There has been a flurry of media attention at the Irvine campus of the University of California because of the growing tension between its Jewish and Muslim Students. Most recently, this animosity came to a head on February 8th, when Israeli Ambassador, Michael Oren was invited by several sponsors, including the Law School and the Political Science Department, to speak on campus.
Ambassador Oren's remarks were disrupted every few minutes by a group of students who screamed, and raucously clapped, and howled. There were at least ten such disruptions, and understandably the UCI administration was clearly embarrassed at the students' behavior.
At the heart of this issue was the debate over the freedom of speech and how we risk sacrificing civil dialogue and the genuine process of educational inquiry when one group decides to shout down another -- because of differing views.
When I was asked to come speak at the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies on campus, I was particularly interested in understanding how this center integrates the cultural experiences of other Iranian minority groups -- most notably Iranian Jews such as myself. Iranian Jewish roots date back to 2700 years ago, and due to our shared history, we also feel a part of the fabric of the Persian culture.
"The fact that our center is named after an American missionary who was the founder and president of the Alborz College of Tehran, speaks volumes of what kind of institution we aspire to be," said Dr. Nasrin Rahimieh. She is Maseeh Chair and Director of the Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture and Professor of Comparative Literature at UCI. "In the 43 years that Dr. Jordan was in Iran, he was a figure who represented the bridging of Iran and the West. And so the Samuel Jordan Center is the meeting ground and bridging point for all of us Iranians. Our mission is to foster a vision of Iran that remains true to Iran's ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. The study of Iran must include all these facets."
There are less than a dozen centers for Iranian Studies worldwide and what distinguishes his institution is its innovative and evolving methods of collaborative learning. They collaborate with other campus centers and disciplines to broaden and open the dimension of culture. For example, In October of 2010, the Jordan Center will be inviting four notable scholars from the Tel Aviv Center (David Menashri, David Yeushalmi, Mei Litvak, and Liora Henderlman-Baavur) to find new ways of understanding Jewish Iranian history and to pave the way for more constructive teaching and research.
Another interesting project in development is the Center's collaboration with UCI's world renowned Informatics Department. As Dr. Mazyar Lotfalian, a research associate at the Jordan Center stated, "We need to understand that culture is far more relational and dynamic, with varying layers. Science, medicine, and technology are socially and culturally constructed." Thus the study of these fields is a new angle for the research agenda of the Jordan Center -- one that has not been studied in depth in other centers.
For example, Gloria Mark and her students in the Informatics Department have studied how people use technology in disrupted environments. They have done research on Israelis during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon conflict and Iraqis during the recent conflict. This study shows that cell phones and the internet are used in creative ways to enhance everyday life in disruptions of war.
Dr. Lotfalian hopes that the School of Informatics research and presentation will encourage and recruit students who would do a similar project on Iran. In fact, when one looks at the post-election uprisings, Iranians were most creative in their use of technology and cell phones to disseminate information. So this new line of research is a timely addition to the study of the present Iranian culture.
Dr. Touraj Daryaee, both Howard Baskerville Professor of Iranian History and Persianite World and the Associate Director of the Jordan Center, summed it up best, "We have a tendency to prepackage and essentialize the study of culture. Sometimes one group or generation feels they already know what there is to know about a certain aspect of our history, which leaves no room for inquiry and dialogue." Dr. Daryaee recounted that during his talks about the early Persian Empire, some of the myths Iranians hold in regards to their culture is challenged. "The findings are sometimes contrary to some widely held beliefs, but there needs to be an openness to hearing things as well," he said. When asked what is next on his speaking schedule, Dr. Daryaee's next topic of discussion was even more compelling and out of the box -- "To Learn and Remember from the Dura-Europos Synagogue: The Visit by Persians in the 3rd Century."
An openness to hearing differing perspectives appears to be the driving force of not only a thoughtful dialogue, but to creating dynamic institutions that invite and excite its participants to share and learn.