From Communist Romania to the Kabbalah of Jerusalem

Anyone who has engaged in the academic study of Jewish mysticism knows that there are two dominant scholarly approaches to the subject: that of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) and that of his erstwhile student Moshe Idel, now professor emeritus at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. In the following passage, extracted from an interview by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Idel describes his journey from the Romanian hamlet where he spent his childhood to the university where he would spend his career:

I was born into a traditional Jewish family in 1947 and I grew up in a small shtetl in northern Romania, Targu Neamt, where Jews survived the war. Like other boys in traditional Jewish families, I started my schooling at the age of three in the traditional ḥeder. Romania was now under the Communist government and one could not remain in a Jewish school for long. I had to enroll in a secular grammar school when I was about six.

This meant a very sharp move from a Yiddish-speaking environment of Jews only to a Romanian-speaking secular school with non-Jews, who were totally different people from the Jews I knew as a young child. The shift entailed broadening my linguistic and cultural horizons and exposing me to Communist ideology and propaganda.

Idel goes on to describe how as a doctoral student, he began to develop his signature approach to the history of Jewish mysticism:

[W]hen I started to read the kabbalistic texts extant exclusively in manuscripts, I had at my disposal theories about religion that did not help me at all to understand the texts. While it is true that we never enter the interpretation of texts without some preconceived notions about the text, when you truly attempt to fathom the text, you are lost and you are alone.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Gershom Scholem, Hebrew University, Jewish studies, Kabbalah, Romania


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy