Israel studies minor to be offered at Concordia

Norma Joseph and Csaba Nikolenyi

For the first time, undergraduate students at a Canadian university will be able to earn a minor in Israel studies at Concordia University.

Concordia’s senate has just approved the program, which will be offered through the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, which was established in June 2011.

The program will be launched next fall, but new courses under development are expected to begin in January 2015, said the institute’s co-director Csaba Nikolenyi.

While the senate vote was unanimous, it took two years to get the support of all levels of the university hierarchy, he said.

It’s a major advancement for the institute, which was established with a $5-million donation from the Azrieli Foundation.

Until now, the institute’s work has been to support academically and financially, graduate and post-graduate students doing research related to Israel as part of their studies in a variety of disciplines, such as political science, history, sociology, religion or literature. Institute funding has even assisted one fine arts student.

It has no professors or course of its own. Nikolenyi, who is chair of the political science department, is co-director with Norma Joseph, an associate professor of religion.

Undergraduate courses being developed will range from the government of Israel to introductory Hebrew and Arabic.

In its short history, the institute has already attracted two students from Israel: Alon Burnstein, the first Israeli political science PhD candidate at Concordia, and Liora Norwich, who was granted a post-doctoral fellowship, said Nikolenyi.

Concordia, along with University of Toronto and the University of Calgary, are the only three universities in Canada that offers Israel studies.

The institute is unique, said Nikolenyi, as it is a research centre with the goal of fostering an environment for scholarship on Israel in all its dimensions.

It has no endowed chair in Israel studies as is the case at the other two universities (in either the political science or history departments), and that was intentional, he said.

Rather, the institute looks forward to the day when it has the means to install a visiting professor in a well established academic milieu specifically for Israel studies, Nikolenyi said.

This institute differs from most others in the field anywhere in that it is not limited to study of the modern state or the pre-state yishuv or Zionist movement, he said.

At Concordia, students can, for example, pursue interests in ancient Judaism because the religion department is strong in Judaic studies. Archeology is not offered at the university, but a course of study along that line might be arranged through the classics department, he said.

Israel studies has been a rapidly growing field in the past decade, he said, and there are now more than 40 such programs around the world today, even in such unlikely places as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

 The institute, which is located in the former Canadian Jewish Congress headquarters’ Samuel Bronfman building, also recently received another vote of confidence: it will host the annual conference of the Association of Israel Studies in 2015.

This conference, which alternates between North America and Israel, will bring anywhere from 500 to 700 of the top scholars in the field to Concordia’s downtown campus for four days in May of that year.

The daylong inaugural conference in November saw papers delivered by invited scholars from Concordia and McGill University, as well as the United States, England and Israel. The program was divided into sections on politics, culture, ethnicity and religion, which reflect the institute’s multidisciplinary approach.