WALTHAM -- Israel. The word immediately conjures many subjects: history, religion, culture and, of course, conflict.
Receiving only quick updates on the news and images of terrorist attacks, Americans have an insufficient and fractured image of the troubled but vibrant land.
Brandeis University has decided to address this pressing issue. Last month the school named Professor Ilan Troen to the Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies.
The appointment is "to develop an accurate historical understanding of the origin and development of the state of Israel and its place in the world," according to an announcement from the Media Relations Department at the school.
The only other similar positions in North America are the Pat M. Glazer Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Indiana University and an Israel Studies Chair at the University of Toronto.
Troen comes from Boston, but moved to Israel more than 27 years ago after graduating from Brandeis in 1963 and earning a master of arts degree and doctorate from the University of Chicago.
Troen is now a professor of modern history at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev in southern Israel, and a senior fellow at Ben-Gurion Research Center in Sede Boker. Troen is also the author or editor of 10 books.
Originally scheduled to serve as a visiting professor in Israel studies in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis last year, Troen was pleased to learn he had been chosen as the Stoll chair.
When he immigrated to Israel decades ago, he said in an e-mail interview, "there was no intention of returning back to the States" on a permanent basis.
However, his new position will give him the chance to teach one semester a year stateside and spend more time with his 94-year-old father who currently resides in Roslindale.
Troen's wife teaches applied linguistics at Ben-Gurion University and they have six children, five of whom are college or post-college age. His youngest, ninth-grader Abe, was able to spend last fall in Massachusetts while Troen taught at Brandeis.
Abe attended Newton South High School, which he loved, but has since returned to Israel for the rest of the school year. He will visit his father in the United States for the Jewish holidays during the semester Troen is here.
As he balances spending one semester in the United States and the rest of the year in Israel, Troen straddles both worlds and seems uniquely qualified to teach both undergraduate and graduate students about Israel in America.
He hopes to address the dearth of instruction on Israel since "...the country is so often misunderstood either through ignorance or malicious intent. Without examining the country in the university, many encounter the complexities of the country only through media sound bites and short articles in the newspapers...universities must do more."
Discussing Israel, never mind lecturing on it, is often a challenge because the opinions of those involved come under scrutiny.
Troen is well aware of the challenge, and has clearly stated, "I am a Zionist and have decided to build my life (in Israel). I can also be critical of my society. Nevertheless, it is criticism within an appreciation for the positive and the commitment to work for improvement. This is particularly important in assessing Israel...since (there are) those within and outside the country who view the country's history as but a litany of misdeeds and the Zionist enterprise as illegitimate.
"There are those, for example, who do not believe a Jewish state can also be a democratic one. I think such issues and critiques ought to be brought forward directly and dispassionately even as my own position is unequivocal and clear."
In addition to the lack of Israel studies chairs in American universities, Troen said, "A strong representation of Israel is very rare in centers for Middle Eastern studies, which are often hostile to Israel." He hopes that one day, there will be even more specialists at Brandeis.
In addition to teaching about Israel, Troen is also looking forward to working closely with Baghdad-born dissident Professor Kanan Makiya, the recently appointed Sylvia K. Hassenfeld chair in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis.
Although Makiya will be busy in the near future helping to draft the new constitution of Iraq as a former adviser to President George W. Bush, he and Troen have been supervising a doctoral student together.
Troen feels the study of Israel should not just be seen as important to Jews, but to all cultures.
He said, "There is, in short, something particular to the Jewish experience in the study of Israel, but there is also something that can be very widely, if not universally, appreciated."
Troen's newest book is "Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement," Yale University Press, due out in July.