In his contribution to Rethinking European Jewish History, a new collection of academic papers on the state of the field, Gershon David Hundert wryly notes that “periodization … is a problem that interests the guild of historians more than the general reader outside the academy, who tends to be more interested in new or newly retold stories of the past.” It is a sign of the book’s intended audience, then, that most of its 11 contributors—historians young and old, from universities in Israel and North America—are unabashedly fascinated by the question of classification: that is, how should the Jewish past be divided up into fields of study?
Should Jewish history be considered a unitary story—so that what happens to Jews in Spain is somehow integrally related to what happens to Jews in Poland? Or should the Jewish communities of each European country be studied separately? Or perhaps, as Moshe Rosman, one of the volume’s co-editors, suggests in “Jewish History across Borders,” we should look for distinctively Jewish geographies that cut across conventional political divisions. Rosman points out that, in the seventeenth century, Jews “could easily travel between Holland, Denmark, the various Germanic states, Hungary, and Poland without the feeling of alienness that travelers to ‘foreign’ countries often feel. They barely noted the political and legal regime they happened to be under.” This was because, Rosman argues, Jews across Europe “acted as ‘citizens’ of a Jewish ‘country,’ called Ashkenaz, with its own language, Yiddish, its own laws and customs … and tacit assumptions as to how to interpret reality and what constituted meaningfulness in life.”
At first glance, how to draw the map of 17th-century Jewry might seem like a purely technical question. Whether you call it Europe or Ashkenaz, after all, what really matters is how the individual human beings who lived there thought and acted. Likewise, when David B. Ruderman calls for historians to recognize the 16th and 17th centuries as the “early modern period” in Jewish history—distinct from both the medieval and modern eras—it may seem that, as Ruderman himself writes, “one might question the need for the historian to offer elaborate schemes of periodization in the first place.”
Yet while the papers in Rethinking European Jewish History are not addressed to a general readership—they are full of technical jargon and professorial conventions, as one would expect from a book that grew out of an academic conference in Tel Aviv—the methodological questions they raise have serious implications for the way we understand ourselves as Jews today. As Jeremy Cohen, the volume’s other co-editor, writes in the first sentence of his introduction, “the field of Jewish studies has always developed in relation to the experiences of the Jews: not only their past experiences, which determine the matter that historians study, but also their present experiences, which determine the manner in which they study it.”
The origin of academic Jewish studies lies in the Wissenschaft des Judentums of the nineteenth century, when German Jewish scholars sought to prove that Jewish history could be written as rigorously and dispassionately as secular history—that Jews could be “emancipated” as scholars, just as they were meant to be emancipated citizens. In the 20th-century, Gershom Scholem revolutionized the field by discovering in the Sabbatai Zevi movement the same kind of political and spiritual crisis that wracked European Jewry between the wars. It follows that, by taking the temperature of Jewish historiography today, we can learn something about the way Jews currently conceive their identity and its challenges.
Read in this way, the most striking thing about Rethinking European Jewish History is its deep discomfort with all kinds of definitions and boundaries. Rosman defies geographical borders and Ruderman chronological ones. David Engel, in “Away from a Definition of Antisemitism,” argues that the common practice of grouping all kinds of anti-Jewish hostility, from the ancient world to the present day, under the rubric of anti-Semitism is deeply ahistorical. The term anti-Semitism, Engel shows, began as a self-description by anti-Jewish political activists in Germany in the late nineteenth century. It was Bernard Lazare, the French Jewish polemicist and author of the pioneering book L’Antisemitisme, son histoire et ses causes, who first insisted that this ultra-modern ideology could be found “in Alexandria under the Ptolemies, in Rome during the lifetime of Cicero, in the Greek cities of Ionia, in Antioch, in Cyrenaica, in feudal Europe, and in the modern state whose soul is the spirit of nationality.”
This was a polemical move, Engel explains, designed to tar 19th-century anti-Semites, who “insisted upon the fundamentally rational and empirical foundations of their doctrines…with the same brush as those who had spread blood libels during the Middle Ages or depicted Jews with horns and tails.” Yet Engel concludes that this strategy, however useful it may have been for Jewish “communal and political ends,” is intellectually muddled: “no necessary relation among particular instances of [anti-Jewish] violence, hostile depiction, agitation, discrimination, and private unfriendly feeling across time and space can be assumed. Indeed, none has ever been demonstrated.”
In a similarly revisionist vein, Hundert’s essay “Re(de)fining Modernity in Jewish History”—the sharpest and most entertaining piece in the book—assails modern Jewish historians for focusing on the story of Western European assimilation. Rather than this “Germanocentric definition of modernity,” Hundert writes, scholars should focus on the much larger Jewish population of Poland-Lithuania, which he claims was “armored against trauma and…psychological reversals of loyalty” by longstanding communal bonds. “Self-affirmation and a feeing of Jewish superiority and solidarity dominated the spectrum of self-evaluation of east European Jews,” he argues. And since most American Jews today are descended from this east European population, Hundert suggests, they inherit this “continuing positive self-evaluation as Jews”—what he calls the “magmatic” level of Jewish identity, which lives on beneath the surface of modern Jewish life.
As even this quick survey makes clear, the issues of terminology these scholars are debating have profound “real-world” applications. If Rosman is correct, for example, that Jews in Europe inhabited something like their own country, then European Jewish history has Zionism inscribed in its DNA: the actual Jewish state in Israel is a descendant of the virtual Jewish state of Ashkenaz. Conversely, as Rosman combatively writes, if Jewish history is really just the history of the different European countries where Jews lived, this would give a certain comfort to “post-Zionist Jews seeking to dissociate themselves from what they regard as the embarrassment, mistake, or tragedy that is Israel,” by “relieving them of responsibility for or loyalty to Israel.”
Again, if Hundert is correct that the “real” history of European Jewry is not the dismal trajectory of French and German Jews—from emancipation to discrimination to annihilation—but the cohesive and enduring community of Polish Jews—enduring, at least, until wiped out by a Western European ideology, Nazism—there is an obvious lesson for American Jewry. In America, too, it would follow, Jews are not destined to assimilate away from their community, but to retain a “magmatic” Jewishness, and perhaps even a sense of chosenness. Significantly, Hundert begins his essay with a quotation from Philip Roth about how, for his American parents, Jewishness was “as fundamental as having arteries and veins.” The debates in Rethinking European Jewish History are just as fundamental, and just as vital.