In this installment of â€œFrom the Academy,â€? Professor David Myers, Director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, tells us about some of his recent research and academic work.
I am a scholar of modern Jewish history whose main interest has been to study the way in which modern Jewish historians make use of history to work through their own personal/existential and broader ideological inclinations.
It would be rather naÃ¯ve to claim that my own work as an historian is unconnected to my own sense of self as a Jew — or my own concern about the Jewish commonweal today. Indeed, I belong to a long tradition of Jewish historians for whom this connection is evident. Perhaps my only merit is that I’m a bit more willing to admit it than most predecessors were.
My forthcoming book, Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz (Brandeis University Press, 2008) pushes to the fore the connection between the past and present — and my own willing embrace of this link.
The protagonist of the book, Rawidowicz (1897-1957), was one of the last and most distinctive participants in a vibrant debate over the contours of Jewish nationalism. The uniqueness of Rawidowicz’s perspective lay in his project of “Babylon and Jerusalem” — that is, his belief that the Jewish nation could only survive by recognizing and supporting its two main components: the Jewish center in the Land of Israel and the Jewish population in the Diaspora.
Advancing one to the exclusion of the other — as most other Jewish nationalists advocated — would harm the overall well-being of the Jewish nation. The task of Between Jew and Arab is two-fold: first, to call attention to Rawidowicz’s unique and still-relevant view of Jewish nationalism; and second, to shed light on an unpublished essay of his in which he argues that the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 imposes a serious moral and political obligation on the Jews to treat with respect the Arab population of Israel — and the refugees who took leave of the country during the 1948 War.
Rawidowicz’s willingness to bring the past into conversation with the present, and the moral with the political, harks back to an earlier period rife with ideological intensity and passion. Rather than treat the word “ideology” as an epithet, I believe that we would do well to reclaim the passion, intensity, and depth of perspective of that earlier ideological period.
I am particularly interested in helping to stimulate a new debate over the contours of and prospects for Jewish collectivity in a world marked by hyper-individualism, on one hand, and a poverty of serious thinking about Jewish collectivity, on the other.
There is, in fact, one form of Jewish collective identity that has gained considerable momentum over the past half-century — what I call “Statism” (i.e., the belief that the State of Israel qua state is the fulfillment of Jewish history rather than, say, a means to a number of important ends).
But Statism, I claim, is not adequate to the task of serving a global Jewish nation with centers in the Diaspora and Israel. And so, we must begin to think beyond the constraints of Statism, as well as beyond the all-embracing consumerist culture that imparts only rights, but no obligations, to the Jew.
It is to this mission that I am now turning in a new book project, Is there a Jewish Nation?