Concordia to host international Israel studies conference

Jennifer Solomon, co-ordinator of the 31st Association for Israel Studies annual meeting, is joined by program assistants Marat Grebennikov, left, and Nate Dagane.

MONTREAL — Concordia University, still associated in the public’s mind as a hotbed for anti-Israel expression, will host 300 academics from many parts of the world devoted to the scholarly study of Israel in all its facets.

The 31st annual meeting of Association for Israel Studies (AIS) takes place at Concordia’s downtown campus from June 1 to 3, when these academics will present papers on topics related to the modern state of Israel, or its pre-state years, in disciplines ranging from political science and sociology to literature and the arts.

It’s “a huge feather in the cap” for the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, founded just four years ago at Concordia with a $5-milion donation from the Azrieli Foundation, said its director Csaba Nikolenyi. It’s only the second time the AIS meeting has been held in Canada.

The symbolism of such a conference taking place at Concordia can also not be ignored, he agreed.

The meetings alternate each year between Israel and abroad.

While the largest number will come from the United States and Israel, Nikolenyi said the academics are also from China, Russia, Japan, Egypt and Europe, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania.

Nikolenyi, also chair of the program committee, chose as a theme, Sustainable Israel: A Changing Society in the 21st Century, to reflect the strong interest in ecology and development at Concordia. The university, for example, was recently selected as the executive secretariat of Future Earth, a UN project. That, of course, does not mean that participants had to present on that theme and, in fact, the great majority will not.

There is a mini-plenary on Sustainability in Israel featuring three Israeli academics from the Sustainability Research Centre of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

The field of Israel studies has been steadily growing, and in the past decade, has expanded considerably, said Nikolenyi, a political scientist.

The AIS now has members in dozens of countries on five continents. Its current president is Hebrew University’s political scientist Prof. Menachem Hofnung.

Among the prominent personalities taking part in the AIS meeting will be Anita Shapira, author of a new biography Ben Gurion: Father of Modern Israel (Yale University Press) and a Tel Aviv University professor emeritus, and Ilan Troen of Brandeis University, founder of the journal Israel Studies and considered one of the leaders in the field.

Of course, one need not be Jewish to be an Israel studies academic, and, in fact, there are Arab and Muslim participants. For instance, Menna Abu Khadra speaks on “Israel Studies at Egyptian Universities: Cairo University as a Test Case.”

One of the Azrieli Institute’s research fellows, Yakub Halabi, is on the meeting’s local organizing committee.

Members of First Nations will be participating in sessions on sustainability.

The more than 75 working sessions scheduled cover such topics as Israel’s relations with the United States, Palestinian rights, the status of Jerusalem, the settlements, the legal system, Holocaust research, security policy, gender equality, and Zionism today. 

The effect of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign will also be discussed. Last fall, Concordia undergraduates endorsed a BDS resolution.

The Azrieli Institute is a multidisciplinary research centre that fosters and supports graduate studies, as well as faculty research projects. Post-doctoral fellowships worth $24,000 are available, as well as support for visiting faculty fellows.

The institute created the first and only Israel studies undergraduate program in Canada, enabling students to take a minor in the subject.

Besides the working sessions, there are related events such as the screening of Israeli films, and exhibits, like the one on sustainable architecture and design by Technion students and another on the National Library of Israel’s digital archives project.

Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler will give the keynote address “Israel, Human Rights, Global Anti-Semitism” on June 2, when Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak will also speak. The meeting is open to the public.