New name for Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies

A new, pithier name reflects the cross-disciplinary focus that has always been the foundation of the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies (formerly the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures), one of the only departments in the country where one can take classes in Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi/Urdu, Jewish studies, and Islamic studies in one place.

The replacement of “Near Eastern languages and cultures” with “Middle Eastern studies” underscores departmental expertise in comparative religious, literary, and cultural studies. Hillel Kieval, department chair and the Gloria M. Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought, observes that the new name more closely reflects the faculty’s varied interests and methodologies.

“The department does not focus solely on religious studies, or language and literature,” he says. “Ours is a cross-disciplinary approach that includes history, anthropology, politics, and environmental studies as well as the study of religion, language, and literature.”

Some research questions necessitate approaches that cross disciplinary boundaries. This fact is perhaps nowhere truer than in Middle Eastern studies. Knowledge of Arabic, for example, can allow a student to critically interpret international media coverage, and familiarity with Jewish cultural traditions can add nuance to the study of Israeli literature. Pamela Barmash, professor of Hebrew Bible and biblical Hebrew, says that “we aim to engage students through these multiple perspectives so that they will gain a sense of the richness and diversity of the Jewish and Islamic experience.”

Aria Nakissa, professor of Islamic studies and anthropology, notes that the new name reflects the way that the department’s courses and research projects balance the local against the transregional, “capturing the global character of the Jewish and Islamic traditions while recognizing that they have a special historical connection with the Middle East.”

The Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies, or JIMES, has long grappled with the question of what it means to make regions into objects of study. Nancy Reynolds, professor of history, of women, gender, and sexuality studies, and of Jewish, Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, notes that this emphasis on region allows researchers “to focus on the relationships of more global processes (capitalism, colonialism, climate change) with local experiences and forms of political organization, social movements, literary movements, religious organization, calls for social justice, and so on.”

“I think Middle Eastern studies offers an important intellectual and institutional forum to do some of that work,” Reynolds notes.

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