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Researcher of the Month - February 2020, Ruth Atack

Researcher of the Month

Ruth Atack is a final year PhD student in the School for Philosophy, Religion and History of Science. Her research focuses on the relationship between education, religion and national identity in Israel. Ruth is a member of the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life. 

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

I began my research journey studying for an undergraduate degree in history and theology and religious studies. It was during this time that I had the opportunity to build up my knowledge of the Palestine/Israel conflict. My passion for the subject area inspired me to continue studying for a MA in theology and religious studies – focusing specifically on religion in public life. After completing my MA, I was eager to continue in academia and studying for a PhD at Leeds has allowed me to hone my skills as a researcher and pursue my specific interest in the relationship between education, religion and national identity in Israel.

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

Whilst studying for my undergraduate and MA degrees, I developed a keen interest in various issues relating to Palestine/Israel and the area became a specialism for my MA research work. During this time I became particularly concerned with the complex social situation in the region and the how religion impacts on society. I thus began examining the social, cultural and political aspects of religion and how these interact with public life. I was specifically interested in exploring how religious ideology and discourse interact with state institutions. From here, I began to focus specifically on education in Israel and the deep divisions that exist within Israeli society itself — which directly impact on the social texture of Israeli schools. These divisions include the rifts between religious and secular groups, between political left and right, between rich and poor, and between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. However, the divides that separate the positions of religious and secular Jews on key issues relating to the Jewish state and society are particularly deep and are the source of considerable tensions within Israeli society — and it is this conflict with which my current research is most concerned.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I am currently in the final stages of my PhD so it is quite an intense period – but also extremely exciting! It is great to see everything coming together and I am really enjoying the process. In addition to my research I am, however, also involved in supporting the Education Outreach team at Leeds in its work with young people. I deliver outreach work aimed at encouraging engagement in research, and progression to higher education for young people, regardless of their background. I am extremely passionate about this role — it is a real honour to have the opportunity to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for the arts and humanities with young people and inspire them to engage in higher education.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

A complex relationship between religion and public life is inherent in Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. Similar to other areas, on issues relating to the role of religion in public life the divide between religious and secular Jews in Israel is particularly stark and is central to the intense and ongoing debate about the nature of Jewish identity. Significantly, these issues are also central to the battle that is taking place around educational issues in Israel — with on side fighting for Israel’s Jewishness to be emphasised and the other for its democratic features to predominate. The tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity is manifested most clearly in civic education and Jewish studies in Israel’s state (secular) schools. Indeed, the debate around how Jewish studies should be taught reflects the deep tension in Israeli society about the role of religion in public life and how to approach Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic identity. The relationship between religion and public life is therefore central to my research, as it addresses the religious and nationalistic approach to citizenship in Israel as promoted through civic education in state (secular) schools, as well as the increasing emphasis on ‘Jewish identity’, through intensified religious/Jewish studies, in these schools.

Feature Image Credit: Alistair @flickr