Skip to Main Content

Conference Wrap-Up

AJS 45th Annual Conference
December 15, 2013 • Boston, Massachusetts
Sheraton Boston

Jewish Studies and Israel Studies in the Academy: Continuing the Conversation, A Report from the 2013 AJS Conference
Pamela S. Nadell (American University)

Advancing Academic Careers
Jessica Cooperman (Muhlenberg College)

Jewish Studies and Israel Studies in the Academy: Continuing the Conversation, A Report from the 2013 AJS Conference

During the 2013 AJS conference, Professors Michael Brenner (American University and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität), John Efron (University of California at Berkeley), and Ken Stein (Emory University) continued a conversation that has been underway in recent years about the relationship between Jewish Studies and Israel Studies in the academy. As Janet Krasner Aronson, Annette Koren, and Leonard Saxe have observed, "a quasi-revolution has occurred in the teaching of Israel on college campuses in the United States." Since the academic year 2005- 2006, they have found "tremendous growth" in Israel Studies in the American academy. [1]

But what does this mean for Jewish Studies? In "Is Israel a Jewish State?," historian Derek Penslar wrote that "the idea that Zionism was qualitatively distinct from other Jewish political movements in modern times and that Israel wrought a sea-change upon its immigrants has promoted an unfortunate separation between the fields of Israel and Jewish studies." [2] This roundtable explored that separation.

I chaired this session, and what follows reflects my own takeaways. One question which keeps surfacing is where to locate Israel Studies on campus. On the one hand, there is widespread agreement that understanding Jewish history and the Jewish experience broadly is essential for Israel Studies. On the other hand, as a model somewhat akin to area studies, which are geographically based although not usually focused on a single country, Israel Studies incorporates the study of its business systems and its developments in green technology. Those trained in history, as the panelists and I are, naturally emphasize the importance of the Jewish context for Israel Studies. But, not all, especially those working in other disciplines, agree. The panelists also raised, although they did not dwell extensively, on the matter of the often fraught relationship between Middle Eastern Studies and Israel Studies. The result is that Israel Studies, for the moment, seems to sit at the margins of Jewish Studies, area studies, and Middle Eastern Studies, and, as John Efron observed, at Berkeley sits in its law school. Perhaps in time a consensus on location will develop but, for the moment, where Israel Studies parks on any given campus and how it connects to (or disconnects from) that school's Jewish Studies division seems directly related to the interests of the lively actors who were instrumental in bringing Israel Studies to that campus.

Underlying this discussion about location is a very real concern about competition and costs. We hear repeatedly that enrollments in the humanities are declining, and these seem to include, at least anecdotally, a waning interest among students in Jewish studies classes. [Another AJS roundtable, "Attracting Students to the Jewish Studies Classroom: Reports from the Field," responded to this issue.] Are Israel Studies classes competing with Jewish Studies classes for what may be a shrinking pool of potential students, especially in classes on topics other than the conflict? In other words, as Israel Studies has expanded, has it been at the expense of Jewish Studies? Given that for most donors it is highly likely that supporting Israel Studies is part of their personal expressions of Jewish philanthropy, has this meant diminished support for Jewish Studies?

The audience contributed significantly to the discussion. Annette Koren, a research scientist at the Brandeis Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, drew our attention to a new report on Israel Studies in the academy to be published early in 2014, which demonstrates that the trend of its expansion continues. Professors Naomi Sokoloff and Alan Levenson pointed to the troubling matter that growth in Israel Studies has not been accompanied by a concomitant increase in the study of Hebrew language.

Finally, panelist John Efron raised a question which hovered over our discussion, a concern about Balkanization. We know that many students, who take a course in Israel Studies offered by a department of history or political science, would never take the same course were it under the auspices of a Jewish Studies program. Yet, having two separate small program, one in Jewish Studies and another in Israel Studies, also seems problematic. In the end, I heard no solutions to our conundrums, but rather the promise to continue the conversation beyond this year's AJS meeting.

Pamela S. Nadell
American University

1 Janet Krasner Aronson, Annette Koren, Leonard Saxe. "Teaching Israel at American universities; Growth, Placement, and Future Prospects," Israel Studies 18, 3 (Fall 2013): 158- 178.

2 Derek Penslar, Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective. London and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 66.

Advancing Academic Careers

Both established and emerging scholars are aware of the many demands and challenges of sustaining an academic career – family obligations, job changes or insecurity, unequal demands from colleagues or administrators – but these issues often are considered peripheral to one's professional life, or as hurdles that one should overcome privately. The Women's Caucus decided to focus on these important concerns by sponsoring a session, "Advancing Academic Careers: An Interactive Roundtable," at the 2013 AJS Conference. While the featured panelists, Kirsten Fermaglich, Karla Goldman, Pamela Nadel, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and Women's Caucus co-chair Shira Kohn, were all women, they addressed topics and offered suggestions relevant to all audience and AJS members. Caucus co-chair Jessica Cooperman served as moderator. We chose the panelists both because of their thoughtfulness about the challenges of academic careers, and because of their different personal and career paths, institutional homes, and career stages. Each panelist prepared a brief bio for the panel that emphasized not only their accomplishments, but also some of challenges that had defined their lives as academics. Over the course of the session, panelists discussed the multiple forces and decisions that shape and confound academic careers, and made these "peripheral" concerns central to our conversation. They identified key issues that scholars at any stage in their careers should be aware of and ways in which these potential hurdles may be tackled.

Mentorship. Prior to the conference, the Women's Caucus solicited questions from the AJS membership. These served as the starting point for our discussion and were quickly augmented by questions from the audience. Many of the questions emphasized an ongoing need for professional mentorship. Scholars at the start of their careers asked for advice about negotiating over salary and job benefits, and advocating for one's self without running afoul of departmental politics and agendas. Panelist advised a combination of assertiveness and caution, and noted that women tend to be less successful negotiators than their male colleagues. They urged junior scholars to ask for what they need, but to bear in mind that there will be limits on the financial package a department or institution can offer. Junior scholars were advised to think of their needs broadly, including things such as library and technological resources, teaching schedules, and research and travel plans, as these were also parts of a job to be negotiated, and areas over which a department chair might have greater control and flexibility. Junior scholars were also cautioned to remember that colleagues are not necessarily friends. They should enter into any professional negotiation with realistic expectations of the extent to which new colleagues are prepared to support them, and with the knowledge that it takes time to understand the politics of any academic work environment.

Transitions Around Tenure. Scholars at a mid-career again stressed the need for mentorship. Some questioners commented that earlier mentoring relationships seemed to fall away at this point in their career, but that they needed guidance to face the new challenge of moving from Associate to Full Professor. Others on the panel and in the audience noted that this transition is often particularly difficult for women, who tend to be promoted to Full Professor at rates far lower, and at a pace far slower, than their male counterparts. Panelist agreed that it was important to find new mentors at this stage in one's career as it often presents complicated new demands, particularly in terms of departmental and institutional administration and service. They noted the advantages of learning to make budgets early in one's career, and the importance of saying "no," politely but firmly, in order to protect your time. They also noted that institutions can play a valuable role in making sure that women at mid-career are progressing to Full Professor positions, both by keeping track of gender balance at various ranks, and by creating opportunities for support and mentorship.

Non-Academic and Contingent Careers. The most challenging questions received by the panel were those that focused on the shifting conditions of the academic job market and on the growing number of scholars, particularly women, working in non-tenure track positions. Many questioners asked what advice the panel had for scholars working as adjuncts, on one year contracts, and in hybrid positions combining administrative and teaching responsibilities – all of which offer little if any support for research. They noted that people often take these jobs with the hope that they will lead to tenure track employment either at the same or another institution, but that this transition can be extremely difficult to make. It is, moreover, often complicated by the demands of family, and personal circumstance. Several audience members asked about the best point in one's career to start a family, some commented on the difficulty of moving for a job because of commitments to partners, parents, or children; others talked about the challenge of moving to smaller communities where it can be difficult to live as a Jewish person, or to socialize as a single person, particularly for women.

Through this vibrant dialogue, both panelists and audience members agreed on the necessity of addressing new conditions in which academic careers may have multiple stops on the way to a tenure track position, or in which tenured and tenure track professors may come to represent only a portion the field. Panelists admitted, however, that they too had only limited insight into the future of academia and that these questions, like those regarding mentorship, were areas worthy of broad and sustained conversation at AJS.

Jessica Cooperman
Muhlenberg College