Students at American University can now make courses in Israeli identity and Jewish culture the building blocks of a new minor in Israel studies.
"I've always been interested in formalizing the Israel curriculum," said Russell Stone, who became director of A.U.'s Center for Israel Studies this semester.
He takes the place of founding director Howard Wachtel, who had led the center since its 1998 inception, along with deputy director Rhea Schwartz. Adina Kanefield recently stepped into the deputy role.
The program will host a Dec. 5 event to honor the outgoing leadership with a lecture, supported by the Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Endowment, on "Ethnic Integration in Israeli Society," with Polinger Scholar-in-residence Calvin Goldscheider, professor emeritus of demography, sociology and Jewish studies at Brown University.
Meanwhile, the new minor marks the first such program outside a Jewish studies department, according to center officials.
The 18-credit minor pulls on a range of disciplines. Weeks after announcement of the program, four students stepped forward to sign up, and more are expected to join as word spreads, Stone says.
A.U. senior Ariel Boxman, one of the handful of pioneers to date, counts herself "very excited" by the new option.
"As a freshman, I looked for an Israeli studies major or minor," but didn't find one, said Boxman, 21, who is majoring in international relations with a focus on Israel. "I had to go all the way to Israel to do Israeli studies."
Had the minor existed last year, she said, she might have chosen to take just one semester, rather than a full year abroad, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She will apply credits that will enable her to complete the minor before she graduates.
Students start the program with three core courses on the history and civilization of the Jewish state, and the connections between Israel and the Arab world. Students are required to take three more elective courses similar those noted above. Study in Israel and Hebrew language classes are also encouraged.
This new minor joins A.U.'s existing major and minor programs in Jewish studies.
Mitchell Bard, runs the Israel Scholar Development Fund through his American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, which underwrote the yearlong visit by Israeli political scientist Barry Rubin to the Israel Center last academic year.
He hails the minor as a "major step" and voiced hope that the university would invest resources into the center so it can become a "showcase" for its field.
A sociologist, Stone comes to the Israel studies helm after 16 years at American U. He brings research and teaching interests that range from development to public opinion, social change, Middle Eastern and Third World societies and environmental sociology.
The new director has plans to develop an Israel studies major to join the new minor program. Meanwhile, he's raising funds to enlarge the existing Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Endowment, in hopes of establishing a permanent visiting professorship in the field that "would give us the teaching support to build the major."
He concedes that Israel studies does not constitute a career track, but says it pairs well with majors in history, political science, international studies and communications.
Stone, who earned his doctoral degree from Princeton University, has published on social change in Israel and the Middle East, and recently co-edited Critical Essays on Israeli Social Issues and Scholarship.
The Center for Israel Studies he now leads, Bard says, is "probably the most highly developed Israel program, but it's underdeveloped in that it's made up of faculty from different disciplines" and lacks its own permanent professors.
In addition to directing the Center for Israel Studies, Stone also runs the Association for Israel Studies a global professional association that carries out research and holds conferences on modern Israel and its history.
Advisory editor for a book series on Israel Studies at SUNY Press, Stone speaks Hebrew and French. He is a consultant to research projects on environmental attitudes at Academic Sinica in Taiwan and is working on comparative studies of Palestinian and Israeli political and social attitudes, based on public opinion polls, as well as on comparative international attitude studies toward issues of peace.
As for Wachtel, he brought to the center research interests in globalization, along with labor and international economics.
Indeed, he is working on a book, Globalization and its Discontents, even as he remains active as an adviser to the Center for Israel Studies.
"We were the first, along with Emory [University], to create such a center," Wachtel said when asked about his proudest achievement there. "Ours is the broadest and deepest of the five centers" nationwide.
As evidence for his claim, the former director cited the A.U. center's five conferences, four-five annual lectures as well as 10 Israelis who came as scholars, artists or scientists in residence.
The impact was felt across campus, as when the program brought Israeli choreographer Amir Kolben in for master classes. One non-Jewish graduate student in dance caught Kolben's eye, leading Meisha Bosma to get an invitation to dance with Kombina Dance Company, the choreographer's troupe an offer the young artist accepted.
"Her career, she told me, was transformed by that experience first by seeing a new conception of dance and then getting the opportunity to work," Wachtel said.
"It is time for other people to take it on, with fresh eyes and fresh energy," said Wachtel, who will retire from American in January.
At the start of his academic career, he earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan, a master's degree from the University of Connecticut and his bachelor's degree from Temple University.
In 1999-2000, Wachtel was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Berlin and Academic Visitor at the Truman Institute of Hebrew University (Jerusalem). He also served as visiting faculty at the London School of Economics and Cambridge University, the American University of Paris, Cornell University and the University of California, Riverside.
Author of three books and more than 60 scholarly articles, he has appeared frequently on major media and has published in such newspapers as The New York Times, Le Monde Diplomatique and Der Taggesspiegel.
Bard lauds the program built by Wachtel, whom he calls "visionary in recognizing the value of studying Israel."
The former director and his faculty partners, said Bard, "have wisely chosen to look at Israel as a normal country, in a broad context, not the common way of pidgeonholing Israel as a place of conflict."