Colloquium on Jewish Studies

The German University Alliance in cooperation with the Leo Baeck Institute hosted a Symposium on the state of Jewish studies in New York on April 9 and 10, 2006.  The event was funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung.The conference gave European and American scholars engaged in Jewish studies a platform to discuss the future of the field and common strategies necessary to cope with the fast evolving cultural and social landscape. The main objective of the two day event was to explore the state of Jewish studies in Germany and Europe sixty years after the end of World War II.

It is evident that Jewish studies cannot be taught in the same fashion as 10 years ago, not to say 20 years ago in a divided Germany and in a fragmented Europe. Now that the Shoah has become an event of a distant past, it looks important to analyze what has changed and how the situation will evolve in the years to come. The colloquium was intended to ask a few important questions: Should we change our perspective in Jewish studies? Are we facing a positive evolution or a new wave of European anti-Semitism? How can we find new ways to keep memories alive? Should the Holocaust be part of Jewish Studies? How can we find a balance between the core heritage and expansions into new fields? Should Jewish studies be part of ethnic studies or other core studies?These questions concern Germany but at the same time are extended to the whole continent. It is clear that a narrow European perspective cannot work, since it is impossible to talk about Judaism without taking into account Israel and the United States.On Sunday, April  9, 2006, in a round table setting, each participant stated his or her own perspective on the various topics which  was immediately followed by a lively discussion.
In their Introductions, Michael Brenner and Giulio Busi briefly outlined the situation of their respective universities and the challenges they are facing.

Michael Brenner (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich) pointed out that the chair for Jewish history at the LMU has been instituted during the nineties as a result of a noteworthy expansion of Jewish studies in Germany, but he stressed also that, if compared with the United States, the German and European numbers are relatively small and much effort is needed to compete on an international level.

Giulio Busi (Freie Universität Berlin) remembered the relatively long tradition of the Institut für Judaistik at the FU, founded at the beginning of the sixties. He stressed that Jewish studies are becoming increasingly oriented towards an intercultural perspective. While this change can be seen as positive, because it announces the possibility of future developments, Busi believes that it is important not to neglect the philological and historical core of the discipline, which has to remain strongly linked both with Hebrew and the other traditional languages of the Diaspora.

Liliane Weissberg (University of Pennsylvania) spoke of her experience in teaching at various universities in Germany (Bochum, Berlin, Potsdam, Hamburg, and Heidelberg) and compared it to her experience in the USA . She pointed out , the new chairs corresponded more to political aims of the German society than to those of  Jewish communities. The many Jewish Studies departments that have sprung up in recent years are a phenomenon not totally unlike that of the Klezmer musicians. In Germany, Jewish Studies are primarily conducted by non-Jewish scholars.  Scholarly degrees are, in turn, obtained by non-Jewish students, so that Jewish studies has become a popular field for the exploration of one’s own German identity.. Weissberg believes that the new immigrants and their families, who did not experience the Holocaust, may perhaps change the face of Jewish Studies in Germany again.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (Columbia University, New York) observed that Jewish Studies in Europe have made a considerable progress in the recent years even if the cultural difference with the States remains noticeable. As early as in the forties a reappraisal of national historical consciousness began in Spain, where Jewish past started to be considered an essential part of collective identity, even if almost no Jews were then living in the country. Such an example could be used by other nations as well as bring Jewish themes to the centre of scholarly attention.

Hasia Diner (New York University) discussed teaching Jewish history at an American university. She devoted her topic to the relationship with students and what they expect from this discipline. While some  Jewish students may expect to become “better Jews” or  to reconfirm their established opinions and beliefs, the aim of most  is to strive for objectivity. Diner believes that Jewish studies must remain non-confessional and independent from any external interference. Since donors play a pivotal role in sponsoring Jewish studies in the United States, their influence on curricula is obviously to be avoided. At the same time, while defending their independence, Jewish studies must become more central for American history.

Ron Zweig (New York University). Having come from Tel Aviv and teaching Israeli studies, Zweig has the impression he lives on the front line. He tries to avoid a political attitude although he is aware that no complete objectivity is possible. In many respects, Israeli studies are comparable to  Jewish studies some forty years ago,  in a decisive phase of blossoming and change. The discipline underwent recently a fast development that characterize the new culture of a post--post-Zionism, and is now ready for approaching subjects nobody studied only ten years ago. A major shift has been introduced by the recent opening to the public of Israeli archives. Nevertheless it is still difficult to integrate the discipline into the larger frame of Middle Eastern studies.

David Engel (New York University) addressed the differences in teaching modern Jewish history in the United States and Israel. The points of distinction concern both the reception of the scientific work and approaches used by scholars. In the States there is a larger gap between Jewish communities and academy. American Jews often demand an apologetic description of the past, while in Israel there is more room for public dissent from national myths. In Israel modern Jewish history is at the core of public attention, but in America it enjoys only a peripheral role. That is why American scholars often try to draw attention not on the subject of their studies but on the way they analyze it. Probably owing to this different approach, historians in the two countries often criticize one another’s approach to their work.

Tal Ilan (FU Berlin) related her experience of being Israeli teaching Jewish studies in Germany. She stressed how Jewish Studies are flourishing but predominantly peopled by students and scholars who are non-Jewish. Ilan maintains that the development of a purely academic interest in Judaistik in post-war Germany is analoguous to the interest in Classics, as the foundation of Western culture, but has no parallels in other European countries, and thus has to be explained by the  unbearable guilt feelings that second (and now third) generation Germans came to possess after the war. She has discovered that being a non-practicing Jew, teaching Jewish studies to non-Jews, in a German setting, is for her very helpful. She encounters a small number of defensive reactions and tends not to unintentionally hurt people's feelings

On Monday, April 10, the round table continued with the welcoming speech by Carol Kahn Strauss (Executive Director, Leo Baeck Institute), who stressed the importance of the culture brought by German Jews to contemporary life in the States. The traditional values of Jewish civilization permeate American society in a variety of ways. Mrs. Strauss maintained that Germans are well aware of the tragedy of the Nazi years, but much remains to be done in the field of Jewish cultural and social history in order to promote better understanding of the common heritage in Germany.

Paula Hyman (Yale University) spoke of the normalization of Jewish studies in the States. Starting from the sixties, Jewish studies were taught in sectarian institutions only, like the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the situation has changed significantly. Nowadays Jewish studies are embedded in a number of Universities and have become part of a “normal curriculum” exactly like Chinese studies or classic philology. A major role in this development has been played by the American Association for Jewish Studies, which was founded in 1969. Not only has the leadership shifted from rabbinical school to universities but the importance of the women has increased, with  gender studies booming and a predominant multidisciplinary approach.

Judith Olszowy Schlanger (EPHE and IRHT-CNRS Paris) sketched the history of Jewish studies in France from their beginning of the 19th century to the contemporary structure of French universities. In fact, the very expression “Jewish studies” dates back to the French “études juives” which was introduced in 1880 as a response to the German “Wissenschaft des Judentums”. Compared to Germany, however, where the Shoah represents a decisive gap, Jewish studies reflect a continuous development in France.. Still today they are characterized as “recherche d’érudition” a mainly philological inquiry focused on the texts and devoted to the faithful keeping of historical memory.

Jeffrey Peck (Georgetown University and AICGS) spoke about Jewish studies as Diaspora studies. His analysis was centered on a comparison between Germany and the United States. Coming from German studies he has a broader approach, not limited to the Hebrew linguistic core of the discipline but expanding toward identity, social and literary problems. In fact, he maintained that dealing with identity issues does not  mean  departing from a sound scholarly approach , since a methodical analysis can and must be devoted to the cultural self perception of the Jews in the Diaspora as well. A central point to be studied is the relationship with Muslims and particularly with Turks who represent a sizeable part of the population in contemporary Germany.

Eli Bar-Chen (LMU Munich) discussed the integration of Muslims as the new and central challenge of Jewish studies in Germany today. Bar-Chen related his experience at LMU, where he tries to integrate Jewish and Islamic studies. In fact, the Insurance Company Alliance founded a Visiting Professorship in Munich devoted to both subjects as an attempt to enhance the dialogue between these two very important fields of contemporary society. Integration between Jewish and Islamic history can be very challenging, but it seems worth trying, since the history of Jewish integration in Europe can probably be used to gain a better understanding of the difficult assimilation of Muslims in European society.

Avinoam Shalem (LMU Munich and Metropolitan Museum New York) covered his experience of teaching Jewish Art at the Hochschule in Heidelberg as well as at LMU and also taught at the University of Edinburgh. Since his main field of interest concerns the medieval world of Islam, his courses are mainly focused on Jewish art in the land of Islam as well as on areas in the Mediterranean where a strong intercultural atmosphere developed (Sicily, Spain, Egypt and North Africa). He  also spoke on the importance of giving courses on Jewish culture and art in the pre-Islamic period, especially in the Levant, a crucial age that contributed to the formation of Islamic art.
Anson Rabinbach (Princeton University) analyzed the position of Jewish studies within the academic structure. Now that the discipline has been established as an autonomous field of research it seems suitable to strive towards a better integration of Jewish studies within the main stream of university research. Rabinbach is in favor of seeing Holocaust studies as a part of genocide studies. As far as Europe is concerned, after the opening of the Holocaust monument in Berlin, a common memory of the Shoah has to be pursued on a European level.

Atina Grossmann (Cooper Union, New York) reflected on the challenges of teaching Jewish studies - particularly the history of German Jewery, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust – in an ethnically and culturally diverse institution that does not have a Jewish studies program (and not even a history department), with many students of non-European background. In her opinion, Jewish Studies should concentrate on its specific core but also be open to a multidisciplinary approach. In her experience, identity questions are often being asked by students and have to be dealt with even if they do not belong to the scholarly profile of the discipline.

Sibylle Quack (Max-Weber-Chair, New York University) talked about teaching the Holocaust through the exhibition at the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe’s Information Center in Berlin, and its distinctions from and commonalities with teaching Jewish studies or issues of Jewish history at different universities in Germany (Potsdam, Hanover, Bremen) as well as at NYU. According to Quack, Holocaust and Jewish Studies are tightly linked when focusing attention on Jewish Heritage.   The study of the Shoah implies a sound knowledge of the Jewish culture that has been partially destroyed by the persecutions.

Judith Gerson (Rutgers University and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)  spoke of teaching Jewish studies in the USA around questions of immigration, ethnicity and Holocaust studies. Since scholars in the humanities and social sciences tend to assume that Jewish studies are specific and non-generalizable, Gerson suggests that traditional fields should integrate knowledge from Jewish studies so  their own disciplines become more robust and complex. This integration is important regardless of whether or not Jewish studies are organized as independent programs of study. She also believes there is a need to emphasize two dimensions in Jewish studies when teaching the Shoah.  First, its interpretation cannot be taken for granted and indeed has varied over time among nations, second,, a discrete or categorical approach to Holocaust study should be avoided. Instead it should be deepened and appropriately complicated our understanding of more general instances of that same phenomenon.

On Monday, April 10, the public was invited to a Lecture and Discussion at the German House.

Giulio Busi (FU Berlin) outlined briefly similarities and the main differences between Jewish studies in Italy and in Germany. In Italy the interest on Jewish culture is mainly focused on the long and generally peaceful history of  Jews in the Peninsula, the German approach has been deeply influenced by the Holocaust and has a more contemporary perspective. Busi suggested that the study of Judaism on a European level should reconcile  the memory of the past and urgent questions referring to the contemporary society.

Michael Brenner (LMU Munich) summarized the contemporary relationship between Jewish study and Jewish life in Germany. He stressed the flourishing of the discipline during the last years and the expansion of Jewish communities that took place during the same period. The arrival of a sizable amount of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union has greatly changed the structure of German Judaism. Such a change has stopped the number of jews from vanishing, but at the same time posed new challenges about the future.

Diana Pinto (Paris) who gave the keynote speech analyzed the multifaceted relationship between contemporary Europe and its Jewish population. In a time when the optimistic hopes for a swift political integration of Europe appear to be weakening or at least postponed, Jews still represent a vibrant element of the continent. After World War II, the Holocaust Jews have progressively attained a full integration and now belong, in most cases, to the elite. This fact contradicts a pessimistic view on the continent and must be acknowledged for all its implications. The social success of the Jews does not mean an idyllic scenario but also does not match the image of a Europe driven by anti-Semitic forces only. Using their culture and adaptability, the Jews in Europe have made a good use of the democratic space, thus showing how successful a minority can be within the rules of democracy. Such an experience should be now shared with the Muslim minority in Europe, which is striving for its recognition.

Jeffrey Peck (Georgetown University and AICGS) moderated a lively discussion with the audience, who asked several questions about the topics discussed in the speeches and more generally on the subject of understanding Jewish culture in relationship with everyday life.
In his concluding remarks, Peck pointed out that the work covered during the conference had offered to the participants a unique occasion for confronting and discussing their different experiences in teaching and in scholarly research. He suggested that the New York Conference should be followed by another meeting to be held in Europe.

General conclusions.
The Symposium has been very successful in bringing together renowned scholars in the field of Jewish studies with very different backgrounds, and providing them with the opportunity to exchange their experiences and opinions. It can be seen as an important first step toward a new understanding of the teaching of Jewish studies in Germany and in Europe as well as in the USA.

A few important subjects have been singled out: First, the  need for a deeper link between academia and  Jewish communities in Germany and Europe, in order to enhance the impact of Jewish studies on contemporary society. In view of the widespread desire to turn a new page of history after the Shoah, Germany can serve as the cornerstone for Europe. It is the country with the heaviest past but also the one which did the most in order to rethink its past.

Second, is the necessity  to integrate Jewish studies with Islamic studies. Scholars who are trained in both fields are still underrepresented in both Europe and USA. The experience of the Jews might be very useful in order to understand and solve the problems due to the growing Muslim population in Germany and Europe.

The third point involves the need of a more effective integration of philology in the field of Jewish studies and a deeper connection with sociology and ethnical studies. The traditional approach oriented merely toward the past can lead to a kind of ivory tower and to a gap between academic studies and urgent needs of contemporary society. On the other hand, a too narrow focus on recent history, holocaust and current social dynamic can deprive Jewish culture from its diversity and positive values. Jewish studies in Europe must reinvent themselves and accept plural strategies.

Fourth, a better link between contemporary society and Jewish studies can give an important contribution to European cultural integration. Beside a negative dynamic of persecution and discrimination there have been an enduring positive process of mutual influence between Jewish minority and various European milieus. This should be taken into account in order to organize a more effective impact of Jewish studies on the broader civil society.

All participants agreed that a further meeting in Europe would be extremely useful in order to deepen these themes and to develop new strategies for Jewish studies. A Spring 2007 meeting in Munich has been suggested as a possible date.
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