Jewish history is a world history, spanning three thousand years and nearly every continent and country. It’s the tale of a diverse people that have survived and thrived no matter where they ended up, a story of globalization long before the modern world.
And it’s a history of minorities that illustrates both persecution and perseverance. In the end, Jewish history is more than the history of the Jews themselves—it’s the history of the world in which they have lived, of the ideas they have generated, of the cultures and religions which have existed in a constant pull of interaction, hybridity, and borrowing.
This podcast is dedicated to exploring why the Jews’ history is important, and how the newest research and enduring issues of Jewish studies have something to offer to our understanding of the world at large. It presents the argument that in order to understand history and the human experience broadly speaking, we need to understand the Jews. Looking to American history, European history, the histories of colonialism, science, or philosophy, let alone other topics, we cannot overlook the Jews both as people who played a part in it as well as an important example of the place of minorities in these societies and histories. To disregard the Jews would be to neglect the nuances and complexities of history.
At a time when, unfortunately, xenophobia has been raising its ugly head and questions abound about refugees and religious minorities in the public discourse, Jewish history matters. It is crucial for comprehending how we got where we are today on a range of important issues and policy debates. And it’s not just the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When we see so many people being taken in by propaganda and misinformation, the Jews’ own encounter with discourses of “fake news”—like the absurd and false claims of blood libels and world conspiracy—unfortunately have continued relevance for the twenty-first century, on this just as much as any number of other issues.
Today, when the humanities and social sciences are being pressured to demonstrate their “usefulness,” this podcast stands on the principle that Jewish history still matters. And we should remind ourselves that Jewish history was once eminently practical. For Jews who debated issues like nationalism and religious reform, and non-Jews who tried to make sense of this odd people and tried to “productivize” them as part of a program of Enlightenment and state building—not to mention those whose aim was to missionize to the Jews—Jewish history became a bedrock of policy and action. This is by no means a call for a return to ideologically- and politically-driven histories. Instead, it’s a reminder that the study of the Jews has always had wider implications, and it still does.
The Jews and their history matter because we find in them an important case study: Through the Jews, we can understand what is constant and what is different about the vast and varied societies in which the Jews have lived. But beyond this, the Jews are not just a curiosity. In fact, we believe they illuminate much more about human history. The experience of the Jews and their endeavors in intellectual, cultural, social, and economic spheres—to mention just a few—have something important to teach us about the nature of the human experience.
We created Jewish History Matters because the new research in Jewish studies is important but doesn’t always get the attention that it deserves. It’s an opportunity to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s new in the field of Jewish research, and also to see what it has to contribute to a broader conversation. In this podcast, we’ll be exploring how and why this history matters and what we can learn from it in broad terms.
Dr. Jason Lustig is a scholar of modern Jewish history and culture, and in 2018–19 he is a Harry Starr Fellow in Judaica at Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is the host and executive producer of Jewish History Matters. You can read more about his own research at his personal website, www.jasonlustig.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @JasonLustig.