Shalem College
May 15, 2018

The Anti-Conference Conference: Students in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department Present Fruits of Independent Research

The Anti-Conference Conference: Students in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department Present Fruits of Independent Research
“This was anything but a rehashing of information learned in class,” explained Prof. Ze’ev Maghen of the May 7 student conference.

When the students from the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies decided to hold a conference, there was one, driving principle they all shared: They were going to put the “confer” back into the event. “We wanted to create a positive dynamic between speaker and crowd,” said Shalem senior Maya Jacobi, who spoke for all the event’s speakers in expressing the determination that the atmosphere be vibrant and participatory.

Absent, then, was the straightforward reading aloud of a paper; missing, too, was any use of jargon or scholarly name-dropping. Rather, this by-and-for-students conference was all about their passion for the subject matter, and aimed at engaging listeners in meaningful discussion, even debate.

“This was anything but a rehashing of information learned in class. Each student took a topic that inspired his or her interest and ran with it, doing in-depth research and examining it from original angles,” explained Prof. Ze’ev Maghen, senior member of the faculty of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Department. “Some of the students talked about topics that they’ve been researching and reevaluating over the course of more than a year or two. Their creativity of thought, combined with their competency in conducting high-level, independent research, makes them true assets for the State of Israel, whether they choose to pursue careers in academia, security-related fields, government, or many others.”

Over the course of three sessions, titled “Muslim Thought,” “Modern History,” and “Palestinian Society,” nine students delivered wide-ranging talks on subjects including Herzl’s Arab consciousness, the implications of the Egyptian-Ethiopian territorial dispute over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the theological motivations of ISIS. The closing keynote lecture, delivered by chair of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department Dr. Martin Kramer, addressed the relevance of research in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in this moment in history.

“I was gratified to see how many students and faculty members attended the conference. The entire Shalem community wanted to hear what we’ve been researching and to support our initiative,” said Jacobi, who lectured on the Syrian Constitution, with an emphasis on how such documents both reflect and create a national identity. “Even though I’m generally nervous about speaking in public, when I saw the interest on listeners’ faces and heard how many questions they were asking, I relaxed.”

Senior Michael Schwartz, who examined Herzl’s writings on the potential for Jewish-and-Arab co-existence in a new Jewish state, agreed, and added that this conference reflected what he felt was a particularly supportive environment for research. “Three years ago, I participated in an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue seminar in Cyprus, which made me wonder whether there weren’t similar instances of connection between Jews and Arabs in Palestine before the founding of the state. When I began to study at Shalem, my professors in the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department were more than happy to support my interest and guide independent research on the subject. My persistence paid off when I found a correspondence from 1899 between Yusuf dia’a al-Khalidi, a son of the famous and elite al-Khalidi family in Jerusalem, and Herzl, in which the latter expressed his belief that Jewish immigration to Palestine would benefit not only Jews, but also the indigenous Arab population.”

The implications of this letter for an understanding of Herzl’s intentions, concluded Schwartz, “are extremely significant, and it was fitting that I share them with the community that enabled me to make this discovery.”