Teaching Israeli History: The Unbearable Heaviness of Jewish Power

December 1, 2002
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by Derek J. Penslar

Back in the 1700s, a Polish lord and a Jewish innkeeper are chatting over a glass of vodka. The Jew claims that Jews are immeasurably more moral than Christians. “What do you mean?” asks the Pole, “Give me an example.” “Well,” replies the Jew, “Jews don’t hunt.” “Idiot!,” the Pole snaps back, “Jews aren’t allowed to own weapons!”

I tell this joke to my students to demonstrate that powerlessness is not a virtue in and of itself, nor does it bestow virtue. Throughout most of their history, Jews have been able to manage their own affairs, but they have rarely exerted coercive control over others. The Zionist movement and creation of the state of Israel changed that situation irrevocably. Like all states, Israel owes its existence to assertions, sometimes brutal, of power. It engages in statecraft and wages war. Israel’s actions toward Arabs have been, on the one hand, romanticized and obscured by Israel’s champions, and, on the other hand, trumpeted and overblown by its enemies. One of the greatest challenges confronting a teacher of Israeli history is to face this reality head-on, without denial or exaggeration, apologetics or accusation.

For the past fifteen years, I have tried to meet that challenge, first at Indiana University and now at the University of Toronto. My courses on Israeli history attract students of all sorts: Jewish, Christian, and Moslem, fervent Zionists and Palestinian activists. No matter how objectively they are presented, the story of Zionism’s emergence among a persecuted people, the Hebrew cultural revival, and the construction of the Jewish national home cannot help but engage, and even enrapture, the students’ imagination. Moslem students come away with a deeper understanding of, and in some ways even admiration for, Israel, although a core of fear and hatred often remains intact. My empathetic treatment of Palestinian nationalism induces soul-searching among some of the Jewish students, particularly those from Hebrew day and high schools, where history is a vehicle for the affirmation of faith or identity, not an open-ended process of constant discovery, whose outcome may overturn as well as confirm long-cherished beliefs.

Despite the horrific intensification of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – the hundreds of Israeli victims of terror and the even greater number of Palestinians slain by Israeli bullets – and despite widely reported instances of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment on university campuses, I find the overwhelming majority of students to be open-minded and respectful of opposing points of view. Many students take the course out of idle curiosity and are both too ignorant and too insouciant to be parti pris. To be sure, students who enroll in a course in Israeli history are self-selected; the willfully ineducable do not come to me for an education.

A university course in Israeli history offers a respite from today’s overheated political environment. It is a luxury to have a semester, or even a year, to study in depth a subject that is mediated to most North Americans via soundbites, televised images, misinformed or biased journalism, and propaganda. In most universities, there is no question about the importance of courses on Israel in the humanities and social sciences. There are legitimate concerns about professorial bias, although the leftist tilt of many universities focuses more attention on professors suspected of Zionist rather than pro-Palestinian sympathies.

Concern that Israel is being misrepresented in the Academy has been one factor behind the recent or forthcoming establishment of endowed chairs in Israel Studies at several major American universities. As courses on Israel proliferate, Israel will indeed be better understood by young people. Understanding promotes empathy and, with it, a balanced approach to one of the world’s most fiercely loved and reviled nations.

Donors and Jewish activists must understand, however, that a balanced approach is not tantamount to adopting Zionist ideology, let alone supporting current Israeli governmental policy. One can empathize with a subject without identifying with it; appreciation is not the same thing as celebration. Knowledge of the facts represents the beginning, not the end, of education.

Theodor Herzl wrote that world Jewry had the financial power to save the bankrupt Ottoman Empire. That is a fact. It’s also a fact that Herzl was wrong, but he may have truly believed it. It is a fact that by the summer of 1948 Israel enjoyed military superiority over the Arabs – but the Israelis didn’t know it. It is equally correct to claim that the Israeli military entered the 1967 war confident of victory or gripped by existential panic. And so on, up to the present, where one of the most powerful nations on earth is also among the most fragile.

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Derek J. Penslar is Zacks Professor of History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Toronto. His books include Zionism and Technocracy: The Engineering of Jewish Settlement in Palestine and Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe.

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