March 29, 2016

Teaching Zionist History, His Way

Dr. Assaf Inbari: “The students who choose Shalem have a deep respect for the great texts and ideas that have shaped Western civilization.”

Assaf Inbari begins his course on Zionist history at Shalem with a challenge, presented as a comment on the apparent distance between today’s Israeli youth and the founders of the Jewish state. The founders, he explains, “weren’t a generation of people with exceptional talents or qualities. They were a generation of people with exceptional commitment and a sense of responsibility for themselves and for history.”

This is a challenge that Inbari hopes his students will take to heart, long after they’ve finished writing papers on the philosophy of A.D. Gordon. It’s the reason, in fact, that he was asked to teach this course at Shalem in the first place. “At the end of the day, we weren’t interested in a course on Zionism that treats the material as would any other survey course, such as one on eighteenth-century European intellectual history or Eastern religions,” explained Shalem educational director Ido Hevroni. “We wanted our students to engage meaningfully with their founding texts, to understand them as living, breathing works that can and do speak to them across the generations.”

To achieve that goal, Shalem approached the award-winning novelist, essayist, and cultural critic Assaf Inbari. “Inbari has written powerfully and provocatively about the experience, goals, and ideologies of the founding Zionist generation. Since we sought a lecturer who would throw down a gauntlet for our students, challenging them to grapple intellectually with the chasm between what Zionism meant to its founders, and what it has come to mean in the context of a modern state, we felt that there was no better candidate than him.”

Inbari is best-known for his book Home, a history of the kibbutz movement as told through the eyes of its original pioneers.  Short-listed for the prestigious Sapir Prize in 2010, Home catapulted Inbari, a highly respected writer of long-form essays on Jewish thought and culture, into the very center of Israel’s national debate about such divisive issues as collectivism versus individualism, and particularism versus global universalism. Frustratingly for some, Inbari eludes the convenient political categorization of left or right, instead proffering an original and determined argument for the continuity of Israel’s national ethos, and a renewal of that sense of meaning and purpose that once suffused the Jewish nation-building project.

Through the support of the Fund for Faculty Excellence, which seeks to attract innovative thinkers and scholar-practitioners for key teaching and mentorship positions, Shalem was able to persuade Inbari to travel from his home in Kibbutz Degania, in Israel’s North, to the college in order to teach two Core Curriculum courses on Zionist thought and modern Hebrew literature. Fortunately, Inbari found that making  the trip to teach some of Israel’s most elite and ambitious young people has been more than worth it. “The students who choose Shalem have a deep respect for the great texts and ideas that have shaped Western civilization and the Jewish tradition, and a desire to really converse with them. They may not agree with my views on Zionist thought and Israeli society as seen through the literature we read in class,” he finishes, “but that’s fine. That’s the point. These are subjects that, to my regret, don’t get the kind of serious, soul-searching conversation they deserve in Israel today. Here at Shalem, in my classroom—they do.”

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