Budapest School Considers New Jewish Studies Program

More than 30 leading scholars from around the world met recently in Budapest to discuss the creation of a Jewish studies program at the Budapest-based Central European University.

Representatives from Europe, North America and Israel took part in the June 13- 14 brainstorming session that examined the place of Jewish studies and Jewish memory in the intellectual world of post-Communist Central Europe.

The conference occurred as Jewish studies programs are forming at a number of institutes of higher learning in Central and Eastern European countries.

“It is a positive, but strange phenomenon, given the continuous decline of the Diaspora, particularly in Europe,” Sara Japhet of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said in an interview.

The CEU, set up in 1990, promotes educational development and policy-making in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the former Soviet Union.

The university, which is funded by the Soros Foundation, provides postgraduate education for students from nearly 40 countries. Most of the academic disciplines offered were neglected under Communist regimes. Many students are expected to assume high-level positions among the region’s next generation of leaders and scholars.

“It is very significant that a new institution such as the CEU should want to occupy the Jewish space in Europe and recognize the significance of the Jewish space in Europe by organizing a course of this kind at such a high level,” Antony Lerman, executive director of the London-based Institute of Jewish Policy Research, said in an interview.

The school said in a statement that a Jewish studies program was important because it “can be a special forum for international interethnic discourse about ethnic politics and national cultures that might prove promising, particularly for younger generations who will grow up in a world in which the Soviet empire, communism and the role of Jews in the history of their countries and the region are memories rather than daily experiences.”

The statement also said, “The Jewish question in the history of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union remains an indispensable aspect of national self- definition” and that “from the perspective of modern Jewish history, the region can be regarded legitimately as the most important since the fall of Rome.”

The school addressed anti-Semitism in the statement as well, acknowledging that it is a “continuing reality” in the Central European region.

The academics at the conference debated what the Jewish studies program should include.

CEU Professor Alfred Rieber said, “Do we include the broad sweep of Jewish experience? Or specialize, tailor [the program] to the Central-Eastern European area? Do we want to appeal to people who already have training in Jewish studies? Do we want to draw in people with no experience with Jewish life, but who are attracted to it?”

Some participants felt that it was essential for any Jewish studies program to include a firm grounding in traditional Jewish texts and subjects, including Hebrew and Yiddish.

“Jewish studies in universities should be different from the curriculum in rabbinical seminaries,” Hungarian scholar Geza Komoroczy said, adding, “This difference nevertheless must not mean negligence toward rabbinical tradition.”

Others suggested that the CEU should take advantage of its role in the region to focus primarily on contemporary and regional issues rather than the traditional elements of classical Jewish studies.

Anthropologist Jack Kugelmass, of the University of Wisconsin, said social theory and cultural studies involving the contemporary condition of Europe – - and the modern history and conditions of Jews in Central Europe — should be a focus.

“This would give the CEU a unique profile in Jewish studies, he said. “The background against which this is happening is a Europe without Jews.”

Another scholar said, “CEU should not do what others are doing, that’s not the point. It should choose topics that you do not find anywhere else.”

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