As the new coordinator of the Jewish Studies Program at San Jose State University, Anat Balint plans to offer students a comprehensive view of Jewish culture and Israeli society. This on a campus where, in 2016, student senators passed a resolution to divest from companies “complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
Balint isn’t worried about the prospect of political tensions, however. She’s actually comfortable with it.
“I’m coming from a very intense, highly conflicted society,” the Israel native said. “I’m used to confronting ‘otherness’ that can be aggressive and disturbing. It’s totally fine if there are political activists [who] want to be critical, as long as it’s not racist or antisemitic.”
Right now, the SJSU campus is closed due to the pandemic and all classes are being conducted online, starting this week. That saves Balint, who lives in San Francisco, a long commute, but after teaching at San Francisco State University and then at SJSU over the past two years, she still loves sharing her knowledge with her students.
“Students know very little about the place I’m coming from,” she said of her native land. “They’re open to listening. I try to give them a broad perspective.”
SJSU offers a minor in Jewish studies, with course topics such as Bible history and Holocaust literature. But Balint wants to expand the offerings.
Her field of expertise is media, mass communications and cinema, so this semester she is teaching a course on Israeli history as seen through the lens of documentary film, titled “Telling Our Story.”
“This is an attempt to combine my passions and bring something new,” she said. “It’s introducing Israeli society to American students by exposing them to documentary filmmaking and understanding how Israeli directors reflect various questions and tensions within Israeli society.”
Even though SJSU is a huge school, with more than 20,0000 students, it does not have the expansive Jewish studies infrastructure of UC Berkeley and SFSU. But Balint hopes to build up her program over time to “expand the knowledge of Jewish life in its various aspects.”
I’m used to confronting ‘otherness’ that can be aggressive and disturbing.
Balint came to academia through a circuitous route. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, born in Jerusalem, she Balint worked in TV (Israel’s Channel 2), radio (Kol Yisrael), newspapers (Haaretz) and magazines (The Seventh Eye). She also served as Israel’s Union of Journalists’ commissioner of ethics and freedom of the press.
In 2016, she earned a Ph.D. in media and communications from Goldsmiths, University of London, with a dissertation on embedded branding in reality TV in Israel. Before moving to California two years ago, she was an adjunct lecturer in the department of communications at Tel Aviv University.
Though she is an academic now, she maintains none of her jobs was more exciting than journalism. “There is no replacement for the thrill of living the events,” she said, “going behind the scenes on a daily basis, working with sources, having scoops.”
She left it all behind, moving to San Francisco in 2018 with her partner (a tech executive) and their two daughters. A member of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, Balint says she loves being connected to Jewish life through the synagogue. “When you live in Israel, you don’t have to,” she said. “In Israel you can be a lazy Jew.”
Balint, who is a grant recipient of the Israel Institute, which aims to increase knowledge about modern Israel through teaching opportunities at U.S. colleges, hopes in the coming years to make SJSU another hub for Jewish studies, even if that means having tough conversations about Jews, Judaism, Israel and Zionism.
“It’s also about Jewish values,” she says of her academic mission. “If you think about the culture of debate, debate is a value. Debate is a positive value. Israelis always argue. I couldn’t understand why they do it, and then I realized, maybe it’s a Jewish thing.”