Right of Reply: A balancing act?

Georgetown University's Program for Jewish Civilization aims for intellectual heterogeneity.

By JACQUES BERLINERBLAU
February 7, 2009 21:13
3 minute read.
Right of Reply: A balancing act?

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As pleased as I was to read Asaf Romirowsky's positive assessment of Georgetown University's Program for Jewish Civilization ("Balancing the Bias," February 2) a few points of clarification are in order. I was not interviewed for this piece, but perhaps I can offer some informed observations on the PJC (which I have directed since 2006). Prof. John Voll, mentioned derisively in "Balancing the Bias," actually serves as a member of our Executive Committee. He has always been a valued and respected colleague. His contributions to the PJC have been singularly helpful, and I wish Mr. Romirowsky would have noted this. The author also states that: "perhaps the most important mission of PJC" is "to balance the influence of two other centers at Georgetown." Permit me to point out that our mission is, and has always been, to produce, advance, promote and disseminate cutting-edge scholarship on Jewish Civilization. (Understanding all that the term "Jewish Civilization" connotes, needless to say, is also part of our work). We are still in the early stages, we are still refining our vision, but our goal is to put an intellectual product of the highest quality in front of students who will be the leaders of the next generation: that is how we define our mission. TAKE THE case of modern Middle Eastern studies - an academic area that Mr. Romirowsky and many others have rightly pointed out is often plagued by the most irrational and inveterate anti-Israel biases. This year, a Georgetown student interested in hearing perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that may differ from those expressed elsewhere had the option of studying with acclaimed experts such as Avi Beker, Robert Lieber, Michael Oren, Dennis Ross, and Yossi Shain. Just last week, in what was a milestone in the history of our university, Prof. Oren delivered a seminal address on the Gaza War to 500 people in Gaston Hall. All this may indeed provide balance on campus. I personally hope it provides an antidote to the fevered anti-Zionist hallucinations and vaudeville-tinged activism which pass for scholarship in some quarters of American academe. Please trust, however, that our main focus is on maintaining a high standard of research and pedagogy. And since ours is a Jesuit University with a profound commitment to interfaith dialogue, not to mention civility (and the practice of international diplomacy), we cannot abandon the hope that there are good and decent people in other Georgetown centers with whom we can converse. Which brings me to another aspect of our mission that was misconstrued in the article. Jewish Civilization as we understand the term is not confined to contemporary Middle Eastern politics. It also encompasses literature, theology, history, the cultures of the Diaspora, the study of traditional and non-traditional Judaisms, interactions with non-Jewish civilizations, and so much more. To do justice to these subjects we aim for intellectual heterogeneity, not ideological purity. This explains why for why we have hosted writers as distinct (and as preternaturally gifted) as Cynthia Ozick and A.B. Yehoshua (the latter coming in April). It accounts for why we have had orthodox rabbis teach for us as well as Jewish atheists. It is our rationale for having conservative Evangelical pastors address our students, as well as those who research Queer Judaisms. Former heads of state, congresspersons, and diplomats routinely come to the Hilltop, as do prominent religious leaders, nonbelievers and, most importantly, legions of scholarly experts. In all of these cases our interest is intellectual substance, not party lines. This is no mere balancing act. I thank Mr. Romirowsky for his kind words and urge him, and readers of The Jerusalem Post, to get to know more about Georgetown and its burgeoning Program for Jewish Civilization. The writer is Associate Professor and Director, Program for Jewish Civilization, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

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