According to Brandeis University president Jehuda Reinharz, Israel is not the only place experiencing a major decline in the status of the liberal arts. In the United States too, he says, "it is very difficult today to find money for a chair in philosophy or English literature." Still, Reinharz relates, there is one field in the liberal arts that hasn't experienced a decline in the U.S. over the past four decades - Jewish studies.
Unlike other subjects, which face a constant dearth of funders, there will always be Jewish philanthropists in the Diaspora who are prepared to fund yet another center for Bible studies or for the Land of Israel studies. The reasons for this range from recognition of the importance of the subject, to the desire to take a stand against anti-Semitic propaganda on the campuses, donors' feeling of connection with Israel, or even Jewish guilt.
If once upon a time it was clear that in order to pursue Jewish studies in a serious way, one had to spend time at an Israeli university, today that's no longer the case. In Israel, as opposed to the U.S., Jewish studies are in a process of steady impoverishment and decline.
"When I began writing my doctoral thesis at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the 1960s," the Haifa-born Reinharz recalls, "most of my teachers belonged to the Institute of Contemporary Jewry, which was a magnificent place with the most renowned professors. There were two or three teachers for every subject. Today hardly anything is left of that, and the same is true of Tel Aviv University. If 30 years ago, it was clear that Israel was the most advanced place for Jewish studies, today it is no longer clear at all."
There is a constant decline in the number of tenured positions, as well as in teaching slots for lecturers. Although young academics are normally unafraid of expressing a decisive opinion on any issue, the preference is not to talk about this one on the record. "It is a small and overcrowded world," a doctoral student at the Hebrew University says. "Why should I say something that might jeopardize me the next time a committee meets and decides who the one person is who will get a tenured position out of the 10 who are competing for it?" A researcher at Bar-Ilan University adds: "The lucky ones succeed in putting together for themselves a tenured position in several departments at the same time. The situation is simply awful, and the idea of going to work abroad is very enticing."
There is agreement about the difficult situation faced by the field, but not about the causes of the situation. According to Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, a former head of the Hebrew University's Institute of Contemporary Jewry, which is now facing closure: "Public interest has grown, and we never had a problem of students. But there is an dispute over the number of tenured positions in the liberal arts.... In actual fact, there are dozens of fewer positions. In [our institute], we used to have 14 tenured faculty positions, whereas today there are a mere eight, and only half of these have a joint position with another department. There's a salami policy in place: As soon as a professor retires, [the budget for] his tenured position reverts to the administration, and is not retained by the department."
If there was once a time when it was said that the Hebrew University was the University of the Jewish People, DellaPergola says, today, it's no longer clear that the Hebrew University is superior in the area of Jewish studies, when compared with Bar-Ilan University here, or with such American institutions as Brandeis or the University of Michigan.
Nonetheless, DellaPergola still believes, as do many of his colleagues, that the best researchers in Jewsh studies can still be found in Israel. At the same time, he says that "it is not enough that we have the best man, there has to be a dialogue among colleagues. Today there are departments with only one person."
Prof. Yehuda Bauer, the Holocaust scholar and the academic adviser to Yad Vashem, was himself head of Contemporary Jewry Institute for 15 years. He believes that the small number of tenured positions in the field at Israeli universities leads to a situation in which scholars move over to various external institutes, something that is not always helpful to their advancement.
At the same time, he suggests that "it will take a great deal of time until the blossoming of Jewish studies in the U.S. brings it up to the level to which Israel has sunk. Israel is still a research power in this area. As a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, I hear my colleagues always complaining about the small number of doctoral students. The people who teach are of the highest standard, but they have only four or five pupils, when once upon a time there were 50. And there are fewer people because there is no money and there are fewer chances of getting work. And people feel that they will be wasting their time if they go and teach at a high school."
In many places, there is talk of the difficulty of teaching certain courses, or even of the dropping of courses. The latter has already occurred on a large scale at Tel Aviv University. Prof Dina Porat, who until recently headed the subject of Jewish studies at TAU, admits: "There are departments whose situation is not so good. There are hardly any students studying Talmud, and anyone who has a serious interest in it goes to Bar-Ilan. In Bible studies, there are also very few." That is why it was decided three years ago at Tel Aviv University to take fields like Talmud, Bible, Hebrew language and Jewish thought, and put them all into a new department of Hebrew culture studies. Says Porat: "We did this so as to leave some remnants intact. We also have a beit midrash in which texts are studied like a preparation for academic studies. Some 30 students have signed up for this. It is true that generally speaking in the past there were a great deal more students, and therefore there were also more tenured positions for teachers."