Kenny Kolander (Ph.D. 2016) is an alumni from our program and now a Visiting Professor. He studies twentieth century United States history with a focus on foreign relations with the Middle East generally, and Israel specifically. He teaches courses in United States and Middle Eastern History and serves as co-faculty adviser to History Club/Phi Alpha Theta.
This past summer I participated in an intensive, three-week seminar about Israel Studies through the Schusterman Center at Brandeis University. Started in 2004, the annual seminar is designed to help university faculty from the humanities and social sciences to enhance their knowledge about Israel Studies in order to develop existing courses or introduce new ones. I am currently teaching a new special-topics history course this semester – HIST 393A: Modern Israel and the Middle East – based in part on my experiences in the summer seminar.
My cohort of 22 participants included 17 professors from the United States, and individual faculty from colleges/universities in Canada, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. A wide variety of institutions from the U.S. were present in the seminar – from larger, more well-recognized places like Princeton, UCLA, and New York University, to smaller ones like Furman, Wabash, and Hampshire College.
The first half of the seminar, which spanned ten days, took place on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, MA (suburb of Boston). A typical day included three, two-hour seminars on some facet of Israel studies, often with an additional two-to-three-hour seminar at night, usually based on a film. Each seminar was led by a distinguished scholar in that particular area, with a few from Brandeis University, but most from outside institutions. Our seminar topics were wide-ranging, from political discussions about interpretations of Zionism, the ongoing peace process, rights of Arab citizens in Israel, and whether Israel is a democratic state; to cultural discussions about gender, Israeli music and art, Hebrew literature, religion and the state, and Mizrahi/Ashkenazi influences on Israeli society. At the end of our time at Brandeis, each person was asked to create a rough draft of a syllabus for a potential class, and we then worked in small groups to offer feedback about how to better construct our class.
The second half of the seminar, which also spanned ten days, took place in Israel. We spent roughly the first half of our trip in Jerusalem. We visited the Israeli Knesset on our first morning, and had the opportunity to meet with Benny Begin, the son of Menachem Begin, who was Prime Minister of Israel from 1977-1983. (Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, with the help of Jimmy Carter, negotiated the Camp David Accords in 1978-79.) Benny Begin, like his father, is a member of the conservative Likud Party. I was surprised by his willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of Palestinian refugee grievances, and he presented himself as someone willing to engage Palestinian officials in peace negotiations, if the opportunity would present itself. Later that day we met with Asher Grunis, the recently-retired President (Chief Justice) of the Israeli Supreme Court. Grunis spoke to us about several specific issues, including the exemption of the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) from mandatory military service, which continues to be a controversial topic.
The following day we toured a section of the controversial West Bank barrier wall, built by Israel just over ten years ago. The wall was constructed in response to terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens; however, the wall cuts through occupied Palestinian territory and has been denounced by many in the international community as an illegal separation wall. We had the opportunity to listen to Danny Tirza, the man who conceived of building such a wall, explain the rationale behind the wall in a guided tour. We later met with Benny Morris, a well-known Israeli historian, to talk about Israeli scholarship, as well as Rabbi Dov Lipman, to discuss Ultra-Orthodox-secular tensions.
We also visited Palestinian territory. We explored Rawabi, the first planned city of the Palestinian Authority. Located near Ramallah, the infant city eventually aims to house more than 25,000 people in a high-tech-friendly environment. The city includes a breath-taking coliseum and the biggest shopping center in Palestine. We then traveled to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, where we met with the Director, Dr. Khalil Shikaki, and Dr. Naim Abu-Hommos, Former Minister of Education for the Palestinian Authority. For me, one of the most memorable portions of our trip was Ramallah. The streets were packed with people, and I enjoyed some of the best falafel in my life.
We then traveled south to Be’er Sheva, in the northern part of the Negev Desert, to discuss the tension between Bedouin communities and the State of Israel over land rights. I found it sadly ironic that the state is trying to force certain Bedouin communities off their land, given the consistent Israeli appeal to a historic Jewish connection to certain areas of land in the Middle East. We eventually made our way back north to Tel Aviv, and had an opportunity to visit the Jewish settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory continue to complicate the peace process, and it was enlightening to hear first-hand the perspective of a Jewish settler. While there is not enough space to cover all our goings-on, I was especially impressed by the Sorek Plant near Tel Aviv, which is the world’s largest desalination plant, and I much enjoyed listening to author Etgar Keret, and international lawyer Daniel Reisner.
I draw upon my experiences from this extraordinary seminar as I teach this semester. It was a blessing to have access to such high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials and citizens, as well as institutions like the Knesset, and I am grateful to the Schusterman Center at Brandeis University for inviting me to participate in the seminar, and generously covering my expenses while also providing a stipend.
I enjoyed getting to know the people in my cohort. One such person, Dr. Amin Tarzi, is planning to visit us at West Virginia University on November 9 and 10. Dr. Tarzi is the Director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. He served as a Marine in the Gulf War, and then earned his Ph.D. from New York University. In addition to teaching at the Marine Corps University, Dr. Tarzi is a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East. He is an expert on U.S. security concerns, and particularly the still-debated Iran Nuclear Deal. On the evening of Thursday, November 9, Dr. Tarzi is planning to give a public lecture about the agreement.