Georgetown University, a Catholic institution long known for scholarship on the Arab world, is intensifying its study of Jewish civilization with aid from a series of significant donations. The latest, to be announced Wednesday, is a $10 million gift for research on the Holocaust.
A 13-year-old Jewish studies program in the Jesuit university’s prestigious School of Foreign Service will be formally renamed the Center for Jewish Civilization next week. The shift in nomenclature is not a small matter in academia: It signifies money, depth and commitment.
The center will have a $20 million endowment, officials said, counting the new $10 million gift from Miami philanthropists Norman and Irma Braman. Its mission is to explore foreign policy pertaining to Israel; the Holocaust and genocide issues; Jewish-Catholic relations; and Jewish literature, culture and religious expression.
Through the Braman gift, the center will research a singular catastrophe of the 20th century: the murder of 6 million Jews under Nazi Germany. Georgetown said in a statement that the Holocaust will be examined “in all its dimensions — its causes and consequences, its role in the establishment of the state of Israel, and its continuing impact on modern Judaism, which has been impacted by a rise in acts of anti-Semitism and questions of Israel’s legitimacy.”
Among the center’s faculty is the Rev. Patrick Desbois, a Holocaust historian whose forensic sleuthing has documented mass graves in Eastern Europe. Author of a book called “The Holocaust by Bullets,” Desbois will hold an endowed professorship through the Braman gift.
“We are pleased to make this gift to support Father Patrick Desbois’s very important research on
the Holocaust and to provide it a permanent home at a distinguished American university,” Norman Braman said in a statement. “As America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, Georgetown was the natural location to focus Father Debois’ unique research.”
Braman added: “I have decided to make this gift, now, and to Georgetown, in part as a sign of my appreciation for the leadership of Pope Francis and the priority he so clearly attaches to fostering closer relations between Jews and Catholics.” Braman, a billionaire auto dealer, is a major supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the leading Republican presidential candidates.
Also on the center’s faculty are Mideast experts Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams, who are both former high-level U.S. diplomats, as well as the Rev. Dennis McManus, a theologian who is a liaison for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Jewish community.
The center’s emergence is noteworthy for a school that has a 41-year-old Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, a 23-year-old Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (named for a Saudi benefactor) and an 11-year-old branch campus in the Arab nation of Qatar.
Mindful of these examples of Georgetown’s strength in Arab- and Muslim-related fields, many students and others within the university community have long urged expansion of Jewish studies, in particular as it relates to Israel. The Forward, a news organization dedicated to Jewish life, captured some of these views in a 2003 story headlined: “Georgetown eyeing a Judaics center in bid to boost image.”
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia acknowledged the sensitivity of building academic programs on Israel, the Arab world, Judaism and Islam. “All I can say is, we strive for balance,” he said.
Since taking office in 2001, DeGioia has sought to build and promote what he called Georgetown’s “inter-religious capacity.” Launching a Jewish-focused academic program in 2003 and building it into a center was integral to that effort. DeGioia said the late Rabbi Harold S. White, a longtime Jewish chaplain at Georgetown, championed the idea.
“Because we’re Jesuit, we believe it’s important to do this,” DeGioia said, raising an index finger for emphasis. He said the spirit of the initiative also reflects Catholic efforts since the 1960s to improve church relations with Judaism and other non-Christian religions.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, plans to speak on campus at an event scheduled for Monday that will mark the emergence of the Georgetown center. “The reality today is that there’s a very good working relationship between Catholics and Jews, Catholic institutions, Jewish institutions,” Baker said.
Established in 1789 on a hilltop overlooking the Potomac River, Georgetown is famed for its Jesuit roots. A bronze statue of Archbishop John Carroll, the school’s founder, dominates the central green facing 37th and O streets in Northwest Washington.
But the school’s interfaith ideals are on full display at the foot of the staircase in Healy Hall that leads up to DeGioia’s presidential suite. There, just inside Healy’s entrance, are a string of offices for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim chaplains for a campus with about 7,000 undergraduates. An estimated 400 to 500 of Georgetown’s students are Jewish.
“It’s a powerful moment in the history of Jews on college campuses, for Georgetown to be raising up and supporting this enhancement of a commitment to Jewish studies,” said Rabbi Rachel Gartner, the university’s Jewish chaplain since 2011.
Dozens of colleges and universities have centers or institutes that echo, in one way or another, the one at Georgetown. Boston College, another Catholic school, has a Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. The public University of Wisconsin has the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions. Florida Atlantic University, also public, has the Center for Study of Values and Violence After Auschwitz.
What sets Georgetown’s version apart is its grounding in international relations through the School of Foreign Service.
Rabbi Jack Moline, who heads the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, said colleges add courses about Jewish life to demonstrate to all students the value of understanding more about an ancient civilization. But they also have practical reasons: “Jews send kids to college and they become active alumni. It’s worth attracting them,” Moline said. Jewish students “want to have the same access to their own history as African Americans or Latinos or whoever.”
The Georgetown program sponsors courses that enable students to obtain a minor in Jewish civilization. It also aims to put a scholarly spotlight on one of history’s worst atrocities.
“It is encouraging to see that the Center for Jewish Civilization places such emphasis on study and teaching of the Holocaust,” said Robert Williams, director of new initiatives for the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “That it does so within one of our nation’s foremost schools of foreign service is also worthy of note.”
Williams said that the Holocaust “continues to resonate in contemporary debates” and that “understanding of this subject at a deeper level is necessary for our foreign service community to confront the legacies of the Holocaust as they continue to influence political, cultural, and economic life throughout Europe and the rest of the world.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, a sociologist and expert on the role of religion in public life, has been director of the Jewish civilization program at Georgetown since 2006. He said the center aims to draw Jewish and non-Jewish students into dialogue about Mideast diplomacy, the Holocaust, Jewish culture and other topics. “It creates possibilities for students that are just unparalleled,” he said. “It’s about interaction.”
That was on display Monday in a seminar Berlinerblau is teaching this semester on Jewish-American literature. The topic was Cynthia Ozick’s 1980 short story “The Shawl,” about a woman’s ordeal on a march to a Nazi camp with her baby and a 14-year-old girl. The students pondered the “ash-stippled wind” and other imagery of death and destruction. They found the story “eerie … chilling … uncomfortable … horrifying,” and they debated whether it was possible, or necessary, to render the Holocaust in detail through fiction.
“This story makes me sick,” Berlinerblau agreed. “It still makes me sick. It induces nausea.”
Outside class, Andrew Tabas, 22, a senior from Pittsburgh, said he is majoring in international politics with a minor in Jewish civilization, drawn to the program in part to learn from noted Mideast experts Ross and Abrams.
A former co-president of Georgetown’s Jewish Student Association, Tabas said Jewish life is woven into the university. Religious conversations, he said, are everywhere on campus: “Different religious communities are nourishing each other.”