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A Life of Promise Cut Short on Oct 7

November 22, 2023

Source: Forward

The massacre of Israelis in kibbutzes along the Gaza border on October 7th by Hamas terrorists left the country reeling. Families frantically scrambled to locate relatives and friends, unsure if they had been killed, injured, lost, or taken as hostage. In checking in on its members, the Association for Israel Studies was devastated to learn that researcher and prolific writer, Hayim Katsman z”l, 32, had been murdered in his home in Kibbutz Holit, while protecting a neighbor.

It is sobering to reflect that, merely one year prior, the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies at Concordia University had established a partnership with McGill Queen’s publishing company and were preparing to launch their first collaboration; an edited volume to which Katsman had contributed. Now instead of a joyful book launch celebration, there will be a solemn memorial of the author who never got to hold the book into which he poured his heart and soul. 

A Lifelong Learner

The son of American immigrant parents, the Israeli-born Katsman earned a master’s degree from Ben-Gurion University in politics before completing his PhD at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

According to the university’s website, “Through analysis of different religious-Zionist subcultures, he demonstrate[d] how the tension between religion and modernity is manifested in the everyday lives of individuals and communities, each offering a novel understanding of the place of religion in the public and private life.”

Aside from being a popular professor, Katsman boasted an impressive publication record in spite of his age. In 2020, he was awarded the Baruch Kimmerling prize for best graduate paper by the Association for Israel Studies. “In these moments of profound grief, we remember Dr. Katsman for his invaluable contribution to our academic community,” posted the Association in a statement. 

“My dear friend Hayim Katsman, brilliant young scholar, gone, just gone…” 

Even those who had just met the activist-researcher, recognized him as a vibrant, caring and energetic individual, an enthusiastic learner, someone who really connected with others. He was particularly committed to understanding the interrelations of religion and politics in the Middle East, “in the hopes of finding reconciliation,” shared the Jackson school, and was involved in several local peace organizations.

In fact, his thesis was focused on co-existence, dedicating it to “all life forms that exist between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

One of Katsman’s joys was leading discussion groups facilitating conversation between Israelis and Palestinians. From his perspective, much of conflict is due to a lack of knowledge about the other, thus meeting and engaging was paramount for finding common ground.

For a peace advocate seeking co-existence to lose his life in this manner, is an instance of cruel irony. 

What’s in a Name

“A name is the blueprint of the thing we call character,” is a quote attributed to American Jewish educator and journalist, Morris Mandel.

For Katsman, this was truly the case.

“Hayim in Hebrew is life”, shared neighbor Avital Alajem. Alajem shared her terrifying ordeal of caring for two children and then rushing to the safe room closet with Katsman when the militants stormed the kibbutz. Shielding her with his body, she related to CNN, “He was murdered. I was saved.”

“And he gave life to this planet as he saved me, and I was able to save two kids.”

Upon retrieving the children (a baby and a toddler), Alajem was marched to Gaza, only to be released en route. She somehow found her way back to the kibbutz and recounted her story.

Katsman’s mother, blogger and women’s rights activist, Hannah Washolder Katsman, told The Washington Post that her son could have chosen a safer conventional route by teaching in the States, but chose to return to Israel to help “revive this kibbutz that was aging and isolated and frankly dangerous” due to its proximity to Gaza.

According to the “Those We Have Lost” section of The Times of Israel, Katsman was one of eleven Americans killed. 

A Brilliant Mind

Before the tragedy of October 7, the Azrieli Institute had been preparing for the launch of their first publication with McGill-Queens; an edited volume called Settler-Indigeneity in the West Bank. The edition seeks to explore the “historical and cultural production” of the concept ‘Settler-Indigeneity’, the politicization of the term, the Jewish connection to the land in Judea and Samaria (also called the West Bank), and the impact on contemporary Israeli life.

Katsman’s chapter was on religious Zionists settlers in the kibbutz of Halutza. In his words, “indigeneity is not only connected to a physical space, but also to ideas.” His case study was examining the experience of members of a kibbutz who had been evacuated from Gaza when Israel pulled out in 2005 and resettled in the West Bank, with all the accompanying nuances and complications.

“It was our great honor to work with Hayim and publish his chapter in our edited volume,” shared co-editors Rachel Feldman and Ian McGonigle. “Hayim played a critical role in bringing this project to life…[his] final published chapter highlights his brilliance as scholar, the intellectual and methodological rigour he brought to his work, and his deeply sensitive and compassionate nature.” 

A Man of Many Talents

Only months prior to the attack, Katsman had traveled to India - a popular destination for many Israelies - and several messages posted on his mother’s Facebook page were from people he had connected with there. In addition to his friends sharing their condolences, one wrote, “You didn't have to know him in depth to see his nobility, wisdom, courage, kindness and humility.”

Danny Hoffman, director of the Jackson School of International Studies, echoed their sentiments with, “This is devastating news for all of us in the Jackson School. Dr. Katsman was a talented and dedicated young scholar, and for many of our faculty, staff and students, a close friend.”

His advisor Jim Wellman added, “he was an amazing teacher…his understanding of religion and the study of it was profound. He knew how to communicate difficult issues and complex terms.” Indeed, Hayim had been a teaching assistant at the University of Washington, and also taught courses on both Israeli politics and society, and ‘Cultural Interactions in an Independent World’.

Mika Ahuvia, director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, shared her sorrow at the loss of such a promising young researcher; “[Hayim] was a brilliant bright light in the field of Israel Studies, a citizen of a conflict-ridden region who pursued solidarity and peace, a lover of music, and a great friend.”

She continued, “we are heartbroken that such a beautiful, kind soul was so violently snuffed out of this world.”

Continuing the Fight

The legacy Katsman has left on many will never be forgotten. Liora Halperin, a professor of Jewish Studies and History who served on Katsman’s doctoral committee, committed, “I and many of his friends and colleagues hope we can help his dedication [to peace] live on” echoed by former roommate Francis Abugbilla who challenged those who knew him to make a pact; “We all need to live up to what he stood for.”

In dealing with the grief and shock, co-editors Feldman and McGonigle concluded,  “Hayim’s death is a tremendous and painful loss for our small community of Israel Studies scholars. As the book travels into readers’ hands across the world, and we continue to study and teach Hayim’s writing, we will keep his memory alive.”


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