College of Liberal Arts

Guest Speakers Give Israel a New Voice

Fri, Oct 16, 2015
Nava Semel (left) and Camille Ovitz. Photo by Alyssa Ramirez
Nava Semel (left) and Camille Ovitz. Photo by Alyssa Ramirez

“Writing for me — even as a kid — is like breathing air,” Nava Semel began.

“It’s a way for me to understand things that are confusing,” she said. “I never understood the contradiction in my life. The only way to understand was by telling it and retelling it in costume. Imagination was my safe haven amongst my surroundings.”

Semel, an award-winning Israeli author and playwright, was born to Holocaust survivors in Tel Aviv. Her work gives a voice to scars of the past and shapes Israeli identity through her Jewish heritage. She was invited by the Institute for Israel Studies at The University of Texas at Austin to speak to students, faculty and community members to discuss her works and offer a new perspective on Israel.

“My fear is that people see the Middle East and Israel in particular as one-dimensional,” said the institute’s founding director Ami Pedahzur. “We are bringing the most elite of the Israeli culture to campus to help us show the diversity and variety of Israel.”

The Institute for Israel Studies was established in January 2015 within the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies as a research entity focused solely on Israel.

Semel was one of two scholars to visit the institute this month — the other being Israeli poet Shimon Adaf, who says he used poetry to “forge [his] own way of thinking about the world.”

By the end of its inaugural year, the institute will have welcomed six international scholars to campus, all of which are diverse in their focus on Israel, said Pedahzur, the Arnold S. Chaplik Professor in Israel and Diaspora Studies. 

“UT has become a well-respected hub for Israel studies,” Pedahzur said. “People are willing to come to Austin and help turn this into a place where future generations collaborate with people across the Atlantic to enhance their knowledge.”

Pedahzur says that each scholar gives the UT community a chance to learn something new and different about Israel, like Adaf who writes to “break down infrastructures of reality” and “expose questions.”

“The intricacy of the Israeli reality is very hard to explain,” Adaf said. “But there’s a moment in which you talk to others and understand what needs to be explained.”

Each guest creates what Adaf calls an “unexpected reflection” and what Semel describes as a “two-way channel” for both the speaker and the audience to learn more about the country and culture of Israel.

“I write for myself. I’m never aware there will be a recipient,” Semel said. “The recipient always amazes me. Even after three decades of publishing, sometimes someone comes with a whole new light and whole new interpretation, proving my work can cross the axis of time.”

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