Event Overview by Ksenia Novikova
Last Thursday, Professor Michael Brenner, Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and the Director of the American University Center for Israel Studies, spoke about his new book: In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Israel Studies, Department of History and the Jewish Studies program. Dr. Brenner is in his fifth year of teaching Israel Studies at American University and is also Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich. He is the author of numerous critically acclaimed books, including A Short History of the Jews, and Zionism: A Brief History and is a recognized authority on Zionism. After introducing the idea behind the book, Professor Brenner sat in conversation with Arie Dubnov, the Max Ticktin Chair of Israel Studies at George Washington University, to discuss the “idea” of Israel versus the reality.
Brenner discussed the long and emotional nineteenth and twentieth-century history of Zionism. Once Jews were universally regarded as a nation with their own state, they would cease to be the victim of the anti-semitic attacks that had characterized Jewish history for two millennia. Chaim Weizmann, then the leader of the World Zionist Organization, was described as wanting a Jewish state like any other state– even Albania! Brenner touched on Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, to Israel through a contemporary lens. He relayed that David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, called for the establishment of a state that would fulfill the biblical vision of the Jews as a “light unto the nations,” a demand reiterated by leaders throughout Israel’s history. Brenner traced the tensions between particularistic and universal elements in the idea of a Jewish state. There was always an imagined “idea of Israel,” in the minds of its own leaders, and in the imagination of the world. The book is the story of the real and the imagined Israel, of Israel as a state and as an idea.
Brenner discusses how Israel has consistently been a paradox; “a model state for all states” created after generations of suffering. Currently, it is a modern state filled with innovation and a prospering economy, but it is hated by many. Israel has a small population of 8 million people of all faiths, yet it is internationally known and religiously significant to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The two main cities of Israel represent this duality of ideas of Israel. Tel Aviv is a secular cosmopolitan city where people go to visit restaurants, shop at malls and conduct business. All the while Jerusalem, “the holy city,” progressively becomes more and more religious.
Globally, Israel consistently attracts international attention, yet last year it ranked only 148th out of the 196 independent states in terms of geographical area, approximately the same size as Belize or Djibouti. Israel has been the subject of more U.N. resolutions than any other country. In Europe, Israel is considered to be one of the greatest threats to world peace. One thing seems to be clear: Israel is certainly controversial.
In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea, Brenner talks about this paradox, Israel’s unique past, and its fascinating future. The idea of Israel continues to focus the world’s attention beyond its size. Says Shlomo Ben-Ami, former foreign minister of Israel, “This absorbing book sheds much-needed scholarly light on the heated debate between those for whom Israel is an inspiring dream come true and her growing army of detractors.”
Ksenia Novikova is a student from Brooklyn, NY majoring in Political Science. She is an intern at the Center for Israel Studies, a member of the SPA Leadership Program, and Co-President of the Democracy Matters club at AU. She is interested in economic inequality, education, and campaign finance reform.
Photos provided by the Center for Israel Studies and Lizzy Demaree.