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Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s journey of connection to Judaism and Israel

Josh Mitnick
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Published: 3 December 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The Australian academic, freed from an Iranian prison last week, explored her Jewish identity in an Israeli program on the West Bank in 2011. JOSH MITNICK spoke to fellow participants and the program director

THE TIKVAH ISRAEL FELLOWS summer program promised a month-long all-expenses-paid exploration of classic Jewish texts and seminal Zionist thinkers, lectures from prominent Israeli intellectuals and public figures, field trips to historic sites, and interaction with Israeli peers.

For a budding Australian Middle Eastern studies scholar like Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the sojourn was an opportunity for a deep dive into the foundations of the state of Israel. But the trip also spawned a romance with Russian emigre and future husband, Ruslan Hodorov, which was used by the Iranians to charge her with serving as a spy for the Israeli Mossad and detain her for two years.

“They met on the program,’’ Elyssa Kanet, a participant from Boston who befriended Moore-Gilbert, told The Jewish Independent. “They were a couple.”

Following Moore-Gilbert’s release last week, Iran released a propaganda video montage of images of the two together, including one showing them two standing under a chuppah at the couple’s December 2017 wedding. The video images also purport to show Moore-Gilbert in Israeli army uniform and at the Western Wall.

The Iranians allege that Hodorov worked for Israel's domestic General Security Services and recruited Moore-Gilbert, who is a lecturer at Melbourne University and is an expert on the Gulf states. She was detained in 2018 after attending an academic conference in the country.
“She and I were two of the secular people there, which is the reason why we connected. We were both historically and philosophically inclined" - Uriel Epshtein, an American program participant 

During her imprisonment and since her release, Moore-Gilbert’s friends and family have deliberately kept quiet about her strong Jewish and Israel ties in order to shield her from Iran.

Alan Rubenstein, the director of the Tikvah Fund’s university programs, told Plus61Media via email that she had impressive academic credentials coming from Cambridge and a strong recommendation from instructors. But there was something else that made her stand out — a journey of discovering a connection to Judaism and Israel, he said.

“She also had a compelling story about her Jewish growth from a secular upbringing in Australia to a deep attachment to her people and to the story of the Jewish state,” he wrote. “I remember her passion for learning Hebrew and the wide range of her interests – theological, political, historical.”

Fellow program participants reached by The Jewish Independent described Moore-Gilbert as having some literacy in Hebrew and being familiar with Jewish religious thought and practice. Participants reached for comment couldn’t remember for sure whether she was Jewish.

“She and I were two of the secular people there, which is the reason why we connected,” said Uriel Epshtein, an American program participant who at the time was a student at Cambridge like Moore-Gilbert and currently is the director of the Renew Democracy Initiative in Washington DC. “We were both historically and philosophically inclined.”

The Tikvah fellows were based at the Ein Prat study centre in Alon, a West Bank settlement just east of Jerusalem amid the hills of the Judean desert. There they roomed in basic caravan dorms and lived alongside Israeli students.

The primary instructor was Micah Goodman, an Israeli author who published Catch-67, a well-received political and intellectual history of Israel since the Six Day War. Goodman declined to comment about Moore-Gilbert, saying that he was concerned about “protecting the security” of his former student.
The goal of the program was to teach them about Judaism, Israel and Zionism from the standpoint of a “Jewish understanding” rather than the academic language of “liberal society”.

The goal of the program was to bring university-age students to Israel, and teach them about Judaism, Israel and Zionism from the standpoint of a “Jewish understanding” rather than the academic language of “liberal society” of campuses in the US and UK, according to Ran Baratz, a faculty member at the Shalem College in Jerusalem and a former communications advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“She was dedicated on the program to learning about Israel and the history of Zionism,’’ said Kanet. “She was really interested about Zionism.”

The program also included joint activities with the Israelis and the social mixing produced several couples, Baratz said.

Participants remembered Hodorov as a relatively recent emigre to Israel who spoke with a Russian accent and was at Ein Prat doing preparatory study for university.  “He seemed like a nice friendly guy,’’ Kanet said.

The program was one of multiple educational initiatives of the Tikvah Fund, chaired by American Jewish financier Roger Hertog, a Zionist foundation which seeks to support conservative libertarian intellectual thought both in the US and Israel.  That said, some participants didn’t remember the course of study as politically loaded.

Epshtein said Moore-Gilbert’s interest in the course study seemed to be mostly academic rather than ideological or personal.

“She was very interested in Islamic culture and history. This was her area of expertise, he said. “She was someone who I recall as being insatiably curious. She was attracted by something that was an in-depth examination of Israel and Zionism. I remember her taking a semi-detached academic approach to it.”
Her interest in the course study seemed to be mostly academic rather than ideological or personal. She was very interested in Islamic culture and history. She was someone who I recall as being insatiably curious.

Perhaps influenced by the relationship with Hodorov, Moore-Gilbert’s intellectual interest extended to Russian Israeli culture, and in 2014 she published an academic study in a Flinders University comparative literary journal entitled, Aliyah and Identity in Israeli-Russian Literature.

The 11-page article explored how the literature of ex-Soviet Union immigrants furthered multiculturalism in Israel by embracing the culture of their native countries and rejected Zionist narratives of immigrant assimilation.

The couple has been residing in Australia in recent years. While Moore-Gilbert joined the faculty at the University of Melbourne with a string of publications on the Gulf and Bahrain, Hodorov attended Monash University. Further details about the couple aren’t known.

The Tikvah participants reached by The Jewish Independent said they had fallen out of touch in recent years. Ahead of her trip to Iran, Moore-Gilbert posted on Facebook announcing that she would be travelling abroad without access to social media. “If you would like to contact me, please do so via the old-fashioned way - send an email.’’

Epshtein said he was shocked to learn one week ago of her ordeal. He called the Iranian allegations she was involved in spying for Israel “insane”.

“I can’t imagine her being connected to that world. She’s an academic through and through. She is not somebody who would be involved in espionage.”

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About the author

Josh Mitnick

Joshua Mitnick is an independent journalist who lives in Tel Aviv. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Jewish Week.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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