Which way to the ivory tower?

Despite offering programs geared to a diverse audience, many consider the Van Leer institute left-wing.

van leer 298 88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
van leer 298 88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The first thing one notices when stepping into the Van Leer Institute is that it must be a very wealthy institution. Its location, between Beit Hanassi and the National Academy of Sciences in the exclusive neighborhood of Talbiyeh, is perfect for a high-level academic retreat, disconnected from other venues. It then becomes apparent that Van Leer is very eager not to show off that wealth. An elegantly nuanced kind of humility seems to be the unwritten rule here. Scholars' names on doors are thoughtfully displayed without any title. On the internal phone list, the head of the institute and the program director are in the same row as the receptionist. Once the sliding glass door is behind you, you can't avoid feeling that you've reached a huge public space, and unless your aim is to arrive at one of the offices, you would never even guess their existence. This is not unintentional - rather it is at the very core of the ideology behind this venerable institution. "We are dedicated to the public space, to the needs of the professional and to the lay audience that we want to have here," explains Prof. Shimshon Zelniker, for the last decade head of this prestigious research institute, created in the early 1960s by the Van Leer family and foundation and based on the Dutch Jewish millionaire family's vision of "Israel as both a homeland for the Jewish people and a democratic society, predicated on justice, fairness and equality for all its residents." To achieve these goals, the institute hosts in its 4,000 sq.m. facility different study groups, which work on two levels: academic research beside advocacy and field work. This dual focus highlights the institute's unique role, quite different from most academic institutions. A commonly held idea about the Van Leer Institute is that it is a post-Zionist, left-wing stronghold. It is known for its programs emphasizing a civil society and for its center for the study of Israeli-Arab relations. Its prestigious journal, Theory and Criticism, provides a forum for Israeli scholars, mostly of the post-Zionist and left-wing camps. Yet it has played a crucial part in the "trend" of renewing ties with Judaism, especially for non-observant Jews. Its series of weekly Torah readings and commentary has likely been the inspiration for many other Jewish pluralistic organizations, studies and venues. Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, director and founder of the Jewish Thought and Identity program at Van Leer, is identified with this movement. "I was called the rabbi who took the weekly Torah portion out of the synagogue," confirms Rothenberg,who cannot hide his satisfaction. Three weeks ago, the program celebrated 10 years of existence in a ceremony with an audience bigger than ever, made up of all parts of society: religious and secular, scholars and laymen, old and young - all sharing the same lively interest in the same biblical text. The institute also runs an interdisciplinary workshop on gender with the Torah weekly portion, and promotes the Mizrahi tradition of piyutim. "I am personally, deeply and totally engaged in the notion of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," stresses Zelniker at the beginning his interview with In Jerusalem. "This combination is absolutely sacrosanct in my eyes, and if I hadn't been assured of its existence and feasibility here, I wouldn't have found my place in this institution. "There is no contradiction at all between 'democratic' and 'Jewish,'" he emphasizes. "It's all a matter of belief. Without belief, we don't have anything; we would be barbarians, savages. Some people believe this connection to be impossible. For me it is a sanctification: I will never accept a democracy that will exclude my Jewishness, nor the opposite." Zelniker points out many people believe that the ratio between the Jewish and democratic spheres should be a asymmetric. "My position is that it should be totally symmetric, and this is the way we look and deal with it here at Van Leer. And there is something else: Some people say that democracy in Israel is reaching a dead end. I say on the contrary, Israel's democracy is just at the beginning. It is a very young and maybe a fragile one, but it's just a beginning." Zelniker has particular affection for unexpected explanations and combinations. "For me a democrat has to be, before anything else, a patriot; he has to love his country," he says, "But a democrat has also a duty to be suspicious toward his government, first thing as he wakes up every morning. He has to ask irritating questions, to investigate the government's decisions, to question them, again and again and never to be afraid. In other words, he has to be ready to wash our dirty laundry in public." Zelniker has also a very clear view of what Judaism means and entitles you to do. "I know people who observe every iota of the Jewish religious obligation - they pray three times a day, clean out hametz and keep a strict separation between milk and meat, but that doesn't make them Jews in my eyes. I'm talking about our Jewish culture, the only ground in which we can still all meet and speak the same language. If it's only inside the synagogues, it's lost for a large part of our people. I want to take my share of this heritage and legacy from the monopoly of the synagogues and the rabbis." "The four basic tenets of what we do at Van Leer are very clear," Zelniker adds. "Research, advocacy, going public with the hottest items in the public debate and participation. I am well aware of the fact that our society is a very intimate one. It's a small country, everyone knows everyone, but this is exactly the reason why I believe we should deal with our problems and issues publicly. That is the main reason behind the fact that, in contrast to the academic world, our publications are in Hebrew: They are intended for the local Israeli audience. "Universities publish papers and research for the academic world; it's their job. Ours is to clarify things for ourselves, here and now. To put it into one sentence, it would be that the audience that we have created for different opinions, ideologies and viewpoints is paving the way for the creation of a new language, a language that can be used by all sides." "This institute facilitates encounters that are impossible elsewhere because of its philosophy," says Rothenberg. "At Van Leer we can make room for an encounter between the people working here and some of the most conservative parts of the Jewish world. They can meet here: Researchers of Van Leer with representatives of the Jewish Theological Seminary [a Conservative institution] would be one example. "Also [we have] workshops where haredim and religious Zionists can sit down and work together on common issues," he continues. "In contrast to our image outside, at Van Leer there is a genuine and profound interest in all aspects of the issues Jews face, and we do invest lots of thought and work on the issues relevant to actual Israeli and Jewish society. For example, it was my initiative to create a group that dealt, for two-and-a-half years, with the classic Jewish texts relevant to each different group within Jewish society here." PERHAPS ONE of both Rothenberg's and Zelniker's most cherished initiatives in the Jewish Identity Program is the New Horizons for Religious Educators program. The project, which started in 2003 and is supported by the UJA of New York, aims at allowing teachers in the religious-Zionist education system to acquire knowledge of humanities and social studies, which are not usually a part of their education. At Van Leer, senior educators and principals in yeshivot and ulpanim study sociology, history and, above all, philosophy and general culture. This is considered by the directors of Van Leer as one of their most important achievements. Another influential program was a conference on the contemporary streams of Judaism, which brought together scholars and educators to evaluate and learn about the condition of the Jewish people in the 21st century. . "The idea behind the program of the weekly Torah portion," Rothenberg explains, "was that these texts, which are an integral part of Jewish culture, should also find their way into the secular parts of our society, here and today. Maybe even more so in the secular society, because our main message was that everyone can take the text and interpret to the best of his understanding. This made room for masses of people who are outside the regular religious streams. In fact, it gave them back one of the most ancient customs of our Jewish legacy. And now, you can see it everywhere. "Besides the nearly 25,000 people who have already attended the series at Van Leer, tens of thousands more participate, in other places, in this same central activity of our Jewish culture: the permanent, cyclical pattern of learning; every week, year after year, again and again. I see it as empowering the thirst for this aspect of Jewish culture that lives outside the inner circle of religious groups. We took it from the synagogue and gave it to the people: the secular, the scholar, the layperson, everyone." One of the recent and exciting programs within the Jewish Thought and Identity program is the Mizrahi Jewish Voice initiative. Two prominent scholars - Prof. Haviva Petaya and Dr. Meir Buzaglo, from the Jewish history department at the Ben-Gurion University and the philosophy department of the Hebrew University respectively, have connected their efforts and skills to develop what has become one of the most popular and successful series at Van Leer: "From Andalusia to Babylon, the Piyut as a Cultural Window." During the seven sessions in the series, launched last year, the Van Leer auditorium was always crowded and some people had to sit in the aisles. Perhaps the most interesting part was the mix of the audience, composed of scholars and laypersons, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, who listened - one could say religiously - to the lectures about, and interpretations of, these liturgical Mizrahi songs. The Van Leer Institute also deals with other, and often touchy, aspects of modern Israeli society: the Arabs in Israel, the status of women, the problems of social justice. The institute hosts scholars, Jews and Arabs, who "try to gain an unbiased understanding of Israeli Arab citizens and attempt to create a common framework for Jews and Arabs in Israel." The institute's center for the study of Israeli Arab society was founded in 1991 and is still headed by Prof. Adel Mana'a. The center issues books - mainly in Hebrew, but also in translation. Its major release is the Israeli Arab society yearbook, which provides important data on the different aspects of Arab life in Israel. The program also includes a special encounter series on the issue of equal rights for Arab citizens, patterned after the Or Commission of Inquiry. THE PLACE for the "other" is an important issue at Van Leer - and perhaps is responsible for giving it an image as a stronghold for all kind of "post" ideologies. "We sit on the stream between academic research and field work," admits Prof. Hanna Herzog, one of the leading figures in the Culture and Humanities program. "Despite our image, we strive to create and bring changes to society; we do not hide behind high walls. Our research is intended to be applied, it is not intended for the sake of publishing another research paper for the academic world. We mean to see changes take effect in the society, due to our work." Her last book, Knowing and Shutting Up (Yodim Veshotkim), is a vibrant example of this ideology: She shows, based on field work, how the establishment succeeds in shutting out different voices - whether it be Arabs, immigrants, Mizrahim, women or any of the other "others" in Israeli society. An attempt to address the exclusion of the other is the popular series on Jewish Middle Eastern liturgy, created and directed by Petaya, a lecturer and researcher in Jewish history and Kabbala at the Ben-Gurion University. Petaya brought the idea of a yearly series of encounters to Zelniker; the meetings consist of a lecture, a conversation with special guests and a live concert, each time dedicated to a specific community and its traditions. She recalls having been accepted with generosity. "My project also included research groups, and that was a very important part of the whole idea. I was very impressed... I soon realized that the people at Van Leer felt engaged, not like in an academic ivory tower." Still, Petaya does not hide that things are not to be taken for granted. "I was welcomed openly; I did not feel there was some ideology confronting my own and that is very important, but it is too early to say what real place this project will hold at Van Leer. I mean to really take its place, and make a change, we need the test of time - we need to see things in a decade from now. We need to see if this is going to be a new path that the academic world and all of us should take, and see what harvest it will give us . But this is the strength and the importance of a place like Van Leer: It is free of the burden of universities, it thus has the power and the capacity to show new directions, to become the address for these changes to come." "The architecture of the place dictates my job," concludes Zelniker. "It's mainly an open space. The way I understand it, it is the legacy of the Van Leer family, especially Bernard and his mother Paulie, who were the main forces behind this project of bringing together people and scholars. This is the place where we make room for this encounter, the research from a high and strict academic level, and the people, representing the society for whom this research is done. Even if I wanted to, I cannot change this vision or its mission." While the Van Leer Institute emphasizes its openness to different groups and issues in Israeli society, no one forgets that the venerable institution is a solid bastion of the intellectual Left. The issues of poverty, society, gender, ethnicity and of course Jewish identity have a honorable place at Van Leer. Although not an attempt to show a different face of the institute, this week's symposium, "A Global Perspective on the Israeli Occupation," to mark the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, couldn't have taken place anywhere else. "The 'heaviest' figures of the radical philosophical and intellectual milieu in Israel, with Prof. Adi Ofir at its head, were present," recalls a source at Van Leer. The topics were clear: a comparison with the dictatorial regimes in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq, a lecture on the "fruitless quest for legitimacy" by the US in Iraq, and another on "occupation as governmental logic." The whole evening brought back the good old flavor of the issues that gave Van Leer its reputation as a stronghold of the radical Left. "The fact that the symposium didn't even try to use titles such as the dilemma between liberation and occupation in regard to the outcome of the Six Day War was a clear message," added the source. "Van Leer today is well aware of the other issues - Judaism, social issues, poverty, the struggle for a stronger democratic approach - but the European flavor it has also brings a different attitude to the conflict. It looks at it both from Israeli eyes and with from the perspective of abroad. As Prof. Ofir said at the symposium, 'There is no other Western country where occupation has lasted so long, and this is a kind of disease.'"