Ethan Katz is an Associate Professor of History at UC Berkeley and a member of the Helen Diller Institute’s Faculty Executive Board. His scholarship focuses on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and the nature of belonging and exclusion in modern France and the Francophone world.
Why did you choose to join the Institute’s Faculty Executive Board? What has your experience been like?
I joined the Institute’s Faculty Executive Board because I think the work they are doing is extremely important. It also intersects with my specific interests as a scholar. My scholarship is concentrated on the Jews of France and the Francophone world. Much of it has concerned the position of Jews in French colonial societies in France and French North Africa and the relationship between Jews and Muslims in those areas. Events in the State of Israel and the Palestinian Territories have always been important considerations in parts of my research, and the impact of the (Israeli-Palestinian) Conflict is very present in a lot of the issues I work on. So in that way, joining the Institute was a natural fit.
I also have a deep commitment to holding thoughtful conversations about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict on college campuses and to fostering intellectual and educational connections to Israel. I spent a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a graduate student in 2006–2007, along with a year as a Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University in 2016–2017. For that reason, I am very supportive of the Institute’s work to foster relationships with Israeli institutions and scholars. I also strongly believe that the effort of the Institute to push forward more thoughtful conversation about Israel and about the Conflict is very important. It’s something that I’ve been personally committed to, particularly in the last two years as I helped to found and spearhead the Antisemitism Education Initiative in which the Institute is a partner. A lot of what we focus on is educating people broadly about antisemitism and specifically about ways to have robust debate about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. We want to encourage debate about the conduct of the Israeli government that can be fiercely critical of its practices while avoiding being antisemitic or hostile towards Jewish members of our community. With that context, I feel very aligned with the work of the Institute, as they also strive to facilitate that sort of nuanced and respectful dialogue.
I’ve also been involved in helping to coordinate logistics for certain scholars who come here through the History Department, and helping Rebecca (the Institute’s Executive Director) assess visiting scholars whose areas of expertise are approximate to mine. I recently received a grant from the Israel Institute which was matched by the Helen Diller Institute to prepare a course on Zionism in Israel, which I plan to teach for the first time next year. That’s part of my commitment to the work of the Institute and my connection to it.
As someone who is very involved in the Center for Jewish Studies, I see the Institute as one of the essential partners for the Center. I think that’s a widely shared perception among my colleagues. Two of my most important faculty colleagues and mentors have been people very involved in the Institute—Ken Bamberger and Steven Davidoff Solomon, both of whom I’ve learned a lot from and who have become dear friends.
How has the Institute changed the face of Berkeley’s campus?
The Institute is doing essential work on Berkeley’s campus, as it provides a space for students to learn about all aspects of Israeli society and Jewish law. The model of the Institute is a very different model than Israel Studies on most campuses. Most campuses began with endowed chairs in Israel Studies—positions that are relatively siloed from other parts of the campus and therefore tend to draw a self-selecting audience. What the Institute has done is introduce Israel-related courses and faculty into different departments and programs throughout the University, which broadens the impact of the work that they do. They sometimes bring Israeli scholars whose work doesn’t primarily focus on Israel and who still are connecting students, teaching students, showing them that Israelis can come here and teach any number of things that are not necessarily about Zionism or the Conflict, which is, for better or worse, what many people’s association with Israel so often is.
I think the Institute is also a place that’s been very open to critical thought in the way that any academic institution should be—but that is not always associated with the field of Israel Studies. They bring a really broad array of speakers and visiting faculty. Those people have wide-ranging political opinions, religious backgrounds, outlooks on challenges and conflicts in Israeli society, and views of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict—there’s no sense of group-speak there. The faculty affiliated with the Institute have a range of opinions on these issues as well. I think that’s really important and valuable.
The Institute is critical in giving space to a variety of perspectives on campus. While it provides a space for faculty, students, and staff to feel they can speak up in hard conversations, it doesn’t come with a political agenda that mandates its affiliates to hold one particular opinion on Israel. That goal has been clear since the Institute’s founding. It’s also worth noting that the Institute partners well, including partnering on various programs with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). We shouldn’t be naïve about the fact that such collaborations are not necessarily happening on many campuses in today’s political climate.
The Institute has established a variety of avenues for Israel Studies, Israeli perspectives, Israeli culture and life to be much more present on this campus in ways that embrace critical thought, which is what we should strive for and be proud of.
The Institute has another side to it that is a little bit less visible, but is very important to many of us: its program on Jewish law. For people like me whose scholarship includes Jewish law, it’s a great asset to have an institutionalized interest in that field here at Berkeley.
How do you see the Institute growing in the next few years?
Obviously, everyone is very excited about two major gifts in the last couple of years—the endowed professorship that’s currently held by Ron Hassner, and the larger endowment that came from the Diller family in the last year. These are going to provide opportunities for growing in new ways, for investing in different areas. That creates a new level of the Institute institutionalizing Israel Studies in the future. I know the Institute will go about that in the same thoughtful way they have up to this point. It’s a moment of dynamic change and growth in Jewish Studies on this campus writ large. We are going to be making several hires in the coming years in Jewish Studies, including in Hebrew literature. I know that historically, the entire budget of the Institute was “soft money,” and I believe they did incredibly well with that budgetary model, but such a situation creates various pressures and it takes a lot of staff time to maintain that. In light of these gifts, particularly the Diller endowment, while fundraising will remain a priority for the foreseeable future, it won’t play the same absolutely essential role in the sustenance of the Institute. Hopefully that frees people up to be creative and think about growing in other ways.
What are you working on right now?
I always have many things in the works. As mentioned before, we started the Antisemitism Education Initiative about two years ago. We produced a film in the past six months which is now being used by educators across the country. It’s an eleven-minute bias training film about antisemitism, available freely with discussion questions to go along with it. We will continue to engage further with the administration on that work and be a growing resource for other campuses as they also try to combat antisemitism.
In my own research, I have a forthcoming book that connects very strongly to the Jewish law side of the Institute. The book is preliminarily titled When Jews Argue: Between the University and the Beit Midrash. It’s about Jewish Studies between the academy and the traditional study house of Jewish texts and Jewish law. It focuses on the problems that arise when those two worlds do not really understand or speak to each other, what is lost there, and what can be gained by a more integrative approach. I hope very much that when that project is complete, I’ll have the opportunity to share my work at an event held by the Institute.
My larger book project remains the history of a Jewish resistance movement in Algiers during WWII. It was clearly the most important Jewish resistance movement during the war because it was strategically crucial to the success of the Allied landing in North Africa. It’s also a story that is not really well-known. The one place this story has had more of a life as a memory has been Israel, though it has been constantly wrapped up in debates there about Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the Holocaust. It was embraced by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin as a great story of Jewish resistance, but didn’t take hold until much later. It has interesting implications for Holocaust memory in Israeli society, where the Holocaust is such a lynchpin for national identity. There’s been a lot of discussion about how that affects non-Ashkenazi Jews in recent years, which has brought the story out in interesting and revealing ways.