I’ve yet to see, among the criticisms of college ethnic and gender studies departments, a similar criticism of Judaic Studies departments. Is this because, as some charge, Jews have a privileged place in our universities? The pervasiveness of anti-Israel sentiment on campuses, usually with carte blanche or often support from faculty and administrators, argues against this allegation. Additionally, like most other faculty, most Jewish faculty lean liberal politically, and many of them lean toward leftist and radical attitudes toward Israel.
There are other reasons why Judaic Studies departments have not been criticized the way other ethnic studies departments have been. They fit more within widely accepted academic standards. Their faculty is traditionally qualified, they have hewed more closely to a traditional academic curriculum based on facts, they are more open to divergent views, and they work closely with other departments in interdisciplinary learning. Further, their graduates have succeeded in a wide range of employment.
One can justifiably point out that the history and plight of other minority groups or of women deserves academic attention for a complete, unbiased education. What is at issue is the extent to which these studies departments have veered into victimology and poor scholarship, and how little employment demand there is for their graduates.
Judaic Studies, by contrast, are a continuation of what, for centuries, has been considered a core academic requirement for understanding the genesis and development of Western Judaic-Christian civilization and morality.
Yet, as with the other humanities, there has been a sharp decline in interest among curriculum setters and students in the foundations of Western civilization. Also, most of the students in Judaic Studies courses are Jewish, either in search of knowledge or in identity. In a competitive academic environment, Judaic Studies departments must do more to justify themselves and to fulfill their mission.
While search for their identity draws many Jewish students to the department, it should not be the primary determinant of the curriculum. Survival must depend upon sound scholarship that is both attractive and worthwhile in personal and career development. There is certainly sound scholarship and a variety of fact-based views available within Judaic Studies. But for survival, it must do more to break out of its seeming ghetto. Higher education economics and higher selectivity in curriculum require that.
Since the 1960s, modern Judaic Studies departments have developed on many campuses alongside other studies departments. Larger universities naturally have the resources for larger departments. Looking at the offerings at various colleges, there is a diversity of approaches and content. But, to my eye, there are elements missing that would broaden both the content and the appeal for students.
Glaringly absent are a focus on Judaism’s key role in the development of Western philosophy and morality, how and why a civilization thrives and continues even in adversity, the multicultural composition of Jews, and the evaluation of the facts critical to some of Israel’s acts deemed necessary in the building of a successful state under siege and attack. In short, Judaic Studies departments should be more assertive about the unique understandings that they can provide about the world in which we live.
It is understandable that in campus atmospheres often hostile toward Israel, Judaic studies departments would be more defensive. However, to be more successful, their curriculum needs broadening and to appeal to otherwise disinterested students.
Several Judaic Studies professors have commented to me that many faculty within Judaic Studies departments engage in PC anti-Israel activities and teachings like faculty in other studies departments. An emphasis by Judaic Studies departments on the essential constructive role of Judaism in Western civilization may help ameliorate this infection of Judaic Studies by anti-West pathogens from other studies departments.
A good friend is a Jesuit professor of philosophy at a major college. His courses are quite popular and well attended, and a great many of his former students still turn to him for guidance in the diverse careers they have pursued. It is because he brings dry philosophies to life by explaining their relevance to today’s events and personal choices. That is the model that I wish to import to Judaic Studies. It must more directly contain and confront today’s pressing political and moral issues, issues which most concern students. And it must do so by emphasizing the constructive role of Western civilization.