Oct. 13, 2020

UCalgary welcomes inaugural postdoctoral fellow in Israeli Studies

Generous donation by Jenny Belzberg and her late husband Hy establishes Israeli Scholar Program within the Faculty of Arts

The support of Israeli Studies initiatives at the University of Calgary has been revitalized in an innovative fashion thanks to a generous donation by well-known philanthropist Jenny Belzberg and her late husband, Hy Belzberg. 

Establishing the Dr. Jenny and Hy Belzberg Scholar in Israeli Studies Endowment within the Faculty of Arts, the university recently welcomed the program’s first postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Angy Cohen, PhD.  

Based in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, Cohen will be researching the experience of Sephardic Jewish women as they have struggled to embrace feminism in a way that does not clash with their cultural traditions. 

“I myself am a part of a feminist religious movement within Judaism, so this is very close to my heart,” says Cohen. “How do these women develop a feminism that does not necessarily erase their cultural traditions? A feminism that can instead be in dialogue with our cultural and religious traditions? These are some of the questions I will be exploring.”

Born and raised in Madrid, Spain, Cohen achieved a BA in psychology and an MA in philosophy. Moving to Israel in 2013 she earned a joint PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Universidad Autónoma of Madrid in 2017. 

Cohen’s PhD dissertation was of a deeply personal nature. Her family on her father’s side came from Spanish Morocco, her ancestors having originated in the Iberian Peninsula. Cohen researched the life stories of Moroccan Jews born and raised in the former Spanish protectorate in Northern Morocco. Her comparative study of Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel and those who moved to  Argentina was eye-opening. 

“The Spanish Moroccan identity that evolved in Israel was very different from the one that evolved in Argentina, and this had to do with the experience of immigration,” says Cohen. “I really delved into the impact of prejudice and discrimination and how we are affected by the way we are perceived.” 

Cohen will spend a portion of her fellowship writing a book based on her dissertation. 

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Belzberg is delighted with the fellowship appointment of Cohen. “Women’s rights in Israel is not something that gets discussed a lot and it’s a complicated matter, when it comes to religion especially, so this is important work,” she says. 

Early and frequent supporters of the University of Calgary on a number of fronts, the Belzbergs have long been key patrons of Israeli Studies and Canada-Israel academic exchange initiatives on campus dating back to 1985. In addition, they contributed significantly to the Taylor Family Digital Library, helping to secure Mordecai Richler’s papers, a feather in the cap of the library collection. 

After a major donor to the Israel Studies program bowed out, it largely wound down around 2013. Following the passing of her husband Hy in 2017, after 68 years of marriage, Jenny was determined to breath new life into Israeli Studies at UCalgary. The generous gift which allowed for the creation of the Dr. Jenny and Hy Belzberg Scholar in Israeli Studies Endowment is the demonstration of her commitment. 

Cohen’s inaugural fellowship is a one-year appointment with the possibility of a one-year extension. In successive years the postdoctoral fellow will be based in different departments within the Faculty of Arts. “Israeli Studies is such a broad field of study and it encompasses so many areas,” says Cohen. “You can approach it from a historical perspective, or a political science perspective, or sociology. For me, anthropology is a perfect fit because the questions of identity construction that I’m dealing in are central to anthropological research.” 

While Cohen is not teaching this fall, plans are in place for her to begin teaching a class in the new year.   

Belzberg feels that Israel is often misunderstood and vilified. Israeli Studies is important to the university, the Jewish community and society at large, she feels. “I feel there is a need for Israeli professors to speak the truth about our homeland,” she says. “Yes, it’s a country with a lot of problems but also a lot of greatness, a lot to be proud of, and it needs to be better understood.” 

She stresses that the postdoctoral program will not have a political emphasis. “We’re not supporting any political agendas,” says Belzberg. 

She adds: “I am pleased our first scholar is emphasizing feminism, we hope to have other scholars that will discuss the social structure of this relatively open country that lives in the Middle East.”  

History professor Dr. David Bercuson, PhD, the former director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies who is co-ordinating the Israeli Studies postdoctoral program seconds that notion. 

“We’re not so interested in presenting the Israeli side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or anything like that,” says Bercuson. “Rather, we want to bring in academics who can present a variety of overlooked scholarly perspectives on the country. We think it’s important to both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community to bring people a deeper understanding of Israel.” 

He adds: “Jenny has always been a passionate advocate of Israeli Studies at the University of Calgary. Her generous donation in support of this program will go a long way to bringing this deeper understanding.”