Contrary to widespread fears of a rising global wave of anti-Semitism, "we, as Jews, have many more friends than we think we have," said professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, president of the Association of Jewish Studies, which recently held its 34th annual meeting in Los Angeles.
The Dec. 15-17 conference attested to the growth of Jewish studies on university campuses in the United States and around the world, with an increasing number of non-Jews joining the ranks of scholars and students.
In Europe, as in China, there is "the phenomenon of Jewish studies without Jews," said Schiffman, a man of rabbinical mien with a kippah and full black beard, who chairs the Skirball department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Newly discovered Jewish archives are energizing research in the former Soviet Union, and some excellent scholarly work is coming out of German universities, he said.
Jewish studies in the United States really took off after the Six-Day War in 1967, a time that also brought a new awareness "of the centrality of Jews in the general culture," Schiffman said.
"Jewish studies are no longer a sideshow, but are now a respected part of the academic mainstream," said the NYU professor, whose own specialty is the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Current anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian agitation at U.S. colleges has not affected the popularity of Jewish studies but does indicate a need for more emphasis on Israel in the curriculum, Schiffman said.
One practical yardstick of an academic program's viability is the number of jobs open to rising young doctoral graduates. At the Association of Jewish Studies (AJS) meeting, which also serves as a job fair, 50 openings at various universities were advertised.
"There is neither a glut nor a drought" in the supply line, Schiffman observed.
The AJS membership stands at 2,000 professors, librarians, archivists and graduate students, with Israelis representing about 20 percent of the number. There is also a scattering of European and Latin American members. The Los Angeles meeting drew nearly 800 participants.
Early Jewish studies centers -- the one at NYU started in the 1930s -- tended to concentrate on classical biblical and religious studies. For a while, in the second part of the last century, it appeared that preoccupation with the Holocaust might preempt the whole field, but a balance has now been achieved, according to Schiffman.
A recent trend points to the popularity of cultural and gender studies, and papers presented at the AJS meeting analyzed Jewish Hollywood and included such topics as "Food, Gender, Sex in Jewish Identity."
There is a growing interest in historical and political issues at Israeli institutions. Israel also hosts the triennial meeting of the World Union of Jewish Studies.
Another trend at U.S. universities is to cross the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines in so-called area studies. For instance, in Middle East studies, historians, economists, linguists, political scientists and sociologists will integrate their special perspectives in analyzing the geographic region.
Schiffman believes that the early Jewish studies centers not only proved that intellectual objectivity is possible in ethnic studies, but served as models for Black, Chicano and Asian centers. On the other hand, he credits the civil rights movement of the 1960s with providing "a greater comfort level with ethnicity" for all minorities, including Jews.
In addition, all such centers help disprove the concept of the American melting pot. "There are some things you can't melt down," he said.
Schiffman has written eight books and has edited many others, but lately, has found himself much in demand as a television expert and commentator on Jewish topics.
It's an awesome feeling, he said, "to know that some 18 million people are listening to your remarks on the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Second Temple period."