Magazine article Tikkun

Culture Wars of the Jews

Magazine article Tikkun

Culture Wars of the Jews

Article excerpt

Culture Wars of the Jews

Cultures of the Jews: At New History, edited by David Biale. Schocken Books, 2002.

As a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1980s, 1 had a front-row seat for the culture wars that wracked university campuses during those years. At the shrill extremes of the debates, radical multiculturalists dismissed the canon as the writings of a pantheon of Dead White Men, while grouchy conservatives published bestselling treatises piously extolling the "timeless value" of the "Great Books." It hardly needs stating that Jews participated on both sides of the debate; how could it be otherwise? Prominent among the defenders of the canon and clecriers of the rigid correctness of multiculturalists were the two Blooms, Harold and Alan. On the other side was the predictable panoply of Jewish champions of various progressive causes. But it was not entirely clear, especially at first, what the ruckus had to do with Jews per se, or with Jewish Studies as an academic discipline. Were (dead male) Jews to be included in the category of Dead White Men? Were we, rather, the multicultural Other?

As evidence of that Zeitgeist, I remember Crying-feebly-to defend Freud from the grave charge of being a Straight White Man (not to mention Dead) to a feminist theory class outraged by his misogyny. I would not have such trouble now: While it is incontrovertible that Freud is dead, after the work of Sander oilman, Jay Geller and Daniel Boyarin, among others, it can no longer be forthrightly asserted that he was white, straight, or even precisely a man.

For all the effects of multiculturalism on the research of individual scholars, Jewish Studies programs remained largely quiet in the face of the Culture Wars. But not entirely: Hillel Halkin, for instance, played the grouchy conservative in a Commentary essay entitled "The Feminization of Jewish Studies," a title that seemed to imply not only that feminism had made some inroads into Jewish Studies, but also that these threatened the (presumably masculine) nature of the field itself. Halkin helpfully provided a summary of the "trend" he was describing and pinpointed its location on the American map: "Heavily influenced, like all the liberal arts, by postmodernist thinking; skeptical of traditional Jewish categories of analysis; ranging from non- to anti-Zionist in its attitude toward Israel while strongly affirming Diaspora Jewish identity; and, above all, openly embracing feminism and feminist 'theory,' it does not yet have a name. One is tempted to call it the 'California school,' since several of its leading representatives. . . teach at institutions in that state." Israeli literary critic Dan Miron's attack on the anti-Zionism he perceived in Hebrew literary criticism from what he more specifically called "the Berkeley school" followed shortly after Halkin's, suggesting that if there was a trend of the sort Halkin had described, the countertrend was itself beginning to take shape. Most recently, David Roskies published a critique in Commentary of the new volume edited by David Biale, Cultures of the Jews, in which Biale (who, as Roskies notes, teaches at the University of California) is described as conforming to the orthodoxies of the academic Left. Noting "the deliberate use of the plural-Origins, Diversities, Encounters, not to mention the "Cultures" of the title," Roskies argues that "Biale's program was of a piece with the worldwide academic trend to unseat traditional modes of scrutinizing the past-including the disciplines of intellectual, economic, political, and military history-in favor of an approach emphasizing the quotidian, the forgotten, the native, and the downtrodden." Lost in this approach, Roskies writes, is "the value of approaching Jewish history the old-fashioned way, by looking closely at great men, great texts, and great ideas." Taken together, Halkin, Miron, and Roskies depict Jewish Studies in the Bay Area as a hotbed of sexual radicalism, trendy theory, anti-Zionist propaganda, and attempts to undermine traditional Jewish values. …

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