Investing in knowledge: The imperative for increased support for Israel studies and Jewish studies programs

In the vast landscape of academia, certain disciplines stand as beacons of cultural, historical and societal significance. Among these, Israel studies and Jewish studies shine with a unique brilliance, offering profound insights into millennia-old traditions, modern geopolitical complexities and the enduring resilience of a people. In an era marked by polarizing narratives, misinformation and misconceptions, the importance of delving into these subjects cannot be overstated. By focusing on academic exploration rather than advocacy and fostering critical inquiry and nuanced understanding, Israel studies and Jewish studies programs equip students with the tools to navigate the complexities of our world and contribute meaningfully to the ongoing discourse.

The study of modern Israel provides a way to engage with a nation whose roots extend deep into antiquity, and whose story is intertwined with the very fabric of human civilization. From the ancient narratives of the Hebrew Bible to the modern social, political and economic realities as well as the challenges of statehood, Israel presents a phenomenon that defies simplistic characterization and rewards multidimensional analysis. Similarly, Jewish studies encompass a diverse array of topics, ranging from religious texts and traditions to the diasporic experiences of Jewish communities around the globe. Through the study of literature, history, philosophy, art and more, students gain a deeper appreciation for the richness and complexity of Jewish identity.

Israel studies and Jewish studies can also play a pivotal role in fostering dialogue and reconciliation. By equipping students with the analytical tools to rediscover preexisting narratives and challenge assumptions, these two different yet interrelated academic disciplines pave the way for constructive engagement and mutual understanding. A diverse course catalog, public programming, study abroad experiences and exchange programs, as well as collaborative research projects, create unique opportunities for students, scholars and the general public to transcend political divides and forge connections based on shared humanity and intellectual curiosity.

The value of Israel studies and Jewish studies extends far beyond the confines of the classroom or the campus as well. In an increasingly interconnected world, where headlines often fail to capture the depths of complex issues, informed discourse is more important than ever; the ability to analyze sources, evaluate arguments and discern bias is indispensable. Central to the pedagogy of Israel studies and Jewish studies is the cultivation of critical thinking skills and interdisciplinary perspectives. By encouraging students to approach complex issues from multiple angles, and drawing upon insights from history, sociology, political science and other disciplines, these fields empower individuals to engage such intricate topics with depth, empathy and confidence. Whether grappling with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, surveying the historical or present-day displays of antisemitism, or studying the diverse expressions of Jewish identity, knowledge-based and nuanced perspectives serve as a bulwark against ignorance, superficiality and prejudice.

Finally, Israel studies and Jewish studies offer significant vocational value for our graduates. Students develop transferable skills such as working with original sources, assessing arguments, synthesizing information, explaining complex concepts and compiling data and bibliography. With the increasing emphasis on diversity, cultural competency and international understanding in various professional fields, graduates with expertise in Israel studies and Jewish studies bring a unique perspective and skillset to the table. Whether entering fields such as diplomacy, civil society, journalism or education, or even business and politics, our graduates possess a deep understanding of historical, cultural and geopolitical dynamics that can enhance their effectiveness and success in the workforce.

Despite their undeniable importance, however, Israel studies and Jewish studies programs struggle to secure the necessary financial support to truly thrive. Too often, these disciplines are seen as niche or peripheral, overshadowed by more mainstream or applied fields of study. As a result, many Israel studies and Jewish studies programs struggle to attract top-tier faculty, provide competitive salaries or offer robust research opportunities for students and faculty. Without sustained financial support, Israel studies and Jewish studies programs risk stagnation or decline, depriving future generations of the insights and understanding they provide.

The importance of Israel studies and Jewish studies cannot be exaggerated, certainly in this time and age. As we seek to cultivate a discourse that is both rigorous and nuanced and that is driven by the exploration of the intricacies of our identities or histories, both at home and abroad, the need for increased funding for Israel studies and Jewish studies programs on U.S. campuses has never been more urgent. These disciplines offer a beacon of hope and understanding, and by fostering nuanced discourse, critical inquiry and interdisciplinary collaboration, they empower students to become informed citizens and agents of positive change.

By investing in Israel studies and Jewish studies programs, we not only enrich academic scholarship and intellectual discourse but also foster understanding, empathy and reconciliation in an increasingly divided world. As we confront the challenges of the 21st century, let us recognize the vital role that such programs play in shaping our collective future and commit to providing the support and resources necessary for their continued success. As Socrates famously stated, “There is only one good — knowledge — and one evil — ignorance.” Now more than ever is the time to embrace the richness, complexity and importance of robust Israel studies and Jewish studies programs, for the sake of our shared humanity and the generations yet to come.

Ilai Z. Saltzman is an associate research professor and director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Maxine Grossman is an associate professor and director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Program and Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.