Teaching Israel this year I decided to move things around. I used to teach the classical Zionist sources and then dive straight into the conflict with the Palestinians and the occupation of the West Bank, and these dominated the course.
This time around, I’m putting the focus on religion and culture. I also figured out this trick. It’s a liberal Zionist trick.
After the first day of general introduction and orientation with an emphasis placed on maps, we went straight to the Babylonian Talmud to get a sense of the ambivalence there about the Land of Israel versus the life of the rabbis in Babylonia, the way that the Babylonian rabbis can’t stop thinking about the Land of Israel as a fantasy structure even as they “agree” not to ascend there politically, en masse, as a wall.
And here’s the liberal Zionist trick. Instead of placing Jewish and Palestinian anti-Zionism after the Zionist material, I put it next after the Bavli. The syllabus goes straight to Hermann Cohen, and then to the ultra-orthodox Va’Yoel Moshe, followed by Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine and Derek Penslar’s discussion of colonialism in the edited volume Colonialism and the Jews.
This way, anti-Zionism gets the first word, which means that Zionism gets the last word.
From there we proceed to examine the classical Zionist theoretical sources, and then from there examine religion and culture in the modern State of Israel, including haredi and religious nationalism, but also ashkenazi secularism, and sephardi/mizrachi traditionalism and Jewish ethno-culturalism. Bracketing and including the conflict and the occupation while including and bracketing anti-Zionism, these critical perspectives continue to percolate throughout the entirety.
We’ll end the class with Herzl’s Old New Land and read it in conjunction to the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Israeli Nation State Basic Law.
The trick is to show Zionism and the State of Israel as simultaneously complex, coherent, and riddled with deep structural faults and fault lines as phenomenon in the history of modern Jewish culture.