ISMI History, 1998-Present

The Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel (ISMI) is the oldest undergraduate interdisciplinary Israel Studies Center in the United States. Founded in 1998, ISMI evolved out of academic interest and student demand for learning about modern Israel. Prior to its establishment on the Emory campus, the roots of the program emerged from the work of the Middle East program of the Carter Center, and particularly from President Jimmy Carter’s interest in the Arab-Israeli negotiating process and Professor Ken Stein’s scholarly and teaching interests in the field of the modern Middle East and modern Israeli history. In the late 1970s, there was little interest at Emory College for courses on international relations, except for several excellent foreign language programs, course or two on Latin American and Russian politics, and several courses on European and Japanese history.

Hired in January 1977 for a three- month position to test the waters of student interest for courses on Israel and the Middle East, Stein, who was a recent PhD from Michigan, offered a course on modern Israel and one on the modern Middle East, and enrollment hit 80 and 45 respectively. The College Dean and the History Department chair offered Stein a second year appointment and then a tenure track position. Student interest in the Middle East was high because of local issues there, the unfolding Sadat-Begin negotiating process, the fall of the Shah and subsequent rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the emergence of political Islam, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Once the Carter Center was established in 1981-1982, with a Middle East program that undertook scholarly and popular political research, students gladly rotated between the campus classroom and research on contemporary issues. The November 1983 Middle East Consultation of the Carter Center brought to Emory two dozen American, Middle Eastern, and European diplomats, scholars, former and current office holders, under the leadership of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The Campus was awash with interest about the Middle East, and would remain so throughout the 1980s, as two additional major meetings dealing with the negotiating process were held at Emory. Carter would regularly come to undergraduate classes on the Middle East to offer his recollections of the Iranian revolution or the Arab- Israeli negotiating process. Emory College added faculty in several international areas in the early 1980s, but none on the Middle East save for language and literature additions, and in Jewish Studies.

The first course on modern Israel (Modern History: 1882 to the present) was offered at Emory College by Ken Stein in Spring 1977. Scant other courses were offered on Israel at the time, with a few focusing on intermittent offerings in Hebrew language and literature and biblical archaeology. In the 1960s and 1970s, on Emory’s campus, academic enrichment programs on Israel or the Middle East, except for those arranged through the local Hillel and local Atlanta Jewish organizations, were very infrequent, though Holocaust studies and the areas interest evolved in the Religion Department and Theology School.

With the endorsement of the Emory College Dean John Palms, Professor Ken Stein, in 1978 established with federal (NDEA Title VI) grants, the Emory Program for International Studies and then in 1980, the Emory Center for International Studies (ECIS). Funds from both newly created inter-disciplinary programs were used to bring visiting lecturers, conduct conferences, and hire additional faculty at Emory College. All area studies fields were seeded with few dealing with Israel or the Middle East. Occasionally funds for a lecture were available, but on- campus programs on the Middle East radiated from the Carter Center. With the open embrace from Atlanta Jewish community leadership and the staff at the Consulate of Israel to the Southeast, occasional visiting Israeli academics and researchers in many fields found opportunities to speak on the Emory campus. Professor David Blumenthal arrived on the Emory campus in 1976-77 and along with several other faculty, they carried forward a Jewish studies focus with additional course offerings. Still no Jewish Studies program or department was formed until the Tam Institute in late 1998.

ISMI interns reading Camp David-1978 documents, summer 2018.

Throughout the 1980s, Emory students were offered courses on medieval Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the modern Middle East, the Arab world in the 20th century and a regular course on modern Israel. Students continued their research interests in contemporary Middle Eastern history topics at the Carter Center under Stein’s direction. In 1989, a dozen or more Carter Center interns engaged in an Arab-Israel negotiating simulation framed by an international Middle East peace conference. At the end of the simulation ‘members’ of the Palestinian and Israeli delegations could not be found; they had left the conference site and returned with a private agreement unimpeded by “other Arab delegations, the UN, or great powers”. Three years later as if following an identical path, first in London and then in Norway, the Palestinians, led by Yasir Arafat’s  representatives and Israeli scholars and diplomats coordinated by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, respectively Israeli Foreign Minister and Prime Minister at the time carved out the Oslo Accords. The Accords were signed on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

In the late 1980s, small sums of funds were raised from external sources to Emory for campus lectures and conferences. Most of these programs were co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, ADL, Emory Hillel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the JCC, the Jewish Community Relations Council and Atlanta area congregations. By the end of the 1980s, two significant gifts to Emory College were received, specifically to support Israel-related programs. The first was provided by Arthur Blank and then Bernie Marcus, two of the founders of Home Depot. Both Blank and Marcus continued their core support of Israel programming on the Emory campus, working with Ken well into the 1990s and beyond, with the sole condition that regular collaboration and education be sustained with Atlanta Jewish and non-Jewish civic and religious institutions. Additionally, several years of significant operational support for Israel studies programming was provided by Ethel and Phil Klutznick from Chicago.

In Spring 1992, when the Middle East Program of the Carter Center abruptly ended, Emory College Dean David Bright provided office space for administrative assistance for Israel studies and some on-campus programming. When Carter made the decision to end the Middle East program of the Carter Center, negative reaction was broadly expressed that a program that benefited many students would be summarily terminated.

Martin Indyk, then the Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote to Emory President Laney at the time, arguing that “No other program like it [the Middle East Program] exists outside the Beltway makes a unique contribution to the understanding of the Middle East in the United States.” Jake Tapper who was a Middle East program Carter Center intern in fall 1989 wrote to Laney calling Carter’s decision short- sighted, that the program “had a powerful effect on me, the experience was an extremely rewarding one. It is an extremely respected institution.” An Emory undergraduate at the time, and now the Director of the TAM Institute for Jewish Studies in Emory College, Eric Goldstein feared Carter’s cut in resources would have an adverse impact upon Emory research internships. Stuart Lewingrub (Z”L), in March 1992, then Executive Director of the ADL’s office in Atlanta at the time, noted that “The Carter Center’s going out of the Middle East business will leave a vacuum;” and Sherry Frank, the Southeastern area director of the American Jewish Committee acknowledged that “we have been able to bring distinguished scholars to town because Ken Stein (through the Carter Center) opens doors for us.”

Two years earlier, Arthur Blank had made a large 10-year gift to the Carter Center, a third of which
was earmarked for the Middle East program of the Center. Clearly unwelcome and unexpected to President Carter, Blank informed the University in spring 1992, just weeks after Carter ended the Middle East program internships at the Carter Center, that a third of his gift was to migrate with Ken from the Carter Center for Middle East program to Israel programming on the Emory campus, including for office operations and if desired, an ‘endowment to establish a Center.’ Carter’s excuse was that Arab-Israeli negotiations were moving forward (which they were not at the time) and therefore he did not need a Middle East program at the Center, where students were doing research.

In Fall 1990 and Spring 1991, Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Bruce Maddy- Weitzman became the first visiting Israeli scholar to teach at Emory, giving courses on the ‘Near East, 1914-present’ and ‘Middle Eastern Arab States.’

Through the 1990s, the Blank funds were used for operations and not for an endowment; some funds were left at the end of the 1990s and held in accounts for future use. Some of those dwindling funds are presently used in 2018 to pay ISMI staff salaries. Significant new funds for Israel programming materialized from Emory parents, the most significant and sustaining from Marsha and Jerry Seslowe. Their generosity over the last 18 years has been a core reason why ISMI has kept going and why ISMI has been able to bring visiting Israeli scholars to campus on such a regular basis. It is fair to say that without the initial major on-going gifts in the 1990s and into 2000 and beyond from the Blank, Marcus, Klutznick, and Seslowe families, the beginning, the establishment and the continuation of the work of the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel would not have been sustained.

Later in the second decade of the 2000s, significant yearly funding for ISMI was provided by the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation and a host of other gracious and generous donors. Special thanks are offered to Jay Kaiman for his years of support and guidance. For three decades, the Marcus Foundation, and the personal commitment of Bernie and Billi Marcus enabled ISMI to reach this moment.

The precedent for Emory College deans to accept visiting Israeli scholars was routinized: Ken raised the funds from external sources for the visitor (salaries, health care, transportation, and occasionally a housing stipend), then he approached the dean after gaining consent of a department head to allow additional courses to be given; courses were cross-listed; appointments were made- all at no cost to Emory College. It was an easy sell to a department chair and to the deans. Quality scholars were hired to teach courses not otherwise offered in what came to be six different departments, with 14 visiting Israeli scholars teaching 700 students in 40 courses. The demand for Israel or modern Middle Eastern history courses at Emory was established; these visitors then became part of the Atlanta area community’s programming in congregations, schools, civic organizations, and quite frequently on local television and CNN, as well as giving presentations across Georgia and the rest of the South. Credit and gratitude for allowing the visiting Israeli scholar program to continue rests with the respective Emory College deans and departmental chairs.

 Trip-Photo.pngInaugural ISMI Intern Trip, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2017

Already in 1986, Emory College, in keeping with the growth of area studies programs and departments already established in Emory College with Russian Studies, French, German, and Latin American Studies, a Near Eastern Language and Literature Department was created. Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, and eventually Persian language courses were offered. Israel-related courses remained from what Ken was teaching and a few occasional offerings in the Political Science Department. In 1992, an Arab-Israeli conflict course, that had been offered initially for several semesters at the end of the 1970s and 1980s, but suspended for lack of teaching faculty, was now offered once every other semester. A sophomore walked into Stein’s office in 1992, complaining that there were not enough interesting introductory courses being given on the Middle East, and he should teach an Arab- Israeli conflict course open to all classes. In the fall 1993 semester Stein offered the course, and it has been offered at least every other year since with enrollments averaging 90 students per class, among the highest in the college. In 1993, a proposal to establish an Israeli Studies Center was made to Emory College. It was turned down for lack of funds. In 1998, with the willing assistance of Emory College and the President of the Atlanta Jewish Federation at the time, Steve Selig, and funds from several Atlanta area Jewish families- Cohen, Bremen, and Zaban, to name just a few- an inaugural event creating ISMI was held.

Emory College continued to provide office space for ISMI, but annual funding was raised by Ken from external sources. ISMI was established as an interdisciplinary and non-degree conferring unit of Emory University, the first academic unit for the study of modern Israel in the United States. The success  of establishing ISMI as an institution was based solidly on foundations of programs and activities that could easily fit under the umbrella of an inter-disciplinary institute. Non- Emory donors, particularly Anne and Leonard Thun, joined by former Emory students, Joanna and Lee Mendelson, Charlie and Jodi Rosenzweig, Jon and Kristy Maslin, Stuart Kuntz, Ray and Karen Bershtein, Mitch Rechler, AJ Robinson, and Ross Haberman and his children on behalf of his deceased wife Vicki Kaplan, and many many others have provided Emory with the funds for students to use in connection with their study in Israel or for inviting Israeli scholars to Emory. The Lynn and Charles Schusterman Foundation provided ISMI funding to conduct half a dozen pre-collegiate Israel teacher enrichment workshops across the country, all with great success. Teachers were eager to learn Israel’s story and then teach it in their classrooms. Significant annual gifts to ISMI from many other students continued to support ISMI and its work. Our annual budget barely breached $400,000.

From 2000 forward, with the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, fewer Emory students and fewer students in general from across the country were enrolling in year or semester abroad programs in Israel. Birthright Israel’s 7-10 day trips became the program that influenced increasingly shorter study periods in Israel. In turn, Israel campus learning increased to some small degrees; enrollments in courses at Emory with an Israel topic of title became moderately more popular. And as there were up-ticks in college campus discussions about Israel, more opinions were offered, voices were raised, and partisan viewpoints expanded. Much of the early 2000s, ISMI spent significant time focusing on its internship program and bringing visiting Israeli scholars to campus. Some students said that they considered applying to Emory because they wanted exposure to the contemporary Middle East and understanding of the conflict, but not in polemical tones. Many undergraduates vied keenly for the ISMI internship programs. In August 2016, an Emory University Development official notified Ken that an anonymous donor had provided Emory College and ISMI a significant sum to allow 20 former Emory ISMI interns to take an knowledge-packed ten-day trip to Israel, if places visited and meetings held would be unique. The trip materialized and was a great success, with funds in place for another such trip to be conducted for a new cohort of former ISMI interns. ISMI now presents, collaborates and partners with Atlanta organizations for approximately 25 engagements per year.