Teaching Conflict and Controversy:
A New Course in Israeli and Jewish Diaspora Studies
The Israel-Palestine conflict is undoubtedly a controversial subject where there are no absolutes. But it is also extremely interesting – and it is this fact that has attracted students from very diverse backgrounds to my course on Zionism at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. It has included Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, religious and secular – and many Germans. It starts in the beginning and ends at the end – from the Bible to Barak. The objective is to go beyond the megaphone war, beyond the utterance of clichés and slogans, not to change anyone’s mind, but to catalyse a self-exploration of issues and a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation. It has also focused on Christian Zionism, starting with Cromwell and the Blackstone Memorial and concluding with Jerry Falwell, the Christian Coalition and George W. Bush.
The Victorian romance with the Holy Land and Christian upbringing certainly influenced statesmen such as David Lloyd-George who were instrumental in issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917. This promised a homeland for the Jews in Palestine and was a seminal point in time in ultimately establishing a Jewish state in 1948. Lloyd-George pointed out that he had been taught in school ‘far more about the history of the Jews than about the history of my own land. I could tell you all the Kings of Israel. But I doubt whether I could have named half a dozen of the Kings of England and no more of the Kings of Wales.’ Lloyd George told Ben-Gurion that he had known the names of rivers, valleys and mountains of Palestine before he knew even a single geographical name in his own country.
The interest in this course has necessitated its division into two courses for the next academic year – one will focus on Zionist history and the other on the tortuous intricacies of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The development and growth of Israeli Studies has promoted the introduction of a new degree, an MA in Israeli and Jewish Diaspora Studies at SOAS. Taken on either a part-time (over two or three years) or a full-time basis, it would appeal to many who would wish to develop their interests and passions within an academic framework. Starting in the autumn of this year, it is an interdisciplinary degree which will explore the history, culture, politics, languages and music of Israel and its relationship with the Jews of the Diaspora. Based on a modular system, the subjects covered could be as diverse as the political thought of Menachem Begin, the peace movement in Israel, Christian Zionism and dispensationalism, the origins of Palestinian nationalism, the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, the struggle of Soviet Jews for emigration, the music of the Hassidim, the Jews of India, the teachings of the Rambam (Maimonides) and the Ramban (Nahmanides).
This unique choice of courses was made possible because of the recent association between the London School of Jewish Studies and the Department for the Study of Religions at SOAS. Moreover, the Hebraica library at SOAS is one of the finest in Europe and attracts many scholars and researchers.
The student is expected to take three taught courses — one major and two minor subjects. A 10000 word dissertation must be written on a topic related to the major subject taken. One course must be in Israeli Studies, another in Jewish Diaspora Studies with the third from either of those offered by the London School of Jewish Studies or even more general courses on the Middle East offered at SOAS. Therefore it is possible to take courses in Zionist Ideology, Jews in Africa and Asia and Modern Approaches to the Talmud – and write a dissertation on the history of Christian Zionism in Britain.
The Israeli Studies courses are Zionist Ideology; Communism and Zionism; Israel, the Arab World and the Palestinians and Modern Hebrew Poetry. Those on the Diaspora include Modern European Jewish Literature and Music of the Jews while the London School of Jewish Studies offers courses such as Modern Jewish Philosophy. It is also possible to take a language course such as Yiddish, Hebrew or Arabic at different levels.
Of course, Israeli studies are far more than the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. The rich tapestry and diversity of Jewish studies is a testimony to a world beyond megaphone politics. Even so, the interest in Israeli Studies is – like Irish studies – often given prominence through violence and conflict. People naturally ask “how did it come to be like this?” and then “how do we get from here to there?” However, the hope is that out of analysis comes self-education, out of self-education comes rationality, – and out of rationality comes the hope for peace.
Common Ground Spring 2001