Political science professor Ron Hassner will be UC Berkeley's first endowed chair in Israel Studies.
Political science professor Ron Hassner will be UC Berkeley's first endowed chair in Israel Studies.

A $5 million gift will create UC Berkeley’s first endowed Israel studies chair

Several newly announced donations totaling $7 million to the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies will significantly increase its endowment and broaden its academic impact, starting with the creation of an endowed chair.

The Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies, which will launch in the fall, is the first in its field at UC Berkeley.

The endowed chair will be held by political science associate professor Ron Hassner, the institute’s faculty co-director and a past recipient of the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

The new $5 million grant is the second major endowment from the Helen Diller Foundation; a $5 million gift in 2002 continues to provide support for Cal’s Jewish studies programs.

In addition, the institute today announced a $1 million endowment gift from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, which provided seed funding for the institute and gives it annual programming grants; and a $1 million gift from an anonymous donor earmarked for Israel studies and student programs.

Since its launch eight years ago, the institute has been funded for the most part by generous annual programming grants from entities such as the Koret Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation and the aforementioned Gilbert Foundation. The new Diller and Gilbert grants will give a major boost to the existing endowment and enable a dramatic expansion of the scope of Jewish and Israel studies at Cal.

Kenneth Bamberger
Kenneth Bamberger

“It’s a sign of permanence,” faculty co-director Kenneth Bamberger said about the new endowed chair and the donations that made it possible. “It’s a sign of commitment that there should be a faculty member teaching Israel studies and coordinating Israel studies programming.”

Hassner, who last year launched UC Berkeley’s first regular course on conflict in the Middle East, said he was “moved and humbled” by the generosity of the Diller grant. “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,” he said.

Bamberger stressed the importance of Chancellor Carol Christ’s enthusiastic support for the university’s Jewish and Israel studies programs. “This chancellor is extremely dedicated to undergraduate instruction and to creating a vibrant multicultural campus,” he said. “Her support for the flourishing of Jewish and Israel studies is part of that vision, and it’s been transformative for us. The chancellor is wonderfully innovative and effective in thinking about ways that existing resources [at UC Berkeley] can be institutionalized, grown and enhanced.”

Said Christ in press statement: “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. 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.”

Currently, Berkeley undergraduates may minor in Jewish studies, while graduate students can earn an advanced degree with a Jewish studies emphasis. Bamberger hopes that in time, and in partnership with the institute, UC Berkeley will offer a Jewish and Israel studies major. He also hopes new and additional funding will allow the institute to create faculty positions and programs, such as a proposed study-abroad summer in Israel.

Jewish and Israel studies as an academic field at UC Berkeley have grown dramatically since the 2011 founding of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, the 2013 establishment of the Center for Jewish Studies, and the 2010 acquisition of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Every semester, the institute hosts several visiting Israeli professors, and it has sponsored conferences, public programs and academic events such as the 2018 conference of the Association for Israel Studies.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.