EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2016/17
Report on the 2017 conference of the British Association for Jewish Studies
Jews on the Move: Exploring the movement of Jews, objects, texts, and ideas in space and time
The conference took place 10-12 July 2017 at New College, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh.
Main organiser: Dr Hannah Holtschneider, University of Edinburgh, BAJS President 2017
The conference was the largest in the series of annual BAJS conferences with more than 120 papers being presented, 4 keynote speakers, and around 160 attendees. With the generous support of the EAJS we were able to fund Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s keynote address, and award 4 travel bursaries to postgraduate research students from universities on the European continent (Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey). Additional matching funding from the Astaire Seminar Series in Jewish Studies included the sponsorship of Professor Hana Wirth-Nesher’s keynote, and conference fee bursaries for 9 research students based at UK and European institutions.
From the earliest accounts, travel and migration, movement across space and time have been a definitive feature of Jewish history. This is more than a historical fact, it is also a characteristic feature of the representation of Jewishness: Jews are associated with travel and migration, historically and in cultural production. In this history, no less crucial than the movement of people we will see the movement of texts, objects, and ideas, which travel both physically and intellectually as generations in distant locations engage with them at different times and places. This conference theme is very topical and brought together a rich offering of papers, interpreting the conference theme in innovative ways, through various academic disciplines and time periods.
Evaluating the conference, the topic generated an intellectual feast on a topic relevant throughout Jewish history and which continues to have much contemporary relevance for Jews and non-Jews.
As the BAJS conference is the annual British meeting of scholars in all disciplines and time periods associated with Jewish Studies the conference theme is usually broadly conceived to enable the participation of as many scholars as possible while remaining within their own core area of expertise. Movement and migration proved to be just such a theme. In addition, particularly graduate research students were invited to present papers on their research even if not linked to the conference theme. Thus the conference was a venue for networking and feedback on ongoing PhD projects.
Papers and discussion
The fact that over 3 days more than 120 papers in 6 parallel sessions were presented makes it impossible to discuss each one. However, the documents submitted as additional material include the conference booklet, which includes abstracts and affiliations for each presenter, and the full conference programme. The following will reflect on the keynotes only and draw out major conference themes from these.
Keynote Lecture by Professor Charlotte Hempel.
People and Ideas on the Move: the evidence from Qumran.
The settlement by the north western shore of the Dead Sea occupied by a Jewish movement from the 1st c. BCE onwards has for a long time been seen as indicative of the move of a small Jewish community into isolated withdrawal away from Jerusalem. More recently such a perception has been challenged both by archaeologists and experts on the literature from Qumran. This paper will suggest that, by contrast, the Scrolls tell us a great deal about the temple, the establishment, scribal practices and elites. Even if there was a move from Jerusalem then much of the culture and learning moved with those Jews from Jerusalem to the Judean Desert making Qumran, paradoxically, an outstanding resource on key aspects of Second Temple Jerusalem intellectual and religious life.
The Q&A offered a discussion on the disciplines involved in the investigation of Qumran texts, and highlighted the contextual nature of the inquiry and the development and expansion of scholarship in the past decades. Indirectly, the keynote and discussion brought about a lively engagement with the work of George Brooke. The keynote related well to the papers offered in the wide field of the study of the ancient world. Scholars from Europe, Israel and North America engaged in the reflection on travel and movement across the Graeco-Roman world.
Keynote Lecture by Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
Expanded geography: an epilogue to the history of Polish Jews at POLIN Museum.
An estimated 70 percent of the world’s Jewish population can trace its history to the historical territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, today Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, and neighboring regions. This territory was once home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Today, as a result of mass emigration, from the second half of the nineteenth century, and the Holocaust, it is home to the smallest. Facing the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes on the site of the Warsaw ghetto and prewar Jewish neighborhood, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews presents the thousand-year history of Jews living in this territory. That history is not complete without the story of those who left. The epilogue, which is now being developed, explores the following questions: Where did Jews from this territory go? What did they take with them? How does the legacy of the civilization created by Polish Jews shape their lives today?
The lecture’s walk through the exhibition with a focus on the theme of migration and movement produced discussion about the nature of the representation of history, and the current Polish political context into which the exhibition speaks. Whether or not POLIN is challenging, disrupting or correcting current commemorations of the Holocaust and Polish history, and expressions of antisemitism was questioned. This keynote connected a number of themes relevant in the study of Jewish history and its representation from the middle ages to the present. Papers engaging with pilgrimages, travel, and exhibitions drew from this keynote.
Keynote Lecture by Professor Hana Wirth-Nesher.
To move, to translate, to write: Jewish American immigrant voices.
An immigrant’s geographical journey is followed by a linguistic and cultural one, where translation both to and from the mother tongue and culture becomes a daily preoccupation. Since not every word or concept is translatable, immigrant writers are often drawn to untranslatability, which they dramatize as moments of estrangement. This lecture will examine the significance of diverse forms of the untranslatable in the works of Jewish immigrant writers who wrote both in English and in Yiddish, among them Isaac Raboy, Lamed Shapiro, Mary Antin, Henry Roth, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. This keynote was also part of the Astaire Seminar Series in Jewish Studies.
The discussion focused on identity and belonging in literary and cultural self-expression of Jews and the representation of Jews in popular media. The nature and representation of ‘accent’ was debated and connections between the North American and the European contexts were made. The conference had a strong representation of literary scholars, often working in contemporary literature, but also papers relating to early modern times and the past 200 years.
Keynote Lecture by Professor Tony Kushner.
Jewish Refugees and Other Forced Migrants: From Exodus 1947 to Lampedusa
In the 1930s and 40s, tens of thousands of Jews tried to reach Palestine by sea, many against the wishes of the British mandatory authorities. Today, the number of migrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean has run into the millions. This keynote will explore the continuities and parallels, as well as differences, between the two movements and especially the idea of migrants being ‘illegal’. More generally it asks whether Jewish refugees from Nazism can be better understood in a longer tradition of forced migration in and beyond the twentieth century or whether their experiences were exceptional.
The discussion focused on the long view on migration and movement, and with it the ability to draw on longer term developments with regards to British relationships to migrants in Britain and in the Middle East during the Mandate period. The discussion also centred on method and discipline examining the contribution of a historian to current political, social, and cultural developments in Lampedusa. This was the final keynote and brought the conference reflections into the present. A theme underlying the conference and specifically discussed here was the relationship between the study of history and the current political and social situation.
Summary – highlighting the most significant and productive threads with a reflection on the tasks ahead
In a large conference such as this, it is difficult to pinpoint methodological and thematic discussion threads. However, I would argue that the main gain of this conference was international networking of scholars, particularly research students. The conference included a session about research grant applications aimed at postgraduate and early career researchers. This session was scheduled on the first day and allowed this group of international emerging scholars to learn from each other and form associations right at the start. Another thread becoming apparent in this conference was the international nature of the gathering. While UK-based scholars remained in the overall majority, the strong international representation of scholars from the European continent, Israel, the United States, and Australia facilitated a wide-ranging exchange and networking opportunity. This outcome, not least made possible by the EAJS conference grant, was a significant feature of the conference.
A statement about planned outcomes and outputs
Plans are underway for soliciting full article versions of a selection of papers with a view to publishing these as a special issue of a relevant journal or as a stand-alone edited collection. If possible, such a volume / special issue would be published in time for REF2021.
The actual programme of the event,
The conference programme is archived on the conference website: http://wp.me/P2HpFu-bo
The conference was widely advertised on relevant mailing lists in the UK, and also on H-Net. The conference had a Twitter feed (#BAJS2017), which generated a number of interesting posts.
Dr Hannah Holtschneider (University of Edinburgh)