MONTREAL — Concordia University will become a centre for Israel studies of international rank thanks to a $5-million donation from billionaire real-estate developer David Azrieli.
The Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies was officially launched June 22 with the announcement that the Azrieli Foundation has established a permanent endowment to support it.
The gift is one of, if not the, single largest the university’s faculty of arts and sciences, with which the institute is affiliated, has ever received. Concordia is matching the donation in kind through various services.
The institute will encourage and fund research by graduate students wishing to specialize in Israel studies, as well as by faculty. It will also support visiting professorships, conferences and other exchanges, and public lectures.
The approach is multidisciplinary, meaning the institute will be concerned with any subject that falls under the arts or sciences, from the humanities to linguistics to technology.
Research that even tangentially touches on Israel, from ancient times to the modern state, will be considered for grants, said Concordia Jewish studies professor Norma Joseph, a CJN columnist and an initiator of the institute who was instrumental in obtaining the Azrieli family’s support.
She will serve as its co-director with Csaba Nikolenyi, a political science professor whose expertise is in electoral systems and has studied the Israeli model.
Other than the appointment of visiting professors for a year or two, the program will not add faculty posts. In that way, it is significantly different from chairs in Israel studies, which is a small but growing academic area.
There are eight chairs in Israel studies in North America, including at the University of Toronto and the University of Calgary. Joseph said Concordia did not want to go that route, which puts the money into an appointee and his work, but rather preferred to spread resources to nurture more and different research projects.
The approach is also interdisciplinary, she said, in that students from different fields will be brought together through their common interest in Israel.
Research proposals by master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral students will be considered. The selection process has not been finalized, Joseph said. A committee of scholars is working on that. The hope is that the first fellowships will be named this year.
Concordia is not creating an Israel studies program, as such, of which there are 10 or 11 today at different institutions, including the U of C.
A minor in Israel studies for undergraduates is a longer-term goal of the institute.
The Azrieli Institute is unique. The only comparable entity Joseph can think of is the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, but even it isn’t as research-focused, nor as committed to the study of Israel in all its aspects.
Naomi Azrieli, president of the Azrieli Foundation, said the multidisciplinary approach was important.
“For too long, the study of Israel gets lost in politics or the story of conflict. Israel should be studied like any other country – its history, its geography, its sociology, its economy,” she said.
The foundation also did not want the institute to be a branch of Jewish studies, as important as Israel is to the Jewish people. “We wanted to take it out of the religious context.”
Both Joseph and Azrieli stressed that the institute is not political.
“There’s no political agenda,” said Joseph, “only a scholarly one untainted by a political or religious preference. The purpose is not to posit any outcome, but to seek out fact and open the door to interaction.”
Azrieli added: “This is absolutely not a political initiative in any way… It’s beyond politics.”
Concordia has been the site of past discord between pro- and anti-Israel students, including an infamous 2002 incident in which then-former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prevented from speaking on campus by a violent protest.
The creation of the institute is thrilling for David Azrieli, his daughter said. The Polish-born Azrieli, 89, lived in Israel from 1942 to 1950 and fought in its War of Independence.
Today, he divides his time between Montreal and Israel, and continues to play an active role in the management of his companies in both countries.
“He is thrilled to see his interest in Israel, which includes the educational and scholarly, come together was his longstanding – and proud – commitment to Concordia, which goes back to the 1970s,” she said. “In fact the first graduate fellowship at Concordia was established by him.”