Examining Iran Beyond the Sound Bite
As centrifuges spin and aerial attacks are deliberated, the Iranian nuclear program has polarized world opinion, with one camp warning of an impending second Holocaust, and the other insisting that the Islamic Republic has only peaceful intentions. The demagoguery is thunderous, and the issue is cast in reductionist, civilizational terms. Yet at Tel Aviv University’s newly-dedicated Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, the largest of its type in the Middle East outside Iran, and the first of its kind in Israel, a more nuanced conversation is taking place. Its scholars are examining Iran of the past and present - beyond the conventional sound bite.
A Love of Iran
Founded in 2005, the Center marks the crystallization of the shared vision of three, Persian-born individuals by the name of David – TAU’s Prof. David Menashri, a world-renowned scholar on Iran, and entrepreneurs and philanthropists Lord David Alliance of the UK and David Merage of the USA. United in their fondness for their birth land's rich language, culture and history, they dreamt of establishing a center that would generate new, more hybrid insights into Iran - and to nurture tomorrow’s experts in the field.
In seven short years the Alliance Center has evolved into an influential and innovative focal point of the global Iran debate. Highly active in the national and international academic community, it has organized and co-sponsored 11 international conferences in Israel, the US and Germany and 8 national conferences with the participation of leading scholars throughout Israel. Topics have ranged from the heritage of Iranian Jewry and challenges for the future, to the theology, law and culture of the Shi’a, and to Iran’s economic history. The Alliance Center also hosts expert lecturers from all over the world in the framework of its Iran Forum, a colloquium dedicated to discussing diverse and multifaceted aspects of Iranian society. Equally important, emphasizes the current Alliance Center Director Prof. Meir Litvak, is the leading role the Center plays "in preparing the next Israeli generation of scholars of Iran, having sponsored more than 12 doctoral and three post-doctoral scholars – more than all other universities in Israel combined."
The Center's Senior Fellows have authored and edited numerous books, articles and publications, and given hundreds of lectures in Israel and throughout the world. Iran Pulse, a monthly overview of Iranian current affairs, provides up-to-date insights into the fast-changing and multi-dimensional state of affairs in contemporary Iran.
Another endeavor of the Alliance Center is the Dr. Habib Levy Program in Iranian Jewish History, which is dedicated to the study and promotion of knowledge concerning the history and cultural heritage of Iranian Jewry. In keeping with the Alliance Center's emphasis on nurturing a new generation of scholars, one of the Program's main objectives is to encourage graduate and doctoral students to devote their dissertations to the study of Iranian Jews. In addition, the Dr. Habib Levy Collection for Jewish Iranian History and Heritage, housed in the Sourasky Central Library, provides invaluable resources for both scholars and students alike.
An Alliance with the Future
In the latest milestone for the Center, it was recently dedicated in the name of Lord Alliance in a ceremony that included a stimulating panel discussion by experts. Lord David Owen, the British Foreign Secretary at the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, highlighted the legacy of high-ranking Jews in Persian history, and remarked that "the challenge for us now is to build a better understanding of Iran… after all, for half of my life, the Jewish world had good relations with Iran." Lord Peter Mandelson, a former European Union Trade Commissar and key figure in British politics, stressed that “Ayatollah Khamenei has more power than legitimacy," and that it is this illegitimacy that "makes the regime so vulnerable to change from below - our task is to amplify this vulnerability.”
(Pictured: Lord Alliance with his wife, Homa, son Joshua, and TAU President Joseph Klafter)
For Prof. Menashri, it’s about understanding Iran not as a monolithic entity, but as a complex country of competing forces and visions. "What we see in Iran is basically two trains - one train represents the drive towards nuclear weapons, and the other train is carrying the message of social and political change. The world should do whatever it takes to slow down the nuclear train, and do as much as possible to accelerate domestic change in Iran - to give the youth of Iran the feeling that the world is not against them.”
It is this new generation of Iranians that Prof. Menashri extols – a future that need not be an age of war, but rather one defined by the peaceful and mutually-beneficial exchange of knowledge. "Part of the dream of establishing the Center was that one day, we would have collaborations with Iranian universities.” And while this may remain elusive, history shows that revolutions do happen, and the youth of Iran are thirsty for change.
Lord David Alliance has been a visionary patron of Iranian Studies at TAU for many years. He has served on numerous public committees and operates the Alliance Family Foundation, which was established to help the needy and advance knowledge of religion, education and medicine. In recognition of his invaluable service to society, Lord Alliance holds a number of honorary degrees, including from Tel Aviv University, which was conferred in 2009.