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Visiting Scholar Program Likely Fixture at Temple

October 28, 2010 By:
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Rakefet Zalashik
Growing up, Temple University junior Zack Groff saw how his mother's family, Jordanians of Palestinian Arab heritage, harbored a quiet resentment toward Israel. Perhaps because of this, Groff said, in college he jumped at almost any opportunity to learn about the Middle East.

"I am interested in reconciliation and peacemaking, hoping to one day see these wounds of resentment heal," said the 21-year-old political-science major.

While he's mostly focused on the Arab world, Groff, a Christian, was drawn to a new course on the history of Israel this semester.

"No understanding of the political situation in the Middle East is complete without a working knowledge of what is going on in the Jewish state," he said.

More compelling, he added, the course was being taught by Israeli scholar Rakefet Zalashik, who arrived on campus in August through a privately funded fellowship that could become the area's first ongoing visiting scholar program in Israel studies.

Temple administrators said Zalashik and successive Israeli visitors will bolster the school's mission to create a global community by exposing students to religious, cultural and societal issues affecting the Jewish state.

To attract a wide audience, the founder requested that the scholar be based in the Center for Humanities at Temple, instead of the Jewish-studies department.

"This has to do with Israel and Israel's position in the world," said Doris Greenblatt, who along with her two sisters, developed and funded the program through the Mirowski Family Foundation to honor their parents.

"Israel is beyond being simply a Jewish state," she added.

Interest from non-Jewish students like Groff has already proven to be high.

Zalashik estimated that only about five of the 15 students in her "Israel: History, Politics and Society" course are Jewish, though she hasn't asked.

Could It Be Global Studies?

Zalashik said the field is too new to determine whether it will eventually become categorized under Jewish studies, Middle Eastern studies or something even broader, like global studies. Temple is developing an international-studies program, but for now, Zalashik's course counts as a history credit. It can also be applied toward concentrations in the Jewish-studies department.

Jewish studies has evolved greatly since the 1960s, when associated history courses usually centered on the Holocaust or Eastern Europe, said Zalashik. Though the field expanded in the '80s, Zalashik said American universities still offered few courses on Israel.

Often, she said, what existed was created in response to anti-Israel views and focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It wasn't until the late 1990s that a few large universities began creating chairs of Israel studies, and adding more courses on the country and even pre-state Zionism, she said.

"Despite its importance, the State of Israel and the Israeli culture is much bigger than the conflict," said Zalashik. "Our aim is to carry a serious conversation based on facts and less on myths. Our task as educators in Israel studies is to teach students how to think, not what to think."

Zalashik is at the forefront of the developing field.

Before coming to Temple, she served simultaneously as a chair for Israel and Near East Studies at the University of Heidelberg, and as a visiting Israeli professor at the University of Virginia. Her studies focus primarily on Israeli identity formation, trauma and memory, immigrant absorption and the integration of Holocaust survivors into Israeli society.

In addition to sociology, she has studied German and modern European history, completing a doctorate in history at Tel Aviv University.

Next semester, Zalashik is planning to teach an Israeli politics course and perhaps make a few guest appearances around the community in between her research.

Altogether this year, Temple will host 215 visiting scholars from 14 countries, according to Richard Englert, the university's interim provost and senior vice president.

Though the Mirowski grant only covers this year of the program, Greenblatt said she expects to keep it going.

Temple faculty will begin searching for the next scholar in the spring.

The Academic Culture

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said he's eager to see these scholars not only teaching students to better understand Israel, but also influencing the academic culture at Temple.

Alpert noted that a small number of faculty have been critical of Israel; many others don't have an opinion about Middle Eastern politics, but also "don't necessarily have an accurate impression of Israeli culture and society."

At Temple, he said, visiting scholars are also well-positioned to reach beyond campus.

"It's a school which is constantly engaging the academic community of Philadelphia," said Alpert, "and trying to be part of the civic life of Philadelphia in ways that the other schools really don't."

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