Ronnie Perelis

Not alone: US Jewish Studies scholars in solidarity with our Israeli colleagues

The author and Yoram Bitton (HUC) with Dr. Chana Abuchatzera of Achva College. (courtesy)
The author and Yoram Bitton (HUC) with Dr. Chana Abuchatzera of Achva College. (courtesy)

Last week, I had the special opportunity to travel to Israel. I was part of a group of 21 scholars of Jewish Studies who came to show solidarity with our Israeli colleagues. We came to see, to listen, to bear witness and to spend time with our Israeli friends — old and new. We came to show them that they are not alone.

The Israelis we met were both deeply reconnected to each other and deeply alienated from the wider world. Everywhere we went, we met Israelis who were open-hearted in receiving us and deeply grateful that we came.

Our group, the Jewish Studies Scholars Solidarity Mission to Israel in Crisis, was made up of scholars of Jewish Studies specializing in everything from Bible and Dead Sea scrolls, Jewish philosophy, Talmud, Yiddish, and much more. The three major Jewish academic institutions — YU, JTS, and HUC — took the lead in organizing the mission. This is a small testament to the power of Jewish unity, a sense of Shevet Achim Gam Yachad –– of brothers and sisters banding together despite our differences. From the safety and security of our Jewish institutions we were able to organize and raise funds for our friends at other schools who did not have the support of their institutions to travel to a war zone. 

The project was born out of late-night conversations among friends. We were dazed and bewildered by the awful, cowardly and confusing responses of so many of our colleagues in the humanities to the horrors of October 7. We wanted to do something besides “doom scroll.” We wanted to stand up and take back the study of culture and society from those who have weaponized and twisted it beyond recognition.

We wanted to find a space for our colleagues at schools big and small to connect, to stand strong, and to create something new and vibrant.

We focused on Jewish Studies because the study of the Jewish past and present cannot be separated from the lived experience of Jews and Judaism in the State of Israel.

Jewish Studies need to be centered in this conversation because the Jew is the quintessential other in the West, and when Jews and Judaism cannot be included and respected in their particularity, in their Jewish specificity, then there is something deeply wrong with the entire liberal democratic project, and all other minorities will soon meet the same fate.

More specifically, we focused on scholars of Jewish Studies because, sadly, many of the loudest voices within Jewish Studies have taken a decidedly anti-Zionist turn.

And lastly, we wanted to show up for our friends in the Israeli academy. When I called a dear friend of mine shortly after October 7, I heard his shattered voice, his sense of pain compounded by isolation.

This is a man who has lectured throughout Europe and North America, whose gregariousness has made him easy friends throughout the world, someone whose political commitments place him squarely in the peace camp, and yet… how many of those one-time colleagues reached out to him when his world was turned upside down?

This is a story that we all heard again and again.

So we went to Israel to connect with our Israeli colleagues, to show moral support, to bear witness and to find new ways to collaborate and support their dynamic institutions.

Here are a few of the shining examples of Israeli vitality in the face of adversity that we witnessed:

Achva College — a small college near the town of Kiryat Malachi. It is known as the gateway to the south. Achva offers important educational opportunities to people in the south, the poorest region in the country. Most students are the first in their families to attend college; 20% of Achva’s students are Bedouin, and 80% are women. The college runs programs in all of the neighboring towns, including Rahat, the region’s main Bedouin town, to offer social services and educational opportunities where they are most needed.

We met dynamic educators and students. A young woman wearing her IDF uniform was there; she was given a short break from her reserve duty as an artillery operator to start her classes in the masters program in speech therapy.


Achva’s brilliant president, Prof. Yifat Bitton, is a native of one of the most hardscrabble neighborhoods in Kiryat Malachi and has risen to the top echelons of the Israeli legal world. She has twice been nominated to the Supreme Court and is a leading activist pursuing justice for the victims of sexual violence on October 7th. She reminded us of the dynamic power of a small school like hers and how it transforms the lives of the people in the region.

We met Chana Abuhazera, who teaches Holocaust Studies and other aspects of Jewish history, and who also runs Achva’s multicultural choir. We were treated to a beautiful video of the students singing a song dedicated to the hostages. What we saw on the campus of Achva and the other schools we visited was the potential for Israeli universities to serve as laboratories of coexistence and intercultural flourishing. We saw secular and religious, Muslim, Chrisitian, and Jewish students figuring out how to study and grow and live together.

Everywhere we went — whether at this small college near Gaza or Tel Aviv University or Bar Ilan — the message was clear: thank you for coming. Thank you for seeing us and for hearing us.

We were often surprised at the sincerity of the gratitude because we were gaining so much from meeting and learning from these diverse communities.

A darker, recurring theme we encountered was the fear of a “soft boycott” – not an outright BDS movement, but rather declined invitations to collaborate or to review grants and tenure files. Academia is an international and collaborative endeavor. Knowledge and ideas thrive in diverse environments where new ideas and experiences can shape and inspire new ways of thinking. A “soft boycott” would cause real damage to the Israeli economy and Israeli academia. Moreover, the very possibility of one points to a deeply illiberal turn in the larger academic world.

Our focus was academic and so we did not pick fruit or visit the wounded, which I regret not doing. Still, we saw a country that was moving forward while holding a lot of grief and worry. However, even in the south, where people have no sense of when they can return to their homes in safety, we saw the resilience of places like Sapir College which provided economic, educational and psychological support to their students and faculty who have been displaced from their homes and where many of them suffered horrific violence on October 7. Despite the trauma, I did see a commitment to life — to living every day and of creating meaning out of the horrors.

Kikar HaHatufim — Hostages Square

We arrived as the sun was beginning to go down. Crowds and individuals moved among the art installations: a yellow brick road with messages of hope and longing etched into each brick. The iconic, long, empty Shabbat table, wet from an earlier rain shower, some dirt gathering on the white plates. Time moves on.

There were tents set up for families of the hostages. Some members of our group sat down and spoke with the people inside. But they mostly listened.

And blessed music. A circle of people singing classic Israeli songs like Naomi Shemer’s “Lu Yihi,” or Ehud Banai’s reassuring “Al Tifchad” — “Do not fear, for you are not alone.” After one of the songs, an Israeli Reform rabbi got up and recited a beautifully worded prayer for their return.

People yearn to be together — to gather.

We had an event at the newly opened National Library of Israel, a stunning space of light that was meant to open to great fanfare in October. Instead, its opening was postponed due to the war, and eventually it was opened in a more somber tone.

Chairs were set up around the reading room with the pictures of hostages attached to their backs. We had a meeting with our Jerusalem-based colleagues and we heard about the library’s commitment to document the horrors of the 7th of October as completely and sensitively as possible. Our Israeli colleagues wanted to know about the situation on our campuses. As I walked around this wonderful new space I marveled at how it was filled with so many people and then a friend told me: people do not want to be alone.

People are broken, their lives are upside-down, but life goes on. 

Mahaneh Yehudah, known as the Shuk, or marketplace, was full again. I noticed many young people doing what young people do. They were back from the war. Couples walked down the street, hand in hand, their rifles slung down their backs on a cloudy Friday afternoon.

I left with a sense of the power of the Jewish people to come together and to create something beautiful out of their collective pain. I also sensed how heavy that pain is and how the average Israeli seems to not be able to think beyond the present.

At the end of our time together, we were not exactly sure how our group would work on the big issues that inspired the project and that are still burning topics for us: the future of the humanities, the place of Jews and Jewish Studies in the American academy, the connection between Israel and Diaspora Judaism and so much more. We discussed student-to-student collaborations, partnering with the different schools we visited, and creating a network of professors who could review tenure files and grant applications for those Israeli scholars who have been shut out through the “soft” boycott of their work. However, the most concrete lesson I hope I learned was the power of showing up. Of bearing witness. Of being present and listening. Of calling our friends back in Israel — of sending them silly WhatsApp messages and letting them know that they are not alone.

About the Author
Ronnie Perelis is the Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University and the director of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs of Yeshiva University. Prof. Perelis explores the complex relationship between Iberian and Jewish culture in his scholarship and teaching. Perelis believes that the past can inform and energize the present.
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