Israeli Scholar Trains an Eye on the Emerald Isle

Profile

By Gabriel Sanders

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As a student at Tel Aviv University in the mid 1990s, Jerusalem native Guy Beiner became interested in what the French call l’histoire des mentalités, history that takes into account how a people perceived itself and its world. In particular, Beiner began to consider folklore and oral traditions — sources often ignored by historians — as valuable tools in studying how a community lived and understood its moment in time.

Though he’d been studying the history of Israel, Beiner looked to Ireland, a country famous for its storytelling tradition, and signed up for a master’s program in Irish Studies at University College Dublin. The move bore unexpected fruit. Today, a full decade after his departure, Beiner — together with a Hungarian-born wife whom he met in Ireland and their three children — is back in Israel with a Ph.D. in modern Irish history, a groundbreaking new book, a professorship at Ben Gurion University and the distinction of being the only scholar in Israel specializing in Ireland.

The Forward recently caught up with Beiner (on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, as luck would have it) to discuss his academic path, differences in Irish and Jewish perceptions of the past, and his new life in Israel.

In speaking of his scholarly training, Beiner returned again and again to the language of liberation. “When I first arrived in Ireland,” Beiner said by phone from his home outside Beersheba, “I soon learned that I was the only student in the program. It gave me a free hand. I could go to any department I wanted and attend any class I wanted. I could tailor the program to my own needs.” Beiner also learned that in Ireland, there are advantages to being an outsider. Neither Catholic nor Protestant, he found he was free in ways that Irish scholars are not. “I wasn’t affiliated with any local conflicts or rivalries,” he said. “I could go and talk to anyone.”

Beiner ultimately chose as his area of focus an episode of Irish history known as the Year of the French. In the summer of 1798, large areas of Ireland were swept up in rebellion against English rule. After the suppression of a number of insurrections in eastern Ireland, a French military expedition arrived in the west and teamed up with local Irish soldiers. Despite some early success — and the proclamation of a French satellite “republic” — the rebellion was crushed in a matter of weeks.

In his new book new, “Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory” (University of Wisconsin Press), Beiner looks not at the official history of the rebellion but at the various way in which it has been remembered and memorialized — in song, story and stone — in the locales it touched.

“Scholarly orthodoxy today speaks of the ‘invention’ of tradition,” said Beiner, 39. “They’ll speak of how we’ve become detached from our traditions and have invented new ones.” Beiner disagrees: “The only real case of pure invented tradition would be Israel — an even that’s not true. In Ireland, it’s different. Yes, there are invented national traditions, but, unlike in Jewish Diaspora culture, there was always continuity in the land.”

Beiner, who speaks a fluid Hebrew-accented English with the merest hint of an Irish brogue, discussed how the study of Irish history has sharpened and redefined his ideas about the Israeli past — often in unexpected ways. Pointing to how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is commonly compared to the case of Northern Ireland, Beiner expressed reservations about making obvious connections. “It’s often in the less obvious questions that we find the most interesting insights,” he said. As an example, Beiner pointed to an article he published in Hebrew last year about trauma and triumphalism in the wake of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916. The piece, he said, elicited a surprisingly warm response, with some readers drawing analogies to 1948 and others finding resonances in last summer’s war in Lebanon.

Beiner found that Israel had changed in the time he spent away from it. “When I left for Ireland 10 years ago,” he said, “there wasn’t an Irish scene here. There was one band playing Irish music. Suddenly, Irish pubs have opened all over Israel. Lots of Israeli musicians are now playing Irish music. They have direct flights to Dublin. There are high-tech relations with Ireland. With globalization, everything has changed.”

The spirit of globalization is palpable in Beiner’s classroom, too. “I have a good mix of people from different backgrounds: local Bedouins, Arabs who come from as far as the Galilee and Jews from all over. I’m thinking of introducing a new course on oral history, and it’s obvious to me that if I just get the students to interview family members, we can have stories from all over the world,” he said.

For an Israeli historian trained in Ireland and married to a Hungarian, it seems a perfect fit.

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.