I attended the Brandeis Schusterman Center conference on Zionism in the 21st century. It’s great to see colleagues, and to think about interesting substantive and pedagogical issues. Anita Shapira led a good session on conflicting narratives in the history of Zionism and Israel, and we watched a series of movies, dating from an early 1913 glimpse at Ottoman Palestine through the much more ironic lampooning of immigrants in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Leon Wieseltier spoke on the enduring centrality of peoplehood as a historical and spiritual reality, encapsulating but ultimately transcending Zionism and the state of Israel.
But honestly I felt a bit trapped in a time warp. Here we gathered, a collection of highly-educated (mostly) Jews, researchers and teachers of some aspect of the history, texts, ideas, of Zionism and Israel. Yet so much of the conference seemed deeply apologetic, defensively asserting the importance of Jewish culture, of Hebrew language and literature, critiquing bi-nationalism and the one-state solution, and claiming the enduring relevance of peoplehood. Rather than just studying critically and unapologetically “Israel Studies” I imagined all of us to be not very far removed from nineteenth-century Jewish public life, when Jewish scholars used the then new notion of the “Science of Judaism” both to create a modern field of Jewish studies but also to defend Jews and Judaism against its detractors, both assimilationists inside the Jewish community and in the broader world of society and culture.
That wasn’t so atypical of the nineteenth-century, when universities existed in some sense as an arm of the state, a tool in the creation of new identities as new states built themselves idealized versions of peoples and nations complete with histories, myths, cultures, languages, identities. Since Jews lived in diaspora, they faced a double challenge: trying to create such a re-reading of Jewish history for themselves, and for the project of integrating into western societies, or in the case of Zionism, for the project of rejecting integration and building a new society and state for themselves.
I guess this is my long-winded way of saying that despite all of the successes of Israel, after all the blood spilled and the sacrifices of so many to create a Jewish homeland, much of this meeting still seemed enmeshed in the same conversation with ourselves as Jews and with others. What is Jewishness? What is Judaism? What has Zionism and Israel to do with that? How do we justify the Jewish national project?
On one level I suppose that’s healthy, thinking dialectically about core issues of purpose. But on some level it’s neurotic, because we often fail to think proactively and deeply about such matters, rather we react in short-term and shallow ways about such hard matters. If someone as smart and thoughtful and knowledgable as Wieseltier still feels the need to make the case for peoplehood, that tells me that we haven’t moved the needle so far after all: Jews still need to figure out who they are, what defines their vocation, convince themselves and others of both their right to exist and the intrinsic meaning of their existence. As Purim approaches I guess we can draw comfort from the book of Esther’s true end, the recommitment of the Jews to their covenant and in effect the purposefulness of their being. But every once in a while one tires of the exercise.