Scholars Explore Origins of Cultural, Religious, and Political Zionism
Mar 19, 2010 — Renowned national scholars, as well as professors from University College, London and the Open University of Israel, gathered at Yeshiva University on March 7-8 to discuss “Zionism on the Jewish Street: Urban Geography and Nationalism at the Turn of the 20th Century.” The conference, co-sponsored by the YU Center for Israel Studies and the YU Museum, analyzed popular expressions of Jewish nationalism that provided a civic underpinning for the Zionist movement.

What better venue than Yeshiva University, asked President Richard M. Joel in his welcome address to seminar participants, to foster a “serious understanding of the historical and political meaning of Israel?” He noted YU’s blue and white colors that echo the Israeli flag and the University’s long history of support for the Jewish state.

President Joel added, “The Jewish story is incomplete unless you think of tomorrow. We are a people always looking at what we can be. And the best way of doing that is to look at history.”

“We are called people of the book,” noted Professor Robert Seltzer of The City University of New York, “but there are many other texts, many other objects and creations besides the text” that inform nascent Zionism.

The first day of the conference hosted by the YU Museum at the Center fo
“The Jewish story is incomplete unless you think of tomorrow. We are a people always looking at what we can be. And the best way of doing that is to look at history.”
r Jewish History, featured a discussion on cities central to the emergence of Zionist culture in the early 20th century. Introduced by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum, the panel included Steven J. Zipperstein of Stanford University, Marsha Rozenblit of the University of Maryland and Barbara Mann of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who discussed Odessa, Vienna and Tel Aviv, respectively.

In the second day of proceedings, held at YU’s Wilf Campus, Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit of George Washington University recalled the ubiquitous blue box of the Jewish National Fund as a “modest piece of tin” representing “a bold assertion of possibility” that enabled children to “proudly lay claim to philanthropy.”

Speaking on the topic of “The Anxiety of Influence: Yiddishism and the Jewish Religious Tradition,” Joshua Karlip, assistant professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, credited the “many contradictions as well as much of the creativity of these two cultures” as a rivalry that produced a political consensus allowing for creation of the State of Israel. “Nationalism requires a large amount of secularism,” said Karlip. “On the other hand, [nationalists] must reach out to religious leaders.”

Dr. Jess Olson, conference organizer and assistant professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, presented a paper titled “The House that Straucher Built: Czernowitz and the New Jewish City,” a treatise on the Austro-Hungarian political leader Benno Straucher (1854-1940) and the Jüdisches Nationalhaus of cosmopolitan Czernowitz in what is today western Ukraine.

The distinctly Jewish architecture and Straucher’s own conflicting impulses of Zionism versus assimilation chronicle the World War I-era “complexity of Austro-Hungarian Jewry,” said Olson. The Jewish National House, he added, serves “a larger purpose as an insertion of national presence in a diverse city.”

Professor Michael Berkowitz of University College, London, spoke of the significance of Jewish photojournalists of the early 20th Century, engaged in what was considered a “gutter” trade. Oblivious to political impact, said Professor Berkowitz, their sympathetic and non-stereotypical pictures “fostered perceptions of Jews as equals” and “ultimately showed Zionism to be on the side of good.”

The conference commenced the third year of twice-annual seminars under the aegis of the Center for Israel Studies. Professor Steven Fine, the center’s director, said the series aims to “build our faculty reputation and to conduct ourselves as a first-tier university.” This year’s second conference, scheduled for the fall, is titled “Israel and Iran: From Cyrus the Great to the Islamic Republic.”