Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and Jewish Studies scholars from across the country will be Seattle-bound, joining their colleagues at the University of Washington for a groundbreaking free public symposium on the millennia-old question: Exactly who is a Jew?
For two days in May, this eclectic mix of Jewish and non-Jewish scholars will apply their expertise in history, genetics and political science, law, and ethnic studies, to advance the conversation that hinges on the ever-expanding definition of Jewish identity.
For Jews around the world, the cutting-edge topics including citizenship laws, the acceptance of converts, whether to incorporate rediscovered Jewish communities, and the research on Jewish genes will play an increasingly critical role in any newcomer’s ability to lay claim to membership in the Jewish community.
“We are trying to shake things up in a number of Jewish ways,” Susan Glenn, professor of History at the UW and one of the co-chairs of the Boundaries of Jewish Identity symposium, told JTNews.
“These questions on these issues, like whether sperms and eggs are Jewish, or whether people who have just rediscovered their Jewish-ness can be called Jews, or on conversion and intermarriage have never been settled and they still are not. This symposium is about how we decide who will count and what the stakes are in that counting. Some of these panels, I suspect, will be deeply disturbing to people in the audience.”
Naomi Sokoloff, professor in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department, is the other co-chair. Due to health concerns, however, Sokoloff will likely be unable to participate in the conference and was not available for comment.
The sessions take place on Sunday evening, May 13, at the UW Hillel, and all day, on May 14, at the University of Washington Club, on the lower level of the campus.
Glenn will not be presenting any of her own work, which looks at the co-existing and paradoxical Jewish claims of Universalism while Jews simultaneously maintain their differences, she said.
“One of the main ways Jews have maintained their Jewishness is by blood,” said Glenn.
Perhaps the place with the most urgent need for answers to these questions that define a Jew is Israel.
Profound interpretive differences of Jewish law, or halachah, affect the ongoing dialogue within Israel regarding citizenship, the right of return, and ultimately, who may be counted among the Jewish population for demographic purposes.
“Citizenship has become a political vehicle in Israel and in Jewish communities all over the globe,” said Gad Barzilai, professor of Political Science and Law in the Jackson School of International Studies at the UW, speaking to the JTNews.
Barzilai will be speaking about Israel and the question of who is a Jew during the Sunday evening session.
“There is an ongoing political conflict in Israel,” continued Barzilai. “Most Israelis, 85 percent, are secular Jews — yet there is an ongoing debate within the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities within Israel who would like to have a stronghold of political power based on the Law of Return, what they would call objective criteria. They would like halachic criteria [applied], while the Supreme Court would like a more flexible, inclusive definition.”
Barzilai, who is Israeli, taught Law and Political Science at Tel Aviv University for 15 years before coming to the UW in 2005. He is a second-generation child of Slovakian Holocaust survivors and is a guest columnist for the online edition of the Israeli daily newspaper, Ma’ariv, concerning issues of citizenship, politics, and community law.
“The state is controlled by secular political elites,” added Barzilai. “Who is a Jew [for them] is not based on historical reflections, but rather political criteria. I don’t think you can have a democracy, which makes citizenship and legal rights based on a very narrow religious definition of who is a Jew. I think the criteria should be as inclusive as possible.”
Other noteworthy academics presenting at the symposium include Susan Martha Kahn, from the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University, will ask the question, “Are genes Jewish?”
Calvin Goldscheider, professor of Sociology, Dorot professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University, and former Stroum lecturer will discuss “Boundary Maintenance and Jewish Identity.” Jonathan Freedman, professor of American Culture and English at the University of Michigan will speak about “Conversos, Marranos, and Crypto-Latinos.” Erica Leherer, Cole Fellow in the UW Jewish Studies Department’s session is titled, “Jewish Like an Adjective: Confronting Jewish Identities in Contemporary Poland.”
“Jewish Studies isn’t just for Jews anymore, if it ever was,” said Paul Burstein, professor of Sociology and chair of the Jewish Studies Department at the UW. “Lots of people are interested in studying Jewish culture for the same reason that they’re interested in other cultures.”
Burstein said he is excited to hear ideas from “outsiders” who can bring new and fresh ideas into the local Jewish community.
“Other people are also pushing the boundaries,” he added. “This is an attempt to see if we can get at something new…by looking at people in various circumstances who are claiming to be a Jew. Instead of defining these issues just by fiat, we can try to talk about it.”
Glenn would like to see the boundaries around Jewish Studies pushed even farther.
“I hope to put the study of [the] Jews on the intellectual map and to build international bridges between Jewish Studies and other departments.”