Wieseltier, Shapira keynote conference on Zionism

Schusterman Center and Israel Institute cosponsor event drawing scholars from around the world

Dr. Kathy Lawrence and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier

Dr. Anita Shapira, author of 'Israel: A History'

Leon Wieseltier says he’s tired of hearing that Zionism has become obsolete. The literary editor of The New Republic was one of two keynote speakers at the two-day conference “Zionism in the 21st Century: Contemporary Perspectives From and About Israel.”

Conference participants included faculty and doctoral students from Brandeis and neighboring universities. The event also functioned as a reunion for some 60 alumni of the Schusterman Center’s Summer Institute for Israel Studies, which prepares faculty to teach multidisciplinary courses on Israel at the university and college levels. Representing various cohorts of the decade-old program, these scholars traveled from as near as Connecticut and Wyoming, and as far as Brazil, China, France, Denmark, Hungary, Israel and the Ukraine.

“Zionism can’t be made obsolete,” says Wieseltier. “For me, it is a primary exercise in Jewish self-understanding…a very inclusive approach to the entirety of Jewish history.”

With the realization that Zionism is still a significant force in politics, law, art and culture, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies convened over 100 scholars from around the world for the two-day conference, cosponsored by the Israel Institute, which took place Feb. 17 and 18, defying Sunday’s snowstorm.

Professor Ilan Troen ’63 P’14, director of the Schusterman Center, says the goal of the event was to “examine how the lessons of the past and the realities of the present may impact on the role Zionism might play in Israel's complicated and conflicted future.” Troen is also the Stoll Family Chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis, and co-chaired the conference with colleague and fellow Brandeis alum, Donna Robinson Divine ’63 P’01, Morningstar Family Professor in Jewish Studies and professor of government at Smith College.

Troen opened with one of the central questions framing the conference: “How do we, as college professors, teach about Israel? What lessons have we learned from the past and present as we go forward and learn what Zionism is about?”

Session speakers and commentators sought to answer this question in multidisciplinary sessions spanning literature, music, politics, law, economics, and religion. They expounded on issues of orthodoxy and ultra-orthodoxy in the state, the place of the Holocaust and the kibbutz in Israeli historical memory, the possibilities of creating a secular and cultural Zionism, tensions with Palestinians inside Israel, and the place of Israel in a volatile Middle East.

The session “Economics and Land” shed fresh light on the dilemmas of achieving a more equitable distribution of wealth in a remarkably successful economy and access to land in a state whose legitimacy is challenged.

Shay Rabineau, a Schusterman graduate fellow who will complete his doctoral degree this year, considered the Israel National Trail (INT), which exemplifies a secular, as opposed to religious, model of staking a claim on the land. The project has marked and mapped more than 1,000 kilometers of hiking trails, including in disputed areas like the Golan Heights and the West Bank.

“Trail marking is a primal way to claim territory,” says Rabineau. “It transforms space into place.”

Co-presenting with Rabineau was Troen, who has written and taught extensively about the concept of competing narratives. Troen analyzed collective historical claims to the land, invoking concepts of peoplehood, nationhood, and indigenousness. He argued that these notions are selectively applied and manipulated to serve political agenda and spur conflict in the charged global dialogue on Zionism and Israel’s legitimacy.

A panel on Israel’s Relationship with its Neighbors and the Palestinian Arab Citizens aroused similarly passionate exchange. Elie Rekhess of Northwestern University asserted the necessity of dismantling the 1948 paradigm, citing the challenge of how to maintain Israel’s nature as a Jewish and democratic state as the central problem facing Israel this century. Asher Susser, of Tel Aviv University, discussed the disintegration of Middle East state powers in the wake of the Arab Spring – a deeply problematic term, according to him – and how it has created a situation dramatically different from what Ben-Gurion predicted. The rise of political Islam and the breakdown of the Arab state have led to sectarian civil war, tribalism, and non-state actors. 

“Our biggest problem now is not the strength but the weakness of our Arab neighbors,” said Susser.

Session chair Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East studies, insisted that the new regional reality demands a change to Israel’s policy on the Palestinian issue.

Keynote talks by two important figures framed the first day’s sessions. Dr. Anita Shapira, author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Israel: A History” (Schusterman Series in Israel Studies, published by Brandeis University Press) and an Israel Prize laureate, inaugurated the program. Her address on the “Changing Images of Ben-Gurion” illustrated the power current events exert on our ever changing interpretations of the past. Shapira is Professor Emerita and chair of the Chaim Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel at Tel Aviv University.

The first day came to a close with Wieseltier’s impassioned talk on the “Stubbornness of Zionism.” Dr. Kathy Lawrence, scholar of 19th-century American literature, introduced the renowned thinker, writer and speaker, who won this year’s prestigious Dan David Prize for his contributions to the field of ideas as a public intellectual.

Wieseltier is a long-time friend of Lawrence and her husband, Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence, who was unable to attend.

“Fred would feel really good that the Schusterman Center’s work has brought Brandeis ever closer to Israel,” Kathy Lawrence said. “It’s an epic in Brandeis history to have Leon Wieseltier here.”

Papers deriving from the conference will be published in a special issue of Israel Studies, the leading multidisciplinary journal in the field, published by Indiana University Press and co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in affiliation with the Association of Israel Studies.

“It’s very appropriate that this conference happened at Brandeis, which was which was founded in the same year as Israel,” said Divine. “We can only return what is given to us by continuing to study issues like Zionism and Israel with integrity and academic rigor.”

Categories: International Affairs

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