The Sherman Lectures in Jewish Studies 2013

What is Israel Studies?

Prof. Derek Penslar, FRSC, Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford.

11-14 March 2013, Manchester, UK.

 See the Jewish Chronicle report and Prof. Penslar's response.


Series Abstract

Over the past decade, faculty positions in Israel Studies have been created at universities throughout the English-speaking world.   This burst of growth has been fed in part by serious academic interest in a small yet highly visible country and in part by political controversies surrounding the country and the way it is represented on university campuses.  The proliferation of Israel Studies positions has, ironically, only intensified those controversies.   This series of lectures will discuss what it means for Israel Studies to be an academic discipline and how it can best be integrated into the university environment.  The lectures will demonstrate the contributions Israel Studies can make to public discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its possible resolution.    At the same time, I argue that scholarship on Israel must have a life of its own and must not be boxed in by political dictates or mobilized in the service of a moral cause.

The lectures will adopt a comparative approach to Israel’s history and society because comparison fosters an understanding of Israel as being as imbedded in the world as it is distinct. Comparison is the social scientist’s equivalent of a laboratory experiment by which we can learn why similar situations lead to different outcomes and differing situations lead to similar outcomes.  Comparing Israel with other states, Zionism with other forms of nationalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with various forms of ethno-religious strife yields unexpected findings and creates common ground for a conversation that spans political divides.


1. Writing Israel's History: Between Myth and Counter-Myth (Mon 11 March)

Note: Lecture begins after Prof. Alex Samely's introduction at 7.30 mins.

A quarter century ago, a handful of Israeli scholars adopted a new, or “Revisionist,” approach to the writing of Israel’s history.   These scholars challenged the historical narrative that had been instilled into the Israeli collective memory for a half century, thus shattering a variety of myths about the founding of the Jewish state.  Relying on recently-declassified archival sources, these historians and their successors produced a counter-narrative that they claimed was objective, accurate, and untainted by myth.  The New History had biases of its own, but it made real contributions to our understanding of Israel’s origins.  Much more problematic, however, have been recent writings that comprise not merely a legitimate counter-narrative so much as a new form of mythology, this time adversarial rather than apologetic.    

This lecture traces the rise and fall of Israel’s New History, which has become a victim of a general crisis of historical consciousness in contemporary Israel.  Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Israelis took umbrage at the New Historians’ criticisms of their country’s behaviour in 1948 because they felt an intimate connection with the state and a need to defend its virtue.  By the noughts of the twenty first century, however, Israel had completed a longstanding process of transformation into a highly individualistic consumer society, and with the exception of the radical right, it had lost the sense of participating in a heroic political venture.  Israelis are increasingly alienated from their own history, seeing a chasm between their world and that of the first generations of the state.   As concrete historical consciousness fades, counter-narrative is replaced by counter-myth. This lecture will set the two types of writing against each other while comparing Israeli historical controversies with similar causes célèbres throughout the contemporary world.  In all these cases, political agendas exert a powerful gravitational field that some scholars strive to resist yet to which others willfully succumb.


2. Theodor Herzl:  Charisma and Leadership (Tue 12 March)

There are more biographies of Theodor Herzl than of any other political leader in Jewish history. A combination of Herzl's status in Israeli consciousness as the father of political Zionism, his personality and actions, and the time and places of his life – the culturally rich fin de siècle, in western and central Europe's great capitals – have made him into a magnet for biographers.  Committed Zionists are entranced by Herzl's turn from assimilation to nationalism and the greatness of his accomplishments as a Zionist leader during the decade before his untimely death.  Critics of Zionism see in Herzl a prime example and major source of what they believe to be Zionism's Eurocentrism and colonialism.   Journalists are fascinated by Herzl's dramatic life story and psychological complexity.  Intellectual historians see in Herzl a major contributor to modern Jewish political thought. 

Despite this flood of Herzliana, only now, more than a century after Herzl's death, are we emerging from the cycle of hagiography and deconstruction, myth and counter-myth, that has characterized most of the writing on Herzl's life.  This lecture will lay out an outline for a new, holistic biography of Herzl – holistic in terms of not only Herzl's persona, but also how he was perceived by others, and how others' perceptions of him shaped his own sense of self and agency.  The authority of leaders derives from the trust, admiration, even exaltation that they inspire in their followers.  All the more so for political leaders onto whom people project deep-seated, unfulfilled longings, as is the case for leaders of movements for national liberation.   The early Zionist movement was particularly dependent upon charismatic leadership because it was so small, weak, and scattered, utterly lacking mechanisms of patronage or means of coercion.  Herzl had nothing to offer his followers but hope and nothing to maintain their support other than trust.  For all that has been written on Herzl's charisma, his prepossessing persona and appearance, there has been little consideration of the cultural specificity of charisma.  Had Herzl been dropped into a different era or continent he might not have been charismatic or prepossessing at all.   A biography of Herzl must thus also be a study in the social and cultural environment that allowed his particular personality and characteristics to be perceived as charismatic, his gestures as compelling.  Under different circumstances, Herzl might have been nothing more than a manic demi-intellectual, whiling away his days in cafés, scribbling feverishly in a diary that only he would read.

3. Rethinking the Diaspora-Israel Connection: The Case of the 1948 War (Wed 13 March)

Scholars of Israel during the 1948 war compare it mainly to its Arab foes, presenting the war as a struggle between a state in the making and an array of sovereign states.  They have not engaged in global or diachronic comparisons, nor have they seriously considered Israel as an element in the matrix of state-seeking and revolutionary movements of the interwar and post-war periods.   

Israel’s achievement of statehood took place in an era during which anti-colonial movements strove for independence and rapidly developed autonomous political and military institutions, even when under considerable duress.  In all these cases success or failure depended on the ability to marshal funds and acquire weaponry.  In some ways, Israel was far more poorly positioned to gain international financial support than its anti-colonial half-siblings.  In other ways, it was vastly superior.  In 1948 Israel did not receive aid from foreign states, but it had well-developed mechanisms of taxation and marketing public debt.  No less important, Jews in the diaspora purchased weaponry, provisioned the armed forces and augmented them with experienced and technically expert personnel, and sustained the civilian economy of the fledgling state of Israel. Money and men, financial and human capital, were inseparable components of the diaspora’s contributions to Israel’s struggle for independence.

4. The Invention of Israeli Nativity (Thu 14 March)

In pre-1948 Palestine and in the state of Israel, as throughout the modern world, immigrants have become natives.  Within Israel Studies, there is ongoing controversy whether the process of immigration and indigenization was unique or similar to various forms of settler colonialism in modern North America, Australasia, South Africa and Algeria.  The creation of a native Israeli identity is inseparable from the sensitive subject of Zionism’s relationship with colonialism – a relationship that Israel’s critics emphasize and that Israel’s defenders zealously reject.

This lecture will argue that the Zionist movement matured in the era of colonialism but that the state of Israel was born in the era of decolonization.  On the political level, this claim is borne out by the 1917 Balfour Declaration on the one hand, and the 1947 United Nations’ Partition Resolution, on the other. On a cultural level, Zionist attitudes towards the Palestinian Arabs were reminiscent of other settler colonial populations’ images of native peoples.  The processes by which Jewish immigrants to Palestine developed a sense of native identity are also similar to the indigenization of settlers in various parts of the world.  Yet the state of Israel’s birth and early years were understood by Israel’s Jewish population as an anti-colonial struggle.  Sabra identity simultaneously asserted novelty and nativity and featured conflicted attitudes towards the Palestinians as the bearers of authentic indigeneity.


Community Sherman Lecture (in association with the Zionist Central Council and the Jewish Representative Council): How Jews Became Israelis (Sun 10 March)

The Zionist project featured a constant tension between continuity and rupture with the Jewish past, between its transnational structure and its goal to construct a national center concentrating world Jewry; between the motley linguistic and cultural environments of world Jewry and the Zionist goal of creating a unifying Hebrew culture. The state of Israel bore traces of diaspora Jewish politics, society, and economic life yet also struck out on its own.  Despite many similarities to nationalist movements of the twentieth century, Zionism was unique in defining as its national home a place with few nationals in it, to which hundreds  of thousands of immigrants had to be brought in order to create a viable Yishuv (pre-state community) of workers and farmers.  The Yishuv had to create the pre-conditions for its very existence.  Jewish immigrants to Palestine, and even more so their children, developed a culture that both bound them with and set them apart from diaspora Jewry. 

Zionist nativeness was constructed with astonishing speed, over just a few decades prior to 1948, and adopted no less quickly by the waves of immigration that more than tripled the young state's population within a decade.   Until the 1980s, Israeli culture was stamped by the country's hegemonic Ashkenazic elites and was thus more European than Middle Eastern.  In recent decades, however, Jews of Middle Eastern origin have enjoyed increasing political power and influence over Israel's religious life and popular culture.  Israeli nativeness is an idiosyncratic and constantly evolving melange of European, Jewish and Middle Eastern sensibilities, but it is no less durable for its atypicality, or for its recent vintage.


The complete series of four lectures is also available as a YouTube playlist.

Archive: Previous Sherman Lectures