The 10th Anniversary Spotlight Series highlights alumni, faculty, students and friends of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies who are agents of change in their communities and careers and have contributed to the vibrancy of the Institute.
Professor Itay Fishhendler is the Chair of the Department of Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a leading scholar on transboundary water institutions and Middle Eastern water policy, and has published over 50 articles in leading public policy, conflict resolution, peace studies, geography, ecological economics, and environmental journals. Fishhendler was a visiting professor with the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies in the 2014–2015 school year, and returned to teach at Cal again in the fall of 2018. He taught a course entitled “Transboundary Water Conflict Resolution: The Israeli-Arab Case”.
How did you come to know about the Helen Diller Institute?
I first came to UC Berkeley in 2003 as a part of my post-doctoral studies. My wife and I spent a year there, and it was a wonderful experience. Our first daughter was born in Berkeley. I then returned to Israel to teach full-time at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ten years later, when I was eligible for a sabbatical, my wife and I knew that we’d love to return to Berkeley. I met Ken Bamberger, the Institute’s Faculty Co-Director, in a restaurant in Israel to make sure that I was qualified to teach at UC Berkeley and that I fit with the goals and spirit of the Institute. It was like a match made in heaven. I liked the spirit of the Institute and the freedom that it gives, and the fact that it allows people to express different perspectives. I came to teach in 2014, when the Institute was relatively fresh, a few years after it was established.
How did being affiliated with the Institute add to your time at Cal?
The Institute provided me with the resources I needed to take advantage of my time as a visiting professor at Berkeley. I was able to start teaching within one week of arriving from Israel because of the managerial support that I received. They marketed my courses and helped me with administration, which was invaluable to me as I was working with a different system than I was used to. The Institute also facilitated an amazing community of all the visiting scholars from Israel that were at Berkeley during the time I was there. The Institute staff provided an avenue for us to interact, have an academic and personal exchange, and become friends. Having this community was invaluable to my time at Berkeley.
I think Ken and Rebecca (Institute Executive Director) were extremely instrumental in this sense. They did whatever it took for us to become friends—joint meetings, joint seminars, and organizing social gatherings. They didn’t force us to interact if we didn’t want to; they simply created a platform. Of course, the teaching was great and I had a lovely experience with the students, and I can give you all the clichés that others would give, but frankly the unique role of the Institute was how it facilitated community.
You returned as a visiting professor for a second time in 2018. What was that experience like?
Given the amazing experience I had the first time, when Ken and Rebecca suggested I come again, I was quick to accept. I was only able to do so given the financial and administrative support of the Institute and my previous experience of becoming part of a community. My wife and I had the same experience the second time around. We were not isolated; we were part of an Israeli community. I was again able to attend regular seminars on issues that related to Israel, which often took a critical perspective, and were always open-minded. I delivered the same course to a slightly different group of students, this time through the geography department and the Goldman School of Public Policy. Even till this day, whenever the option of a new sabbatical comes up, my kids automatically ask me if we can go back to Berkeley. We had such a lovely experience with the University, the Institute, and the city.
You conducted research with two of our Undergraduate Fellows during your time as a visiting professor. Could you tell me a bit about that experience?
Usually, professors do not have the will to work with undergraduate students so closely, nor do they expect them to be able to publish in top-rated academic journals. They assume they need far more training. I see things differently. I think students are talented and motivated—and motivation is essential; it is not enough to be extremely talented. Under the right conditions, if you work together with a student as a colleague, you could manage to exploit their amazing potential by guiding them through the process closely. That’s what I did with two students at UC Berkeley who were affiliated with the Institute: Nir Maoz and Alexandra Bar. They both approached me and said that they were interested in research, but that they’d never done it. I was aware that they were fresh, and that they had writing skills but didn’t yet know how to use them rigorously. The Institute supported those students, and even helped Alex come to Israel in person to continue the research. Both Nir and Alex worked with me on issues of energy politics. We ended up with two papers ranked in the highest 10th percentile in energy—an extremely rare feat even for an academic. For me it was breathtaking to accomplish this with two undergraduate students who really were guiding the process.
What are you working on right now?
Nowadays I dedicated my time to energy politics, specifically in areas of geopolitical conflict. I study the transition to renewable forms of energy in places like the West Bank and Gaza strip. In my research, I discovered that the Gaza strip has become a world leader in adopting renewable energy, with more renewable energy per person than California. Because of the geopolitical stress and conflict with Israel, we have found that Gazans often go green, relying on solar panels for their power as a strategy to meet the geopolitical conditions.
The Helen Diller Institute houses two core programs, the Program on Israel Studies, a nationally-recognized initiative for the study of Israel, and the Program on Jewish Law, Thought and Identity, the only program of its type in the western United States.
Together the Institute’s programs promote student and faculty engagement by developing opportunities for research, programming, and mentorship; by bringing visiting faculty and scholars to UC Berkeley; and by organizing colloquia, programs, and classes to strengthen academic inquiry and discourse across the Berkeley campus.
The Institute was launched in 2011, and draws its 22-member faculty committee from Political Science, Sociology, Economics, History, Jewish Studies, Music, as well as the Schools of Law, Journalism, and Business.