By Published: Dec. 13, 2018

The relationship between Israel and Palestine is globally fraught, and the University of Colorado Boulder is presenting its students with a dispassionate academic analysis on the subject beginning this spring.


Hilary Falb Kalisman

Professor Hilary Falb Kalisman has been appointed as Endowed Professor of Israel/Palestine Studies in the Program in Jewish Studies at CU Boulder, a position that was launched in 2015 with an anonymous donation of $500,000 to the department. Kalisman will be the first tenured professor hired for this position, one of two of its kind in the nation, after a two-year search. Liora Halperin, a former assistant professor of Jewish studies at CU Boulder who is now at the University of Washington, was appointed to the position in 2015.

Professor David Shneer, the Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair of Jewish History, emphasized the importance of this role for Jewish studies. 

“There are plenty of Israel studies chairs and several Palestine studies professorships, but the Israel/Palestine professorship is groundbreaking for moving beyond nationalist approaches to the Middle East,” he says. 

“Since CU pioneered the Israel/Palestine professorship model several years ago, other universities, such as University of Massachusetts, have replicated it. It is the way universities can foster deep intellectual engagement about Israel/Palestine.”

Kalisman, also an assistant professor of history at CU Boulder, has a PhD in history from the University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor of arts in Middle East studies from Brown University.

“One of the things I think is so exciting about this idea is that I’m really charged with being able to present a broad, even-handed view” of the conflict, Kalisman says. “So, if you’re an undergraduate taking one of these classes, you’re going to have to learn multiple, diverse perspectives. And come to your own conclusions by the end of [the class]; or not, as the case may be.”

Before coming to CU Boulder, she was a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at Brown, as well as a guest scholar at Tel Aviv University in The Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies.

If you’re an undergraduate taking one of these classes, you’re going to have to learn multiple, diverse perspectives. And come to your own conclusions by the end of [the class]; or not, as the case may be.”

On her approach to the position, she says, “My personal trajectory is one that’s trying to combine the often very opposed academic, and sometimes social, worlds of Israeli and Palestinian studies.” 

Israel, established in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, was preceded by British Mandate Palestine, founded in 1920. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 also outlined British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine, which was then written into the following mandate charter. Eventually, this led to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. 

In the following years, there were many military conflicts that culminated in the Six-Day War of 1967, during which Israel occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This occupation continues to today, and there have been many military conflicts since.

Kalisman says that one notable aspect of the Israel/Palestine professorship, especially for undergrads in her classes, is the broad perspective it will give them on the conflict and the different groups involved.

By combining Israel and Palestine studies, Kalisman says, students will get an education on the topic that wouldn’t typically be offered from a strictly Israel studies or Middle Eastern and Palestinian studies perspective. 

Her current book project, Schooling the State: Education and Governance in the Modern Middle East, focuses on government-mandated education in the Middle East, the role it plays politically and “how it affects the different processes of state-building.” 

“Education in Palestine is really part of a broader story about education in the Middle East,” she says. “It marks a funny zone that’s partially part of the government, but can also be a way of protesting against it.”

She notes, for example, that “teachers would be getting a paycheck from the government, while being arrested for being part of a rebellion against that same government.”

One of her classes this coming spring, “Modern Childhood in Israel/Palestine,” focuses on the impact of state-mandated education on both Israeli and Palestinian children by reading memoirs, and other primary and secondary sources, from both sides of the occupation. 

The “parallel but intersecting” education systems of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine) and of the Mandate government—set out for Arab Palestinians via the Balfour declaration of 1917—she says, “influence one another.”

The two education systems, while existing at the same time, have their “different concerns, different personnel and different levels of control,” Kalisman explains. This duality highlights the need for a nuanced approach to the subject, she says.

The class will endeavor to answer questions regarding when Arab Palestinian and Israeli children become “objects of humanitarian intervention” or “political actors.” 

In the future, Kalisman will teach a class on the Arab/Israeli conflict in which she says students will be required to grapple with different perspectives from “a real, academic angle,” and a class called “Jews in and of the Middle East.”

The latter course will try to “combine histories” of Jews who have been living in the Middle East for generations with those who arrived there as immigrants with the advent of political Zionism beginning in the 1940s. 

This course will both trace those different interactions and combine Middle Eastern and Jewish history, tracing it all the way up to Mizrahim (Arab/Middle Eastern Jews) in Israel today. 

Kalisman says practicing the deliberate consideration of both sides of an extremely involved conflict is “going to help make you a better global citizen. It’s going to make you more aware."