The readings ranged from classic texts in political economy and political theory to a complex history of the Sephardic diaspora and contemporary commentary on questions of whether liberalism or nationalism is better suited for preserving — and serving — communities. Among the classics were selections from John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Robert Nisbet, and Ernest Gellner. These provided the basis for discussions about what, exactly, liberals and nationalists have thought about the nature of communities over time, the problems they face, and the solutions the different ideologies can offer.
More modern writers fleshed out these ideas and presented them with contemporary challenges. In the fourth and fifth sessions, participants discussed Francesca Trivellato’s “The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period” (2009), which suggests that while Sephardic Jews were able to maintain a truly cosmopolitan community on the basis of tight-knit cultural and economic ties, a nation-state may well have been ultimately necessary to their continued flourishing and influence on Europe.
The discussion was rich and stimulating toward new thinking, in no small part thanks to the diversity of backgrounds represented in the room. As one participant commented, “Intellectually, it was one of the most stimulating weekends I have had in my academic career.” As another claimed, “While a bit
out of my area, the topic was engaging at a wonderfully refreshing level far beyond that ever achieved at any academic conference.”
Interested in joining future conversations like this one? IHS hosts discussion colloquia for faculty and graduate students throughout the year. We also provide resources, including readings on a variety of topics, for professors hosting similar discussions for their undergraduate students.