After four decades of teaching at Emory and half of them directing the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, the last two years have been amongst the best. Teaching superb students and often befriending their outstanding parents have become yearly corollaries to getting paid for what I love to do and study. Working with a superb staff and an appreciative Atlanta Jewish community adds gratification that goes well beyond our boundaries of the Clifton corridor. It has been great fun. But what happens in several years, when I am no longer at the helm of the institute? How can we all assure ourselves that an Israel Studies institute at Emory does not simply fade away?
We are opening our silent “Kol Nidre” appeal now, culminating in our ISMI@20 celebration in Atlanta from November 9-11. Superb speakers will address politics of the moment, the need for Israel Studies centers in the U.S., making of U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East, an Ethiopian Israeli singer will perform, and much more. The program is not fully set, but learn about the topics and the confirmed participants on our website.
How about some context? Israel Studies as compared to Jewish Studies or Holocaust Studies is a relatively new field. At present, there are some 14 Israel Studies Institutes or Centers in North America, with only eight of them possessing some endowment money to assure continuity. Emory is not one of them. We exist because of annual giving by donors and foundations. There are probably 40 Holocaust Studies endowed chair positions in the U.S.; endowed Israel Studies chairs are a quarter of that number. In creating ISMI in 1998, we succeeded in persuading parents of students, former students and Atlantans to provide annual funding. For the last two years, when rankings were published, Emory appeared among the top three of American universities for students to live a safe Jewish life and learn about Israel.
Let’s be clear. Israel Studies centers can influence the way Israel is taught in campus settings. But Israel Studies courses in college cannot provide a sense of belonging to Israel or its role in one’s Jewish identity if students have not first learned those concepts in the home or in youth and teen programs. Israel Studies centers are not an Rx to prevent youth distancing from Israel. Centers cannot guarantee that individual professors will not use the classroom for preaching an anti-Israeli political ideology. No, I am not advocating that clamps or muzzles be placed on academics by university administrators, peers or donors. But if ISMI disappears, so does a minimum of balance on the Emory campus and perhaps in Atlanta.
Israel Studies faculty help the student. ISMI has provided mentoring in pro-Israeli campus organizations like Hillel. We have mentored students on where and how to pursue their interests in studying modern Israel, from nano-technology to ecology to entrepreneurship. Fourteen times in the last two decades, we have raised funds from private donors and foundations to bring visiting Israeli scholars to campus and to the city. Their presence has spilled over to virtually all of our local Jewish organizations and congregations. The newest one is here this semester. Professor Yitzhak Rei-ter is a specialist on Jerusalem. Last year it was Israeli Ambassador Reda Mansour. These visiting Israelis have provided 36 additional courses to Emory College and taught some 650 students.
The best part of ISMI has been our internship program, guiding student research projects on modern Israel. Ask the 40 students who have intensively learned with us. Helping students and Atlantans belong to Israel’s story is a noble wish for the new year and hopefully into the future. Shana tova.