Aaronsohnia is a genus in the family Asteraceae, named in 1927 after the UC Berkeley-connected Israeli agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn (Photo/Wikimedia-Abdulrahman Alsirhan)
Aaronsohnia is a genus in the family Asteraceae, named in 1927 after the UC Berkeley-connected Israeli agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn (Photo/Wikimedia-Abdulrahman Alsirhan)

Berkeley’s roots and branches are deep and wide in Israel

As the co-faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Israel Studies program, Israel is frequently on my mind. Yet when I began a recently completed sabbatical in Israel, I didn’t expect to encounter Berkeley so often in my Israeli life. I found unexpected ties between Berkeley and Israel just about everywhere, stretching deep into the past and pointing toward the future.

A few short blocks from our family’s sabbatical home in the northern town of Zichron Ya’akov stands the historic home (now a museum) of Aaron Aaronsohn, the celebrated botanist who laid the foundations for Israeli agriculture. Aaronsohn was first to realize that California would be a primary source for the agricultural knowledge key to the future of the Israeli economy. David Fairchild, Aaronsohn’s contemporary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would remark that “his knowledge of California almost equaled his knowledge of Palestine.”

In 1909, Fairchild arranged for Aaronsohn to visit UC Berkeley, then the leading site for the study of agronomy and botany. After Aaronsohn spent two days walking the Berkeley Hills with Dean Eugene Hilgard, whose retirement two years before had left the College of Agriculture leaderless, Aaronsohn was offered the position. In the end, Aaronsohn turned it down and returned to Ottoman Palestine, where he first founded a center in the coastal town of Atlit geared to developing domestic agriculture (funded by a group including Louis D. Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and Judah Magnes), and then, with his sister Sara, founded the famous Nili spy ring to help the British in battling for Palestine against the Turks.

The agricultural connection continued in strength. A 1946 Hebrew song points to Berkeley’s role in training the next generation of agronomists working to make the land bloom. “If you want to study some agriculture,” it goes, “It’s an easy thing.” 

Maybe you want to be an agronomist,
So get yourself over to the Berkeley college.
The college of Berkeley, California.
Drive fast to California.

Today, David Zilberman, an Israeli by birth who is a leader in both U.S. and Israeli water and environment efforts, holds the university’s Robinson chair in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, after chairing the department twice.

The Berkeley connection, however, is not just historic.

During my time in Israel, I connected with dozens of our current students participating in a range of programs and academic opportunities. I also spent time getting to know Berkeley alums from Israel’s top to its bottom, learning about their important impact on the country.

In the north, Berkeley alum Ron Robin (Ph.D. ’86), Haifa University’s new president, has articulated an exciting vision for transforming the region by leveraging his institution’s academic excellence to grow the path to middle-class success. In Jerusalem, professor Shai Lavi (Ph.D. ’01) was recently appointed to head the Van Leer Institute, a major think tank and research center on civil society issues. Dov Greenbaum (JD ’07) runs the Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, which helps identify and address the cutting-edge issues that will fuel Israel’s high-tech economy in the future. In the Negev, Omri Yadlin (JSD ’94), president of Sapir College in Sderot, leads the most important economic agent in the region, with significant successes serving both Jewish and Bedouin communities of the south.

I hosted a Cal reunion in Tel Aviv, and met Berkeley alumni who teach on university faculties across Israel, lead high-tech and venture-capital firms, and negotiate foreign relations with Israel’s neighbors. And I often began the day by reading posts from Cal grad Sarah Tuttle-Singer (’06), who as social media editor for the English-language Times of Israel spearheaded the effort that has brought the site over a million Facebook likes.

My sabbatical also offered the opportunity to build connections for the future. I was able to lay the groundwork for ongoing Berkeley-Israel student partnerships, and connect with leading scholars, journalists, diplomats, jurists and community leaders — many of whom I arranged to come to Berkeley this year to work with students and present a diverse range of programs.

This year, we’re hosting six visiting professors from Israel, teaching a dozen courses on Israeli constitutional law, the Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli politics, sociology and medicine, in six departments. Visiting professor Rami Zeedan, an expert on Arab-Israeli society, will teach the program’s first course on that subject, as well as on Mideast politics more generally.

Our efforts to build future Berkeley-Israel academic connections have not gone unnoticed. The leadership position of UC Berkeley’s Israel Studies program was recognized by the announcement that in June, we will host the 2018 annual conference of the Association for Israel Studies — the international gathering of those who study and teach about Israel from across the globe.

I’m deeply proud of the contributions that Berkeley expats have made and continue to make to Israel. And I’m equally proud of the prominent, positive place Israel now has on our campus and will increasingly have this coming year. These various connections —which touch so many different interests and fields — help us all experience substantive and meaningful engagement with the past, present and future of Israel.

A version of this essay appeared in the Times of Israel.

Kenneth A. Bamberger
Kenneth A. Bamberger

Kenneth A. Bamberger is Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation professor of law, co-director of the Institute of Jewish Law and Israel Studies, and co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, all at UC Berkeley.