By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, May 6, 2015 — In an evening that mixed Hollywood glamour with serious intellectual conversation, the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies celebrated its five-year anniversary last night at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
The sold-out event welcomed 500 supporters of the center and the Nazarian family to watch a deeply felt awards ceremony and discussion, followed by dinner al fresco in the courtyard of the Wallis. The gala raised closed to $900,000 for the center, confirming its vital role as an independent, nonpartisan forum that promotes scholarly research and education about “Israel as it is, with all its achievements and challenges.”
Sharon Nazarian, chair of the Advisory Council of the Y&S Nazarian Center, launched the evening with welcoming remarks and introduced Israeli journalist and writer Ari Shavit, who served as guest host of the ceremonies. Shavit set the tone for the evening by saying that Israelis were neither angels nor demons. “We are humans,” he said. “Humans with a remarkable story that must be told.”
After a short video was shown about the center and its work, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block presented the center’s inaugural Visionary Award to philanthropists Younes and Soraya Nazarian. Block noted that their idea for an Israel studies program had become a nationally and internationally recognized center for the study of Israel in just five short years. In accepting the award, Younes Nazarian remarked, “We are getting exactly the result that [we wanted],” and offered one word to all in attendance, “Thank you!”
Oscar award–winning actress Natalie Portman then presented Israeli novelist Amos Oz — author of more than 41 books translated into 43 languages — with the center’s Israel Studies Award. The award recognizes individuals of extraordinary character and merit who have contributed to a greater understanding of Israel or have made outstanding contributions to Israeli society and/or culture.
“As both an Israeli and an American, I understand well the importance of teaching Americans about Israel as it really is,” said Portman. “I am proud and privileged to be here tonight to present the UCLA Israeli Studies Award to my dear friend, Amos Oz,” she said. After reading a poem translated from Hebrew by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, she concluded, “Thank you, Amos, for packing your suitcases for this long Jewish travel, for putting words to our longings, and for never losing to cynicism in your insistence on peace, even when it is not as popular as it should be.”
Earlier that day, Oz and his wife watched Portman’s film adaptation of his best-selling memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Shot in Israel and starring Portman as Oz’s mother, the film will be the directorial debut of the famous actress. It premieres at the Cannes Film Festival later this month. After viewing the film, Oz said he now considers Portman part of his family.
In accepting the award, an original sculpture by Soraya Nazarian entitled “Strong Roots, Grounded,” Oz said, “This is a very, very moving evening for me. . . You are actually giving me an award for something I would have done , I would have written, I would have said even if instead of a reward, you would fight me this evening. I would still say the same and write the same.”
Amos Oz (left) with Ari Shavit. (Photo: Vince Bucci.)
Shavit, a longtime commenter for Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper and author of My Promised Land, then led Oz in a fascinating discussion of his life and work. Although he is known for being highly critical of the policies of the current Israeli government, Oz confessed an abiding love for his country and its people. “I love Israel even at moments I cannot stand it! And the reason I love it is because Israeli society is the most vivacious, most fiery society on earth.”
Among the many leaders, past and present, of UCLA who were in attendance were former President of the University of California Mark Yudof, UCLA Chancellors Emeriti Albert Carnesale and Norman Abrams; Vice Provost of International Studies Cindy Fan; and Senior Associate Vice Provost and Director of the UCLA International Institute Chris Erickson.
Virtually all of the members of the Community and Faculty Advisory Boards of the Y&S Nazarian Center also attended, as well as many visiting faculty and UCLA students. Finally, the event drew the participation of many leaders of the Jewish community of Los Angeles and the Israeli-American community, including the current and former chairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Leslie Bider and Richard Sandler, respectively; publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Rob Eshman; and entertainment industry leader Haim Saban — to name but a few.