An Unusual (and Fitting) Teaching Gig

There's actually logic behind hiring an Israeli scholar to teach Muslim students in Turkey about Christianity.
December 10, 2007

David S. Katz's academic subfield is ambitious -- and sparsely populated. How many other Jewish scholars, let alone retired Israeli military captains, make a second academic home for themselves in the educational heartland of one of the world's most populous Muslim countries in order to teach Christianity?

Katz, an Oxford-trained director of the Lessing Institute for European History and Civilization at Tel Aviv University (where he also teaches Christianity to some Jewish students), says he enjoys his unusual scholarly perch. But Turkey, where he also teaches every other semester, makes him something of an outsider, too, he admits, and it's the way that outsiders view the country that provides both a focal point for his current scholarship and the theme for a book he is now completing.

The American-born professor, already the author of a half-dozen well-received volumes examining a variety of intersections between European history and the Christian and Jewish religions, is currently working on a new book looking at the history of Anglo-American perceptions of his intellectual home away from home. His research takes place at a fortuitous time when Turkey's cultural credentials for joining the European Union remain a subject of considerable academic and political debate.

"I'm enjoying it very much," says Katz, speaking by telephone from Israel, where he returned recently after a semester as a senior residential fellow at Koç University's Anatolian Civilizations Institute, glitzily housed in downtown Istanbul. The Turkish university, which was established in 1993, has not only provided the setting for the religious history program in which he has taught since 2002, but the resources for preparing Turkey in England, Turkey in America: How the Ottoman Empire and Turkey Have Always Been Part Of the Modern American and European Experience, his "very pro-Turkish" work in process.

He describes this book as a history of ideas having to do with the writings that shaped the perception of Turkey for educated onlookers in England and the United States between 1776 and 1923, the year in which the modern Turkish republic was established. By reaching back into history, Katz says he hopes to put current Anglo-American perceptions and arguments over the 73-million strong nation into a clearer context while also showing that Turkey has long been part of the Anglo-American experience.

"What are the books that really create the image of the Middle East for readers today?" he asks, rattling off familiar names like Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Edward Said. "We can cry till tomorrow that Huntington doesn't understand a thing, but that doesn't matter because he's what George Bush understands." A century ago, a brace of authors held similar intellectual sway, most of them now obscure and forgotten but a small number like the English economic historian Arnold Toynbee still recognizable.

"The stuff that Toynbee wrote completely changed people's attitudes to the Turkish republic," marvels Katz, noting that the famous historian holds the dubious distinction of having been the only scholar ever to lose a chair in Greek studies, at the University of London, on account of what the institution's benefactors saw as his overly positive view of Turkey.

Today, the interesting issue for Katz therefore isn't so much whether Turkey should be admitted to the EU in the 21st century so much as the historical idea that it could be conceived of as entirely separate from Western jurisdictions. "Turkey has always been part of our world," he points out. Indeed, before 1923 much of the country's cultural activity took place in what is thought of today as Greece, a byword for the secular west.

Turkish academic life offers another Westernized exhibit. Among the country’s 76 universities, Koç is one of three trend-setting institutions privately established by wealthy benefactors along recognizably American lines, including the use of English as a major language of instruction.

Katz figures that the rationale for inviting in a Jew to teach Christianity to Koç's predominantly Muslim student body was probably “so no one would suggest they were bringing in missionaries," he speculates. "I would be able to stand up there and say they think such-and-such but we don't; 'they' being the Christians, 'we' being the non-Christians -- quite unlike it would be teaching the subject in the United States or England." He has also taught, as well, a short program on Judaism, which attracted Muslim students along with their counterparts drawn from the country's own population of 30,000 Jews, the largest such community in any Muslim-majority country other than Iran.

"Many Turks would not describe themselves as living in a Muslim country," he points out, quoting a comment made recently by Israeli president Shimon Peres, who paid a three-day state visit to the Turkish capital Ankara last month, to the effect that Turkey does not have a religious government so much as a government comprised of religious people. At the same time, however, most observers agree that the country is drifting away from its secular roots to a more religious identity.

Nevertheless, Turkey remains for now “a secular country whose constitution has very strong anti-religious provisions,” says Katz, noting that a woman in Turkey cannot even study at a university with a headscarf. A majority of the people he interacts with in Istanbul "are Muslims in the same way that many Israelis or Americans are Jews: it's something that informs their identity only."

Unlike Israel, however, most Turkish academics also have a full-time job at the moment. Faculty members at universities throughout Israel have been on strike for all of the current academic year in pursuit of a 20-percent pay raise. Affecting 120,000 students, the strike dates back to a long-running dispute between the country's academic union and the government over salary levels that have remained frozen for the past six years.

"The situation here is like a parent who says to a child if they do something again then they can't watch television," says Katz. The government of Israel "hates us" because in 1994 the academic union negotiated a hefty pay rise, and "ever since then they've been waiting to take their revenge," he complains, predicting there will be no easy way out for what has become a "hopeless" stand-off. The Israeli government has said it intends putting the universities on a more sound financial footing.

"It's a shame our strike officially is just about money — we wanted it to be about the erosion of higher education," he says. "And I just don't see how we're going to get out of this. Maybe in retrospect what we should have done was teach as normal but not turn in the grades ... or else turned them into a safe at the union so that people wouldn't lose anything but they also couldn't get on in life."

The Tel Aviv University professor chuckles ruefully. In the sparsely populated academic field that is Israel, at least one notable scholar has something to occupy his time.


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