Last month, Rutgers University staged a conference devoted to examining the ways in which the Eastern European Jewish experience has been reformulated and reimagined in Israel and in the United States. Titled “Beyond Eastern Europe,” the gathering was jointly sponsored by Rutgers’s Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and the Hebrew University’s Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry.
After the last of the conference papers was presented and the final PowerPoint slide show unspooled, the Forward caught up with Yael Zerubavel, director of the Bildner Center, to discuss the paper she delivered and the conference in general.
“As far as I could tell, there had never been a conference on the American, Israeli, Eastern European triangle,” Zerubavel said. “The issues involved hadn’t been brought into focus in a comparative perspective. It also allowed a chance to look at the reverse perspective — how developments in Israel and the United States have influenced what is happening now in Eastern Europe.”
In her own presentation, Zerubavel, an Israeli-born historian, employed a different sort of reverse perspective. Rather than look at Eastern Europe from an Israeli vantage point, she examined how Palestine was seen through the eyes of potential Eastern European settlers. Using travel brochures, movie posters, photos and other media, she showed not so much the gritty reality of pioneer existence but the imaginary landscape dreamed up by the Eastern European Jewish mind. In Zerubavel’s slides of pre-state Israel, two wildly conflicting sets of images emerge: the Promised Land as a place of wide boulevards and sharp Bauhaus-inspired angles on the one hand, and the Promised Land of the camel, the desert hut and the Bedouin shepherd on the other. The Holy Land held out whatever the European was lacking. For the shtetl dweller, it offered Western sophistication, and for those disenchanted with civilization, it offered a back-to-nature idyll.
Aliya carried the promise of transformation, but often in counterintuitive ways. The Eastern European could come to Palestine and become a Western European. Still today, Zerubavel said, Israel has a way of reinforcing or re-creating native identities. “Moroccan Jews became ‘Moroccan’ only after arriving in Israel,” she said. Before, they were simply Jews. English-speaking Jews, meanwhile, are remade in Israel into “Anglo-Saxons.” The entire concept of a Mizrachi identity, Zerubavel said, is a construction made in opposition to Israel’s Ashkenazim.
Zerubavel emphasized how many of the strategies used to market the Yishuv in the early 20th century are still very much in effect today.
“Tours for American Jews will emphasize the desert and Bedouin lore, adventure and mysticism. When federations send missions, there is usually a component of that. It provides a link to pre-state Israel. Then again, they’ll also highlight achievement: science, technology, progress and, of course, the democratic society,” she said.
But is the view of Israel in America today not essentially different from that of the Eastern European settlers of the past century? “For America’s perceptions of Israel,” Zerubavel said, “there’s room for a whole other conference.”
Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.