In the crowded alphabet soup of Washington, DC, Jewish think tanks, advocacy groups and associations (AIPAC, WINEP, APN, JCPA, JINSA…), a new institute opened its doors last week with a novel mission: to advance the scholarly study of modern Israel in the United States and around the world.
The Israel Institute, established by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, aims to be something of an academic clearinghouse for scholars pursuing Israel-related research and schools looking to expand their offerings of Israel studies courses and programs.
“We are a compass and catalyst for Israel studies,” says Itamar Rabinovich, the Institute’s president. “We don’t have lecture halls or a faculty. Rather, we provide funding and structural opportunities for people and existing institutions interested in deepening the study of modern Israel.”
As part of its mission, the Israel Institute is already supporting a partnership linking the Jewish studies and Israel studies departments of Tel Aviv University and the University of Maryland. At the University of Arizona, it is working to establish a professorship in Israel studies and, overseas, is facilitating collaborations between Israeli universities and schools in China, Great Britain, Germany and Latin America.
‘We don’t take positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we don’t have any intention of lobbying’
Rabinovich brings a wealth of experience to his new role. The 70-year-old is a former Israeli ambassador to the US and chief negotiator with Syria in the 1990’s. He is also a pioneer in the field of Israel studies, the former president of Tel Aviv University and currently serves as a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.
“It’s important to stress that the Israel Institute is non-partisan and is not a political advocacy group,” he says. “We don’t take positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we don’t have any intention of lobbying.”
Rabinovich says the institute will focus on supporting rigorous scholarship in an array of academic and cultural disciplines, including history, politics, international relations, economics, society, art, culture and literature. He adds that Palestinian scholars, insofar as their work naturally intersects with studies of modern Israel, will be invited to participate in the Institute’s programs, and a significant number of Israeli Arab academics will “for sure” be involved.
Ariel Ilan Roth, who, as executive director of the new group, will oversee its day-to-day operations, has said it intends to “bring coherence” to the “jumbled” but growing field of Israel studies.
According to Rabinovich, the nearly 70 percent increase in the number of Israel-related courses taught at American universities over the past eight years is a reflection of the Jewish state’s dynamism.
“Israel is an intellectual, scientific, artistic and technological hub,” he says.
‘The Israel Institute is non-partisan and is not a political advocacy group’
To broaden awareness of these aspects of modern Israel, the new institute is launching an array of initiatives, including Visiting Israel Artists, an initiative that enables Israeli artists to spend a semester at North American universities. It will also fund doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships in Israel studies, foster long-distance learning in collaboration with Israel’s Open University and establish residencies for Israeli artists to teach, exhibit and expose audiences to the diversity of Israel in the US and abroad.
The institute also aims to award research grants to scholars, fund internships at Washington, DC, think tanks and establish visiting professorships on US and European campuses for senior Israeli academics and policy experts.
For now, the Israel Institute shares office space in Washington, DC, with its patron, the Schusterman Foundation, which describes itself as committed to opening up opportunities for students to study modern Israel in academic environments that promote high-quality teaching and scholarship. But, as interest in modern Israel continues its rise on American campuses and around the world, the institute might soon need a building of its own.