Eric Hobsbawm’s Jewish Gift
How the British Marxist and anti-Zionist, who died last week, influenced the writing of Jewish history
In January 1999, the anthropologist Mary Douglas and I were walking across Hampstead Heath to a workshop held at the home of Gerald Mars, now honorary professor of anthropology at University College, London, who lived on Nassington Road. The historian Eric Hobsbawm also lived on Nassington Road, just across the street from where we were going, and Mary suggested that we ring his bell and stop to say hello.
What would I say? I had read some of his work, found it enormously enlightening for my efforts as a historian, and applied it to the study of Judaism in antiquity. But we were also so different: My way of being Jewish was far from Hobsbawm’s, and I had chosen to live in Israel—a place Hobsbawm denounced in the strongest terms. I feared the conversation would be unpleasant, so I declined to meet him.
Now Hobsbawm is gone, called to the Academy on High, and I can no longer ring his bell. But I want to reflect on the contributions of this unusual scholar to the study of Judaism—a contribution that has, perhaps because of his anti-Zionism, not always been adequately acknowledged.
Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917, and his life included stops at Vienna and Berlin before he settled in Britain. His principal academic position throughout his life was at Birbeck, University of London. He was ultimately acknowledged, even by his political enemies (of whom there were not a few) as one of the outstanding historians of the 20th century.
But the place to begin understanding him is that part of his autobiography, Interesting Times, which remains for me the most engrossing and utterly fascinating account of what it meant to be a Communist in Britain in the 1930s. “The Party (we always thought of it in capital letters) had the first, or more precisely the only real claims on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority,” Hobsbawm wrote. “We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow ‘the line’ it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it, although we made heroic efforts to convince ourselves of its intellectual and political ‘correctness’ in order to ‘defend it’ as we were expected to.” And it controlled personal lives; “to have a serious relationship with someone who was not in the Party or prepared to join (or rejoin it) was unthinkable.”
Hobsbawm indicated three aspects that made communism so attractive. First, Marxism, as he wrote: “which demonstrated with the methods of science the certainty of our victory.” Second, internationalism: “ours was a movement for all humanity,” further noting with satisfaction that those “young Jews who began as Zionists became communists because, obvious as the sufferings of the Jews were, they were only part of universal oppression.” And third, hardness: quoting Brecht, Hobsbawm explained that “we who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness could not be kind ourselves.” Put another way, communism encouraged the pride of meeting the constant challenge: “Test me some more, as a Bolshevik I have no breaking point.”
These loyalties had a significant impact on Hobsbawm’s loyalties as a Jew. His opposition to Zionism in the context of his discussions of nationalism is well known, but even more important, for Hobsbawm, the most pertinent reason for believing that the tribe into which he was born was a “chosen” or special people was the “disproportionate and remarkable contribution to humanity in the wider world, mainly in the two centuries or so since the Jews were allowed to leave the ghettos and chose to do so.”
This choice had important consequences for his work as a historian: He saw the greatest danger to good history in anachronism and provincialism. In his essay “Identity History Is Not Enough,” he wrote that the major danger to good history lies in “the temptation to isolate the history of one part of humanity—the historian’s own, by birth or choice—from its wider context. … Historians, however microcosmic, must be for universalism … because it is the necessary condition for understanding the history of humanity, including that of any special section of humanity. For all human collectives are and have been part of a larger and more complex world. A history which is designed only for Jews (or African-Americans, or Greeks, or women, or proletarians, or homosexuals) cannot be good history, though it may be comforting history to those who practice it.”
Hobsbawm would therefore have objected strenuously to efforts to write the history of the Jews in any time and place based only on “our sources”—and would have had little sympathy for Jewish history written as a series of “talking heads,” discussing philosophy, theology, or halakhah, without a firm foundation in the analysis of the social circumstances that helped form the context for these results in their time and place. He would have objected strongly to concentration on elites and intellectuals without reference to the lives of “ordinary” Jews. He wanted to write history “from the bottom up.”
Yet, almost despite himself, despite defining himself as a “non-Jewish Jew,” Hobsbawm had an enormous influence on the writing of Jewish history. Perhaps his most important distinct contribution was the collection of essays he edited on The Invention of Tradition, published in 1992. Hobsbawm there introduced the term “invented tradition,” which he defined as a kind of false consciousness, an invented connection to the past that is largely factitious. One example was the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols celebrated on Christmas Eve in the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, where Hobsbawm was a student. It was supposedly ancient, going back (like all else at Cambridge) to the 13th century, but had in fact been invented only a few years before Hobsbawm came to college.
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