From tackling campus extremism to dealing with donating dictators, UK universities have been forced to focus on polarised views of the Middle East in recent months.
But there have also been increasing efforts by institutions and others to promote a more nuanced and academic understanding of what is happening in the region.
The latest of these is the announcement of an expansion in Israel studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies (Soas) in London, and a new European Association of Israel Studies (EAIS) to be launched in September.
Colin Shindler, professor of Israeli studies at Soas and future chair of the association, says the decision to expand Israel studies is a response to growing demand from students to know more about the political, cultural, social and economic background to events in the Middle East and is an attempt to offer an academic alternative to what he terms `the megaphone war`.
`The Middle East conflict is always a hot subject that people want to understand because it`s so convoluted,` he says. `People want rational responses. They are fed-up with slogans and one-sided approaches.`
The new posts at Soas will be funded with £485,000 over four years from the Pears Foundation, a British family foundation rooted in Jewish values. The foundation, which also funds fellowships in Israel studies at Oxford and Manchester universities and plans more in future, is also backing the EAIS.
Charles Keidan, director of the foundation, stresses that the aim is to meet demand for better scholarship in the area rather than to promote a cause.
`We have been very conscious not to be involved in this as any form of Israel advocacy,` he says. `This is advocacy for Israel studies, not for Israel.`
He says the foundation is particularly aware of the delicate role of philanthropists, given recent controversies about donations connected to the Middle East – notably the London School of Economics`s recent embarrassment over its £1.5m donation from Saif Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator.
`We hope we can be an example in terms of philanthropy and how a relationship can be constructed with a university,` he says. `If we can do this with Israel studies of all areas, we can show the way to less contentious areas.`
Certainly the area is a sensitive one. Rafaella Del Sarto, Pears fellow in Israel and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University, says recent interest in Israel studies as an academic undertaking derives from a desire to counter growing politicisation of academia, particularly in the field of Middle Eastern studies and international relations. `Both pro-Israel and pro-Arab or Palestinian advocacy groups have been happy to recruit Middle East scholars or academics researching and teaching on Israel for their respective `cause`,` she says. `Yet scholarship should be distinct from advocacy and polemics.`
Clive Jones, chair of Middle East studies and international politics at Leeds University, and a member of the steering committee of the EAIS, says the association is determined to avoid any involvement from external bodies out to promote their particular point of view.
`It`s not supposed to be some tub-thumping bastion of Zionism,` he says. `It`s supposed to be a serious academic endeavour to examine the state of Israel from a number of disciplinary perspectives – culturally, sociologically, politically – and how those impact on Israel`s position in the region and globally.`
For Shindler, it is ironic that Soas, which has a reputation for being anti-Israel, has become a leading institution for Israel studies in Europe.
`Soas as an intellectual body doesn`t take sides in any conflict, but wants to encourage good intellectual endeavour,` he says.
A former chemistry teacher, he has taught the Israel-Palestine conflict to students from all religious and cultural backgrounds there for more than 10 years and was appointed the UK`s first professor of Israeli studies in 2009. Student numbers have more than doubled since he started, and he has sometimes had trouble finding classrooms big enough to hold them all.
`I teach Jews, Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians and it works very well,` he says. `I don`t impose my views on them. I tell them they have to justify their views in their essays and examinations. What it comes down to is teaching complexity to show that the conflict isn`t one-sided, but highly complex, and that`s what people go away with.`
While students often arrive repeating slogans and cliches they have heard about the conflict, he says, they soon realise that these are simplistic and begin to understand that it is less black and white than they thought.
The decision to set up the EAIS came from the realisation that academics teaching the subject across Europe were reporting the same approaches and experiences, and also needed a chance to network, collaborate on research and to support younger academics interested in entering the field.
Shindler says he has already identified groups of Israel scholars in France, Italy, Germany, Denmark and across Eastern Europe, including Uzbekistan, Belarus and Lithuania, and he expects to discover more. Many of them, he hopes, will attend the association`s inaugural conference on 18 September.
An Association for Israel Studies has existed in the US since the 1980s, and while Shindler will have a role on the board, as well as having links with the Middle East Studies Association in the UK, he stresses that the European association will be very much a distinct organisation.
Recent efforts to establish a more academic approach to studies of the region in the UK have not been confined to Israel. Two years ago, Exeter University established the first centre for Palestine studies in a western university, and is planning to support more doctoral and post-doctoral students in Palestinian studies.
Keidan says that, like any effort towards better academic understanding of what is happening in the Middle East, this is to be supported. And he says recent events in the Middle East and north Africa are only likely to increase the desire for knowledge about the region.
For Shindler, the increasing interest being shown by students in different aspects of Israel, from its politics to its art and films, is part of a drive to understand the country and people outside the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Too often, he says, academic study of the country of Israel gets submerged in UK universities into Middle Eastern or Jewish studies.
He suggests that people are interested in Israel because it does not fit into any conventional boxes. The conflict has become so central to discussions, and views on it are so strong and polarised, that students find it difficult to know what to think.
`There is a natural idealism from younger people to want to repair the world,` he says. `They want to change it, and before they can change it, they have to understand it.`