NEW YORK, Dec. 1 (JTA) — During his inaugural lecture Monday night, Ronald Zweig, director of the recently opened Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University, pledged his commitment to shaping a new generation of Israel scholars who are willing to look critically at the complex issues of the Jewish state. “We’re committed to straight scholarship, not advocacy,” Zweig, a historian of modern Zionism, said in an interview. At the lecture and gala that followed, Jewish and non-Jewish academics lauded the creation of a center devoted to the study of Israel, a subject that often falls outside the realm of mainstream Judaic and Middle Eastern studies. They said Jewish studies departments tend to concentrate on textual learning, Hebrew language and literature, and Diaspora and Holocaust history, while Middle Eastern studies departments focus heavily on the Arab-Muslim world. “The study of Israel is underrepresented,” said Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, which will house the Taub Center. Created with a $4 million gift from The Marilyn and Henry Taub Foundation, the center, which opened in September, is among the first of its kind in America. The donation will fund Zweig’s salary, create two graduate fellowships in Israel studies and launch two extracurricular programs at the Hillel-affiliated Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life on campus. During his lecture, “Scholarship and Politics: Rules of Engagement in Israel Studies,” Zweig said that until the 1980s, many Israel scholars shied away from controversy for fear of providing “grist for the mill of its enemies.” In the Jewish state’s early days, academics engaged in self-censorship and tiptoed around subjects like Palestinian refugees, he said. But Israel scholarship has opened up significantly in recent years, Zweig said. “It’s safe to predict that the study of Israel has entered a new and fruitful phase,” he said. “No longer is there sacred ground.” According to Professor Kenneth Stein, director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University in Atlanta, modern Israel scholarship in America is still a nascent field. “It’s still a very tiny fraternity — we’re not even a minyan yet,” he said in an interview following the lecture. Stein noted that Brandeis, Emory and now NYU are among the country’s leaders in promoting Israel studies. Naomi Levine, the former senior vice president of NYU and now the Bronfman Center chairman, conceived of the idea for the center and served as a liaison between the Taub family and the Skirball Department. “It became clear that there was a need on campus for the study of modern Israel, its politics, and its social and economic problems and contributions,” Levine said in a phone interview. “On various campuses there has been tension between pro-Palestinian and Jewish students, and it seemed to me the argument for the existence of Israel was not well known. At this critical moment in Israel’s history, it’s important that people understand and have an education about its right to exist and its place in the Middle East,” she said. Levine reiterated Zweig’s commitment to the purest form of scholarship. “I believe that when you have an education, and the facts are known, that is the strongest form of advocacy,” she said. Zweig said he is heartened by the collaboration between the Center for Israel Studies, the Skirball Department, the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. “We have some wonderful people here prepared to work in a congenial, academic atmosphere,” Levine said. Farhad Kazemi, director of the Kevorkian Center, said Monday that the creation of the Taub Center will help round out the university’s study of the region. “You cannot study the Middle East in isolation,” he said. “We don’t want to ghettoize the study of Jewish history and culture, which is central to the study of the Middle East.” Anonymously, some drew stark comparisons between NYU and Columbia University, where some Jewish students have recently accused Middle Eastern studies professors of intimidation and making anti-Israel remarks. Asked about the controversy at Columbia, Schiffman said he was not in a position to comment about allegations made at another academic institution. “But there is a difference in someone sympathizing with their own cause and someone doing something they ought not to be doing,” he said. Donor Henry Taub graduated in 1947 from NYU’s School of Commerce, which was later renamed the Stern School, and co-founded Automatic Data Processing Inc. He has served on the university’s board of trustees since 1976. The gift earmarked for the creation of the Taub Center for Israel Studies is the latest in a series of donations from the Taub Foundation to NYU. Past donations have launched the university’s Taub Urban Research Center in the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and funded a chair and scholarship at the Stern School of Business. “It’s a privilege to have seen the State of Israel founded in my lifetime,” Taub said. “All of us need to better understand its development.” Zweig, formerly of Tel Aviv University, is the author of “Britain and Palestine During World War II” and “The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary.” The latter is about a train carrying Jewish valuables during World War II that never reached its destination and whose contents have remained a source of speculation and controversy. Zweig said he is committed over the next decade to shaping a cadre of Israel scholars. This semester he is teaching a graduate class on the years leading up to the founding of the state and an undergraduate class on Zionism from 1860 to the Oslo Accords in 1993. Reesa Grushka, 27, a doctoral candidate in Jewish studies and history, is taking Zweig’s graduate seminar. “The thing about Jewish studies is that you’re not studying a country,” Grushka said. “You’re studying Jews throughout the entire world.” The Hebrew and Judaic Studies department, she added “is already strong in European Jewish history and modern Jewish history, but the center will help tell the full story.”
Gabrielle Birkner is JTA's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @gabibirkner.