Benjamin Rubin

On Derek Penslar’s Emotional Zionism

Harvard University History Professor Derek Penslar. Photo credit: New Israel Fund of Canada

In mid-January, following Claudine Gay’s resignation, Harvard University’s interim president appointed Jewish History professor Derek Penslar as co-chair of its “Task Force on Combating Antisemitism”. Suddenly, there was great interest in what Derek Penslar writes, thinks and feels.

Much has already been written, pro- and con Penslar, which you can read online.  Tablet’s Jan 30 contra-Penslar article by David Mikics is titled: “Harvard’s Derek Penslar Helps Make The World Safer For Antisemitism”

A pro-Penslar Feb 5 interview by Irene Katz Connelly in Forward is titled: “Critics slammed Harvard’s antisemitism czar for his new book. He says he’s been misunderstood”.

So there is more than the usual scholarly interest in Penslar’s latest academic volume, published in June 2023, a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award, and intriguingly titled “Zionism An Emotional State”.

Personally I have an even greater interest in what Derek Penslar writes, thinks and feels. Because 25 years ago, while practicing law, I pursued an MA in Jewish history at the University of Toronto, and Derek was my thesis adviser. Though I never completed my MA, the term papers of my abandoned degree have become the cornerstone of my subsequent thinking and writing on Jewish history. For Penslar’s graduate seminar Jews in Western Europe: 1648 to 1933, I wrote: “The Jewish National Revival in Weimar Germany: Modernity, Cultural Renaissance and Zionism”. And after writing about “The Yishuv and the Holocaust” for the great Professor Michael Marrus, for Penslar’s seminar on Nationalism, I wrote: “New Jews, Sabras, Soldiers: Zionism and the Creation of a New Society”.

So I was especially interested to hear Penslar, in early 2024, speak about his latest book. The online event, held Feb 7, was presented by the New Israel Fund of Canada, on whose advisory board Penslar sits.  And even though Penslar was not permitted to discuss anything directly related to the Harvard task force, I was not the only one interested; over 100 attendees were on the Zoom book talk.

“Zionism An Emotional State” explores the connection between Zionism and emotion, a connection many of us these days are urgently experiencing.

There is no thought without emotion. Human feeling is inextricably intertwined with human thinking.  This understanding has emerged from studies on the body-mind connection, the bio brain of the gut, the effects of testosterone and estrogen and other hormones on the mind, the study of evolutionary biology, and the understandings of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Surveys show that North American Jews, especially those under the age of 35, have different views of the connection to Israel. It’s not that they are “unattached”, but they are “somewhat attached”, a cooler version of a connection. There is a big distinction between Orthodox and secular Jews. Over 70% of Orthodox Jews consider themselves “highly attached”. This is double the number for non-Orthodox Jews (even though a significant portion of the American Orthodox Jewish community – the anti-modern ultra-Orthodox – are not strongly Zionist. Unlike the Modern Orthodox, who are.)

This emotional cooling toward Israel among secular Jews is true to my “lived experience” through Jewish family, friends and anecdotal acquaintances in Canada, the US and Israel.

One Jewish friend from Brandeis University – you could call her an “American Bundist” – has adapted, as a statement, the New York Times article that asks, “Is Israel Part of What It Means to Be Jewish?” To which she answers: not really.

Others of my Jewish college friends carry on their own parents’ traditions, and practice what Hertzberg has called “the civil religion of Israel”. Under that denomination’s rules of Jewish inclusion, you can be an intermarried Jew, and completely non-observant, but if you basically support and emotionally care for the safety and welfare of Israel, then you are still part of the Jewish people.

My college friends are now all 65 plus.  But go down one generation and the emotions change.  I have a cousin whose son has gone far beyond the Bundist’s passive dismissal of Israel’s importance: indeed, not a cooling but a red-hot emotional hatred of Zionism, fueled by anger and disappointment at what Israel is doing – not to Gaza, but to the reputation of Jews among his would-be friends. For him, Israel is not connected to Jewish history, Hebrew culture or even the Jewish people.  Israel is only about one thing: its position of power vis a vis the Palestinians.  He writes:

“Equating Zionism and Judaism is bad for the Jewish people. The world does not see a country defending itself from invaders. It sees Jews committing war crimes. The chance for peace disappeared in 2009, when an Israeli tyrant enforced an apartheid state. Not only did his refusal to negotiate for peace doom the Palestinians, it doomed the Israelis. And in doing so, it doomed the Jews around the world. Not all Jews are Zionists. We don’t all want to kill and dominate to have our own “Jewish state.” But that’s what the world thinks.”

Penslar acknowledges that there is a small minority within Jews, especially young people, who, like my cousin’s son, are out and out anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. Penslar is not happy about this emotional cooling, for he is a Zionist, a serious student of Israel’s Hebrew culture, and of Israel’s deep connection to Jewish history.  Penslar appreciates the tremendous importance of the state of Israel to what Donniel Hartman calls (in place of “Diaspora Jewry”) “World Jewry”.

Penslar talks about the relationship between Israel and World Jewry – by which he primarily means North American Jewry – as once having been a parent-child kind of relationship, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which Jews living in North American had completely avoided (though many Diaspora Jewish men fought Nazi Germany as soldiers in Allied armies).  From its birth in 1948, Israel started out frail, endangered and extremely poor.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Arab countries and from DP camps in Europe were living in tents and asbestos-board shantytowns, and the successful American Jewish community was willing to help make Israel succeed.

Published in 1958, Leon Uris’ novel Exodus spent 18 months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and was later made into a Hollywood movie starring blue-eyed Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan, the masculine sensitive “New Jew, Sabra, Soldier”. Then, after 1967 and the victory of the Six Day War, Israel became the Diaspora’s adored older brother. Israel and Israelis were seen as stronger, tougher, more authentic.

But now Israel has become the Startup Nation, a country with a powerful military, and a wealthy country – in 2022, Israel’s per capita GDP was higher than that of Germany, France or the UK. So American Jewish philanthropic aid is no longer indispensable.  However, American government military aid and diplomatic support is critical to Israel’s survival, and so the emotional connection of North American Jewish voting citizens remains of great importance.

Penslar sees the emerging relationship as being more “filial”. Filial is defined as “relating to or befitting a son or daughter”. Filial’s synonyms are: devoted, familial and dutiful.

Penslar discusses the distinction he sees between anti-Semitism versus anti-Israel. He views it in light of the distinction between “actor” versus “perceiver”.  I understand him as saying that an actor, such as a pro-Palestinian demonstrator, in free speech America, chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, may be taking a position and making a statement that he thinks of as merely anti-Israel, but that same statement and its underlying position are perceived by the American Jewish perceiver as being against the Jewish people, of which he is a part, and therefore antisemitic.

Even with Penslar’s distinction, it is hard to perceive how a fundamentalist position that the world’s sole Jewish state does not have a right to exist, can be understood as against anything other than the Jewish people. Especially when out of all the nations of the world, ONLY the “colonial-settler” Jewish state is so singled out – and not, say, the truly colonial-settler societies, the former British colonies, settled by millions of immigrants, that became Canada. Or Australia. Or the USA.

In discussing the emotions that have arisen since October 7th, Penslar distinguishes between hatred and anger.  Anger is an emotion which can be legitimate, is usually ephemeral and fleeting, and can be dealt with.  Each of us in our personal lives have felt anger, even (or maybe especially) towards members of our family, our partners, our parents, or our children.  But anger comes and goes.

Hatred is “petrified anger” at the object of anger. It is far more lasting emotion. And there is a possibility that the burning anger, which becomes hatred, can become molten and destructive, and turns into rage.

To Penslar it is possible to listen to somebody who is angry and to try to understand why they’re angry and what their point of view is.  Hatred less so. Rage impossible.

But for Penslar, other than anger, hatred has another source – fear. Penslar says that he understands the fear aspect of antisemitism. If you read American Jewish novelist Dara Horn’s Feb 15 cri de coeur in The Atlantic, “Why the Most Educated People in America Fall for Anti-Semitic Lies”, she lays out dispassionately the fear aspect of anti-Semitism. Horn, herself a Harvard graduate from an earlier era, contends that “at Harvard and elsewhere, an old falsehood is capturing new minds.”

Penslar finds that those with strong anti-Israel animus, especially on the university campus, have a hard time accepting these three “dirty” words: Narrative; Complexity; Civility.

Narrative means there are different points of view about the same subject; there is more than one way of looking at the situation.  Where you sit determines where you stand. And where you stand determines what you see.

Complexity muddies the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, between oppressor and oppressed. (Are Hezbollah’s 140,000 missiles aimed at Israel defensive weapons? Are Gaza’s 400 miles of tunnels meant to protect oppressed Palestinian women and children, or to protect Hamas’s fighters and leadership oppressors?)

The third “dirty word” is civility.  Penslar recalls teaching in Oxford where he found some of the English expert at bringing withering criticism, while always maintaining civility.

Living in civility-infused England, renowned English author Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, writes of the anti-Israel antisemitism he is experiencing in London.  With the UK’s 4 million Muslims and 300,000 Jews, it is a far more intense version than what is happening even in Toronto, or at Harvard University. Jacobson’s insightful Feb 11 piece in Tablet, subtitled “Today’s Jewish anti-Zionists seek the bliss of persecution”, notes that Jews seem to be “forever waiting for something bad to happen.” Jacobson’s essay is mostly about the psychology – one could say perhaps with Penslar, the “emotional state” – of English Jews who take part in what are usually called “pro-Palestinian demonstrations”.  They’re what Jacobson calls “ASHamed Jews”, far to the left of Hertzberg’s “civil religion of Israel”. Their only connection to being a Jew is to begin their attack on Israel with the phrase: “As a Jew, I am ashamed…”

Jacobson is not an ASHamed Jew. He writes: “I haven’t been on any of the marches for Palestine that are now a regular part of a London weekend. Every Saturday in England is now Vilify Israel Shabbes. I meet the marches half-way by not calling them Hate Marches. I’d like them to meet me half-way by not calling themselves Peace Marches.”

Perhaps for English-speaking Jacobson, living in the UK in the 2020s must feel a bit like an Arabic-speaking Jew living in Andalusia in the 1140s, as Berber fundamentalist Almohads crossed from North Africa into Iberia and replaced the ruling Almoravids.

Indeed, today’s English-speaking Diaspora Jews bear strong parallels to the Jews of Spain, especially the Jews of Islamic Andalusia from approximately 950 to 1150 CE. Not only were these fluent Arabic-speaking Jews wealthy, educated, sophisticated and deeply integrated into the urban society around them, but they produced, as Jews, the greatest cultural, literary and philosophical flowering that the Jewish Diaspora had yet produced.

When the fierce “woke” Almohads replaced the Almoravids in 1147, they moved Andalusia’s capital to Seville, from Cordoba. It was from Cordoba that 10-year-old Moshe ben Maimon – the future Maimonides – fled with his family east, eventually to Cairo, becoming doctor to Saladin, and writing, in Arabic, “The Guide to the Perplexed”.

Most of us are aware that the Jewish presence in Christian Spain ended in 1492 with the Edict of Expulsion, and the subsequent inquisition of those Jews who did convert. Less well known is how the far more golden age of Jews in Muslim Spain ended in the mid-12th century, with the invasion of puritanical Islamic reformers from North Africa, who brought to Andalusia, and its Muslim-Jewish Convivencia, a purist fundamentalist credo that spelled an end to the special conditions under which Arabic-speaking Jews had thrived for centuries.

As in Andalusia, as in England, so in Canada. Beginning with a rush on October 8, Jews living for decades in Toronto, feeling totally integrated and at home in Canada, even part of society’s blessed, suddenly felt part of a small, vulnerable minority, with – overnight – fewer acquaintances, let alone friends and political allies. The left-wing New Democratic Party had long ago become anti-Israel, but now even Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party changed, calculating that while Canada’s 400,000 Jews, 1% of Canada’s population, are significant voters in only 3 or 4 urban ridings, Canada’s 2 million Muslims are significant voters in perhaps 15 key suburban ridings. He looked at his caucus, quickly did the electoral math, and suddenly the political atmosphere for Canadian Jews cooled significantly. In Toronto, with intimidating street marches, vandalism of a Jewish-owned bookstore, demonstrations in front of Jewish-owned coffee shops and delis, and even an illegal (in Canada) demonstration in front of Mt. Sinai Hospital’s University Ave. entrance, Jews feel fear.  Maybe we too are going to experience the “bliss of persecution”?

Meanwhile In Diaspora Jewry’s parallel universe of Jewish-majority Israel, “Arab Citizens of Israel Face a Cruel Quandary: Our State Is Fighting Our Own People”, according to Mohammed Darawshe, Director of Strategy at Givat Haviva, Israel’s Center for Shared Society. As if epitomizing the conflict, Darawashe’s own nephew was a medic and ambulance driver at the Nova music festival on October 7 and continued to provide medical care for the wounded until he himself was killed, holding bandages in his hands. In Haaretz, Darawshe writes:
“This war has put us, Arab citizens of Israel, in an unprecedented, impossible situation, caught between Hamas, to whose brutality we lost family members, the disproportionate bombing of Gaza, and police McCarthyism when we express the right to feel compassion towards the Palestinian people.”

However, Penslar’s focus in his book, and at Harvard, is not Israel, but the position of Diaspora Zionists living as part of World Jewry. How should they respond to those who call for the end of the Jewish state? How does he respond?

“There are 9 million Israeli citizens, among them 7 million Jewish Israelis. They’re not going anywhere.”  Indeed, many of them have been there now for several generations. If Palestine does become “free” from the river to the sea, are Israelis, whose parents were born in Israel, and whose grandparents were born in Baghdad or Sana’a, supposed to move back? Or to… Europe? Where currently 50 million Muslims have settled, and are powering the weekly anti-Israel street marches?

Derek Penslar is a liberal humanist Zionist. His “fundamentalism” is the acknowledgement of every person’s humanity. Penslar also claims that a particular arrow in the quiver of his emotional repertoire is his ability to respond emotionally, not out of hatred or fear, but to instead consider sadness. Perhaps this sadness arises from “the lachrymose conception of history” that in 1963, during the Anglo Saxon Jewish Golden Age, famed Jewish historian Salo Baron argued against?

Penslar referenced the poem by Bialik on the 1903 Kishinev massacre – not the famous “City of Slaughter”, with its well-known criticism of the Jews and their passive attitude towards the violence inflicted on them.  Rather, Penslar refers to Bialik’s earlier poem on the Kishinev massacre, “On the Slaughter”.  He sees this poem as being written “more in sadness than in anger”.  And its anger is not against the Jews, who were oppressed victims; or even the Ukrainian pogromists, who were the oppressor protagonists.  Rather, the anger is against God.







About the Author
Benjamin Rubin was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created, a Zionist conceptual art project. Since retiring from the practice of law, he and his wife split their time between Toronto and Tel Mond. He has an abiding interest in Israeli contemporary music, the Golden Age of Hebrew poets from Andalusia, and the Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia of Spain. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, “Golden Age Travel”, about 12th century Hebrew poet and Arabic Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. Episodes of the series have been performed online at Limmud Festivals in Toronto, Boston, Seattle and Winnipeg. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021.
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