Mediating Israeli History and East European History
–Zionism and Jewish Migration from Russia and Poland–
January 11-12, 2015
Tokyo Station College, Saitama University
Rapporteur: Yuu Nishimura
This conference, “Mediating Israeli History and East European History: Zionism and Jewish Migration from Russia and Poland,” was organized by Professor Taro Tsurumi at Saitama University. The participants included six scholars from Israel, four from the United States, and three from Japan. Among the audience were researchers in Japan whose research topics were in such different fields as Palestinian/Israeli studies and Jewish studies as well as Russian and East European studies. All conference sessions were open to the public.
As an introduction, Tsurumi explained the aim and scope of the conference, which was summarized in three points:
The first point is to bridge the gap between Israeli history and East European history, as the title shows. Israeli issues tend to be discussed within a framework of the Middle East, or of Europe –usually associated with Western Europe. In this framework, the historical fact that the most of the leading Zionists were from East Europe is often overlooked. One of this conference’s main points is to analyze the influence of political culture in East Europe toward Zionism, Jewish identity, and Israeli political culture.
The second aim is to de-essentialize the understanding of Jewish identity. Although Zionism was a movement of Jewish people, the term “Jewish” itself has not always held a fixed essential entity. Jewish identity or Jewishness has been formed through ages, influenced by the locality of East Europe as well as by the social and political changes that occurred there. Considering this, it is both reasonable and necessary to reevaluate Jewish identity not as an essential entity but as a contextual one.
The third and final point is to de-politicize Israeli history. The history of Israel is often seen with some political bias. This is understandable, considering the ongoing political conflict between Israel and Palestine, but not ideal. Tsurumi showed hopes that the locality of this conference, neither in Israel nor in the U.S. but in Tokyo, leant some advantage to this point.
The conference lasted two days and the papers were given in five sessions: “Russia and Transformation of Jewishness,” “Empire and East/West,” “Law, Rights, Citizenship,” “Poland, Democracy, and Demography,” and “Socialism and Transnational Kibbutz.” The topics shown in each paper were far-reaching, including such issues as the 1880s’ formative Zionism in Russia and the contemporary Israeli ideas of law. Here I summarize the reports, not in the order of the sessions, but by classifying them by some central issues.
One of the main arguments shown in the papers was that the locality and political culture of East Europe impressed on Jewish identity, Zionism, and Israeli political culture in diverse ways.
Olga Litvak (Clerk University, U.S.) focused on Hovevei Zion in Russia in the early 1880s. She pointed out that for the members of Hovevei Zion, who were Russified Jewish male intellectuals, Zionism functioned as a new community of ethics that replaced the old ones in synagogues or in beth midrash. She argued that Zionism was not only a political movement but also a revolution of ethics and consciousness, which was, at the same time, their response to modernity.
Taro Tsurumi (Saitama University, Japan) analyzed the ideology of the Zionist intellectuals who battled for the White Army during the Russian Civil War. Analyzing the writings of Russian-Jewish intellectual émigrés, such as Daniel Pasmanik, Tsurumi pointed out that their Jewish identity was formed on the basis of their high evaluation of the multi-ethnic Russian Empire, among which Jews as a group also had played an indispensable role. He explained that Jewish identity at that time was contextually understood, and the 1920s was a turning point at which understanding of Jewish identity changed from a contextual one into an essential one.
In terms of the essential understanding of Jewish identity, one of its most influential advocates might have been Vladimir Jabotinsky, whom Rafi Zirkin-Sadan (Hebrew University, Israel) discussed. Analyzing the two opposite symbols “West” and “East” in Jabotinsky’s historical novel Samson, Zirkin-Sadan showed that Jabotinsky’s motif of Jewish national renaissance was composed exclusively of elements that have usually been attributed to West Europe.
The contrasting images of “West” and “East” were important also for Israel Zangwil, the leading figure of the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO). Arieh Saposnik (Ben-Gurion University, Israel) presented Zangwil’s idea of Zionism, pointing to his frame of reference. Characteristic ideas of Zangwil’s Zionism, such as the power struggle among nations and the conquest of Oriental barbarism through modernization, had been under strong influence of imperialism. At the same time, Saposnik pointed out, Zangwil had pondered about the contribution of Jews as a mediator between Western Imperialism and the Orient, where the ancient Jews had come from.
While the above-mentioned reports shed light on the Jewish identity formed within the context of the Empires, Haruka Miyazaki (Hokkaido University of Education, Japan) analyzed identity instead in the context of Polish nationalism. She analyzed Apolinary Hartglas’s idea of nation and pointed out that he thought that every nation, including that of the Jews, must have its own territory, for he thought that this would guarantee that the members of each nation would be treated equally even outside their own national territory. Having thought like this, he prospected the continuation of Jewish life in Diaspora, and his Zionism, Miyazaki concluded, did not contradict his loyalty to the Polish state.
Whereas contextuality was one of the main topics of the above-mentioned reports, equally important was the influence of the political culture of East Europe on that of the Yishuv and Israel.
Israel Bartal (Hebrew University, Israel) reevaluated Jewish emigration to Palestine by referring to their experiences of inner migration within the Russian Empire and the urbanization that began before the first Aliyah. Bartal pointed out that these experiences and the “Imperial environment” – geography, politics and culture – constituted a basis of Hebrew culture that was in the making in the Yishuv at that time. In other words, the creation of Jewish national culture in the Yishuv could be seen as nationalization of Imperial culture.
Ziva Galili (Rutgers University, U.S.) focused on the Hashomer-Hatsa’ir established in 1922 in the Soviet Union and its Kibbutz in Palestine. She analyzed the political culture of Kibbutz Hashomer-Hatsa’ir USRR and pointed out that its political ideology, slogan, organization, and so forth were influenced by those in the youth institutions in the USSR, such as gymnasia and Komsomol.
As for emigration from the USSR to Palestine, Chizuko Takao (Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Japan) explained its system by showing the relationship between three actors: Zionists (Halutzim), the Soviet authorities, and the Joint Distribution Committee in the U.S. Concerning Hehalutz, Rona Yona (New York University, U.S.) examined the dynamics of its organizational development in the interwar period as a trans-national phenomenon between Palestine and the Second Polish Republic.
David Engel (New York University, U.S.) and Nir Kedar (Sapir College, Israel) both clarified the influence of political culture in East Europe on that of Israel. Engel cited the Israeli civil law and settlement policy, and pointed out that the Zionist political motives and ideals could be categorized not in colonial policies of Western countries, as is often assumed, but in the policy of the Second Polish Republic, aiming at reinforcing a Polish national identity. Kedar analyzed Israeli ideas of law: ideas of rule of law, constitutional states, civic society, and the understanding of law as impressed by national culture. He pointed out that these ideas resembled not Anglo-American law but East European and especially imperial Russian ideas.
Benjamin Nathans (University of Pennsylvania, U.S.) discussed the Jewish civic movement for emigration that had made possible the mass exodus from the USSR in the 1970s. He pointed out that, while this movement could be categorized in national movements, its strategies had shared a lot with that of human rights movements in the U.S. and other countries.
Kenneth Moth (Johns Hopkins University, U.S.) explored memories written by young activists of Hehalutz in 1930s’ Poland and shed light on the mentality, which he called “futurelessness,” of the Polish-Jewish youth. He pointed out that what motivated them to Zionism was neither the glorious prospect of collective life in Kibbutz nor Hebrew culture but their eagerness for exodus from Poland.
Each session was followed by the comments and discussion. Here I do not delve into each of them in detail. I would rather like to briefly mention the discussion’s participants. Except for Mitsuharu Akao (Osaka University), whose research includes Jewish (Hebrew and Yiddish) literature, none of them were specialists of Jewish studies: Susumu Nonaka (Saitama University) specializes in Russian literature; Nobuo Shimotomai (Hosei University) in political history of the USSR and politics in general; Jun Yoshioka (Tsudajuku University) in Polish history; David Wolff (Hokkaido University) in modern Russian history and the history of the Far East. Their comments and questions to the speakers came from their curiosity connected with their own specialties, which brought some fresh air to the discussions. This is interesting, for it may reflect the way Jewish studies in Japan has been explored until now; in Japan, Jewish studies has been developed by expanding the scopes of individual researchers, whose main topics are in such different fields as German literature or Russian history, to include Jewish issues that have fundamental importance for the understanding of their original subjects. This sporadic method of development may cause a delay in the professionalization of Jewish studies in Japan, but at the same time, it has prevented the field from being exclusive to other research fields, and made it open to inter-disciplinary discussion. At the conference, one of the main points of the comments was the question of how we could connect the findings in Jewish studies organically with knowledge in neighboring research fields. This kind of question is worth being asked as Jewish studies continues to develop in Japan.
In concluding the conference, a general discussion was held.
First, Tsurumi announced that they planed to publish a collection of theses based on this conference, and asked the panelists and audience for ideas concerning the contents and the editorial line of this publication.
Discussions were, nevertheless, not only about publication but also about how to develop the points shown in the reports. Tsurumi mentioned that relationships between Jews and Arabs, which was an absent topic in this conference, could in future be reevaluated by referring to the topics discussed in this conference, such as the inner colonization of the Russian Empire oriented to organic relationships among different nationalities. The other participants pointed to possibilities of comparative studies of the Jewish Diaspora of the Russian Empire with that of the Spanish Empire, and to needs of expanding the scope to include issues concerning the British Empire, which had increasing importance after the collapse of the Russian Empire. It was also pointed out that the “influence” of ideas and forms, which was shown in the many papers in this conference, could be understood not only as phenomena of a one-way direction, i.e., influence of one to the other, but also as resonance of the same problematiques in plural places.
Concerning the publication, one of the main points was how the book should respond to the interests of would-be Japanese readers. Benjamin Nathans, the initiator of the general discussion and an editor of the planned book, first told that he knew that Japanese people, in most cases, developed their interest in Jewish studies from their concern in the current Palestine/Israel problem. Then he asked whether the coming book should be one for scholars and general readers of the U.S. and Israel, or should be a starting point of dialog with Japanese scholars, having in mind responding also to the Japanese general readers.
One of the audience, a Japanese scholar in Jewish studies, expressed her view that responding to Japanese readers’ concerns would be a sort of academic responsibility of the book, considering that the conference was held not at the centers of Jewish studies in the U.S. or in Israel, but in Tokyo. In contrast, most of the scholars from the U.S. and Israel expressed their negative view on whether the book could do so, for none of the papers directly dealt with Palestine/Israel issues, which might be the biggest need of Japanese readers. This is understandable, and it may be rather a task of scholars in Japan, both who were involved in this conference and who were not, to continue discussing how the coming book could stimulate Jewish studies in Japan as well as academics in general.
Concluding the general discussion, the participants expressed their high evaluation of the conference’s aim of scope.
Nathans stated that focusing the influence of the Imperial contexts to Zionism and Israel was quite important, and that the approach of the conference was even so, for it shifted the focus from the British Empire, whose influence had been obvious, to the Russian Empire, whose influence had been ignored but in reality must have been enormous. Bartal mentioned that he himself had been seen as a “revolutionary anti-Zionist historian” in Israel because of his non-Zionist approach, and shared his view that this conference would be utterly new and radical even if it had been held in Israel or in the U.S.
Tsurumi, the organizer, referred again to the advantage of the conference’s locality, Japan, where no political attention was required when organizing the program; he stated that he could invite any scholars he respected and whose research he thought was promising. The locality may be one of the positive aspects that made this conference so successful. But, as another factor, the organizer’s capability and the originality substantiated by his steady research are not to be forgotten.
So that the achievement of this conference will contribute not only to Jewish studies in general but also to promoting it in Japan specifically, it is an important task for scholars in Japan to discuss how they will translate the would-be-published book; in a narrow sense of the word, they will need to think about how they translate specific terminologies of Jewish studies, not only those used in the book, in Japanese; in a broad sense of the word, it will be a productive work to think about how they can efficiently translate, or transplant, the findings and knowledge to Japanese academics. Needless to say, this will not be – returning to the question above – the “academic responsibility” of the panelists at the conference only, but a cooperative task of the scholars engaged in Jewish studies in Japan.