Academia is also turning its back on peace

Prof. Elie Podeh January 2020
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Tel Aviv University has decided to close its Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research. Two reasons led to the closure, according to the university and the donor family: the fact that the subject of peace is no longer relevant, and the donor’s desire for public visibility, something that does not happen when researching a subject that is apparently no longer relevant.

The Steinmetz Center has existed for 27 years, and throughout this period it contributed greatly to public discourse about peace, especially on research about peace, in Israel and abroad. The center held conferences for academics and the broader public, assisted in the publication of books, provided scholarship for students and grants for researchers, collaborated and partnered with research centers around the world, initiated studies that advanced the understanding of the realities of conflict, and conducted workshops for researchers to advance knowledge in the field of conflict studies, conflict prevention, and possibilities for the peace process. All of this celebrated activity that was done with the great amount of knowledge that was assembled in the field of peace studies will come to an end with the closure of the Center.

For thousands of years, humanity has had a great deal of experience in war. Theory of war naturally became necessary study. Peace was perceived as perhaps a desired goal but not as a field worthy of study. Immanuel Kant’s book Perpetual Peace, written in 1795, was the opening shot in what would become peace studies. Since 1901, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize has contributed to the importance of the value of peace, although peace studies only really began to develop after the First World War.

This development was not only due to an academic objective to research the subject, but also to advance peace. Thus, for example, the founding of UNESCO after the Second World War, was intended, in part, to develop practical tools to prevent war and advance peace. It was not surprising that one of the fields in which UNESCO became active was the examination of school textbooks.

UNESCO pursued this in order to uproot the negative images that appeared in these books which lead, according to research, to violence and wars. Thus, for example, research was conducted on the relationship of school textbooks in Germany and Poland to Jews and Israel, and vice versa, and as a result, changes to those textbooks were made.

Concurrently, research institutes were founded at universities and in civil society organizations throughout the world that sought to advance the research and discourse of conflict prevention and the advancement of peace. Some institutes were founded in countries that are not involved in active conflicts (such as Sweden and Norway), and several were founded in countries deeply involved in conflicts (such as Pakistan, India, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and others).

These institutes sought to research the causes of conflicts that have heavy costs for their societies, and to investigate ways to advance peace not only out of academic interest, but also in an attempt to advance the achievement of peace in practical terms. Alongside these institutes, there are peace organizations of various types, in Israel as well, that deal with policy planning, dialogue meetings, advocacy and more. Together with academic research institutes, and frequently in cooperation with them, they serve as a community that places the advancement of peace at the top of its agenda.

IT IS DIFFICULT to measure the exact impact of the activity of these centers and organizations but it is possible to assume to a great deal of certainty that the absence of discourse and research on peace would naturally lead to the strengthening of an alternative discourse that deals with violence and wars.

The decision of Tel Aviv University to close the Steinmetz Center is worrying for several reasons.

First, because it was not decided in a vacuum; to a great extent the decision represents attitudes in Israeli society that do not see peace as a central value or goal in their worldview, or in life. In the last election, discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict disappeared as if it had never existed. Campaign advisers of various parties recommended the removal of the word “peace” from the political lexicon because it lacks popularity and does not attract votes. In other words, politics has entered academia and are now dictating the contents of what is studied and what is researched.

Second, the decision is worrying because “Peace Studies” in Israel has never had many homes; with the exception of the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, there are no research institutes in peace studies at any university in Israel. Peace is also studied at research institutes for conflict management and resolution at the Hebrew and at Bar-Ilan Universities, however, as can be seen from their names, the center of their focus is on conflict, not peace.

Third, the decision is worrying because the Peace Center does not only deal with the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, but also with Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, which are extremely relevant and important.

Finally, the decision is worrying because peace is a value, an idea and a deeply desired goal as well as a commandment in Judaism and Zionism. Its abandonment means a betrayal of these beliefs.

The role of the university is to lead and not to be dragged along by popular fashions. The importance of peace studies stands on its own. It is not connected to the degree of its relevance to society at a given moment, which is an extension of temporary political and ideological attitudes.

For many years, the Yiddish language had apparently lost relevance to modern society, but it was still studied and researched at universities throughout Israel. The comparison between Yiddish and peace studies seems out of place at first, but it shows that even if a language has (almost) disappeared from the world, it remains at institutions for higher learning.

Similarly, the language of peace, which is critical and relevant to the goings on of daily life between us and our neighbors, must be studied and researched in academic institutions in Israel. It is hoped that the administrators of Tel Aviv University and the donor family will regain their composure and reverse their decision. It is also hoped that they will not be dragged along by the need to remain “relevant,” or else they will decide to create an Institute for War Studies, as it appears the Jewish People are destined to “live by the sword.”

The writer is a board member at Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. He is currently a visiting professor at the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics.

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