In October 1919, Shmaryahu Levin (1867–1935), head of the Department of Education and Culture at the Central Zionist Offices in London, sent out letters to several prominent Jewish European scholars. Written in Hebrew, the two-page letters concluded with a simple yet effective question: »What would make the Hebrew University Hebrew?«
One of the recipients of this letter was the Hungarian Orientalist Ignác Goldziher. Born in 1850 in central Hungary to a family of Sephardi descent, Goldziher studied in Budapest, Berlin, and Leipzig, later becoming an adjunct lecturer at the Catholic University of Budapest in 1872. Publishing mostly in German, Goldziher wrote groundbreaking studies on Islamic law, tradition, and history, which established him as an acclaimed Orientalist in Europe and beyond. However, since he refused to convert to Christianity, it took him decades to receive a professorship, and so he made his living for thirty years as the secretary of the Jewish community in Budapest.
Responding to Levin in Hebrew from Budapest, 69-year-old Goldziher was by that time neither the young traveler who had been sent to the Middle East in the early 1870s to study colloquial Arabic and become acquainted with the local bureaucracy, nor the frustrated Jewish scholar denied a permanent university position for antisemitic reasons. He was now a full professor in Budapest, approached by Levin as the most distinguished Jewish Orientalist of his time.
In his response, in which he tellingly refrained from using the term »Hebrew University« and referred instead to the emerging institution as the university that is »about to be established in the Holy City,« Goldziher emphasized that this university must not be inferior to any Western research institution and should include all departments and disciplines present in these other institutions, too. He then mentioned five areas that the future university should focus on specifically, based on its location and purpose: a. research on Semitic religions, with a focus on the Semitic roots of Judaism; b. the teaching of »Oriental languages« and the study of Oriental philology; c. the archaeology of Palestine with the growing number of excavations; d. Jewish history, from antiquity to modernity, as an independent field; and e. Jewish literature.
Some of the subjects Goldziher mentioned, such as Jewish literature and Palestinian archaeology, are perhaps self-explanatory: It is clear why a Jewish-Zionist university, situated in Jerusalem, should be interested in these topics. Others, however, reflected Goldziher’s unique point of view. The emphasis on comparative Semitic religions goes back to Goldziher’s 1876 response to Ernest Renan’s General History of the Semitic Languages, where he sought to prove that, contrary to Renan’s argument, Semites were able to create mythology and therefore had no inherent inferiority compared to Aryans. Goldziher’s plea to separate Jewish history from general history went against the common contemporary European trend of combining national and »universal« (in fact Eurocentric) histories. His position foreshadowed a heated debate among the faculty of the Hebrew University, which eventually led to a separation of Jewish and general history that endures today.
One would expect that Goldziher’s call to teach Oriental languages, and especially Arabic – the most spoken language in 1919 Palestine – might have stemmed from his resentment towards the Zionist movement, his fear of the consequences of its actions in Palestine, and his wish to bring the monotheistic religions and their peoples, Jews and Muslims, closer together. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Goldziher in his letter merely noted that teaching Arabic – which would be easier in a predominantly Arabic Palestine – should serve as an instrument for the study of Jewish texts written in Arabic.
Following his death in 1921, Ignác Goldziher’s massive research library was acquired by the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, eventually forming the basis for the library’s Oriental Department. This acquisition was part of the efforts to promote the foundation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was officially inaugurated in April 1925. Levin’s letter to Goldziher from 1919, two years before the latter’s death, was part of the same effort to shape the university’s administrative and academic structure.
This year marks the centenary of Goldziher’s passing, four years before the opening of the Hebrew University. It is difficult to evaluate how many of his suggestions were implemented directly, but the fact remains that Oriental languages, Jewish literature, and archaeology were among the first subjects studied at the new Zionist university, while a Department for Jewish History was indeed opened in 1935. The study of Semitic religions was the only part of Goldziher’s vision that was never fully realized: At the Hebrew University, unlike in many European institutions, Judaism belonged to the field of Jewish studies, while other Semitic religions remained in the realm of Oriental studies. Nevertheless, the correspondence from 1919 reveals a new and active aspect of Goldziher’s role in shaping the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while providing insight into Goldziher’s worldview and his thoughts on Jewish existence, Judaism, and Islam.
Amit Levy is a PhD candidate at the Department of History and the Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research is dedicated to the history of Oriental studies in Palestine/Israel as transferred knowledge and the discipline’s German-Jewish legacy. He serves as the managing editor of Naharaim: Journal of German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History/Zeitschrift für deutsch-jüdische Literatur- und Kulturgeschichte | amit.levy(at)mail.huji.ac.il
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