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Moments of Decision, Great Debates: Judaism in the 20th Century

November 18, 2013 - December 12, 2013


The history of the Jewish people in the 20th century is one of great dramas in human history—with tragedies and triumphs, ideological battles and great leaders, heroic achievements and existential failures, that together offers an education in the problems and possibilities of mankind writ large. For Jews, this history defines where we have been and who we have become; and it sets the terms for what we should do and how we should live, as a people and a nation, in the decades ahead. The big battles, the grand arguments, the great leaders, the moments of decision—the people and events that shaped the Jewish past will help define, for better or for worse, the possibilities for the Jewish future.

This course will study 20th century Jewish history by looking at a few of these key leaders, moments, and debates. With intellectual historian Allan Arkush, we will study Theodor Herzl and his critics, and then, along with Israeli intellectual Ran Baratz, the great debates between Jabotinsky and Weizmann over the meaning and strategy of modern Zionism. With Middle East scholar Michael Doran, we will study the great battles and bold decisions that surrounded the birth of Israel in 1948. With Rabbi J.J. Schacter, we will explore the theological arguments that helped define Jewish life in mid-century America. With Henry Kissinger, we will discuss his own role in the grand diplomacy surrounding the Yom Kippur War. With Elliott Abrams, former Middle East Advisor to the U.S. president, we will explore the Soviet Jewry movement and the last two decades of efforts to forge a new and stable peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Key Texts & Topics

  • Selections, articles, and essays by Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Chaim Weizmann
  • Speeches and writings of Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin
  • Historical work by Avi Shlaim and Avraham Sela
  • Essays and articles by Joseph Soloveitchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Mordecai Kaplan
  • Excerpts from Elliot Abrams, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict