The field of Israel studies emerged two decades ago as a reaction against the politicization (read: anti-Israel bias) of Mideast studies departments in U.S. universities. The new field, spearheaded by the creation of Israel studies centers at Emory and American University in 1998, was designed to give scholars a place for research, collaboration and teaching unencumbered by political litmus tests.
Today the field of Israel studies is robust and on the upswing, according to those who spoke at the June 25 opening keynote of the 34th annual Association for Israel Studies conference, held this year for the first time at UC Berkeley. Forty universities worldwide have adopted an Israel studies center, program or chair, including San Francisco State University, UCLA and CSU Chico.
“Israel studies is growing,” said Ken Bamberger, founding director of the 6-year-old Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, one of the newer centers helping to raise the profile of the field. “This area of studies is at a real growth point.”
The three-day conference this week drew some 300 academics, mostly from North America and Israel, and boasted a rich schedule of panel discussions on a variety of topics, from the lingering societal effects of the 1948 war and consideration of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to more esoteric investigations such as “Zionism and the Question of Jewish Whiteness” and “Israeli Women in Cinema.”
Law professor Pnina Lahav of Boston University attended a panel on gender politics in Israel, which included a discussion of Islamic and Jewish feminist efforts within the rabbinic and shariah court systems. “I learned a great deal,” she said, calling the discussion “fascinating.”
“It’s important for people to understand that Israel is a coat of many colors,” said Lahav, a former president of the Association for Israel Studies. “Some we don’t like, and some we adore. Some of us are still hoping to restore the Israel we love.”
It was a real coup for Bamberger and the Berkeley Institute to be chosen as hosts for this year’s conference. Berkeley is, after all, a town more known for its anti-Israel activism. At the opening night gathering, Bamberger joked that when a colleague learned the conference would be held at Cal, he remarked, “hell has frozen over.”
But, Bamberger continued, six years of the Berkeley Institute’s work offering courses, bringing in visiting Israeli scholars and hosting public lectures has helped change some attitudes in the East Bay and beyond. “Berkeley has put our own special stamp on Israel studies,” he said. “The fact that Berkeley is hosting the annual AIS conference is a testament to the leadership position this campus has achieved since the program was launched just 6½ years ago.”
Current AIS president Donna Robinson Divine, a professor of Jewish studies and government at Smith College, agreed with Bamberger’s assessment, saying that she’s been pursuing his team for several years and considers it a coup for the association to finally land Berkeley, not the other way around.
“Why wouldn’t we?” she responded when asked about bringing the conference here. “We interrogate the history, society and culture of Israel to learn more about it, to pose questions that haven’t been posed and pass it on to the next generation. It’s fitting that we would hold our conference in the very place that transformed and defined the campus culture for the United States and the rest of the world.”
If the decision to hold the conference in Berkeley was easily made, the discussion over next year’s proposed location in Israel has been fraught, particularly given the Israeli government’s recent law banning entry to supporters of BDS, which promotes anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
Haifa University president Ron Robin, who received his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, addressed the controversy during his keynote address, coming down on the side of keeping the conference in Israel. Noting that academics get “kicked out” of many countries, including the United States, for their political views, he said: “State law eclipses academic freedom everywhere. If a country denies access, that scholar can still pursue his or her academic pursuits. It’s of far greater concern when those discriminatory practices are employed by our own professional associations — it’s a travesty.”
Recalling how he was forced to leave the American Studies Association, which approved an academic boycott of Israel in 2013, he said, “The best remedy to the abrogation of freedom is advocacy of more freedom.”
The AIS is a scholarly organization, not a pro-Israel advocacy group, noted University of Pennsylvania political science professor Ian Lustick during the evening’s Q&A, and its members include academics who might be barred entry from Israel because of their political views.
“The decision whether to meet in Israel next year is partly tactical, and partly moral, a question of principle,” he said. “What gives our organization its energy is access” to a wide range of views. Noting that the donor base that supports Israel studies “is very pro-Israel,” he warned against letting that color what should remain a global community of scholars. “We don’t want to become an organization of Israelis talking to other Israelis,” he said.
Caught as she was leaving the session for the opening night dinner, Robinson Divine said the issue would be decided the next afternoon. “Unless I’m impeached, we’ll be meeting next year in Kinneret,” she told J.
And so it went — on June 26, the AIS voted to keep its 2019 conference in Israel, at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee. And Robinson Divine is still president.