Eyeing the Headlines, From the Ivory Tower

By Gabriel Sanders

Published January 12, 2007, issue of January 12, 2007.
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In the field of Jewish studies, academic conferences aren’t exactly known for their timeliness. But one panel at last month’s Association for Jewish Studies conference — the largest annual gathering of scholars in the field — proved remarkable for its topicality.

Titled “The Danish Cartoons and the Holocaust Analogy,” the discussion — an exploration, in part, of Iran’s current fascination with the Holocaust — took place just a few short days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s gathering of Holocaust deniers in Tehran. So recent was the Iranian conference, in fact, that scholars on the AJS panel found themselves scrambling to keep up.

“The timing of events made it difficult to even end my paper,” said Vassar College anthropologist and panel organizer Judith Goldstein. “Iran’s local council elections” — which came to be seen as sort of referendum on Ahmadinejad — “were literally coming through as the [AJS] conference was taking place.”

A fascinating conversation in its own right, the panel offered an opportunity to take up the larger question of just how much of a role the day’s headlines can or should play at a gathering of Jewish scholars. It’s an age-old dilemma: The scholar must work on a timetable that is, to a degree, independent of the twists and turns of the day’s events, but, at the same time, scholarship that pays no heed to what’s going on in the world runs the risk of tilting toward mere pedantry.

In assembling the cartoon panel, Goldstein consciously tried to remedy what she feels has become an imbalance at the AJS.

“I’ve been going to AJS [for years],” she said, “and I’ve been somewhat disappointed in the lack of topicality of the sessions. They’re all interesting and there’s a reason for all of them, but I really did feel that there are so many issues in the world right now that people could address, and they weren’t. There’s little place for people to work out what a Jewish studies agenda might be in the current political context, and obviously it’s unfortunate.”

Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University who spoke on the Danish cartoon panel, pointed to some of the reasons why he felt AJS sessions aren’t as topical as they perhaps might be. For one, he said, most of the people in Jewish studies — a rubric that includes everything from the Bible to the Holocaust and beyond — aren’t necessarily writing about contemporary events. As a second factor, Shandler pointed to differences in the scholarly temperament: Some academics are simply more comfortable than others in presenting material that is not wholly finished.

Jack Kugelmass, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida and chair of the cartoon panel, pointed to more elemental factors.

“The AJS is not the American Political Science Association,” he said. “The conference does not veer toward topicality the way the American Anthropological Association does. And it’s not just the question of topicality; there’s the matter of an issue-oriented aspect. Jewish studies is by and large dominated by textual approaches.”

And then there’s also the prosaic matter of scheduling. Calls for papers can often occur as much as a year before a conference is set to take place, thereby making it difficult to address the most recent developments.

There is also a risk in dedicating a panel to a topic that is actively being discussed in the news, said Sara Horowitz, a professor of English at Toronto’s York University who has served as program chair of the past three AJS conferences. “You don’t want to open up a topic in which you feel what needs to be said has already been said.” What’s more, a successfully timely panel requires more than just a lively topic; it demands a lucky synthesis of both topical subject and scholars with relevant specialties. And, indeed, what made the Danish cartoon panel successful was that its participants brought to it just such relevant knowledge. Goldstein, who did her doctoral fieldwork in pre-revolutionary Iran, drew parallels between the furor over the cartoons and the outcry over Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses.” Both were taken as blasphemies in the Islamic world, she argued, and it was these perceived offenses — coupled with the desire to flout what she called a corresponding “Western sacred” — that have fueled Iran’s current preoccupation with the Holocaust. While not experts in Iran, Shandler and Kugelmass nevertheless brought to bear work they’ve done in studying various uses and abuses of the Holocaust in other contexts.

And yet, despite a consensus among the panelists that their discussion had been fruitful, there was a lingering sense that perhaps the material was too new, too raw, especially when it came to the matter of the conference in Tehran. “You couldn’t not mention it,” Shandler said, “but what can you say about it that’s definitive? We barely know anything about it.”

Which opens the question of just when is the time right for a topic to be subjected to scholarly scrutiny. When told that there was talk of having a panel on the film “Borat” as next year’s AJS conference, Shandler wondered about the timing. “Right now, it’d be great to have a conversation about ‘Borat,’” he said. “But will we want to have that conversation in December? It may be more valuable to have a conversation about ‘Borat’ in five or maybe 10 years. You never know.”

Through it all, Goldstein stood firm in the belief that a spirited dialogue between scholarship and the events of the day is a must for all concerned.

“The border between journalism and academics is not quite as impermeable as perhaps it once was. Journalists call on academics. Academics have blogs that journalists read,” she said. “Ideally, Jewish studies should analyze both current topics and the changing analyses of those topics; we should be doing our best to do intellectual histories of the present.”

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.

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