By Natalie Jacobs
In 1948, amidst inter-communal fighting along the Jaffa-Tel Aviv border, the state of Israel was born. The territory had been an immigrant society, and many varieties of Jewish ethnicities were suddenly expected to live peacefully under one governmental roof. While Israel became a Jewish state, this cultural melting pot quickly became a breeding ground for intra-ethnic issues and threats to national unity. As conflict in Israel persists through this 65th anniversary of its independence (observed this year April 16), the past, present and future of this country are worthy of widespread discussion.
For its part, the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University will welcome its fifth Israel-focused four-part lecture series, “Israel in the 21st Century,” to Congregation Beth Israel April 8, 15, 23 and 29.
“Giving people access to Israeli academics in these kinds of lectures,” says Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, director of SDSU’s Jewish Studies Program, “gives a sense of what taking a ‘History of Israel’ or ‘History of Zionism’ class might be like on campus.” The lecture series is also an opportunity to showcase the fact that SDSU is home to a visiting Israeli scholar annually, thanks to community support for the Jewish Studies Program. This year’s scholar is Moshe Naor, who will be with SDSU for two years as a result of a grant from the Leichtag Foundation. His talk, entitled “Between East and West: Middle Eastern Jews and the Arab-Israeli Conflict” will take place at 7 p.m. April 23.
Naor will discuss the influence of the Arab-Israeli conflict before and after ‘48, and the past and present relations between Jews and Arabs. He will also discuss what happened to the identity of Middle Eastern Jews. He has found that when they lived in countries like Iraq, Middle Eastern Jews, Muslims, Christians and other minorities lived in what he considers tolerance of each other. But when the conflict between Jews and Arabs deepened, Jews emigrated out of those parts of the Middle East, and more than 150 years of Jewish history was erased.
“Part of the question I’m trying to raise in this lecture,” Naor explains, “is that [Jews in the Middle East are] a disappearing memory in history. People don’t know about it; even in Israel they don’t speak about it.”
On what he hopes the community will take away from his lecture, Naor says: “It is important to understand that there was a Jewish community in Iraq. It is important for [world Jewry] to understand other aspects of Jewish and Israeli history.”
Exploring another part of Jewish identity specifically in Israel will be Yaacov Yadgar, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and currently a visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley. His lecture, “Nationalism, Ethnicity and Tradition: Jewish-Israeli Secularism and its Limits,” taking place at 7 p.m. April 15, will explore what it means for Jews in Israel to self-identify as secular, and how this affects society and politics in Israel. He will focus on two main points: Judaism as religion versus Judaism as nationalism; and the issue of ethnicity and the effect it has on Jewish tradition.
“What drives me in my work,” Yadgar explains, “is an attempt to understand the self. If I manage to provide in my audience the first step in asking the more penetrating questions, then I will be very satisfied.”
On what to expect from his lecture, he says, “One thing I’ve learned during my encounters with varying audiences is that the subject of identity always steers strong emotions. If I can promise my audience one thing, it’s that they won’t be indifferent to it.”
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, columnist for The New York Post and The Jerusalem Post, and the only American in the lecture series, will kick things off at 7 p.m. April 8 with his talk, “The Threat to Israel’s Existence: Why it is Back and How to Deal with It.”
As global stakeholders continue to advocate for diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians, Pipes is interested in a fundamentally different policy — that of ensuring that Palestinians recognize Israel isn’t going away. “My goal,” he says, “is victory, not peace.”
After hearing his lecture, he hopes audiences will come away with an “understanding that there is an alternative to this dismal process of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together and having them argue it out.” What that alternative is, is up for debate.
Anat Maor, professor on Israeli politics currently teaching at the University of California Irvine, will conclude the series at 7 p.m. April 29 with “The Power of Orthodoxy in Israel and its Implication on Women’s Rights.”
While women in Israel have the right to vote, work and achieve higher education, in some aspects there remains a deep-seeded tradition of inequality. “It is not enough that there is not discrimination,” Maor says, “but that we are working to achieve equality between both sexes.”
She notes that this inequality can be seen most egregiously in the gender pay gap, with men in management positions receiving 20 percent more compensation than women in the same positions. Her lecture will focus on both the “glass-half-empty view” as well as the positive movements in Israeli feminism, such as the widespread observances on International Women’s Day.
“I want to highlight how advanced feminism and women in Israel have come, but I want people to see that it’s not just a question of women’s rights, but a society issue.”
By bringing together scholars to touch on such different aspects of Israel and Judaism in the modern world, discourse on these diverse issues can grow and re-form around new ideas and little known stories. There can be no better way to honor the past and look toward the future this Yom Ha’atzmaut.
For more information on the lecture series, which is free and open to the community, or to register for a lecture up to one week in advance, visit www.cbisd.org or call (858) 535-1111, ext. 3800.