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Georgetown Eyeing a Judaics Center in Bid To Boost Image

In an effort that could help burnish its spotty image in the Jewish community, Georgetown University, a prestigious Jesuit institution with a prominent center for Arab studies, is moving toward establishing a “Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization.”

“We have internally — and making no announcement about it whatsoever — determined that we wish to create such a center,” Georgetown’s provost, James O’Donnell, told the Forward. O’Donnell declined to discuss details about the proposed center, saying only that it is “a strong institutional and personal priority.”

“It takes time, it takes diplomacy, it takes quiet conversations among ourselves and with friends and supporters outside to make it happen,” O’Donnell said.

While it is said to have the largest number of Jewish students of any American Catholic university — with 400 to 500 Jewish undergraduates — some members of the Jewish campus community say that additional Jewish studies offerings are sorely needed.

Some also feel that the university’s offerings on the Middle East are often slanted against Israel. The university is home to a renowned School of Foreign Service, which includes a Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and a Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. The Arab studies center, in particular, has been a source of rhetoric and programming that many in the campus Jewish community have found inflammatory.

The center is “effectively a lobby for Arab causes in general and the Palestinian cause in particular,” said Middle East scholar Martin Kramer, author of “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America” and a visiting professor in Georgetown’s government department from 1995 to 1996. But Samer Shehata, acting director of Arab studies academic programs at Georgetown, called Kramer’s characterization “absurd.”

Kramer is not alone, however, in expressing concern about the academic climate at Georgetown when it comes to the Middle East. A December 9, 2001, memorandum regarding the need for a Jewish studies center, from the university’s senior Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Harold White, to government professor Robert Lieber, urged Georgetown “to create a more positive image for itself within the Jewish community.”

“The Jewish student body at Georgetown often feels victimized by the reality that there exist so few resources for presenting Judaism as a civilization on campus,” stated the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward. “In the classroom, as well as in Red Square [a central campus gathering spot], they become targets from the overflow of the Middle East conflict in the University.”

The memo went on to praise Georgetown for its “remarkable” work in fostering Jewish-Christian dialogue and hailed it as the “first Jesuit University to engage a fulltime Jewish Chaplain,” adding that the university “should thus be perceived in a positive manner by the Jewish community.” It said, however, that “Due to the imbalance which revolves around the Middle East conflict, Georgetown is unfortunately viewed in a negative way both on an individual level and through the Jewish media. A Center for Jewish Civilization would be a great asset in transforming the negative image into a positive view.”

Lieber told the Forward that White’s memo “got the ball rolling” in the effort to establish the center. However, Lieber declined to comment further on the memo, explaining that “a lot has gone on” since it was written. He said, however, that the fact that the university has decided that it wants to establish the Jewish studies center “reflects well on Georgetown,” and he praised the university’s president, John DeGioia, as being “warmly and genuinely supportive of this effort.” White did not return a call seeking comment on the memo.

The most recent Middle East-related blow-up at Georgetown occurred this past November, when many in the campus Jewish community were angered by the sponsorship by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and Georgetown’s Program on Justice and Peace of a campus lecture by Norman Finkelstein, a fierce critic of Israel and author of the controversial 2000 book “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering.”

The controversy surrounding Finkelstein’s lecture roughly coincided with a report in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper that a professor emeritus affiliated with the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Hisham Sharabi, had said at a Lebanese university that “Jews are getting ready to take control of us and the Americans have entered the region to possess the oil resources and redraw the geopolitical map of the Arab world.” Sharabi contended in a statement that the quotation reported by the newspaper was “inaccurate and has been taken out of context.”

The university, however, apparently realized it had a public relations problem. In a November 22 statement issued in response to the Sharabi incident, DeGioia touted the university’s “proud history and… strong commitment to inquiry into Jewish civilization” and announced that the university is “exploring the establishment of a Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization.” Lieber, however, said that there was “no direct connection” between the Sharabi and Finkelstein controversies and the university’s support for the idea of the Jewish studies center.

Yossi Shain, a Georgetown government professor who said that he is the proposed Jewish studies center’s “designated head,” insisted that the center would not be established “as a counterbalance to any center or in competition with any center” at Georgetown. He said it is “intended to be an academic center and a public podium for the study of Jewish life for a variety of aspects — religion, politics, culture.” He said the center would be “very important” by virtue of its location at a “Jesuit school that has great interest in the exchanges and dialogue between cultures.”

Shain, who previously headed Tel Aviv University’s political science department, said that the center is “something that is happening, no doubt about it.” Shain said that the center would have permanent faculty as well as visiting fellows, but he referred questions about specifics, such as whether the center would offer degrees, to O’Donnell.

At present, Georgetown University has a “Jewish Studies Initiative” and offers a handful of Jewish studies-related courses in various departments but does not offer degrees or a minor in Jewish studies. The initiative’s director, Cecile Kuznitz, an assistant professor of Jewish history and Jewish studies, said that she was not consulted regarding proposals for the Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization, nor has she since been “kept in the loop,” which she calls “ironic” because she “was hired specifically because I had that expertise in academic Jewish studies to help develop a vision of a Jewish studies program.”

She said that there have been a “number of false starts for Jewish studies at Georgetown,” which, she added, “shows a certain lack of the kind of sustained administrative or institutional support to really get behind one effort and stick with it.” Kuznitz said that her own initial three-year contract with Georgetown would expire at the end of this academic year and that she has been told that it will not be renewed.

Daniel Spector, a junior and president of Georgetown’s Jewish Students Association, praised the school’s administration for its “great respect” for Jewish heritage and said the university already has “a lot to offer Jewish students.”

“Any center that would be created would be a wonderful addition and a natural progression in terms of Jewish life,” Spector said.

O’Donnell said he was confident that the university would make progress on the center. He said that he would “love to have something to announce” this academic year, but that he had “no idea whether we will achieve that or not.”

The Georgetown provost said that he did not know whether the proposed center would be a first for a Catholic university, but he added: “There was a time when Catholic institutions wouldn’t have centers for Jewish civilization. That time, fortunately, has passed.”

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