state of Israel.’”

The University of Washington/Benaroya spat is emblematic of the larger issue of Jewish-studies departments and Israel-studies programs increasingly teaching primarily or exclusively the perspectives of Palestinian and Arab nationalist scholars, essentially [transforming] the field into Palestine studies. They are not teaching the views of genuinely excellent scholars across the political spectrum, and the real losers in this lack of balance are students who are never given the change to challenge the views they are taught. In this, many Israel-studies scholars have betrayed their academic responsibility and perverted the meaning of academic freedom.

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