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Straus Center Course Spotlight: Zionist Political Thought — Arguing Zionism

Liel Leibovitz Dr. Liel Leibovitz

For the spring 2021 semester, Dr. Liel Leibovitz, senior writer at Tablet, is co-teaching Zionist Political Thought: Arguing Zionism with Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of the  Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and Dr. Neil Rogachevsky, Straus Center Associate Director.

YU News sat down with Dr. Leibovitz to discuss the course, which is being offered under the Straus Center’s Graduate Certificate in Jewish Political and Social Thought.

The class is called Zionist Political Thought: Arguing Zionism. Why did you decide to frame a course about Zionist history and theory through argument and debate?

Glimpse into Zionist history, and you’ll see that it isn’t history at all: The same spirits that animated the movement from the very moment of its birth continue to howl loudly today, and the big arguments that sought to shape its essence are still being adjudicated today: Just how Jewish must the Jewish state be? What are to be its precise borders? And how should it present itself to the nations of the world, friends and foes alike?

These are the questions that animate the contemporary debate about Israel, yet strip away the sound and the fury and you’ll find the same profound problems that so excited [Theodor] Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, Rav Kook and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Rather than treat these quarrels as belonging to some long-ago concluded conversation, we wanted to give the students an opportunity to learn while engaging in these debates themselves, realizing, as a famous Talmid Chacham [Torah scholar] once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


How has your career as a journalist and a writer prepared you for this course?

Journalism—not the brutish form of propaganda we see so often today but the proud and imperfect tradition that has shaped so much of American life for so long—is, at its core, the art of argument.

When we do our jobs well, we journalists roam around the world, take note of injustices and opportunities alike, and pose inconvenient questions to those who would rather not answer them. We report facts when others would too often rather see prettified narratives. We demand accountability when others would too often rather be feted or feared.

It’s no wonder, then, that Herzl, Zionism’s founding father, was a journalist: reporting on the travesty of the Dreyfus Trial, he followed the facts where they led him, to the conclusion that the only viable future for the Jews involves the resurrection of our national homeland in Eretz Yisrael. Then, with the reporter’s sense of boundless curiosity, he invited Jews of all persuasions to join him, listening to their stories and writing a place for so many different sorts of Jews—from Marxist revolutionaries to observant traditionalists—into the nascent Zionist story. I am inspired by his example and hope this course takes a similar, curious, open-minded and open-hearted approach.


How does the class exemplify the creed of Torah Umadda?

Writing about Torah Umadda, the great Rabbi Norman Lamm reminded us that “each set gives one view of the Creator as well as of His creation, and the other a different perspective that may not agree at all with the first.”

That, right there, is also the history of Zionism in a nutshell: On the one hand, God-fearing Jews congregated to imagine this movement as a new extension of very old ideas, of new ways to practice and embody ancient and eternal beliefs; on the other, Jews who saw themselves as beholden first and foremost to the world at large—to science, to economy, to politics—joined together to offer what they often imagined was a modern rebuttal to tradition.

Of course, they were pursuing the same exact cause, the cause of realizing the divine promise and recreating a sovereign Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael. And of course, when it mattered, they found that their differences, sharp as they were, cohered rather than clashed, uniting to form a movement that still goes strong even today, many decades after achieving its stated goal. It’s that dialectical spirit, to borrow a phrase, that the class very much embodies, insisting that both paths lead back to the same place: Home, to Zion.


Why did you decide to teach the course? Why is it interesting and meaningful to you? 

It is my great privilege to teach at Yeshiva University, which is not only the Hogwarts of the Jewish people but only one of very few American universities that remains committed not to the stifling enforcement of ever-shifting dogmas but to free and unfettered inquiry, to the kind of robust debate that has animated our people since the rabbis first sat and started arguing about the Torah.

And it’s an even greater pleasure to teach under the auspices of the Straus Center and with such colleagues as Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Dr. Neil Rogachevsky. I’ve long admired both, and to share the classroom with them—to hear their thoughts, and, of course, to engage in healthy disagreement—is an honor and a privilege.