The return of Jewish studies

May 28, 1999


Subjects once banned from the Soviet university curriculum have been established in the heart of Russia's most famous university.

The Jewish Studies Centre at Moscow State University's Institute of Asian and African Studies brings subjects once taught at underground classes around discrete kitchen-table meetings back into the mainstream.

Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish, once languages considered anathema by Communist powers prone to periodic campaigns against "cosmopolitanism" - code for Jewish influence - are back on the agenda, although entrance requirements only stipulate a working knowledge of English for students beginning four-year bachelor of arts degrees.

The centre, which admitted its first 30 students in September, teaches history, literature and linguistics, and the economics and politics of Israel.

Arabic is also taught, recognising the degree to which an understanding of modern Israel is impossible without a knowledge of its geographical and political context.

The centre, which has the support of the Russian Jewish Congress, was set up by the private Jewish University of Moscow and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Its director, classicist Arkady Kovelman, foresees strong demand and a healthy future.

"There is a vast market in Russia for experts on Israel and Jewish issues. This is an area that has been neglected, and many of our students are attracted by the possibilities such an education offers for business and diplomatic careers," Professor Kovelman said.

"If there are no tragedies or catastrophes in the Russian political realm, the future relations between Russia and Israel can only continue to develop. Both countries are relatively new, and if many emigrants to Israel consider it their historic motherland, then Russia is their pre-historic motherland."

Russia's historic low-level but endemic anti-Semitism is not something to which Professor Kovelman pays much attention.

The centre, which shares cramped accommodation in a beautiful but ill-maintained building with the department of Arabic studies among others, maintains good relations with its neighbours.

Recent attacks on synagogues in Moscow and the rise of home-grown neo-Nazi groups, such as the Russian National Unity faction, do not impinge on the centre, he said. "Academic freedom in Russia, at least in Moscow, is much stronger than anywhere in the world now, because all the old rules and dogmas have disappeared and no new ones have yet arrived to take their place."

The centre hopes to develop its programme of bachelor degrees and postgraduate courses, including masters and PhDs with the help of visiting lecturers from Israel. Student numbers will be built up over the coming years. This is particularly important since the centre's revenue depends on tuition fees of about Pounds 2,500 a year.

Most of the first cohort of students do not have a Jewish background, and have been attracted either by an interest in the subject or the career opportunities open to specialists in an under-developed area.

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