Faculty Spotlight: Ethan Katz

Bex Sussman

Ethan Katz was educated at Amherst College (B.A., History & French, 2002) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (M.A., History, 2005; PhD, History, 2009). He is currently Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also is the co-founder and co-director of the Antisemitism Education Initiative. Before coming to Berkeley, he taught for eight years at the University of Cincinnati, and for one year as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A specialist of France and the Francophone world, Katz’s research interests include Jewish-Muslim relations, Jews in colonial societies, Holocaust studies, and the interplay between religious and secular in modern Jewish life. His first monograph, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France (Harvard, 2015), received a number of prizes, including a National Jewish Book Award and the J. Russell Major Prize of the American Historical Association. Katz has co-edited three volumes. These include Colonialism and the Jews (Indiana, 2017), a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award; Secularism in Question: Jews and Judaism in Modern Times; and most recently Judeophobia and Islamophobia in France Before and After Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher (special issue of Jewish History, 2018). His work has been supported by fellowships from, among others, the Yad HaNadiv/Beracha Foundation, the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, and the Lady Davis Trust of the Hebrew University. He is now at work on two new books. The first, When Jews Argue: Between the University and the Beit Midrash, is another co-edited collection expected to appear next year from Routledge. The second is a study of the Jewish underground in Algiers during World War II, currently entitled Freeing the Empire: The Uprising of Jews and Antisemites That Helped Win World War II. For the coming academic year he is a Matrix Faculty Fellow at Berkeley and in the fall he will be away from teaching, trying to complete a draft of Freeing the Empire

BCSR: How long have you been an affiliated member of BCSR? Could you tell us how you became interested in BCSR and what work you’ve done so far with other faculty and students at the center?

EK: I was asked to affiliate shortly after I decided to come to Berkeley, so it was a natural fit for me. Religion is not at the center of all of my work as a scholar, but it’s a significant component.

My most significant involvement with BCSR was early on in my affiliation. It was a co-sponsor for a major international workshop that I had already started to co-organize before I came here, which took place in New York in Fall 2018. There was a lot of resonance between the theme of this workshop and the public theology initiative that was still going on at BCSR at that time. The workshop was about Jewish Studies and Jewish life between academic Jewish Studies in the university and traditional study of Jewish texts in what’s called the Beit Midrash or the Yeshiva, the traditional study house. These are two different worlds of knowledge and experience that often don’t really understand or speak to each other, and there is a lot of kind of mutual suspicion. So the idea of the conference was to bring together people who work in both spheres and see value in bringing pieces of these worlds together and think in more complicated ways about what their interrelationship is or should be. Now that workshop is very close to becoming a book, which we hope to send to the press in the next few weeks actually. The title is “When Jews Argue: Between the University and the Beit Midrash” 

BCSR: What are your thoughts on the role of religious communities in institutions like BCSR or UC Berkeley broadly speaking? One of the goals of BCSR is public outreach, but the public is often defined in secular terms, so these outreach programs are intentionally non-sectarian. Do you think a university center such as BCSR should tap into religious communities? If so, how? 

EK: I know there was some outreach through the public theology initiative directly to religious communities and my impression was that there were mixed levels of interest. This very topic was addressed in that initiative. We were asking, to what degree should we be engaging with religious communities and how does that fit with our mission? I think my broader philosophical outlook is probably different from my outlook about the BCSR and Berkeley as a public university. There are legal implications here with the separation of church and state, and that can’t be ignored. Outreach to religious communities also involves a different kind of public trust in terms of the level of inclusion that the university tries to create, which means trying to avoid privileging certain communities over others. Having said that, I believe that those of us who study religious traditions and cultures have a great deal to learn from people whose knowledge comes more from internal study and internal experiences. I think that we are at a deficit because we have struggled to find comfortable ways to engage with those people. Of course, there are exceptions, there are those of us in the academy who have significant background in the traditional world. 

I also think many people in the wider public who belong to religious communities are really eager to learn from academics. Some of them are more suspicious of academics, but we have a great deal to offer them as well. I think that the public theology initiative should remain part of the mission of BCSR, even if it’s hard to figure out how to pull it off. And I think engaging people from different communities will widen the circle of ideas exchanged at BCSR. That doesn’t mean everyone has to suddenly agree with each other or accept all of each other’s ideas. 

We title our book “When Jews Argue” because we are saying that people don’t know how to argue well. They don’t really understand what they’re arguing about. And it’s partly because we’ve got all these blinders up about what we think is going on across this divide between the academy and the religious world. If we sit together, we’ll learn things from each other, but we’ll also learn better what we actually disagree about and the nature of that disagreement. And that would elevate the conversation.

BCSR: Could you give a summary of how, personally and professionally, you became interested in religious studies and how you think the study of religion can benefit from an interdisciplinary approach?

EK: I grew up in a traditional Jewish household, and I became more interested in religious observance in my teens, so I ran away from Jewish studies for a long time in terms of my academic interests. I think that’s not so uncommon, based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues. It felt too close. It felt parochial to me because it was my own experience, so it took me a long time to find my path into Jewish history. I always thought about Jewish history in conversation with wider contexts of history. And for me, part of the interest of thinking about religion in the modern world is thinking about religion in conversation with the rest of society and religion beyond a very circumscribed community.

I ended up writing my first book about Jews and Muslims in France. But that book is less about religion and more about social relations, culture, and politics. So my interest in religion continued to develop independently of some of my primary research projects. I try to take account of religion in a way that I think a lot of other modernist scholars don’t; and this is a critique I have of a lot of people’s work—they don’t take religion seriously in the modern world. They just don’t have the skills to look at the sources and they don’t think it matters because they think everybody was basically becoming secular. And then they put religious people into a box. 

Before I came to Berkeley, I taught at the University of Cincinnati for eight years. Across the street from the University of Cincinnati is the flagship campus of Hebrew Union college, which is the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary. It always seemed to me that there should be more cooperation between universities, but there’s also a significant Jewish community in Cincinnati, including a significant Orthodox Jewish community. I naively thought people from all the tables, so to speak, should want to sit together and learn from each other. I soon discovered that there were all kinds of obstacles for people—mental, emotional, psychological—but I remained interested in that question because to me, it seems that academic pursuits are ultimately about the pursuit of knowledge and understanding more about the world, the nature of existence in some manner. That’s true as well for people who are exploring a lot of these questions from a more traditional and spiritual standpoint. 

I also spent a year in Jerusalem; that was when I learned Hebrew and started to study traditional Jewish sources intensively for the first time. I came away from that experience thinking that ritual and law in Jewish history were really valuable sources that I should learn more from. This moment also coincided with greater interest in religious observance for me personally. 

So there were a number of key moments along the way that helped to get me more interested in the study of religion. And to this question about interdisciplinarity—you really have to study religion from an interdisciplinary perspective. That has been one of the goals of the initiative I described above, with the cross fertilization between universities and traditional houses of learning. In universities, we tend to study religion often from historical standpoints. For many of the people who study religion and are themselves more religiously observant, they have certain approaches to study that are more connected to traditionally religious ways of studying. Most people who have not had the same immersive experiences with texts lack these skills. To think about religion in a really sophisticated way, you have to approach it from different disciplinary perspectives. You need different kinds of expertise to really think about the religious experience in a comprehensive way.

BCSR: Your academic home is in the history department, but you are also a core faculty member of Jewish Studies. How does your experience teaching in both departments differ, in terms of both pedagogy and methodology, if at all? For example, how and where would religion come up in a history course versus a Jewish studies course? And how might you encounter or interpret the same subject or even the same source differently in each context? 

EK: Jewish studies is a multidisciplinary field by its nature. So it does not really have its own disciplinary approach, and a huge percentage of people in Jewish studies are historians. So I teach Jewish studies topics broadly speaking from a historical perspective. When I do my survey course for Jewish studies, called Jews and Judaism: from Paris to Jerusalem and Beyond, I make a very clear point of teaching various fields. So I have a week on Talmud. I have a week on Medieval Judaism, a week on gender, and a week on Jewish literature, etc. I am trying to introduce people to perspectives from those fields, and each of those fields has certain kinds of disciplinary orientations that are different from history. If I were only teaching this as a history class, my approach might differ. This course uses Jews of France and the Francophone world from the medieval period to the present as a laboratory for the key developments of Jewish history and as a way to introduce people to most of the major fields in Jewish studies. So if I were just teaching this as a history course, I wouldn’t be at pains to say, you have to learn something about Talmud, you have to learn something about law, you have to learn something about all of these different fields. So the interdisciplinary nature of Jewish studies pushes me to do that. 

In a course like Muslim-Jewish Encounters, I emphasize paired learning between two students as a major component of the class (Havruta, as it’s called in the traditional house of Jewish study). It is a very old way of learning where two people sit and look at texts together and they argue passionately about the meaning of the text or what it has to say. They’re supposed to learn how to listen to each other and argue well, so I think there’s a lot of value in that. And students really like that format as a part of the class. 

When I do this in my Muslim-Jewish encounters class, I actually call it Madrasa-Midrasha because there is a similar way of learning in traditional Muslim houses of study, called Madrasas. And I want to highlight that parallel for students. And I don’t want to privilege a Jewish form of learning and not a Muslim one. 

BCSR: Can you speak a bit more about your teaching philosophy and how you approach questions of religion, race, and identity when it comes up in a classroom? Especially as a historian, how do you handle contemporary topics in lessons or student questions?

EK: I try to help people see nuance, and I try to help them appreciate the value of learning about these topics and about their history in a deep way rather than gravitating toward soundbites. That is how I frame my Muslim-Jewish encounters classes. There’s one place and context in the world that we know the most about and hear the most about by far with regard to Muslim-Jewish encounters. And that is the political conflict in Israel-Palestine. Of course that’s very important and we’re not going to ignore it in this class, but we’re not going to let it overshadow everything. 

We look at a lot of other contexts—different times and places and other types of relationships —in order to expand our understanding of the subject and also, of course, to learn important context for the situation today in the Middle East. Invariably I say that on the first day of class,  and I write some version of that in the syllabus. Then when we go around and I ask people why they’re taking the class, a number of them say “so I can understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” which I respect and I understand and eventually we do get to questions related to that.

I try to be real about the fact that Jewish-Muslim conflict in the contemporary Middle East is inescapable and very important, and both Jews and Muslims have experiences of pain and violence that have a deep imprint on our consciousness and that make conversations in the classroom around these issues inevitably highly fraught. But nonetheless, we can create an environment in the classroom that feels balanced and fair-minded, and where everyone’s perspective is actively recognized and validated. And I do actively urge everyone to rethink their assumptions and question each other’s assumptions around these contemporary and historical relations, and to do so in ways that are civil and respectful. It is not easy but it is remarkable how the space of that class can open up unexpected lines of communication and discovery between people of vastly different backgrounds and political allegiances.  

Even when I teach about modern France, I teach a lot about colonialism, race, and identity. Those are difficult issues and you can see students grappling with them. And then a student might ask me, “well, I thought France was this beacon of civilization and then I learned about the racism in France and it’s terrible and I was going to go to France but now my view has completely changed!” But as I do try to also show and remind them, France is in many ways like our own society here in the U.S.; It is a rich and highly complex multicultural democracy! I try to help them understand how racism interweaves with and operates in the development of liberal democracy.

BCSR: What other projects or initiatives are you involved with on campus? 

EK: The biggest initiative that I’m involved in is the Antisemitism Education Initiative, which I co-founded and I co-direct. It is an effort to bring awareness and education about antisemitism to campus and to institutionalize it as a part of campus culture and as a part of broader diversity and inclusion efforts on campus. Along with Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the executive director and rabbi of Berkeley Hillel, I regularly do trainings about antisemitism for groups of staff and students. We have collaborated closely with my colleague Steven Davidoff Solomon at the law school. The three of us co-wrote a training film that has gotten a lot of attention from other campuses that are now adopting it. We regularly host speakers and we’ve become a resource for a lot of other campuses who are grappling with similar issues related to antisemitism. 

That has become a much bigger job than I knew it would be when we started. In some ways we were victims of our own success. But I think the work is really important and it’s gratifying to be able to engage in it in a place where the debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus are very live. Figuring out where there is legitimate, important, sometimes really challenging, even uncomfortable, debate and figuring out when things are problematic and offensive—figuring out where that line is—that is really important for everybody concerned in the conversation. 

I also chair the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate, which is the umbrella for the antisemitism education initiative, but also works on a variety of other issues. As a core member of the Center for Jewish Studies faculty, I’m on the executive committee for CJS, and I’m on the program committee for CJS, so I help to organize programs pretty regularly. This spring I served on two search committees for new faculty hires in Jewish studies. So a lot of my time and energy outside of the History Department is spent on campus in areas related to Jewish studies.

BCSR: What’s next for you right now? What are your current projects or upcoming publications? 

EK: One of my projects is the book of mine that will see the light of day soonest. It is the book that I mentioned, When Jews Argue: Between the University and the Beit Midrash, which I’ve already described above. I’m hopeful that it will be valuable. It’s an attempt to rethink a lot of our assumptions about how Jewish studies is done. There are three different approaches that we map at length in the introduction that a lot of our authors use to think across this divide. So I hope that it’ll be good food for thought and even good food for practice for some colleagues. And we have tried to make it a book that’s also accessible to people in the traditional Jewish world who are not academics. We’ll see how successful we are. I hope that it will open conversations.

The monograph that I’m working on now is a history of an uprising in Algiers during World War II. It’s provisionally titled, Freeing the Empire: the Uprising of Jews and Antisemites That Helped Win World War II. It’s about what is, certainly strategically speaking, the most significant Jewish resistance movement of the war—though one of the least well known. And that is an underground movement in Algiers that was mostly made up of Jews. The non-Jews were largely actually arch-conservatives, even some fascist types. They coordinated with the Americans as the landing in North Africa in November 1942 approached.

And they were kept in the loop by the Americans, and they sealed off all the key locations in Algiers, [preventing them] from being taken over by the pro-German Vichy government for a period of about 15 hours, which enabled the Americans to land much more easily and to enter Algiers with almost no casualties. 

It’s a really interesting story. It’s a great story as a narrative, but it’s also a story that gives us an opportunity to think about why people resist. You have a lot more information about why people became perpetrators, or why they collaborated with the Nazis, but there is a lot less written about why people choose to resist. So I am tracing people’s paths into the resistance and the subculture that produced a lot of these people, and then showing how it doesn’t fit our notions of what resistance was. [To start], it was an avowedly apolitical movement because of this strange alliance between Jews, who were generally socialists or liberals, and these arch-conservatives who were often supportive of the social agenda of the Vichy government and were also antisemitic. What they shared with their Jewish comrades was that they wanted France to resume the fight against the Germans—so what unified these disparate forces was a sense of shared patriotism.

Meanwhile, it’s even more complicated because of course the majority of the population in Algeria was neither these Jews nor the non-Jewish French officers and businessmen who were teaming with them—it was the native Muslim population. And as this unfolded, Jews had lost their citizenship (they lost their citizenship in October, 1940). There was a question once the Allies landed about whether Jews would push for not only their own citizenship, but also that of Muslims. 

Jews were genuinely worried about the Nazis being on their doorstep, and many of them know about certain things that were going on in continental Europe. But they were fighting to restore their citizenship in a place where the vast majority of non-Jewish natives were not citizens, in a very hierarchical and colonial society. So this further complicates what we think we know about resistance. These Jews found themselves in a complex position, really being forced to confront the fact that, as citizens in French colonial Algeria, they had historically been implicated in a system of injustice even as they were also, of course, fighting against another system of injustice. So that’s also part of the interest of the project.

BCSR: What do you do in your free time? 

EK: A lot of my time away from my professional life is spent with my children who are nine and seven years old and who are simultaneously adorable, sweet, really clever, maddening, and challenging. So that’s a big part of my life of course. I’m also a big baseball fan. I enjoy playing with my kids and I enjoy going to games. I’m a big St. Louis Cardinals fan. I enjoy listening to music and I’ve been involved in music in different ways for a lot of my life. I’m involved in the Jewish community as well in different ways and help with speaker events and spend a lot of time in the community with my family. And I even try to exercise. Sleep would be the major deficit in this but I am working on that too!