Watch Andrew Koss and David N. Myers Discuss Whether Jewish Studies Has Turned against the Jews

Mosaic editor and a Jewish studies professor discuss if and how Jewish studies has lost its way, and whether it can recover.

Via Getty Images. 

Via Getty Images. 

Andrew Koss, David N. Myers and Jonathan Silver
June 6 2024
About the authors

Andrew N. Koss, a senior editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic, the host of the Tikvah Podcast, the Warren R. Stern Senior Fellow of Jewish Civilization, and the Chief Programming officer of Tikvah.

As university campuses witnessed an eruption of anti-Semitism this year, scholars of Jewish studies were for the most part strangely silent. In his May 2024 feature essay, Mosaic senior editor Andrew Koss explains why. Looking closely at how Jewish studies has been influenced by broader trends in the academy, he shows how the field lost its way.

To discuss his argument, Koss was joined by Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver as well as UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers on Thursday, May 30. A video and transcript of their discussion is available here.





Jonathan Silver:

Welcome to this afternoon’s conversation about the academic field of Jewish studies and its relationship to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

Needless to say, these last many months have not been tranquil on American campuses and the Jews find themselves at the center of the storm. We, the Jews, a tiny people, a tiny diaspora, after thousands of years of exile find ourselves now with a tiny state on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, revitalized in the land of our ancestors. But as has always been the case in the long drama of Jewish existence, great things seem to happen to us and around us, and since the Hamas attacks in October and since Israel’s response to them, the Jews have been at the focal point of great political and social movements in America, in the American-led order and of course in the Middle East.

We’re joined today by my colleague and friend, Dr. Andrew Koss, who’s the author of our feature essay this month at Mosaic, Jewish Studies against the Jews. As Andrew points out, given this moment in Jewish history, the Jewish history of America, the history of Zionism, you might think that Jewish studies professors would have a lot to say and that they would have a lot to say, moreover, in defense of the Jewish people. But over the last months, that has not always been the case. Instead, we’ve observed the conspicuous silence of a great many Jewish studies professors, and we’ve also seen something more. We’ve seen them attacking the underlying foundations and the moral foundations of Israel, joining the jackals and lending the authority of Jewish studies to the adversaries of the Jewish people. Now over the next few minutes, Andrew and I will have a conversation about his essay and you’ll get to hear his arguments and his evidence in his own voice, then we’ll be joined by an external examiner, by one of those eminent professors whom Andrew names and one of the senior deans of Jewish studies in America, the UCLA historian David Myers.

Now, I want to both welcome David to this conversation and thank him for joining us at Mosaic and also to say a word about the fact that we are hosting him. Professor Myers is very active and vocal in his beliefs about any number of Israeli policies and issues in American public life that are not where we are at Mosaic. And in fact, my and Andrew’s overall orientation to Zionism in Israel and David’s orientation to those things are very different indeed. In America today, progressives have gotten very good at talking to other progressives about conservatives. And conservatives have gotten very good at talking to other conservatives about progressives. But progressives and conservatives don’t talk that much to one another anymore. And if we’re going to be a country, we’ve got to learn to talk to each other and to try to relearn the arts of persuasion.

And I think the same is true within the Jewish community. It’s not that Mosaic is progressive and conservative, or that David is. I don’t want to impose those labels on any of us. But we do have very different orientations toward the same things. And it’s in that spirit that we invited David to join us and it’s despite and even because of our deeper differences that I’m really glad he’s here.

Andrew, what is this essay all about? Why’d you write it?

Andrew Koss:

I wrote this essay largely out of a kind of personal reaction that then developed into a clearer set of ideas as I started thinking about it. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a step back and say something about my own biographical path to this essay, because I think that will clarify things. In the early part of the 2000s I was out of college and I started to get excited and interested in Jewish history. I realized that my passion for Jewish things and my passion for history didn’t have to be two separate spheres, but they could come together. And I became aware of all the really interesting scholarship going on in the academy that really opened up a whole new kind of understanding about the Jewish past and about the history of Judaism and the history of the Jews.

So I went to graduate school to study this stuff. I had a really great experience of graduate school overall—not that I didn’t have the usual ups and downs of the struggle to complete a dissertation. But I had great teachers, great colleagues, and really a very positive experience.

And that is why I was disappointed that, in the months since October 7, when there has been a crisis on campus for Jews, I haven’t seen more professors of Jewish studies coming forward—not to make overtly political statements, and I’m not upset that not everyone agrees with my political views—to say, “We’re worried about our Jewish students on campus. We’re upset that there seems to be some real anti-Semitism going on at the anti-Israel demonstrations. We’re concerned that they’re creating a hostile environment for Jewish students.” I haven’t seen any of that. And in fact, when Jewish-studies professors have been called upon, they’ve often equivocated or worse.

And that really got me thinking and pushed me to want to write this essay. And then I started looking at the ways Jewish-studies professors had made public statements and signed open letters that got a lot of support from people throughout the field. And I started looking at some trends in the scholarship, including trends I had already noticed. As I was researching this, I started putting all these things together and I saw what looks like a pattern where professors of Jewish history and other fields of Jewish studies have this enormous knowledge of their subject matter and then—even if they are doing great scholarly work—will take that work to say, “And this is why I condemn the Jews.” Or they’ll write a very long erudite book and then end it by saying, “I’m upset that Jews aren’t doing the things that I would like them to do.”

And then I saw an even worse trend where some of the worst elements of extreme anti-Zionism dressed up in the language and clothing of anti-colonialism, and all these weird trends in academia that are just considered very cool, have come into Jewish studies in a way that amounts to what I consider the most egregious kind of anti-Zionism. That is, it’s not anything like a thoughtful critique, but just saying, “Zionism is this evil movement of colonialism.” And this kind of language—and maybe this result is overdetermined—is being borrowed by people writing and teaching in Jewish studies. And that got me to think that something is really deeply wrong with the field.

And before I give the floor back to you, I just want to clarify: I didn’t intend this essay as a blanket condemnation. I don’t think everything has gone terribly wrong. I think there are signs that things are going terribly wrong. I think there’s a lot to be salvaged in Jewish studies, but I think if the bad trends are allowed to continue and not stopped, they will take over and they will drive out all the good stuff, and we’ll get all the chaff and none of the wheat. That’s what I’m afraid of.

Jonathan Silver:

So are you saying that just because a person is a historian of some epoch of Jewish history or some particular subfield of Jewish history that therefore they should not bring their thoughts about public affairs into the public debate and that they shouldn’t try to be a public intellectual? Is your argument just, “Jewish historians, just stay in your lane”?

Andrew Koss:

No, and that’s really an important subject, because it’s something that I’ve changed my thinking about over the many years. I used to think that way. I think if you had asked me ten years ago, I would have just said that professors should stay out of it. But I’ve changed my opinion, first of all, because that’s not what professors want. I think some do and I respect those who take that path. Secondly, I think looking and thinking about this topic in the context of the history of Jewish history—and one of the reasons I wanted David Myers so much to join us is that that’s really a field he knows more about than just about anyone, and he’s written a lot about—that people who have been practicing Jewish studies in the university since it first began have always been tended to be engagé intellectuals.

And I think it’s just naive to think that we’re going to produce scholarship and not want to apply that scholarship to the real world. I think the problem is the way it’s being done and the way it’s always being done in the same way. It’s not like if you got together ten Jewish-studies professors chosen at random, you would have three saying, “I think Bibi Netanyahu is not being strong enough in his pursuit of the war. I wish he would listen to Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir more.” And then you would have three saying, “I’m a radical anti-Zionist. I think we should dismantle the state of Israel.” And then you would have the other four in the middle. Instead, you get a spectrum where you have the people who are liberal Zionists who don’t want to express their support for Israel too loudly on one side, and anti-Zionists on the other. And then in between maybe a couple liberal Zionists who are very loud critics of Israel.

And that seems to me a sign of something going wrong. And especially concerning to me is the silence of people who have feelings and ideas they don’t want to express and are afraid to express. And if I can just go on for one more second, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in Jewish studies since I wrote this—and I’ve been out of the academy for almost ten years, even though I still have tried to stay somewhat involved—who have basically said to me, “I’m really afraid to speak up.” Or, “I tried to speak up and I got shot down and I got persecuted for my beliefs.” And that’s upsetting.

Jonathan Silver:

To mix metaphors here, there’s a kind of ratcheting of the Overton window in one direction, so that once a consensus body of opinion turns in this direction, then it stays there and it can’t really move back or it doesn’t seem to move back. There seems to be a drift in one direction. But there’s a methodological question if you’ll permit me that I want to ask, which has to do with the fact that you’re a historian by training, and David is also a historian by training, and this is a conversation about Jewish studies that is very history-focused. And of course Jewish studies has Jewish history as one of its central features, but history itself doesn’t exhaust the field. There’s the study of Jewish theology and the study of Jewish literature and the study of Jewish languages and the study of Jewish politics. And I wonder if the things that you have seen are applied to those other subfields as well, or this is something specific about historians.

Andrew Koss:

Yes, I have seen it happening in other fields as well. I focused on history, in part because I think it’s the most interesting and important field—I’ll be totally honest about my terrible biases—but also because it’s what I know the best, and I think it’s always a good idea to stick to what you know the best. Also, I think if you’re a historian, you like to look for the lessons of history. It’s an instinct that we historians have and it’s hard not to follow it. But people in theology talk about the lessons of Jewish theology and things like that. And there has even been a move, which I know less about it, in the study of the Hebrew Bible to kind of de-Judaize that field, which I think ties together with the things I’m talking about. For instance, there is a move to talk about “ancient Judaeans” instead of “ancient Jews,” which sometimes is a worthy distinction, but sometimes ends up disconnecting modern Jews from the people of the Bible with all kinds of possible negative effects. And I think that’s just one example of how there are parallel trends.

Jonathan Silver:

In the essay you say, in effect, “Look, it’s not as if the professors I’m speaking about don’t or can’t or won’t condemn October 7. They do, but they don’t condemn the attacks of October 7 as attacks against Jews.” And that seems to dovetail with this observation that in other subfields, even the study of the Hebrew Bible, there is a universalizing impulse that is at work here. And I wonder, how you see it, if it’s connected, and moreover where you see the evidence for it.

Andrew Koss:

I think there’s this weird dynamic where right now in the academy particularism is what’s in. There are all kinds of ethnic studies that have flourished, and we talk about African American studies and Asian American studies and Asian studies, but those have now been around for a while. And it’s not just those, there’s new interest in small countries. Now you can find books being written about Albania instead of just about the Balkans. And there are interest in small peoples who live in borderlands between, I don’t know, Slovakia and the Ukraine, and have their own unique histories that got overlooked by everybody and now people are writing books about them.

So particularism is in, which is good for Jewish studies because we’ve been here as a discipline in one form or the other since the 19th century, and it’s good to have this trend. And I think in the 90s that led to a bit of an explosion of Jewish studies and some real growth in the field in academia. But Jews, and Jews in the field of Jewish studies, are the most likely to be uncomfortable with particularism. They feel that their field is provincial and always want to justify to themselves—it seems like they’re justifying to others, but I think really trying to justify to themselves—their interest in this very small group.

Jonathan Silver:

So that would suggest that universalism itself is not the problem. In an intellectual atmosphere in which particularism is “in,” and ever more specific, more granular forms of particularism are permitted and even celebrated, the problem instead is that there seems to be a discomfort with one particular form of it, and that is with the Jews as a group worthy of being protected and on the same level as these others. Is that it?

Andrew Koss:

I think that’s right. I think that’s a very good summation. It doesn’t always work out that cleanly. I can’t remember which 19th- or 18th-century British theologian talked about the scandal of Jewish particularity or the scandal of Jewish particularism, that it’s hard as a Christian to accept the idea that God chose one particular people, but you can’t really be a Christian without accepting that on some level. And that I think reflects a tension since the beginning of Christianity between so-called Christian universalism and so-called Jewish particularism. I think you can problematize those categories a lot, but that has always been the assumption. You see that tension between universalism and particularism playing out in Jewish studies, but in a really weird way because the universalism that was there once just isn’t there anymore. Even liberal universalism has gone out of fashion in the academy, but Jews are very sensitive about their own particularity.

Jonathan Silver:

You tell this story over the course of the essay about the development of the problem where we find ourselves. And there are a number of big symbolic waystations along the way to Jewish studies in 2024. The first is a publication of a big compilation, I don’t remember the year offhand, but its methodological approach now in retrospect seems to have raised some flags for you. Why don’t you just tell us about that and then we’ll go on to the next one.

Andrew Koss:

The book you’re referring was published around 2000, by David Biale, who’s a very brilliant historian. It’s called Cultures of the Jews, and that I think the title says a lot. The book it tries to take every phase of Jewish history, or at least the major phases of Jewish history, as they would’ve always been defined and get an expert to write about each one, which is a reasonable thing to do. It starts in the biblical period; it moves forward all the way to the modern period. It does some very important things by having an essay about Ethiopian Jewry, which for a long time has been excluded from the story of Jewish history unfairly, and some great articles about modern Middle Eastern Jewry who also got left out of the main thrust of the story for a long time.

But the problem with the book is that each chapter, instead of focusing on the main themes of that particular time and place, focuses on really weird and out-there things. And I have no objection to focusing on weird and out-there things. There’s a conservative critique of the academy where you say, people should only be learning about presidents and kings and wars and dates and stuff like that. And I think those things are important, but I think that critique is an overstatement. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, you could erase Jewish history altogether. Who cares about, the 3,000 Jews in France at any given time before the modernity? But the problem is that these subjects end up being a replacement for the core of the history. So if you read this book, you get all these interesting side stories, but you miss the big story itself.

Jonathan Silver:

So that overall seems to have the effect of trivializing Jewish history.

Andrew Koss:

I don’t think that was the intention of the book, and I don’t even think that’s what the book itself did. It’s the way that it puts forward a new path and the people who imitate that which are the problem. But if that’s going to be the standard and you continue along that path, you’re going to end up trivializing Jewish history. And once you trivialize Jewish history and you start losing sight of the core, then you have less reason to study it at all. Secondly, I think this book sets the scene for a lot of what happens subsequently.

Jonathan Silver:

Here I want to defend this book a bit in a limited way, as you yourself do. This book is not a crime against Jewish studies. That’s an overstatement. But looking back, one begins to try to assemble little steps along the path that authorize greater changes down the road. And that’s what you see this book as. Its methodological approach, by focusing on what I think sometimes seems to be an excess of pedantry, raises the question of why Jewish studies is worth it in the first place.

What’s so interesting about these people, if we’re focusing on the pottery sherds of an obscure corner of a relatively insignificant country? All academics are very nervous about making a judgment like that. But nevertheless, I think that that’s what’s behind your discomfort. Phase two of what you call the decline of Jewish studies centers on a more recent event, an event that has more political overtones. Tell us about the Pianko affair and how that figures into your recounting.

Andrew Koss:

What happens is this: there’s a very distinguished sociologist who studies American-Jewish demography named Steven Cohen. He once, I believe, co-authored a piece in Mosaic around 2014. In the wave of revelations that got slapped with the label Me Too, people came out and told stories about Steve Cohen, who was a very powerful person in the field, having engaged in all kinds of wrongdoings. And those stories held up. Steve Cohen got canceled, as the expression goes. I actually have no objection to him getting canceled. But here’s what happened next: a guy named Noam Pianko, who was head of the Association for Jewish Studies, which is the main association in the field in the United States, hosted a phone call—I don’t remember maybe it was a Zoom—with a bunch of people to discuss somebody’s work. I don’t think it was under official AJS auspices.

And he brought Steven Cohen on because Steven is the person who knows this particular area very well, and you want his expertise. One of the people who was on this call then said, “Oh, that made me feel very uncomfortable knowing that this known sexual harasser was on the call,” and a scandal ensued. And Noam got in all kinds of trouble. He was harassed and hounded. There’s a great article that we published about this at the time by Ruth Wisse. That’s not, to me, the interesting story, though. It’s a sad story that this kind of furor could go so far. What got me is the way that, when the knives came out for Noam Pianko and for Steven Cohen, people started impugning Cohen’s scholarship.

Now it’s fine to say, “Cohen is a great scholar. His personal conduct has been bad. Maybe we don’t want him in this or that position. We don’t want to invite him to talk at our thing.” Fine, that makes sense. But people were saying that there’s something inherently sexist about his scholarship. Why is there something inherently sexist about his scholarship? Because he’s interested in Jewish reproduction; he’s interested in intermarriage and seeing how many babies Jews are having, because that’s what demographers study. Now, what does that mean? It means that he’s obsessed with women’s bodies, and there’s something inherently creepy about talking about fertility because of the way it objectifies women, et cetera, et cetera. And that got me because what you’re saying is that there’s a problem with the very basis of studying Jewish demography and of saying, “We have to figure out how many Jews there are and whether the Jewish population is increasing or decreasing, and how and why.”

This is the most basic information you need for any kind of study, certainly historians need that kind of information out there. And Steven Cohen was never somebody who was shuttered in the Ivory Tower. He was always an engagé intellectual because he thought the propagation of the Jewish people was a good thing. And all of a sudden, saying “I think the propagation of the Jewish people is a good thing” labels you as a sexist. To me, that’s obscene. And I don’t want to get too deep into the details, but for our purposes, it’s obscene because it says that using Jewish studies in a way that serves the Jewish people is bad.

Jonathan Silver:

Now we come to the last many months on American campuses, and why don’t you just explain to the people listening to and reading this conversation who are going to share in our profound trouble, in our profound disappointment at the way that this has all gone down for Jews? Many of us have been outraged at the administrators in whom we had place our confidence that they would respect and protect Jewish students. From this particular angle of vision of Jewish studies and the Jews, how do you understand the last many months on campus?

Andrew Koss:

I think professors of Jewish studies, as I said before, could have come out and said something about these concerns, and specifically about what was going on in the universities. I’m not talking about them weighing in on October 7th or the events in Israel, but I think—whether they like it or not—as Jewish studies professors, they are, in one way or another, representatives of Jews on campus. And there have been so many professors who have been joining the encampments and expressing their enthusiasm for the anti-Israel protests. And almost none of the professors who have been voicing their objections have come from Jewish studies.

And there are so many different ways that Jewish-studies professors could have spoken up, and some of them have, but not many. They can do it in ways that don’t have to be overtly political or in ways that don’t have to be politically right wing. Instead, what we’ve seen is people minimizing the concerns of Jewish students. We have Derek Penslar of Harvard, who actually wrote a very good op-ed in the Crimson a week or two ago where he said some of the things that I wish he and others had said earlier. But he’s at Harvard. Harvard is the most prestigious university in the U.S. (David and I are both Yale grads, so we are uncomfortable with that statement, if I may speak for him.)

But here he is at Harvard, and the quote that gets into the media is that he believes that the accusations of anti-Semitism have been exaggerated. And whether that was taken out of context or not doesn’t really matter because it ends up undermining the complaints of Jewish students who feel persecuted and not unjustly so. And this is where I would like to see more leadership from Jewish-studies professors.

Certainly what I would not like to see is the opposite, and we’ve seen too much of that.

Jonathan Silver:

Well, there’s a fascinating analogy which you described in the essay, which has to do with the fact that in the larger academic environments there are many such studies programs. There’s African-American studies, and women’s studies, and so on, and there are deep human questions which one could ask in all of those disciplines. Nevertheless, it would be surprising and unexpected to see African-American-studies professors go out into the public square and, as you say, narrow what counts as racism toward African-Americans. And it would be surprising to see women’s-studies professors go out into the public square and not enlarge, but narrow complaints of what the understanding of what sexism is. Nevertheless, the general force of what we have seen by a great many Jewish-studies academics is entering out into the public square and not enlarging or defending, but instead narrowing what counts as anti-Semitism in an effort to excuse a lot of anti-Jewish speech and deed.

Andrew Koss:

Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Jonathan Silver:

Maybe at this point, it makes sense to invite Professor Myers into the conversation.

David Myers:

Thank you so much, Jon, and thanks to you and Andrew for the invitation. The term mosaic actually connotes the juxtaposition of different perspectives or objects into a larger whole, and my hope, is to borrow a famous Hebrew phrase, ki-shmo, ken hu, “as is its name, so may it be.” Let there be today a mosaic of perspectives. And I just want to echo what you said at the outset. We do this kind of exchange all too infrequently, with people of diverse perspectives. I enormously value the invitation, notwithstanding what may come at the end. I’m really delighted to be here. So what I want to do in my time is three things. I want to mention parts of Andrew’s very trenchant and thought-provoking essay, with which I agree. I want to highlight some of the things with which I disagree. And then I want to hone in on a number of questions that linger.

First, we agree that the American university is in trouble and, in fact, has been for some time, well before October 7th. We have become so siloed to the point that we don’t engage in the kinds of conversations and debates across a difference like this that I think make for productive intellectual exchange and the generation of knowledge, and that’s the primary purpose of universities. We also agree that a good part of the responsibility comes from the left, or from what Andrew calls wokeness, what I think of as a certain culture of intellectual conformism that discourages engagement with diverse views. And I’ll say more about that later. Second, I agree that there has been a persistent tension, or as the eminent scholar of German-Jewish history, Michael Meyer, would say, two persistent tensions within modern Jewish scholarship extending back to the formation of the discipline to the origins of Wissenschaft des Judentums in the end of the second decade of the 19th century.

That is to say a tension between a commitment to scholarly excellence or even objectivity, to Wissenschaft, to the ideal of science, and a commitment to the application of scholarship toward the Jewish commonweal. Or, to put it more simply, a tension between pure and applied research drives. Third, I share Andrew’s critique of the reading of Steven Cohen’s work through the lens of the allegations of his sexual harassment. I have great respect for the authors of the article that made that connection, but I’m just not persuaded that we can grasp his scholarly focus on fertility and marriage as a byproduct of his attitude to women. And that’s not to say that we can’t link intellectual or scholarly output to personality traits or flaws and assess accordingly. I mean, we engage in that kind of work all the time. I think of the scholarship surrounding Martin Heidegger or the Belgian literary critic, Paul de Man. But I do share a measure of skepticism about the claims in this particular instance, the linkage made.

Fourth, we agree that academics should not feel compelled to sit out the fray, as you phrased it, but at the same time, nor should they be required to join it. Right? Not everybody feels that that is their mission. Some do, and I think for reasons that I will try to explain, they should feel at liberty to do so. So much for the agreement, and I’m sure there are more things that I could have surfaced. Andrew, you’ll forgive me for not belaboring that point.

Let me turn my attention to those things with which I disagree. So first, while we concur that wokeness from the left has contributed to the current state of the university, at least as much responsibility lies with the right, which has a one-dimensional view of institutions of higher education only as bastions of wokeness and thus worthy of ideological purification at best or dismantling at worst.

So I would say it’s both the right and the left that have placed the university in the precarious situation it is in. And I didn’t see any trace of that perspective in Andrew’s account. Second, and this refers more to the essay than to Andrew’s remarks in the exchange, Jon, that you had with him. We disagree about the singularly negative features of postmodernism, which is often used as a code word for a kind of nihilistic relativism. Yes, I think it’s true. Postmodernism has at times cultivated a kind of indulgent navel-gazing tendency as well as a degree of theoretical inscrutability among scholars and perhaps other things. But I also believe that it’s induced a new sensitivity to the method and hermeneutical practice of scholars that has prompted, at least in my field, a flourishing research over, say, the last four decades into the history of Jewish historiography, something to which I devote a lot of my time, which is itself a vitally important measure of Jewish self-reflection.

So I attribute some of the impetus toward that to postmodernism. My teacher, Professor Yerushalmi, disagreed very vehemently with that. And we had a fascinating exchange in the Bavarian Alps one summer. But I’m thinking of the work of Shmuel Feiner, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Yitzhak Conforti, Nils Roemer, Natalia Aleksiun. These are people who, I think, are beneficiaries of that kind of renewed attention to the method and the hermeneutical practices of the historian. We disagree about Andrew’s reading, not surprisingly, of various scholars beginning with the critique of David Biale’s edited collection from 2002 (I just checked it), Cultures of the Jews whose plural title Andrew believes betrays a failure to appreciate, and these are his words, any single thing as Judaism or Jewish people. I’ll say more about that in just a minute. But we disagree as well about the significance of Nadia Abu El-Haj’s impact on the field of Jewish studies, which I think could probably be resolved by a simple measure such as a citation count.

In general, I disagree about the wisdom of lumping together, Abu El-Haj, Shaul Magid, Derek Penslar, Shlomo Sand, Jasbir Puar, and me as if we represent a single dissident trend or movement in Jewish-studies scholarships. And that’s a very motley crew that I suspect differs as much as it shares. And I should say I’m kind of mystified by, and curious about, Andrew’s approbation of Naomi Seidman as an exemplar of what Jewish studies can and should be. Naomi is a friend and a great scholar, but it actually seems to me that her book on Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov educational network, is exactly the kind of scholarly project that would’ve been altogether ignored in previous scholarship. And it reflects an interest in women’s and gender history that could easily have fallen under the category of work that Andrew describes as colonized by outside forces and increasingly ideologically driven.

So I thought that would seem to be a book that Andrew might well have dismissed as trendy, but no, and I’m curious to hear more about that. And the fact that Naomi Seidman has an intense interest in OTD [“off-the-derekh”] Jews, religious Jews who have fallen off the path of observance, reflects what I think of as Naomi’s really productively ceaselessly subversive cast of mind, which somehow didn’t echo with what I thought Andrew was advancing as an ideal.

We disagree about Andrew’s veneration of Heinrich Graetz for his act of Jewish loyalty and defending Jews from, as he puts, an eminent scholar of the ancient near East who had written an expert defense of anti-Semitism. Actually, it’s not that we disagree about Graetz, who has many virtues of whom I am an admirer, but I believe that Andrew may have the wrong hero. I may be mistaken. But the episode that I think you’re referring to involves not Graetz, but his one-time student at the seminar in Breslau, the philosopher Hermann Cohen, who in 1888 squared off as an expert witness against the anti-Semitic scholar of Semitics, Paul de Lagarde, in a trial in which a man was accused of defaming a Jew in Marburg, Germany.

Now, I call attention to this episode because Cohen is, in many ways, the antithesis of Graetz. Cohen was not the purveyor of what Jeff Blutinger has called National Judaism, referring to what you referenced, Andrew, as Graetz’s seeming proto-Zionism. Hermann Cohen was a believer in the inextricability of Germanness and Jewishness, as he put it in a famous, or depending on your perspective, infamous, essay from 1915. That is, he believed in the depths of the soul that the homeland of the Jews was in Germany, not Eretz Yisrael. And although he may have had the wrong politics, or politics quite different from those of Mosaic, he was not disloyal or insufficiently empathic toward his co-religionists because of his seemingly universalist stance, as some have maintained. He was a proud Jew, a learned Jew, who came to the defense of fellow Jew who had been defamed. So this is instructive, and I’ve belabored this point because I think it complicates our picture of dedication and loyalty to the cause and which side of the political spectrum it comes from.

This leads at long last to the first of my questions, or really keywords. So the first keyword, Andrew, is essence. As I mentioned, you take David Biale to task for succumbing to what you see as a kind of, I’m inserting this adjectival qualifier, you’ll tell me if I’m wrong, postmodern preference for hybridity, plurality, marginality, for cultures over a single internally cohesive, essential, or, as you said, core culture. But that view of a single cohesive core culture or the focus on that is far less compelling to me, I have to say, as an historical matter than say the vision of Jewish culture issuing from Gerson Cohen or Ahad Ha’am for that matter in his famous essay, Ḥikuy v’hitbol’lut (“Imitation and Assimilation”) from 1893, where they maintain that there would be no Jewish culture at all were not for the ceaseless interactions with non-Jewish societies that produce all sorts of different cultural manifestations.

And here, I should just say, although I am no expert whatsoever in Babylonian incantation bowls, I have been assured by many that say, for example, Gideon Bohak’s work on such bowls, illuminates entire worlds. Thus Gerson Cohen referred to this ceaseless interaction as the blessing of assimilation in Jewish history. Without that—without that constant interaction that produces not a single cohesive core culture but many different forms of many different colorations in Jewish cultures—Jews would’ve been fossilized centuries ago. So let’’ say we’re not compelled by this claim, and you can only imagine what the parents of the Jewish educators at Boston Hebrew College must have thought when they heard that the commencement address would be entitled “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” Let’s say we’re not compelled by Cohen. Let’s turn to a figure whom Andrew regards in favorable terms for his willingness to serve his people.

The great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem. Scholem memorably stated that, and here I’m quoting, “Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence since it has no essence.” And he masterfully illustrated this principle by insisting that the demonic and vitalizing force of Kabbalah is key to our understanding of Jewish intellectual culture alongside rabbinics and philosophy. That was deemed indeed a marginal entity for many, many decades of 19th-century Jewish scholarship. Scholem’s act was an act of excavation, and he masterfully illustrated this principle by recovering the principle of the non-essentialist nature of Jewish culture by recovering Kabbalah. So my question is, Andrew, do you accept Scholem’s anti-essentialist definition of Judaism? Based on your reading of Biale, it would seem like you were searching for something other than that. But later in your essay, you say that you were rightfully taught in graduate school to eschew essentialism, and in fact, you criticize the essentialism of liberal diasporic interpretations of Judaism. So do you believe that there is an essence to Judaism that Biale misses, or is it the case that you recoil from liberal diasporic interpretations of Judaism, preferring what you see as “the national communal form of Judaism”? Because that seems to me like you’d be replacing one essentialist view with another, replacing one with which you’re not in harmony with one with which you are in harmony. So essence, question number one.

Andrew Koss:

Thank you. This is wonderful. I think to answer your questions properly, I would have to sit down and do at least two weeks of research and thinking, but I’ll try to answer them improperly. I don’t think I have a perfect answer to your question because, as you understand, there is no perfect answer. Does Judaism have an essence? Who knows? I think though that if I just take a step outward, part of the reason I wanted to get in Naomi Seidman and Heinrich Graetz and Gershom Scholem and Shimen Dubnov is that these are all radically different people.

And I think by looking at what they have in common, even they have little in common, we can start to establish a reasoned critique of some of the trends that are happening now. Does Judaism have an essence that you and I could write down in a few sentences and agree about? Of course not. That’s too complicated to do, especially for Judaism and perhaps for any other religion, but there are things that hold together some concept of Judaism. Or even if you want to say, “Fine. Lets not talk about Judaism. Let’s talk about Judaisms with the s at the end.” We can talk about Judaisms and still have some ideas loosely about what makes them all Judaism.

And this brings me back to what I said about David Biale, where I compared his book to the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which I really liked. I don’t know if you liked it, but it’s really good, yet you can’t appreciate that play if you haven’t read Hamlet. And I think most of us would agree that Hamlet is probably the better of the two plays. And my fear isn’t so much the loss of a positive essentialism or however you want to call it. My fear is that if you start having people who are not you and me, but the younger people coming up who have read David Biale’s book but have not read the kind of basics, who have not read, say something like John Efron’s The Jews: A History, written with three other people—which is just a great textbook and we don’t have a lot of good textbooks.

And when you get to that, you start having a problem and you start losing your sense of what the main thing is. And if I can just use this to pivot to one of the other points you brought up, I think we need to have scholarship of Babylonian magic bowls and we need to have more scholarship about women and we need to have more scholarship about other obscure and weird things that haven’t been touched upon yet.

I think when we start looking at those topics seriously and—like Naomi Seidman, like Isaiah Gafni, like other people—in the context of a broader scope of Jewish history, we’ll get something really good. My fear is our losing sight of the bigger picture that these things are part of, that’s when the wheels start coming off. And that’s why I deliberately chose Naomi’s book—besides the fact that I really liked it—to show that what I want is not the kind of narrow version of history that I think some right-wing critics of the academy would like to see and that I think is silly.

David Myers:

Okay. I mean, there’s much more—

Jonathan Silver:

Let me, David, stand up for the narrow right-wing complaint for just a minute because I don’t want to trivialize that or lose sight of it. And to me, the complaint that could be lodged against what is undoubtedly a contribution which is brought to Jewish studies by the hermeneutic of postmodernism, which you characterize just in your remarks here I think accurately as a triumph for the depth and vitality of Jewish self-reflection. That is undoubtedly true. The honest mature question we have to wrestle with is if there’s a cost between that gain and on the other hand a diminution of Jewish self-confidence and whether those two things are not balanced properly. Forgive me because I come from a different academic discipline in political theory where there are different versions of this debate and there one can see there’s much talk about the problems of the great-man theory of history and all the cartoonish distortions and exaggerations that it is prone to, which I think one should be very sympathetic to.

But in the history of Zionism, one ought to study more narrow, granular, trivial things. And I’m comfortable saying that they’re trivial. They are illuminating to the extent that they shed light on the big picture. And we should debate what the big picture is because we might see it differently. But losing sight of the great women and men who are the propelling engines of Zionism is losing sight of something essential. So to me, I think that your and Andrew’s discussion does highlight at least this tension between what I am characterizing as Jewish moral confidence on the one side and the depth of Jewish self-reflection on the other. And that is a mirror of the question that you raised about Wissenschaft in the beginning.

David Myers:

So I have a couple of things to say. One is in the kind of weighing of virtues and costs, the cost-benefit analysis between self-reflection and sort of losing a sight of the ikar [essence] rather than the tafel [secondary]. Losing sight of the core rather than the marginal. I think one has to place this in historical perspective. I would be the first to say the impetus that postmodernism and deconstructionism gave to the inquiry into the Jewish collective self or the Jewish individual self was an entirely (or largely) salutary phenomenon. When one looks at that over the course of decades, do I believe that that has led, as I said, to a certain degree of intellectual indulgence or to its own sort of veneration of the marginal for the marginal’s sake or existence in a small echo chamber in which the language is legible and understandable only to those who dwell within it? Yes. And that’s where we need to make course corrections, but I wouldn’t therefore condemn the entire enterprise.

I would understand it as part of a process of historical evolution. I’m an historian, so that’s what I do. And I also would say that very few people set out to write on a marginal topic believing that it is not going to illuminate something larger. I know very few people who revel in the smallness of the contribution that they are going to make by examining something minuscule. I mean, the whole logic of the field of micro-history is to take a single moment, event, text, character who may be insignificant—as the great historian Carlo Ginzburg has demonstrated—and show how it opens up world. I think it really is a question of whether you are open to multiple points of entry to the historical quest, mindful of the fact that there’s a possibility that beginning with, “I’m going to write the definitive history of Zionism,” or, “I’m going to study five years in the life of Berl Katznelson,” could lead to much bigger perspectives.

That’s what Anita Shapira, the great scholar of Israeli history began her career with, a book on Berl Katznelson. It catapulted her to sort of the top of the Israeli historiographical establishment. I don’t know that one has to sort of condemn the whole thing or throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think an historical perspective is necessary and I also think that the marginal or particular can indeed lead to more universal. And I think that’s probably something that I’m going to guess Andrew and I share as historians. I suspect we share a lot. I suspect we share, if we really are honest, a good deal of non-essentialism in our historical practice. We probably share a good deal of appreciation for hybridity, which you quoted in David Roskies’s critique of Biale. I suspect these are some of the basic practices, principles and methodological approaches of historians and I imagine we all share. But if I may, I’d like to turn to question number two, keyword number two.

Andrew Koss:


David Myers:

Keyword number two is de-Judaizing. You recall, Andrew, my friend and colleague Josh Karlip’s designation of this trend in the field of Jewish studies and some of the characteristics of it are as follows. A declining knowledge of Hebrew, a declining sense of connection between subject and object of research or stated otherwise. These are my terms, not yours. And this is something that I developed in a book called The Stakes of History, a declining identitarian investment by Jewish studies scholars and thus a declining interest in, as you put it, Jewishly focused work.

So these attributes add up to the de-Judaizing of Jewish studies today. There may be others, but these are ones I develop that I discerned from yours. So this prompts several questions. First, is de-Judaizing a new development? Isn’t this the kind of claim that someone like Zacharias Frankel or even Samson Raphael Hirsch would have brought against the reform scholar Abraham Geiger when he went about advancing his evolutionary view of Jewish history, in which, as he famously described it, the age of rigid legalism—the great age of rabbinics—yielded to the age of light and emancipation, with all the value judgments contained within that evolutionary perspective. So I guess I wonder, isn’t the charge of de-Judaizing really a matter of political or ideological disposition? As in I will regard those who hold to a liberal diasporic view to be insufficiently loyal to the cause.

But isn’t it more responsible to assume that those who hold on to say an interest in non-statist nationalism or socialism or Reform Judaism, don’t those scholars imagine their objects of research as legitimate and don’t they also have the capacity to understand them as key parts of their Jewish identity?

So I’m asking, “How do we adjudicate these competing claims of legitimacy?” One person’s de-Judaizing is another person’s re-upping on the Jewish component and that charge of de-Judaizing calls to mind. I’m sure you know the essay from Tablet, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy’s designation of leftist Jews as un-Jews, which I regard as a highly partisan and offensive term because the degree of robustness of one’s Jewish identity lies in the eyes of the beholder. So what’s your Archimedean point in designating some as slackards and others as loyalists? And I would also add just one other sort of tangential point. How much does the success of the field of Jewish studies depend on the degree of commitment of researchers within it to the Jewish commonweal in light of a very important factor that has emerged over the several decades, which is said the growing presence in the field of non-Jews who do not have, nor should they be expected to have, the same kind of emotional, existential or political commitments to the Jewish commonweal as Jewish scholars of Jewish studies. So de-Judaizing.

Andrew Koss:

Thank you. That’s a really complex question and a really, really stimulating one. I’m postmodern enough that I don’t believe that there’s ever going to be a clear Archimedean point. We can’t find some hard and fast rule. But let me say something about diasporism since you mentioned that. A lot of the research that I did in graduate school and afterwards and that I sometimes return to is about various diasporist Jewish movements, Yiddishists, Bundists, and Po’alei Tsiyon Links (which was Zionist but not necessarily for moving to Zion), people like Shimon Dubnov and other diaspora nationalists. Why shouldn’t we study those things? They were just as important in their own times as anything else.

But before I get to de-Judaizing, let me say something also about non-Jews in the field. We probably need more non-Jews in the field. It’ll make Jewish studies more normal.

But you know what? It’s a strange field in that in some ways in that it’s so dominated by Jews. I was once at the AJS and I met a scholar from Beijing who’s really interested in Philip Roth and other American Jewish writers. And I mentioned it to a friend after the conference, who’s reaction was, “That’s so weird! Why would somebody with that background want to study that?”

Whereas if you had a Jewish guy who was interested in Chinese literature from the 1960s, you wouldn’t blink an eye at that. There’d be nothing unusual about that. But also a lot of non-Jewish scholars of Jewish studies care a lot about the Jews and that’s why they’re interested in the topic. The late Robert King—I don’t know if you know his work, but he was a linguist.

David Myers:

Yes, he’s from Texas.

Andrew Koss:

Yes, from Texas. He wrote for Mosaic a couple of times and I got to know him a little bit. He was not Jewish, cared very much about the Jews. That’s why he got into this. So one more small point before I try to get to the big point. I admire Gil Troy a lot. I admire Natan Sharansky obviously tremendously. I don’t like the term un-Jew either. I agree with the thrust of that essay, but I don’t like the term, or the practice of labeling people as outside in that particular way.

When I talk about de-Judaizing, what I’m really thinking about is writing about a topic where you don’t know a lot about anything Jewish. You don’t know any particular Jewish languages. You don’t have a real background. You just find some guy to write about who happens to be Jewish and slide your topic into the Jewish category because it give you some extra cachet and you have nothing really to build on. And again, if that becomes the trend of the field, we’re lost because the Jews are a small people and there has to be some interest or excitement or love to motivate this field of study.

Gershom Scholem talked about ahavat Yisrael (love of the Jewish people). He famously scolded Hannah Arendt for not having enough ahavat Yisrael. And I think there has to be some kind of ahavat Yisrael that motivates us because otherwise, why study the Jews at all? And if not, my real fear is that if you have what I clumsily call wokeism together with this de-Judaization, you’re going to get a study of the Jews that is focused on the bad things Jews do. That’s my real fear, especially if those bad things are made up. But even if they’re not made up.

David Myers:

I’m not sure I accept the implication that the outcome of the phenomenon you’re trying to diagnose has led to defamatory studies of Jews. I think it’s indeed widened the spectrum of objects of interest and perhaps atomized somewhat. I think we can agree on that. My general sensibility is that at least the history of scholarship proves a constant dialectical movement between hyper-specialization and then centralization. It’s true that we don’t have a Graetz, Dubnov, and Baron to write as one person an eleven- or ten-volume history of the Jews, but we do have periodically attempts at synthetic accounts. And I would say in its own way, David Biale’s work is exemplary of that. Maybe not Cultures of the Jews but the book on Hasidism. So I have, again, a more historically dynamic sense than I think you do. The vector is moving irreversibly in one direction, your account, and I see it as more of a pendulous swing between polls.

Jonathan Silver:

David, what if you were, instead of limiting your analysis to academic scholarship, to broaden the aperture and take into account popular writing as well such that there what one sees is the conferral of authority from Jewish-studies professors who are experts on Jewish stuff to what just reads to the public like criticism of Israel and the Jews. And there one sees then the questions of whether the pendulum of scholarship is enriched and a dynamism and antithesis which occurs. Then the timeframe within which one looks at those questions and the political and social impact of them changes radically. And what it just feels like is Jewish studies is coming out to attack the Jews.

David Myers:

I want to speak to that and that actually relates to my third question. So if I may, Jon, with your permission, respond to your question with a question. Let’s name the elephant in the room, Israel, Palestine, a huge wedge issue in many parts of American university life in many parts of the Jewish community within the field of Jewish studies. In fact, it has withdrawn boundaries of friendship in collegiality in our field, field of Jewish studies and beyond. What I’m less convinced of is that the—let’s called them putative or alleged de-Judaizersare submitting as a matter of their own volition to the hypnotic spell cast by Edward Said and his acolytes. I think the supposition is that in order to gain acceptance, the kind of desperate quest for legitimacy, the de-Judaizers are aligning themselves with the post-colonial, the settler-colonial analysts, et cetera.

But what I think that doesn’t allow for, and this is I think really important to put on the table in this conversation in terms in of the airing of divergent perspectives, is for many scholars in Jewish studies, the motivation is not the desire to gain the acceptance of the heirs of Edward Said but a genuine conviction that Israel has occupied, oppressed, and mistreated Palestinians for decades. And their concern in that regard is not an abdication of responsibility but an assertion of moral and political responsibility. And this concern indicates, makes clear that they have a very considerable emotional and identitarian investment as Jews and Jewish study scholars in that which they study. The identitarian investment has not waned or disappeared. I’m thinking of people who are sort of on the boundary of Jewish and Israel studies, Shay Hazkani, my colleague at UCLA Dov Waxman, Mira Sucharov, my former student Liora Halperin. Or we could think of Derek whom we’ve discussed or Shaul Magid.

I’m not sure that they’ve abandoned the fold as it were, that they’ve surrendered the commitment to Jewish wellbeing or the wellbeing of the world. Some have, some never set that out as a goal, but some haven’t. And here, I guess, I think that it’s really hard—Andrew, I’m now referring to you—it’s really hard to discern what that commitment looks like and what that concern looks like by just plucking one article from Derek in the Daily Crimson or one article from me in the Daily Bruin.

I mean, the previous article that I wrote in the Daily Bruin in early April was about an anti-Semitic effigy that appeared on campus and it was a call to people to acknowledge it, learn about it, and avoid it with all their force. My general hashkafah [outlook] since October 7, and I’ve done a lot of writing since then is that we must avoid zero-sum thinking. Too many people believe that if you express absolute and total horror at what happened on October 7, you cannot express horror at what we see going on in Gaza and I’m someone who believes that as a scholar and as a person, either you believe in the dignity of human life or you don’t. You don’t choose teams when it comes to that.

I think a fuller appreciation of what Israel-Palestine looks like for the cohort of de-Judaizers would require really a deeper dive than what you gave us in the piece. You should look at all the things I’ve written since October 7. It’s a substantial body of mercifully brief work. But I’ve also written a history of the Hebrew University. I’ve also written about one of the great underappreciated thinkers, Simon Rawidowicz, for whom the connection between thought and action between scholarship and the Jewish  commonwealth stood at the heart of his work. And I deeply value Rawidowicz for that commitment and tried to emulate it in my life.

So I guess what should one expect of Jewish-studies scholars? And here are some options. Conformity with your position on Zionism in Israel-Palestine because that’s the essential prerequisite to realizing the connection between thought and action; a stance of critical distance and dispassion; or a deep sense of investment, both scholarly and personal in the issue, let’s say, of Israel-Palestine. So part of my work is devoted to the study of Zionism and Israel-Palestine. I have a different scholarly and personal investment than you do, and it manifests differently in public expressions, but it’s no less deep.

And so I wonder if what you’re asking for to put it in the extreme and thinking of the example of the University of California in mid-century, do we need a loyalty oath to weed out the un-Jews or de-Judaizers from the field? I think not, and I’ll just conclude with this and you should have the last word, Andrew. I think we need a more capacious understanding of what a meaningful commitment or identitarian investment looks like. And that would be a world in which people of diverse and divergent perspectives talk to one another with passion, with compassion, with engagement.

And this would include people who don’t want to put their scholarship towards some instrumental goal as well. But I think the main point is we should have a more capacious understanding of what a Jewish commitment, a commitment to Judaism, looks like in scholars, even when it disagrees with our political perspective.

Andrew Koss:

So you’ve said a lot that I think is intelligent and that I agree with. Look, we’re always going to have disagreements about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and I wouldn’t want to drum you out of Jewish studies because I disagree ferociously with some of the things you’ve written about it. But there’s a kind of pattern here, and it’s the pattern that is disturbing, which is that, and I know I have to get this in five minutes before we have to end. I’ve tried to read every single thing you wrote in the LA Times and the Forward and the Daily Bruin since October . I may have missed some. And the LA Review of Books. I’m very impressed by how productive you are. I mean that very sincerely. And your work on the Hebrew University is very important to me.

But the pattern is that one of complaining about Israel and not complaining about the anti-Semites. And I’m picking on you a little bit, but I’m not only picking on you. Are there any Jewish-studies professors out there saying, “As a professor of Jewish studies, as a student of Jewish history, this is why I think Israel is doing the right thing in Gaza? I can’t think of one.”

And it’s not just that. It’s something I learned after I wrote this essay, when people came to me and said, “I read your essay. I agree with a lot of it. I don’t agree with all of it.” Nobody agrees with all of it. “But I agree with a lot of it. And I feel that I can’t speak up about being pro-Israel. And I’m Israeli. I voted Labor my entire life except for the two times I voted Meretz.” And I’m basically quoting, I’m thinking of one person here. I won’t say who it is. “But I’m an Israeli. I’m a professor at a university. I have tenure and I still don’t want to do anything that’s vaguely pro-Israel because I think I’m going to be persecuted. And even though I have tenure, they have ways of making my life miserable for me.” And why is it that Jewish-studies professors feel that way?

And I also have talked to people in Jewish studies who have gotten hounded out of being involved in planning a conference, for instance, who have lost advisers and things like that because they’ve wanted to stand up for Israel in one way or another. And that’s a problem. It’s not the fact that some people have one view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and some have another view. It’s the fact that only one view gets to express itself loudly. That’s the problem.

Again, if there was somebody who was out there at Berkeley who is exactly like you, but just the sort of mirror image—you’re left of center, he’s right of center—that would be different. But there isn’t. And that disturbs me. And also the way these things have snuck into the AJS conference. They’ll have a panel where there’s a professor of Middle East studies who’s a proponent of the BDS movement presenting the Arab view, and presenting the Israeli view is Mira Sucharov who’s a post Zionist. There’s no reason Mira shouldn’t be on a panel. There’s no reason the other person should be. But if that’s your range of opinions on a panel on a contentious issue, you’re failing to do exactly what you have said that we should be doing. Obviously that’s not your fault. You don’t run the AJS panels, but something is wrong. And that’s what disturbs me and that’s what really works me up, as you can tell.

I’m supposed to have the last word, but let me give you two minutes to respond to that if you want to.

David Myers:

On that point, we’re not in disagreement, but let me put it in the positive. I agree, of course, there should be a wider range of views. And I referred to that when I talked about a culture of intellectual conformism that I think is impairing the ability of the American university to be what it should be aside of open and engaged and passionate and compassionate discourse. So I definitely feel that to be the case.

But at the same time I think we also have to understand the broader culture in which we operate, in which I would say the Israeli perspective does not lack for opportunities to be heard. And in some sense we should try to bring more in alignment these sort of two tendencies, one in which I think the Israeli perspective gets plenty of airing and one in which the Palestinian perspective gets plenty of airing.

My own general intellectual disposition is to try to grasp nuance and complexity and not say, and I just can’t say that I aspire to be more pro-Israel. I aspire to justice, peace, and security for Israelis and Palestinians, and I’m much more familiar with one of those cultures and feel a deep sense of connection to it. But both as a moral and scholarly matter, I’m interested in holding onto nuance and complexity and not just that simple proposition that in this moment what we need to do is support our team.

Having said that, there are lots of moments at which we have to recalibrate. I think now is such a moment. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is the way in which the term Zionist has been weaponized as I think anti-Semitism has been weaponized. That’s something that I will be thinking and writing about, and I think we need to refine the lexicon in this very fraught moment and really urge people to have a much more nuanced understanding what they mean when they say Zionist.

So on that I think point of agreement, I just want to say it’s been a delight to be in conversation with you both.

Andrew Koss:

Thank you, Professor Myers. I really appreciate it.

Jonathan Silver:

We’ve got a zillion questions here, but by prior arrangement, David has made clear he’s got a hard stop. So David, I want to thank you for being a sport and for briefly joining the dark side over here at Mosaic and talking with us.

David Myers:

Invite me back. Are you kidding? This has been fun.

Jonathan Silver:

But much more to say. So David, thank you for being here. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s just continue and Andrew, maybe we can address some of the questions that have come in. David, thanks so much.

First, here’s a question that reads like this: is the feeble response of Jewish-studies faculty in any way related to the hollowing out of Jewish studies? This is something that you and David discussed a bit, meaning the declining level of scholarship, the practices related to hiring a faculty that focus on trendy subjects. How do you understand the relationship between the way Jewish-studies professors are exhibiting themselves in the public arena right now and the actual state of the field?

Andrew Koss:

This is a complicated question, and I myself have sort of gotten back and forth while I was writing this essay. You have to look at it from two different angles. One is that we can talk about the hollowing out, but the field is not lost. There’s a lot of good stuff happening in Jewish studies and there are also a lot of people who are very, very smart, who are first-rate scholars, who have opinions about Israeli politics that I disagree with in the most passionate and strenuous terms. And David Myers is one of them. And it’s part of the reason I invited him. I didn’t want to invite someone whose scholarship I thought was second-rate.

My fear is that the combination of declining standards and politicization and anti-Israel sentiment everywhere will come together in the worst possible way. And there have been signs of this already. Let me end the answer there so we can hear more questions.

Jonathan Silver:

Here’s a question from Anne Powell. Many of us encouraged our children and grandchildren to take Jewish-studies courses in the hopes that they would learn the essentials of Jewish history and culture. So the focus on esoterica and apparent abandonment in the face of campus anti-Semitism feels like a betrayal. How do you respond to that?

Andrew Koss:

In the essay, I talked a little bit about trying to take the students’ perspective and to see what the students want, which is also informed by their parents.

Encouraging your children to take Jewish-studies courses is wonderful and I want my friends out there to continue to have jobs so that people should take their classes and they’ll learn things. But, I hate to say it, this is not the way to give your kids the Jewish education.

You can send your kids to a Jewish day school. If you don’t want to send your kids to a Jewish day school, I understand that. You can send your kids to a Jewish afterschool. You can get the rabbi to invite them to his house for Shabbat meals. You could read Jewish books with them. There are hundreds of things you can do, Anne, that don’t involve relying on Jewish-studies professors in universities because they’re not equipped. They’re not equipped to give a Jewish education that’s based on passing Judaism onto your children. In the best of circumstances, they’ll learn something about Jewish history. But this is not how it can be done.

Jonathan Silver:

Let me deepen that question because I agree, Andrew. I think it’s a fundamental question for the conversation that we’re having now. But I think one hears from David’s responses and David’s own questions and the way that he reacted to you in our conversation today, that the horizon of what David is thinking about and caring about is the world of Jewish scholarship and Jewish history and not the Jews.

So when David assesses the function or the purpose of a Jewish-studies professor or the innovation in an article of Jewish-studies scholarship, he’s thinking about the ways in which it enriches Jewish studies, but not the Jews. It’s a difference. It’s a fundamentally different outlook.

Andrew Koss:

And there’s nothing wrong with that outlook per se. At least I don’t think there is. I think some of the people here listening will disagree with that. And it’s a really interesting conversation. Having thought about this while I was writing the essay, after I wrote the essay and many conversations that flowed out of this essay: in a field like Jewish studies, there’s always going to be a tension. It’s a tension that I feel. It’s a tension that I think David Myers feels as well. I hate speaking for him when he’s not here. But where you’re always going to be doing both, [engaging in objective scholarship and trying to do something for the Jews], and it’s not going to be a field like physics.

And what I tried to demonstrate in the essay when I went into some of the history of Jewish studies is that it’s always been this way. You’re always doing something for the Jews and something just for Jewish studies. It’s inescapable. And I think you just sometimes have to acknowledge that tension instead of looking for some pure bright line.

Jonathan Silver:

I would say one final thing to Anne, which is just to put on my Tikvah hat, which is that Anne, Tikvah sponsors not one or two, but dozens and dozens of programs precisely for the education of the smartest, most curious, most courageous young women and men who want to learn Jewish history and not a single party line of Jewish history, but who want to learn the debates and dilemmas of Zionism, the inner tensions in Jewish history and Jewish religious life, the heroes and statesmen and -women of modern Israel. That is the impulse behind Tikvah programs for high-school students, for middle-school students, and for undergraduates and even graduate and rabbinical students.

That is one of the lacunae that I think Tikvah is trying to fill, precisely working alongside the Jewish studies industry, which from my point of view has its sights set on a different target, which is scholarship.

We’re trying to speak into the lives of young women and men who are Jewish and to try to embolden them and strengthen the Jewish moral imagination. That sounds more like what you’re hoping to get from Jewish studies. I think you can find some of that at Tikvah.

Andrew, here’s a question from Rick Schafer. Why aren’t more Jewish historians doing more to dispute the application of the theory of settler colonialism to Zionism? Even if some do, shouldn’t more offer a different perspective and lend the credibility that they have as historians of Judaism to this preposterous idea that Zionism is inauthentic and fake and the expression of a desire to colonize the people where it has no business being there?

Andrew Koss:

I’m really glad you brought that up because it was something I wanted to say just now and didn’t get a chance to. And it was something I wish I talked about more in the essay.

I think Jewish studies professors should be doing this, and this is a case where they are using their expertise not to give their opinion about the war in Gaza, good or bad, pro-Israel, anti-Israel, left or right, but to give their opinion about something specific that is going on in the university. And if you’re a historian of Zionism, you have a responsibility not to the Jews, but to scholarship, to stand up for what’s right. And it’s a scandal that some of these academics not in Jewish studies who are anti-Israel have gotten away with this.

I mentioned Jasbir Puar, who’s one of the worst anti-Israel academics. She wrote a book called The Right to Maim, which I mentioned in this essay. It’s just a sort of fantastical blood libel-ish set of accusations about Israel. It’s tied into every trendy, cool thing that’s going on in the field. And she’s a professor at Rutgers. The book was published by Duke. This is a scandal. If somebody was propagating racist pseudoscience saying, “I’m arguing that African Americans are biologically more likely to be criminal because I’ve measured lots of their skulls.” They would never get tenure because, A, this is offensive and disgusting, and B, it has no basis in scholarly reality. This is what we’re talking about with works like Puar’s. And there are many other people out there who are like her.

And why aren’t Jewish-studies professors saying, “I’m a professor of Jewish studies. This is anti-Semitism. I’m a professor of history of Israel. This is wrong. It has no basis in reality.” And there are some, there’s something called the Academic Engagement Network and the Jewish Studies Zionist Network that have done work on this. But the big wigs of the field are staying silent, and this is an academic failure.

Jonathan Silver:

Andrew, here’s the last question that I want to bring from the audience because it’s my favorite one. Larry Zeifman asks this: Why is any of this surprising? Isn’t the behavior of these Jewish-studies academics post-October 7 just the natural evolution of what Ruth Wisse has been telling us for years?

Andrew Koss:

Yes. The answer is yes. I have nothing else to say about that. If you listen to Ruth Wisse, you’re likely to be right. It absolutely is that.

Jonathan Silver:

So I think we can leave this with Ruth Wisse again. But let’s not leave it with that. Let me just say that the essay was published in Mosaic in May 2024. Andrew, thank you for this and thank you for the essay and thank you for this.

Andrew Koss:

Thank you. And thank you, David. I’m sorry you couldn’t be here for the very end, but I do want to thank David for participating. I really appreciate it.

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