Near Eastern Studies Professor Dies at 86

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William Brinner, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies and founder of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad at the American University in Cairo, who dedicated much of his life to the study of Israel and the history and culture of the Middle East, died in his home on Feb. 3 after a long illness. He was 86.

Born Oct. 6, 1924 in Alameda, Brinner spent most of his life in the Bay Area. He received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in Near Eastern Studies from UC Berkeley, before serving as a professor from 1956 until his retirement in 1991. He spent much of his career studying the history of Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle East from the Middle Ages onward and wrote his thesis as a translated and annotated version of "A Chronicle of Damascus, 1389-97" by Muhammad ibn Sasra.

A highly popular professor, Brinner was the recipient of a variety of awards, honors and grants - including a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Award in 1970 - and one of four recipients of the first Distinguished Teaching Award in 1959.

"He was really an outstanding teacher," said Sheldon Rothblatt, a professor emeritus of history at UC Berkeley. "His students loved him."

Upon retiring, Rothblatt and Brinner both taught at The Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning, an independent organization that operates at the University of San Francisco and provides educational opportunities for retired adults.

"He would fill the biggest rooms on campus," Rothblatt said. "He had a very comforting and very clear style of lecturing that made him very accessible to the people who were not specialists."

Brinner served as the chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley at various times throughout his career, most recently from 1987 to 1989, and also served as the chair of the Religious Studies Program from 1982 to 1987.

In addition to working as a visiting professor at universities including Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, Brinner spent extensive time abroad. In 1966 he founded the Center for Arabic Study Abroad at American University in Cairo and spent much of the early 1970s in Israel, teaching at both Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.

Brinner was often called upon as a radio and television commentator for Middle Eastern affairs, according to son Rafael Brinner. His interest in Jewish-Muslim relations stemmed in part from his involvement in a Zionist youth group - where he and his wife Lisa Brinner first met as teenagers - that believed in a binational state.

"As a person he was loved and admired by many, capable of being very funny or serious depending on the occasion," said son Benjamin Brinner, a professor and chair of UC Berkeley's Music Department, in an e-mail. "He took every opportunity to teach people about the roots of conflict, about the Holocaust, about religious tolerance and intolerance throughout history - fighting prejudice and ignorance."

Though he was a committed Zionist, Brinner and other academics decided in 1988 to petition the Israeli government's handling of the First Intifada and the methods used for the uprising, according to Rafael Brinner.

"The theme that flowed through his work was the Jewish-Muslim understanding," Rafael Brinner said. "His dream as a Zionist in the 1940s was that Israel would be a home to both the Jewish and Muslim communities."

William Brinner is survived by his wife Lisa, one sister, three children, and eight grandchildren.


Contact Emma Dries at [email protected]

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