New director discusses goals for UCI’s Center for Jewish Studies
UCI political science professor Jeffrey Kopstein has made a career of studying violence, especially against Jews, in both historic and modern contexts. Knowledge, he believes, is the most effective antidote to hatred.
“The best way we can address antisemitism is to do what the university excels at: to study and teach, to develop cross-cultural understanding through deep education and learning,” Kopstein says. “At its core, Jewish learning is about asking questions, arguing about answers, engaging the tradition and then posing deeper questions.”
As the newly appointed director of the campus’s Center for Jewish Studies, Kopstein envisions UCI becoming a global leader in Jewish studies, not only educating its diverse student body but building bridges of understanding into the community and facilitating exchanges with Israeli higher education institutions.
“At UCI, we teach hundreds of students each year in a wide range of classes on Jewish history and culture, the Holocaust, the history of antisemitism and Israel,” says Chancellor Howard Gillman. “The Center for Jewish Studies is the hub for this strong educational effort, and Professor Kopstein, whose groundbreaking research illuminates the history of the Jewish people in the modern era, is the perfect choice to advance the center and its vital work.”
As the U.S. continues to diversify—more than 40 percent of Americans identify as people of color, according to the 2020 census—the history of antisemitism offers relevant lessons about systemic racism and marginalized groups all around the globe.
“Jewish culture is a microcosm of diversity, demonstrating the potential for both tremendous achievement and good as a people and tremendous tragedy,” Kopstein says. “We live in a society, as well as a campus, of great and increasing diversity. We need to know how to get along with each other.”
Kopstein, who came to UCI in 2015, is no stranger to running large interdisciplinary centers. He was previously director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
He’s no stranger to antisemitism either. Growing up in Canada among a large community of Jewish immigrants, he remembers a time when Jews were excluded from certain neighborhoods and local clubs. Yet that sort of segregation paled in comparison to the violence his relatives experienced in the years leading up to the Holocaust.
“My family, in all its branches, at various times and places, has confronted antisemitism—sometimes tragically and sometimes merely as an irritation or casual comment,” Kopstein says.
Perhaps because of that background, he became interested in studying the specific conditions under which run-of-the-mill dislike turns to outright violence. Kopstein earned a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley before launching a three-decade academic career, during which he has written or edited five books and published extensively on anti-Jewish violence in five languages. Kopstein mastered Polish and German for research projects, in addition to the English, French and Russian he learned as a child in Canada. His Hebrew, he confesses with palpable disappointment, is only moderate.
Kopstein describes his own work as “unabashedly interdisciplinary,” often drawing on historical documents and applying social scientific methods to them. Earlier this year, he published Politics, Violence, Memory: The New Social Science of the Holocaust, based on research presented during a conference held at UCI.
Recently, Kopstein completed a yearlong fellowship as the Ina Levine Invitational Scholar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He has also received a Fulbright U.S. Senior Scholar Award—which he deferred due to the COVID-19 pandemic—to conduct research at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he periodically has been a visiting scholar over the last decade. As director of UCI’s Center for Jewish Studies, Kopstein aims to expand existing connections between the campus and Israeli universities, looking to examples such as the longstanding partnership between UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Tel Aviv University and The Paul Merage School of Business’ recent student trip to Israel.
As the principal investigator on a grant from the Anti-Defamation League, Kopstein is currently working on research to measure antisemitic sentiments among University of California students. A pilot study he conducted in 2017-18 found that the level of antisemitism at UCI mirrored that among the general population, suggesting that college students may be an accurate representation of the broader society.
UCI students of many cultures and backgrounds show a hunger to learn about Jewish culture, history and antisemitism. Kopstein’s political science course on antisemitism and the history department’s course on the Holocaust are always full. They, among others, make up the minor in Jewish studies, which introduces students to the many facets of Jewish culture through the study of the history, philosophy, art, literature, languages, and social and political institutions of Jews from ancient to modern times.
These courses give students an opportunity to not only learn about Jewish history but get comfortable with having respectful arguments. One of Kopstein’s favorite aspects of Judaism is its embrace of argument as a form of teaching. The Talmud—one of the longest texts in existence—is millions of words in the form of arguments meant to educate.
“The thing I love about Jewish tradition is that you get to argue, even with G-d,” Kopstein says. “That’s a crucial part of our heritage, and students can only be enriched by engaging with it.”
This year, Daniella Farah, adjunct assistant professor of history and Jewish studies, will teach two additional courses: one on Jews in the modern Middle East and North Africa and another on minorities in modern Iran, including Jews. The Center for Jewish Studies plans to host a conference aligned with her research in the spring.
To further expand the research and academic offerings in Jewish studies, a matching gift from community leaders Susan and Henry Samueli will help fund two new endowed chairs in contemporary antisemitism and Israeli studies.
The Samuelis’ gift will also be instrumental in fostering greater connection between the Center for Jewish Studies and the broader community, including through K-12 education. In collaboration with the UCI History Project, the center is helping to develop a curriculum about the Holocaust that history and social science teachers across Orange County can use in their classrooms.
The Center for Jewish Studies has put together a dynamic slate of speakers representing a variety of disciplines and perspectives for the 2023-24 academic year.
On Oct. 12 at the UCI Libraries, Kopstein will be joined by Wolf Gruner, founding director of the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research and Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies, to discuss the role ordinary people played during the Holocaust, both harming and helping their Jewish neighbors. The event kicks off the arrival of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s touring exhibit “Some Were Neighbors,” to be displayed at Langson Library into November.
Also this fall, two UCI alumni will give talks about their recently published works of fiction. On Oct. 25, Rebecca Sacks, M.F.A. ’19, will read from The Lover (HarperCollins, 2023), their second novel set in modern-day Israel, which grapples with the personal effects of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Literature is an extraordinary tool for getting inside the perspectives that lead people to hostility,” explains Julia Lupton, UCI Distinguished Professor of English and a founding member of the center’s steering committee. “Rebecca gets at politics and history from the very personal points of view of people living through it, approaching their life experiences with real empathy and imagination.”
In November, Elana K. Arnold ’96, a National Book Award finalist who has written more than 20 children’s and young adult books, will visit to discuss her latest novel. The Blood Years (HarperCollins, 2023) isbased on her grandmother’s life in Romania during the Holocaust.
Then, in February 2024, historian and professor Andrew Port of Wayne State University will come to UCI to discuss his new book Never Again (Harvard University Press, 2023), which explores how modern Germany deals with current questions of genocide, human rights and refugees entering Europe through the lens of its own history of genocide.
These events—with more to be added to the calendar—represent the kind of engaging and evocative discussions that Kopstein hopes will foster connection and conversation among the campus and the broader community, serving as an example for others.
“UCI is one of the great universities in the world,” he says. “And there’s no reason why it should not have one of the world’s great centers for Jewish learning.”
Christine Byrd is a spokeswoman for UC Irvine.