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When scholars representing two distinct strands of Judiac studies gathered in Houston Hall, they may not have signed any peace accords, but they did find some common ground. By Samuel Hughes
There's a Jewish saying -- not quite a proverb -- that if you put two Jews together in a room you'll get 10 good arguments. Put 20 scholars of Judaica in a room for three days -- as happened during a recent colloquium sponsored by Penn's Center for Judaic Studies -- and you'll get enough scholarly arguments, counterarguments, and commentary to make your head spin like a dreidel. In the process, some brilliant, fractured light will be shined onto a broad mosaic of topics.
The Gruss Colloquium in Jewish Studies was the culmination of a year-long dialogue among the center's visiting scholars. Its stated theme was "Divergent Centers: Shaping Jewish Cultures in Israel and America," and it represented two distinct groups -- one studying American Jewish culture and society in the 20th century, the other examining the formative years of Israeli statehood -- who came together to give and discuss papers on topics ranging from "Starting Over: American Judaism in the 1950s and the Early 1960s" to "Jewish Moroccan Saint Worship and the Shaping of Israel's Sacred Geography." Many of those papers will appear in Pennsylvania Studies in Jewish Civilization, Vol. 3, published by Yale University Press.
While some topics would interest few beyond a small group of scholars, others touched subjects central to national and even international debates. None was as potentially emotional as the Holocaust, and the two excerpted papers that follow offer ample evidence of the scholars' willingness to examine highly sensitive issues with relentless honesty. This does not mean that they are "right," or that their perspectives are the only ones on this vast and highly-charged issue. But the papers -- and the lively but civil discussion that followed -- do say something about the spirit and quality of scholarly inquiry at the center, which was created in 1993 by the merger of the Annenberg Research Institute (formerly the Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning) and the University. Located in a handsome sort of post-classical building on Independence Mall, the center describes itself as the "only institution in the world devoted exclusively to post-doctoral research on Jewish civilization in all its historical and cultural manifestations."
For Dr. David Ruderman, the center's director and the man who organized the colloquium, the weekly presentations and debates in the months leading up to it were a "kind of microcosmic battlefield of the polarized tensions and deeply felt divisions that plague Jewish life" in America and the Middle East. Despite the "regnant myth of one people indivisible and united," he added in a recent essay, "the reality of Jewish life in past eras and certainly in our own suggests otherwise. The experiment of living together in a kind of year-long 'Camp David' of Jewish studies has been fraught with tensions, highly charged disputation, even mutual recriminations. But we have survived as one group, and we respect each other and even enjoy each other's company."
On the second day of the colloquium, Dr. Ilan Peleg, professor of social sciences at Lafayette College, gave a paper titled "The Political Culture of the Ben-Gurionist Republic, 1948-63," which did not sit well with some of his colleagues. Among the "fundamental" and "dominant" values under David Ben-Gurion -- "and to some extent even today" -- were, in his view, "exclusive Jewish ethnocentricism," "militarism as an instrument" for attaining goals, and "religiosity as an occasional legitimizer of state actions." Israel, he argued, is "clearly not a Western-style democracy," and under Ben-Gurion it "clearly chose to marginalize those Arabs who remained."
One of the two designated respondents, Dr. Daniel Elazar, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, had sharp words for Peleg's paper, though he said that Peleg was a "nice guy," a quality that came through more in his delivery than in his writing. After criticizing his methodology, the bearded, wheelchair-bound Elazar took Peleg to task for offering an American-style liberal model "as the only acceptable model for democracy," and accused him of using a "sinister tone" to describe the way things happened.
He took issue with the word "militarism" to describe what was, in Elazar's view, "an army that consisted essentially of citizen soldiers who saw themselves as citizen soldiers," and argued that Peleg treated security issues "in a vacuum," as if they were a "whole-cloth invention" of the nation's leaders.
"Accusing a duck of being a duck is no great trick," he concluded. "It's best to try to understand the duck than to pretend it was somehow being false to itself because it quacked and flapped its wings."
Most of the presentations were less politically charged than that one -- though no less thought-provoking. One came from Dr. Samuel Heilman, Gr'73, professor of sociology at Queens College in New York, who gave an engaging account of American Judaism in the 1950s and 1960s based on his Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century (reviewed in the March Gazette).
Dr. Ilan Troen's "'Europe' and 'America' in the Education of Israelis" traced the evolution of secular Zionist education -- "a reaction to Jewish life as most educators knew and remembered it in Europe" -- and showed how it has been increasingly influenced by the individualistic American models of education. Troen, professor of modern history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, noted that in secular Zionist schooling, both modern Hebrew literature and Jewish history were viewed as "moral and political instruments" to reinforce the "role of the people in shaping Jewish culture," while the "immanence of God was excised from Jewish history even as the Divine was removed from the Bible and all other writings considered sacred." Whereas the operating assumption for secular Zionist educators "was that the individual child should be molded in the national culture to serve national purposes," in an American model, "the opportunities of individualism are given priority over the demands for continuity of the collective." As a result, the "infiltration of American ideas and examples has further complicated and deepened the problem of maintaining through education a commitment to Jewish community and continuity."
Ah, those subversive American ideas. It's hard to say how much they influenced this colloquium. Come to think of it, that would make for a pretty lively panel discussion ... END
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