Reprieve for Israel studies at SOAS

Pears Foundation pledges funding for two new posts to safeguard future

By Simon Rocker, April 14, 2011

One of British Jewry's leading family charities, the Pears Foundation, has stepped in to safeguard the immediate future of Israel studies at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.

The foundation has pledged £485,000 over the next four years to fund two new posts, following the retirement of Professor Colin Shindler, the country's only professor in Israel studies, in September.

But Professor Shindler will return to SOAS as the inaugural Pears senior research fellow who will oversee the launch of a European Association of Israel Studies there.

In addition, Pears will jointly fund with SOAS a lectureship in Israel studies to continue teaching of the subject at graduate and undergraduate level.

Professor Shindler, who will turn 65 in September, said: "Our Israel studies programme has been incredibly popular and internationally accredited. I am delighted that SOAS will be able to provide an even greater range of academic tools through which anyone wanting to learn more about Israel can participate."

University and the union are very different

Charles Keidan, director of the foundation, said; "Israel studies is an important part of a wider understanding of the Middle East and we hope that students and academics will benefit from the increased breadth of study this investment will provide."

Professor Shindler said that at a time when many university posts were being cut, "it is amazing that this has come together."

He added that it was important to distinguish between the union, often thought of as a hotbed of anti-Israel bias, and the administration at the university which has "always stood up for freedom of expression".

He had taught classes on the Israel-Palestine conflict for more than 10 years to "people of all views. The last time, I had to go to another college because they didn't have a large enough classroom at SOAS".

Students often began the course with black and white views of the Middle East, he said.

"But by the end of the course they understood that the Israel-Palestine conflict is highly complex." The Pears Foundation has become an important funder of academic enterprise, supporting posts in Israel studies at Oxford and Manchester. It gas also established a new chair in antisemitism at Birkbeck College
and promoting scientific collaboration between Israeli and British universities.

But a question remains over the future of another post at SOAS, the chair of modern Jewish studies which is held by Professor Tudor Parfitt, who at 66 is already a year over the official retirement age.

He has taught Hebrew and Zionism at SOAS and also written widely on lost tribes in the diaspora.

Professor Parfitt said that there was no money to replace staff. If outside funding had not been found for the Israel posts, "I don't know what they would have done."

But he said he was in discussion with a foundation about the possibility of setting up a centre for Muslim-Jewish relations at SOAS.

Last updated: 12:54pm, April 14 2011