At an increasing number of North American and international universities, it’s possible for students to focus on Israel studies. And students from all over the world, are signing up.
This isn’t the image fashioned in the minds of most American Jews when the words “Israel” and “college campuses” are combined in the same sentence. For years, the Middle East conflict has pitted groups of opposing students with strident opinions against each other, often leaving Jewish youth caught in the middle with little background or knowledge to sort out the facts for themselves.
Yet earlier this year, the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society was launched to expand Jewish and Israel studies on the Berkeley campus. An interdisciplinary initiative coordinated with a 15-member faculty advisory committee, the Berkeley Institute is designed to support academic discourse and scholarship on the study of Israel through course coordination, programming and research support.
Clearly excited by the flourishing programs on the Berkeley campus, law professor Kenneth A. Bamberger tells The Report, “One thing we know how to do well at Berkeley is to talk about controversial subjects. That’s what academic institutions should be doing best.”
The opening of the Institute reflects a national surge in the academic study of Israel.
According to Ilan Troen, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel
Studies at Brandeis University, until 2000, there were only five Israel
studies programs in the US.
That number has more than doubled, according to the website of the
Association of Israel Studies (AIS), an international scholarly society
devoted to the academic and professional study of Israel. Outside the US
and the Middle East, there are at least another half-dozen, with three
Israel studies programs just in Moscow alone.
In mid-August, the Sichuan International Studies University in
Chongqing, China, announced a new Israel studies program, offering
undergraduate and graduate courses, extracurricular activities and
options for study in Israel for the 2012 spring semester. “There is an
intense curiosity in the world for what happens between the
Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River,” Troen tells The Report.
The growth of Israel studies programs in the US can be attributed to
several factors. Russell A. Stone, professor emeritus in the Department
of Sociology at American University in Washington DC, tells The Report
that the 50th anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1998, plus the
outbreak of the second intifada spurred interest in academic programs
focusing on Israel. Jewish donors also wanted to balance the university
curricula focused on the Arab world that had flourished due to both the
Israeli-Arab conflict and the economic impact of Arab oil on the Western
world and provide a younger generation of American Jews with the
knowledge necessary for rigorous discussions.
According to Kenneth W. Stein, director of Emory University’s Institute
for the Study of Modern Israel (ISMI), Israel studies programs “come in a
moment in American Jewish history when American Jews are more acutely
aware of what they don’t know about Israel.
There’s fascination, curiosity and puzzlement and people of all political ilk want to know more,” he tells The Report.
According to Ronald W. Zweig, professor of Israel studies at New York
University’s Taub Center for Israel Studies, at least some of the
motivation behind the establishment of these centers is the desire to
counter the “hostile atmosphere about Israel” on various campuses.
“The older generation grew up with a State of Israel in dramatic and
heroic phases. It was not nearly as controversial as it is now. It was
easy to love Israel then,” he explains. “Now there are generations who
see the long and seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and its
Arab neighbors. They see Israel subject to international criticism of
the occupation and they don’t understand their grandparents’ enthusiasm
for the state.”
“I’ve heard that some students take classes to be able to respond to
attack on campus,” Saposnik tells The Report
, “but I think, on one hand,
taking a class [on Israel] sometimes complicates the picture they get.
Some students have to struggle. They have to unlearn what they’ve heard.
But it deepens their knowledge and, ultimately, gives them far better
ways” to handle criticism of Israel.
Sharon Baradaran, president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation,
which funded the UCLA program with $5 million, complains that “most
money funneled toward campuses tends to overlook academic programs,” and
is directed more toward advocacy for Israel. “But the solutions don’t
lie in these organizations.
What happens in the classroom where issues are addressed honestly” is key.
The Israel Studies programs and their courses are not specifically
directed at Jewish students. Stone explains that academic programs that
revolve around Israel “parallel other programs like Russian studies or
Latin American studies, which are usually interdisciplinary programs.”
In fact, as Troen points out, at the recent Summer Institute for Israel
Studies (SIIS) at the Schusterman Center at Brandeis, the 24 students
from around the world taking courses on Israel’s society, history,
politics, economics, culture, foreign affairs and diplomacy, included
Yang Yang, associate professor and director of the Hebrew Program at
Shanghai International Studies University and Julie Grimmeisen, a
lecturer in Jewish-Islamic studies on the faculty of Jewish history and
culture at the Ludwig- Maximilian University in Munich, Germany.”
Zweig says Asian students are particularly interested in studying
Israel. “They look to Israel as a model of a developing country,” he
explains. And Troen recalls that students in Turkey were interested in
learning from the Israelis how Turkey could be both a Muslim state and a
ARIEH SAPOSNIK, DIRECTOR OF the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at
the University of California-Los Angeles, tells The Report that donors
themselves provide some of the motivation for the establishment of these
programs and adds, “I believe it also comes from academic interest by
students. This has to do with the news. The Israel-Palestine conflict is
very hot.” Ideally, he says, students will develop an interest beyond
the conflict and, in fact, all the Israel studies programs offer a
variety of courses, including courses on Israeli film and literature.
Saposnik stresses that the courses on Israel at UCLA are academic
studies, not hasbara (public relations). This is emphasized by
Baradaran, whose own PhD is in the field of political science. “Our
program goals are clearly academic, not ideological,” she tells The
. “The strongest mission of our center is... academic integrity.
The most important feedback is that the classroom is a safe place.
There’s no question that can’t be asked; everything is... looked at through an academic and analytical lens.”
Similarly, Zweig tells The Report
that the Taub Center seeks “to provide
an academic study of Israel as balanced and open to all perspectives
without any political baggage. It is not to be involved with advocacy.”
The Taub Center was launched in 2003, with a grant from the Henry and
Marilyn Taub Foundation, and is part of the Skirball Department of
Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU’s Faculty of Arts and Science. The
center offers a range of undergraduate and graduate courses on Israeli
history and society, including Israel’s economy and its film industry.
The granddaddy of Israel studies programs is Brandeis University. With a
$30 million endowment, it is the largest and best-endowed, according to
Troen, who holds the Stoll Family Chair in Israel Studies there.
Brandeis “has always had some courses on Israel,” he says, but in 2007
the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies was formed to promote
exemplary teaching and scholarship in Israeli history, politics, culture
and society at Brandeis.
“This is only a portion of the funds available for Israel-related
teaching and research at Brandeis,” Troen adds. “There are other centers
concerned with Israel, too, as well as various peace and co-existence
programs, and even an initiative in the international business school.
Unquestionably the catalyst for much of this came from the department of
Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, which pioneered Jewish studies in the
United States. The same department engaged in developing the study of
Christianity and Islam in the Middle East.”
Currently, Brandeis has three post-doctoral fellows and supports 13
Schusterman scholars whose research focuses on Israel, including an
Armenian student researching the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of
Brandeis’s Summer Institute for Israel Studies (SIIS) brings faculty
from universities throughout the world. Since 2004, more than 140
fellows have completed the program and have subsequently taught
thousands of students with syllabi designed at SIIS. During the most
recent session, participants attended seminars taught by Israel studies
scholars and, while in Israel, met with representatives of Jewish and
Arab communities. Troen says it’s important to expose the SIIS fellows
to opposing viewpoints.
The fellows spent two days with Bedouins. Troen explained to the
participants, before the Summer Institute session started, “Fellows will
hear people complain that their villages are unrecognized. They will
then hear Israeli officials argue that the villages are illegal...
We don’t tell people what to think – who are we to tell them?” That
approach is basic to academic study, Troen adds. “Common sense and
practice confirm that good academics… attempt to keep a balance between
their own views and the demands of a scientific and objective approach
to research and teaching.”
Given the intensity of interest in one of the hottest regions of the
world, it is not surprising that North American Israel studies programs
are expanding their course offerings as well as increasing their degree
programs. Last year, Berkeley only offered one undergraduate course, but
this coming year, thanks to the Berkeley Institute and $75,000 in seed
money from The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, it will offer
According to University of California, Berkeley’s Bamberger, a
constitutional and administrative law scholar who teaches courses in
Jewish law and ethics, Berkeley is launching its first basic grounding
history course, to be taught by five faculty members. In addition, there
will be courses on the psychology of Israeli identity, psychology and
religion, comparative constitutional law and Israeli music.
For the first time, there will be a graduate level workshop in Israel
studies, he adds. In February 2012, Berkeley will host a campuswide
conference on Israel as a high-tech nation led by professors in the
economics department and business school.
Berkeley also has a history of hosting Israeli luminaries, such as
former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner for the launch event
last April, who often teach courses in their field of study.
While many universities are bringing Israeli scholars to their campuses,
there is also an increasing effort to train Americans to teach Israel
in the US. Zweig says that the lack of faculty in the US was the impetus
behind its doctoral program in Jewish studies and history, with a focus
on Israel. “There’s no doctorate of Israel studies because it isn’t a
discipline by itself, but a subset of either history or international
relations or Jewish studies,” he explains.
The Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies offers programs
leading to a master’s degree and PhD. Doctoral students earn a master’s
degree in the course of their studies. NYU has 12 PhD students in the
program, including Israelis, Palestinians, French as well as Americans.
Currently, there’s “advanced discussion” on developing a PhD program in
Jewish and Islamic studies with a focus on Israel. NYU does not yet have
a masters program focusing on Israel, but Zweig says he hopes to go
public with it within a year. Brandeis also has a large graduate program
that has been producing people who can teach Israel studies elsewhere.
According to Troen, Zweig, and Saposnik, courses around the country are so oversubscribed that they must turn away students.
IT IS NOT JUST NORTH AMERICA THAT IS EXPERIENCING this surge. This
summer Oxford University established a chair of Israel studies and
placed it in St. Anne’s College, a college in the division of social
Via e-mail correspondence, Colin Shindler, professor of Israel studies
at the University of London, tells The Report t
hat there’s no way of
knowing how many Israel studies programs there are in Europe. “Every
day, we are discovering people who teach Israel studies in one form or
another, from Lisbon to Moscow. Israel studies are even being taught in a
number of Siberian universities.”
The proliferation of these programs has several reasons, depending on
the location, he explains. “In Germany and Poland, it’s for historical
In Western Europe, many students are heartily tired of the megaphone war
and wish to explore the issues for themselves in the classroom – where
freedom of expression reigns. Students wish to educate themselves about
the uniqueness of Israel through study rather than through received
They are looking for intellectual honesty and factual accuracy. They
look for sensible analyses and rational answers to questions.”
Shindler explains that his lectures on Zionist ideology and on the
Israel- Palestine conflict were so oversubscribed that he often had to
locate larger rooms. “My students included Arabs, Israelis, Muslims and
others from all sorts of backgrounds – Jews were always a distinct
minority. Students who wish to educate themselves and think beyond
slogans and sound bites are fascinated by this torturous conflict.
Although I have views on the conflict, I strive for objectivity as far
as possible. I teach complexity.... At the end of the day, students make
up their own minds, based on an informed view.”
About five years ago, Shindler attended his first Association of Israel
Studies (AIS) conference, which led him to initiate the European
Association of Israel Studies (EAIS), which will have its launch
conference in mid-September. Calling himself the unelected chair of the
EAIS, Schindler recalls that at the AIS Conference, “the participants
were either North Americans or Israelis and I represented the entire
British empire. It was this vacuum that propelled me to establish the
“In November 2009, over 30 UK academics gathered at the University of
London. It was clear that there was a real enthusiasm for forming an
Many had never met their colleagues before. Similar meetings have been held in Paris and Milan.”
In July, Brandeis hosted the 27th conference of the AIS, which was
attended by 400 researchers from 14 countries. Stone tells The Report
that the AIS and its annual conferences have grown steadily both as more
Israeli academics have become involved and due to the “recognition that
Israel is not getting the attention it deserves in Middle Eastern
AIS, he says, has been able to “broaden the scope of the academic papers
presented and has provided an opportunity for young scholars to get the
experience of giving papers.” Furthermore, he adds, more Israeli
archives are open and there is now “a massive body of records
All of which means that more serious research – the core of academia –
is possible, heightening the interest in and deepening the understanding
of Israel as an academically interesting country, not unlike China,
Russia, or Canada.