Keough School of Global Affairs
Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies
While she was growing up in Jerusalem, the debate in Atalia Omer’s home centered on the future of Israel, and often proved as intense as the love her father and grandfather shared for each other.
Her grandfather experienced harassment as a young adult Jew in Austria, once even fighting an old-fashioned sword duel. Tired of abuse, he committed to Zionism in the 1930s and moved to Palestine before the ghettos and gas chambers claimed every member of his family, save a brother and nephew. The dream of a Jewish state seemed like the only way to protect himself and his people from constant persecution.
His family disagreed with his decision to leave Europe and move to a British-controlled territory in the Middle East, but his Zionist commitment “is the reason I’m here,” Omer says. He became a Zionist Congress delegate, a resistance fighter in Britain’s Jewish Brigade during the war and against the British Mandate in Palestine after it, and the first treasurer of an Israeli Jerusalem.
Her father, on the other hand, became a writer and cultural critic who challenged Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. Shortly after the War of 1967, he co-published a statement in an Israeli newspaper opposing the occupation on moral grounds. This viewpoint ran counter to the postwar euphoria in Israeli society when many people embraced the new sense of military strength and access to Jerusalem and other important religious places. He was harassed into self-imposed exile for a time before returning to fight and write in Jerusalem.
“As much as my father was a principled critic of Israel’s ethos, my late grandfather was a stone in its foundation,” wrote Omer in the introduction to her book When Peace is Not Enough. “My earliest memories are of their frequently fierce opposition to each other, unyielding, but loyal. I carry this dual legacy with me today.”
Omer, an expert in religion, nationalism and peacebuilding in Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, continues to explore the themes emerging from her family’s debate in her research and teaching today. Her work centers around how religion participates in constructing, reproducing and reimagining national identity and objectives, especially pertaining to questions of peace and justice.
For instance, her first two solo-authored books studied how looking at the Palestinian conflict through the eyes of someone with hybrid identity or the Jewish diaspora can provide a shift in perspective and creative resources for critique, as well as peace and justice discourse. She also contributes broadly to the field of religion, conflict and peacebuilding, highlighting the relevance of the study of nationalism and historicizing scholarly debates about religion and politics.
Recently, Omer expanded the geographical reach of her studies to Kenya and the Philippines in order to study how religion and gender affect peacebuilding and development there. She says working at Notre Dame connected her with Catholic Relief Services, which provided access to data about their efforts to educate girls and reduce child marriage in Kenya and interreligious efforts to resolve land dispute in Mindanao.
Her study of the interrelations between religion, nationalism and identity have taken on new importance in light of the increasing political polarization in America today.
“The United States is not immune to exclusionary ideas of nationalism. You hear talk about who is a real American and who is not a real American,” she says. “This is where the study of nationalism is important. It’s always a constructed and contested identity that often traffics in the language of authenticity. I study these narratives and how they matter politically.”
As an undergraduate, she took Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and learned Arabic for the first time, which opened up troves of literature from the other side of the conflict. She continued her studies at Harvard, focusing on religion and the connection to nationalism and social and political theory in her master’s and doctoral degrees. This training made Omer a natural pick to co-direct a Notre Dame initiative, Contending Modernities, a cross-cultural global research program examining the ways that religious and secular forces interact in the modern world.
Omer says she came to Notre Dame because she was familiar with the Kroc Institute and the work of R. Scott Appleby, dean of the Keough School. Like her father, Omer teaches students to challenge prevailing narratives.
“I hope they emerge from my class with more questions and less certainty,” she says.
Her own questions have provided fuel for her exploration of personal identity and peacebuilding. She recalled that when her father once went on a hunger strike, her grandfather joined it in solidarity despite holding the opposite viewpoint. Her father died when she was 10, and her grandfather about six years ago. Their passionate debate endures in Omer’s academic odyssey.