Most U.S. college students don't have a chance to take a class from a pre-eminent Israeli historian like Benny Morris. But University of Maryland senior Avi Mayer was one of a few dozen College Park students who did last year.
"Being able to learn and study with a man of Benny Morris' caliber ... was really a wonderful and exceptional opportunity," said Mayer. Now that the school's Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies has been dedicated, other current and future Maryland students should have similar opportunities to study with such distinguished Israeli visiting professors.
Alma Gildenhorn said that she and her husband hope to see the institute become "the premier Israel studies institute ... [at] a major university."
Faculty and administration at the university have set a similar goal. They say that at Maryland, the Israel studies program will be fully integrated into the broader Middle East studies curriculum, unlike at a number of other universities, where Israel studies exist in a somewhat separate sphere from the study of the Arab and Muslim world.
There is some "tension and ideological disputes" at a lot of universities in programs related to the Middle East, but "we don't have that here," said Brodie Remington, vice president of university relations at Maryland.
"The faculty have debates, but there's a culture of civility and trying to understand each other's point of view," he said.
Hayim Lapin, who shepherded the creation of the institute as director of the university's Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, agreed. "It's an academic culture that right now is one based on mutual respect," he said.
As an example, he noted that the institute and the university's center for Persian studies are already planning a conference next year about the history of Jews in Iran.
Institute interim director Eric Zakim, an associate professor of Hebrew literature and Israeli cultural studies, speculated about "team teaching" for certain classes.
As an example, he pointed to a course he taught a couple of years ago titled "Culture of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." Zakim said that while he has some knowledge of Palestinian culture, the class might be better with an expert in that area teaching along with him.
Maryland is the second local campus to create a separate center for Israel studies. American University opened a Center for Israeli Studies in 1998 and has recently begun offering a minor in the field.
The idea for such an entity at Maryland originated two years ago with the university faculty, who wanted to "achieve national prominence in all areas of Middle East studies," Remington said. The institute was launched last year, although it was just dedicated a few weeks ago.
After six months of fund raising for the institute's $6 million endowment, the university has already reached close to 75 percent of its goal.
Following the dedication ceremony late last month, which featured a speech by Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, Remington said the institute received $15,000 in donations even though there wasn't even a solicitation for contributions.
That's an indication, he said, of the "breadth and depth" of support for increased study of Israel among alumni and friends of the university.
A desire to have a place where college students could better understand the Jewish state was the driving force behind the Gildenhorns' gift naming the institute. The amount of the contribution was not disclosed.
"It's terribly important that Israel is represented in a very clear way as a contemporary, vibrant country," said Joseph Gildenhorn, a former ambassador to Switzerland and a 1951 graduate of the school who met his wife, a 1953 grad, in College Park. The District residents have been involved with a number of Jewish organizations throughout the years, from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to the Hebrew Home.
Alma Gildenhorn points out that while the university has a large Jewish population an estimated 6,000 students, or more than 20 percent of the student body "not all of them are well-informed, and it is up to us to help them."
Furthermore, she said, the university is creating the "future leaders of tomorrow" and it is essential that the entire diverse student body receive the education to help them "make informed decisions" about the Middle East.
Lapin emphasized that Israel will be studied "as a complete society."
"We want to not stop with the military and political, but go beyond that," he said.
That's why creating an institute that can utilize professors from a variety of departments on campus and "move across borders" was essential, said Zakim.
Zakim said that the university already has a strong complement of professors in areas such as Hebrew literature, Israeli culture and politics, and he said that plans are to hire additional professors, specifically an expert in Israeli history.
In the future, "we'll take it where we need to go with it," he said, speculating that fields such as Israeli sociology and anthropology could be areas of future expansion.
The initial priority is on establishing courses and curriculum, Zakim said, but that discussions about offering a major or minor are ongoing.
Lapin said that the process of establishing a minor is at an advanced stage, but that more decisions about courses, hiring and other logistical matters must be made before formulating the requirements for an Israel studies major.
In addition to curriculum, Zakim said that one of his first priorities would be to reach out to the "community beyond the university" with speakers and programs.
And he and others involved with the institute all emphasize that with the university being located just a few miles from the District, there should be frequent opportunities for Washington policymakers and think tank scholars to teach and speak at the institute.
Remington said the university also hopes to enhance its student and faculty exchange programs with Israeli universities through the institute. Maryland's study abroad program in Israel was like many universities' programs suspended during the second Intifada due to the State Department travel warning, but Remington expressed hope that it could soon return. (Maryland students can still study abroad in the Jewish state, but must go through other schools' programs to do so.)
Jewish leaders and students on campus say they are thrilled to see the university embrace the study of Israel.
"It's great, it sets the tone of the university," said Maryland Hillel executive director Rabbi Ari Israel, who noted that having a visiting professor like Morris on campus is also a boon to his organization because such scholars can also speak at Hillel events.
Freshman Debbie Loubser said the university's Jewish studies program was one of the reasons she chose College Park. She sees the Israel studies institute as an "added bonus" since she's also interested in economics and will also be able to study that subject from an Israeli perspective.
Mayer, meanwhile, acknowledged a little disappointment, but only because as a senior, he won't "be here to see this [institute] blossom and grow."