A non-linear life

Professor Ilan Troen on the grounds of Ben-Gurion University: There is a fascinating story in Israel. Professor Ilan Troen’s appointment to the new Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis University is more than a personal …

Professor Ilan Troen on the grounds of Ben-Gurion University: There is a fascinating story in Israel. Professor Ilan Troen’s appointment to the new Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis University is more than a personal achievement. The creation of the first-ever endowed teaching position in Israel Studies in the United States is a sign of the growing interest in and expansion of Israel studies on American campuses.

The $3.5 million Taub Center for modern Israel studies has opened at New York University, and universities such as Emory University in Atlanta, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Toronto have created or significantly expanded their programs in Israel studies.

The Brandeis chair was created “to develop an accurate historical understanding of the origin and development of the state of Israel and its place in the world.”

Troen, who comes to Brandeis after 27 years in Israeli academia at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, says that the interest in studying Israel as a full-fledged developing society and culture has been a long time coming. After all, he says, there has always been plenty of material available to scholars.

“From the time the first modern Jews came to settle the land, they produced more literature about themselves per capita more than any one – diaries, celebration books marking the anniversaries of their settlement. Every town, every settlement, has recorded its history, both formally, and informally through diaries and letters. There was the sense they were engaged in something meta-historical and it needed to be recorded, not unlike the early pioneers in colonial America. President Chaim Weizmann once wrote to President Truman that ‘Israel is the most studied country in the world per capita,’ ” Troen told ISRAEL21c.

But despite the wealth of material, study of the pre-state society and modern Israel entered the North American university scene late, well after Israel won its independence in 1948. And interest was limited to specific fields: study of the recent archaeology finds, or the kibbutz in courses dealing with utopianism and child development.

But the overwhelming majority of academic work on Israel has focused on one subject: conflict. Since the War of Independence, overwhelmingly academia has dealt with the conflict, with countless books and articles produced over the year on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This, claims Troen and other Israel scholars, has utterly warped the perceptions of Israel in academia.

“What if universities studied Russia and the United States only in terms of the Cold War?” Troen asks. “What if France in the first half of the century was only studied in relation to its conflict with Germany? What would happen would be that you would have a distorted view of the society. And that is what has happened with Israel.”

“There is a fascinating story in Israel and a lot to be learned, in terms of secular-religious conflict, the difficulties of transforming a society rooted in a religious culture into a modern society. The world can learn a great deal from the Israeli experience,” said Troen.

When he began traveling to the U.S. years ago for stints at universities, he found that the field of Israel studies was, on most campuses, non-existent.

“Israel is not taught in Middle East study centers, except in terms of the conflict. Centers that study the cultures of Egypt or Morocco or Tunisia do not teach about Israel culture,” he said.

At the same time, even in universities with large and strong Jewish studies departments, the focus over recent decades has been on Biblical, religious, and Diaspora history, with a strong emphasis on the Holocaust studies – there, too, modern Israel has been overlooked.

“There are courses in Zionist thought and philosophy, about what people dreamed would take place. But little has been taught about what DID did take place here and what is taking place here,” said Troen.

Only in the end of 1980s was a professional academic association for Israel Studies created: and only now has Israel studies truly begun to take hold. For the first time, there are three respectable academic journals that deal with Israel – Troen’s Journal of Israel Studies, a journal published three times a year by Indiana University Press; Israel Affairs – which in published in London; and Tel Aviv University’s journal, which recently changed its name from the History of Zionism to the History of Israel.

And at the same time, there are increasing numbers of courses in Israel studies on North American campuses, which to a large degree, are fueled by growing philanthropic interest by those who are alarmed by the direction of intellectual discourse.

“Clearly there’s a political reason why this is happening now,” said Troen. “There is a recognition of the need to understand Israel better, of the growing hostility towards Israel in U.S. academy, the movements on campuses for boycott and divestiture, accusations that it is an illegitimate apartheid society… campuses have become intellectually and physical hostile. In many you can’t get from one part of the campus to another with a barrier ‘checkpoint’ to go through to understand how the Palestinians feel – with, in many cases, no countervoice, no counterbalance.”

While Troen and other Israel scholars are firm on the fact that they are academics, not advocates, it is clear that the picture of Israel on campuses needs to be balanced with a wider, more diverse kind of scholarship on Israel’s history and society.

He notes several initiatives taking place at Brandeis. The university is currently raising money for the Crown Center For Middle Eastern studies – which “will mark the first time Israel will have defined academic role in a Middle East Center, as part of the Middle East, not an implant by Western European colonists, both on its own, and in relationship to the other states in the region.”

Troen, – who will continue to commute between Brandeis and BGU – is also initiating a new program this summer called the ‘Brandeis Summer Institute for Israel Studies.’ This program invites scholars who teach in US universities who would like to add to a course in Israel to their academic repertoire, and offers a two-week intensive workshop in creating a course on Israel.

He has been surprised in that he has received applications not only from North America, but as far away as Brazil, Netherlands, Poland, Denmark. Those who apply must have a recommendation and endorsement of an Israel studies course from the department chairman and deans, and the fact that so many administrators are approving these requests is “a reflection of the recognition that Israel studies could be and should be part of the curriculum at more universities.”

For Troen, who came to Israel 27 years ago, teaching in the Boston area is a homecoming of sorts. A native of Roxbury, all of his six children root for the Red Sox and Celtics, though they were raised in the Negev.

Troen now divides his time between Brandeis and his position as Lopin Professor of Modern History and Senior Fellow at the Ben-Gurion Research Center in Sde Boker and the Director of the Kreitman Foundation Fellowships. Author or editor of 10 books, Troen is also coeditor of Divergent Jewish Cultures: Israel and America, also published by Yale University Press.

When he moved to Israel, “I never imagined I would be doing something like this – when I came here, I never had any notion that I would spend so much time abroad.”

But he views himself as a “bridge between societies, as many scholars have been before. And it’s fascinating. They say the most interesting lives are non-linear. My life has been decidedly nonlinear.”