Everybody talks about Israel, but, surprisingly, there is no teaching, research and community program at an American university that focuses solely on the Jewish state in all its multiple facets.
The gap is beginning to be filled at UCLA, and if all works as planned, the Israel Studies Program will be "the most comprehensive and systematic" in the United States, according to its organizers.
Already in place are two undergraduate courses, visits by prominent Israeli and American scholars, and a community lecture program. In the works is a major international conference on Israeli democracy.
By 2007, Israel studies expects to be fully on the intellectual, community and media map, with an interdisciplinary faculty, prestigious academic chair and library, and poised to offer an undergraduate degree.
While there are well-established Jewish and Middle/Near East study centers at UCLA and a number of East Coast universities, "Israel itself doesn't get focused attention and tends to get lost as an appendage to other programs," said UCLA political scientist Steven Spiegel, one of the movers of Israel studies.
Aside from academic considerations, there is a strong feeling among many professors -- and certainly within the Jewish community -- that Near East departments on many campuses (though not UCLA) are dominated by pro-Arabists.
Yuval Rotem, who recently left his post as Israeli consul general after five years in the Western United States, reflects the opinion of more reticent scholars.
"Professorial posts in too many Middle East centers on too many American campuses are funded and occupied by pro-Arabists, and when they invite Israeli speakers, these are often more hateful of Israel than are the Arabs," said Rotem in a phone call from Jerusalem.
"This situation, plus pro-Palestinian student movements on many campuses, can't be changed by the occasional seminar on Israel's plight or discussions among Jewish organizations," he said. "It's a long-range problem. Knowledge is a cumulative process and only a permanent study program on Israel can provide it."
The initiative, drive and seed money for the Israel Studies program has come from a determined woman -- Sharon Baradaran, a member of the influential Iranian American Nazarian clan of Los Angeles, who has a doctorate and is a university teacher in political science.
"It started more than two years ago, after the Israeli-Palestinian clashes in Jenin, when the media reported a lot of false and slanderous information about the behavior of the Israeli army," Baradaran said in a phone interview.
Upset by the reported distortions, she invited a group of friends, including Rotem, American academicians and Israeli officers who had participated in the Jenin action for an informal discussion at her home.
Every two or three months, she reconvened and expanded the salon, including visiting Israeli politicians and scholars, and the discussions became more urgent as anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic incidents were reported on numerous American campuses.
"I had the idea that while there were study centers on China, Russia, Latin America, Africa and many other areas at the UCLA International Institute, there was none for Israel, whose history, culture and political impact certainly warranted its own study program," Baradaran said.
"First, we wanted an interdisciplinary program that would draw faculty and students in history, economics, sociology, law, political science, literature and cultural studies," she added. "Secondly, we wanted a place open enough to also attract Arab and other scholars."
She and some of her influential salon friends presented the concept to UCLA Vice Provost Geoffrey Garrett, dean of the International Institute, and to UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale. Both men reacted enthusiastically but noted that in these difficult times, no university funds were available for the program.
Baradaran was not fazed. She and Steve Gamer, external affairs director for the UCLA Institute, mapped out a fundraising drive for a $5 million endowment, to underwrite a permanent academic chair, visiting scholars program, campus and community education, policy forums and conferences and to develop a curriculum on Israel for school teachers at all levels.
The Israel Studies program, and future center, will be named in honor of the hoped-for $5 million donor.
So far, $800,000 has been raised and seed money to invite distinguished scholars has been provided by the family foundation of Younes and Soraya Nazarian, Baradaran's parents. This month, professor Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem inaugurated the visiting scholar program.
While the fundraising is progressing, two undergraduate courses in the Israel program are already in their second year. One is "History of Israel: 1948 to Present," popularly dubbed Israel 101.
The second is an innovative course on Israel-Diaspora Relations, in which students at UCLA and Tel Aviv University hold "joint" videoconferencing classes to explore each other's culture, politics and attitudes. Dr. Fredelle Spiegel initiated and teaches the class, which was initially funded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Directors of the Jewish Studies centers at USC and UCLA see the developing Israel program not as a competitor, but as an ally.
"I've always emphasized that the more high quality research and teaching on Israel and Jewish life we can get, the better it is for everybody," said Dr. Barry Glassner, director of the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.
Dr. David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who participated in the planning of the Israel program, said, "Israel is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world, and a better comprehension is vital to the intellectual and general communities. What better place to have the Israel program than in Los Angeles?"
Myers' center at UCLA has organized an extensive campus and public program for the 2004-2005 academic year, including lectures, seminars and workshops on local Jewish history, Jewish-Muslim relations, Yiddish and Sephardic culture and the Holocaust. For information, call (310) 825-5387 or visit www.cjs.ucla.edu.
For information on programs or financial support for the Israel Studies program, contact Steve Gamer at (310) 206-8578 or email@example.com.