Ariel Ilan Roth began to wonder about the nature of conflict while on a ship in the Red Sea. That interest eventually led him to the job he started this month, leading a new nonprofit organization that promotes the study of Israel.
Mr. Roth served in the Israeli Navy from 1994 to 1996, in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. As he kept guard overnight on the vessel, he puzzled over what separated that period of relative peace from previous decades of conflict.
"When you're on watch staring out at the sea," he says, "your mind tends to wander."
Those late-night musings inspired Mr. Roth's academic pursuits, first at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations in 2000, and later at the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a doctorate in political science in 2005. Starting in 2008 he served as associate director of the graduate certificate program in national-security studies at Hopkins.
But as his academic career moved forward, he drifted further away from his early focus on Israel.
When he saw a posting last year for the executive-director position at the newly founded Israel Institute, in Washington, D.C., he recognized an opportunity to take his personal passion for Israeli culture and turn it into a career.
The institute, which is receiving initial support of undisclosed value from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, aims to broaden study of modern-day Israel beyond analysis of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.
'There's been a lot going on in Israel for the last 30 years beyond the peace process," says Mr. Roth, who is 38.
He cites the country's transition from a planned economy to a freer economy over the last 50 years and its absorption of immigrants from Ethiopia and the Soviet Union as examples of the types of scholarship the institute could help support.
Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, is founding president of the institute, which will focus on promoting Israel studies on campuses in the United States by providing money for fellowships and research. Additionally, it will coordinate study-abroad programs in Israel for American undergraduates and internships at policy think-tanks for doctoral students.
Mr. Roth says that the institute will maintain a rigidly apolitical orientation and won't shy away from supporting scholarship that asks tough questions about Israeli culture, such as the experience of Israel's Arab minority or how Israel's creation has affected Palestinians.