McMicken College of Arts & SciencesUniversity of Cincinnati

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UC Hires History Professor with Expertise on Middle East Relations

Assistant Professor Ethan Katz brings historical perspectives to contemporary Jewish-Muslim tensions.

Date: 5/9/2011
By: Ryan Varney
Phone: (513) 556-0142
Photos By: Melanie Cannon
While assistant professor Ethan Katz’s primary training is in modern European history—specifically French history and modern Jewish history—his research often leads him to examine the history of colonialism, religion and ethnicity in North Africa and the Middle East.

Assistant Professor of History Ethan Katz.
Assistant Professor of History Ethan Katz

Currently, he is writing a history of Jewish-Muslim relations in France. This research, he says, gives him keen insight into the current tensions surrounding such relationships, both in France and elsewhere. By studying these everyday relations, Katz found that over the course of the 20th century, many Jews and Muslims came to see each other as separate ethnic and religious groups with potentially conflicting loyalties. He connects this progression to the development of French republican ideology from the early 20th century to the present. 

As a new professor in the Department of History in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati, Katz is spending his first year in Cincinnati researching the relationship between secularism and religious values in the modern age.

“We often equate being modern with being secular and forget the crucial influence that religious values, practices, traditions and ideas have continued to have in the modern world,” he says.

Many people also perceive a great chasm between secularism and religious practice. Katz has found that the modern world is actually a place where boundaries between the religious and the secular often blur or even disappear. To demonstrate his point Katz cites the state of Israel, a country founded mostly by non-religious Jews asserting the need for Jews to return to a land to which they are bound by religious texts and religious commandments. He says a friend sums up the blurring of secularism and religion in Israel well: “Many of these Zionists and many contemporary so-called ‘secular’ Israelis might say, ‘I don’t believe in God but he promised us this land.’”

Katz hopes his research “can encourage people, in however small a way, to think past some of the tensions between religious and secular outlooks that characterize much of our world today.”

Katz has been instrumental in organizing local public forums on current events in the Middle East as well. These forums, in which Katz has teamed with UC Middle East historian Elizabeth Frierson and others, provide historical perspective and help create public awareness about contemporary issues. He has also been used as a talking head by local media and has written op-eds for the Cincinnati Enquirer in light of the recent conflicts.

Besides his work for the Department of History, Katz has also been collaborating with the Department of Judaic Studies. He and other faculty are working to try to secure grant money for a year-long seminar that would take place jointly with Cincinnati’s nearby Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion. The combination of a research university and a rabbinical seminary would allow for an innovative collaboration around various questions of Jewish history and culture.
 
These far-ranging academic interests do not go unnoticed. Though Katz has only been at UC a short time, he says he appreciates that people here value the breadth of his expertise—something that makes him a sort of double agent for the university.

“I’ve met and been welcomed by a variety of people and really enjoy the community of this university.”

In April, Katz had an opportunity to participate in some on-campus events with his father, U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Allan Katz. The elder Katz spoke to Political Science Professor Richard Harknett’s class as well as an event in the History department’s “History Out There” series, where Katz had the privilege of introducing his father.

After the visit, Katz said his parents were just as impressed with UC as he is. “I was drawn by the strength of the history department. It was clear to me right away that the university values both teaching and research, both of which are very important to me.” 

He adds further, “The research support available to humanities faculty at the university, particularly through the Taft Research Center, was critical in my decision to come here.”

Finally, he notes that given that one of his specialties is Jewish history, the nearby presence of the “unparalleled resources” of the Klau Library and the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College were another major attraction. 

Katz sees a bright future for the university. “Alumni should be excited about how UC is growing—the campus transformation, intellectual growth and the positive trends in leadership; even in the face of the current statewide economic difficulties, I think these are all reasons to retain confidence in the strength of UC.”

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