Alex Joffe: Israel Studies 101

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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JEWISH ACADEMIC & UNIVERSITY NEWS

Source: Jewish Ideas Daily, 10-3-11

The modern American research university is a house of many rooms.  The field of Israel Studies, which has emerged in the past decade, occupies one of the newest—and smallest—of those rooms.  Israel Studies programs are meant to address a serious problem and take advantage of a large opportunity on campus.  What happens to them in the coming years will tell us something significant about Israel as a topic of study and about the American university itself.

Studying Israel  Jan Jaben-EilonJerusalem Post.  The growth of interest in Israel as a field of serious academic study is not just American but worldwide.

Multicultural Israel in a Global Perspective  Association for Israel Studies.  The Association for Israel Studies, in existence since 1985, plans its 2012 conference in Haifa.

Follow the Money  Alex JoffeJewish Ideas Daily.  Between 1995 and 2008, Arab Gulf states gave $234 million in contracts and about $88 million in gifts to American universities. What has their money purchased?

Jewish Studies in Decline?  Alex JoffeJewish Ideas Daily.  Retiring faculty are not replaced, less research money is allocated, and fewer students enter the field. Is there a future for the academic study of Judaism?

In American universities over the past 150 years and more, academic programs and departments have come and gone.  One reason is that increasing specialization is, to some extent, intrinsic to the pursuit of knowledge.  Departments such as physics and chemistry broke off from one another as their disciplines grew too large and complex to be confined within a single intellectual and administrative space.  There have been fractures in disciplines like anthropology, where scholars of culture and scholars of biology discovered that they could no longer bear one another.

More recently, specialization has also been fueled by demands, from the subjects of study themselves, for inclusion on the academic menu.  Since the 1960’s, we have seen a proliferation of ethnic and gender studies programs meant to bring the narratives of ignored or excluded groups into the larger discussion.  Jews and Jewish Studies programs in American universities have been among the leaders of this drive for inclusion through separation.

At their best, such efforts have created true and valuable diversity—in the sense of new streams of thought—within American universities.  They have also created walled-off compartments in which faculty can preach to choirs of student disciples (or simply to themselves) and the politicians among them can clamor for more resources, often by claiming past or present discrimination.  Unlike Jewish Studies programs, which are largely funded by Jewish donors, most ethnic and gender studies programs are paid for by the host universities themselves.  Such programs can perhaps best be characterized as having produced some scholarship and much politicking.

Israel Studies programs have a different provenance.  After World War II, U.S. universities saw the rise of “area studies,” in which scholars crossed the boundaries of disciplines like history, economics, and political science in pursuit of ‘useful knowledge’ about a geographic region or cultural area.  Middle Eastern Studies departments emerged as part of this trend.  They are long awash in funds from, among other donors, Arab governments.  Predictably, these departments have been dominated by scholars of the Arab and Muslim worlds.  As their subjects have increasingly become the focus of world conflict, these scholars have—perhaps inevitably, in light of the current university climate—become advocates…. READ MORE

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

 

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Alex Joffe: Jewish Studies in Decline?

Jewish Studies in Decline?

Source: Jewish Ideas Daily, 3-28-11

Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, Hebrew University.

Reports prepared recently for Israel’s Council of Higher Education have brought despairing news about the condition of the humanities in the country’s universities. Especially dispiriting is the report on Jewish studies, once the crowning glory of Israel’s flagship Hebrew University—and, in the report’s inadvertently nostalgic words, “an investment in the nurturing of the deep spiritual and cultural structures of Israeli public and private life.”

On the Future of Jewish Studies Tomer VelmerYNet.  Just as global interest in Jewish thought has been surging, Israel’s universities, once the leaders in the field, have opted to invest their funds in more “lucrative” disciplines.

What Price Jewish Studies? Jacob NeusnerForward.  The flourishing of Jewish studies at secular American universities has come at the cost of a decline in the sort of classical religious learning that is necessary to the future of Judaism.

That investment has been producing ever smaller returns. While Israel is still the world center of Jewish studies, the field’s decline has been visible for years. Retiring faculty are not replaced, less and less research money is allocated, fewer and fewer students appear interested in pursuing a degree or a career in this or related disciplines.In part this is a story of shifting resources. Faculty, students, and money go where they are needed and where there are opportunities. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the opportunities are in the various fields of science and technology, where Israeli research and teaching are world-class. A recent book called Israel the “start-up nation“; who would not want of be part of that success story? In a sense, the utilitarian Israelis are not only in step with but a step ahead of the rest of the developed world, where the need for trained scientists and science teachers is pressing.

In part, though, the decline of Jewish studies in Israel represents another, more complicated trend. Israeli national identity—those “deep spiritual and cultural structures” of which the report speaks—is already nominally Jewish: Hebrew is spoken, the Jewish holidays are celebrated nationwide, most marriages take place under a huppah, and so forth. Why then, a student might well ask, do I need to seek reinforcement at the university level? (This is to put aside the issue of how much the average Israeli high-school graduate really knows about Judaism or even Zionism.)

The answer to that unspoken question is that although the orientation of academic Jewish studies was never either explicitly religious or explicitly nationalist, the field did usefully inform, supplement, and, in certain cases, provide a cultural substitute for those qualities as well as an intellectual meeting ground of Judaism and Zionism. Now, with the exception of a few secular “study houses,” much of serious Jewish learning is increasingly left to the religiously and/or ideologically motivated—notable among them the ultra-Orthodox (haredim), who in principle reject the approach that sees Judaism in the context of the eras it has traversed and the cultures with which it has interacted….READ MORE