Jewish Social Studies 9.2 (2003) 99-122
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Between Universalism and Particularism:
The Origins of the Philosophy Department at Hebrew University and the Zionist Project
Neve Gordon and Gabriel Motzkin
And when the history of modern Palestine and the University is written, it may well be the use of the Hebrew language which will stand out as one of the great spiritual sources of whatever we may contribute to human culture.
—Leon Roth, 1945 1
In 1946, the Vaad Leumi (Jewish National Council) declared a general strike to protest the Mandatory restrictions denying access to Nazi victims who sought refuge in Palestine. Philosophy professor Leon Roth decided not to comply with the Vaad's call, thus infuriating the striking students who began banging on his class door in order to interrupt his lecture. Roth cried out to them: "Gentlemen...let me just ask you what you think is more likely to bring about the end to British rule in this country—your noisy door-banging or my philosophy? Surely no reasonable man can doubt that it is my philosophy that will achieve those ends!" 2 [End Page 99]
This remark is revealing: it underscores some of the tensions underlying the relationship between the Zionist project of nation-building and the establishment of the first philosophy department in Palestine. 3 It points to opposing conceptions concerning the central mission of Zionism and, more specifically, to a disagreement regarding the appropriate framework within which the struggle for independence should take place. Moreover, it suggests that philosophy in general, and the department in particular, could and perhaps should play a role in the nation-building project. But to gain better insight into the meaning of Roth's claim, we must first examine how he and his sole colleague, Samuel Hugo Bergman, conceived the department's task and its relation to the political scene.
The Department's Founders
Leon Roth, who headed the philosophy department during its first 23 years, was born in London in 1896 to an observant Jewish family. In college he studied classic philosophy, first at the City of London School, and later at Exeter College, Oxford. During World War I, Roth was drafted to the Jewish Battalion of the allied forces, where his sergeant was David Ben- Gurion. Following the war, he returned to Exeter to finish his degree and was awarded the John Locke Scholarship in Mental Philosophy (1920) as well as the James Mew Scholarship in Rabbinical Hebrew (1921). In 1923, after completing his doctorate, which examined ethical question in the writings of Spinoza, Descartes, and Maimonides, and receiving the supernumerary Green Prize in Moral Philosophy, he obtained a position in the department of philosophy at Manchester University. 4
Roth's association with the Hebrew University appears to have begun in 1925, when he was sent as Manchester University's representative to the opening ceremony on Mount Scopus. 5 During the following three years, Roth and Judah Magnes corresponded about the possibility of the former moving to Palestine and establishing a philosophy department. 6 Roth, as is clear from his letters, was interested in the position. 7 Following the death of Ahad Ha-am in 1927, an endowed chair was created in his name and offered to Roth, who by that time had already published several articles and two books (Spinoza, Descartes and Maimonides and The Correspondence of Descartes and Constantyn Huygens, 1635-1647) and had been elected a fellow of the British Academy. 8
In a letter addressed to Magnes, Roth expresses his willingness to join the university's staff and to head the philosophy department, adding that [End Page 100]
the needs of the university could best be met if the duties of the department were to be broadly formulated as twofold: (1) the exposition and development in the Hebrew language of the general problems of thought with reference to the general history of philosophy; and (2) the broad discussion of the history and character of the Jewish contribution. 9