The Jewish Advocate: Profs gather for program about teaching on Israel

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

WALTHAM — More than 20 professors from universities around the world recently gathered at Brandeis University to complete a two-week intensive study of Zionism and Israel, followed by a weeklong seminar in Israel.

Now in its second year, the Summer Institute for Israel Studies is intended to assist professors in the design of new courses for their curricula on Israel.

The institute was established by Brandeis in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee’s Dorothy and Julius Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations to increase the quality and scope of Israel studies courses being offered on the campuses of universities throughout North America. 

Publicity for the program notes that 10 Israel studies chairs at universities around the world are sitting unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates. However, AJC reports that last year, nine new courses on Israel were offered by professors who had completed the program. “The Summer Institute for Israel Studies is a tangible success,” said Steven Bayme, director of AJC’s Koppelman Institute.

Participants reflected a range of disciplines and a diversity of political views and religious backgrounds, according to Bayme. Local universities represented include Brown University in Providence, R.I., Hebrew College in Newton and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Presenters at the institute were drawn from universities in the United States and Israel, with topics ranging from cultural studies to political science. Several of the instructors gave the institute high marks: Professor Eugene Sheppard, assistant professor in Brandeis’ Near Eastern & Judaic Studies Department, said she was proud to offer a class at the program for her second year in a row because of its “clear and primary purpose, benefiting my colleagues and the students who study under them.”

Sheppard, who gave a lecture on the intellectual history of Zionist thought, said she considers the institute invaluable to “bolster the quality of Israel studies education at the university level.”

Professor Joshua Jacobson of Northeastern University in Boston gave a talk on how the music of Israel reflects the changing political situation and ideologies of leadership. The conference organizers were enthusiastic about “using the arts to learn about the people and the Zionist ideology,” he told the Advocate last week.

The final week of the program, which concluded July 7, took place in Israel. According to the institute’s director, S. Ilan Troen, the trip was an integral element of the program. “We need the study of Israel to be more than an abstraction, more than an intellectual exercise. The way to do that is to experience the society,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

While in Israel, participants met with local scholars, artists and community leaders; Professor Olga Gershenson, who teaches Israel cultural studies at UMass Amherst, said: “We were privileged to get a sense of what and how people really think now.”

At the end of the Institute, each participant presented a syllabus suited for his or her respective university campus. David Starr, assistant professor of Jewish history at Hebrew College, presented a revised version of a class he had taught previously on Zionism and Israel in historical perspective. “The institute has given me a lot more confidence to engage new aspects of Israeli society and culture – for example, treating new kinds of materials like literature, the plastic arts, music, that sort of thing,” he said. “My original education in Israel was very much through the intellectual history of Zionism, and this is going to broaden my approach.”

Professor Jay Berkovitz, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UMass Amherst, also spoke of gaining new confidence in teaching about Israel. Crediting the seminar with helping him develop a new concept on teaching about Israel, he said: “I expect to develop a course that will not focus so heavily on the Arab-Israel conflict. Rather, I intend to present Israel as a vibrant society and culture in the throes of a difficult struggle to define its goals and shape its future.”

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