Photo by D.C. Goings

In America's obsession with Israeli political conflict, we so often forget the variety of cultures and societies that coexist within the state. This year the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies will be exploring the diversity of societies, cultures, and histories of Israel. I hope this year will help us better understand and appreciate the variety of the human experience in Israel. 

For as long as the state has existed, Israel has been a major focus of the world’s attention. But it does seem that recently this focus has become a true obsession, particularly on college campuses, and Ann Arbor is no exception. Michigan’s Central Student Government regularly debates the notion of censuring Israel, as though it were the only issue of relevance to the Michigan student body. In front of the synagogue I attend, just a few blocks down Washtenaw from campus, antisemitic bigots protest with hateful signs against Israel every Sabbath. Professional scholarly organizations to which I belong have their meetings hijacked by zealots who insist that the organization discard its scholarly mission to instead “commit itself to monitoring Israeli actions.”

But at the Frankel Institute, we will be modeling the type of informed discussion that the subject of Israel deserves. I am sure that we will be discussing conflict. But we will also be discussing literature and performance, migration and diaspora, and architecture and city planning. 

Our public symposia will deal with multiple communities of Israel. The first symposium will look at Arabs, Jews, and Arab Jews, exploring Israel’s entangled identities. Other public events will focus on the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora; the variety of Israeli literary traditions from Arabic to Yiddish; and life in the yishuv (Palestine during the Mandate period). The U-M campus and the wider community will have the opportunity to learn from some of the leading scholars of Israeli culture and society, as well as from some more junior scholars conducting cutting-edge research that transcends the polemical approaches we hear so often about Israel.

I am personally looking forward to engaging in these discussions. Israel is a place that is dear to me in so many ways. Like other things I love, Israel evokes in me a variety of emotions at different times: pride, warmth, excitement, and familiarity; but also anger, frustration, embarrassment, and disappointment.  I feel exasperation when it is unfairly attacked or bullied by mean-spirited or naïve activists. I feel defensive when its foundations are questioned. I feel betrayed when its leadership acts against what I view as the country’s ideals. I am most energized, though, when the State of Israel is treated neither as a “colonial settler state” nor as a “light unto the nations,” but rather as diverse groups of people struggling to make the most of their lives. 

(Frankely Speaking, August 2016)