Many of the conference participants, along with Elaine and Michael Serling, seated at left
Many of the conference participants, along with Elaine and Michael Serling, seated at left

MSU holds its largest Israel conference as new Serling Institute is launched.

Above: Many of the conference participants, along with Elaine and Michael Serling, seated at left.
Credit: Jordan Noble

Michigan State University hosted the largest academic conference on Israel in its history Sept. 16-17. More than 260 faculty, students and community members from East Lansing, Metro Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids attended the recent two-day conference: “Israel at 70: Complexity, Challenge and Creativity.”

The conference brought together 40 prominent scholars from Israel and throughout the United States, including MSU’s own experts, to discuss transformations in Israeli culture, society, politics and innovation. The symposium received extensive support from MSU with 14 colleges, departments and programs co-sponsoring. Provost June Youatt and six deans also attended the opening lunch or dinner and various sessions.

Fortuitous timing added another layer to the excitement. Just three days before the conference, Michael and Elaine Serling of West Bloomfield signed documents for their impactful multimillion-dollar naming gift for the MSU Jewish Studies Program, which officially becomes the Michael and Elaine Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel. The Serlings both addressed the conference to express their excitement.

“To see my alma mater taking the lead in the intellectual advancement of Jewish studies and connectivity with Israel has been very rewarding, and it is a great joy to be able to support the bright future of this program,” Michael said.

Conference Topics

At the conference, a panel presented on American efforts to mediate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Moderator Gilead Sher was chief of staff and policy coordinator to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and served as chief negotiator at the Camp David summit in 2000 and co-chief at the Taba talks in 2001. He currently heads the Center for Applied Negotiations and is a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies.

Other topics ranged from the controversies over how Jerusalem might be divided and/or shared in future peace agreements to the many “lessons to be learned” from cooperating grassroots Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organizations. Also, the constructive role that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and UAE might play in the peace process was debated.

As the evening keynote speaker, Sher gave a thought-provoking, inspiring vision for moving things forward to an eventual peace agreement. The hope for peace that infused the panels and keynote was captured in a sing-a-long with Elaine Serling, accompanied by Israeli scholar Dr. Alon Tal and kibbutznik Cantor Bill Slott. The high-spirited music session ended with Elaine’s original song, “Sing a Song for Peace,” with more than 100 people joining in.

Interesting dialogues developed during the portion of the conference on shifts in Israeli society, culture and politics over the past 70 years. Topics ranged from an examination of the portrayal of women in Israeli film to teaching pedagogies for Israeli and Palestinian students studying creative writing in the same classroom to shifts in Israeli nationalisms.

A highlight of the day was a talk by Naomi Chazan, professor emerita of political science at Hebrew University, who warned of illiberal trends in Israeli society and forces challenging those trends. Chazan served three terms as a Meretz Party member of Knesset and has authored eight books on comparative politics. She is among the founders of the International Women’s Commission for an Israel-Palestinian peace.

Another thought-provoking panel examined the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and discussed the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israel and where such criticism crosses into anti-Semitism, with emphasis on some of the rhetoric, accusations and images used by the BDS movement.

The second day focused on the many strands of Israeli innovation in agriculture, water technology, the environment, entrepreneurship, business start-ups and biomedical engineering. For example, Professor Oded Shoseyov of Hebrew University talked about how Israeli genetic engineers discovered the methods to cultivate previously unknown substances existing in nature that can now be used in food, water and biomedicine.

MSU professors Dr. Galit Pelled and Dr. Assaf Gilad, originally from Israel, gave presentations about their research in biomedical engineering at the Institute of Quantitative Health and Sciences at Michigan State.

Strength of Israel Studies

This conference is the outgrowth of MSU’s existing strengths in Israel studies, and the new endowment in Modern Israel signifies continued growth. The Michael and Elaine Serling Institute has one of the most robust Israel studies components in the country, and we are now poised to make even greater strides.

Through the program, up to 16 courses a year on different aspects of Israel studies and Hebrew are offered by our faculty and visiting Israeli scholars, as well as faculty leading our study abroad programs in Israel. More than 200 MSU students have benefited from the two faculty-led study abroad programs in Israel. We are fortunate to have the most generous Israel study abroad scholarships in the country, thanks to funds established by Ed Levy and Linda Dresner, Albert and Sherie Gladner, and Ed and Dot Slade.

The Levy scholarships, the new Modern Israel endowment from the Serlings and a recent endowment from David and Larry Hersh in memory of their parents, James and Anna Hersh, will also provide internship and research scholarships in Israel for our students.

In recent years, we have hosted seven visiting Israeli scholars to campus in four different colleges, offering a total of 27 courses. These Israeli scholars have included anthropologists, architects, screenwriters, documentary filmmakers and directors, political scientists, environmentalists and business entrepreneurs.

Our 14 annual MSU Israeli Film Festivals have featured more than 64 Israeli films and hosted many of the films’ directors to MSU for discussions. We have also hosted many lectures on Modern Israel by prominent novelists, journalists, film directors, political scientists, historians, professors of literature and policy makers.

This “Israel at 70 Conference” is only the most recent example of the vibrancy of Israel and Jewish studies at MSU. I’m proud to say MSU embraces the study of Israel, the country’s democratic values and its challenges, as well as its significant achievements in science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and the arts.

The leadership at MSU and I, as director of the Serling Institute, are enthusiastic about the new opportunities this Modern Israel endowment will create for partnering with Israelis in many endeavors, including research, internships and faculty/student exchanges.

Yael Aronoff
Yael Aronoff Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

Yael Aronoff is director of the Michael and Elaine Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel and Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Chair in Israel Studies at Michigan State University.

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