Woman of the pomegranate

Sharon Nazarian has a mysterious quality about her. I’ve bumped into her occasionally over the years, but never long enough to have a real conversation. I always knew she was highly educated and a big lover of Israel, and that a few years ago she founded the groundbreaking Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA, where she also teaches political science.

But after spending a couple of hours with her recently in her elegant Century City offices, and following it up with a phone conversation, I still felt a sense of mystery.

Nazarian, who was born in Tehran and looks like she’s in her mid-40s, is not loud and slick. She dresses tastefully, sips her jasmine tea and softly measures her words. She’s not out to sell or impress.

Maybe part of her mystery is how she waxes poetically about a visual icon that adorns the family seal of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, which is named after her parents Younes and Soraya, and which she runs as president.

Normally, visual icons for nonprofits pull at the heartstrings, typically with graphic symbols of people in need, or, in the case of Jewish causes, something with the Star of David. Not in this case. Here, the symbol for Nazarian’s foundation is an ancient fruit.

A pomegranate.

What could this odd fruit have to do with enriching education about Israel, a prime mission of the foundation?

It’s not just the popular myth that the pomegranate is said to carry the same amount of seeds as the number of commandments: 613. The answer is not that linear, or quantitative. 

“In the Persian tradition, the pomegranate has special powers,” she told me. “It’s a mystical thing. Some scholars even believe that it was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.”

Nazarian, who has a doctorate in philosophy, wants to harness that special power to the field of Israel education.

She herself thinks in circular, not linear ways. This is a reflection of her intellectual curiosity and her holistic approach to learning. She wants to cover Israel from every possible angle.

Her center, under the leadership of Israel scholar Arieh Saposnik, sponsors courses through many UCLA departments on such topics as Israeli politics, law, economics, history and environmental policy. But the center also values the cultural texture of the Israel story, offering courses on media, performing arts and Hebrew language and literature.

When I researched the legend of the pomegranate, I learned that in ancient times it was revered as a symbol of health, fertility and rebirth.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Nazarian saw these three words as representing much of what she’s trying to do with her center.

First, there’s something healthy about the very notion of education, especially when so much of the discourse on Israel revolves around propaganda. She believes the best way to counter the anti-Israel bias that often infects the halls of academia is not with more bias but with intellectual depth.

This is where the second word — fertility — comes in.

In her mind, planting so many seeds about Israel will breed more interest in Israel, not less. By learning the rich story of Israel from many different angles, students will be less likely to fall for anti-Israel propaganda and more likely to want to engage with the Jewish state.

In fact, in recent years UCLA has had one the best records among universities for minimizing anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incidents on campus.

Perhaps as a reflection of this success, Nazarian’s center was chosen this year to host the 29th annual conference of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS), an international scholarly society devoted to the academic and professional study of Israel.

The three-day conference, which kicks off June 24 and features prominent scholars from around the world, will explore a theme especially relevant today: “Israel in the International Arena: Scholarship, Imagery, Discourse & Public Policy.” It promises to be anything but linear.

It’s the first time the prestigious conference will be held in California, which speaks to the third symbol of the pomegranate — rebirth.

Nazarian sees California, and especially UCLA, as an ideal place to lead a rebirth of the study of Israel in academia.

She’s challenging the view that improving Israel’s image is a hopeless cause and that the only way to defend Israel in a Twitter world is to fight back with clever slogans. Her approach is a deeper, richer and longer one — more like an extended voyage than a quick weekend trip.

Just as the Jewish people waited 1,900 years to return to the land of Zion, it will take more than 19 minutes to make the case for Israel.

Maybe that’s why she’s so moved by the symbol of the pomegranate — because it indeed represents something deep, complicated and timeless. You can’t crunch it right away. It takes a while to open the fruit, get to the seeds and then savor them.

But I see another possible reason for picking this ancient fruit. When you finally get to savor the pomegranate seeds, you realize that the taste reminds you of … Israel itself.

Slightly sweet, and slightly tart.

That might be the real mystery of Sharon Nazarian — how she will tell the bittersweet story of her beloved Israel, in a world that likes to see only the bitter or the sweet.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.