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The Growth of Jewish Political History

By Eugene Orenstein, Dept. of Jewish Studies, McGill University

This presentation will document and analyze recent developments in one of the newest fields of research in Jewish history--Jewish political history. For a long time, many scholars believed that diaspora Jewry had no political history or political theory, due to the loss of political sovereignty. The late Gerson D. Cohen was one of the historians who insisted that territory and sovereignty were not prerequisites for the development of a political tradition. He encouraged his students to investigate the sources for evience of Jewish thinking about politics. Although there is no corpus of texts of Jewish political theory, significant political thinking and evidence of political action can be found in rabbinic literature, in the history of the Jewish communal institutions, and, of course, in the Jewish political movements which are a product of modernity.

The increasing role of activism to improve the condition of the Jews in the modern period, the growth of Zionism, in particular, and the creation of the Jewish state, have all contributed to teh systematic study of Jewish politics as an important area in Jewish history. In the field of general western history, the study of political history was traditionally understood to be the study of government, law and international diplomacy. Revised thinking in this broader field has encouraged scholars to investigate the use of power at all levels of society. The feminist movement has helped to expand the scope of political studies. The politics of gender, and of the family, as well as of socio-economic classes, and of ethnic groups, are now all significant topics of research. This general trend has also helped to stimulate interest in Jewish political history.

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