American University’s Center for Israel Studies has been celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. The center is spotlighting its commitment to academic discourse and experiential learning with dozens of public events examining Israel. Through a variety of conferences, programs and courses, the Center for Israel Studies is now a well-established home for study of the young, but flourishing Middle Eastern nation.
“The first goal is to portray Israel’s very diverse society, which is different from what you read in the media, where the focus is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says Center for Israel Studies Director Michael Brenner. “But it’s much more than that…We want to engage the broader community beyond our students and classes.”
More than Just Conflict
Since the nation’s founding in 1948, Israel has been in the crosshairs of war and conflict in the Middle East. But Israel also possesses an incredibly vibrant culture, and the Center for Israel Studies highlights the country’s numerous contributions in science and the arts. Israel is an innovator in everything from dance and video art to biotechnology and nanotechnology, says Laura Katz Cutler, managing director of the center.
To kick off the fall 2013 semester, the center held a series of events surrounding the Rothfeld Collection of Contemporary Israeli Art exhibition at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. In 2012, the center and the Kogod School of Business cohosted an all-day conference on Israeli innovations in green technology.
But international politics and policy are still given full treatment. “We don’t focus on the conflict, but we don’t avoid it either,” Cutler adds. Last year, the center hosted a panel discussion on Israel, Iran, and nuclear weapons. Former top diplomat Dennis Ross also headlined an event on the impact of the 2012 U.S. elections on Israel and the Middle East.
The Center for Israel Studies was established in May 1998. Founding director Howard Wachtel timed the launch to commemorate Israel’s 50th anniversary, and former Israeli prime minister and current president Shimon Peres gave words of encouragement for the center while on campus.
“My view was if so much time and attention was devoted to Israel on campuses, it should be studied as a country and not just a security state,” says Wachtel, then the acting dean of arts and sciences. He forged partnerships with individuals in a variety of fields, such as contemporary dance, creative writing, and water and environmental studies.
“It was really the first broad center of its kind in the United States” at a university, says Wachtel, now an AU professor emeritus in economics.
With a minor offered in Israel studies, the interdisciplinary center includes courses in political science, history, sociology, and art. Next semester there will be a class on Israeli film taught by Schusterman visiting Israeli filmmaker, Dan Chyutin. The center has been bolstered by an array of distinguished visiting professors over the years.
In 2013, Brenner came to AU as the inaugural Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Endowed Chair in Israel Studies and director of the center. He came from the University of Munich, where he taught Jewish history.
“I grew up in Germany and my parents were both Holocaust survivors,” says Brenner. “It was almost like a miracle that this country came into existence just a few years after the biggest catastrophe in Jewish history. So it’s a challenge, I think, as a scholar to take it from that almost supernatural place and say, ‘we have to study it in a scholarly fashion.’”
A former commercial banker, Cutler was retired for years before she found her second calling at AU. “I’ve never felt more fulfilled,” she says. “It’s so wonderful to be learning something new every day.”
A Diversity of Views
Despite Israel’s polarizing status in the Arab and Islamic worlds, the Center for Israel Studies strives to be an objective academic resource. “We really want to avoid doing advocacy. That is, I think, very important in any area of studies, but especially in the Middle East. So we want to offer information, and hopefully have a diversity of views,” Brenner says.
The majority of students who take classes about Israel are not Jewish, and many hail from some of the 130 countries represented in AU’s student population. About a dozen Israeli students currently attend AU, Cutler says. Even within that community, people come from all different backgrounds.
As one student said recently, "The whole Holy Land has beautiful people, beautiful places, beautiful cultures, beautiful traditions, and this gets overshadowed with the conflict. But there's so much more."