Forum on Pedagogy: Views from Beyond Jewish Studies

Reuben Zahler

University of Oregon

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.