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David N. Myers joins us to talk about his two new books, The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life and Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction, and about why Jewish history matters.
Please note: We recorded this episode over the summer of 2018, obviously prior to the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We do talk about antisemitism a lot in this episode—as one of David’s arguments is that historically speaking anti-Jewish sentiment has had a paradoxical, preservative effect on Jewish culture. We just wanted to let listeners know why it doesn’t come up in our conversation when it is clearly a natural and important topic to discuss in this context. There are probably some things we would say differently, maybe even a lot of things, about this issue and other things too, in light of the attack in Pittsburg and the rising antisemitism; indeed, David’s claims about antisemitism are easier to make in a world where it poses a theoretical threat, not a real life one. Nevertheless, we wanted to post the episode as it was originally recorded in the hope that it can contribute to the ongoing conversations about history and the present moment. Indeed, the rising antisemitism, political violence, and coded antisemitic language in American political discourse highlights even further the stakes of Jewish history, and this is something that we’ll explore in a number of episodes. But we wanted to indicate that since we recorded this episode prior to the attack, that’s why it doesn’t come up.
- Read the introduction to David N. Myers’ The Stakes of History: “History, Memory, and What Lies Between”
- Purchase The Stakes of History on Amazon
- Purchase Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction on Amazon
David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History in the UCLA History Department, as well as the director of the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy. In 2017-18, he served as the President/CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York.
Some figures, books, and topics we discussed include:
- Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory
- Spinoza, Theological Political Treatise (specifically ch. 3)
- Gerson Cohen, “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History” (full text)
- Simon Rawidowicz, “Israel the Ever-Dying People” in State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity: Essays on the “Ever-Dying People”
- David N. Myers, Re-Inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History
- David Armitage and Jo Guldi, The History Manifesto
- Tim Snyder, On Tyranny
An edited transcript of the episode follows:
Two Books With a Common Theme
Jason Lustig: I’m really glad that you’re able to join us today. It’s really exciting that you have these two works that really, I think, represent kind of a crowning achievement of a long process of thinking through these issues.
David N. Myers: Yeah, in a certain sense they are distillations of many years of thinking about the subjects of Jewish history and Jewish historiography.
JL: I know that they came out from different publishers, and they actually came out in different years. But I thought that it might be useful to start by thinking about the books together: what they represent as sort of a pairing. They’re both, essentially, short introductions to two sides of the same coin, one about Jewish history and the other one about about Jewish history. They’re also really quite short, which means that in a certain way, if you put them together they kind of constitute one sort of larger work. So what I wanted to ask is, essentially, if you had to synthesize them and take the two of them together, what do you think is the major takeaway? Another way to put that might be is, what are the stakes of history? You know, you’re looking at the stakes of history for the various historians of the Jews, and then you essentially try to do that yourself, to write a short history of the Jews: sowhat’s at stake in your history of the Jews?
DNM: Let me just begin and to try to unravel by saying that although I really hadn’t thought of it in this way, as part of the same intellectual project, there is, I would say, a larger element of an inextricability, and that is the inextricability of history and historiography. We can’t understand the writing of history without understanding the events or material that we draw upon to craft our own historiographical vision. And we can’t understand history without understanding the particular perspective we bring to bear. So, you know, this is a somewhat banal but nonetheless important point about the interconnectedness of those two domains of knowledge. I guess I’m making the point that you actually can distinguish them, in so far as I produced a history and then a work of historiographical reflections, but they are really part of the same epistemological and hermeneutic undertaking. Each has its own provenance and its own story, but in certain sense both issue from the same source, and maybe we’ll get to that in just a minute.
But the very short introduction is part of a wonderful series that Nancy Toff edits at Oxford University Press, that to date has put out I think 500 so very short introductions to a wide range of themes, and Nancy asked me a long time ago, maybe ten years ago, to write this very short introduction to Jewish history. And I was late by about five years, really getting started, because of various work responsibilities, but then when I got down to doing it, it really took a few months to write. And I found it best to do without having a large stack of secondary material standing by. I thought it was best to just try and distill the essence as neatly and as cleanly and as quickly as I possibly could, because that’s what this was intended to be, really a distillation of the essence of Jewish history.
That’s what I tried to do, because that’s what the task was in this particular series. And that’s what I have come to believe is important as a mode of communication for historians today, to make it meaningful accessible and digestible so that we are better positioned to learn from the past and form the present.
The second book is, in a certain sense, a manifesto for precisely that, certainly at the end of it. It traces the ways in which modern Jewish historians have used the past for a variety of, I would say, extra-scholarly purposes. I divide the first part of the book into three parts, each of which is an animating impulse of modern Jewish historians: modern Jewish historians used history to liberate, to console, and then to serve as witnesses, in a quite literal legal sense, amongst other understandings of witnessing. And then at the end of that book, I talk about the way in which history really can be put to use in ways that raise its stakes, as a tool in post-conflict situations, as a leavening agent in policy formation, so these are some of the ways in which I think history really matters.
I guess I’m dodging your question, which is to ask me what the stakes are in my own work. In the latter case, in the book The Stakes of History, it really is to make clear that history can and should be a tool of edification clarification, and modification of our perspective with respect to the present. I have spent a fair bit of time thinking for example about the way in which history can and should be present in thinking about alternative futures in Israel/Palestine. That’s one way in which I think history reveals how much it matters and how much it can be both a force of destruction and construction. More familiar is the story of destruction by perpetuating false myths. But, I think more interesting is the way in which history can be a constructive tool to, for example, inform both sides of the narrative of the other as an essential instrument of humanization. So those are some of the ways in which I think history matters and the stakes of history are present, that particularly reflects the work that went into the second book. The first book, the very short introduction, it just began with a question, which is really ,how did the Jews survive? And I think there are lessons to be learned about the survival of the Jews that are relevant today.
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Who Reads Jewish History, and Why?
JL: I want to come back to this question of how and why the Jews have survived throughout the course of history. But one angle that I’m interested in pursuing here is to think about the audience of these books, and also the audience of Jewish history as a whole, which is to say that I think that part of the argument that you are saying is that a broad audience should be interested in Jewish history. I guess one way to think about this might be, when you look at the short introduction to Jewish history, who do you think is reading this book? And what do you think that the various types of readers might get out of the book, different one from the other?
DNM: So, I often I think of concentric circles in lots of things I do, because I think there are concentric circles of audiences that I imagine this book as a helpful guide to an introduction to Jewish history at the undergraduate level, and maybe even to an advanced high school audience. So that’s, I guess, the first audience. I think of this book as a helpful introduction to Jews who have a passing familiarity with the history of their people. And I think of this book as a helpful introduction to the larger non-Jewish world, for whom the Jews continue to exercise an extraordinary fascination, for reasons that still defy some measure of rational explanation. And I’m particularly aware of the fact that this fascination, if left unchecked, can turn sinister, can turn to gross and misguided stereotyping and then to prejudice. And I want to capture that fascination with the Jew and provide some measure of historical depth, so that people can understand with some texture, but in a presentable way, this quite extraordinary tale of the survival of the Jews.
The Survival of the Jews
JL: I think that when we talk about the broad interest in the Jews, this is one of these questions that people ask all the time. We see this from Mark Twain through to contemporary China, that people ask: how is it that that Jews were able to survive over the course of the centuries? And this really is sort of the central question that you’re engaging with in the book. Why do you think this is such an enduring question, you know, about the Jews to begin with?
DNM: Well, because they’re very unlikely candidates for survival. They’re a small people that, for much of its history, lacked political power, was dispersed, often reviled. And the odds of such a people surviving under such conditions seem to me quite small. Many more powerful empires emerged on the stage of history and disappeared, and the Jews persisted in the face of hostility and adversity—and part of my argument is, (they persisted) in part becauseof the adversity and hostility. I offer two very unlikelh factors to help explain the survival of the Jews that may surprise the reader out there. But it seems to me that the small, powerless nature of Jewish peoplehood over the ages begs for a larger explanation of how did they survive?.
JL: When you’re talking about this question of the Jews’ survival throughout history, one of the things that you suggest in the book is that you’re interested in how the Jews survived and not why. What is the distinction between these approaches? Are they really that different?
DNM: Well, I guess, to a certain extent it’s just a mere semantic distinction that can be easily argued against. But the the impetus to distinguish between the two came from my colleague Professor Sarah Stein who said, you know, I think what you really want and can do as a historian is address how—what are the mechanisms by which Jews survived—rather than answer the ultimate question “why,” which has a kind of theological valance to it. As I as I often say when introducing this book, in terms of the survival of the Jews, the traditional explanation, which is rooted in the idea of divine providence, is an answer which I can neither confirm nor deny. What I can try to do is address more mundane or terrestrial factors: actually how, and what in what ways from the ground up did Jews, as they encountered new host societies, how do they actually integrate into the society in ways that were essential for their physical and economic survival, but yet preserve a measure of group distinctiveness? That balancing act that Jews engaged in seems to me a “how” question. Some might describe it as a why question, we can argue about that. But that’s the balancing act that really interests me. Because out of that balancing act really developed a quite extraordinary adaptive mechanism that I think is part of the answer to “how.”
JL: I want to get to these two answers that you give in just a minute. But before that, I still want to interrogate the fundamental question, which is to say that that you’re interested in survival, but this seems to me to present a low threshold for success. Historically speaking, the Jews have lived in a variety of regimes, countries, empires, cultures, and so on and so forth, which they have all outlasted over the course of millennia. So one might say: okay survival. But isn’t it, in a certain way, more important or more interesting to say not just how the Jews have survived but also how they have thrived in various places.
DNM: Oh, yeah, I’m very interested in that, not just survival but the flourishing of Jews in unlikely settings. There’s no question about that. But I think one shouldn’t diminish the import of survival, because it, too, is so very unlikely. It turns out that some of the great perceived disadvantages of the Jews relative to other peoples—their relatively small size and their dispersion—may well have been key to their survival, because were they concentrated in one place it would be much easier, given the adversity of certainly medieval Christendom, to dispatch with them in a more definitive fashion. So I think, you know, I do think the survival question is really interesting and important to address, and maybe more attention-grabbing than flourishing as well. So there’s a marketing element in it, but I’m in the first instance—and this is related to one of the factors that I enumerate in the book—I’m interested in not just the survival under trying conditions, but the success of Jews and recreating their cultures, plural, in many different settings under many different conditions. That is to say, maintaining a state of extraordinary cultural vitality in a wide variety of settings. That is really worthy of our attention. So I think you’re right to point to the importance of the flourishing as well as the survival.
JL: Yeah. I mean, if we limited ourselves to looking at places where Jewish life flourished, that really would leave out quite a bit of Jewish history. So in a certain way, setting a low threshold allows you to look at all of Jewish history as opposed to just the places where Jews found success.
DNM: Right, though there are very few places where Jews did not find success, if success be defined by the ability to (a) achieve a degree of economic stability, (b) create new forms of cultural expression, and (c) survive a deep and powerful undercurrent of religious hostility. So by all those measures, there are very few settings in which Jews did not succeed. But success can and should be defined variously in different settings and time periods. That said, I just want to go back and say, survival is an extraordinary achievement and it is one that I think is important to bear in mind, especially in a world of such extraordinary population movement, when there’s so much displacement and upheaval. This is one of the takeaways from the annals of the Jews. How does a group, that lacks significant amounts of political power, is often displaced and maybe disliked by potential host societies, how does it fend for itself in these new environments? What is the mechanism by which it can both integrate sufficiently and yet preserve enough of its group distinctiveness to continue on? There, I think it’s helpful to look back at Jewish history in order to help us make sense of the world today and to really provide a kind of blueprint for some of those many displaced peoples in the world, the 65 million or so who find themselves on the move in another time of extraordinary upheaval such as ours.
JL: I think this is a really important point that you’re making, that if we talk about the applicability of Jewish history, the Jews are not really in the position of being persecuted today in the way that we might say from 100 years ago or before that. But there are many other people who are in that position today. In a certain way, there are more refugees today than there were during the 1930s, even.
DNM: Absolutely. There are unsettling markers of antisemitism, really, around the world, confounding given that we thought we might be facing another problem, particularly in America, which is how would you survive without antisemitism. But reports of the demise of antisemitism may be premature, even here in the United States. But I think you’re right, that other peoples around the world find themselves in far greater danger than Jews do. And, you know, I am very much committed, as part of my whole sense of the vocation of the historian, to the application of historical knowledge to the present. And I think this is one of the ways in which Jewish history can be of benefit in helping us understand the dynamics of immigration, resettlement, integration into host societies with all the benefits that they bring, while at the same time allowing for some measure of preservation of cultural distinctiveness, which is also important to the rich mosaic of peoples in the world that I think we should aspire to.
I’m, as you know, um a devotee of a thinker about whom you know a great deal, because you wrote a thesis on him, Simon Rawidowicz, who added a liberty to the four liberties that President Roosevelt gave voice to his State of the Union address in January 1941, when he talked about the Four Freedoms. When he (Rawidowicz) talked about what he called “libertas differendi,” the right to be different, that for me is a very important feature of human history, and the desired mosaic of cultures that I think the world represents at its best.
Assimilation and Antisemitism
JL: One of the things that’s really quite fascinating about the argument that you’re making here, in a kind of an implicit way, is for the inherent ironies of history, the way in which things that seem to be negative forces are actually positive, potentially, and things that seem positive may lead towards negative outcomes. So, for instance, if we talk about the “success” of the Jews, survival is one measure, but also we can talk about how in modern times Jews have found much material success, much political success. And the irony of that is that it leads, in some contexts, to people disliking Jews, to antisemitism and so on and so forth. I think we could go far beyond the two forces that you identify in the book, which happened to be antisemitism and assimilation, which are more often seen as negative forces in Jewish life, but you argue had a preservative effect, of helping to preserve Jewish life and culture.
DNM: I think you put your finger on the expression of relevance, the ironies of history. Because, as I really thought about writing this short history, I felt two things that I think are relevant to the conversation: One, I really couldn’t do it with any measure of responsibility in strict chronological fashion, because the omissions would be so glaring. So I decided to approach this task thematically by dividing the book into five themes. And I also thought that if I didn’t take a crack at trying to explain at least the question of Jewish survival, if not the question of Jewish flourishing, then I wouldn’t have discharged my obligation.
And so in thinking about that question of survival, I came up with what I do think are two very key factors in the continuity of the Jews. I would say, surely not the only ones, but very important ones to be sure. And they are unlikely. In fact, as you said, most people would think they’re factors in the disappearance of Jews, assimilation and antisemitism. And by assimilation, I mean that process by which Jews repeatedly integrated into the host societies in which they found themselves, engaging on a daily basis with non-Jews in the marketplace, but also oftentimes in unarticulated ways absorbing cultural and social norms from the host society in a two-way exchange of cultural values, because Jews also transmitted to non-Jews in the various societies in which they met, cultural values and norms of their own. So in that sense, Jews were constant in a certain sense flexing or exercising their cultural muscles by virtue of this process of integration into and adaptation of the norms of the wider host society.
This is not an original insight. As you know well, it’s an idea that was laid out in quite brilliant and succinct fashion by Professor Gershon Cohen in a most unlikely setting. He delivered a commencement address at Hebrew College in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1966, and I can only imagine the horror on the faces of the parents who were assembled to see their children graduate when they heard the title of his lecture, which was “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” It was Cohen who really pointed out that in every epoch of Jewish history, rather than find themselves or make their way to an isolated corner at a remove from all societal influence, Jews engaged again and again in this work of cultural integration and adaptation, and that had an enormously powerful vitalizing effect upon the Jews, in the absence of which they would succumb to fossilization or ossification.
And, indeed, when one sort of does in archaeology of Jewish cultural history one finds so many distinct and colorful accretions of Jewish culture that build on some core original impulses, but nonetheless assume the coloration and form of the local environment, and add up to a very rich mosaic, if I can mix my metaphors. And that’s where I think assimilation has been a powerful vitalizing force in Jewish history.
But, to a limit. Because had Jews simply continued without constraint in the work of acculturation and integration, then they would have disappeared from the stage of history. What served as a mechanism of constraint was the persistence of antisemitism, which I’m using anachronistically since the term first appears to us in the 1870s. Antisemitism, anti-Jewish hostility, served to remind the Jews of their distinctiveness and checked that otherwise unimpeded path toward acculturation and assimilation. And the therefore the dynamic between these two factors, acculturation or assimilation on one hand and antisemitism on the other, I think really goes a long way to explaining how Jews were, one constantly subject to a process of cultural rejuvenation, and two, found undesirable or impossible the full immersion into host societies at least until the modern age, and then a new dynamic begins to appear. But that’s that’s how one arrives at this ironic formulation of assimilation and antisemitism is preservative forces in Jewish history.
JL: You mentioned Gershon Cohen. But the idea of antisemitism as a preservative force also is not a new idea in and of itself. And here, you know, I think you’re drawing from Spinoza very clearly, where in the Theological Political Treatise he makes his claim that it is because of the hatred of the Jews that we can understand why Jews survived in the absence of the Jewish commonwealth in Palestine.
DNM: Right. Other more moderns—that is to say, more modern than Spinoza— happened onto this idea. Of course Jean-Paul Sartre in his uh, Reflections sur le question juif, Antisemite and Jew, and the Mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger both articulated in some form a version of this claim. But I think you’re absolutely right. It’s Spinoza, in the third chapter of the Theological Political Treatise, who says that the Jews’ distinctive ritual practices and norms—that which Spinoza understood as the essence of revelation, the divine legislation—set the Jews apart from non-jews. That act of separation or segregation brought down upon the Jews the hostility or hatred of Gentiles, because of their professed sense of difference, and not just difference but chosenness. And the hatred of the Gentiles had the added ironic effect of reminding the Jews of what was distinctive about them, and thus preserving that sense of distinctiveness.
And that’s a dynamic that’s been played out again and again, leading to the question that I posed a bit earlier, which is what would happen in a society such as America in which rates of antisemitism seem to be declining to almost imperceptible levels, or had been until recently. What would happen, given the extraordinary integration, acculturation, and the assimilation of Jews into American society in the absence of that historical force of constraint? And that, I think, is a question that American Jews will face in the twenty-first century. That is to say, when antisemitism disappears or reaches very low rates, will they feel the same? Will they have the same capacity to check the highly successful route toward integration into American society?
JL: I think that’s an important open question. I don’t think anybody has the answer to that. But to go back to another figure who we mentioned a few minutes ago, the figure of a Simon Rawidowicz, he made the case that in a certain way Jews survived because of their fear of disappearance, that in every generation Jews believed they were the last Jews. And so, perhaps we see in this whole irony that the success of Jews in the worldly sphere, so to speak, maybe we see in all of this the complexities of Jewish history.
DNM: Well, I think that’s right. I mean Rawidowicz in his essay “Israel an Ever-Dying People,” did say Jews in every generation believed they were the last link in the chain. One thing that I think we see over the course of modern Jewish history, certainly from the nineteenth century, is the anxiety over disappearance is itself a catalyst to efforts at institutional and intellectual rejuvenation. The fear that somehow we are losing connection to a living tradition animated for example Franz Rosenzweig and in his Lehrhaus project. It was part of his own process of connection anew to a Jewish tradition about which he knew faintly but really had no deep experience. That work of rejuvenation, of revitalization, of cultural reinvigoration very often in the modern age is responsive to the perception of disappearance.
And I think in American society today, we in fact do see these two vectors heading in opposite directions, which have I think a deep if unacknowledged relationship. The statistically significant vector is the one of drift and alienation, especially amongst those under 30, where rates of affiliation with Jewish institutions are getting lower and lower. We also know that rates of intermarriage are getting higher and higher. The other vector, which moves in the opposite direction, is the vector of renaissance and revitalization, that takes the form of all sorts of intellectual, cultural, and religious projects. In a certain sense, the growth of Jewish studies in American universities, I think, can be seen as responsive to that fear or anxiety over disappearance, because the university is in some sense the last place where Jews can engage with a meaningful grasp of their tradition before disappearing into the great mainstream of American society. So that dynamic, I think, has been played out frequently in modern Jewish history. Whether or not it offers hope for the future because of its repetition, I’m not sure. I’m not sure because in previous instances, over time, you often had antisemitism as a constant reminder to Jews of their distinctiveness. And that had an impact on the most uneducated, uninformed, and assimilated of Jews who tell us, as Sigmund Freud did, I had very little consciousness of being a Jew until I encountered the antisemite at at the University of Vienna, at which point he did what Jews typically do, he joined an organization to defend against antisemitism.
That’s what I would call the organizationalization of Jewish identity. Jews are Jews by virtue of joining an organization, usually whose mission is to combat antisemitism. So that’s another iteration of the way in which antisemitism can be a preservative force.
History and Jewish Survival
JL: One of the things that is I think really interesting in this whole discussion of how the Jews survived is what is not listed among these reasons, which is history. You don’t list an interest in the Jewish past or the study of the Jewish past as part of the explanation for thinking about the development of Jewish culture over the ages. And this, in a certain way, I think provides a segueway for us to talk about the other book, in as much as we can talk about what is the use of Jewish history. In what ways does a book about Jewish historiography, about the way in which Jews have written about and studied the past, how does that interact with or engage with this other book in which the study of the past is not really a major part of your analysis.
DNM: Well, I would say by way of rationalization and justification that there are many factors that I think played into the persistence or survival of the Jews that I didn’t mention. And I want to be clear that the two I identified are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only two factors. I do think that a sense of historical consciousness, a sense of connection to the Jewish past, has been a vital ingredient in the survival of the Jews. I think in its absence, there really would have been just a dissipation of this group a very long time ago, and I think in that regard (Yosef Hayim) Yerushalmi is right to point to rituals and liturgy as the repositories of the historical memory that served as a connective tissue for the Jews. I do think that the way in which historical memory is translated into an understandable idiom in today’s world is very often by historians. So to a certain extent, that important role played by history or historical consciousness in Jewish preservation I think obtains in the modern period—and that’s one way in which I would disagree with Yerushalmi—and part of what I argue in the early part of my book The Stakes of Historyis that there actually were many several different versions of Yerushalmi, and we shouldn’t conflate all of them with Yerushalmi’s Zakhorfrom 1982.
What We Learn From Historiography
JL: I think we’re going to get to Yerushalmi in-depth in a bit. I think it’s clearly the foil, in a certain way, to the book. But before we delve into that, I’m really interested in this issue of the use of history and also the use of the study of historiography. By looking at the way in which a relatively small class of people (i.e. historians) have engaged with Judaism and Jewish culture, what does that tell us about broader themes and forces within modern Jewish life?
DNM: I guess there are two things I would say about that. One, they’re two sides of the coin. One is, what have historians done to express their concerns about the present and future of the group they’re writing about? And here, it’s important to note that until recently and from, let’s say, 1818, the overwhelming majority of those Jews who wrote about post-Biblical Jewish history were Jews who felt a strong sense of what I call identitarian investment in the well-being of Jews. And they used the historiographical medium as a way to promote, advance, and in some instances correct the path of the group they were studying. So in that sense, there was a very, I think, real applied nature to their work, that they wouldn’t have articulated as such. But there clearly was a close connection between past and present. So that’s one side of the coin, the way the small group of historians sought to use the past to ameliorate, better, reform the Jews, the group they studied through the medium they knew.
The other side of the coin is, what do Jews make of it? What is the group, the intended audience in set a certain sense of the work of these historians, what do they make of history? And here, I cannot and I don’t want to make the case that even the most popular of modern Jewish historians, those who sold the largest number of volumes—and it may well be that a non-Jew, Paul Johnson. sold the largest number of books about Jewish history, which would further complicate the argument—but I don’t want to say that it’s readership of the volumes of the historians that provided Jews with a rationale to continue to live as Jews. I do believe that there is nonetheless a way knowledge advancement precedes: a small group of elites engage in the production of knowledge that, in various ways known and unknown to them, is translated to wider groups of people, and that’s the process that occurred with the Jews in the modern era under guise of a number of dominant ideologies, so that Jews came to learn about new approaches to Jewish history through the lens of religious reform and the pushback against it, through the advent of nationalism. These became the prisms through which Jews understood the Jewish past, as actually defined in articulated by Jewish historians, though the masses of Jews may have been completely unaware of the writings of this small group of historians. So even in the modern age, I would say that a connection to the past, framed through a number of different ideological lenses, has been present. And in the absence of that, I think Jews would have lost all rationale to continue to identify as Jews. I think for many it is in fact the inchoate, ill-defined connection to the legacy of one’s forebears, as reflected in the annual celebration of Passover, that provides them with sufficient grounds to continue to exist as and define themselves as Jews.
So it’s a very indirect relationship between the work of the elites and the masses. At the same time, it’s not at some level surprising that a common Bar Mitzvah gift in Germany and then America, when the Jewish Publication Society issued its edition, was the multivolume history of Heinrich Graetz. The percentage of young 13-year-old or 14-year-old Jewish boys who cracked just one of the volumes of Graetz, I’m sure, was very small. But there is an osmotic process, I think, that has to be understood as part and parcel of the production of knowledge that leads to new conceptual formulations that make their way from elite to popular levels. That was at work here, and particularly propelled forward by different ideological moments in modern Jewish history.
So that’s how I see the relevance of the work of university-trained historians, writing in often an idiom not intended for wide public consumption.
JL: One of the things that I think about a lot is the way in which these historians, and also other people who are involved in the production of of history, they constantly made the case that they were doing something “objective,” something unbiased, to use the current term that people might use. I think that when we look at your book The Stakes of History—which by the way is not the stakes of Jewish history in the title—anyway, we see fundamentally the way in which the writing of Jewish history, just like the writing of all history, always has stakes to it. I think that’s one way to think about the importance of historiography.
DNM: You’re right that one of the persistent features of modern Jewish historiography has been the claim of “scientific objectivity,” initially wrapped in the cloak of Wissenschaft, a word that connoted both disciplinary wholeness and a certain degree of scientific standard. I think that’s that’s been important part of the history of modern Jewish scholarship. Our distinguished colleague Michael Meyer wrote an article on a persistent tension in Wissenschaft des Judentums: on one hand, its professed commitment to the idea of objectivity, and on the other its persistent utilitarian or instrumental employment, meaning that just as historians were claiming their work was “objective,” they were also using it to promote the cause of Emancipation or religious reform, or the opposite of religious reform, the fortification of orthodoxy.
There’s always this instrumental, utilitarian quality, to it. And I think that’s been a defining tension. It may be the case that it was more pronounced in the case of the Jews, but I think that tension is a feature of the modern historical enterprise as an epistemological and hermeneutic matter more generally: we all aspire to achieve some considerable measure of truth about the past. We all engage in a sort of conceit that our work of reconstruction leads us to truth. We all regard that as a virtuous ideal. And yet, we all are all (a) subjects of our own time and (b) beholden to differing and distinct psychological temperaments and ideological predispositions, and (c) incapable of, as a core epistemological matter, reconstructing exactly history “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” as it actually happened.
So there’s built into the project a fundamental tension between the aspiration for truth and the persistence and, in some instances, realization of the impossibility of that. That’s you know I’ve been constantly interested in a tradition of hermeneuts, scholars of hermeneutics, from Dilthey to Gadamer, who understood and tried to explain and understand and in some sense console readers about what to do about this seeming tension or contradiction. That’s been a defining feature of the modern historical enterprise.
Does it mean, even if one makes knowingly an identitarian investment in the past, even if one says, I am a Muslim and I believe in the cause of bettering the status of Muslims today, that the work is bound to fail by all measures of scholarly integrity? I don’t think so. I think that’s simply a matter of striking the right balance between heeding the consensal norms of the discipline, and being open and mindful about the extent of one’s own investment and potential bias in the formulation of a research question.
“A Confession and a Credo”
JL: One of the things that strikes me, in terms of the way that you’ve been talking about this project and about the interest in historiography, is that you are constantly drawing on the language of belief. You made a comment about how, you know, “we all believe,” or something along those lines, that we believe that there is some kind of truth to be had about the past, or that people in the past, past historians, were sort of working off of a certain core set of beliefs. And in the preface to this book, The Stakes of History, you say yourself that the book is “part history and part confession and credo.” And here, you know, you are quoting Zakhor by Yosef Yerushalmi, where he also was trying to articulate an understanding of Jewish historiography. So for you, looking at The Stakes of History, what’s the credo or the core belief that you’re presenting in the book? And why did you feel the need to present it?
DNM: Yeah, so just in terms of belief and belief in truth, what I said just a minute ago was that that’s the conceit with which I think modern historians operate. That it is possible to achieve, or we tell ourselves that it’s possible to achieve, some measure of truth by virtue of archival reconstruction. I mean, if we don’t, I’m not sure, then we should just describe ourselves as novelists. I think that’s one of the distinguishing features betweeh fiction and history. I’ve been much taken by the thinking of figures like Roland Barthes and Hayden White, who want to blur the distinction between fiction and history. But, you know, I’d say for me the confessional part is to acknowledge that I am historian of the Jews who feels a deep sense of attachment to that history as well as to the group that stands at the center of it and long for the well-being and continuation of that people. At the same time, I’m a professional historian who feels committed to the ideals and norms and practices of the profession and seeks to read archival and other sources as fairly scrupulously and meticulously as possible. And I think, again, that produces a certain tension, to be sure. But as I often think, without tension the historian has nothing to work with or study. Tension, change. These are what make the work of the historian possible and interesting.
I want to say, not only do I believe that there is an inherent subjectivity in the writing of history, but that acknowledging that and even stating clearly one’s desire to use the past in order to be a benefit to the present, isn’t a bad thing, and for me constitutes a key part of my profession of faith.
The Stakes of History
JL: I think that that’s clear throughout this book, that you are making the case from beginning to end that historians need to play a role in the public sphere, and that the public needs to engage with the past. And, you know, we see this in the very title. When you say “the stakes of history,” well, clearly: the idea is that history has stakes. But the second half of the title, which is kind of hidden if you look at the cover of the book—it’s not as visible, but it’s the subtitle—is this reference to Nietzsche. And you actually see this, I’m sitting here with you in your office and I see Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History For Life, prominently displayed on the bookshelf. So I’m curious about the importance of Nietzsche in your thinking on these issues. Why does he matter today? He was, you know, working and writing and living in a entirely different context from where we are now. So, why does he matter today, and his critique of history-writing within the context of contemporary debates about why and how history matters?
DNM: So there are two competing impulses. One is that we should always be mindful of the differences between historical epochs, the difference between the present and the past, the differences between our time and Nietzsche’s time. And on the other hand, we should be open to the possibility that we can actually learn something from the past and that past thinkers in particular have ideas that are worthy of consideration, even if we didn’t think them first ourselves.
And, you know, I think one should be mindful of the fact that Nietzsche was writing in 1874, in a different context. But at the same time, there is a set of.competing sensibilities in his work that I think we might want to recall: so, first, is the idea that sometimes more and more accumulation of historical data leads to less and less understanding. The mere accumulation of historical data does not necessarily lead to a greater insight into or understanding of phenomenon, that there’s some measure by which historians can sort of hack away at a historical object to the point that it’s almost unidentifiable, and what we are left with is countless shards of historical minutia that don’t add up to a coherent or accessible picture of the past. And Nietzsche warned us against that.
He also said that history is a value when it serves life. And I think both of those lessons are valuable for us today, to um understand that sometimes more is less, insofar as—and here I would be the last to dismiss very careful monographic labor that requires a meticulous sifting of evidence and a massive trove of archival sources, I would be the last person to dismiss that. But if one is interested in rendering history meaningful and accessible to as wide a public as possible, then one does need to think about things like distillation and translation into a language and idiom that can be understood by as wide a public as possible. And in that instance, sometimes less is more.
And that goes back to some of the first questions you asked, about why did I write these two short books? Because I believe less can be more. It may be a deficiency of the of our era, that the attention span of people is so narrow that it doesn’t allow for a reading big books. I don’t think that’s entirely true. But I do think that instead of lamenting or vilifying the audience as insufficiently attentive, we historians can do better at the work of distillation and translation and I think Nietzsche nudges us towards that realization as well as to the important proposition that history can serve life. And I guess, at the end of the day, that’s part of my profession of faith: history can serve life. Is it the single most important ingredient in a meaningful or virtuous life? No, I don’t think so. But it is that piece of promoting informed and meaningful living that I feel I can contribute best to. And I want to maximize my potential to do so, and I think Nietzsche understood that. Few can capture his withering array of metaphors to capture the scale of insignificance of some historians whom he saw writing in his day, and I don’t mean to be at all mocking or demeaning, especially of those who undertake vast monographic labors. But I do think there is something to be said about the importance of capturing big themes in that kind of monumental sense that he had in mind, and in accessible and digestible ways, so both form and content being ideally matched in order to maximize the impact on the intended reader.
JL: I think one of the really key aspects of that whole debate with Nietzsche at its center is, is our study of the past looking backwards, or is it looking forward? So in this, I think that there are a lot of people who shy away from a certain kind of presentism, which they feel degrades the work that they do. But there is a challenge, right, which is to say, what if climate scientists said, we’re just studying Arctic ice cores for its own sake? And we don’t feel the need to participate in public debates about the environment in which we live?
DNM: Or if climate deniers say, “we’re not interested in the past of climate history. We’re not interested in climate. That needn’t tell us anything.” You know, that’s that’s a really fine example, Jason, of why we do need history so desperately. Can you imagine living in a world in which, as you said, I’m not really interested in past patterns of climate behavior, that that can’t tell me anything? And unfortunately, there are such people today. But I think your example really points out what is so very significant for life.
And, you know, in cases where the stakes may be lower than the ultimate disposition of our planet, you could imagine saying, well, I like to read history for pure enjoyment or I like the accumulation of details of trivia. And I think those are perfectly reasonable uses for history. But it really is hard for me to understand how we make sense of the present without a meaningful engagement with the past. It really is hard. I don’t think we want policymakers to proceed with their policy decisions in the absence of a rich and textured understanding of the past, which has to be digested in presentable ways for them to be sure, but we need more of that engagement with a past in order to inform policy better. We need more engagement with the past to overcome some of its wounds, as we see in conflictual situations and in post-conflict instances.
These are some of the ways in which history can serve life, and I don’t think it’s intuitive. I don’t think everybody agrees or recognizes it. And I think we have to, at this point in time, proceed with some measure of evangelical zeal, especially because of the ubiquity of social media which reduces our attention span toa matter of seconds. What did Donald Trump say in the last hour, forget about what he said a year ago? That’s the kind of inherent logic of social media to create a kind of craving for new tidbits of information on an hourly or minute-by-minute basis. That’s at some level of gratifying to the person in the throes of addiction—in a certain sense, we all are to our social media—but it doesn’t really help us understand key patterns and modes of behavior that can help us navigate the present and future.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s “Zakhor”
JL: So, one of the things that I really wanted to talk to you about is that this is a book about the history of Jewish history, as it were, but it also fits itself into a wider matrix of the debates about Jewish historiography, about Jewish history and why it matters, over the past generation or even more. In this context, I think that it might be useful for us to reflect on the relationship of your book The Stakes of History with what I see as its counterpart, Yosef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor.
It is interesting, right, because you dedicated the the short introduction (A Very Short Introduction to Jewish History) to Yerushalmi. But in a way, I think that Yerushalmi’s ghost hovers more closely over The Stakes of History.
DNM: Well, he over hovers over both. Yerushalmi was my teacher and my revered mentor at Columbia. It was he who introduced his students to the catholicity of Jewish history, the universality of Jewish history, and demanded that we studied at all. And in that respect, the very short introduction is a tribute to him and his insistence on that Catholic approach to Jewish history. But The Stakes of Historyis my response to an ongoing conversation with Yerushalmi’s Zakhorin a most direct way,
JL: I think it’s very clear, as you read through the book, Yerushalmi comes up again and again, as you refer, I think rightly, to Zakhor as a starting point for a series of debates. I think that the books, they pair in very interesting ways. I could go through many of them, but I’ll list three of them briefly, that I noticed as I was reading through the books. On a certain basic level, both your book and Yerushalmi’s Zakhor were public lectures, which is interesting in the way in which you were both speaking to a wide audience to begin with. This was not something that was just produced in your study. Zakhor was the Strom lectures at the University of Washington, you were speaking at Yale, so that’s one thing. But another one that we might think about is that you’re each responding to a particular historical context, and even crisis. For Yerushalmi, one might say that there’s almost a crisis of faith in terms of the ability of the historian to make an impact on the wider world. And today, I think, as you mentioned it once or twice in the book, we’re in an age of declining enrollments in history classes, declining number of history majors. And so you’re really responding to this crisis of the humanities, so to speak, uh where people are telling their children, “don’t study history, don’t study anthropology, study engineering.” And finally, I think what’s interesting about The Stakes of History is that, like Zakhor, this is kind of a summation of a long interest and excavation of Jewish historiography. But here you’re sort of using a different approach, a thematic approach instead of chronological, and you’re also coming to radically different conclusions.
And so I guess the question that I would have, after this long preface, is: what’s the relationship of this book with Zakhor? Is it a rejection or a revision of Yerushalmi’s thesis, by saying that history has an important and active role to play in the world, and not just memory, which was Yerushalmi’s core idea, that memory was more important than history? Or is there something more complex going on?
DNM: Right. Well, that’s a great question, and you’re right on many of the aspects of your long question, including the fact that The Stakes of Historydoes mark the culmination of a very long engagement with the work of Yerushalmi. And to a certain extent, I think of this book as akin to the last chapter of Yerushalmi’s own book on Freud’s Moses, which he entitled “a monologue with Freud.” This is, in a certain sense, a monologue with Yerushalmi. From my early years in graduate school with him, I was deeply taken by Zakhor, and yet thought that the fundamental thesis was wrong, or at least wrong at least as I understood it. That is to say, the insistence on a wide chasm between the rich nourishing forces of pre-modern collective memory and the sort of clinical dispassion of the modern historian who catered to, in the famous phrase of Yerushalmi, “the faith of fallen Jews,” I sensed that that didn’t comport to my own understanding of the way in which modern historians in fact continued to provide sources of collective memory to Jews in quite deliberate fashion, according to those organizing rubrics that I mentioned before, religious reform, nationalism, socialism, and others.
And in a certain sense, my first book, Reinventing the Jewish Past,which studied the first generation of Jewish studies scholars at the Hebrew University, was a response to that claim in Zakhor,by showing, here’s a group of historians who in fact do seek quite constantly to bridge the gap between the modern “scientific” medium of history and the collective memory of the Jewish people.
This goes back to our conversation about that animating tension between the impulses of the modern historian, but here in the Jewish case, that I think can be formulated as a mediation between history and memory, according to the terms that Yerushalmi used. So wasn’t a matter of historians buying into history and dislodging and discarding memory. In my understanding, the work of modern Jewish historians, there’s been a constant mediation between those two. And in that regard, it seemed to me that at some point it would make sense to articulate that as such, and not just exemplify it in somewhat muted fashion as I did in my first book.
And that was really the challenge and task of The Stakes of History.As I went about doing that, and showing how modern Jewish historians use their medium, their professional skills, to liberate, to console, to provide witness, to in fact build up a memory—and here I have to recall those apocryphal words attributed to Simon Dubnow as he went to his death: “Jews, write and record your past, and leave an edifice of memory for those who come after you.” You know, I understood that at some point the time would come when I when I would write a book that quite deliberately and consciously took on Yerushalmii’s Zakhor.
But as I began to write the introduction to these lectures, I went back to other formulations by Yerushalmi about the relationship between history and memory, and discovered that another their various at different periods and times. So twelve years before the publication of Zakhor, he, like Gershon Cohen, delivered the commencement address at the Hebrew College in Brookline, Massachusetts, entitled “Jewish History in an Age of Aquarius,” which is in a book that I edited with Professor Alexander Kaye, called The Faith of Fallen Jews. And there, Yerushalmi has a very different understanding of the relationship between history and memory. There, the historian appears, in words evocative of the scholar of German Jewish origin who made his way to America, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessey. There, Yerushalmi borrows Rosenstock-Huessey’s formulation and refers to historians as “physicians of memory.”
So even Yerushalmi, I think, understood at various points that the chasm between history and member wasn’t so vast. My sense is that in 1982, or at the time he delivered the lectures a couple of years earlier, he did in fact sense a certain despair. I think you’re right about that.
He was writing a time of some kind of despair, if not crisis, over the meaning of what he and others were doing. And that adds up to the historian as the custodian of the faith of fallen Jews, which is a pretty, I think, damning statement about what we do. Yerushalmi would dispute that. Nonetheless, my own understanding is that, one, the chasm isn’t so great as he alleges in Zakhor, but in a certain sense grasps twelve years earlier in his Hebrew College lecture. And two, that, well, we face a certain crisis. There is hope to be had for the ameliorative, edifying, and applied nature of historical knowledge today. And that’s something that I think he, in his last formulation, wasn’t willing to accept.
JL: When we talk about Zakhor, as a critical book, what’s so interesting about it is that it’s a work that on a sort of fundamental level is making a claim that history doesn’t matter so much, that memory is perhaps more important. That’s essentially the core aspect of especially the fourth chapter of Zakhor. And there’s so much to think about there. Because on the one hand, Yerushalmi is saying that. But then again, this book has been the touchstone for so many historians, and especially historians of the Jews, for whom the encounter with that book—and I can only speak for myself personally, that it was such a formative work to read and to experience—that helped to propel peoplw towards the study of the Jewish past. So that’s one side of it. And then the other half of it, as well, is that this debate about history and memory might seem to some people as kind of pedantic, right, this is kind of scholars spinning their wheels. You’re talking about what matters more, what really happened or what people imagine as what happened. But in a certain way, this debate is still with us. We live in an age of “post-truth,” so to speak. And in this context, we need to really ask ourselves seriously, does it matter how many people were actually at Trump’s inauguration? Or does it matter more if people accept the narrative that they are given?
DNM: Right, I think both matter. And this goes back to our discussion of the relationship between history and historiography. I think both matter. We should be attentive to both. And you know, in The Stakes of History,I quote two scholars who were involved in the trial Irving v Lipstadt, when the British Holocaust denier David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel in the late 1990s extending into the early years of the twenty-first century. And Lipstadt won the verdict, Irving lost, and had to pay all sorts of damages, which he actually didn’t have the capacity to do. But in the wake of that, one of the star witnesses for Lipstadt, whose lawyer assembled what he called a “dream team” of Holocaust scholars, one of the scholars, Sir Richard Evans, said that what was at stake in this trial was the integrity of History, and it was very important to get the facts right and have them be as unassailably grounded as possible against the corrosive thrusts of people like Irving. Deborah Lipstadt, by contrast, said that what was at stake was the memoryof the Holocaust for future generations. And I think it’s really helpful to think, and interesting to think about, what’s the relationship between the two? Are they two entirely separate entities, is facticity the exclusive domain of history and memory the exclusive domain of mythmakers? I don’t think so. I think historians engage in both. And sometimes, there’s an unavoidable semantic slippage between the two, between history and memory, so that sometimes when people refer to memory they mean history and vice-versa. But you can certainly see how they mark out poles on a spectrum, Evans on one hand, Lipstadt on the other.And yet, I think, as I think of it today, I’m interested both in getting the facts right and in constructing an overarching narrative that can leave an impression for those who did not have first-hand or know anyone who had first-hand knowledge of those events in question. That seems to me important for Jews, and it seems to be important for non-Jews, maybe even more important for non-Jews.
Why History Matters
JL: Well, this is one of these things also, I think that if we talk about the relevance of history and the relevance of what it means to have a historical approach, if we talk about kind of contemporary discourse, even say within journalism, there’s often this focus on getting the facts, right? But not necessary about thinking about what is the broader narrative that is being presented.
DNM: I’ll just say that, I don’t know if more people should be studying history. What I do know is that more people should know more history, and that places more of a burden on historians to do what they do in ways that reach people. And that might entail, if not a total overhaul, then a significant rethinking of the way in which we teach and train for the historical profession. Because, again, distillation, translation, communication. These are essential tools that we have to develop in order to make clear why history matters and in order to make clear what we can and should learn from the past. If we just throw an 800-page monograph at a public official, they’re going to laugh at us. But if we can produce a distilled working paper of three to five pages with a very refined, sophisticated, and terse presentation of history and why it has relevance to the policy question of today, then I think we are getting closer to realizing our potential and to serving a really important public function.
JL: I guess this brings me to something that I’m curious if you have any thoughts on, which is, we began our conversation by talking a little bit about the audience of the book, about the short introduction to Jewish history. And I’m curious, as well, what you think is the audience and the impact that the other book, The Stakes of History, will have. I mentioned before the way in which Yerushalmi’s work was and continues to be so influential among graduate students, among historians, professionals and so on and so forth. But it’s very much squarely within that realm. You know, you’re not going to find an average person picking up Zakhor off the shelf, whereas as a graduate student I probably read it ten times over the course of the past decade. And so, in writing The Stakes of History, are you perhaps speaking to historians primarily, in terms of thinking about the active role that they can play in the world, or are you perhaps speaking to a wider audience in terms of the importance of history for for everyday life?
DNM: So, I think the answer is both. The first audience is, I think, those who read and know Zakhor, and either have been discomfited or haven’t been discomfited by the wide chasm that Yerushalmi proposes, because I offer a different way to understand the relationship between these two large categories. So the first mission of the book is to join that conversation. But, you know, I don’t think this book is is either intended for nor purely relevant to Jewish historians. I think it’s a book that says historians in the past have adhere to the norms of the discipline, done careful work, and used the historical medium fora wide range of functions that serve society, that serve life. And we too, in the present, can do the same. And so, in a certain sense, Jason, that’s a blueprint for the way in which history can and should be used for policymakers, for conflict resolution experts, for aggrieved groups that are waiting for some acknowledgement of an historical trauma that was inflicted upon them that has never been fully recognized.
These are the ways in which I think history can play a very important role in society, in life, and it’s surely not the case that the benefits of history are restricted to Jewish historians or to Jews. And so the last chapter of that book is really, I think of it as a kind of blueprint for the ways in which history can be applied. And the benefits, again, extend well beyond not just Jewish historians but historians as well.
Applied Jewish Studies
JL: I’m reminded of some of your other work where you’ve written about the concept of what you called “applied Jewish studies.” And I think that, in this book, you are trying to take it beyond that, where you’re saying that the stakes of history are not just for the Jews. And at the same time, and here I think it might just be that you are restricted by your area of expertise, that you are looking to the Jews as the prime example, as a prime example, where we can see all these things taking place. And so I guess, as you think in bigger terms about the stakes of history and about how it can be applied, how does The Stakes of History and also the short introduction, how do they help us in terms of this broad question of the utility of history beyond Jewish history?
DNM: Well, I gave you one example of how I think the study of Jewish history can help us understand and perhaps ameliorate the world, and that was referring to the movement of peoples on such a mass scale today and the process by which they make their way into a new host society, engage in the necessary work of integration and acculturation, and yet strike a balance between that and preserving the richness of their cultural traditions. I think, you know, finding that balance is extraordinarily difficult to do, and Jews have repeatedly done it. And I think there’s a lesson there on small, often immigrant and sometimes refugee groups in large majority societies. Jewish history tells us about that, teaches us about that. I think Jewish history also teaches us to identify the early warning signs of a descent into violent persecution, the movement from mere rhetoric to action.Iy often think of Jewish history as a kind of canary in the coal mine when it comes to recognizing that shift from from words to deeds, especially in the twentieth-century history of the Jews. In a certain sense, I often think of the litmus test that the political scientist Juan Linz provided for us, about when we see the erosion of democracy to the point of a descent into fascistic tendencies. Criteria, like attacking the free press and the judiciary and and threatening to imprison your political opponents. In a similar fashion, I think if you look at instances in which Jews were present over the course of the twentieth century, particularly in late stage Weimar Germany or early Nazi Germany, you can begin to identify warning signs that we should recall or bear in mind in today’s world. You know, in terms of understanding the pathology and dynamics of group hatred, I think antisemitism provides us with a very fascinating laboratory to understand that well beyond the case of the Jews. There’s a kind of forensic quality to all of these different uses of history, and some of them actually dwell in the realm of the “lachrymose,” as Salo Baron famously described it. But I still think there are key lessons to be learned from the case of Jewish history that has application far beyond the case of the Jews.
JL: So, as we come towards the end of our conversation, what I’m curious about is your thoughts on why these histories matter. You’ve talked about why Jewish history matters as a whole, and you’ve talked about why historiography matters. W hat do we gain from having a new articulation of these questions and themes, and broadly speaking this kind of a “introduction,” a short introduction—whether to Jewish historiography or to Jewish history as a whole? How do these types of things help us to comprehend our contemporary world in a way that a broader monograph that that goes deeper into the subject does not?
DNM: Well, just as I said, I don’t think it’s likely that your typical policymaker or diplomat engaged in negotiations over how to resolve or effect a regime of transitional justice in a post-conflict situation is as likely to read an 800-page monograph as she is to read a three- or ten-page historically-informed policy paper. And so, we have to be mindful of the limits of patience and attention of our audience. But without pandering and without playing the lowest common denominator, we have to find ways of communicating what we do in digestible and accessible ways. And this, again, is not a matter of Jewish history alone. It’s a matter of history, at a moment of unquestioned perplexity. And here I think the perplexity calls out to us as historians to come and answer the question, how did we get here? How did we actually get to this state of upheaval and fragmentation and polarization and incipient authoritarian tendencies across the world?
We could simply, you know, try to tweet our way out of these tendencies. We could. But somehow, it seems to me that 140 characters isn’t going to do it. But what can do it is the depth of perspective that comes from historical analysis presented in an accessible way. For some, that will mean the 800-page monograph. But I think, for a much larger public whom we now have the obligation to meet and to answer the question, how do we get where we are?, we have to continue the work of distillation and translation. That’s our mission. Or I should say that’s my mission. And that’s why I thought these two books of this length were appropriate for the time.
JL: I mean, one of the things that is important to think about here is that you’re not the only person who’s saying these things. I think that if you were that we would have a major issue at our hands. But what is going on is there is a growing number of historians who are saying, we need to take a place in the public sphere. And one can think of figures from Tim Snyder to David Armitage, throughout. So I guess part of the question here is, how does your approach differ from some of these other people who are articulating the need for historians to take a place in the public sphere? And what is the utility of Jewish history in particular in articulating this kind of importance?
DNM: I think the question is not, what’s different. I think question is, why are we in various different idioms Armitage and Guldi, in the History Manifesto,Tim Snyder in a long series of books culminating in On Tyranny—why do we feel in this moment a particular sense of obligation or imperative to bring history into the present? And I think it has to do with the sense of perplexity and confusion that we find ourselves in at present. I think there are long-term historical forces that help explain the perplexity, that help explain the very disturbing features of political life that we are witness to. But I don’t think this is about Jewish history, and I don’t think it’s really about the differences in approach. I think the phenomenon that I’d like to leave us with is the urgency of the moment, to engage in applied historical work, that unites historians writing about different periods of time and in different idioms. So, for Armitage and Guldie, it’s it’s an attempt to bring back a long-termism that allows us to grasp big patterns in history. And that includes drawing on the great big world of Big Data out there. For Tim Snyder, it’s about very careful analysis of the historical domains that he knows well, East and Central Europe. Both—in their different idioms, and sometimes even with opposing theoretical perspectives—believe that we must bring history into the present in order to chart a better future. And that’s the moment which I join, and I think it’s important to call to all those who feel a sense of urgency and perplexity in this moment to recognize the benefits of that applied approach to history. That’s really, for me, far more important than the differences in approach between myself and the others, or between Jewish history and other fields. Because at the end of the day, where I end up in The Stakes of History is that this is not about Jewish history. This is about history and its relevance to life.
JL: Yeah, I mean, as I think about the podcast for instance, “Jewish History Matters.” This is, in a certain way, the core idea, that the past is important and that we need to engage with it in a variety of ways. And one of the challenges is that by having a framework of “Jewish history matters,” it’s not to say that the rest of it doesn’t. But I think that what we’ve been talking about today really strikes at the core of so much of what I’ve been hoping that we’ve been able to do with this whole project.
DNM: So I would just summarize that Jewish history matters because it imparts a sense of connection to Jews to their past. It matters because it offers up examples of a particular group, operating in a variety of different settings, whose experiences can in fact be looked at as exemplars of historical behavior, whose experiences can be seen as replicating conditions that groups today find themselves in and thus Jewish history you know serves as both an instructive and cautionary tale to groups far beyond the Jewish experience. Those are some of the ways in which I think Jewish history can be of benefit to Jews and non-Jews. I’ll just conclude by saying and there’s just a lot of curiosity out there, in this unsettled, conspiratorial world that we inhabit, about Jews themselves. And who if not Jewish historians can help dispel misimpressions and misunderstandings and stereotypes and provide in a more positive sense, in other words it’s not just reacting to established stereotypes, but to establish in more constructive terms a rich textured understanding of who the Jews are in ways that answer that curiosity.
Fascinating discussion. Keep up the good work. Can you post the reference to the article by Michael Meyer that David Myers mentions?
Found it. Meyer, Michael A. “Two Persistent Tensions within Wissenschaft Des Judentums.” Modern Judaism, vol. 24, no. 2, 2004, pp. 105–119. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1396522.