Sander Gilman seems to be everywhere. If not physically, then certainly textually. His staggeringly productive academic life is one led by questions. His intellectual work is framed not by final verdicts and closed cases, but by meaningful inquiry and heartily informed suggestions.
In his 40-odd years of academic laboring and almost unprecedented publishing, he has dissected subjects ranging from Holocaust literature to biographical studies of Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka, from Jewish culture to racial identity, from the history of smoking to the history of anti-Semitism, from German philosophy to the phenomena of Jewish intelligence and Jewish humor, from obesity to aesthetic surgery, to literature and medicine.
This week, Gilman has been on a lecture tour throughout the country, principally speaking in Beersheba and Haifa, and participating in a study day for young scholars in Jerusalem.
The “professor’s professor” and practicing psychoanalyst, who taught at Cornell University for 26 years and later took posts at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Oxford University, settled most recently in Atlanta, Georgia, where he has created a program at Emory University called “health-science-humanities.”
As the title suggests, the program combines two of his special areas of concern, medicine and humanities, with an emphasis on literature and psychology. He is also codirector of the Institute of Psychoanalysis at the university and former president of the Modern Language Association of America.
As colleague Mark Gelber, director of the Center for Austrian and German Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, quipped, Gilman “has lectured or been invited as a guest professor on every continent, except Antarctica. His impressive intellectual range, astounding depth of knowledge and acute critical sense in the various fields of his interest are perhaps unmatched by any scholar working today. He is a phenomenon in his own right.”
When asked what he does for a living in an interview in Beersheba, Gilman humbly responded, “I shuffle papers.”
The main motivation for his recent visit was to participate in a major international conference at Ben-Gurion University entitled “30 Years of Austrian/German-Jewish Literary Cultural Studies.” He discussed in a personal interview the location-appropriate subject of the Israeli presence in the Diaspora.
Gilman is of the opinion that particular trends in Zionism can be marked by patterns in the “movement of peoples.” “I’m a great believer that one of the things that defines human beings,” he said, “is the fact that human beings as individuals and as groups are constantly moving, for good reasons and for bad reasons – they’re being driven out and they’re being killed, or they’re being rewarded.”
His interest in Jewish “movement,” he explained, is that “one of the things that has happened markedly in the last 10 to 15 years now is what I consider to be a major sign of ‘post-Zionism,’” that is, “the presence of Israelis in the Diaspora – in the galut
.” Israel, said Gilman, is no longer a place simply for “the ingathering of Jews,” but also “a place that people depart from.”
Gilman also addressed the tendency of Israelis to put their national identity before their religious one, specifically when they enter into the Diaspora. Such a shift in self-identification, he said, is yet another sign of the movement from a Zionist to post-Zionist era. “If you start to look in the last 20 years at the very clear, long-term presence of Israelis in the US and South Africa,” he remarked, “Israelis see themselves as Israelis – they don’t see themselves as Jews, necessarily. If you ask them what they are, they’re Israelis, right?”
Though he claimed to “give no value [to the trend of increased Diasporism], positive or negative,” Gilman’s comments likely strike a delicate chord in the Herzlian strain of Zionists, who carry the ardent conviction that Jewish movement “should only be one way.”
“The tension in Israel,” between Zionists and so-called post-Zionists, Gilman said, “is real,” and is manifested in the conflict between traditional Zionists, who encourage Jewish insourcing and resent the very presence of Jews in the Diaspora, and the post-Zionists who, it seems, don’t give the issue much thought either way.
GELBER, THE organizer of the conference in Beersheba and Gilman’s host for the duration of his stay, does not agree with his guest’s position on Zionism and points to the particular “importance to the demographic reality” of Israel within Jewry. He views the prospect of the State of Israel soon being home to the majority of the world’s Jews as having a uniquely positive impact “on Jewish life as lived by individuals in Israel.”
Gilman, who believes that Israel is simply one of many Diaspora communities, remarked that post-Zionism, though its definition seemingly implies that the State of Israel has no inherent right to exist, “does not cancel out Zionism. I mean, the illusion of this argument is that if you say that there exists Jewish presence in the Diaspora – even Israeli Jewish presence in the Diaspora – it doesn’t mean that there should not be a national state with a national identity. Any more than there shouldn’t be a Chinese state, with a clearly Chinese identity.”
Zionists, Gilman continued, “see [the Jewish Diaspora] as contradictory, and some people see post-Zionism as a term that means the end of Zionism, but I see post-Zionism as the age after the establishment of the national state, where the movement of peoples both in and out is part of what national states do.”
With such a solid take on present trends in Zionism, it seemed appropriate that Gilman also respond to the question of the future of post-Zionism, in other words if Israeli Jews continue to emigrate at higher rates than Diaspora Jews immigrate, what will become of Israel as a nation?
His response was directed at a worldwide issue: “I think that what’s happening is what sadly happens with all national states – they become ‘normal’ in terms of the movement of peoples.” For reasons that are both good, bad, forced and voluntary, Gilman said, “some [of this movement] may be very positive, that is, people making choices. My prediction is that this pattern will continue.”
The mounting presence of Israelis in the Diaspora begs the issue of whether or not a distinction can be made at all between Jewish Israelis and Diaspora-born Jews. Gilman is certain that there exists, for all nations, “a national character. But is it uniform?” he asks himself.
“No, that’s silly... But there are certainly national characteristics... and they are shaped by a whole range of things, including – and we’re back to the movement of people – well, by the movement of people!”
IT IS THESE questions of one’s national and religious identity, of one’s homeland and one’s self-identification in relation to it, that seem to take a great hold of the scholar, not only in his work, but also in his personal life. “It’s very clear that I’m wrestling with this question of identity,” he admitted. “And not just because I ask what it means for me to be Jewish, but a more complicated question. I think that every Jew in the Diaspora and in Israel is self-reflective about this.”
Gilman believes that, while issues of identity may be relevant to many people, while “the majority of the people in the world are happy with whatever identity they have at a given moment,” for Jews the question of self-classification is distinct from all others. According to Gilman, “There is a fragment of humanity that keeps on asking, ‘Who am I and what am I and am I the same person I was 10 years ago, 20 years ago?’” These, he said, “are always the questions that have puzzled me.”
Having published or edited some 80 books the 66-year-old Gilman has not yet fully answered these questions, nor does he believe that they carry clear-cut solutions. The process of research and writing, however, has led to a body of work that is as enlightening for readers – if they dare take on the task of diving into such a tremendous collection – as it is for the scholar himself.
“The thing I’ve said about academics,” he said, clearly identifying as
such, “is that academics always write autobiographies, always. They
either write about those questions that are absolutely integral to who
they are, or they write about those questions that are as far away from
that as humanly possible.”
It is evident that Gilman has chosen to take on his most internally
pressing questions throughout his career. His books are a testament not
only to his immeasurable skills as a researcher, reader and writer, but
to the thinker himself, whose most personal quandaries are interwoven
throughout the thousands of pages that make up his remarkable