Interview: David Ariel

The head of the UK’s foremost centre of Jewish studies in Oxford has a message ‘the world needs’.


Professor David Ariel: “The world needs our message”

Professor David Ariel: “The world needs our message”

Oxford University is probably the last place you would go to hear about old wives’ tales or, in that splendid Yiddish word for them, bubbemeises. But among the eight million volumes that make up the Bodleian Library’s vast reserves of knowledge sits a copy of the very first bubbemeise.

People often imagine the word comes from bubbe and means “grandmother’s tales”, says David Ariel, president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. “It doesn’t. There was an Arthurian legend known as the legend of Sir Bevis. That was translated into German and then into Yiddish as the Bovo Myseh, the Legend of Sir Bevis. That entered into popular Yiddish culture as bubbemeise. It is an Athurian legend translated into Yiddish and we have the text in the Bodleian Library.”

Professor Ariel is a newcomer to Oxford, having arrived from Cleveland, Ohio to take up the centre’s reins last autumn, the first American head of this most English of institutions — based in a Jacobean manor house five miles from the city centre in the village of Yarnton.

Opened in 1972 by its first president David Patterson, it remains an independent body which operates, in effect, as the university’s Jewish studies arm, supplying tutors for degree courses. “Without us, there would be no Jewish studies at the university,” Professor Ariel says. Its team of 12 fellows and nine lecturers teach some 30 undergraduates and 35 graduates. Among the hundreds of visiting fellows who have sought its sanctuary have been leading Israeli authors such as A B Yehoshua.

Professor Ariel’s own writings include an introduction to Jewish mysticism, but his mission in Oxford has a more practical bent. The new president had to be “someone comfortable with marketing and fundraising”, he says. And when it comes to advancing Oxford’s claims, he is an assured salesman.

“I would say, after Jerusalem, Oxford may be the most important destination for understanding European Jewish civilisation, because the treasures of Jewish civilisation, other than those that were destroyed in the Holocaust, have been preserved at the Bodleian better than anywhere else.”

The academic enterprise delivers a wider social message, he explains. “Our strength is really in the study of the Hebrew Bible in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, and the interaction between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is not obscure academic research. The study of the interaction between Judaism, Christianity and Islam presents a more positive narrative of inter-religious pluralism.

“Antisemitism is often the narrative by which we understand the Jewish experience under Christian and Islamic rule. But the picture is much more complex. Christian Hebraists preserved the collections of Jewish literature and studied Judaism here at Oxford throughout the Renaissance and Reformation. The records of Jewish-Islamic interaction is also a very powerful narrative.”

These examples represent “an antidote to the message of antisemitism… There are circumstances where Jews and Christians, and Jews and Muslims, can collaborate and work together, even on religious grounds. The world needs this message.”

Behind the historic facade of this very English Jacobean manor house is the modern centre of Hebrew learning which supplies the scholars who keep Jewish studies alive and thriving at Oxford University

Behind the historic facade of this very English Jacobean manor house is the modern centre of Hebrew learning which supplies the scholars who keep Jewish studies alive and thriving at Oxford University

Hence supporting Jewish studies at Oxford is not only a “mitzvah” for British Jews but a “global Jewish responsibility”, and given the historic role of Christians supporting the study of Judaism at Oxford, “it’s not just a Jewish responsibility” either.

When anti-Israel protests erupted after the Gaza invasion earlier this year, however, one Jewish academic (not at the centre) reportedly remarked that Oxford would be a “Jew-free zone” in five years. It is not a pessimism Professor Ariel shares. “The university has a long tradition of teaching Hebrew and is very committed to Jewish studies and Israel studies, so I have no concerns about the positive contribution of the university to Jewish continuity. Indeed, I would say that the world needs Oxford if we are going to reconstruct the story of the Jewish people.”

As for anti-Israel sentiment, it is “part of the fabric of many university communities around the world”, he says. “That argument can’t be won through debate. The only responsible way to address anti-Zionism is the proper teaching of Israel studies and that means teaching about Israel’s history, Israel’s democracy, Israel’s achievements, contributions to medicine, science, culture. You never engage in a battle head-on.”

Over the next five years he hopes to double the centre’s annual £2.1 million budget, finding the funds to secure half a dozen of the current fellowships, adding three or four new posts and increasing the number of postgraduate bursaries.

It is an ambition that entails spending a good deal of time courting donors in London, where he finds a “wise” and “vibrant” Jewish community which “doesn’t pat itself on the back enough… This is a community that has always kept to the golden middle, not suffered extremes and has found a very comfortable place in society.”

A half-million pound gift from an “anonymous UK Jewish donor” towards a post in East European Jewish studies has brought encouraging early rewards. Not surprising that the professor seems to be enjoying his new home. “I love being here,” he says, “I find this to be the most noble work one could have. Sometimes it is possible to be so close to Oxford that we don’t fully appreciate all it means in modern Jewish life.”

    Last updated: 11:52am, July 2 2009