UC Berkeley Establishes First Faculty Chair in Israel Studies

May 2, 2019

Joining a select group of universities in the world with an endowed faculty chair in Israel Studies, the University of California, Berkeley today announced the creation of the Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies. The chair is the university’s first in the field and will endow courses, research and programs of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies.

The chair, made possible by a $5 million grant from the Helen Diller Foundation, will be held by Ron Hassner, the Berkeley institute’s faculty co-director and an international relations expert on the relationship between religion and conflict. Hassner, a recipient of the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, is an associate professor of political science whose courses regularly draw hundreds of students. In fall 2018, Hassner pioneered UC Berkeley’s first regular course on conflict in the Middle East.

“I am moved and humbled by the generosity of the Helen Diller Foundation,” said Hassner. “The foundation recognized the urgency of teaching Israel in an even-handed and professional manner on the Berkeley campus and sprang into action. Their gift allows us to address our students’ growing thirst for bold discussions in this flourishing, provocative, and crucial academic field.”

Helen and Sanford Diller’s connections to Berkeley were deep, going back to the early 1950s, when the two met while they were undergraduates. They went on to become prominent Bay Area business leaders and philanthropists in medicine, the arts, and Jewish affairs. Helen Diller passed away in January 2015, and Sanford in June 2017.

In philanthropy, as in business, Sanford and Helen were known for identifying, cultivating and supporting talented leaders capable of transforming ideas into action and great results.

In 2002, the Diller family made pivotal endowment gifts totaling $5 million to Berkeley, which currently provide funding for the campus’s Center for Jewish Studies and support its director, faculty research funds, and graduate student fellowship and research funds.

The campus’s architecture for Jewish and Israel Studies has coalesced in the past decade to encompass the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, founded in 2011, the Center for Jewish Studies, established in 2013, and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, acquired by the campus in 2010.

“This is an extraordinary gift for many reasons, not the least of which is that it lays a cornerstone at Berkeley for future support of these programs,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. “It signals great faith in the work we have done to build Jewish and Israel Studies at Berkeley, and helps launch, in a very robust way, a campaign to ensure that our ‘startup’ efforts will be institutionalized for generations of students to come.”

The new chair is transformative in the Berkeley institute’s growth from a startup to a multifaceted, influential program, according to faculty co-director Kenneth Bamberger, The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Professor of Law at Berkeley.

The grant triggered a separate $1 million endowment grant from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, the institute’s founding donor, and inspired an additional $1 million from an anonymous donor for Israel Studies programs. These new funds will help to continue the momentum around Jewish and Israel Studies at Berkeley.

The university is aiming to raise additional private funds, both annual and endowed, to increase the capacity of Jewish and Israel Studies, including increasing the faculty by 50 percent, adding B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Jewish and Israel Studies, expanding student enrollment four-fold, more than doubling student fellowship funding, and boosting academic and community programming to enable Berkeley to set an example of excellence.

Thousands of students, faculty, and others in the community already engage with the Berkeley institute annually through an innovative model of student engagement, education and empowerment. It houses two core programs, the Berkeley Program on Israel Studies, nationally recognized for the study of Israel, and the Berkeley Program on Jewish Law, Thought and Identity, the only program of its type in the western United States.

Every semester, the institute sponsors four to five Israeli professors to come to Berkeley to teach classes across campus, and it has generated dozens of new classes, and scores of conferences, public programs, and academic events. Last year the institute hosted the 2018 Annual Conference of the Association for Israel Studies — the preeminent global conference in the field — which brought 320 Israel studies scholars from around the world to Berkeley.

“In today’s heated climate and often challenging environment for students and faculty on campus, this is a sorely needed presence at Berkeley and sets an example for other universities,” said Bamberger.