The by now notorious UCLA symposium last month on “Human Rights and Gaza,” featuring four professors who took turns slamming Israel, has raised hackles in academia, the Jewish community and beyond.
But there is an antidote already in place right on campus, said professor Neil Netanel, who recently became director of the UCLA Israel Studies Program.
“The virulent anti-Israel bias evident in the event sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies demonstrates the need for a program that makes available to our students a more thoughtful, nuanced and informed view,” Netanel observed.
Netanel’s statement is given additional weight by a frontpage interview in Monday’s Daily Bruin with UCLA Professor Sondra Hale, an organizer of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Such a boycott, according to Hale, would mean that UCLA foreign exchange and cooperative programs with Israel would cease, but that individual Israeli academics could still be invited to speak.
Hale, an anthropologist, serves as chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee for the Center for Near Eastern Studies. The center previously organized and hosted the controversial symposium on Gaza.
Part of Netanel’s goal is to show that “beyond the headline news of conflict and war, there are Israeli accomplishments in culture, high technology, agriculture, alternative energy and even in television and feature movies,” he said.
The UCLA Israel Studies Program, a first on the West Coast, was founded in 2005 under professor Arnold Band, and its mission statement spells out its scope.
“Conduct education and research about Israeli history, culture and society, focusing on Israel’s achievements as a modern, democratic state and on its relations with neighbors, the United States and the rest of the world.”
It is unusual to have an academic program devoted to a single country, and the UCLA International Institute lists only two others — for Japan and Korea.
Despite the unflagging interest in Israel by the media and the American Jewish community, establishment of university centers to study all major aspects of the country is of relatively recent vintage and depends heavily on private support.
In the United States, there are nine academic Israel study programs or centers. The first two were started in 1998, though surprisingly not in cities with large Jewish populations, such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.
The pioneers were Emory University in Atlanta and American University in Washington, D.C. After a pause of six years, seven more universities have joined the club since 2004. They are Brandeis, New York University, Yeshiva University, Columbia, University of Denver, University of Maryland and UCLA.
Netanel, 54, became director of the Israel program, usually headed by professors in the social sciences or humanities, by an unusual route.
A native of Beverly Hills, he was educated at Yale and received separate law degrees at traditional rivals UC Berkeley and Stanford. His specialty is copyright and international intellectual property law, but even in these fields his Jewish interest is obvious.
He is steeped in the study of responsas, through which, over the centuries, authorities on Jewish law have ruled on legal disputes, including those involving intellectual property rights. The first such decision, according to Netanel, goes back to 1550 C.E., in which rabbinical scholars ruled on the precedence of two rival editions of the Mishneh Torah, both published in Venice.
Netanel and David Nimmer are completing a book with the intriguing title, “From Maimonides to Microsoft: The Jewish Law of Copyright Since the Birth of Print,” to be published by Oxford University Press in 2010.
Microsoft got into the picture and the book’s title in 1998, when the company accused some entrepreneurs in the Israeli religious center of B’nai Brak of pirating its software. A local rabbinical court weighed the matter and ruled in favor of Microsoft.
Netanel speaks Hebrew fluently, thanks to a dual career in the United States and Israel. In the early 1980s, he worked for two years for the Israeli government’s Environmental Protection Service, and after a break in Los Angeles, returned to work for seven years at a Tel Aviv law firm.
He gives courses each year at an Israeli university, including the Tel Aviv, Haifa, Bar-Ilan and Hebrew universities.
Currently, the UCLA Israel program consists of 10 courses, including such basics as Hebrew and Hebrew literature, but also more offbeat subjects, such as Israeli and Palestinian performing arts, films based on modern Hebrew books and Democracy and Human Rights in Israel. Total enrollment is around 350 students, many non-Jewish.
For both students and the general public, the Israel program offers an active schedule of lectures by prominent Israelis, panel discussions, conferences and events showcasing Israeli music, dance, art, theater and film.
In the next scheduled event, professor Meir Yaish of the University of Haifa will speak March 4 on “Dynamics of Stratification in Israel: Ethnicity, Class and Education.”
“In contrast to the Gaza symposium, our lectures are characterized by a respectful tone, and our speakers encourage and respond to questions from across the political spectrum,” Netanel said.
One of Netanel’s ambitions for 2009 is to select, after a long search, a noted scholar to fill a professorial chair in Israel Studies, endowed through a $1 million grant from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation. Another goal is to enlarge UCLA’s collection of Israeli films and hold regular screenings on campus.
Much of the success of the program will depend on private contributions, such as those currently provided by the Gilbert and the Younes & Soraya Nazarian foundations.