As Ruth R. Wisse, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University, summarized it: ``Israel is the greatest miracle of the 20th century. There is no other human miracle to compare with it, certainly not in terms of national achievement in the past century.''
The scholars also agreed that while Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, would have been elated to see his dream of a Jewish state fulfilled, he would have been astonished at how it has turned out.
In Herzl's utopian vision, Israel would be a liberal, secular state in which Jews, Muslims and Christians would live together in harmony and where, as he once put it, the army would be kept in its barracks and the rabbis in their synagogues.
``I think he would have been amazed at the harsh and hostile political environment,'' said Professor Robert Wistrick of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. ``He imagined the Jewish state as a kind of neutral Switzerland, rather than a garrison state whose existence has been threatened by the Arab states.''
The conference was held just 100 years after the publication in 1896 of Herzl's ``Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State),'' a pamphlet commonly regarded as the bible of Zionism. In it, Herzl, a 36-year-old Austrian journalist, proposed the creation of a Jewish state as the only solution to ``the Jewish question,'' the endemic persecution of the Jews as exemplified by pogroms in Russia, the election of a mayor in Vienna on an anti-Semitic platform, and the treason trial of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. As a reporter for the Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Presse, Herzl had witnessed the degradation that the French Army had forced Dreyfus to undergo.
For three days last week, Israelis, Americans and one Irishman engaged in reflections, discussions and, inevitably, arguments on the origins, development, dreams, nightmares, triumphs and disappointments of the national liberation movement known as Zionism.
Held at Brandeis University and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the conference was organized by the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard, the Jacob and Libby Goodman Institute for the Study of Zionism at Brandeis, and the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History in Jerusalem. It is scheduled to reconvene in May in Jerusalem.
Participants included Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Daniel Pipes, editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Quarterly; Anita Shapira, professor for the study of Zionism at Tel Aviv University; Conor Cruise O'Brien, Irish diplomat, historian, journalist, and author of The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism; historian Simon Schama of Columbia University; and Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic.
``Over the course of the last century,'' Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz said in welcoming the participants, ``Zionism has been at the center of the Jewish public arena, the agent of cultural and social creativity, the focus of internal political debate, the cause of wars between Jews and Arabs, and a source of controversy in the international sphere.''
Most of the sessions were devoted to scholarly papers on such topics as ``Zionism in the Context of Jewish History,'' ``Competing Orthodox Conceptions of the Secular Jewish Nationalists'' and ``Did Zionism Create a New American Jew?'' (short answer: yes).
Current events were not on the menu, even though the conference took place barely 10 days after the recent outbreak of violence during which Palestinian police officers exchanged gunfire with Israeli soldiers, 76 Palestinians and Israelis were killed, and the peace process seemed to have taken a great leap backward. As a consequence, not everybody was happy with the conference's focus. Wistrick, for one, noted that none of the topics dealt with Zionism's Arab opponents - ``a curious omission,'' he said.
The subject came up, however, during a symposium, ``Toward a New Jewish Strategy,'' Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center.
``The enemies of the Jews today are not the traditional enemies,'' Pipes told the more than 300 people who packed the Arco Forum on the night of the Gore-Kemp vice presidential debate and the first Yankees-Orioles American League championship series game. ``They are not Christians, but Muslims. They are not the right, but the left.'' Anti-Semitism, he declared, ``is endemic to Islamic culture.''
And Wisse said: ``The Palestine Arabs are the first people the content of whose nationalism was formed and consists almost entirely of opposition to the Jews.''
The recent violence in the Middle East was very much on the minds of the scholars, but they expressed sharp disagreements over how Israel should behave in the current hostile political environment.
Not surprisingly, since Israeli intellectuals tend to the left, most of the Israelis were critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing government that came to power four months ago.
``I think we have the most incompetent government we've ever had,'' said David Vital, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and author of numerous books on international politics and modern Jewish history.
In Vital's view, the Oslo Agreement, negotiated three years ago between representatives of Israel (under a Labor government) and the Palestine Liberation Organization, was a bad one because it did not go far enough. It was, he said, ``based on the notion that it is possible not to leave the [occupied] territories,'' which he feels Israel must do.
``The other thing wrong is that it's based on the idea that, by making temporary agreements, you make it easier to draw up a final agreement.'' A final agreement is nowhere in sight, Vital said.
On the other hand, Wisse, an American, attacked Oslo from the right. Israel, she said, had made far too many concessions to the PLO at Oslo.
``Never in the history of the world,'' she declared, ``has a country armed its enemies with the expectation of security. . . . I am very depressed by it.''
It was another man of the left - call it the near left - who came to the defense of Oslo: Shlomo Avineri, who served as director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the mid-1970s under a Labor government headed by the late Yitzhak Rabin (with Shimon Peres as minister of defense).
In the Oslo Agreement, he responded to Wisse, the PLO had accepted autonomy, which it had always rejected. It was an organization that had always talked about taking over all of Palestine; now, it agreed to accept partition, he said.
The dispute reflected the century-old Zionist debate, still at issue in Israel and among its supporters, over what strategy to follow.
There are, as Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, put it in an interview, two views. One is the view that ``the Jewish ideal could be achieved through diplomacy and goodwill with the Arabs, that one would be able to work out with them a modus vivendi; and the other view that Israel would only come into being through force, and that it was naive and utopian to assume that it would be able to maintain itself through goodwill with the Arabs.''
In his own reading of history, he said, ``there's truth in both camps, but not exclusive truth. Each, taken to its extreme, is highly dangerous.''
Sarna is cautiously optimistic ``that a certain kind of peace, maybe a tense one, is probably inevitable, given the current world situation, the global economy, the pressures from the United States, and the fact that the Arabs cannot rely, as they have in the past, on Russia.''
O'Brien took a less sanguine view. In The Siege, published in 1986, he argued that a land-for-peace deal between Israel and the PLO was not in the cards. Arab radicals, he contended, would oppose it (as, in fact, they have), and, in any case, the Arabs would not accept any land-for-peace deal unless it included East Jerusalem, which Israel would not surrender in exchange for anything, including peace.
``I don't think the intervening years have done much to discredit that analysis,'' he said.