I recently fielded an inquiry from a reporter at a Jewish newspaper asking if I knew how many Israel Studies centers and programs there are in the entire United States. While there is no official catalogue, the answer by my count is seventeen, which is in some ways impressive and in others disappointing. When I was an undergraduate at Brandeis a decade and a half ago, this university known for its connections to the American Jewish community and its pioneering role in Judaic Studies had precious few Israel-related course offerings, let alone a program in Israel Studies. While at Brandeis, I did not take one class on modern Israel during my four years there, and neither the politics nor history departments – the two places I spent most of my time –offered any courses on the subject. While pursuing graduate studies at Harvard, if I wanted to take a course on Israel, I was primarily limited to courses on Israeli literature offered through the Hebrew department. Given that Israel was traditionally overlooked as a serious focus of study within academia, to now find seventeen full centers and programs in Israel Studies is encouraging, personified by the creation and impressive growth in the last decade of places such as the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis.
On the other hand, seventeen is still an inadequate number. For comparison’s sake, there are well over two hundred American universities with Jewish Studies programs, and just shy of one hundred of them offer Jewish Studies as a major. While anyone wishing to study Jewish-related topics can easily find a wide array of courses to sate his or her interest, doing so when it comes to studying Israel is a more difficult task. Studying Israel should theoretically draw in a wider and more diverse population of students than those interested in Jewish Studies, and yet course offerings are surprisingly lacking.
Figuring out a way to grow the field of Israel Studies, both in the U.S. and also around the world, and make it a stronger and more self-sustaining enterprise is the primary challenge of the Israel Institute. The key is not just convincing universities that demand for Israel-related courses exists, since studies and course enrollment numbers have demonstrated that it does, but ensuring that the next generation of professors will include a substantial number in its ranks who are interested in teaching about Israel and qualified to do so. This means identifying, funding and promoting exceptional talent from the Ph.D. level to the senior faculty level, and broadening the pool of those who spend a significant proportion of their time studying and teaching about Israel.
In order to broaden this pool, the Israel Institute aims to convince Ph.D. students who are working on wider general topics to consider Israel as one case study to include in a larger dissertation. It provides funding for professors who have never researched or taught about Israel to take time off to develop a new Israel-focused course. It pairs Chinese academics with Israeli academics and brings them all together for a conference on U.S.-China-Israel relations. In ways large and small, the Israel Institute tries to lay the foundation for Israel to be studied in a comprehensive and thorough manner by all sorts of people in all sorts of settings. In a time in which Jewish Studies is ubiquitous all over the world, our goal is to eventually put Israel Studies on a similarly pervasive footing.
Looking ahead, we face two primary challenges on this front. First, convincing professors and students of all stripes that Israel is worthy of study on its own and not simply an oft-neglected corner of Jewish Studies. The key to this is integrating the study of Israel into larger disciplines and dispelling the notion that Israel is too exceptional to be studied as part and parcel of the social sciences and humanities. Israel’s political institutions, regional wars, identity and citizenship issues, disputes over the role and scope of religion, and transitioning economy, to name but a few salient issues, make it an ideal case study for larger themes in the comparative study of political science, history, economics and literature. Simply focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict or Israel’s unique legacy as a Jewish state obscures the fact that Israeli state and society are interesting fields of study for a host of larger reasons.
Second, making the case to universities that expanding opportunities to study Israel is important and necessary. While supply is slowly increasing, universities large and small have spent decades offering very few Israel-related courses and have not suffered from this lapse in any immediately apparent or appreciable way. The task ahead is to communicate to universities that there is demand for courses on Israel, and that not offering an expanded array of opportunities to study Israel in a serious manner will put them at an intellectual disadvantage. When Harvard, Yale and Princeton all offer Israel Studies as a minor – or even a major – then the field will be well on its way to a stronger and more sustainable position.
Israel is a fascinating country to study, and Israel Studies is a growing field that has made wonderful gains and is poised to grow even more. The Israel Institute hopes to position itself as a top resource for people in the academic and research communities looking to teach and learn about Israel, and ensure that quality scholarship about Israel is easier to come by with each passing year.
Michael Koplow is the program director of the Israel Institute. He holds a B.A. from Brandeis, a J.D. from NYU, an A.M. in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in political science from Georgetown University. He has lived and studied in Israel, and his writings on Israel and the Middle East frequently appear in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and The Atlantic. Michael can be reached at email@example.com.