“In Search of Israel: the History of an Idea” with Dr. Michael Brenner

[Lisa Leff:] So I already said it feels great to be
the one to welcome you tonight but it also feels quite strange because I’m so
used to being among you all for stimulating events of just this
sort about Israel and of course usually it’s Michael Brenner himself welcoming
us, right? Working together with Laura, Michael as
you know brings us together for all sorts of programming in quite diverse
fields right? On politics, history, literature, dance, art, food, water,
high-tech, right? And when Michael does it he makes it all look so easy. We’re used
to his geniality when he comes up here and welcomes us. We’re used to his
generosity as a host. We’re used to his erudition, right, when he comes up and
does the welcome, it’s bringing together so much knowledge, so much wide-ranging
knowledge. And now we’re here on the very happy occasion of the publication of his
wonderful new book about Israel. So it’s our turn to celebrate Michael himself
and see a little bit of where all that erudition comes from. So to introduce
him I want to hand over the mic to my colleague, my dear colleague professor
Pam Nadell of the history department and the Director of the Jewish Studies
Program. [Pam Nadell:] Thank you, good evening. So before I
actually do the introductions I’m gonna do a little bit of bragging. This year
the Jewish Studies program has two students graduating: Elysia Martin and
Aaron Torop. And both of them were just elected to Phi Beta Kappa. So where are
you? Will you stand up? Come on stand up. So wonderful students learn from
outstanding faculty and tonight we have two terrific faculty members with us.
The first is Ari Dubnov, I’m going to introduce, and he is the “Max Tictin”
chair in Israel Studies at George Washington University. Before he joined
us in Washington this year he taught at Stanford and at the University of Haifa,
his books include the intellectual biography Isaiah Berlin “The journey of a
Jewish Liberal” and the edited volume “Zionism of you from the outside”, and he
has published widely in journals in his field including of course the Journal of
Israeli History. He is currently researching British Mandate era ideas
about partitioning Palestine and other political solutions to competing claims
for the land that were debated in that era and he’s going to join professor
Brenner in dialogue but professor Brenner is going to open for us this
evening and I know he doesn’t need any introduction but I still want to
introduce him. He is the Seymour and Lillian Abelson
chair in Israel Studies and director of American University’s Center for Israel
Studies and we are celebrating his fifth year with us. He also holds the chair in
Jewish history and culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich where he
teaches in the summers. He has held teaching positions at Indiana and
Brandeis universities and was a visiting scholar at Stanford, Berkeley, Johns
Hopkins and Haifa universities and Budapest Central European University. He
is also the International president of the Leo Beck Institute for the Study of
German Jewry and an elected member of the Bavarian Academy of Science and
other academies of distinguished scholars.
In 2014, he received the order of merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. His
previous books have been translated into 10 languages so that’s in case you don’t
read them all in English and I will recommend only for brevity’s sake a
“Short history of the Jews and Zionism”, a brief history
which my students know they have to read in the classes. This evening he will
start our program sharing with us insights from his new book just
published by Princeton University Press “In search of Israel: The history of an
Idea”. Please welcome Professor Brenner. Thank you, thank you Pam. Well, that
sounds good, okay thank you, thank you for coming and thank you for these very
generous introductions. It is a real honor for me to present my book
here at American University, which I have been proud to call my home for the last
five years now and let me just start by thanking those who have made me feel at
home here. First of all of course I would like to thank the two speakers before me,
my long-term department chair and friend, Pam Nadell, and the acting dean and
friend, Lisa Leff, and also the other colleagues from the history department
who are here tonight and who made it really a wonderful experience in the
last five years to be part of this department and part of this university.
And, as was mentioned already before our Center for Israel Studies would not be
what it is today without Laura Cutler and Laura I think the two of us had put
together some quite some programs in the last five years and we look
forward to the next five years for the next programs and we of course are
always happy to see you again at these occasions, like we’re planning the next
conference for this fall right now. The support of our council has also been
crucial for realizing all of these programs and I’m really happy to see
many of our council members here tonight. Thank you all for your support and that
we also mention Lillian Abensohn who has been here and I think from the first
moment we have not only become colleagues and struggling and for the
same cause but also friends and I really very much appreciate that friendship.
Neither would I be here, nor would the book exist without Michelle Engert,
my wife and colleague now, who has gone through all of its stages together with
me, who supported me every single minute even though she had to listen to way too
much obscure chapters of Israeli history than anyone ever should, who walked with
me through many versions of the manuscript and who walked with me
through the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Haifa and other places in
the world and in Israel and who after her own successful legal career found
also a new home here at American University so thank you, thank you very
much Michelle. I want to talk today about what made me write this book and a
little bit of what it is about. I’ll speak for a few minutes and then we
continue with my dear colleague Ari Dubnov from GW. So Israel is a small country,
in fact, it ranks as number 148 out of 196 independent states in terms of
geographical area and it’s number 98, at least it was a year ago,
in terms of population. It’s somewhere located in this respect between Belize
and Djibouti, now we don’t have a center for Belize and Djibouti studies here at
AU or to the best of my knowledge at any other U.S. university. In fact the
international attention Israel attracts is
exponentially greater than that of either, in fact a future historian who
would, in let’s say a couple of century, read only the media coverage of this
time period might think that Israel is a state of the size of the United States
of America, China or Russia. In the United States, Israel has figured more
prominently over the last three decades than almost any other at any other
foreign country especially when it comes to foreign policy debates. In polls across Europe, Israel is considered often consistently to be the
greatest danger to world peace and in Islamic societies it has become routine
to burn Israeli flags and argue for Israel’s demise even for people who have
no idea about where the state is located or what it is about. No other
country in the world has been a subject as many UN resolutions as Israel.
They’re not usually positive. At the same time though many people around the
world crowded Israel with a unique role in the future course of world history,
evangelical Christians regard the Jewish state as a major player in their
eschatological model of the world. Their convictions have influenced US policies
in the Middle East and the opinions of some political leaders in other parts of
the world especially Central America as well. So what I was interested in was the question “why is that so” and of course
the answer lies deep in history and it needs many volumes to really dig into
that. No worries Michelle [people laugh]. Many people call
Israel the Holy Land for a reason. It is here of course where the origins of
their own religions were shaped the Jewish people too are regarded as
special over time they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the
world’s dominant religions in Christianity and Islam. Jews were both
seen as the people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected
by God. But over the last 200 years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained that the Jews became victims of the most systematic
genocide in modern history let them yet another mark of uniqueness and maybe
also the fact that after 2,000 years in exile the fact that the Jews returned to their
ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded
Jews with a certain specific mystique. All of this by itself would be an
interesting study but that was not exactly what I was mainly interested in.
I was looking more into the internal answer to this question, “what did the
Zionists think?”, “what did the leaders of the Zionist movement from Theodore Herzl
onwards think?” and the leaders of Israel after 1948. The Zionist Enterprise of
course started out in some respect as an attempt as what many Zionist called “to
normalize Jewish history”. Zionism, so the explanation often goes,
came into existence to finally put an end to the millennia old story of the
Jews as what they have been for many many centuries the archetypical
other and that would be done by creating a state that again phrase very popular
certainly in the early Zionists period “a state like any other state” and this
phrase [kechol am ga’am] even entered Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
However, and that’s what I’m trying to show on the other side, this was not the
whole picture. Indeed I would argue it was only
the smaller part of the picture, there was at the same time always within the
Zionist movement and until today the striving for an opposite ideal. The ideal
to be a model to the world, a light unto the nations [ohr lagoyim]. A Jewish
state these and often the same Zionist argued had to reach for
higher ideals than other nations. It had to be unique not despite but
because of its specific history but what exactly this uniqueness would represent
was open for new interpretations over different generations and periods. So
these two contrasting and I would say often conflicting aspirations have
characterized the Zionist movement from its very outset and the State of Israel
during the last seventy years. The idea that a Jewish state had to be different,
had to be in fact better than other states was deeply ingrained in the early
Zionist movement. Theodore Herzl believed on the one hand that only when the Jews
like all other nations had their own state anti-semitism would cease would
disappear and they would be respected by the world. But he also was convinced this
new state had to serve as a model for all of humanity. He did not speak
about Israel, that word really does not appear
a State of Israel. Actually he called the state the
seven-hour land. Why the seven-hour land? He thought it would be
seven working hours of the day, you’d be happy we had that today, but back in 1896
when Herzl wrote that that was truly revolutionary. He thought it was so
important that he even drew the flag of Israeli do it by hand and you can see
the drawing until today he drew the seven stars because he felt so important
it’s nothing Jewish, right. It’s an ideal which aspired for a model society
for all humanity not just for Judaism. And Herzl in fact had much more
ambitious plans of what he called “an experiment for the well-being of all
humanity” in his view a Jewish state was to become a model state for all nations
and religions as he wrote “the land of the seven hour working day will be not
only a model country for social experiments and a treasure-house for
works of art but a miracle country in all civilization”. So Herzl
vision embodies a paradox that Zionism would never be able or no movement will
be able to solve to turn the Jews into a nation like any other nation at the same
time entrusting them with a state that would be better or a model for
everyone. In fact, Israel’s first prime minister and of course I’m
skipping a lot of chapters for the book now but Israel’s first Prime Minister
David Ben-Gurion in many ways the founder of the State of Israel wanted to
have it both ways too and there are many references I could refer to I’m reading
one just giving you one example from what he writes is in Israel’s
government yearbook so that’s really an official publication in the 1950s he says:
“two basic aspirations underly all of our work in this country to be like all
other nations and to be different from all the nations. These two aspirations
are apparently contradictory but in fact they are complementary and
interdependent. We want to be a free people independent and equal in rights
in a family of Nations and we aspire to be different from all other nations in
our spiritual elevation and in the character of our model society founded
on freedom cooperation and fraternity” and so on. And Ben-Gurion’s priority
between the two was pretty clear if you go through his texts, his priority was
given to the model and not to you know to be like any other nation in this
prophetic vision and he very much as a secular socialist Zionist very much like
to quote and also refer to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. He drew on this
prophetic model of a light unto the nations and so did his internal
opponents one of them, Nachum Goldman, longtime leader of the Zionist movement
and of the World Jewish Congress not a friend but a rival for many years of
Ben-Gurion who otherwise agrees did very little what Ben-Gurion said on the
occasion of Herzl centenary he wrote the following: “Do you think that what other
nations admired about Zionism was the fact that the Jews too wanted a state
with ministers, ambassadors, cabinet crises-yes they have them-and a flag as
if the world had not enough states yet. In the historical perspective, Goldman
says, what inspired the finest of the Jews with enthusiasm for Zionism was
precisely its utopian aspects. Jews, he said, have still to cling to the great
humanitarian ideals not the short-sighted provincial realism of some
groups in Israel”. And Ben-Gurion’s boast fierce opponent within Israeli politics, Menachem Begin, much later than his also successor was also convinced but in a
different way that the Jews were unique people with a unique destiny. He meant
something quite different than both Herzl and Ben-Gurion when he spoke of
uniqueness Ben-Gurion had combined prophetic teachings and secular
socialist principles in his efforts to create a model state and while biblical
writings had influenced Begin as well his heroes were not the prophets in the
Bible but the ancient fighters from Joshua to King David associated with the
Jewish return to the Land of Israel and the establishment of a Kingdom of
Israel. He was profoundly attentive to the actions of the many enemies of the
Jewish people mentioned in the Bible from the Amalekites to Haman, Begin
never ceased to believe that most of the world hated the Jews and that Israel had
to take on the fight against the dark elements of humankind. And, Begin also
gave legitimacy to the rising force of religious Zionists after his election
as prime minister this new spirit could be felt at the very night of the what was
called the “Mahapach”, the political turnover of 1977, when television viewers
were witnessed a rather unusual scene. In the Likud headquarters a group played
traditional Hasidic melodies and a bearded Jew blew the shofar, there was a
kind of messianic spirit in the air. And maybe it signaled a change over not of
course in a year or two years but over the decades which started 1967. A
change were also Orthodox Zionism was now on the rise with clear expectations
that a Jewish state could not just be again a state like any other state but
with different ideas while the early religious Zionism, Mizrachi
movement was dominated by the belief that messianism could be neutralized
meaning a Jewish state would actually serve the humanitarian needs of the
Jewish people of refugees from Europe but didn’t have a real theological
meaning and that’s by the way why early Mizrahi in the early 1900s
they voted many of them voted for the Uganda plan they thought that’s a great
solution we’ll go to East Africa we saved the Jews and we won’t come into
conflict with the messianic ideas that only God can bring the Jews back to the
Holy Land to Israel. So a lot of the religious Zionist were in favor which
sounds surprising today for the Uganda solution in the early nineteen hundreds.
An early champion of the more activist brand of messianic Zionism was rabbi,
Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of
Palestine in 1920s. In his opinion “even when they were violating Jewish
religious laws the Zionists were unintentionally performing holy deeds by
propelling the Jews back to their land”. So without knowing, they did
holy deeds as he said “the divine spirit prevails in their aspirations even
against their own wills”. Kook argued that “the future Jewish state cannot be a
state like any other state” but for him the reason was as the State of Israel, he
says, “is the foundation of God’s throne on earth directed towards the unity of
the Lord and his name”. So very different from Ben-Gurion from Herzl from Begin as
well. So as Israel turned 70 its demography looks very different than at
the time of its founding or even than 20 years ago and I would like to recall a
quite important speech Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, gave about two and a half years ago where he pointed out that for the first time in
Israel history less than 50% of the first graders
attend a secular public Israeli school. So more than 50% attend either like
state religious school, an orthodox private school, ultra-orthodox private
school though very heavily of course subsidized by the state or an Arab
school. So about 50% or more than 50 of Israeli first graders are no longer part
of what was the core of Israel’s original population, secular Jews. And keeping this in mind I think we have to
realize that Israel in fact changes its face and what seemed to be marginal and
also what seemed to be marginal in terms of claiming the uniqueness of Israel, the
unique spirit of Israel has now turned more and more to religion. And by the way
this is not only – for Israel’s Jews or for Israel in general it is also – for a
large part of American of Americans because if you look at American
Jews they usually their majority are either moderate religious or secular but
if you look at the Evangelical Protestant population, the role Israel
plays in their concept of the world and of the world to come is very different
than for most of the Jewish population. It has a much more religious meaning for
many Christian Americans than for Jewish Americans. So I’m just you know
mentioning a few of the aspects I’m trying to and I’m dealing with different
chapters in this book, so can Israel one day become just the state like any other
state, a normal state? I should qualify this question by stating that the idea
of a normal state of course in a way is a fiction all together. In a way every
state sees itself as different a special certainly the United
States do but it is true that some states receive more attention from the
rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another state in the eyes of the
world or relegated in our attention to let’s say Djibouti or Belize? My guess, no. The history of Jerusalem, of Israel is just too louden and the Jews have
attracted so much attention throughout history that cannot be dissolved within
a generation or two. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the
limelight of media attention, however, we should also think about the fact that
for everyday life for the people in Israel that is different, they like
everywhere else worry about their jobs and about their sports teams and they
want their children to be safe and successful in school and they dream of a
peaceful future and in this very deeply personal sense Israel has become a state
just like any other state. So there are different levels and I think that’s all
I want to just present in terms of some of the points I try to discuss in the
book and hopefully we’ll dive more into them in our conversation which is
following now, thank you. [Speaks Ari Dubnov] Okay, can you hear me? Okay everyone so first of all
Michael I mean, in addition to thanking you for inviting me I do need to
compliment you because as an academic professional historian myself I know how
hard it is in our time and age when we’re expected to write about no micro
history or take a specific case as the joke goes we know more and more about
less and less until we know everything about nothing
to do something of that sort of scope and breadth and ask big questions. And
this is so beautifully rendered and offers this well very broad canvas that
I think is also very accessible to the larger public which is really an
achievement, so I applaud you and in offering this and making our
scholarship accessible in so many ways. It’s interesting too that you started
both your comments and the book you started off with this famous or at least
famous comment, anecdote among the historians about Albania and the
anecdote for those of you who are not familiar. It came to us through Isaiah
Berlin that attended a party in which someone came and asked Haim Weitzman so
what is the entire project here about that’s the big deal turning Jews into
Albanians and looking you know fast forward whether it’s 70 years from 1948
or even going backward because you do take us on a trip on a voyage that
starts with the history of Zionism. Is this project of normalization still the
main driving force and even is it succeeding or failing? [Speaks Michael] Well it depends
and you know whose perspective you look. My last chapter in the
book deals with, actually almost two last chapters –the last chapter I have a conclusion– the last chapter that deals, and we could talk about this later, it
deals with the Israeli diaspora because one of the ideas of Zionism was there
should not be a Jewish Diaspora anymore. Herzl was convinced
whoever remains Jewish would move to this “seven-hour land” to the Jewish state
and the others would assimilate it and cease to be Jews over time. So not only
is there still a Jewish Diaspora but there is another diaspora which is
the Israeli diaspora. And the question I’m asking is this good
or bad for Israel? I mean, if you look at Israel as a state like any other state
it’s normal. Every country has expats, every country, and Israel doesn’t have
percentage-wise more really than most European countries or the United
States who live outside this state. So in a way it’s a sign of normalization but
then and that was just to say the last the kind of conclusion is a comparison
of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv today. And you know most of you have been probably or many
of you have been to Israel and and it’s so close to each other and with the new high-speed train even
less than half an hour from Jerusalem Tel Aviv. But it is an increasingly
different worlds and in a way I think Tel Aviv is the normalization model. Tel Aviv wants to be in many ways a little Manhattan or little Europe, Mediterranean part of Europe, and Jerusalem certainly wants to be a
very different and unique place which it is. The history also tells it is but it
also is a city which is increasingly religious and Tel Aviv I would say
increasingly secular so you have this gap. Now is this good or bad? I
mean I would say the good thing is you have both, as long as both can continue to live along each other, beside each other, that’s good. It seems
to me though there’s also, and I’m not talking about you know the big conflict —
the Israeli Arab, Israeli Palestinian conflict — I’m talking about the internal
Jewish conflict. It seems to be a lot of potential also that there is a lot of
explosive material in there, as everybody who lives there or has lived in
Israel knows. So in that respect I think we have on the one hand still drivers
for normalization and we have drivers for the unique role, and that’s why I
ended with religion, which increasingly takes a religious component which nobody
in 1948 would have predicted or thought. Ben-Gurion was convinced, that’s why he
also gave a lot of concessions to the Orthodox, that they — and mainly to the
outer Orthodox –we’re talking about that they would remain as tiny segments
so that is part of I think the uniqueness which is very defined very
differently than fifty or hundred years ago. [Speaks Ari Dubnov] And it’s a good demonstration of the
famous saying that “from all human errors prophecies the most avoidable one” so the
prophecies– especially for historians– especially for the historians– and definitely these
visions of, especially when we’re looking at it from the vantage point of 1948 and
the very labor Zionist hegemonic sort of ideals, often Israelis today when
they’re going back and revisiting these moments they either offer nostalgic
narratives of decline and sort of where did that go? where did that
disappear? Others see it as actually an opening suddenly. So my two twin
questions would be whether you subscribe to either one of those narratives, sort
of a narrative of decline missing the good old times or not? And the second
one –and that’s sort of the historian in me– that’s always a daunting task of putting
your finger and trying to say where did that start? Right so where do you, in that
big cake, we need to slice it up by dividing it into periods, so do we have a
moment in which this transformation? [Speaks Brenner] That’s two big questions. So I think I’ll leave
the history of decline to historians of the Roman Empire, they have done this a
lot you know we’re not here. But I just want to say historians
always as scholars in general are critical, we look critically– you
know we’re not we don’t want to write laudatory histories– and I didn’t do that
either. But of course there is the other side, I mean there is Israel
things which nobody could have predicted also in a positive way, in the high-tech,
just the economic standard. Although the downside of course is
the gap between rich and poor is growing but the economic level which is you know
the society which is at much higher levels per capita in many ways in many
European states is. People in, if you know, when the state was founded or even the
first decades did not predict that. So of course this is there too. So I don’t think it’s a history of decline. It’s a history of decline only if you
had a certain idealized model of the sense of community of the old issue of–
and actually Rivlin in this speech says this very nice he said “we all used to
sit around the campfire” you know maybe allegorically but and we had
this sense we were all this big family and mainly ashkenazi, I mean “we”, mainly
Ashkenazi secular Jews and now the society is so much more diverse. But I
think that is also big asset, it is one of the most interesting because so
diverse societies. So the other question was about the periodization? I mean I’m not obviously the first one to say that but I call
1967 the second founding of Israel. Again I’m not the first to say
that, things changed of course after 1967 especially since it seemed that in the
mid-1960s, certain developments came to a halt and stabilization started. The
military administration for say that, the Arab population of Israel stopped
in ’66 and so a lot of things had just become “normal” when things became very
different again. And, the book is not about wars
and the book is not about “the conflict” but of course 1967 changed Israel internally.
Whatever you want to start with, the settler movement in 1977,
the rights for the first time of the right wing to government, for the
first time you had you know a no socialist government, or social democratic whatever
you want to call it. Which in a way is also a healthy sign because you had
one-party ruling you know not only the first 20 years of Israel but the 20
years before in the Zionist movement. But overall I think the polarization has
grown and that seems to be a global phenomenon which we see of course in
this country and elsewhere too, and in Israel it is especially said you know
you feel it because it is such a small country to tell you. So ’67 of course is –but I
don’t want to limit it down to ’67 –I think there are many other developments
which are important and you can take another war or an
intifada but I think there are long term developments. And for me looking at the
society it is really what Rivlin said in that speech, it’s the slow demographic
change which may not be so slow if you look at the birth rate of the Haredi, the
ultra-orthodox population, which has an average of 6.7 children. It’s changing little bit it’s going down a little bit, but even
if it goes down more that will change Israeli society. And that also means if
you add to the Haredi population the other population that does not serve in
the army, and that’s the Arab population, you have a large segment of the Israeli
society that will not be part of that kind of united force, the army. It’s a
growing segment of the population and we all see how the Israeli society tries to
cope with that and how on the one hand some parties want to change that
and at least for the Haredi population make them go to the army and the
resistance is enormous. [Speaks Ari Dubnov] And I think that you know taking these last
comments and taking us really to the early pre-state of the years I think
that one sees it very clearly from your book but it’s a constant feature in
Zionist history, pre-history, that it’s a good demonstration of the famous saying
that you know in a room with two Jews who you already have at least four
opinions right. So you are calling the book in search of a you know an idea but
in a sense the book chronicles so many debate disputes that start way before
1948 about what is a Jewish state? What it should be? How to define? Is there something that allows you to connect these sort of early debates and
understanding post 1948 developments? [Speaks Prof. Brenner] Sure, I mean I think they let’s put it the other way around they grow out of them without them it would be hard to mention.
But they are also so different in nature just take Jabotinsky and Begin I mean
there is a huge difference but it’s also a difference of time you don’t know what
Jabotinsky would have said in you know 1950s or 60s that he lived but he died
in 1940. But his last book which is a very interesting book about the Jews in
the war and he has kind of a you know kind of a bottle or draft constitution
of the future Jewish state which by the way nobody knew it would be called
Israel yet in 1940 even. It’s interesting because in 1940 Jabotinsky
says if there is a Jewish Prime Minister there should be an Arab Vice Prime
Minister and if there even more even if there he says if there is an
Arab Prime Minister there should be a Jewish vice prime minister so he imagines that
could also be their prime minister. Now, okay, he writes it at a time when
Arabs were still the clear majority in in this country he also has in mind a
different you know the borders the borders were never clear. For Jabotinsky
the borders were both sides of the Jordan so he thinks of more of an idea of a
confederation. It’s a state, ironically, and that’s the point I make
and I’m sure some colleagues won’t like it but I think in that respect
Jabotinsky and the right-wing nationalists are very close to the
left-wing, left of the Mapai. The ones who basically opted for a bi-national
state. Because if you look at Jabotinsky´s last book
it’s a bi-national state, right. So this of course is very different and I think
if you know if I don’t know if you know Bibi ever read read the book but or let’s
say he did his father was a historian. What do you make out of it? Do you
just push it aside,? Do you say it’s a different time? Jabotinsky actually in
all the figures that I know you deal with Jabotinsky too. He is in many ways the
most fascinating because he is both a liberal and a nationalist and maybe some
of our colleagues making too much of a liberal today. But he is a
fascinating figure I mean he translated Allen Poe, his
Italian was supposedly so perfect that he always bragged and he could speak
it’a different Italian dialect so well that people in different regions of
Italy thought he was from there and he you know became the fighter for Greater
Israel. My reading of Jabotinsky follows this but he’s slightly more
damaging you know he called himself “Altalena”
which is a swing. And he changes his opinion right according to his name and
of where the famous ship was named after him but I liked your comment
because it helps me at least to clarify something that I find it paradoxical
when sometimes students or friends are coming and asking me often about items
and the news when Reuven Rivlin is again criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu and
look at Rivlin and they mistakenly see him sort of as a representative of a
merits kind of an ideal because he’s opposing Netanyahu’s vision and you know
his coming from the old school, the old guard beta, the last movement and he´s in a
sense an echo of that old attempt of some would argue have it both ways both
be a national and a liberal at the same time but of course in very different
circumstances in a post-1967. I mean with Israel that is occupying significant
territories and other people so it changes the dynamic, the circumstances
change the dynamic radically. To what extent I mean you think that these even
contemporary politics in Israel or even needs this historical perspective or is
it simply completely divorced from both history and ideology simply
response to the the most recent you know reacting to the net and the most recent
stimulus or crisis? Or do we have some sort of understanding of Israeli
politics and culture in society today by understanding there is some sort of
longer outlook ideological; or perspective. [Speaks Prof. Brenner] I don’t you know I’ve
sometimes maybe shouldn’t be surprised but it’s astonishing how
politicians don’t usually read history. Some do and they don’t read earlier
visions. So Shimon Peres, for example, who you would, maybe, you know-who by the
way inaugurated the center twenty years ago-; so Shimon Peres maybe is the one
person who you would think oh he probably you know it’s right. So in 1990s he writes a
book interesting book, he writes it with someone, of course, but he writes a book
“My journey with Theodore Herzl through Israel” and in the beginning he says “well,
I’ve never read Herzl” and he was in his 70s and he said “wow, he said, I now read
old Nuland and it opened my eyes so once you know it’s interesting and then he
goes through Israel with the eyes of Herzl wrote old Neuland
and the book is interesting but what I found really interesting is that he says
“I didn’t know Hertzl”, you know we all talk about Herzl but I didn’t know Herzl and the same may be true for you know Likud politicians, Jabotinsky, so honestly I think only in marginal, as historians we see
this all based on you know on their predecessors and on their ideal, but what
people know about them is phrases is often catch words which are totally
distorted and Herzl is the best example I mean I think Herzl is fascinating to read. He was crazy in many ways. I mean in 1896 to write a book like “Der Judeenstaat” “the Jews state”, “the Jewish state”, he was considered totally
crazy by most of his contemporaries and he was a very respected journalist and
editor of the most respected German language newspaper at the time, the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna, and even in his own newspaper where he was
so respected his editor-in-chief who were both
assimilated Jews refused to even print one line about a Zionist Congress or
Herzl´s Zionist activism even when he died in 1904 in his
newspaper in the Viennese newspaper there was a whole page of victory and it
went on about his literary criticism and his plays and then there was a last
line and he also founded the Zionist movement. So that’s by the way, I mean I know
this is a little not relating to the question but I kind of always liked to
tell a story in Washington because there is a sad connection with the Herzl
family in Washington some of you might know or have heard. So Herzl´s family story
was very sad. He had three children and one daughter was killed by the Nazis, she
spent actually most of her life in mental hospitals before that. He had
another daughter who was a morphine addict and at some point basically
killed herself with morphine 1930 in Bordeaux and he had one son Hans.
Hans had converted to different religions, Anglican Church, whatever a few times but he was very close to his daughter in 1930 he rushed
to see her when he heard she was very sick and he came too late she had just
died and he killed himself in the same hotel room where she had stayed in
Bordeaux. And there was one grandson of the daughter who was killed by the Nazis
he was named after his grandfather, Theodore Newman, and he was a
soldier in this office in the Second World War and he came through Palestine
in 1945-46 and he was celebrated the last Herzl
descendant alive and the year later it came to Washington and he jumped off the
Massachusetts Avenue Bridge and is buried here in DC. So in a way the herzl
story and the Herzl family started-ended in Washington, DC. And, in the last mark
and again that relates also to to how the stories are told in Israel as
anywhere in the Jewish world people didn’t like to talk about the Herzl
children it wasn’t such a you know nice story to tell and also that the son
converted because in his last will Hertz actually had expressed his wish that
once a Jewish state is established he and his parents and his children-by the
way not his wife they had not a great relationship-but he said he and his
parents and his children should be reburied in the Holy Land and then he
and his parents there was a big ceremony right after the state was established
and Mount Herzl was dedicated and the sons, I mean that the two children whose
grave exists the daughter killed by the Nazis we don’t have a grave. But the
other two there was no talk about them and they were not brought to Israel
until a few years ago when one historian like digged up this history but that’s
also dealing with history right, how the images of the leaders transmitted.
[Speaks Ari Dubnov] And how ideas are practice I mean it’s always so in a sense maybe the best
testimony for Hertzl. I like the fact that you focus more on his “utopian”
novel than on his political writings because sometimes you understand more
from these semi-fictional ideas about the future and also the translation as
you know all gave us the name Tel Aviv. When someone was looking for a new
word in Hebrew that will connect all the new hence we have Tel Aviv. [Speaks Prof. Brenner] The only city named after a novel. [Speaks Ari Dubnov] Right they still live in. We’ll open up
the floor for a question from the audience. [Speaks Prof. Brenner] Should we have mics or how do we communicate? Okay but I if you talk loud until the mic comes in. [Question] But the question is now about the internal
situation and one thing that you said is interesting to me because a cousin of
mine who lives in Kfar Yehoshua in Israel said, “our schools here are turning
into religious institutions” and he said “the 1st graders as you said 51% of them are in Orthodox schools and not in the secular ones” so how do you see that?Thank you. [Prof. Brenner speaks] Well the first question, you know, I
think of that too but I can’t answer it. I mean if Herzl lived today he wouldn’t
be Herzl. If Herzl live today I can just
guess just as you can. I think he would, you know, he probably would have if
he was Herzl he would have problems to just get along because he didn’t know
Hebrew and he was convinced that the languages in this state should be the
civilized languages of you know Europe: German, French, English
and Italian and he thought that this state would be a kind of small, “the best
of Europe.” That’s clearly what he wanted the very
best of you he says with English boarding schools and French opera houses and, of
course, Viennese coffee shops and some of that, you know, you do have in Israel. I
think better ones than here – coffee shops. Maybe not opera houses and so he
would be happy about many things. I think he was also
-today we would say naive but it’s not easy to say today- he thought there
wouldn’t be a conflict between Arabs and Jews
and he idealized that very much it’s not the ignored many people think right he
didn’t see there were, he did see there was an area but he believed that
with all that civilization that would come from Europe everybody should be
grateful they would embrace it and they would welcome the new immigrants and
in fact in “Old New Land” the one said he speaks about this new society
and the one segment which lives there and which is not welcome are what he
calls the fanatics and these are the Jewish fanatics and his novel which are the ones who don’t want to live together with others that’s very
interesting they’re not part, they can live there, but they’re not part
of this his new society so that may answer us a little bit the second
question. [Question from Erran Carmel] So Michael, congratulations, I want to ask a question of a topic that I
don’t think that you either of you have mentioned at this evening and I’m
gonna honor my father who passed away a few years ago. He was from what Israelis
called the [Dor 1948 – 1948 Generation]. He thought he was a young man in 1948 and so in his later
years he and I used to talk a lot about those very significant years.
And, one thing I said to him at some point is “wasn’t it a miracle that in
1948 suddenly there was a nation” and so
he grew up during that time and what was then Palestine that became
Israel and he said now “you know it wasn’t that much of a miracle to me”, I’m
paraphrasing him I don’t remember his exact words, but he said “it wasn’t that
much of a miracle for me because of [Ha medina she ba derech] and what he
explained was that the institutions were so strong at that point that for him as
a young man it was so obvious that there would be a nation in 1948 that
wasn’t a miracle. [Speaks Prof. Brenner] Oh that’s a great question, actually I do have quite a lot
in the book about this- [ha medina ba derech] –
the institutions that were there: you know, everything, the Hebrew
University was founded in 1925, the cultural institutions, the Army in a way
in its para-military stage was there and the Knesset in its pre-
Parliament stage. There were elections, so they were all there, that’s right, the one
qualification I made is that it wasn’t necessarily clear-and I don’t
know if Ari wants to add to that-that it would become what we now think is the
only outcome an independent state. There were all these and that includes
Jabotinsky and the others. Until, I would say even the early 40s, there were other
models which would be some kind of sovereignty. It could be a kind of
autonomy under the British rule, it could be a Dominion that was a model very much
discussed and Ari dealt with that too or other models which didn’t
necessarily have to be independent state. After the Second World War and
after all so that they say doubtful of colonialism, that changed, and of course,
after the Holocaust, that changed too. So that is the only thing I think sometimes
I would qualify, but all the institutions for either an independent state or a
semi-independent state are established long before that’s absolutely true. I think the Holocaust and we, you know, we take it for granted, but I think the
Holocaust did change a lot, it changed a lot. On the one hand that of course it
showed the world and many Jews, by the way, who American Jews took sometimes
longer than that, that there should be a Jewish state, that Jews should have their own
state. But should also to a non-jewish world and even after the Holocaust when
Britain didn’t open the doors to Holocaust survivors that kind of gave
the rest. But it also of course went in the way the other direction sometimes.
If you think there’s six million people who many of them would have been, could have
been potential citizens, and Ben-Gurion said at the time it used to be that
people could not imagine that there would be a state “for the people”
and now he said “then people can’t imagine there’s suddenly maybe no people
anymore, but we have the state”. So in that way, yes, but yeah, it’s very
important to have this [Medina Ba Derech] absolutely. [Question] So you spoke a little
bit about the Arab minority and about kind of the surrounding region, so I’m
kind of curious this is kind of a two-sided question: the first is to
ask more about the modern double standards in the sense of why is there
such a sort of insistence that Israel must be a hundred percent
right in everything she does and yet you know. You spoke a lot about the media
as well can ignore you know the treatment in the past of Jews from
other Arab countries and then the flipside of that coin is with something
like twenty percent Arab minority, what could happen, if for example, they
were included in the draft? Is that a good thing for the state to
modernize and to become just like other states-in that it includes all of its
citizens equally-or does that kind of limit how Jewish of a state
it can be? [Prof. Brenner] The last question, I mean yes, in an ideal time that would
be of course the goal. I think we’re not in any close to that and I think we are
at a point where both Jews and Arabs in Israel for different reasons agree that, you know, there are Arabs who serve in the army but there are a few, but that
they mostly would not serve because that would come from create a big conflict
for them and for Israel so both sides have their own reasons. But what you said
before is more complicated, yes, I mean it’s interesting because when
you in a way create this idea that Israel should be a model State, should be
better then you have to be measured according to that? And, what happens if
the conditions of the state don’t allow you to live according to the ideals you
want to live, right? I’m not saying that you know, yes, there is occupation and, yes,
there is also not Arabs have equal rights in Israel, but in
the way, they also don’t, we all know that. There are the differences right. But
there are also reasons for it so it’s not that it’s meanness or its
mean-spiritedness, so you have I think these ideals, but you don’t have the
conditions to implement them. Now I don’t want to, you know, this shouldn’t sound
apologetic either but in many ways I think if Israel would be, you know, if
Moses had led the Jews to Switzerland and Israel would be there it might have
might be a little bit easier. [Question] Thank you very much for your book.
I wanted to ask you another aspect of demography. You alluded to the
fertility of certain segments of the population, but as a sociologist I’m
interested also in the ethnicity. I mean you really speak of the origins of
Zionism and as a European Ashkenazim tradition and yet the inflow of the Sephardic population and especially in
the early days of bringing in the immigrants who had a higher level of fertility too than the traditional ashkenazim, not the ultra-orthodox. How has this
division of the Sephardic influx of the population influenced our views of
the state, of this Zionist idea? [Prof. Brenner] It’s a very important question because the Zionist idea really
originated in Europe and among I mean there were always some others but it was
clearly first of all an Ashkenazi Western or Eastern European, also of course,
tradition. I would say among all of the divisions and maybe Ari wants to
say something about that too I don’t know if you see it the same way and you
don’t have to. Of all the divisions in Israel´s society this seems
to me the one that is fading away more than the others. So you have a real
political divide, like in this country, you have a real divide between secular
and Orthodox-and that’s not fading away- but the Ashkenazi whatever you call it
Mizrahi Sephardic, whatever, divide. There’s so many people in Israel today,
young people, who can’t say I am this or that but one
of my grandparents from Egypt, another one is from Hungary, one is from Poland, or from Syria. So this I think, not saying it’s disappeared, and it has new
challenges with the Ethiopian Jews and I deal with that in my last chapter
to with a different kind of immigration, which also includes non-Jews,
both from the Soviet Union but also, I mean we see now and what is happening to
the African refugees that’s of course a very hot topic, but also others not
necessarily non-Jews but you have this whole phenomenon which I think is
fascinating of people who discover let’s say they’re supposed Jewish roots as
part of the Lost Tribes in Burma or India or Uganda or Nigeria or South
America. And some researchers, say there are more people in the world who think
they descend from the Lost Tribes than actual Jews and that these
could be potential citizens of Israel, theoretically. So I think we shouldn’t
totally dismiss it as something crazy and some of them have made it to Israel, not
that many. So you have new components, and especially the Soviet immigration
brought in a whole, I mean yes most of them are Ashkenazi of course but they
are also different than the other Ashkenazi. So you have more than just the
old Mizrahim-Ashkenazi divide. [Question] You mentioned in passing the negation
of the diaspora as a theme among some of the thinkers. Certainly in
the early years of the state there seemed to be a deliberate attempt
to ignore or diminish the significance of the culture, the history, certainly of
the people who came from the Middle Eastern countries. Could
you describe how the thinking related to the diaspora history and the
contemporary relations with the Diaspora has evolved? [Prof. Brenner] Yeah, no that’s
absolutely important in fact the idea of you know the negation of the Diaspora
“shilata gola” was a very central idea of most early Zionists and
including Herzl, as I said he did not think there would be a long term,
there would be a Jewish desperate a long-side with the Jewish state and in the
early decades of Israel I think at least the official idea was very often
well over time they’ll come or, you know, they will cease to be Jewish. And that
has clearly changed. But it has also changed because honestly there’s only
one big diaspora left, Europe is very small and I’m saying and I grew up in
Europe but the Jewish communities are very small. It’s really
the American diaspora and unless something very unexpected happens the
American Jews in their vast majority will not settle in Israel. So I think, there’s you know, so many factors which go into that, one is that Israel itself
became a state that is no longer dependent on the goodwill of a diaspora.
Israel became a state that can stand by itself that can, you know, carry itself. And also that the diaspora can also help us. I mean politically, you know, look at the United
States it’s also good to have a diaspora and that is something, you know, I mean how
does Israel deal with the Israeli diaspora? I talk to about it, that’s
another chapter and that’s more complicated and it also depends where. Now
one of the hot places for young Israelis to go and live is, Berlin. So
what about this? Israelis going to Germany of all places and there’s a lot
of discussion in Israel. So the conference we were planning in the fall
is actually on the Israeli diaspora or diasporas and we hope to have more
answers to your question. But that’s on the Israeli diaspora but it’s of course
so much and also in recent years historians have shown that every aliya-I
mean starting, you know from the first aliyot, every immigration wave has also
produced people and sometimes more people have returned than stayed in these
immigration waves. So it is a constant back and forth in many ways
over time. [Question] Thank you very much. Tying together some
many of the strands of the discussion so far. I wonder if you could comment on the
publication of your book two years ago in Germany, how has the idea of Zionism
or Israel evolved in Germany? [Prof. Brenner] Yeah so the book was a slightly different
book, but the first version came out in Germany two years ago. Wow, you know, it’s interesting because I actually decided to rewrite
the book and not just to publish the same book because it’s a different
audience and there is a different, let´s say Europe has a different perception
of Israel and then Germany within Europe has a different one. But I think that in
general, there’s a lot of interest in openness as well as hostility and criticism. So for example in Munich, where I still teach every summer, we open
the Center for Israel Studies three years ago and the interest is enormous and in
a way there is also a closeness because it’s only a three hour flight so there’s a lot of back and forth, especially among young people. It’s much
harder from here. In terms of the book, that was your question, I think you know it’s different because there’s not
that much literature published it’s a different way of discussion room. You
don’t have this also internally Jewish debates as you have them here. It’s a
very small Jewish community. So it depends what you look at in terms
of German politics of course. Germany has been, because of its own past,
kind of forced within Europe, within the European Union to have a more positive
influence within European policies towards Israel. But also depending on the
government. Certainly Merkel has been a very positive force. [Question] Just following up on
Europe: France has a sizable French population and there’s a constant debate
about whether the French Jews should go to Israel, that Netanyahu invites them, on the other hand we read that they’re trying to make it in
France. What’s your sense about the situation in France? And do you see a big movement of French Jews to Israel? [Prof. Brenner] There
were French Jews who moved to Israel, I mean the community has clearly
diminished in size but it’s still a relatively small segment of the French
Jewish community that when, and many of them remain also some kind of presence
or home in France, many of them by the way are the Jews who left Algeria half a
century ago and did not go to Israel because Algerian Jews had the choice
they were French citizens and over 90% of them went to France. So in a way you
could say they they could have got 50 years ago ,but they went to France. But
I’m certainly, I mean Lisa, are you much more an expert on that than I am. I’m not
an expert on the French you know in France or the French Jewish community but
what I hear, it’s conflicting depends, I have friends who say you know we’re
never leaving, this is our home and it’s like you American Jews, are you
afraid if there is increasing anti-semitism? Would you leave America?
What does it mean? But of course we all know from history, you know, when do you
see that it becomes intolerable and many German Jews did not see that either. So
it’s hard to see when you live in during these times. Clearly the
situation in France is not a very comfortable one for many Jews
and also for many non-Jews.

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