‘Zionism: An Emotional State’

‘Zionism: An Emotional State’

Historian will discuss political emotions and mass movements at Rutgers talk

Derek J. Penslar
Derek J. Penslar

We’re generally taught that political movements are the result of the clash of synthesis, antithesis, and resulting synthesis of ideas as philosophy, history, economics, and other disciplines come together.

And that does make sense. Ideas come from other ideas.

But they also come from emotion. Mass movements aren’t formed from abstractions. They come from feelings. Political emotions.

That’s true of political movements in general, Derek J. Penslar said, and he’s not the first academic to have said so; among others, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has used the term. “But I’m the first to apply it to the study of Israel,” he said.

Dr. Penslar, who is Canadian, is the William Lee Frost professor of Jewish history at Harvard and the director of the Center for Jewish Studies there; those are just some of his many credentials, from Harvard and other institutions.

He’s going to speak at the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers where he will talk about his most recent book, “Zionism: An Emotional State.” (See below.)

“Zionism, like any national movement, is much more a product of emotion than of abstract ideas,” he said. “The book is a study in political emotion, which is the sense that your own well-being is inseparable from the well-being of something that is much bigger than yourself.

“That’s true for all historical movements. I take that idea and plug it into my understanding of Zionism.”

He’ll divide his talk into two sections, he said. First, he’ll address “positive emotions. That’s when we’re optimistic about obtaining something we desire, or we’re content because we have obtained it.”

He traces the development of the emotions Zionism has evoked over time, since its origins in the late 19th century, and up till now. “The emotions include love, hope, and honor, which was considered an emotion in the 19th century,” he said. “Honor is a very important component of early Zionism.

“And solidarity, which is probably the single most important emotion in early Zionism, united Jews across space, and which became particularly important during the Holocaust, when large numbers of American Jews joined Zionist organizations.”

Before the war, and particularly before knowledge of the Holocaust became impossible to ignore or deny on this side of the ocean, most American Jews were not Zionists, Dr. Penslar said. “But during the war, solidarity came into play, and then even more so in 1948,” when the state of Israel was born.

And then, he said, “after 1948, the feelings changed from solidarity to love, and it became an almost erotic love.

“It was the love of a new Jewish body, tanned, virile, Paul Newman-like men, women in short shorts. That became mainstream in 1967,” after the Six-Day War. “You hear more and more people using the language of falling in love with Israel, which you hadn’t heard before. That language became dominant.

“The imperative to love Israel is fairly new; it started in the 1970s” and gained steam in the decades that followed, Dr. Penslar said. “You see it in the Birthright Israel project, which started about 25 years ago.

“It was about love. About eros. The Israeli soldiers are an essential component of it.”

He tells the story of a young Israeli friend “who was one of those soldiers, and happily engaged to his future wife. He was not available to any of the young women from Birthright Israel.” Therefore, his deployment to Birthright Israel, where he was sent to charm and enflame, was labeled “a waste of human resources,” Dr. Penslar reported.

But then, “in the late 20th century, those feelings of love and infatuation began to fade,” Dr. Penslar said. “Now we are in an era where the Jewish world is quite divided. Where younger Jews, in particular, are experiencing not so much a disconnection from Israel as what I call an emotional cooling. They still have a connection, but it’s not the kind of adulation that it once was.

“Of course, there are exceptions,” he continued. “Orthodox Jews comprise a very important exception to what I’m saying. Public opinion polls show that emotions toward Israel in the Orthodox community remain strong — but most American Jews are not Orthodox.

“I see a profound emotional disconnection at Harvard,” he added.

Dr. Penslar now finds himself, as a historian, in a less-than-ideal situation. History is being made as we all watch.

“There has been a kind of transformation in just the last eight months,” he said, since demonstrations against the new Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms began. That will be the subject of the second part of his talk, when a new emotion comes in.

Since Israel was created, “we had the era of solidarity, and then of love, even erotic love,” Dr. Penslar said. “Now, in the last eight months, for the first time in my life I’m hearing more and more references not to love but to anguish.

“A lot of people are very concerned, and they don’t know how to talk about it. I talk about feelings of unease, anxiety, trepidation; about the fear that Israel will be destroyed, but not by terrorists.

“There are many negative emotions. There’s the feeling that things have gone terribly wrong.”

He is an academic, not a politician, so he’s not taking a political stand, Dr. Penslar said, but his love for Israel and his concern for it come through. “American Jews are very concerned,” he said; although most seem to be in favor of the demonstrators, “there are many American Jews who support the government as well.

“I try to look forward to what the future of the emotional relationship we Jews have with Israel” will look like, he said. “We are now in an era where things are more and more ambiguous and turbulent. What will happen moving forward will be a new set of emotional norms between North American Jews and Israel as we move into 2024 and beyond.”

He finished the manuscript for his book two days after the Israeli election that brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition to power, Dr. Penslar said. “In February or March, I got the galleys proofs” — the next stage is when the book is typeset and put in page format, but there’s still time for corrections, additions, and subtractions.

“I made a few little changes, just to say that the aftermath of the elections are very likely to bring major changes. “The book was finished just on the eve of the very new changes. In the talk, I will provide some of the next chapter,” which is certain not to be the last chapter.

“It’s a problem when a historian tries to deal with the present, because the present keeps changing,” he said ruefully.

“It is strange to ask a historian to predict the future,” he continued. “If I could predict the future, I would have bought Apple stock at the beginning.

“But we are good at talking about what won’t happen. We’re good at ruling things out and giving a more limited set of possible futures.”


“Because we know what has happened,” he said. “If we do our job right, we don’t fall prey to myths. If we do it right, we can think clearly, and perhaps we can tease out the relationships between past, present, and future.

“That’s the key if historians are to keep things honest, and to avoid the pitfalls of believing in myths, including myths that we very much want to believe in. That doesn’t predict the future, but it does provide realistic scenarios about what might happen.”

Even without turning from historian to seer, does Dr. Penslar have hope?

Yes, he does, he said.

“The strength of Israeli civil society has been remarkable,” he said. “People all over the world are deeply admiring what the protest movement is doing. It has its own contradictions and hypocrisies, of course, but if you have been to any of the demonstrations, as I have been, you know that there is a feeling of solidarity, which is very extremely inspiring.

“There is a feeling of hope.

“Od lo avdah tikvatenu,” he said, quoting from Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, whose title, not coincidentally, means “the hope.”

“Our hope will not be lost.

“Absolutely Israel is in a very serious, very grim situation, where, as Tom Friedman,” the New York Times columnist, “put it, I think very eloquently, it could become Hungary, or even worse, Lebanon. That is frightening.

“But there is the unique resilience of Israeli civil society, and the fierce sense of ownership that Israelis have over their county, that makes them politically much less passive than, say, Americans.

“Israelis are unique in their resilience and perseverance,” Dr. Penslar concluded.

“Those are classic Israeli characteristics. Without them, there wouldn’t have been a state.”

Who: Dr. Derek J. Penslar

What: Will deliver the Ruth and Alvin Rockoff annual lecture, on “Zionism: An Emotional State”

For: Rutgers’ Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life

When: On Wednesday, September 20, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: At Douglass Student Center, Trayes Hall, 100 George St., New Brunswick. For more information: Go to bildnercenter.rutgers.edu and click through to “Public programs and events”

And also:

Dr. Penslar’s book, “Zionism: An Emotional State,” is available widely, including on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as in brick-and-
mortar bookstores.

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