Can Jews Write History?

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, November 8, 2012

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.” 

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. 

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