Association for Israel Studies holds 34th conference at UC Berkeley, discusses Israel after 70 years

Amanda Ramirez/Staff

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The 34th annual Association for Israel Studies, or AIS, conference was hosted by the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies from June 25–27 — the first time the conference has ever taken place at UC Berkeley and only the second time ever in California.

With the theme “Israel at Seventy: Challenges and Opportunities,” the conference included a keynote address by campus alumnus and University of Haifa President Ron Robin, a concert by the Amos Hoffman & Noam Lemish Quartet — which is made up of Israeli musicians — and a conferencewide meeting on the relevance of Zionism, according to the AIS program.

“(This is an) opportunity to bring a different perspective about Israeli studies,” said Shai Iluz, outreach coordinator of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. “It’s a lot of honor for our department to host a conference that is giving the opportunity to the students as well as to the community.”

The Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies was only established in 2013, but the program’s newness is one of the reasons for hosting the conference on campus, according to conference speaker and Open University of Israel professor Aviva Halamish.

“(UC Berkeley is) trailing behind many (Israeli studies) centers all over the continent,” Halamish said. “That’s a young program, and maybe the conference will give it a boost.”

An international scholarly society, AIS was founded in 1985 and welcomes anyone engaged with or interested in scholarly inquiry about Israel, the Zionist movement or the pre-Israel Jewish community in Palestine to join for a membership fee of about $120.

Wednesday’s meeting welcomed four professors: Hebrew University of Jerusalem communications lecturer Gadi Taub, University of Toronto Jewish history and visiting Harvard University history professor Derek Penslar, Israel Institute and visiting UC Berkeley professor Rami Zeedan, and Halamish.

The meeting hosted a room of vocal academics who discussed questions such as the relevance of Zionism and whether the term “Zionism” itself has been co-opted.

Many speakers noted the reality of their presence on a politically active campus — Halamish commented at the meeting that she was unsure of the conference’s impact on campus because there hadn’t been any protests, and Taub expressed excitement at having been applauded by a Berkeley audience.

Diversity of thought was also delivered as promised. Taub and Penslar adamantly disagreed over whether the term Zionism had been “hijacked,” leading to arguments involving audience members. An attendee challenged Taub’s conflation of the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas’ approach to the two-state Israel-Palestine solution with that of the Palestinian people.

Stating that Western civilization was involved in many contemporary issues in Israel, Halamish recognized the commonalities between the United States and Israel.

“Immigrants are the history of the U.S. … (and) immigration is the history of Israel,” Halamish said. “That’s the way it should be looked at.”

Contact Alexandra Reinecke at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @arhine9.