Jewish Studies Project

Most interesting developments of the last 20 years in Jewish studies

The Jewish Studies Project at CEU was launched in 1996, with the aim of revitalizing the study of Jewish history, culture and society in the region. Starting out as a public lecture series, the Jewish Studies Project now offers a teaching track for MA and PhD students, regularly organizes international conferences and workshops, and most importantly, has become a mainstay of Jewish studies in Central Europe. A Jewish studies specialization is offered within the broader framework of the Nationalism Studies Program and Department of History, thereby encouraging students to examine Jewish history, culture and society in a comparative context, using a wide range of theoretical and methodological tools. The focus on modern Central and Eastern Europe makes the program one of a kind and has given CEU a central role in the revitalization of Jewish studies in the former communist bloc. The Jewish Studies Project fits in perfectly with CEU’s intellectual organization due to its fundamental multi-disciplinarity and its non-sectarian and critical nature.

One of the most important developments in Jewish studies in the past 20 years is undoubtedly the opening of archives in the former communist bloc, which has given researchers an opportunity to explore formerly inaccessible sources, revisit and revise traditional historical narratives and conduct new research on the post-Holocaust period, in particular. These sources lend themselves to transnational and comparative perspectives, especially in the communist period, when Jewish policies in the satellite countries were often coordinated and directed by Moscow.

Furthermore, the collapse of communism created new challenges for Jewish identity formation. Identities that had been shaped, to a large extent, by the oppressive regimes of the 20th century now faced a new range of possibilities in the post-communist era of democratization. These possibilities were compounded by the challenge of joining Europe, which gave rise to a new set of research questions. What does being Jewish mean in the EU and to what extent is this experience shaped by factors outside of the national context? How do Jewish and non-Jewish populations in Europe interact on an everyday level? To what extent are Jews distinguishable from other minorities in these processes?  How is everyday Jewish identity lived in a transnational European sphere and how is it affected by processes of integration? To what extend can Jews be seen as leading the way in establishing a post-national existence that may make them a “model minority” within the larger European project? These kinds of questions have brought about a reconsideration of the larger national frameworks that characterized the study of Jewish history and Jewish identity. 

In general, Jewish studies has begun to transcend national boundaries and paradigms, focusing instead on cosmopolitan, supranational and transnational movements and ideologies that were once anathema to more nationally-oriented Jewish historians. This is reflected in intertwined histories that stress not only the multiple, overlapping contexts in which Jews lived, but also the highly contingent nature of Jewish identity in the modern world. 

The most important contributions to the field by CEU’s Jewish Studies Project and its members

Jewish Issues in Communist Party ArchivesIn light of the shifting scholarly landscape, the Jewish Studies Project has launched a major research project investigating Jewish matters in the communist party archives of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. The research aimed to locate and publish documents detailing communist policy toward Jews and Jewish institutions from 1945 to 1990, especially in the politburo and the central committee in each of the three countries. These include documents related to the establishment of the State of Israel, emigration policy, anti-Zionist campaigns and trials, domestic opinion regarding Arab-Israeli wars, the Eichmann Trial, relations with international Jewish organizations and secret police surveillance of Jewish individuals.  Many of these documents were published in the CEU Jewish Studies Yearbook.

New Jewish Identities in Europe. The past 20 years have brought about enormous changes for Jews in East-Central Europe. The collapse of communism, the rise of populism, European integration, demographic shifts, and the perennial specter of the crises in the Middle East have all affected Jewish communities throughout Europe. Against this backdrop, in the first decade after the transformation a series of empirical investigations were carried out with the purpose of mapping “new Jewish identities” in Europe. Leading scholars examined Jewish identities in Russia, Central Asia, Poland, France, Britain, Sweden, Moldova, Hungary and elsewhere, resulting in the publication of New Jewish Identities: Contemporary Europe and Beyond (CEU Press, 2002), edited by Zvi Gitelman, Barry Kosmin and Andras Kovacs. Andras Kovacs’s research was part of his larger survey of Hungarian Jewry, which sought to gain insight into the changing social position of Hungarian Jewry over the past four generations, based on a range of demographic and social indicators. The survey also sought to monitor shifting attitudes of Hungarian Jews toward their own Jewish origins and toward Judaism in general, in an effort to trace assimilation, integration and religious/ethnic renewal.

Anti-Semitism in Contemporary Europe. The resurgence of European anti-Semitism in the past two decades has attracted considerable scholarly attention, particularly with regard to developments in Hungary. Andras Kovacs has recently published The Stranger at Hand: Antisemitic Prejudices in Post-Communist Hungary (Brill, 2011), in which he reconstructs the range, intensity and content of anti-Jewish prejudices as well as the factors affecting their change over time. In addition, the Jewish Studies Project organized an international symposium on “Antisemitism in Contemporary Europe” in March 2009, examining this phenomenon in a broad, comparative perspective. 

Jewish History in East Central Europe. One of the focuses of the Jewish Studies Project is the ramified Jewish experience in Central and Eastern Europe from the 18th century to the present, and this is reflected in the research agendas of many of our faculty members.  Michael L. Miller has written on the Jews of the former Habsburg Monarchy, focusing on the impact of nationality conflicts on the religious, cultural and political developments of Central European Jewry. This is a major theme of his recent book, Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation (Stanford University Press, 2011).  Victor Karady has published extensively on the Jews of Central Europe in general, and the Jews of Hungary in particular, focusing on assimilation, self-identification, and social history in the Dualist Era, the interwar period and decades after 1945. His book, The Jews of Europe in the Modern Era: A Socio-Historical Outline (CEU Press, 2004), synthesizes much of his prolific writing on these subjects. His current research on elites and higher education deals extensively with the place of Jews in interwar Central European society. Carsten Wilke’s wide-ranging scholarly interests cover Portuguese Jewry, German-Jewish culture, as well as Jewish and Christian Jewish thought, and he was also the author of Die Rabbiner der Emanzipationszeit in den deutschen, böhmischen und großpolnischen Ländern, 1781-1871 (Sauer, 2004), a comprehensive prosopographical study of rabbis in the Germany, Bohemia, Moravia and Poland. The Jewish Studies Project has organized a number of international conferences, aiming to bring Central European Jewry into sharper scholarly focus. “Jews and the Legacies of Empire” (May 2005) examined the interwar legacies of the Romanov, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires with regard to the Jews of the successor states.  “Schism, Sectarianism and Jewish Denominationalism: Hungarian Jewry in Comparative Perspective” (October 2009) examined the religious, social and ideological repercussions of the Hungarian Jewish schism of 1868-71, bringing together scholars and institutions from Europe, Israel and North America. 

Transcending the National Paradigm.  The Jewish Studies Project organized a conference on “Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism and the Jews of East Central Europe” (May 2007), which aimed to not only transcend the binary division between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” history, but also examine cosmopolitan, transnational and supranational movements that are often placed beyond the pale of Jewish studies. The proceedings from this conference were published in a special issue of European Review of History: Revue Européenne d’Histoire (2010), edited by Michael L. Miller and Scott Ury. This focus on the transnational is also evident in Carsten Wilke’s current research on the Alliance Israélite Universelle and his recent course on Transnationalism and the Jews of the Nineteenth Century, which examined the social and cultural motivations that counteracted the national fragmentation of Jewish identities.

Emerging new developments

Like many other academic fields, Jewish studies has taken a cultural turn in recent years.  At CEU, this is reflected in the new teaching and research priorities of the Jewish Studies Project, most notably in the hiring of Carsten Wilke for the recently-created position in Jewish Thought and Culture (in the Department of History, Department of Medieval Studies and Nationalism Studies Program). The Jewish Studies Project increasingly includes the medieval and early modern era, with courses that are framed more by continental than regional borders. Wilke’s recently-launched research project, Medieval Hebrew Inscriptions: A European Database, takes a pan-European perspective, spanning the regions of Islam, Eastern Christendom and Western Christendom. 

The Jewish Studies Project is increasingly examining the social and political impact of religious ideologies, most notably messianism in its various forms. Together with the Religious Studies Program, the Jewish Studies Project co-organized a summer university course on Messianism: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (June 2010), and there are plans to organized future projects in a similar vein. 

The Jewish Studies Project has emerged as the central hub in a ramified network of Jewish studies programs in Central Europe, thanks in part to the placement of CEU graduates at universities in the Czech Republic (Palacky University, Olomouc) and Romania (University of Bucharest), the organization of international conferences and the high profile of CEU in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jewish Studies Project aims to strengthen this position by building a larger consortium of regional Jewish studies programs and cultivating robust institutional relationships with leading universities in Israel and North America.