In 2016, I received an email from a woman named Linda in South Africa with Sephardic Jewish roots on the island of Rhodes. “I speak a very broken Ladino and would love to learn more,” she wrote. She began to explore our online learning tools, such as Sephardic Hebrew cursive (soletreo) tutorial videos. We benefitted just as much: she shared with us the only surviving copy of a Ladino translation of High Holiday prayers composed by the last chief rabbi of Rhodes and published, unexpectedly, in Romania. To bring this new discovery to a broader audience, I composed a digital essay highlighting the book and its miraculous trajectory over the past century—from Romania to Rhodes, evading the Holocaust, to South Africa, and digitally, to Seattle. Through Facebook and Twitter, this article quickly garnered readers from our “followers” in forty-five countries. The transnational journey of the text concluded with global online open access.
Since its inception four years ago, the Sephardic Studies Program at the University of Washington’s Stroum Center for Jewish Studies has leveraged its website and social media to curate the history and language of a set of communities long operating in analog and largely overlooked by the broader field of Jewish Studies. New media have empowered us to showcase the Sephardic experience through texts, music, and videos before a global audience. Sephardic Jews were once one of the least accessible world cultures online. Our efforts have contributed to exposing the historical, cultural, and literary worlds of the Sephardic Jews to the attention of students, scholars, and community members worldwide.
With more than 1,200 Ladino language artifacts—books, newspapers, manuscripts, and personal correspondence—acquired through local and international crowdsourcing, our program has digitized more than 133,000 pages of material, a selection of which is already online. Recognizing that the languages and historical contexts of our artifacts are not well known, we strategically curate “Sephardic treasures” in digital essays to make them approachable for our audiences. Rather than wait for them to be discovered, we actively pursue social media campaigns to draw attention to them. As a result, some of our “treasures” have been integrated into Jewish Studies syllabi and dissertation research, translated into five languages, highlighted in documentary films and museum exhibitions, and reproduced in award-winning books.
If a goal of new media is to reduce distance between people and increase access in a global age, the Sephardic experience—which spans Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, Africa, and beyond—is primed for a digital revolution. Through our curation and dissemination of previously difficult-to-access materials, our Sephardic Studies Program seeks to give voice to a slice of the Jewish experience that until now was just a whisper.
Ty Alhadeff is the research coordinator, archivist, librarian, blogger, and social media strategist for the Sephardic Studies Program at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington. Ty received his BA degree from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The most significant change in the library and in the librarian’s work in the past ten years has been the huge expansion of digital media. While a decade ago we already had online catalogs, databases, and websites and used personal computers for our daily work, much of the librarian’s work was still done in a traditional way. Book publishers sent their print catalogs in the mail, and librarians ordered books title by title. Dozens of print newspapers and journals were displayed on shelves in a central area of the library, a place popular among readers. The reference desk was busy with students asking for advice and assistance as they were searching for sources. Students and faculty alike still used the reference collection of encyclopedias, dictionaries, lexicons, all in printed book format.
Today, in addition to every student carrying his own laptop, most professors and all students walk around with a smartphone that grants them immediate access to every online source, as well as many other forms of Internet communication. Yet this ability to search and find material on one’s own, anywhere, creates difficulties in finding and selecting the right material within the seemingly infinite quantity and diversity of online information.
Our library still receives some printed academic journals that are not available electronically, yet the shelves that house them have moved from the main floor to the basement and use has very much declined. In all disciplines, in science, social studies, and humanities, digital representation of journal articles has replaced the paper format. Scholars and students have direct access to discovery tools, but the number of journals and articles available online has become enormous, with multiple ways of access. One of the most important roles of the librarian nowadays is to support and teach our patrons what the discovery tools are and how to use them. The abundance and variety of options is overwhelming, and learning to find and select the best resources is the challenge facing scholars and students.
The digital revolution has also brought e-books to the library. Gloomy expectations predicting the imminent disappearance of the printed book have not materialized. Digital publications have not replaced printed ones, and our readers want and use both formats. Librarians still maintain and manage collections that are now composed of both physical and digital material.
The advancement of the Internet and the World Wide Web enabled the development of one of the more exciting concepts in today’s scholarly world: open access. Providing unrestricted access, without financial or legal barriers, via the Internet, to peer-reviewed scholarly research allows anyone who is interested to benefit from new scholarly work. Academic libraries serve as open access repositories for scholarly works created by faculty and students and thus support the dissemination of knowledge beyond the academic world.
The expansion of digital media has transformed the work of scholars and librarians alike. The old tasks have not gone away—subject knowledge is still prized as are librarians’ skills in finding and evaluating information. But the digital world has opened up new possibilities and challenged us to learn new skills.
Originally from Israel, Rachel Ariel studied History, Political Science, and Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew College in Boston. Upon coming to North Carolina in 1994, Rachel became one of the two founding teachers of the new Jewish Community Day School of Durham-Chapel Hill. Rachel was the director of Jewish Studies at the Lerner School. Since 2006 Rachel serves as the librarian for Judaica and Hebraica at Duke University Libraries.
In my first professional library position I worked as a cataloger. Apart from typing up catalog cards, this entailed assigning the appropriate subject headings and classification numbers, and consulting a gamut of reference works for information on the books’ authors and contributors. The basic principles of cataloging remain the same today, even as methodologies and technical jargon have changed significantly. Yesterday’s catalogers have been transformed into today’s “metadata specialists.”
I still have a folder containing the handouts from the Judaica bibliography course that I audited at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 1970s. Each week we discussed the foundational reference works that underpinned the subdisciplines of Jewish Studies: bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, lexicons, concordances, etc. These were all print publications—nary a database or full-text resource among them. They were the backbone of the first syllabus for the Research Methods seminar that I led at Stanford over fifteen years ago. However, experience soon taught me that students—even advanced graduate students—regarded the likes of Shlomo Shunami’s Bibliography of Jewish Bibliographies as irrelevant to their research. To me, this is a loss, but one that is largely compensated for by the democratization of the research process in the online environment.
Indeed, many of the reference works that I once consulted as a cataloger are themselves now accessible online. As a researcher in the field of Yiddish Studies I am grateful for the profusion of indexes and journal databases, as well as for the availability of digitized books, journals, and newspapers, not to mention audio and video resources. Recently, a researcher in Texas sent me an email inquiry in which he commented, “My resources here in Houston are limited.” My response: “You are not as far away as you may think.”
Last year, the editors of the online journal In geveb invited me to compile a multipart research guide, Resources in Yiddish Studies. The guide’s medium is entirely electronic and its listings are hybrid in nature—grouping together by topic, in an integrated manner, print-only, digitized, and born-digital resources. In the process of compiling the research guide, I was able to immerse myself in the continually expanding universe of online resources, and to share this knowledge through a journal that is universally (and freely!) accessible.
Zachary M. Baker, recently retired, was the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections in the Stanford University Libraries (1999–2017), and also had administrative oversight of collection development at Stanford University Libraries (2010–2017). Previously, he served as head librarian of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (1987–1999).
Crowdsourcing has yielded valuable resources like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary, as well as many other endeavors, as Clay Shirkey analyzes in Here Comes Everybody. This new media development also sparked two Jewish Studies projects that have occupied much of my time and thinking over the past decade: a survey of American Jewish language and identity and online dictionaries of distinctive words used by Jews in multiple languages.
In 2008, Steven M. Cohen and I sent a survey invitation to about six hundred friends and colleagues and asked them to forward it to Jews and non-Jews. The survey went viral and eventually yielded over 50,000 responses. This large response enabled us to gain a better understanding of how Americans of various backgrounds understand and use various Yiddish and Hebrew words and other distinctive features, like New York pronunciations and overlapping discourse (see results here and here).
The second crowdsourced project is a series of online dictionaries on www.jewish-languages.org: Jewish English Lexicon, Léxico Judío Latinoamericano (Latin American Spanish, with Evelyn Dean-Olmsted), Lexikon över Judisk Svenska (Swedish, with Patric Joshua Klagsbrun Lebenswerd), and Glossaire du français juif (French, with Cyril Aslanov). A Russian version is in the works, and others are planned for the future. The idea behind these websites is that Jews around the world use their local language with a repertoire of distinctive features, including words from Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and other languages. In the case of Jewish English, dictionaries have recorded many of these words. But hundreds of words were not documented, especially those used by specific subgroups. That’s where crowdsourcing came in. The websites allow visitors to edit entries and add new ones. Collectively, the lexicons, along with the Jewish Language Research Website that hosts them, have been accessed by over a million unique visitors from dozens of countries. Often people find the Jewish English Lexicon after searching for a word, such as bubbale, heimish, and refuah shlemah. Shana tova and g’mar chatima tova were popular in September, and moadim lesimcha in April. For definitions and information on who uses these and over one thousand other words, click here.
Both the survey and the lexicons were featured in multiple media outlets and linked to by many blogs and websites. They have both led to exciting developments in our understanding of Jewish language and our ability to share that knowledge with people around the world. This was all due to the Internet and the various technologies that enabled crowdsourcing.
Sarah Bunin Benor, professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, received her PhD from Stanford University in Linguistics. She writes and lectures widely about American Jewish language and culture. Her books include Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Rutgers University Press, 2012).
On a good day I’m surrounded by cartons of reel-to-reels, cassettes, DAT tapes, DVCAMs, and MiniDVs. Last year we rescued our broken and mistreated CDs, sorted everything, gave each one a unique identifier, and moved the disks into Tyvek sleeves.
These boxes of loved and unloved formats are here for a simple reason: digitize or transfer. At the Yiddish Book Center, as at most digital libraries, content matters more than the container. Our goal is to transform these “tapes” into a digital collection, to present scattered media as a usable record of the center’s mission—the lectures on Yiddish culture it sponsored, the concerts it held, the recordings of native speakers it captured. Soon we will add them to the center’s holdings of digital stuff.
Digitization is the correct choice. It improves access to materials. It preserves the original recordings (temporarily). It enables a small memory institution in a midsized state to have a global impact. But more than a decade into the era of digital libraries, it’s past time to admit that digital objects are boring.
What we’ve gained in access, we’ve lost in tactility. The books at the Yiddish Book Center bear inscriptions, stamps, signatures, library records, doodles. There could be ten to fifteen copies of a single volume by Sholem Asch on the shelves, each slightly different, each potentially appealing to a different reader, each with a unique texture. Because scanning is practical, only one copy of a book is digitized. Beautiful, variable, sensorial artifacts become flat JPEGs.
The media scholar Florian Cramer has written about postdigital movements in arts and design. Although the term is multivalent, one notion is to choose the technology most suited to the job rather than default to the bleeding edge. If access is the goal, new media will always be the most suitable. Yet access is only one part of the mission of cultural heritage institutions. Consider member engagement. Every summer the Book Center sponsors a music festival, Yidstock. How would members respond to receiving a “best of” cassette? Would they appreciate its bootleg feel? Physical media also serves a pedagogical purpose: as objects marked in time, they illuminate a disappearing world.
Memory institutions like ours should embrace the challenge of making new media more meaningful. We need to adopt postdigital logic, accept that the experience of old media was more engaging, and inject our cool digital spaces with a sense of play.
Eitan Kensky is director of the Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center. Before coming to the Book Center, he was the preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard. He is a cofounder of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. He received his PhD from Harvard in Jewish Studies.
I work at the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS), a nonprofit historical society in Cleveland, Ohio, that collects materials related to local Jewish history. The most exciting development in my own professional life has been the digitization of these materials in all formats, including, but not limited to, photographs, manuscript collections, film, audio recordings, newspapers, and books, to make them available to the public. Digitization makes it much easier to pursue scholarly work, but it has also posed tough challenges in my work as an archivist.
The vast holdings of WRHS include audiovisual materials, such as recordings of the sermons of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, oral history interviews with local Holocaust survivors, performances of singers and musicians at local congregations, and Jewish radio programs that featured guests like Molly Picon. Some of these materials can be found in our digital repository, notably eighty interviews in the recently completed Soviet Jewish Oral History Collection. But a daunting challenge remains—processing hundreds of items to inform the public that these Jewish history sources exist and, eventually, to digitize them for the purposes of our researchers, who include students at all levels, local community groups preparing for programs, and genealogy and academic researchers worldwide. Our historical society has been collecting for 150 years. Our audiovisual materials come in many formats, including 8mm film, 16mm film, 8-track, U-Matic, Beta, VHS, and laser disc, among others. Digitizing these materials to make them widely available will eventually enable us to hear Rabbi Silver’s famous oratory or relive a 1920s Camp Wise picnic. These recordings will allow us to visualize moments both celebratory and everyday and help transform our image of the Jewish past in America.
Yet another pressing challenge awaits. We serve as the repository for the records of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and nearly all the area’s Jewish congregations and social service agencies. Approximately 350 collections from local donors document our community’s Jewish past. The donations keep coming in, and, increasingly, more contemporary materials will be born digital. We at the WRHS are working to develop policies that will facilitate the accessioning and processing of these materials and enable us to release them to the public. This requires additional training, staff, money, and, not least, commitment. It’s the commitment that will allow us to reach our goal of helping researchers tell the stories of local Jewish history.
Sean Martin is associate curator for Jewish History at Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of Jewish Life in Cracow, 1918–1939 (Vallentine Mitchell, 2004); A Stitch in Time: The Cleveland Garment Industry (Western Reserve Historical Society, 2015); and For the Good of the Nation: Institutions for Jewish Children in Interwar Poland (Academic Studies Press, 2017).
For this section of the Migration Issue, we approached scholars who do not identify primarily with the field of Jewish Studies, but whose teaching and research engages with issues of diaspora, displacement, and identities in motion in crucial ways. We asked these colleagues to reflect on how Jews, Jewish migration, and the Jewish experience of diaspora typically figure into their teaching.
Although I am by no definition a specialist in Jewish history, my undergraduate teaching has always incorporated the work of scholars researching Jewish migration. Beginning in the 1990s, my undergraduate teaching shifted from US history toward world history and thus away from courses with titles like “Immigration and American Diversity” and toward courses with titles like “Migration and Mobility in Global History.” This shift required me to draw from changing corners of Jewish Studies.
In the fairly conventional course on “Immigration and American Diversity” that I taught under varying titles in Europe and the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s, I selected two groups’ migrations to exemplify each of three main waves of immigration into the United States. For the second wave of “new immigrants,” arriving in the United States between 1880 and 1930, I usually encouraged students to explore and contrast the homeland experiences, migration patterns, and urban adjustment challenges of Jewish and Italian immigrants. Often enough, New York City provided a concrete focal point. As Nancy Green noted in her study of comparative methods in immigration history, this “converging comparison” tended to result in rather sharp contrasts of the groups compared, and students almost always imagined it was culture that drove the differences. The best students recognized other influences—for example, how the temporary and heavily male Italian labor migrations led to different family and work patterns than those found in Jewish family and refugee migrations. Comparison of Jewish and Italian migrants also revealed antisemitism and antiradicalism as differing and overlapping dimensions of American racism and xenophobia. Especially in the 1990s students pondered the origins of the very different gendering of Jewish socialist and Italian anarchist activists. At the same time, the comparison of two groups in one city meant that commonalities—in the form of clustering of Yiddish-, German-, and Italian-dialect speaking groups, and forms of institution building, such as newspapers—also came into focus.
Once I began teaching world history and undertook the writing and editing of a series of books on the world-wide migrations of people originating in the Italian peninsula, I found myself turning instead to the rich, interdisciplinary, and at times more theoretical work on Diasporas within Jewish Studies. Here, what Green called “diverging comparisons” became more salient, as did opportunities to explore the changing typologies and much longer temporality of the Jewish Diaspora, from early, biblical notions of exiles and to Zionism, Diaspora nationalism, and state building. Case studies of the Jewish Diaspora provided both an opportunity to explore critically Diaspora historiography (with graduate students) and a unique series of provocative comparisons (to Greeks, Africans, and Armenians) with undergraduate students.
Donna Gabaccia is professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book, Gender and International Migration: From the Slavery Era to the Global Age (co-authored with Katharine Donato, Russel Sage, 2015), received an honorable mention from the American Sociological Association’s Section on International Migration’s Thomas and Znaniecki Award.
As a scholar, I do not identify with the interdisciplinary field of Jewish Studies, but employ two particular Jewish experiences in history, namely the Shoah and the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. I do so as follows:
First, understanding and making sense of the Shoah has led to a very significant ontological shift in the social sciences and the humanities, a shift that was initially spearheaded by the Frankfurt School of critical theory. That shift formed the foundation of the current poststructural approaches to society, ones that specifically focus on the prejudice and discrimination experienced by the marginalized. Hence, I would argue that gender, race, queer, and postcolonial theories are all informed by and originate in the analysis of this fundamental violence in modern European history, namely the Shoah. As such, the Shoah informs my theoretical stand.
Second, my particular expertise is the Armenian Genocide, a collective violence that preceded the Shoah. I recently finished a book on the denial by Turkish state and society of the collective violence they committed against the Armenians from the late eighteenth century to the present. In order to understand the origins, development, execution, and aftermath of this collective violence, I drew extensively on the large literature on the Shoah, its public acknowledgement, and contemporary denialism. Studying multiple instances of collective violence side by side enabled me to better see the dark violent underbelly of modernity. Hence the Shoah also contributed to my empirical work.
Third, I have myself written a couple of articles on the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. I did so because I was interested earlier in my career on how the millet system, namely the system regulating the non-Muslim communities in the Ottoman Empire, operated. I specifically studied the eighteenth-century probate records of Ottoman Jews living in the imperial capital Istanbul to understand when, in settling their legal affairs, they went to a Muslim court rather than their own communal one. It turned out that their geographical proximity to a Muslim court did not make a difference. Rather, how content they were with the rulings of the rabbi heading the Jewish community at that particular time was a much better measure: their use of Muslim courts increased when they were unhappy with their rabbi and decreased when they were content. Hence the Jewish experience in the Ottoman Empire contributed to my historical archival work.
In summary then, the Jewish experience in the Ottoman Empire and contemporary Turkey informs my empirical work while the Shoah impacts my theoretical stand in the social sciences.
Born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, Fatma Müge Göçek is professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. In her work Göçek is interested in issues of social change in non-Western states and societies in general and as it impacts minority communities in particular. After finishing a book on the denial by Turkish state and society of the collective violence committed against Armenians, she is now working on the continuity of that violence and denial onto the Kurds of Turkey.
I teach general graduate and undergraduate courses in American immigration and ethnic history as well as more specific graduate and undergraduate courses in Irish American history, my specialty. In all my graduate and undergraduate courses I use the article “The Invention of Ethnicity” by Kathleen Conzen et al., in the Journal of American Ethnic History, 1992, as well as Charles Tilly’s “Transplanted Networks,” in Virginia Yans-McLaughlin’s Immigration Reconsidered (Oxford, 1990). They establish two of the most important theoretical frameworks for the courses: first, that assimilation is a poor, not very helpful, way to talk about the history of ethnic groups in America and that it is better to understand that ethnic groups and communities are shaped in the historical contingencies of space and time; second, that immigration is a social process, that networks are critical to who leaves one country and why, and how those people adapt in a new one. In my graduate course, I have used Deborah Dash Moore’s fine books, At Home in America (Columbia UP, 1981) and To the Golden Cities (Harvard UP, 1996), to illustrate both this kind of change over time and variation over space, and books by Chris McNickle, To Be Mayor of New York (Columbia UP, 1993), and Joshua Zeitz, White Ethnic New York (UNC Press, 2007), on Jewish and other ethnic politics in New York City. In my undergraduate course, I have used the example of Jewish emigration in a discussion of the causes of emigration, and lectured on the history of interactions between German Jews and east European Jews as a case study in the evolution of ethnic groups. That lecture comes in the first half of the course, when I draw on the history of several groups to establish the general principles and themes of the course.
In that part of the course, I have also given the students copies of two pages of passenger lists from ships carrying Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants from European ports to New York in the early twentieth century, and asked them to pick out and quantify the most important differences among the three groups of immigrants. Those differences are dramatic (perhaps even exaggerated in these small samples, though I chose the pages randomly), and the exercise in studying them powerfully illustrates the variety among immigrants in who came and how they came to America: single Irish women often migrating in migration chains made up largely of other Irish women; single and married Italian men traveling in small bands without their families, many of them returning to America after previous visits; and Jewish families, led by wives and mothers, traveling with their children to meet husbands in America. They illustrate not only the diversity of migration experience, but also the critical significance and variety of networks in the migration process.
Finally, in my undergraduate Irish American course, I have devoted a class to the antisemitic Father Charles Coughlin. I have a joint appointment as both a tenured member of the history faculty and director of Catholic University’s Archives and Manuscript Collections. Some years ago we discovered two cryptically and confusingly labeled recordings in our holdings. We were able to have them digitized. One was a recording of Monsignor John Ryan’s broadcast in 1936, organized by the Democratic Party, defending Franklin Roosevelt against attacks by Coughlin. The other turned out to be a national broadcast, sponsored by Catholic University, of talks by ve bishops and Al Smith in 1938, condemning Kristallnacht, four days after that Nazi atrocity. For the class session in my Irish American history course I invited Dr. Maria Mazzenga, the education archivist at our archives and an expert on Catholic antisemitism, to speak on the Ryan-Coughlin controversy. We have teaching websites focusing on each of the broadcasts with contextualizing historical background and documents. They can be found at the Catholic University Archives, American Catholic History Classroom website: http://cuomeka.wrlc.org/exhibits.
Timothy J. Meagher is associate professor of History and curator of American Catholic History Collections at Catholic University. He co-edited with Ronald Bayor a collection of essays, The New York Irish (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), and is the author of Inventing Irish America (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001) and The Columbia Guide to Irish American History (Columbia University Press, 2005).
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The early Christian writer Tertullian’s question came to my mind when I was asked to contribute to this discussion. My first reaction was that the Jewish experience of Diaspora doesn’t figure in my teaching at all. My field is Classics, and Jews tend not to figure prominently in most of the standard courses that I teach (classical mythology, Latin prose authors, Roman law). Although this absence is so well established that it seems natural, it is actually somewhat surprising, since Jews did figure prominently in the Greco-Roman world, at least from the time of Alexander the Great. Their artificial absence from the typical Classics curriculum results in large part from the disciplinary divides between Classics on the one hand and Religious Studies or Jewish Studies on the other. Indeed, the one course I teach in which Jews do figure prominently is one in which I cross into territory normally allotted to Religious Studies, that is, Greek New Testament. I have just finished teaching the Gospel of Mark in our fourth-semester undergraduate Greek course, and although the focus was on issues of grammar and syntax and textual transmission, there was naturally much discussion of the way that the text constructs the Jewish leaders of the day as opponents of Jesus. Yet even in that context the Jewish experience of Diaspora does not play much of a part. I can see possibilities for change, however. The Greco-Roman world was one replete with groups who were displaced, voluntarily or involuntarily, from their original homelands, of which the Jews are by far the best documented. Although the experiences of these groups have left relatively little trace in the elite texts that are the focus of most courses in Greek and Latin, the way that they negotiated their identities in complex multicultural situations has become a major focus of research and is gradually filtering down into the undergraduate curriculum. Since many of our students are themselves members of Diaspora communities and are in their own lives engaged in similarly complex cultural negotiations, I can see courses built around these themes as a way to diversify the undergraduate audience for Classics, something that we in the field need urgently to do. In this respect, the Jewish experience of Diaspora may well become increasingly relevant.
James B. Rives is Kenan Eminent Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on religion in the first few centuries CE, especially the interconnections between religion and sociopolitical authority and the transformation of religion as a cultural category.
As a New York City–based historian, curator, and cultural organizer, Jewish history, intellectuals, organizers, and activists have been influential at every turn. This impact began in a Levitttown-like suburb and continues in my teaching today.
All Diaspora and migratory experiences have been touchstones in my efforts to understand Chinese and Asians in the Americas histories and now New York Anglo- American political culture in a global frame. Yet none has been as deeply affecting and informative as the Jewish experience for my reflections as part of a refugee family moving to Park Forest, Illinois at age four. I’ll brie y touch on three intersected research “knots,” then get to my teaching approach. Not linear, questions return in cycles, renewed and made more complex
First, when we started the New York Chinatown History Project I gained an appreciation of the deeply rooted Jewish historical and organizational presence infused in the Chinatown/Lower East Side area. I wanted to establish an Asian American parallel to Yiddishkeit culture rooted in both neighborhood and deep translocal histories. Stories of the Garden Cafeteria (now Wu’s Wonton King), a place where local writers, organizers, and community folks would gather, intrigued me. I imagined Isaac Bashevis Singer and Emma Goldman sitting across time over American coffee. (It soon became a Cantonese eatery in 1983.) Why hadn’t the Chinese New York community developed in similar ways? A good part of the difference: the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882–1943, but effectively lasting till 1965/68, when Emanuel Celler helped author the Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act. There simply had not been a critical number of Chinese New York families to create comparable networks and inroads. Or had this in fact happened yet that history was not documented?
Second, just as Chinese Exclusion was “forgotten,” eugenics-driven policies and laws also devastated the communities of Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Redlining was preceded by Robert Moses and “slum clearance,” which was preceded by Anglo- Protestant Progressives “planning” and rezoning away immigrant and migrant “dirtiness.” While the nation today is well coached in remembering the immigrant history of Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side, the eugenics history remains hidden (in plain sight). The 1924 National Origins Quota effectively ended the migration streams and the racialized exclusion of “inferior” “unfit” Europeans now largely un-told and un-noted—another parallel to the public ignorance of Chinese Exclusion. What could I glean from this systemic public erasure?
And more intersected yet, a nod to a third knot, Park Forest, Illinois, was one of those post–Korean War GI suburbs where excluded European whites could “become white.” Philip Klutznick—part of the FDR administration that continued the exurbanizing policies of “slum clearance,” builder of highways and Chicago region developer—wanted to build a suburb that Jews could move into. Racial covenants, for so many “others,” kept my family from being able to move into Oak Park, but Klutznick allowed young Chinese American professionals to enter Park Forest, where I grew up amidst unresolved feelings of living in a placeless home.
Each of these three time/place stories, for me, constitutes a meaning-filled fragmented “artifact” theorizing my life experience. Many qualify as Marianne Hirsch’s “postmemory” tidbits—conveyed unresolved traumas to descendants innocent of and dislodged from the lived knowledge yet filled with unresolved, inchoate feelings. Conceptualizing such artifacts together enables me to link my refugee, Diaspora family with a larger set of Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican, and African American Lower East Side stories that challenge foundational paradigms of what it means to be an American, retrospectively and today.
Jack Tchen, historian, curator, and teacher, has just been appointed as the Clement A Price Chair of Public History and Humanites at Rutgers University - Newark. He is the founding director of the Program in Asian/Paci c/American Studies at New York University. He cofounded the Museum of Chinese in America. He is currently completing work on a PBS documentary with Ric Burns and Li-shin Yu on the Chinese Exclusion Act and curating a visual study on New York City–based eugenics Progressives.
I am a historian of Latin America, and my research focuses on honor, gender, law, and political culture in Venezuela during the eighteenth-nineteenth century. The subject of Jews arises in a number of the courses I teach, which include world history, European history, and various courses on Latin America. As an active, vibrant minority, Jews help to illuminate for my students numerous crucial aspects of history, including identity, hegemony, prejudice, oppression, as well as efforts at tolerance and inclusion.
In ancient world history, we study the book of Genesis and the Mosaic laws to demonstrate the Babylonian roots of the Hebrew Bible and introduce students to fundamental features of the Abrahamic religions.
In early modern and modern world history, Diaspora Jews show how their host society treated a vulnerable minority, and how the host society pursued racist, nationalist, or imperialist ends. The story of Castilian antisemitism in the fifteenth century arises in several courses. This case illustrates how religious politics and ethnic cleansing helped to unify Iberia. This story also illuminates the creation of racism, which became so potent in Europe, the Americas, and eventually across the globe. In courses that include postindependence Latin America (1820s–80s), in order to explore the difficulty of the region’s first attempts at religious freedom and pluralism, we consider the first community of Jews in Venezuela, who arrived in 1823 but then suffered pogroms in 1830 and 1858. In modern world history, we cover nineteenth-century antisemitism to explore modern racism and nationalism, and also consider the Holocaust as an example of a contemporary genocide.
While the above examples look at Jews largely in the role of a minority group victimized by its dominant society, in modern world history we also study Arab-Israeli relations, in which Jews demonstrate far more control of their destiny. We study Arab-Israeli relations as a case study of postcolonialism, nationalism, the rise of violent religious fundamentalism, and complications in the Middle East generally.
Reuben Zahler is associate professor of History at the University of Oregon. His research considers how Latin America transformed from colonies to independent, liberal republics during the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. Specifically, he explores the evolution of honor, law, and gender as Venezuelans adopted civil rights, capitalism, and elections into their institutions and daily lives.
What do your students find to be the most difficult and uncomfortable idea in your introductory-level Jewish Studies classes? And what pedagogical techniques have you found most effective for creating safe spaces that encourage students to explore these ideas?
- Mara H. Benjamin, St. Olaf College
- Steven Fine, Yeshiva University
- Joshua Garroway, Hebrew Union College
- Verena Kasper-Marienberg, North Carolina State University
- Elizabeth Loentz, University of Illinois at Chicago
- Shaul Magid, Indiana University Bloomington
- Tzvi Novick, University of Notre Dame
- Lisa Silverman, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
At the Lutheran (ELCA)-affiliated liberal arts college where I teach, most of my students were raised in church-going Christian households. My students' primary reference point for Jews is the New Testament; sometimes I am the first Jew they have met. Since the charged place of Judaism in the traditional Christian imaginary often stimulates students' interest in my courses, I try to parlay that curiosity into the study of Jewish culture, religion, and history on their own terms.
In my course on Jewish-Christian encounter, however, I face the task of leading students through an inarguably difficult history while simultaneously interrupting the temptation to see Jews solely as victims of Christian anti-Judaism. Provocative writings by Jews about Christianity aid me in this effort. These texts range from the Toledot Yeshu traditions of late antiquity to medieval halakhic rulings that presume Christianity's idolatrous character to Franz Rosenzweig's affirmation that "we [Jews] have crucified Christ and, believe me, would do it again every time, we alone in the whole world." These transgressive texts elicit surprise, even shock, and discomfort. Because I anticipate this reaction, I am careful about how and when I introduce such texts in the course, waiting until we have developed a rapport as a community of learners. But then, with trust firmly established, I use students' discomfort as they encounter Jewish intellectual aggression as a rich resource for learning. I ask students to turn a critical gaze on their own responses in our class discussions. Then we can think together about the unfamiliar (for them) experience of viewing Christianity as Other.
Mara Benjamin is associate professor of Religion at St. Olaf College. She is the author of Rosenzweig's Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and is a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her forthcoming book, The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press).
Hillel, Akiva, Abbaye, and Rava are not just historical figures at Yeshiva University, but cultural heroes and often intimates. Thanks to our unique dual curriculum, I can confidently refer to biblical, rabbinic, and medieval sources in the original languages, expecting many students to be able to finish my citation. My students care deeply and bring a variety of traditional and modernist frames to our often raucous class discussions.
Students choose my introductory courses knowing that they might be theologically challenged, but that it will be a fun ride. They encounter sources not studied in yeshivot—from recognizably "rabbinic" sources (including midrashim, piyyut, and targum) to Second Temple literature, Classics, New Testament, archaeology—and most of all, new ways to look at sources that they already know. Some students jump at all of this exciting newness, while others are jittery about it. My student-centered teaching is intended to help each person to integrate this new knowledge—often through individualized research projects, public presentations, and review essays of scholarly monographs chosen based on their interests.
Bringing students into the process of research is essential, and I actively share my own work and current thinking. One memorable experience was the day that a minister in California's Central Valley sent me images of an unpublished fifthcentury Aramaic tombstone from Zoar (in Jordan, on the Dead Sea) that was preserved in his congregation's museum of biblical archaeology. I set my undergrads to deciphering this artifact. A lively conversation ensued with Rev. Carl Morgan and with scholars in England and Israel. The church later donated this rather fragile artifact to Yeshiva University Museum, and this memorable exchange made the New York Times. On another occasion, I sent a group of general education students to check out "proof" adduced by an Israeli rabbi that the Menorah is hidden at the Vatican, published in advance of Pope Francis's 2014 visit to Israel. This resulted in a spirited search for rare halakhic texts, phone interviews with former Israeli government officials, rabbis, and Vatican officials, a public letter addressed to then President Peres refuting this urban legend, and coverage in the Wall Street Journal.
Archaeology, museum visits, and interpretive videos (like David Macaulay's Roman City and PBS's From Jesus to Christ) expose students to new sources, venues, and approaches. My larger goal is that these students someday confidently explain a museum exhibit or archaeological site to their own families, mull over some talmudic dictum in a different way, or read excitedly of a new discovery—applying learning from my course in their own lives. It's a fun ride for me as well.
Steven Fine, founding editor of AJS Perspectives, is the Dean Pinchos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. His book, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, was recently published by Harvard University Press.
Rabbinical students exploring early Christian literature struggle to appreciate Paul as a Jew. That Jesus and his disciples were apocalyptic Jews who anticipated the imminent redemption of Israel does not appear to bother them, especially once they learn that much of Jesus's periodic vitriol against Jews and Jewish institutions more likely reflects the perspective of later Christians than of Jesus himself. But when I tell the students of recent (and in my view, correct) perspectives on Paul, which consider the apostle a Jew even as he inveighs against the Law and his nonbelieving kinsmen, they invariably recoil. Galatians 3 proves especially irritating. There Paul utilizes thoroughly Jewish biblical exegesis—quotation, allusion, analogy, wordplay, etc.—to demonstrate that the death and resurrection of Jesus displaces the Torah and that baptism, not birth, determines true descent from Abraham. The students deem Paul's argument strained and spurious, even as they acknowledge that their own sermons and divre Torah often draw on midrashim that are no less contrived. They condemn Paul's demotion of the Torah as a wholesale rejection of Judaism, even as they concede that their intellectual forbears in the Reform movement held a similar view of Jewish Law as historically important but nonetheless outmoded.
I have found role play the best tool for overcoming this initial pushback. Oddly enough, it's a technique Paul himself uses. At times in his letters he deploys the ancient rhetorical artifice called prosopopoeia, speech-in-character, by taking on and expressing a perspective that is not his own. I think it is an invaluable way for students to appreciate the struggles and motivations of historical actors, and I use it often when teaching history to rabbinical and undergraduate students. I create scenarios in which students are asked to speak or write as though they are Paul, to assume what he assumes and to think the way he thinks. Sometimes I generate transhistorical conversations, either in class or in written assignments, where "Paul" might discuss antinomian trends in Jewish history with the likes of, say, "Anan ben David," "Sabbatai Zvi," or "Samuel Holdheim." Encouraging students to inhabit the worldview of a historical figure cultivates empathy. It also creates a safe space to explore difficult ideas by allowing students to think and speak transgressively without themselves transgressing.
Joshua Garroway is associate professor of Early Christianity and Second Commonwealth Judaism at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and at the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Paul's Gentile-Jews: Neither Jew nor Gentile, but Both (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012).
Having primarily taught premodern Jewish history classes in Austria and only recently in the United States, I expected the difficulties of Austrian and American students to be very different due to the presence of Jewish life in the United States versus the lack thereof in Austria. However, the feeling of "foreignness" and "unconnectedness" to both the early modern period and traditional Jewish culture were among the difficulties my students most often expressed in both places.
I encourage all of my students to take their learning outside of the classroom and make the semester a holistic experience by reading firsthand accounts and novels; watching documentaries and movies; listening to Jewish music; visiting Jewish memorial sites, former Jewish neighborhoods, and places of worship; and speaking with friends and family about anything related to Judaism and Jewish history. My Austrian students appreciated this because it gave them an active starting point beyond their academic reading, and they realized their progress as they continually promoted their knowledge outside the classroom. However, for them, this often meant experiencing their direct spatial surroundings or place of origin for the first time as a (formerly) Jewish space and a space of persecution even before the Holocaust, which also caused them to feel uncomfortable. In first writing about and then discussing their experiences in class, their surprise at their own ignorance about these topics helped them articulate their discomfort, coalesce into a group, and advocate for the study of Jewish history.
Obviously, with my American students, I do not have the option of sending them outside the classroom to have immediate experiences of premodern Jewish spaces. "All these places in Europe are so hard for me to imagine. I have never been there," one of my students said this semester. Maps, pictures, and videos can obviously help here, as can early modern travel reports and firsthand accounts such as those of Glikl, Maimon, or Wengeroff. Again and again, students find these accounts stunning and exciting. The most effective method, however, seems to be taking them to see premodern Judaica collections at libraries or museums. Seeing and sometimes even touching Jewish artifacts or writings, from a Torah scroll to Dubnov's Jewish history in Yiddish, from European menorahs to contemporary huppot—this encounter with material culture often does the magic. They gain a more pluralistic and historical view of Judaism and Jewishness and build a connection to the European past they thought at first to be so different and difficult to grasp.
Verena Kasper-Marienberg is assistant professor for Jewish and Early Modern History at North Carolina State University. Before coming to NC State, she taught at the Karl- Franzens-Universität Graz. Her book, 'vor Euer Kayserlichen Mayestät Justiz-Thron.' Die Frankfurter jüdische Gemeinde am Reichshofrat in josephinischer Zeit (1765–1790) (StudienVerlag, 2012), focused on Jewish legal cases at the Supreme Court of the Holy Roman Empire in the eighteenth century and won the Rosl and Paul Arnsberg-Preis, the highest prize given for Jewish Studies in Germany.
The University of Illinois at Chicago is considered one of the five most diverse campuses in the United States. We have no racial majority and are designated by the Department of Education as a Minority- Serving, Hispanic-Serving, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institution. Our most recent "Entering Student Survey" revealed that: English is not the first language for about a third of our students (sixty-two different languages were named as first); we have no religious majority; and Jewish students make up only 0.8 percent of the entering class.
The introductory course that I have taught most frequently is Introduction to Yiddish Culture and Literature, a general education course with no prerequisites. The most difficult and uncomfortable idea for students in this course is that Jewish identity can be defined not only in religious terms but also as a national, cultural, ethnic, or racial identity, or various combinations of these, depending on the historical or cultural context, or simply on who is doing the defining. In this particular course, where students learned about Yiddishist and anti- Yiddish Zionists, Diaspora nationalists, Bundists, and contemporary Haredi Jews, among others, becoming comfortable with the complexity of Jewish identity and the fact that some understandings of Jewish identity might challenge their contemporary (generally liberal) American sensibilities was imperative.
The diversity of students participating in my course and their willingness to talk about their own experiences opened up possibilities to consider different understandings of Jewishness and also ways in which their own identities were contingent, "messy," contradictory, or difficult to define. The fact that the majority of students who take the course are not Jewish allowed us to consider connections or comparisons that might have been missed or less meaningful in more homogenous groups. The following are just a few examples. In one class, an Assyrian student volunteered that Assyrians were like pre-Israel Yiddish-speaking Jews—a stateless people/nation, who speak a language that is not the official language of any country. An African American student told us that she had been so engrossed in the Memoirs of Glikl of Hameln that she missed her stop on the bus—because the way that Glikl talked reminded her so much of her deeply religious (Christian) Afro-Caribbean grandmother. Two Jain students could speak of the practical challenges of strict dietary laws. When we read a story about a newly married woman who resisted the expectation to cover her hair, Muslim women in my class weighed in on how religious women could embrace a tradition that seemed misogynistic to others while at the same time considering themselves to be feminists. When we read The Dybbuk, I shared a recent New York Times article about reports of a talking carp in a Hasidic community, who claimed to be the troubled soul of a recently deceased community elder. When a few students started to laugh, a Catholic Latino student reminded his peers that Christians who believed in the Resurrection and in other miracles were similarly called on to accept the supernatural.
Elizabeth Loentz teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Let Me Continue to Speak the Truth: Bertha Pappenheim as Author and Activist (Hebrew Union College Press, 2007); and she is currently writing a second book, The Meaning of Yiddish in 20th-Century Germany. Prior to her doctoral studies, she taught unaccompanied refugee minors in Hallbergmoos, Germany.
A few years ago two students came to my office hours to talk about a course I regularly teach entitled Jews, Christians, Muslims. In the course of our conversation one of them asked, "Can I ask you a personal question?" Hesitantly, I responded, "Yes." The student continued, "Are you a Muslim?" A bit taken aback, I responded that I am not sure I could answer the question but I wondered why he asked. He said that the other day in lecture I had said something quite positive about Islam and its devotion to monotheism, which made a number of students posit that I must be a Muslim. I informed him that saying something positive, even laudatory, about a religion or belief system does not make one an adherent to that religion or belief system.
When teaching religion, any religion, our students often wonder what we are. Do we believe what we teach? Is our presentation a defense or a critique of the subject at hand? I don't suppose this is a prevalent in courses on Shakespeare ("are you a sonnet?") and certainly not in chemistry ("are you an amino acid?"), or perhaps even analytic philosophy ("are you a fact?"), but teaching religion ("are you religious, a believer, if so, what kind?") evokes this kind of curiosity. Many of us simply choose not to disclose "what we are." But that too has a pedagogical price, one that may shut down an important opportunity.
When I studied Hebrew Bible with Moshe Greenberg in Jerusalem in the 1980s he always refused to answer questions about what he believed in regard to the Bible. But once a semester he would invite us to his home in the evening and we were free to ask him anything we wanted. This illustrated for me a version of a famous apocryphal adage about when a student saw Henrich Graetz walking to synagogue on Purim carrying a scroll of Esther. The student approached Graetz and said, "Excuse me, Herr Professor, but didn't you teach us just last week that the story of Esther never happened (lo hayah ve-lo nivra')?" Graetz said without any irony, "Religion is one thing, scholarship is another thing (dat le-hud ve-meh. kar le-hud)," and continued walking.
In today's multidisciplinary and identitarian times, our students would likely not be satisfied with such compartmentalizing. And neither are many of us. Greenberg didn't want "what he was" to be in the classroom, only the living room. But "what we are" is in the classroom, although making that evident does not necessarily enhance the learning process. As Greenberg probably thought, it may very well serve as a distraction. Thus, what challenge does the question "What are you?" pose to us as scholars, as believers or disbelievers, sometimes believers, half-believers, or whatever? One possibility is to interrogate the notion of situational thinking, or thinking from a point of view without being inextricably wed to that point of view, as a model of "thinking religion." That is, to convey to our students that seeking objectivity and being objective are different, that we can think, argue for, and even defend something we don't believe in (e.g., I can praise Islam without being a Muslim). We could convey that intellectual rigor does not require an empty vessel, or an empty heart.
The lesson, perhaps, is that we, like them, are struggling beings, thinking subjects in the warp and woof of simply trying to figure out how to be human. That in the broad scheme of things, we are not that different from them and that the distinction between teaching and learning is far less stable than we are led to believe?
What students want to know and what they need to know are not identical. They want to know "what we are" to put us in a box so that they can assess how to receive what we say. Perhaps our response should be to interrogate and critique the question. It is not that "what I am" doesn't matter. It certainly does, surely to me! It is to say, rather, that I can think from what I am and what I believe without the need to defend those beliefs. Not only will that help them do the same but it may also change who I am. Allotting thought the power to effect change is part of humanistic education. But as important, thinking outside "what we are" has the power to change what we are. And, as Socrates might have said, that may be the most beautiful, and most precarious, dimension of teaching. And living.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of Religion at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His most recent book is Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Making of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2015). His forthcoming book is A Voice Calls: The Talmud and the New Testament, Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik's Commentary to the New Testament (Yale Judaica Classics).
Most of the students who enroll in my Introduction to Judaism are theology majors, usually with a Catholic background. These students identify with the church and with the Catholic past, and therein lies one of the challenges I face in teaching my Introduction to Judaism: how to confront the history of Christian antisemitism. It is not a topic on which I dwell at length, because I take this history to be an extrinsic condition for the development of Jewish thought. That is to say, Jewish thought has been (partly) determined by the fact of antisemitism, but in its particular manifestations, antisemitism tells us little about Judaism, or in any case, little that cannot better be addressed from the sources of Judaism themselves. But I do take note of antisemitism at various points, in connection with Judaism of both the medieval Christian and the medieval Muslim worlds, and of course in connection with modernity and the Holocaust. Discussion of Christian antisemitism inevitably makes students uncomfortable. This discomfort is a good thing—one should be made uneasy by the sins of the past (or present) with which one identifies—and I cannot say that I make any special effort to mitigate it, as it is, I take it, obvious to all class participants that we enter on the topic in a spirit of mutual respect and good faith.
The other side of the coin concerns the ways in which I present Judaism to the class. The students, typically self-selected by their engagement with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council or, more mundanely, by experiences with Jewish family and/ or friends, come to the course inclined, in general, to view Judaism very positively. I find myself tempted, naturally, to confirm these inclinations. This temptation is reinforced by the theological context in which I teach, insofar as theology encourages constructive (in both senses of the word) engagement with religious tradition rather than exclusively (but hardly to the exclusion of) historicizing or critical engagement with it. My own personal commitments, as a Jew, make the temptation toward apologetics still greater. The accumulated temptation is not altogether to be resisted, and I do not resist it altogether. We do read invocations of divine vengeance in Byzantine piyyut and in the Mainz Anonymous Chronicle, and we do, following Naomi Seidman, deconstruct Elie Wiesel's Night through comparison with its earlier Yiddish instantiation. But I offer Judaism with only some of its warts, not all.
Teaching the course this past fall, I have exposed another source of discomfort, perhaps more urgent than the above two. In my course, I present the challenges of Jewish modernity as a special case of the challenges of modernity in general. The Mendelssohnian solution to modernity, I tell them, came under threat from the same forces that challenged Western liberalism in general, and that found expression in Bundism, in Rosenzweig's community of blood, and in other ways. Came, I say, but now I also say comes, as current political conditions once again, but in new ways, expose the blind spots and instabilities of the modern liberal state. My students and I are confronting this unsettling reality together.
Tzvi Novick is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he occupies the Abrams Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic literature, and on the liturgical poetry of late antique Palestine. He is the author of What Is Good and What God Demands: Normative Structures in Tannaitic Literature (Brill, 2010).
Over the past ten years, I have taught an undergraduate course titled Introduction to Jewish History from Antiquity to the Present. My students are mainly Christians from the Midwest, who have had little to no contact with Jews before coming to campus. Nearly every semester, some students express discomfort with referring to the very people on whom we are focusing: Jews. To be sure, their discomfort invariably stems from good intentions. They just have a gut feeling that writing the word "Jews" is offensive but they aren't sure why. I typically use this opportunity as a moment for critical engagement: Is the problem the word "Jews"? Or is it just using the article "the" before it? I often find the most effective pedagogical examples to be drawn from current events, and for better or worse, the 2016 US presidential election yielded plenty of material to address the issue. Luckily, the students didn't need much convincing to see how Republican candidate Donald Trump's frequent references to "the African-Americans" and "the Latinos" at his rallies were indeed offensive. In class, we discuss how such references lump together members of groups as undifferentiated entities. Students learn that referring to groups in this way serves to distance the speaker from those groups, and thus serves to both marginalize and dehumanize its members. By the time we get to the Holocaust, students can better understand how the Nazis used language as a key facet to persecute their Jewish victims. At the same time, I am always careful to point out that not every reference to "Jews" or even "the Jews" is necessarily offensive. For examples, we look at how authors we read in class use the term, or even how I used it myself on the syllabus or on their exams. From these discussions, I believe they learn important lessons about context. Words matter. Language reflects feelings, and what one says is a reflection of how one acts. As distasteful as it was to have so many examples to draw on from current events this year, I have to admit that I'm thrilled that such a relevant and important lesson about the dangers of essentializing can emerge from my Jewish history class.
Lisa Silverman is associate professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is currently working on a study of Jews in postwar Europe, 1945–1953, in Austria, France, and Germany. She is the author of Becoming Austrians: Jews and Culture between the World Wars (Oxford, 2012).
For this inaugural Directors' Forum—a new occasional feature in AJS Perspectives—we asked a range of scholars involved in the administration of Jewish Studies programs on college and university campuses to offer personal and/ or professional reflections on the theme of freedom. We gave our colleagues liberty to define the issue as they best saw fit. As you will see, those who responded to our invitation speak to a wide spectrum of issues from a variety of different perspectives. Contributors address the unique freedom to pursue interdisciplinary work afforded by small liberal arts colleges, describing situations in which the restraints of chasing enrollments can inspire curricular innovation. They discuss the mission of public scholarship to forge interinstitutional alliances. They focus on constraints to freedom of speech and academic inquiry that can arise from relations with donors and advocacy groups outside the university—and much more.
Several of the directors whom we approached declined our invitation to participate. Some cited time constraints. As a former and a current Jewish Studies director, we certainly appreciate this challenge! Equally understandably, other colleagues cited a different type of lack of freedom: a reticence to write publicly about experiences with limits to academic freedom for fear of the difficulties that a contribution to this forum might create for the programs they manage.
We are grateful to the six Jewish Studies directors who draw on their experiences below to offer such candid and far-reaching reflections on what freedom can and should mean for Jewish Studies programs on the ground today. The views here are by no means comprehensive, and obviously, not everyone will identify with every position represented here. We encourage our readers to continue the conversation, including with those who did not feel free enough to participate.
—Jonathan M. Hess and Laura S. Lieber
Freedom and Collaboration ~ David M. Freidenreich
The Freedom to Teach across Boundaries ~ Cecile E. Kuznitz
Liberating the Conversation on Academic Freedom ~ Jeffrey Shoulson
Jewish Studies and Academic Freedom ~ Todd Samuel Presner
To Hillel and Back: One Jewish Studies Program’s Sojourn on the Borderline between Jewish Community Professionals and Academic Freedom ~ Benjamin Schreier
"We teach what we want, when we want, and how we want, and if we're happy, our students will be happy."
My department chair offered these unabashedly individualistic words of orientation and guidance the week I received my job offer from Colby College. Who knew that academic freedom could be so free from constraints? With the partial exception of some course scheduling issues, my colleague's description of the Religious Studies Department has proven true. As the slogan of my adopted hometown in Maine puts it, "Yes, life's good here."
Over the past eight years, however, I've found that I can best realize the potential that this freedom affords by means of collaboration in pursuit of shared goals, not the individualism that is so common within and outside of academia. For that reason, the advice I offer to junior colleagues and those who have just received job offers from other universities is somewhat different from the guidance I received at the start of my own career. "You have great freedom to teach—and research—whatever and however you want. To find happiness and fulfillment in your work, and to increase the likelihood that you'll earn tenure along the way, focus on the intersections between your passions and your institution's priorities."
Colby is a liberal arts college that seeks to foster transformational facultystudent collaboration as well as meaningful engagement with the people of Maine. I have chosen to tailor many facets of my professional life to align with these aspects of Colby's mission. This alignment enables me to work in various partnerships with colleagues, students, and other community members rather than merely as an isolated academic. The professor I have become is quite different from the one who would have emerged at another university—and I have no regrets.
I can indeed teach whatever and however I want, but my chair neglected an important caveat during our initial conversation: if my students aren't happy, they won't take my courses and I won't be happy either. Seminars on ancient and medieval texts, the subject of my formal academic training, simply do not appeal to many Colby students, so I have developed competence and even expertise in areas I could never have imagined in graduate school. This past year, for example, I taught courses on Israeli popular music and, at the request of several students, on Zionist-Palestinian-British relations during the Mandate period. The most unanticipated of my Colby courses, and among the most rewarding, explores the history of Jews in Maine. A number of students have gone on to conduct advanced research on local Jewish history, as have I. One student copresented with me at an AJS conference, and I coauthored a forthcoming academic article with another.
Colby's ethos has shaped not only what I teach but also how I teach. Since earning tenure, I have chosen to spend a tremendous amount of time overhauling my courses to introduce pedagogical techniques that better engage my students. I regularly involve advanced students in course design and revision, and I have reshaped portions of my scholarly research agenda in order to facilitate collaboration with undergraduates. When viewed in the either/or terms common at research universities, I chose to sacrifice scholarly productivity for the sake of pedagogy. This conventional dichotomy, however, feels false at a liberal arts college: my teaching informs my research no less than the reverse, and my professional life is richer because research and teaching go hand in hand.
The freedom to rethink conventional academic norms in pursuit of personal passions and institutional priorities also underpins my professional engagement with Maine's Jewish communities. I regularly give talks around the state because I believe that serving as a public intellectual is not only enjoyable but also a vital part of my job in a region with very few Jewish Studies scholars. For the same reason, I spend a lot of time arranging guest lectures at Colby and organizing public conferences that feature presentations by students as well as scholars. Crucially, I was able to persuade my colleagues and dean to count all of this work as service to the college—equivalent to committee work—for the purposes of merit, tenure, and promotion reviews. Creating learning opportunities for the general public, after all, advances Colby's commitment to serving the people of Maine.
Principles that underpin my use of the freedom I experience—attention to institutional priorities, pursuit of opportunities for partnership, and a willingness to rethink conventional dichotomies—also motivate my work as the director of Colby's Jewish Studies program. Since that program made public scholarship a central element of its mission, Colby has become the state's largest provider of learning opportunities on Jewish topics. Students and faculty benefit from this arrangement at least as much as other community members. Building on this track record, I helped to establish Colby's new Center for Small Town Jewish Life. This center brings the Jewish Studies program, Colby Hillel, and the local synagogue into formal partnerships, bridging the divides between academia and Jewish communal organizations.
The Center for Small Town Jewish Life creates vibrant educational and cultural programs while fostering a sense of community that encompasses students and Maine residents alike. This unconventional collaborative endeavor advances the shared priorities of its three partner entities even as it preserves the autonomy and distinct objectives of each. The benefits of this partnership for Colby's Jewish Studies program have thus far included a second endowed chair, greater visibility, more effective public programming, and expanded opportunities for students to learn from their engagement with the people of Maine. The center's collaborative model is designed to be replicable at other small-town colleges and universities.
It's fitting that Colby's Center for Small Town Jewish Life finds its administrative home within the college's division of academic affairs: its very existence stems from the freedom that academic life can offer to professors who work outside of customary boxes. Through collaboration in pursuit of shared priorities, Jewish Studies faculty are ideally positioned to seize the interdisciplinary and interinstitutional opportunities that such freedom affords.
David M. Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College. A member of the Religious Studies Department, he directs Colby's Jewish Studies Program and is associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. His current research explores the ways Christians have used ideas about Jews to think about Muslims.
Since arriving at Bard College in 2003 I have served as director of its Jewish Studies Program. Until this fall I was also the sole faculty member teaching full-time in Jewish Studies (in addition to being a member and currently chair of the Historical Studies Program). On the one hand, the need to ground the Jewish Studies curriculum has impelled me to develop a wide range of courses in the field. At the same time, given the general climate on American campuses and Bard's small size—just under 2,000 undergraduates—I have had to diversify my teaching repertoire beyond Jewish Studies in order to attract sufficient enrollments to fill my class slots. While this need to broaden my course offerings in two directions has presented challenges, Bard's support for the humanities and flexible curricular structure has also afforded me the freedom to explore new topics and expand my intellectual horizons.
To complement offerings in my core fields of modern Jewish history and East European Jewish history, I developed a course on Yiddish culture in translation that incorporates a great deal of literature, theater, and film. This class builds on Bard's strength in the arts and well as its support for interdisciplinary approaches. When some graduates of the course asked to study the language itself I was able to offer a tutorial in beginning Yiddish. Through this exercise I familiarized myself with a number of resources and techniques for foreign language instruction. In this way I have taken advantage of Bard's flexibility both to move beyond the discipline of history and to extend my pedagogical range.
As I soon realized that student interest in Jewish Studies would not sustain my full teaching load I considered strategies to attract a broader constituency. Thinking about aspects of the Jewish experience that I might fruitfully place in a comparative context resulted in a new History course entitled "Diaspora and Homeland." The inspiration for this class came in part from personal curiosity: I had been intrigued to see stores selling both saris and reggae music near my childhood home in Queens, New York. I learned that this neighborhood now houses the United States' largest Indo-Caribbean and Indo-Guyanese community, descendants of South Asians who crossed the Atlantic to work as indentured servants after the end of slavery in the Americas. Their sense of a double displacement from the Indian subcontinent and then the Caribbean mirrors the experience of American Jews who recall both the Land of Israel and Eastern Europe as lost homelands.
The semester begins with a consideration of theoretical literature on Diaspora and the place of this concept in Jewish life and thought. We then examine the African and Asian experiences, allowing students to draw comparisons among the case studies themselves. In the course of discussion and written work they have developed intriguing parallels between the thought of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Marcus Garvey and between the ways that Jewish and Chinese immigrants in the United States relate to the "old country." The course attracts a diverse audience; its most recent iteration included students from African American, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, Tibetan, Israeli, Turkish, Polish, and Ukrainian backgrounds. As a professor of Jewish Studies it is gratifying to see such a range of students exposed to Jewish history and to discover this material's relevance to their own primary areas of interest.
As much as I learned from my forays into African and Asian Studies, I was always conscious of my limited knowledge of these fields in comparison to my own area of expertise. I was thus happy subsequently to co-teach "Diaspora and Homeland" with a colleague specializing in African American history. My teaching partner argued strongly in favor of retaining the unit on Asia, in part to broaden the comparative dimension of the course, in part to force us both out of our comfort zones. What we lost in the depth of knowledge we could draw upon in the classroom we gained in the sense of a shared intellectual journey with our students. While in a large university such teaching beyond our fields might well be frowned upon, I have found that Bard's ethos as a liberal arts college provides the freedom for such curricular explorations.
Bard's small size and flexible curriculum has also allowed me to develop my interest in urban history into a teaching field. Another course that I regularly offer with a colleague looks comparatively at several cities in Europe and the United States. One of our case studies is Vilna, which has been a focus of my own research. I use Vilna's complex history to trace a number of themes—such as the impact of shifting borders and ruling powers—from the medieval to the post-Soviet era, themes that would not arise from our consideration of American and West European urban centers. While I incorporate my own work on Vilna's Jewish community I stress the city's notably diverse population, asking students to compare narratives of Jewish Vilna alongside those of Polish Wilno and Lithuanian Vilnius.
By incorporating a case study much less familiar than others covered in the course, such as Chicago or Paris, we hope to expand students' perspective on the history of the West and perhaps even to spark an interest in the region of Eastern Europe. At the same time, the freedom to teach my own specialization alongside a range of other examples has helped me to think critically about patterns of urban settlement, politics, and culture in a comparative context.
Like colleagues at many other institutions, I have faced the dilemma of sustaining enrollments in a period of retrenchment for the humanities. In addition, I have had to think creatively about how a Jewish Studies program with limited resources can productively serve the interests of a diverse campus. Yet I have found that the freedom afforded by the small size and flexibility of a liberal arts college like Bard has also opened up possibilities for intellectual growth and curricular innovation.
Cecile E. Kuznitz is associate professor of History and director of Jewish Studies and Historical Studies at Bard College. She also serves as senior academic advisor at the Max Weinreich Center, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Her book YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press.
Writing within the intense theological disputes amongst the various Christian confessions that emerged in the wake of Luther's break with the Roman Church some 150 years earlier, John Milton had spectacular literary chutzpah. Milton imagined God mounting a defense of the central concept of human freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, presenting it in an exchange between God and the Son in his 1674 epic, Paradise Lost: "I formed them free, and free they must remain, / Till they enthrall themselves . . . the high Decree / Unchangeable, Eternal . . . ordained / Their freedom, they themselves ordained their fall." (3.124–128). Even without knowing all the finer nuances of Arminian or Calvinist thought with which Milton was struggling, one can sense the high-wire act Milton has undertaken. The notorious complexity of this celestial dialogue—and for some, its failure to make a compelling case—reflect the profound dilemma that sits at the heart of a Christian theology that posits simultaneously an omniscient, omnipotent God, on the one hand, and the justice of holding humanity responsible for its own choices and actions, on the other. It is also my starting point for this reflection on freedom because of how it seems to construe the concept largely in negative terms. Freedom is the default position for all humanity. Yet Milton (or Milton's God, at least) does not seem interested in exploring the affirmative potentialities of that freedom—what such freedom might allow humanity to achieve or create—so much as he is concerned with how that freedom makes falling and failure possible. Man had been created "sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" (3.99), Milton's God insists several lines earlier. In other words, they've been given enough rope to hang themselves.
So much of our current discussion about freedom within the academy seems to me to be framed by this way of understanding freedom. We want to know how far we can push our freedoms before endangering ourselves, before offending or threatening or even circumscribing the freedom of others. We wring our hands at how freedom from constraints turns our students into irresponsible hedonists or insensitive monsters. We lament the outrageous, outlandish, politically troubling claims made by scholarly loose cannons. We worry that unrestrained freedom of expression means the end of "civility" (whatever that might be). We struggle with what seems to be an irresolvable conflict between safety (think "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings") and the freedom to say, to read—and to require our students to read—anything. In short, we seem to assume that freedom is the length of rope we give ourselves and others but that the only inevitable use to which that rope can be put is some sort of hanging. We are sufficiently free, but free only and inevitably to fall.
Given the associations and burdens this discourse of freedom carries with it, I want to suggest that it might be helpful for us to shift our terms, to move from a language of academic freedom to a language of academic liberty. We are, after all, participants in a scholarly framework that we often describe as the liberal arts. It's a term that owes its origins to classical antiquity and stands outside Christian assumptions about the inevitable fallenness of humanity. "Quare liberalia studia dicta sunt, vides; quia homine libero digna sunt," wrote Seneca, "Hence you see why 'liberal studies' are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a freeborn person." This classical idea of liberty is embedded in a sense of civic participation. Liberty, and the liberal studies that are its precondition, are important because they enable the individual's capacity to engage in, and contribute to, the social and political world. They are not unavoidable threats to civility; rather, they are the very conditions of the cives.
It's an old idea and I am not insensitive to its problematic associations with a certain kind of privileged elitism; Seneca was, after all, citing the idea as a way of distinguishing the freeborn (male) Roman from slaves and other disenfranchised members of his society. But I would nevertheless propose that replacing freedom with liberty offers us a way of thinking beyond the impasse we seem to have reached in our invocation of freedom in the academic world. Academic liberty reminds us that the free range of inquiry and scholarly discourse is in the service of a shared project, collective, social, and political by definition. It is an affirmative, progressive stance, rather than a defensive, reactive one. And we do need to do more than react defensively to persistent attacks on the university, especially in the United States.
While some may see my argument as a tacitly Jewish challenge to an implicitly Christian idea (that is, the collective requirements of the kehillah superseding any abstract claims to individual freedom), it is striking that Modern Hebrew seems to have no exact equivalent for the term "liberal arts." The phrase mada'ei ha-ruah will sometimes serve in its place, itself a calque drawn from the German world of higher education and its idea of Geisteswissenschaften. But these are both terms that more narrowly refer to the humanities and, more importantly for my purposes, situate the area of study in the realm of ruah or Geist, spirit, precisely not the public and civic space of liberal inquiry for which I am advocating. In the shift from freedom to liberty I am suggesting that the humanities—and the arts, and the social sciences, and the physical and life sciences—are not only made possible by free academic inquiry but are what give meaning to the very liberty they depend upon. Academic liberty embeds itself in the varied, diverse, often conflicting lived experiences of those who participate in it and benefit from it. It does not eliminate the clashes of culture and values that arise on university campuses, but it does see those clashes as elemental to its mission rather than as restrictions to its application.
Jeffrey Shoulson is the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies, professor of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, and professor of English at the University of Connecticut, where he also serves as the director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the author of Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2001) and Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). His current project is a literary and cultural history of the English Bible from Tyndale the to King James version with a particular focus on the role of Jewish learning in English translations.
Over the past couple of years, programs in Jewish Studies have been catapulted to the frontlines of heated public debates over academic freedom, civility, and the limits of free speech. All too often, these debates have pitted Jewish organizations, Jewish students, and Jewish faculty against one another, wreaking havoc on the intellectual and social climate on campus. Part of this is due to the prevalence of self-appointed watchdog groups and advocacy organizations who have taken it on themselves to monitor and report speech on campus (among others, AMCHA, Campus Watch, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and, perhaps most notoriously, Canary Mission). While couched in terms that ostensibly protect Jewish students from hostility, the result is the creation of a climate of paranoia and even bullying against any student and/or faculty member—Jewish or non-Jewish—who deviates from the political ethos espoused by these groups. In contrast to the liberal arts ideals of responsible discussion, engagement, and openness, they promote a military-like binary of "us" versus "them."
Another reason that Jewish Studies has emerged on the frontlines of these debates over academic freedom has to do with the fractious conversations over Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which have not only splintered and isolated Jewish groups, but have also engendered a dichotomous campus climate in which the violence of macropolitics has come to roost locally. BDS is now a litmus test for determining everything from permitted speakers and appropriate funding to hiring and firing decisions. For many Jewish organizations (not to mention networks of faculty, such as the Academic Engagement Network and the Israel on Campus Coalition), monitoring, reporting on, and combatting BDS is now the most urgent imperative. Opponents of BDS argue that the boycott of Israel enacts a monolithic, singular punishment on Israel by demonizing and delegitimizing Israel's right to exist. Supporters of BDS argue that it is a legitimate, nonviolent form of protest and solidarity with Palestinian society. Neither side, however, countenances nuance, nor considers if there could be an iota of truthfulness in the position of its "enemy."
And overlaid on all of this is the specter of antisemitism, which not only informs but also haunts and sometimes even deforms these discussions. Antisemitism certainly has real, contemporary manifestations within the academy and beyond, which must be vigilantly fought; however, the term is sometimes deployed as a blanket charge to stifle difficult conversations, as in the recent discussions on tolerance convened by the University of California Regents, which, initially, equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism. It is possible to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic, and there exists a diverse intellectual and religious lineage of anti-Zionist thought that is quite distinct from the tropes of antisemitism. (It ranges from advocates of a Jewish-Arab binational state to the Jewish Labor Bund Party in the early twentieth century to contemporary Orthodox Jewish sects who see Zionism as a violation of divine messianism.) It is possible—for varied reasons—to reject a nationalist political ideology without hating Jews tout court, and it is possible to embrace an honest confrontation with the history of the Nakba without impugning Israel's right to exist. But to do so would be to occupy spaces of nuance and grayness, spaces that, in my estimation, are almost completely gone.
While I certainly worry that Jewish Studies (both the academic discipline and the institutional formations that support it, mainly research centers) is becoming more dichotomous and less open, my greater concern is that Jewish Studies and, by extension, the university itself—is threatened by the political and economic forces that believe they are protecting Jewish Students and faculty in the first place. These forces are represented by certain advocacy groups, funders, politicians, and various thought leaders who treat academic freedom as an atavistic vestige of a bygone world and caricature the value of the open university. The representatives of these forces believe the university needs to be protected from speech, ideas, and people that they consider to be dangerous to Israel. They believe that the faculty can no longer govern themselves but need guidance and scrutiny from external groups (sometimes in partnership with certain students, faculty, and administrators) in order to make funding decisions, hiring and promotion decisions, and programmatic decisions based on political criteria that align with their world views. Anything that deviates from these views, anything that could be seen as giving ammunition to the advocates of BDS, or anything or anyone that questions Zionism is immediately attacked. These interventions have happened at numerous universities, including my own, and do not merely imperil Jewish Studies. If they are given standing, these interventions threaten the foundational principles of the university. They imperil faculty governance, free speech, the protections of tenure, and the principles of free and open inquiry. It is quite unfortunate— and deeply ironic—that these are the very principles, which, just a few decades ago, diversified higher education and gave rise to American Jewish Studies programs and centers for Jewish Studies in the first place.
Today, however, Jewish Studies programs are placed in an exceptionally precarious position of either alienating their base of community support or becoming complicit in the erosion of the ideals of the university, usually by their silence or quietism. While certain Jewish organizations such as Open Hillel, Jewish Voice for Peace, and even J Street have attempted to support speakers and programs with alternative views on Israel and Zionism, these groups have remained marginalized and largely excluded from the mainstream Jewish community and its advocacy efforts on campuses. Their members are painted by external watchdog groups as self-loathing Jews who affirm the narratives of the Nakba, Palestinian rights, and Israeli apartheid and, thus, are no better than traitors. This either/or, with-us or against-us narrative is corrosive and has brought about a staggering closing down of debate, historical perspective, and possibilities for ambiguity, multiple narratives, and nuance.
In my view, Jewish Studies programs must model and ardently defend academic freedom by upholding the principles of faculty governance, faculty autonomy, open inquiry, and rigorous debate. Jewish Studies programs and centers—perhaps now more than ever—have a fundamental mandate to be free and speak freely. As such, they can provide leadership in addressing campus polarization and help bridge the gap between the community and the academy by serving the larger intellectual, ethical, and civic values of our democracy. This is the public mission of Jewish Studies worth investing in, fighting for, and defending most urgently.
Todd Samuel Presner is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of UCLA's Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. He is professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature, as well as chair of the Digital Humanities Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent book is a coedited collection, Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture
Gramsci wrote that there's no human activity—even Jewish Studies program director—from which all forms of intellectual participation can be excluded. We all know that restrictions always threaten intellectual activity: there's the unfreedom we impose on ourselves and there's the unfreedom imposed on us from without. And then there's the unfreedom that attends professionalized discourse about Jews. Much can potentially be said about how Jewish community formations attempt to manage the activities of academic Jewish Studies; this is my story of one manifestation of this imposition.
In mid-May 2016 I learned that, after a conversation with the local Hillel director here, a donor complained that the Penn State Jewish Studies Program, of which I serve as director, was pro-BDS and anti-Israel in terms of its faculty, speakers, etc. An initial WTF notwithstanding, it didn't take me long to figure this one out.
But I should back up. Because I talk here about Israel on campus, academic Jewish Studies, Jewish identity politics, and Hillel, I begin with a disclaimer—actually a two-parter.
First: Jewish Studies ideally should steer clear of Jewish communal politics, except as it makes them an object of study; otherwise, it risks delegitimization.
I present the second part of my disclaimer as a series of declarations of belief, so my cards are on the table. I'm Jewish. Like many people, I believe a state shouldn't treat different nationally defined populations under its control as different classes of citizen. Israel has as much right to exist as any other state, in proportion to which it can deter challenges to its sovereignty. It's perverse—and sad—that in the name of "the two-state solution" ethnic cleansing has become the leading desideratum of mainstream liberal opinion. The contention that BDS is a priori "anti-Israel" is nonsense; what the hell does that phrase even mean?! (The phrase undoubtedly performs work: it repeats the fascist fallacy of representing a nation with state policies.) To call BDS a priori antisemitic is idiotic. Finally, I serve on Open Hillel's Academic Council—mostly because despite Hillel International's claim that it "strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community," its "Standards of Partnership" seem aggressively opposed to the principles not only of inclusion and pluralism, but freedom of thought, without which the academy degenerates into paid advocacy and public relations. For the record, I believe Hillel International's commitment to support "Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state" should avow its foundation in ethnic cleansing. (It's the "and" that does it, folks!) More generally, I'm disgusted by attempts to define "Jewish" in ideologically restricted and nationalistically aggressive ways.
I am currently in my third year as the director of Jewish Studies. Like many North American Jewish Studies programs, ours is well supported by donors but lacks many declared students—though our total numbers of majors and minors position us on the good side of average among our Big Ten peers. Unlike on some campuses, our majors and minors are often not the same people who participate in Hillel activities, so my efforts to increase the visibility of the Jewish Studies Program brought me to Hillel, whose director has been friendly, and at semiregular meetings we have discussed how Jewish Studies and Hillel could work together. We cosponsored a number of events over the last couple of years.
We also admitted where our aims diverged. Put simply, Jewish Studies' mission to nurture an ability to think critically about the ascriptive history of the term "Jewish" does not necessarily align with Hillel's mission to nurture a positive Jewish identification. We chose to focus on common ground.
But I have recently come to worry that Hillel International's current take on identity work renders it an unfit partner for people and institutions dedicated to the ideals of free critical thinking and ethical integrity.
First came a faculty panel discussion that the Jewish Studies Program organized in November 2015 focusing on the upsurge in violence in Israel. I enthusiastically let our local Hillel know about it, but then the director called to warn me that the three speakers we arranged, a historian, a political scientist, and a sociologist—as well as the Israeli assistant professor who was moderating—represented various combinations of positions he judged too far to the left on Israel, pro-BDS, anti-Israel, antisemitic, etc. (He also complained about the map of Israel we put on the flyer, which indicated the Green Line; he found it provocative.) He offered to find another speaker who might present the occupation and its consequences in a more Israel-friendly light. I admit that "Israel-friendly" is my term, and I mean it sarcastically, to counterbalance "anti-Israel," and to be as meaningless. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Because I value critical thinking, I tend to suspect claims that "fair" means "balanced," that a position can escape bias, that a person's ability to perform analysis is dependent on his or her opinions, or that there's some ideological line representing the neutrality point in a discursive system. Rather, fairness and objectivity are achieved through challenging positions and suppositions, trying to understand why one's antagonists think as they do, etc. Anyway.
Initially, he wanted to invite someone from the Israeli consulate, but when we called bullshit he backed off, promising to look for an academic. Then he sent word that he had "confirmed" Asaf Romirowski, a think-tanker associated with Daniel ("My peace plan is simple: Israel defeats its enemies" and "Barack Obama Practiced Islam") Pipes's intimidation outfit Campus Watch, famous for publicizing harassing "dossiers" on academics it judges to be "wrong" (its word) on the Middle East. (For the record, those are actual Pipes lines—the first from one of his "articles," the second the title of another.) Though he apologized and cancelled the invitation after I told him he had no right to invite or "confirm" anyone for our panel, especially a propagandist, the Hillel director suggested we put off the event in order to organize something more to his liking. The panel went off very well, with a packed room and no complaints except something vague and unexplained from the Hillel director about it getting "out of hand."
Then, this May, I heard about the donor's complaint. I wrote the Hillel director, asking for clarification; he explained that this donor is also one of his board members, who had asked for a more or less routine report on the state of Israel-related affairs on campus. He explained that he indeed told the donor that he had concerns that the Jewish Studies Program was too critical of Israel.
My concern here is about campus climate, not my job; my dean rightly sees this as an academic freedom issue. I worry (1) that Hillel's increasing hubris vis-à-vis Israel on campus and the nationalist litmus test that is its new "Standards of Partnership" are toxic to inclusivity and hostile to freedom of thought; and (2) that a donor could leave a conversation with the Hillel director feeling confident enough about the term "anti-Israel" to use it as an accusation.
Ideologically programmatic action is of course illuminating, however. The Hillel director's attempt to influence the panel last fall exposes Hillel's Israel strategy. The first step is to simplify discourse on Israel by dividing it into two relatively self-evident positions: one that's relatively opposed to the occupation and one that's relatively defensive of it. The second step is to overlay onto this ostensive difference of opinion another seemingly obvious opposition, but one of identity: between being "anti- Israel" and "Israel-friendly," an identitarian opposition that draws persuasive power from the ostensible self-evidence of the term "antisemitic." This superposition reinscribes the reductive divide between opposition to and support of Israeli policies, rearticulating it as one between illegitimate and legitimate speech. Adding a voice more explicitly friendly to Israeli state policies would mean the panel would present a more obvious disagreement: one that could easily be recoded as a Manichean alternative between pro- and anti-Israel people, which for Hillel is really one between pro- and anti-Jewish people.
In our current ideological climate the term "anti-Israel" is reckless more than simply meaningless. Part of what's going on is that we're living through a significant shift in the regime of knowing, specifically in regards to identity. Claims of position are increasingly legible as—and only as—claims of identity. It's getting too easy to see in a scene of discursive antagonism conflicting kinds of irreconcilable people rather than conflicting sets of arguable claims. Such a shift is not without consequence in the new university, with its existential reliance on donor support.
I find Hillel's intellectual thuggery odious, but Hillel's voice is one among the diversity of opinions that come into contact on university campuses every day, an encounter that stands near the heart of the Enlightenment project. What's really dangerous is Hillel's effort to redeploy an intellectually specious opposition as an institutional cudgel to suppress some arguments and the academics who voice them. In helping to produce and legitimize a climate on campuses in which donors can carry concerns that in fact function as potential threats to university administrators, Hillel is making common cause with the McCarthies of world history.
Benjamin Schreier is associate professor of English and Jewish Studies and Lea P. and Malvin E. Bank Early Career Professor of Jewish Studies at Penn State University, where he serves as director of the Jewish Studies Program. His most recent book is Ihe Impossible Jew: Identity and the Reconstruction of Jewish American Literary History (New York University Press, 2015). Since 2012 he has been the editor of the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature.
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- David Biale, Department of History, University of California, Davis
- Nina Caputo, Department of History, University of Florida
- John M. Efron, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley
- Meira Z. Kensky, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Coe College
- Kelly Murphy, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Central Michigan University
- Esther Raizen, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
- Seth Sanders, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Davis
- Michael L. Satlow, Program in Judaic Studies / Department of Religious Studies, Brown University
- Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary