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Sunday, September 21, 2014

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Israel, Zionism studies require detachment: historian

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SDE BOKER, Israel — Israeli and Zionist history is viewed as objectively as possible at Ben-Gurion University’s (BGU) Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism.

There are no rose-coloured glasses to be seen or peered through, says Ofer Shiff, a senior lecturer at the institute.

This level of research study requires an exacting degree of scholarly detachment, said Shiff, who until last year headed BGU’s Israel studies program.

Yet there is no getting around the fact that when the vast majority of the teachers and students of Israel and Zionism are Jewish, there’s a risk that scholarly detachment can only go so far, he said.

“This is a holistic story we are trying to tell,” Shiff told a group of media representatives visiting BGU recently. “There are many converging and diverging narratives, and we must look at them all.

“We see ourselves responsible for how we tell our own story.”

That sentiment was echoed by Natan Aridan, a historian at the research institute who is managing editor of the English-language Israel Studies.

“This is our laboratory,” said Aridan. “This is where our students get to understand the discourse.”

At the very core of the research are the David Ben-Gurion Archives, housed at the institute on BGU’s Sde Boker campus. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, lived in Sde Boker. His glasses are still perched on the desk at his humble kibbutz home, which is now a museum.

Ben-Gurion kept detailed memoirs as well as virtually all ephemera related to every aspect of the founding and creation of the Jewish state. His papers are a treasure-trove for academics, historians, archivists and scholars.

“As if he knew what we would be looking at some day,” Shiff said.

Shiff and Aridan brought along a replica of a binder of Ben-Gurion’s, which included the yellowing paper where he jotted down not only his thoughts of the day, but also, on the side of his ledger, a list of yishuvim that had been established that day.

Since 2011-12, the BGU institute’s Israel studies program has offered an English-language component that enables international students, for the first time, to earn a master’s degree in Israel studies Hebrew speakers have been able to do since 2005. The overall institute dates back to 1976.

According to the institute’s website, the program covers more than a century of Zionism, integrating historical and contemporary perspectives, and focuses on the emergence of Zionist ideology, and the building of the Yishuv and the State of Israel.

 “The content of the program is based on the assumption that the field of Israel studies is inextricably connected to the fields of modern Jewish history and Middle Eastern studies,” the website states.

“The program’s approach is multi-disciplinary, with a historical emphasis.”

Both inside and outside Israel, Israel studies is thriving at several other institutions, especially in the United States, but also in Canada, at Montreal’s Concordia University and the University of Calgary. The University of Toronto has an Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies.

But for Shiff and Aridan, nothing quite compares to studying Israel and Zionism at the place where the “old man,” Ben-Gurion, lived and died – at BGU-Sde Boker, where the Jewish state’s most precious records are kept.

“The archives touch us right here at home. Every day we touch history,” Shiff said.

David Lazarus took part in the media mission as a guest of BGU.

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