The Center for Israel Studies, an exciting new initiative, was formally launched recently at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism in Sede Boqer. The new concept that blends history, high level academic work and policy recommendations on the most pressing questions of the Jewish people is being generously supported by the Azrieli Foundation. A leading Canadian philanthropic organization, the Foundation has a history of strong support of BGU, partnering with the University and the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU), in this project and many other endeavors to advance the University and its students.
The Center for Israel Studies (CIS) will consist of five laboratories. Researchers have already begun researching through two of them: one on Hebrew Culture and one on Israel and World Jewry. The other three laboratories will be launched in the coming years.
The opening event was held in the presence of Azrieli Foundation board member Danna Azrieli and CEO Offi Zisser and BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi. Former Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon gave the keynote address. The event concluded with a screening of Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, directed by Yariv Mozer, followed by a discussion with the film’s editor and producer Yael Perlov.
Prof. Rivka Carmi praised Dr. Paula Kabalo, director of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism (BGRI) and the Azrieli Foundation for realizing their vision.
“We are all people of vision but to realize a vision is complicated and difficult. However, Paula Kabalo realizes visions, with the help of the Azrieli Foundation in general and Danna and Offi in particular. Their willingness to be recruited to the cause should not be taken for granted,” she said.
“The Azrieli Foundation is very effective especially in higher education. They realize the visions the university could not bring to fruition alone. We are going to shift paradigms with this new center. Disseminating this knowledge around the world is so important in this time of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement and the need to justify our existence,” she declared.
Danna Azrieli explained that it was a natural decision to support the creation of the new center.
“We decided to donate here, because the Center for Israel Studies researches the development of the state in the past, present and future, through a variety of research programs whose purpose is not just to publish academic papers, but to act as applied research laboratories, which will create practical ideas for policymakers.
“In essence, for us, opening the center here today is, in a way, a conceptual completion for the Azrieli Foundation because we already created an Israel Studies research center in Canada at Concordia University,” she said.
In fact, the two universities, through their respective presidents, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on research and faculty and student exchanges in the presence of the Mayor of Montreal Denis Coderre last week (pictured above).
The launch event also offered a more detailed explanation of the two current labs. “CIS at BGRI offers a significant change in the way Humanities researchers think and work. It intends to adopt behavioral patterns more familiar from other knowledge fields – teamwork and mutual fertilization in order to promote joint research,” Kabalo explained.
“By creating the center, BGRI not only fulfills its mission by law but also establishes its status as a leading global center for Israel Studies which now will not only house its faculty members but also senior researchers in the field around the world and the next generation of researchers,” she declared.
BGRI faculty members Prof. Arieh Saposnik will run the Hebrew Culture lab while Prof. Ofer Schiff will run the Israel and World Jewry lab.
Saposnik praised the center’s creation and explained the goals of the new lab. “Personally, I can say that I derive great hope from the creation of this center. In recent weeks we have read news articles about the drop in the number of students registering for university at all, and the death throes – as the headlines read – of the humanities. And here, specifically during this crisis period, Ben-Gurion University, in a step, which in my eyes is a brave one, which makes a statement about the centrality of the humanities at the university and its conception of education, launches a center addressing the humanities, the culture, and the essence of the Jews and Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora.
“A few days ago, in a course I teach this semester about the creation of Hebrew culture, I discussed with the students anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s understanding of the essence of culture and the study of culture. The purpose of the ethnographer, Geertz writes, and we can expand the description slightly and say the purpose of the academic and critical look at culture in general is “to expand the world of human discourse.” CIS’s vision, or purpose, as I understand it, and certainly the vision of the “Hebrew Culture” group is to realize and implement this conceptualization and make a contribution first to widening and deepening the world of Israeli discourse and the ability of Israeli culture to embody an expression of a particular nation as one voice amid the cacophony of human culture – the purpose, at the end of the day, of the humanities and those who are involved with them,” Saposnik said.
Schiff explained the two questions driving the research in the Israel and World Jewry lab. “What does it mean to research Israel today? We will create a network and together we will ask and answer two main questions. First, what is the DNA, the catalyst of the existence of the Jewish people? What does it mean that we are the Jewish people? We want to turn that question inwards about Israeli society.
“Second, who are the Jews? What is a good Jew or a bad Jew? When you leave the unspoken understandings of the past, the answer changes,” he said.
“These are the questions a sovereign Jewish state must ask and answer,” he declared.
Dr. Paula Kabalo, Director of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism