Assuming that the study of Israel is inadequately represented in the curriculum at the University of Pittsburgh, a recent editorial and a letter to The Chronicle have called for the creation of an Israeli studies position within the university’s faculty. I write to clarify the issue of Israel within the curriculum and to question the advisability of the proposed position.
As to the representation of Israel in the existing curriculum, first, please note that the University of Pittsburgh is the only college or university in the tri-state region to offer Hebrew-language courses, and the 100 students who annually enroll in those courses are not only introduced to the language but also to the culture expressed in that language in Israel today.
Secondly, through the departments of religious studies and history, students may choose two courses focused on Israel. The first course, “Modern Israel,” covers Zionism, the Yishuv, and the period 1947 through 1997. The second course, “Israel: State and Society,” focuses on Israel from independence through the present. Approximately, 135 students enroll in these courses annually.
Other departments also offer courses that involve the study of Israel. The political science department, for example, offers a course called “Government and Politics in the Middle East.” That course treats the Israeli political system within the larger framework of comparative politics. Discussion of Israeli films takes place in a number of courses offered through the film studies program. In short, students at the university can study Israeli life and culture in depth in a variety of course offerings already existing in the curriculum.
Concerning the question of a position dedicated exclusively to Israeli studies, an institutional, or structural, obstacle presents itself. Academic appointments are made to departments, which initiate all course offerings. Since the university does not have a department of Middle Eastern studies, the position would require a home in one of the existing disciplines. History, religious studies and political science are already spoken for, and given the absence of a Hebrew language and literature department, someone in Israeli literary studies would have no home base. So, creating such a position would result in an academic anomaly, a faculty member without a home.
Then there is the cost involved. The cost of a new entry-level tenure-stream position is about $3.5 million. The cost for a senior-level position is over $5 million. If one can solve the structural problem noted above, then a serious fundraising initiative becomes the next hurdle.
As an alternative, a more modest objective would be to raise approximately $500,000 to create a one-term visiting position to invite a senior colleague from Israel to offer courses in his or her area of specialty. This visiting position could be offered, on a competitive basis, to any of the departments in the humanities or social sciences. This type of arrangement has been employed successfully at a number of American universities. It appeals to Israeli scholars in a variety of disciplines who are seeking a U.S. academic experience and augments existing curricula within disciplinary frameworks.
Accordingly, we believe that the study of the Israeli experience is already given serious treatment at the University of Pittsburgh. The university has a vibrant and well-respected Jewish studies program, which the local Jewish community helped seed more than 35 years ago and in which it can take pride today. We look forward to continuing that relationship as we build on the strong foundation in place.
(Alexander Orbach is director of Jewish Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.)