Nadav Morag has joined the University of Judaism (UJ) as the first director of its new Center for Israel Studies and chair of the political science department. Now 37, Morag was born in Israel, but came to the United States with his parents at age 2, and spent the next 20 years in this country before returning to his birthplace.
He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at UCLA and his doctorate at Tel Aviv University. Before assuming his present post, he served on Israel's National Security Council, in the prime minister's office, as senior director for domestic policy and subsequently for foreign policy.
Morag has been a teacher and researcher at the Technion and Tel Aviv University, and worked with Palestinian experts on joint economic and education projects at the Neustadter Institute for Peace Implementation. He is married to Galia, a Hebrew teacher, and has two children, Adi and Edan. The Jewish Journal recently interviewed Morag at his UJ office.
Jewish Journal: Given the already large number of Jewish defense organizations, academic study centers and Middle East think tanks, what do you see as the distinctive role of the new UJ center?
Nadav Morag: Our center will focus entirely on Israel from the academic, general educational and public affairs perspectives. We hope to provide in-depth analysis of Israel-related issues through college courses, public forums, policy reviews and serve as a knowledgeable source for the media.
JJ: Aren't these areas already covered by other institutions?
NM: Not at all. There is a lack of Israel-focused centers such as ours, particularly in the Western United States, where the only other one is at the University of Denver. I think the need was shown to me early this year, when the Anti-Defamation League asked me to speak on campuses, synagogues and before law enforcement groups in the South and Midwest. I found both a tremendous lack of knowledge about Israel and a real thirst for it, especially about the logic and rationale of Israeli policies.
JJ: Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard recently reported that it's considered "uncool" among students to be pro-Israel at American universities, and that in many places Jewish professors are afraid to speak up and defend Israel. What has been your experience?
NM: It's a bad situation -- though not as bad as in Europe -- much of it based on misinformation and ignorance. Next month, I am going to Anchorage, Alaska, for the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, which is a bastion of anti-Israeli sentiment. It should be interesting.
JJ: What can you do to remedy the "bad situation?"
NM: Look, I'm not here as a propagandist, but I can present what the Israeli considerations are, that there are valid reasons behind Israel's actions, which the foreign ministry doesn't always know how to get across.
JJ: How so?
NM: Especially before American audiences, you have to explain the moral dimensions of the problem, not just talk about Israeli interests and power. In my conversations with foreign military leaders and diplomats, questions of morality keep coming up.
JJ: When you served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), you advised the chief IDF spokesperson on media relations. What do you hope to accomplish with the media here?
NM: I've been trying to introduce myself to news editors and establish relationships. I hope that, at some point, they will use my background for comments and clarifications on Israeli issues. We'll see ... you can take the horse to water but you can't make it drink.
JJ: The UJ always faces a tight budget. Is there any problem in starting and supporting a Center for Israel Studies now?
NM: Frankly, I was surprised that such a center didn't already exist here. Israel plays a central role for Jews, maybe not for all Jews, but you can't be a Jew today without having a basic understanding of Israel. Financially, we have a very modest budget and at this point I have no support staff. We have a grant from The Jewish Federation and are looking for private donors. On the academic side, professor Steven Spiegel, who was my thesis adviser at UCLA, has agreed to serve as chief research consultant for our center here.
JJ: Let's close with an easy question. What is the future of the peace process?
NM: I didn't bring my crystal ball, but it's clear there will be no change until Yasser Arafat leaves, one way or the other. He's been very good at sabotaging every peace initiative and he is so central to Palestinian politics that there can be no meaningful changes as long as he's around. I can't say how long it will take after he's gone, but the Palestinians have suffered a great deal, at some point they must want to lead normal lives, too.
For more information about the Center for Israel Studies, visit www.uj.edu .