At UW, Israel’s Complexities are Ignored

In several classes I have taken this semester, Israel has been discussed in the context of war a striking number of times. Particularly in my political science lecture, Israel is often described in conjunction with other Middle Eastern countries to serve as an example of conflict. As someone who has lived in Israel for a significant amount of time, has studied Israel’s history, politics, and society in various capacities, and has friends and family in Israel, this is extremely concerning. While no professor has made any blatantly anti-Israel comments or assigned blatantly anti-Israel readings, the consistent mention of Israel across disciplines as a place of war, violence, and conflict paints an obstructed view of the country in the minds of students with limited knowledge of Israel. If this image continues to be reinforced, I am worried about the implications this will have on how students go on to think of Israel. Will they view her through a lens of violence, regardless of the topic of discussion about her? Will they support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS) or other anti-Israel policies? How will this affect their view of the Jewish community?  

One of the most alarming articles I have been assigned to read was in Journalism 201, a 400-person lecture with a significant number of Jewish students. In order to learn about the hostile media phenomenon- a phenomenon that states that people tend to view the media as biased against their side- the class was assigned an article that discussed this phenomenon in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While this article simply described this phenomenon in the context of a research study and did not say anything explicitly anti-Israel, anti-zionist, or anti-semitic, I have to question why this topic- of all the examples that could have been used to demonstrate this phenomenon- was chosen in our course reading.

Regardless of your personal opinion — even if it isn’t particularly thought out or well informed — about the Arab-Israeli conflict, consider why such a sensitive, complicated topic was selected for 400 people to read? The hostile media phenomenon can be and has been demonstrated in many studies, so why was this the topic that the class read about? It was unnecessary to read about Israel in the context of violence and war, particularly when other courses are already providing this skewed perspective. I would also argue that this example does not show the complexities of the phenomenon. It’s obvious that a conflict that personally affect thousands of people’s day to day lives and that draws on thousands of years of history would cause those affected to be defensive and partial to how the conflict is portrayed in the media, particularly to audiences with no personal connection or nuanced understanding of the conflict. Thus, reading this article does not effectively illustrate to students the impact of hostile media phenomenon.

Another issue with this article is how it equates Israel to its Arab neighbors. By showing how people on both sides of the conflict react similarly to how its portrayed in the media, this article creates the impression that Israel is no different from surrounding Arab countries. As a US ally, the only democracy in the Middle East, a nation with very strict moral rules of army conduct, and a powerful, growing economy, Israel is vastly different from her neighbors. Objectivity is an important pillar of a free press, however, this must be balanced with the fact that in some cases, an issue can have more than two sides and in others, one side can be more correct than other. Just as if an article were to discuss the impact of Global Warming, it would be unreasonable to give equal space to those who don’t believe in climate change, it is unreasonable to show how Israel’s war tactics and role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in this case in the Beirut Massacre specifically, are the same as those of Arab countries. Such false depictions are compounded by the fact this article neglects to explain the historical context of the Beirut Massacre completely, and does not mention that it was carried out by a Lebanese militia- not Israelis. Israeli soldiers oversaw the event as one of self defense, intending to root out the PLO – a terrorist organization with the mission of destroying Israel and killing her civilians. Even if this article were to more accurately depict Israel, professors need to be conscientious with what they choose to present to their classes. They should have the freedom to choose whatever readings they find educational, however, perhaps further consideration as to how a diverse group of students might react or be affected about such a hot topic could be taken. Especially when there are hundreds of other studies that could have been read, it is puzzling to me that this article was chosen.

In my International Relations class, Israel has been drawn on as an example of conflict during lecture numerous times. In a 75 minute lecture about terrorism for example, Israel was mentioned five separate times. In these cases, the underlying issue is a lack of context. As with the aforementioned article, when discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict without any context, students can misinterpret information about Israel that may lead them to hold extremely negative or distorted views about her. Moreover, there are many other modern and past examples of conflict that could be used to illustrate a point about conflict besides Israel. She does not need to be disproportionately discussed when there are numerous other examples that could be used, and frankly, that are less controversial and sensitive. It’s not a problem to talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict; the problem is talking about it without providing context and talking about it significantly more than other conflicts.

I would be less concerned about professors discussing Israel in the context of war if Israel were also being discussed in positive ways- either by these same professors or others in other disciplines. If Israel were to be discussed in economics or engineering classes in the context of “Start-Up Nation,” economic growth and high tech, or were discussed in environmental studies or biology courses in terms of technological advancements, I would not be as alarmed. Such discussions are not happening in my classes however, and based on conversations with peers, such conversations are not taking place in other fields either. I am thus skeptical that UW-Madison students are receiving holistic, accurate information about Israel.

Critics may question the objectivity of my perspective, given my aforementioned personal connection to Israel. I would advocate for similar changes to the discussions of other countries or people, also however. This problem of painting an issue, topic, person, religion, etc. in one light is not limited to how Israel is talked about in classes. I would argue, for example, that continuous discussion of Islam in the sole context of terrorism, dictatorship, and war contributes to a distorted understanding of Islam as a religion and contributes to Islamophobic sentiment.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of great complexities, and thus should be studied and discussed in the hopes of increasing understanding of it and eventually resolving it. But due to its nuances and sensitivities, it must be discussed in an appropriate format. While Israel has her problems, like any country, I don’t think it is ethical or demonstrative of the truth for students to only learn about Israel in the context of war, violence, and conflict. I am not advocating that discussion of Israel should be censored. I am suggesting rather, that professors adjust the ways in which they discuss Israel in order to more effectively convey information about her. Professors either need to limit the number of times they discuss Israel in this context by using a greater variety of examples, or balance these discussions with other information about Israel. Since the latter would tend to go beyond the scope of a class and is not happening across disciplines, I think that the former is the most effective and appropriate way for students to learn about Israel and conflict in general.

By Rachel Rosen

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