Thursday, March 06, 2008

Politics and scholarship

Last month I presented a paper at a UCLA conference on Middle Eastern and North African Jewry, so I was curious to see that UC Irvine is hosting one on similar themes. What I cannot understand is why Rabbi Yonah of Jewlicious sees this conference as somehow 'bad for the Jews.'

After looking at the conference's panels, he writes, "the issue of the displacement of Jews is a massive human rights issue that is ignored." Indeed, that subject does not seem to come up. He considers this a problem because he is interpreting what appears to be a conference put on by scholars from Spanish literature departments as a political response, almost a town-hall meeting, to the concerns of the contemporary Jewish people generally, and of the Jewish population of UC Irvine in particular. He adds, "The conference is part of a larger attempt by the University to deflect criticism as being a place hostile to Jewish students."

If my sense is correct about academic conferences, a tiny, tiny percentage of the university, Jewish or otherwise, will know about this conference (more via Jewlicious than would have otherwise), and a tinier proportion still will actually show up. I don't know anything about this university in particular, but given the titles of the presentations, I find it hard to believe that this conference is geared at placating undergraduates. It looks very academic, which I don't see as a problem, but do see as evidence that the motives might not be what Rabbi Yonah has in mind. In other words, while other programs he mentions, like kosher meals, might be part of "a not-so-secret attempt to portray the campus as a hospitable place" for Jewish students, I fail to see how a conference of this nature fits the bill.

He also writes, "Study and research into Sephardic culture is a very worthwhile area of study—however, ensuring that Jewish students receive fair and equal treatment on campus, without fear of reprisal or intimidation, seems to be a much more pressing issue." Fine, but why does the responsibility of protecting Jewish students at this university fall on the Spanish and Portuguese literature department? How is there a zero-sum contest of talks on "Gender and meaning in the Sephardic ballads of Latin America" and whatever anti-defamation program the rabbi has in mind?

As for the conference itself, Rabbi Yonah writes:

Rather than pressing Sephardic issues, such as the displacement of 850,000 Jews from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East since the founding of Israel in 1948 [pictured on right], the one day conference delves into topics such as: “Sephardic Culture and Hispanic Studies”, “Andalusi Jews and Sephardim”, “Crypto-Jews, Conversos, and the Doenmeh/Maaminim of Salonica” etc.

Not to get too technical, but perhaps no one submitted a paper on the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. At academic conferences, not everything is covered, and the basis on which papers are accepted is rarely, to my knowledge, how overtly relevant they are to political issues of the day; when that is the case, it's generally a bad thing, unless the field is by definition about the present time. It's absurd to object to scholarship when it fails to be on a subject with obvious social relevance. (I wish there were a paper on the Sephardic Jews of France, but each to his own.)

Given the title of the conference, "Sephardic Jews Beyond Spain," it's not surprising the discussion would not center around Mizrahi Jews/Jews from Arab countries, since these are, as I understand, two overlapping but not identical populations. It's not clear to me why scholars from Spanish and Portuguese literature departments would have any special knowledge about the expulsion/dispersion of Jews from Muslim countries. I should point out that I do think the migration is an important concern, and one not entirely beyond the scope of those in a French studies department (consider North Africa), but to expect one conference to hit upon everything, including things outside of its focus, is a problem.

Finally, and here is where I get a bit frustrated, Rabbi Yonah mentions: "One session on Ottoman Jews could be interesting, but it is being given by a woman who specializes in Turkish Jews— not the Jews of Palestine." Hmm. A talk in Jewish studies can be interesting even if it is not about Israel. I promise! Or at least I hope, since I'm in 19th century French-Jewish studies myself, and any relevance to Israel is indirect at best. It's worth bringing up BHL's point once more, about how Judaism should not primarily be about raising awareness of anti-Semitism. I'm not saying that the study of Jewish history should ignore the historical and literary presence of anti-Semitism--believe me, it's there wherever you look--but that Jewish studies should not be confused with a scholarly anti-defamation league. There's something positive about Jewish studies, whatever the findings. The focus should be on the Jews as a people worth understanding, or at least that's where I see my role in all of this.

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