Thoughts on Theses: Liya Rechtman
Issue   |   Wed, 10/09/2013 - 02:30

Department: Religion
Thesis Advisor: David Wills

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: My thesis is about evangelical Christian American political identity in relationship to Israel. I found that there was this very big conservative right wing Israel lobby — that wasn’t Jewish, which is sort of what you would think of as the American Israel lobby — but that actually there was a much larger one that was Christian. I started doing some research on who they were and why they cared about Israel, and a lot of the reasons they care about Israel have to do with specifically evangelical Christian biblical beliefs. The tenets of their faith, like biblical literalism, lend themselves to caring about the nation of Israel as it’s been established since 1948. Then I did some ethnographic work. My thesis is historical and also ethnographic-sociological. I spent some time at a campus — not Amherst College, but a different campus’s Christian coalition group for students, and I did some interviews there, thinking about how evangelical Christians interact with being political individuals, so like having voting rights, and thinking about how the Bible relates to politics and how their religious views relate to politics. And then I also spent some time in New York City over the summer doing ethnographic work with a church and interviewing different congregants and pastors. I found that there was actually this whole other world that I hadn’t even thought about of evangelical Christians who didn’t have this very strict right-wing view on politics, but who had taken from their biblical interpretation a whole variety of other kinds of political views. I’m arguing that this sort of stereotypical right-wing evangelical Christian pro-Israel view is actually a generational trend that is ending in the Obama era.

Q: How did you come up with this idea?

A: I was president of Hillel, which is the Jewish student group, as a sophomore, and I was given a free trip to the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] Conference. It’s this huge conference, and it’s kind of expensive to go to, so I was like, okay, I’m going to go, even though I wasn’t sure that I was really supportive of it. I went and I discovered that there was a huge evangelical Christian presence. I just assumed that it would be a bunch of angry conservative older Jews, and it wasn’t like that at all. There were a lot of very young Christian people there, and especially in the campus leadership group there were a lot of Christians. In the conference you could do different tracks, and I did the evangelical track. I was supposed to do the campus leadership track, but I went to all the evangelical Christian activities instead. I met a lot of very high up evangelical Christian leadership people, and I was totally fascinated by this world outside of anything I’d ever seen before. It was really cool.

Q: What have been some of the high points so far in the process?

A: I love my thesis advisor. He’s awesome. I’ve been working with him for two years now. I did a special topics with him for all of last year that was basically reading on all of this stuff in preparation to write my thesis. Also, the two ethnographic projects that I did, the campus project and the church. Being in ethnographic work is so cool. You can just be like, “Hi, I want to know everything about you!” And so the interviews and spending time with the church was really, really cool. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community, and I hadn’t really interacted people outside of my faith group before I came to college or people who even had strong religious beliefs. So I’m really attracted to this sort of novel community that’s very unlike my own but also, in certain ways, incredibly similar to my own.

Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced so far?

A: Well, it’s hard ... and it’s slow work. The workload is hard, and it’s stressful. I want to do something really, really good, and I want to be able to represent the people I’ve met. I guess some of the biggest technical problems I’ve had are questions about anonymity. The church I worked with is connected to — I’m going to be a little bit vague — but the church I worked with in New York is connected to a much bigger church elsewhere in the country, and I want to talk about that connection, because it’s pretty important to why I went to that church. I’m having trouble figuring out how to protect the people that I spoke to and maintain their anonymity.

Q: What have you done on your thesis so far, and what do you still need to accomplish?

A: I’m actually not on a typical track, because after I got home from this conference as a sophomore, I was really impatient to get started. I was kind of deciding between dropping out of college and staying here, and the only way I could convince myself to stay in college would be if I started working on my thesis right away. So I started doing reading for it first semester of junior year. Most people start thinking about it junior year, and I was already doing work. It was kind of amorphous. I wasn’t sure what my project was exactly, other than that it was on Christian Zionism, which isn’t even the term I would use anymore for what I’m talking about — so clearly it’s progressed a lot. I’d been working on it for a year when this year started. With typical theses, you do one credit in the first semester, and two credits in the second semester, but I’m doing two credits this semester, and I’m hoping not to do any in the spring. I’m hoping to be done with my whole thesis basically in a month. We’ll see if that really happens. I have three chapters left to write, so I’m maybe 30 percent done.

Q: Do you have any advice for students considering writing a thesis?

A: Get to know professors early and take a special topics course beforehand. Special topics are the key to education at Amherst. I’ve taken two now. One was called Christian America and the other was called Christian Zionism. They were a lot of reading and a lot of talking. It was an incredibly important way for me to learn.

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