Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Can Jews Write History?

In his well-known book Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, historian Eric Hobsbawm made the remarkable assertion that “no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist.”  Being Irish might be compatible with writing serious Irish history, he said; but to be “a Fenian or an Orangeman”—that is, an ultranationalist—“is not so compatible, any more than being a Zionist is compatible with writing a genuinely serious history of the Jews, unless the historian leaves his or her convictions behind when entering the library or the study.” 

Relevant Links
Jews and Their Historians  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. Modern Jewish identity comes in a bewildering variety of forms; one of the more contentious is the study of Jewish identity itself.
Eric Hobsbawm: Companion of Dishonor  Andrew Gimson, Standpoint. An unrepentant fascist would never receive widespread tributes upon his demise. So why was brazen Stalinist, Eric Hobsbawm, showered in elegies last month? 

Hobsbawm, who died recently at 95, made the distinction between Jew and Zionist; but, characteristically, he failed to ask the deeper question about the historical assumptions inherent in being a member of any religious community. Can a Catholic who believes in salvation write history in the way Hobsbawm demands? What kind of history of the Jews can be written by a Jew who believes in a relationship between God and the Jewish people—or, indeed, in the idea of a “people”? 

History is intrinsic to Jewish self-conception. The Bible is a series of histories: God’s will was the prime mover and God’s plan the lens through which biblical and post-biblical writers interpreted Israel’s frequently unhappy fate. But, as Yosef Yerushalmi pointed out in his masterpiece Zakhor, it was memory and preservation reinforced by ritual and liturgy, not history as exposition and explanation, that characterized the Jewish approach to the past. 

Yerushalmi’s teacher, the great 20th-century historian Salo Baron, characterized this approach as the “idealistic” or “ancient theistic” view, which saw Jewish history as the “progression of the Jewish religious or national spirit in its various vicissitudes and adjustments to the changing environment.”Baron argued that this approach prevailed into the 19th century, even as the study of Jewish history grew more “scientific” and detached.  In the “idealistic” view of German Jewish historians of the time—Graetz, Geiger, Zunz, Steinschneider—Jewish history was a prelude to their own rationalism and careful balance between Jewish pride and German nationalism. 

Baron was the author of another dictum, that a “lachrymose conception of Jewish history has served as an eminent means of social control from the days of the ancient rabbis, and its repudiation now might help further to weaken the authority of Jewish communal leadership.”  The attraction of this “lachrymose conception”—Jewish history as suffering—persists today, perhaps, in the shadow of the Holocaust, for good reason. But it certainly no longer serves as a means of social control or maintenance of communal authority. Today’s Jewish historians, constrained by neither religious faith nor a sense of communal obligation, produce critical studies that would have been inconceivable even a few decades ago. Perhaps one need only point to Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, contrasting the early Christian stigmatization of the body and sex with what Boyarin sees as the rabbinic concept of a sexualized body intended for procreation.  

And beyond the imaginatively transgressive, iconoclasm has come into perpetual vogue, its effects multiplied by the Internet, collapsing academic authority, and rising anti-Semitism; think of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, historical nonsense for the sake of politics. 

Judaism, then, is hardly a barrier to history writing. What about Zionism, Hobsbawm’s bête noire?  The first generation of Zionist history, as historian Yoav Gelber has characterized it, was largely uncritical apologetics.  This was predictable for history written during nation-building, but it changed at remarkable speed. Many Jewish historians have also been disappointed Zionists—like S. D. Goitein, who explored and extolled medieval Jewish-Islamic relations, or Hans Kohn, one of the mid-20th century’s pre-eminent historians of nationalism, who traveled the greatest distance from support to disappointment to outright opposition.  Or, one can point, for better and worse, to quintessential “New Historian” Benny Morris, whose 1987 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem landed a blow against traditional Zionist history. 

Yet Morris, despite his recitation of Zionist and Israeli failings, real and imagined, is himself a Zionist, believing in the reality and necessity of the Jewish state.  Unlike many of Israel’s more iconoclastic “New Historians,” like Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, neither Kohn nor Morris dedicated all his intellectual and emotional effort towards denigrating and destroying Israel. 

Hobsbawm’s view suggested that any belief in nations and national sovereignty, especially of the Jewish variety, disqualified a scholar; but there are other, at least equally serious kinds of disqualification.  Though born Jewish, Hobsbawm was a devoted, if crestfallen, Stalinist and an enemy of nationalism, seeing in it “invented traditions”—patriotic songs and legends—meant to create false consciousness among the masses.  But Hobsbawm had his own idealism: as an orthodox Marxist, he saw history moving through successive stages of development toward utopia. 

Communist reality has been distinctly unkind to this view.  Historian Eugene Genovese, himself a repentant Marxist, has cited Hobsbawm’s late-period emendations of Marxist dogma and wondered whether he had quietly abandoned his faith.  But historian and commentator Ron Radosh has demonstrated that Hobsbawm was Stalinist until the end, willing to see as many eggs as necessary broken to make the socialist omelet. Jews, in particular, stood in the way.  As Hobsbawm said to David Pryce-Jones, “a nuclear bomb ought to be dropped on Israel, because it was better to kill five million Jews now than 200 million innocent people in a world war later.” 

Hobsbawm’s malice and falsehoods continued to earn him praise from the Left—from people, says Radosh, who “may have personally not be willing to break an egg to make an omelet” but had “respect for those who were willing to do just that, because their goal was the same.”  Perhaps the praise also reflected respect from those who admired Hobsbawm’s religious devotion to a transcendent ideology, which they themselves lacked. 

To paraphrase Robert Conquest, Hobsbawm’s was a mind “thirsty for certainties,” both “scientific and exhaustive.”  The largest such certainty was the foreknowledge of how history ends.  Jews and Zionists writing history have no such certainty. Without it, Jews can write history; but Communists cannot. 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


jacob arnon on November 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm (Reply)
“As Hobsbawm said to David Pryce-Jones, “a nuclear bomb ought to be dropped on Israel, because it was better to kill five million Jews now than 200 million innocent people in a world war later.”

Hobsbawm shows that anti-Zionism is the ideology of fools just as antisemitism was the ideology of fools.

In addition Hobsbawm is what the French classical historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet called “a paper Eichmann.” This is a scholar who calls for or excuses genocide.

Let’s also remember that Hobsbawm made excuses for Stalin’s murder of millions of people; made excuses for the Gulags; made excuses for the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia; made excuses for show trials, etc. The list of communist barbarities that this “objective” historian supported is very, very long.

He also got it wrong when he said that the genocide of Israelis was “better than the death of two hundred million people.” From where did he get his numbers?

It’s both foolish and necessary to rebut such a monstrous claim (this is how totalitarians get their way) , yet we must do just that
Hobsbawm doesn’t say who will drop the A bomb on the Jewish state. Under what pretext will this happen? How does he know that it will save two hundred million people? The reverse is most likely the case. Historically, antisemitism has led to the deaths of many more non-Jews than Jews, and anti-Zionism will do the same.

Hobsbawm can’t be taken seriously as a historian and certainly not as a moralist.
lebalo on November 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm (Reply)
Jacob, I quite agree and I add to that my own impression of what he is saying: Because I can't do it, no one can. That he is the selector, right or left.
Jerry Blaz on November 9, 2012 at 4:25 am (Reply)
I am not certain whether a short essay like Joffe wrote concentrating so much on Hobsbawm tells all that is necessary to evaluate him. However, I feel his emphasis on presuming to know what constitutes history seems to make a strong impression on ideology rather than historiography. Certainly, idealogues tend to use historical analysis to demonstrate an ideology, but historiography is a larger and deeper look at history, and the question that still remains for me is whether Hobsbawm ever practiced historiography or merely drew historical sketches illustrating his particular ideology. In our current time, historians generally discard ideology for historiography, and I looked and could not find it in this essay.
ARTH on November 9, 2012 at 10:05 am (Reply)
I think that if you had read his books, you would certainly take him seriously as a historian...very very seriously.
ARTH on November 9, 2012 at 11:17 am (Reply)
To Jerry Blatz: The present view is that there is no such thing as objective historiography. There are objective facts, but all historical narratives are based on different perspectives, all of them having something to contribute and all of emphasizing certain factors while downplaying others.
With regard to Hobsbaum: I have read all of his major books and can assure you, in fact I swear by it, that he is one of the greatest historians of all times. One could disagree with his interpretation of the facts, but one can not say that it is not great history.
Paul Marks on November 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm (Reply)
Why should anyone be interested in the opinions of an historian who writes about the 20th century whilst ignoring the over a hundred and fifty million human beings murdered by Marxists (see "The Black Book of Communism" and other works) - a man who treats monsters like "Lenin" as if they were just ordinary politicians, or even somehow well meaning idealists.

Marxism is nonsense in theory (contradicted by basic economics) and utterly savage in practice - but Hobsbawn refused to admit this. Does his failure to understand the utter absurdity of Marxism not disbar him from writing about the Marxist movement? By his argument that a nationalist not understanding the SUPPOSED obvious wrongness of nationalism disbars a nationalist from writing about nationalist history.

What Hobsbawn really wanted to do was to disbar Zionists from writing about Israel. Which, as the article says, is like a bar on believing Catholics writing about the history of the Roman Catholic Church - leaving only anti Catholics to write about it.

And only anti Zionists to write about Zionism - for, as every Marxist knows, there are (on such matters) no really "neutral" people.
jacob arnon on November 9, 2012 at 6:10 pm (Reply)
"Why should anyone be interested in the opinions of an historian who writes about the 20th century whilst ignoring the over a hundred and fifty million human beings murdered by Marxists (see "The Black Book of Communism" and other works) - a man who treats monsters like "Lenin" as if they were just ordinary politicians, or even somehow well meaning idealists."

Exactly Paul Marks.

I did read a couple of histories by Hobsbawm and Alex Joffe is right to refer to him as a tendentious Marxist polemicist.

Of course, there will many readers who admire him just because they agree with the direction of historical thought.

This is inevitable. Hobsbawm tried to absolve himself by claiming that we live in an age of extremes. This is more of his alibi than an accurate assessment of the "age."

BY claiming that the age was extreme, he is saying that one had to embrace one of the extreme ideologies in play. Such binary thinking won't do.

There many great thinkers who didn't endorse either extreme.

Hobsbawm was a pathetic little man who found meeaning in the murder of millions for the sake "of establishing a Utopia" on earth.

He deserves to be excoriated and not to embraced in the name of open mindedness.

Would those who embrace Hobsbawm's communism also embrace Ezra Pounds Fascism, or many other great writers who embraced the Fuhrer?

I think not. What say you "ARTH?"

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham