Ronald Zweig: How He Came to Hold the Chair in Israeli Studies at NYU

Historians in the News

Samuel G. Freedman, in the NYT (2-16-05):

... While Columbia has attracted international attention in the last several months for allegations by Jewish and Israeli students that they were intimidated by several Middle East studies professors, N.Y.U. with rather less limelight hired Professor [Ronald] Zweig to hold a newly endowed chair in Israel studies....

Professor Zweig happened to take a sabbatical from his usual post at Tel Aviv University in the spring term of 2003. In coming to N.Y.U., he had no designs on competing for the Israel studies chairs; rather, he wanted to be close to a son in graduate school in the United States, near several archives valuable to his research and available for speeches on his recent book, "The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary."

Still, his N.Y.U. students revered him. In confidential evaluations of his class on "Israel and American Jewry," they rated him 4.22 on a 1-to-5 scale. "Ron Zweig is the MAN!" one undergraduate wrote. "I don't know why he is still teaching. He ought to run for prime minister."

Without holding that office, Professor Zweig had, in fact, experienced Israel's tumultuous political life. As the editor in the mid-1980's of a scholarly journal on Zionism, he published the first papers by the historian Benny Morris, whose accounts of Palestinian refugees during the 1948 war shattered the Israeli myth that all had left their homes willingly. So controversial was the Morris thesis that a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, once cornered Professor Zweig to harangue him for, essentially, letting facts get in the way of ideology.

So when N.Y.U. offered Professor Zweig the chair in the late spring of 2004, he had a condition of his own. "I insisted that this job is not advocacy," he recalled. "It's about scholarship. I will not justify Israel's policy as part of my job. Neither will I criticize it as part of my job. I have made it a matter of principle to keep my personal politics out of the classroom."

INDEED, Professor Zweig assigns readings from Arab and Arab-American scholars like Rashid Khalidi, as well as dissident Israelis including Avi Shlaim, in his courses. His offerings in this academic year have ranged from an undergraduate class in Zionism to a graduate seminar on the Jewish community in Palestine before statehood to an independent study on educational policy by Jewish agencies in displaced-persons camps. Part of the purpose, he said, is to show Israel studies involves more than the conflict with the Palestinians.

When he met the other morning with the 20 students in the Israel and American Jewry class, Professor Zweig lectured without sentimentality about the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors to British-ruled Palestine. Bribery, the black market, American friction with Britain over refugee policy - this was not exactly the romantic epic of "Exodus." Neither, though, was it the familiar narrative in Middle East studies of Western colonialism and Jewish racism.

"My goal is to make the students think, not tell them what to think," Professor Zweig said. "I'm glad when students walk away from my class feeling that I've had respect for their views. That's an obligation of professors. We have a mantle of authority and it is scandalous for us to exploit this position in order to propagate our own views."

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