When it comes to Israel, the University of Maryland at College Park is a hotbed of both interest and ignorance, says the campus Hillel director.
Home to some 6,500 Jews, constituting nearly 22 percent of the student population, the campus is a center of pro-Israel advocacy. Hebrew language and other Israel-related courses fill up quickly, and as many as 1,500 current students have been to the Jewish state.
"Although there is a large pro-Israel population here," said Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of the University of Maryland Hillel, "many of them don't have in-depth knowledge of the history of Israel, and there are thousands of others on campus who don't have a clue."
In an effort to raise the level of knowledge and discourse about the Jewish state--among students and others--the university recently established a chair in Israel studies, thanks to a $1.5 million gift from local developer and philanthropist Jack Kay.
The Kay endowment represents the next critical piece in establishing the University of Maryland as a major center of Middle Eastern studies, coming only five months after the dedication of the school's Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies.
The Gildenhorn Institute is one of only a relative handful of American academic institutions that focus on Israel studies, an academic discipline that is still in its infancy nationally. A 2006 study by the Israel on Campus Coalition revealed that of 386 institutions of higher education surveyed, 53 percent did not offer a single course on Israel.
The Center for Israel Studies at American University in the District instituted an Israel studies minor in the fall.
Known officially as the Abraham S. and Jack Kay Chair in Israel Studies, the newly created position at the University of Maryland is in part a tribute to Kay's father, Abraham, who was born in Lithuania, came to the District as a child and played a major role in developing local suburbia after World War II.
The senior Kay also became a staunch supporter of Israel, helping raise money to purchase the refugee-bearing ship Exodus and becoming friends with David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister.
A Chevy Chase resident, Jack Kay said in an interview last week that he underwrote the new position in an effort to counteract what he characterized as a proliferation of "warped" images regarding the Jewish state--overwhelmingly anti-Israel messages emanating from academia and elsewhere.
"I do not believe that young people and others know the true story of what is going on in Israel," said Kay, 81, who chairs the Silver Spring-based Kay Management Co. "We should be able to tell the true story on both sides. It doesn't have to be all pro-Israel. Israel has its faults, too. But the whole truth should come out."
In short, dispassionate and rigorous scholarship should trump politics when it comes to teaching about the often volatile subject of Israel, according to Kay, who was asked how he could ensure that the chair he created will be occupied by a fair and apolitical academician rather than an agenda-driven partisan.
Kay answered that as part of the funding agreement, he has veto power over who will fill the post.
University spokespersons contacted subsequently disputed Kay's assertion. While acknowledging that under the funding agreement, Kay's input must be sought during the selection process, he does not, they added, have the final say-so. That is strictly up to the university, they said.
The search for the chair-holder is scheduled to begin in September, and is expected to take roughly six months, according Eric Zakim, the Gildenhorn Institute's executive director.
Whoever is chosen will specialize in 19th- and 20th-century Israeli history and will serve jointly in the Gildenhorn Institute, the university's Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, and the school's department of history. "We are open to scholars who push the boundaries of history and also look at questions from a sociological or political science perspective," said Zakim.
The emerging focus on Israeli history is Maryland's response to academia's tendency to pigeonhole Israel almost exclusively in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, rather than viewing it as a complex, multifaceted country that is an integral part of the larger Middle East, according to Hayim Lapin, director of the Meyerhoff Center.
"The conflict may be the elephant in the room, but it's not the whole room," Lapin added in a prepared statement. "Many students are probably most interested in the conflict, but we need to give them more. The field of Israel studies is reaching maturity. We've now got more than a half century of history and society to talk about."
That broader, more holistic approach to the study of Israel resonates with Maryland senior Avi Mayer, who is majoring in government and politics and Jewish studies.
"Yes, the conflict is the elephant," said Mayer, who is from Silver Spring, "but it's important that Israel also be portrayed in terms of its literature and culture and social aspects, its entire gestalt, and that it not be defined strictly in terms of the conflict. To do otherwise shortchanges Israel."