Prof. Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, the Head of the Jerusalem Institute since 2003, died suddenly last month. We mourn his loss and want to remember him as we knew him – with warmth, humor and dignity. We dedicate this edition of JIIS Bulletin to him.
Barsi, as he was known by those around him, will be remembered as much for his professional achievements in conflict resolution and other academic arenas as for his ebullient personality and winning smile. He had long been a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a noted expert on conflict management and resolution, in the Middle East and the international arena, when he took the academic helm of the Institute in 2003.
He was born in Turkey to a family of modest means, and together they made aliya when he was six years old. A love of Jewish-Turkish-Levantine culture – particularly songs in the almost-lost language of Ladino – remained with him throughout his life.
Meir Kraus, JIIS Director-General, and JIIS Founder Ora Ahimeir both noted his skill in identifying the sensitivities of the different sides of a conflict – be it one he was studying or one he was trying to help resolve – and yet generating a dialogue between them that often led to meaningful progress. “He really saw to the core of the matter and of their hearts,” said Kraus. “He would say that without being able to see those elements, even if they were colored in different ‘values,’ it would be impossible to resolve the conflict.”
In eulogizing Barsi, Kraus noted: “In your work on conflicts here, in Israel, you were not merely an expert using your learned skills; you were a deeply involved participant, ardently interested and motivated to find a way to improve the situation. You sought alternatives at every turn, looking for cracks that might be further opened to progress. And you always believed that the way to manage, if not resolve, the most problematic issues and ensure a better future for us all was not far off – that it truly was possible.”
Indeed, Barsi wrote extensively on this – a list of his publications
fills some five pages and spoke about it at every opportunity. He won a string of prizes, was a Fulbright Fellow, a Bronfman Fellow and a member of an untold number of committees dealing with conflicts and how they could be eased and resolved. And he was a teacher, in practice and in spirit.
All these skills served him well at JIIS, as elsewhere. When he first joined the Institute, a decade ago, it was the post-Oslo period and the beginning of the second Intifada. This did not dampen his enthusiasm or belief that the future could be better. Ora Ahimeir recalls that he was ready to face the challenges no matter how large they loomed. “At the time, the peace process was rapidly expanding on our agenda at JIIS, where our focus has always been policy-based research. The possibilities of melding his academic skills with more policy-oriented research excited him. He brought an academic infrastructure to our work, and it was an ideal match.”
She says that he “illuminated the way” for so many people, at the Institute and in other fora. “He had the ability to get people to communicate and also to tap their potential,” she said. This, combined with his dedication and enthusiasm, was key to who he was.
On a personal note, Ahimeir stressed that even of late, when Barsi was in deep mourning for his wife Ronit, who died five months earlier, he still offered an enthusiastic response to the publication of her book, Kalah - A Search for My Mother’s Secrets, which, she says, he encouraged her to write in the first place.
Kraus adds that this highlights Barsi’s broader attitude. “He loved people! His approach to make the world a better place was not just professional, it was who he was.” He deeply believed in people – and in the possibilities that they could achieve.
Barsi – you will be missed.