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Ilana Ben-Ezra

Double-major examines medieval Europe

by Ari Kramer

Demystifying medieval European history piqued Ilana Ben-Ezra’s academic interest a year ago, and the Harpur College junior, double-majoring in history and political science, has voraciously researched the topic ever since.

“We all think of [medieval times] as knights in shining armor and dragons and whatever else goes into this age we don’t completely understand,” says Ben-Ezra, who hails from Hollywood, Fla. “So for me it’s a little bit of demystifying it and understanding really what happened.”

She also worked last spring on an independent study with Elizabeth Casteen, assistant professor of history, researching interfaith violence in medieval Spain, and she applied a similar focus as she participated in the Summer Scholars and Artists Program. She also is serving as an undergraduate fellow this fall for the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Ben-Ezra, one of nine Harpur students selected to the Summer Scholars program, is exploring interfaith relations in France and England during the 13th and 14th centuries, when both countries expelled Jews.

“I want to explore questions of identity around the expulsion . . . because although it wasn’t continued acts of violence, it was an act of persecution that I think is very interesting to study,” Ben-Ezra says. “I think seeing how questions of identity develop around that and who recognized whom as part of which group will say a lot about the culture and society.”

Though Ben-Ezra says she is “going in pretty cold turkey,” she expects to find distinctions between Jewish self-identities and Christian depictions of the Jews. She also thinks the views expressed by the king of each country and the general populations will differ. Ben-Ezra says she felt comfortable and confident going into the project because Harpur College enabled her to build a multi-disciplinary foundation.

“Being in Harpur has definitely allowed me to see how different subjects relate to each other,” she says. “That’ll give me a background to explore the multilayered approach I want to use: the history and medieval aspects and a little bit of psychology and culture.”

Though she arrived on campus with enough credits to be a senior this year, Ben-Ezra says she intends to graduate with her class in spring 2015. As a double major, Ben-Ezra already has a full course load. But she also hopes to minor in medieval studies and learn Arabic and Latin, as well.

And she also needs time for her extracurricular activities: Chabad, Hillel and the University’s club equestrian team, which competes against other schools and participates in competitions throughout the year.

“[The club team’s] a solid six hours a week,” she says. “So it’s like taking another class or two.”

Ben-Ezra does not know what type of job she will hold in 10 years, but as she has done time and again, she will find a plan.

“I’m not 100 percent sure if I want to do academia per se,” she says, “but I know I want a PhD and I want to either utilize that for policy research/writing or maybe academia.”

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Last Updated: 12/10/14