Editors' Note and In Memoriam: Rachel Feldhay Brenner

in Israel Studies Review
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  • 1 Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, USA
  • 2 Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, USA

The increased number of Knesset elections in Israel during the last two years means that once again a new issue of our journal will reach you shortly after the elections while the manuscript goes to press several weeks before voters go to the polls. If in the past it was possible for public opinion polls to forecast at least approximately what the results would be, in recent years this has become impossible, really an irresponsible gamble. Thus, much as we would like to, we will not be able to say anything here about the possible election results, nor analyze the power balance between the parties or the political blocs.

But we do feel a strong desire to comment on one important issue related to the latest election campaign, a topic that has not received the attention it deserves.

The election campaign for the 24th Knesset has been conducted first and foremost on the ‘Bibi or not Bibi’ issue, as the Israeli public has been preoccupied for several years with the prime minister's leadership style, manners, and ethics, which led him to be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Added to this has been his leadership during the COVID-19 crisis; it could be argued that Israel has the best results in the world (highest rate of vaccination by far) or is among the worst (open and large-scale flouting of COVID regulations by much of the Haredi sector).

Yet the personalization of the election campaign also derives from a different source, namely, after so many decades, the still bleeding Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the future of the occupied territories. This issue has been completely pushed out of public discourse. This is in some part the fruit of the false statement after the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit that “there is no one to talk to.” In the current election campaign, it has been reformulated using the unfounded statement that “there is no difference between the right and the left in Israeli politics.” The signing of the Abraham Accords has served for too many as prima facie evidence that the Palestinian matter is no longer an issue and therefore need not be addressed at all.

This misperception has been cultivated by political groups in whose ideological and political interest it is to avoid public debate on the issue and by media that has forgotten its duty to be independent and critical. But is it not the role of academic scholars to question such social conventions, to scrutinize them, and warn against the spread of false perceptions presented as objective, absolute truth?

Indeed, in early February 2021, an explosive event took place that has already shaken the false serenity created by the hegemonic complacency regarding the conflict. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has ruled that it has jurisdiction to deal with allegations of Israel's and Palestine's conduct in the territories because Palestine, which requested the investigation, has sufficient status as a non-member observer state of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. Without taking a position on the tribunal's decision and on the concrete accusations against Israel's behavior, this decision has to be seen as a sign of the collapse of the prevailing Israeli concept—the Palestinian issue is passé and should not be on the agenda—so dominant during the election period.

Although we must not underestimate the severity of other problems in Israel at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century—the harmful effects of Haredi autonomy on Israeli society, the decline of trust in national institutions (particularly governmental) to a historic low, and the deepening social gap, the Palestine issue nevertheless is Israel's most fundamental problem and the prerequisite for the resolution of many others. It is the duty of the academic community to place it on its own agenda as well as to assure it remains on the Israeli public's agenda as well.

However, since it is clear that neither we nor whatever government emerges from the current election (assuming one does!) will be in a position to solve the conflict anytime soon, we will move on to the contents of the current issue of the ISR. We begin on a sorrowful note. One of the stalwarts of the AIS, a former president and a prolific and eclectic scholar, Rachel Feldhay Brennerz”l, the Elaine Marks WARF Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, passed away in February of this year, as we were about to go to press. We held the issue in order to include two tributes to her by a few of her many friends and colleagues who deeply mourn her passing. May her memory be a blessing.

This is a hybrid issue—half of the articles comprise a mini-issue published with the European Association of Israel Studies (EAIS) and half were chosen by the ISR editors. The EAIS section is introduced by an essay by School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Professor Emeritus Colin Shindler, founder and former chairman of the EAIS, surveying the academic study of Israel Studies in Europe.

The introduction is followed by three research articles relating to Europe and Israel. The first is by Joanna Dyduch, current Chair of the EAIS, on Israel's relations with the East Central European countries of Poland and Hungary. Artur Skorek, author of the next article, focuses on the same three countries, but hones in on their political parties and ‘post-politics’, finding considerable similarity in their political directions, even if the party labels are different. The third of the articles is an interesting analysis of the domestic repercussions of France's policy with regard to the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict (Operation Protective Edge).

Our general articles are eclectic, reflecting just a bit of the range of the submissions we have been receiving. We start with an analysis of multiculturalism as reflected in Arab Museums in Israel, but specifically focusing on the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery, authored by Athar Hajyhia. This is the only ‘Arab museum’ supported by the state, and it both reflects and attempts to guide the sociocultural realities in Israel.

We follow with two articles focusing on pre-state Revisionist politics. Adi Armon writes on the political education of one Benzion Netanyahu (father of Bibi) during the years 1932–1935, wherein he finds seeds of Israel's current political attitudes. Brian Horowitz analyzes “Vladimir Jabotinsky's Political Paradigms, 1916–1940,” who he sees as “leaping over history” as a gadfly or even “revolutionary, rather than a parliamentary politician.”

We conclude ‘our’ articles with one on a field we admit that we have not covered sufficiently in the ISR: Israeli theater. Leah Gilula shows that The Cameri Theatre, long renowned for bringing a sabra perspective to the Israeli stage in the 1930s and 1940s, really hired very few sabras. She concludes that the “adored and best-known image of the sabra was not created by the sabras themselves but by a theater troupe of West European immigrants.”

We also offer a Book Forum, providing you with four essays on Ian Lustick's recent book Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality. Varying perspectives are presented by Oded Haklai, Ronnie Olesker, Mira Sucharov, and Ehud Eiran, with a response from Professor Lustick.

We conclude, as usual, with a brief selection of book reviews, which represent only incompletely, and necessarily somewhat arbitrarily, the profusion of volumes that constantly appear in our field. The first two examine different facets of the left, just as it contemporaneously seems to be almost disappearing from the Israeli political stage. Laura Wharton writes about the social agenda of the Labor Party in the 1960s and 1970s (reviewed by Elia Etkin), while Fiona Wright examines the contemporary “Radical Left” (reviewed by Tal Elmaliach). Then we encounter a historical examination of another very contemporary topic, namely, the interplay between religion and politics. Daniel Mahla's study examines the relations between the pre-state Agudat Yisrael and the Mizrahi movement and is reviewed by Motti Inbari.

We want to remind the ISR community that this is the penultimate issue edited by the current editors. This summer, and commencing with the Winter 2021 issue, we will turn over our (virtual) green eyeshades to the new editorial team of Oded Haklai, Adia Mendelson-Maoz, and Rami Zeedan, who are already busy learning the ropes. We will bid you farewell (as editors at least) in our next (fall) issue, which will have the enigmatic, guest-edited theme of “Israel: A Case Study.”

— Paul L. Scham and Yoram Peri

In Memoriam

• • • Rachel Feldhay Brenner

article image

Rachel Feldhay Brenner, the Elaine Marks WARF Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, died on Thursday, 4 February 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 74. Brenner was a devoted teacher, a prodigious and wide-ranging scholar, and a valued colleague and friend. She served the Association of Israel Studies (AIS) tirelessly, sitting on innumerable committees, serving as Vice President from 2005–2007, and as President from 2007–2009. During her term she oversaw the transformation of the AIS into the large, well-organized, and academically influential organization it is today. As Ian Lustick recalls,

That meant dealing with personal and political issues within the organization, as it grew, that were difficult and sometimes awkward and painful. Rachel was not someone who relished the spotlight or the exercise of authority. Yet she trusted in herself, and in those who asked her to serve, myself included, that she was up to the job and could help lead the Association toward the amazing success it has had. I remember, and will always remember, her for her honesty, her devotion, her warmth, and, though she would deny it, for her leadership.

Born in Zabrze, Poland, Brenner moved to Israel with her family in 1956. She studied at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and the University of York in Toronto before coming to Madison, where she joined the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies in 1992. In addition to chairing the department from 2004 to 2007, Brenner was an active member of the George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies, the Middle East Studies Program, and the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

An internationally recognized scholar of Hebrew, Polish, and Canadian literatures, Brenner published on a wide range of subjects, including the ethics of witnessing, the literature of the Holocaust, and relations between Israeli Arab and Jewish writers. Brenner was the author of seven books and no less than eighty articles. Her 2019 book, Polish Literature and the Holocaust: Eyewitness Testimonies, 1942–1947, examines literary responses of Poles to the genocide of Jews during the Nazi occupation. Her book The Ethics of Witnessing: The Holocaust in Polish Writers’ Diaries from Warsaw, 1939–1945 received the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies. Brenner's other monographs include Inextricably Bonded: Israel Jewish and Arab Writers Re-Visioning Culture and Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, and Etty Hillesum. In recognition of her distinguished publishing record, she was awarded the Max and Frieda Weinstein-Bascom Professorship of Jewish Studies, which she held from 2009 to 2014. In 2020, she was selected to be the inaugural Harvey L. Temkin and Barbara Myers Temkin Professor in Hebrew Language and Literature.

“In her research she always had a vision for new directions and a unique capacity to identify truth amidst conflicting testimonies,” recalls Lucyna Aleksandrowicz-Pędich, a professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. Madeline G. Levine, a translator of Polish fiction and memoirs and professor emerita at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, remembers Brenner as an incisive reader who “deployed the analytical skills of a superb literary critic” to probe crucial questions about the experience of witnessing atrocity.

Shoshana Ronen, the chair of the Hebrew Studies Department at the University of Warsaw, describes Brenner as “an interdisciplinary scholar par excellence,” whose writings deal with crucial questions about “the ethical and psychological outcomes of the Holocaust, resistance versus indifference in time of terror, the collapse of the ideas of the Enlightenment, ethics and politics, and whether the art of writing can be a spark in the process of tikkun olam (repair of the world) after the Holocaust.”

In the classroom, Brenner was known for her energy, enthusiasm, and intellectual rigor, and for the genuine interest she took in her students. “She loved to see students engage with one another” to exchange ideas and offer insights, remembers Hilary Miller (UW graduate 2019). Brenner wanted her students to honor their backgrounds and personal history while setting the expectation that when entering her classroom, all preconceived notions could be challenged and subject to scrutiny.”

These memories are echoed by Shira Goldenholz (formerly Yuchtman, UW graduate 1999). “I remember to this day the high standards she set for her students and her commitment to making sure each of us truly achieved our highest potential in her class. She expected a lot, but she gave no less.”

A dedicated teacher and scholar, Brenner remained active until her final days. As recently as mid-December 2020, she participated in a live-streamed panel on the uses and abuses of art in representations of the Holocaust at the meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies. Earlier in the year, at a conference in Paris, she presented a paper about her grandmother's letters from the Warsaw Ghetto. And in 2019 she traveled to Israel, Poland, and throughout the United States to give conference papers and take part in roundtables.

As Ronen observes, Brenner's life was inseparable from her work: “She showed that writing is an act of resistance in a violent and coercive world. I think that Rachel's writings, and also teaching, were an act of resistance in the face of the absurdity of existence. In her work she bestowed meaninglessness a meaning.”

May her memory be a blessing.

The Association of Israel Studies thanks Gwen Walker, Tony Michaels, and Nadav Shelef for authoring this tribute and Yael Zerubavel for helping to bring it to print. The photograph of Rachel is provided courtesy of The University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tribute to Rachel Brenner

Alan Dowty

I knew Rachel primarily in the framework of the Association for Israel Studies. From my early days in AIS activities, she stood out as a natural leader in the organization. We worked together on the AIS board and as officers during the same period. When we chose a new Vice-President (and presumed President-Elect) in 2005, there was universal acclamation. Rachel had, by the force of her scholarship, her dedication, her insights, and her skill in working with fellow academics, gained the respect of all who knew her. And as AIS President, as others have noted, she brought the organization to new heights.

But what stays with me the most, and what I will miss most grievously, is her personality and her friendship. Rachel had a capacity for projecting warmth and understanding that is difficult to describe. With her sly smile, and looking you directly in the eyes, she could create a sense of directness and openness that bridged any gap that might exist. She penetrated quickly to the essence of any subject, with sensitivity and understanding of a truly remarkable order.

I was privileged to spend a few months with Rachel at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, some twenty years ago, along with other scholars in Jewish and Israeli studies. We created our own discussion group and engaged in some truly stimulating conversations in which Rachel was a key player. I remember fighting through a rainy evening (it was, after all, England) to attend a Shakespeare play in Stratford and learning from Rachel nuances that I had not registered. I will truly miss her.

Rachel's Favorite Poem

Time hastens1
my time is up

what should I take with me
to the other shore


so is that

yes son
that's it

so that's all

that's all

so this is a life

yes all of it



Reprinted from Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Rozewicz. Copyright (c) Translation copyright (c) 2011 by translator Joanna Trzeciak. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


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