Universities should not just condemn 'Zionist bashing', but also educate

David Tollerton takes issue with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis' message to university leaders

May 10, 2016
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In an interview with The Sunday Times this weekend, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis attacked the “vilification of a people” and “Zionist bashing” taking place on university campuses.

Speaking to vice-chancellors directly, he cautioned them to “see what is happening under your noses, what is happening to the reputation of your universities”. The interview swiftly follows an article last week in The Daily Telegraph, in which Mirvis addressed the political furore concerning Labour and anti-Semitism, particularly critical of those who sought to separate Zionism and Judaism.

Pointing to the “innumerable references to the land of Israel” in religious tradition he concludes of Zionism that: “One can no more separate it from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.” This close alignment of Judaism, Jewish identity and Zionism feeds into his Sunday Times interview comment that, also on campuses, “in too many aspects this new wave of anti-Zionism is a form of Jew hatred”.

For those of us working in universities, the Chief Rabbi’s comments present a stark challenge. Certainly my own institution has not been immune from controversy regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and there are few issues where discord is so readily elicited. I have some sympathy for the vice-chancellors Mirvis addresses, faced as they are with a complex Venn diagram of opaquely overlapping circles containing anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism, extreme speech and legitimately robust debate, but the challenge is one that cannot be sidestepped. 

But in lectures on Judaism and Zionism for first year undergraduates, my own (albeit small-scale) attempts to address this context draw me into disagreement with the Chief Rabbi. I propose that one way of confronting extreme speech concerning Zionism is to not merely condemn, but to also educate.

Most students will have heard of Zionism, but the majority will arrive at university with little to no knowledge of its history. But Mirvis’ assertion that Zionism “has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years” smooths over a more complex situation.


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A quick visit to the Office of the Chief Rabbi website highlights this. Under “History of the Chief Rabbinate”, we find reference to one of Mirvis’ predecessors, Hermann Adler, in 1897 describing the Zionist movement as “an egregious blunder”. What’s going on? The simple point is that the relationships between Judaism and Zionist movements have not been static.

In the Reform tradition, a particularly straightforward demonstration of this comes from comparing official statements about Zionism in the late 19th century and the late 20th century. The move from disassociation to enthusiasm is striking.

The Zionist movement that led to the creation of a modern Jewish state developed most forcefully from the failure of Enlightenment ideals. Theodor Herzl’s seminal work, The Jewish State, was itself written in the aftermath of scandal concerning French anti-Semitism in the 1890s. Jewish responses to the movement among the devout were, however, decidedly mixed. Some religious Jews were enthusiastic supporters, some held that a return to the land should be left to divine intervention, and others that Europe’s upward curve towards rational toleration rendered the project unnecessary, even unhelpful.

It is the 20th century’s catastrophic failures of tolerance that changed this situation dramatically. 

Why does this matter? Given the recent data suggesting close alignment between Jewish identity and Israel among contemporary British Jews (something paralleled in American contexts) this may all seem like a historical detail, relevant in the lecture hall but not outside. But I suggest that this past is vitally important.

Statements of condemnation must have their place, but for students who encounter Zionism only through highly charged social media posts a little bit of intellectual complication might also go a long way. Zionism in the modern period developed gradually, and on occasions with religious opposition. This may now seem like a peculiarity of history, but if it is conveyed as an ahistorical revelatory doctrine that one either reveres or blasphemes, polarity and caricature seem a likely outcome. 

And a further value of highlighting rather than obscuring such uneven history is that this can itself demand a valuable self-questioning for university students.

The institutions Mirvis addresses are themselves outcomes of Enlightenment ideals, the frailties of which are intimately intertwined with Zionism in the modern era. But to even begin to consider the relationship of Zionist history to such questions, it is a past that needs unpicking.

Vice-chancellors have not only the power of condemnation at their disposal, they might be additionally prompted to think of education. 

David Tollerton is a lecturer in Jewish studies and contemporary biblical cultures at the University of Exeter.


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