By Marc Bernstein, Michigan State University
Ze’ev (William Michael) Brinner, professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and long-time Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research, died in his home on February 3, 2011, after a long illness. He was 86 years old.
Brinner, who taught Arabic and Islamic studies in the University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies for nearly forty years, dedicated much of his life to the study of the history and cultures of the Middle East and published extensively on subjects ranging from modern Arabic literature and medieval Islamic history and religion to medieval Jewish-Muslim cultural interaction. He was also known for his commitment to the State of Israel and for fostering understanding between Muslims and Jews.
“As a person he was loved and admired by many, capable of bringing a refined sense of humor to the most serious and contentious of topics,” said son Benjamin Brinner, a professor and chair of UC Berkeley’s Music Department. “He took every opportunity to teach people about the roots of conflict, about religious tolerance and intolerance throughout history. In his teaching, public lecturing and research, he was unswervingly committed to fighting prejudice and ignorance.”
“The theme that flowed through his work was the Jewish-Muslim understanding,” his son, Rafael Brinner, noted. “His dream as a Zionist in the 1940s was that Israel would be a home to both the Jewish and Muslim communities.”
In a 1988 talk about “The Political Role of the Middle East,” Brinner cautioned that religious zeal, especially religious fundamentalism, was gaining traction as a powerful political force in the Middle East. “We need to be sensitive to the area’s religious sensibilities,” he cautioned. “We cannot expect Middle Easterners to think and act the same way we would.”
Born October 6, 1924, to Fred (Menahem) Brinner and Sadie Weiszer, traditional Jews who had emigrated from Hungary, Ze’ev grew up in the Filmore district of San Francisco and studied at the Central Hebrew School, where as a youth he began teaching and leading services. Ze’ev was also active in Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsair, and after meeting a young refugee who had escaped Vienna on a Kindertransport, Lisa Kraus, he drew her into its activities as well.
With a BA and MA in Near Eastern Studies from Berkeley, Ze’ev immigrated to Israel, in 1950, having been invited by the Israeli emissary in San Francisco to teach Arabic and humanities at the upper school of Kibbutz Beit Alpha. He tried to enlist in the Israeli army but was rejected on account of his thinness and was sent back to his kibbutz to gain weight. In the meantime, Lisa had settled on a different kibbutz in northern Israel, and the couple managed to see each other on weekends and in 1951 they wed in Afula. The following year Ze’ev was invited back to Berkeley to fill in for a faculty member on sabbatical. He ended up staying on at the University, completing his doctoral dissertation in 1956 under the mentorship of William Popper, with a critical edition and translation of Muḥammad ibn Ṣaṣrā’s al-Durra al-muḍi’a fi ‘l-dawla al-Ẓāhiriyya (published in 1963 in two volumes as A Chronicle of Damascus, 1389–1397) and receiving a professorial appointment that same year.
Over the course of his career, Brinner served the academic community unstintingly, chairing at various junctures UC Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department, the Committee for Middle Eastern Studies and the Religious Studies Program. Brinner also was president of the Middle East Studies Association of America and headed the American Oriental Society. He was a visiting professor at Harvard University, UCLA, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Washington, and Israeli universities in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. He served as acting director of the Annenberg Research Institute in Philadelphia and headed the Academic Consortium of Jewish Studies Programs of the Bay Area for many years. He was the founding director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad at the American University in Cairo, and from 1973 until 1975, served as director of the Overseas Study Center of the University of California at the Hebrew University. Among the research awards he received were a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Study Award. In 1991, in recognition of his profound contributions to the University, he was awarded the Berkeley Citation, that institution’s highest honor. Ze’ev was the honoree of “Bridging the Worlds of Judaism and Islam,” an international, interdisciplinary conference at UC Berkeley in 1993.
In his research, Professor Brinner made contributions of lasting value to the study of Jewish and Muslim civilizations. In focusing on points of contact and shared achievements he did much to enrich our understanding of their intricate cultural interactions and parallel development. A rigorously trained scholar of Near Eastern cultures and civilization and philologist, he always sought to bring out an appreciation for complexity and nuance that transcended polemics and apologetics. Among Brinner’s publications is his translation of An Elegant Composition Concerning Relief After Adversity, by Nissim ben Jacob ibn Shāhīn (d. 1062), which won the Rabbi Jacob Friedman Award for an English translation of a Jewish classic in 1979. He published two volumes of annotated translations of the universal history of the Muslim historian and exegete Abū Jafar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), Ta’rīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk: Prophets and Patriarchs (1987) and The Children of Israel (1991). Brinner’s latest work, a translation and annotated edition of ‘Arā’is al-Majālis fī Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyā, or Lives of the Prophets” by Abū Isḥāq Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Tha’labī (d. 1035) was published in 2002. Further information about his work and a complete bibliography of his publication may be found in the Festschrift dedicated to him, Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Communication, and Interaction.
Beyond his scholarly achievements, William Brinner was a consummate educator. Already as a young teacher this was recognized by the University when it honored him with the U.C. Berkeley Teaching Award of 1959 — the very first year it was offered. He trained many who came through Berkeley at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, but also offered freely of his advice and knowledge to many junior scholars from other institutions who turned to him. Those who had the good fortune to study with him encountered a mentor who had no investment of his own ego in the achievements of his students. He offered direction wisely but sparingly, always allowing aspiring scholars to find their own path and follow their own passion. He leaves behind generations of students who benefitted from his erudition, his grace, and humanity.
A gifted orator both in the classroom and without, he was also committed to the wider community; his expertise and insight were constantly sought out to help others make sense of the complicated Middle East. He did so often, usually without any compensation other than the gratitude of his listeners—further evidence of his generosity and civic-mindedness. Brinner was a sought-after commentator about contemporary political developments in the Middle East, both on radio and television, and in a number of print publications. He also surveyed the Israeli and Arabic press on National Educational Television’s weekly “World Press” program. He was active in many community organizations, including the Judah L. Magnes Museum, where his assistance was pivotal in developing the holdings documenting the cultures and history of the Jews in North Africa and the Middle East, with a particular focus on the manuscripts from the Karaite synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Upon retiring, Ze’ev continued his pedagogic contributions, teaching at The Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning in San Francisco. Professor Brinner’s papers are now part of the University Archives at The Bancroft Library.
Despite his great acumen and talent he was modest and self-deprecating. In remarkable testament to the universal appreciation of Brinner’s intellectual honesty and decency within the contested and contentious field of Near Eastern Studies, one colleague noted that in over five decades of friendship never had he heard an unkind word said of him. In short, Brinner was a true humanist and Renaissance man, who excelled in so many areas of life—family, community, and the academic profession, and he is sorely missed by all those who were privileged to know him.
Ze’ev is survived by his wife, Lisa J. Brinner, of Berkeley; his children, Leyla Brinner Sulema of Ramat Hasharon, Israel, Benjamin Brinner of Berkeley, California, Rafael Brinner of Oakland, California; a sister, Claire Krauthamer of Las Vegas, Nevada; and eight grandchildren.