Jacob Barnai, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, recently published, in Hebrew, Shmuel Ettinger: Historian, Teacher and Public Figure. It is a specialized work. I am not sure I would have read it if the award-winning Israeli film Footnote, which centers on the relationship between a father and son who are both members of the Talmud department of the Hebrew University, hadn’t whetted my appetite for gossip about the faculty of that august institution. True, I read the autobiography of Hebrew University’s Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, as soon as it came out; I did the same with the autobiography of Hebrew University historian Jacob Katz. But Ettinger’s writings never excited me in the way theirs did, and nothing I knew about the man himself made me want to hear his whole story.
Now that I have read Jacob Barnai’s version of that story, I know a lot about Ettinger’s career, friendships, and rivalries. My storehouse of knowledge about Hebrew University tenure and promotion battles has been—slightly—enriched. Still, it does not seem to me that anything in Barnai’s book concerning Ettinger’s Hebrew University career could be turned into a movie with the drama of Footnote. On the other hand, Ettinger’s life before he became a professor, and perhaps some of what he did later on, outside the academy, would make for one good cinematic tale.
Born in the Soviet Union, Ettinger spent most of his youth as a committed Communist. In the Leningrad high school where he acquired a solid grounding in the humanities, he was renowned as a “Wunderkind.” Whether that was the place where he imbibed his faith in Marxism-Leninism is not certain. According to Barnai, Ettinger “never described explicitly and openly the circumstances that led him to Communism.” What led to Ettinger’s departure from the Soviet Union, however, is clear enough: His parents were very religious Jews, and they had always wanted out. Ettinger’s father was imprisoned by the Soviet regime for seven months for the crime of holding foreign currency. After he got out, he succeeded, against enormous odds, in obtaining Palestinian immigration certificates. In 1935 the family made aliyah. Ettinger’s parents joined other pious Jews in Jerusalem. Ettinger joined his parents.
He attended two yeshivot, in Jaffa and Jerusalem, before enrolling as a student of history and philosophy at the Hebrew University in 1936. He did not cut his newly grown peyot. They served as a good disguise for what he was from his early days at the university: a covert agent of the Palestine Communist Party, bent on subverting the student branch of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party from within. In this activity Ettinger and his friends appear to have drawn inspiration from a recently published—and still famous—essay by the Hebrew University’s own star professor Gershom Scholem, titled “Redemption through Sin,” which described the way in which secret followers of the antinomian rabbi Shabtai Tzvi burrowed into the ranks of genuinely observant Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even if Ettinger had read Scholem’s description of the Sabbateans’ covert techniques with utmost care, however, it is unlikely that he would have been able to keep his operations undetected. Both the Haganah and British intelligence had their eyes on the group for some time before the British finally arrested him, on the night of November 1, 1940, for distributing anti-war, anti-imperialist (and, for that matter, anti-Zionist) literature. Ettinger got off with a very light sentence. Soon afterward, he left the university. He also changed his political tune: After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Ettinger, along with the rest of his party, became an ardent supporter of the British war effort.
In the 1940s, with the Palestinian Communist movement now above-ground, Ettinger became one of its principal figures, generally representing the party wing that sought to reconcile Communism with Jewish nationalism. It was with the aim of winning support for this position from local Communists that he and a friend traveled to Poland and other East European countries in the summer of 1946. But what he saw and learned about Communist society and Russian anti-Semitism during his eight-month trip deeply disillusioned him. He never got as far as Russia itself because, as he reported to a friend many years later, a high-ranking Communist in Poland told him “in absolute secrecy not to travel to Moscow, where they would surely execute him.” When Ettinger returned to Palestine, he gradually extricated himself from Communist affairs.
And here, in 1949, “Ettinger: the Melodrama” might end, with the now 30-year-old Communist-turned-Zionist returning to the Hebrew University, in its makeshift new quarters, to complete his studies not in history in general but Jewish history. The mark he eventually made there, not only—or even primarily—as a scholar but as the mentor of countless key figures in Israeli historiography, was extremely important; but it is not the kind of thing that could be easily brought to a movie screen.
There was, however, a later, more dramatic chapter involving Ettinger’s extracurricular activities, particularly his enormous efforts from the late 1960s onward on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Many of those who worked with him in this campaign, including the writer Haim Be’er, have characterized his zealous devotion to this cause as his “great tikkun,” or “penitence,” for his Communist period. True, a filmmaker might have problems in trying to dramatize Ettinger’s endless letter-writing on behalf of newly arrived Soviet olim who sought his assistance in finding jobs or getting their books published. Nor would it be easy to make an exciting scene out of his falling asleep in a colleague’s armchair after an all-nighter spent working on the Russian Encyclopedia Judaica. But during this period of his life he worked closely with Israeli intelligence; in the Ettinger archives, some of the material that concerns Soviet Jewry is still stamped “Classified.” It might be best to wait until that label is removed before putting together the film version of the historian’s life.
Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.
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