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Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal by Arie M. Dubnov (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 96-98 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

What, if anything, is Jewish about Sir Isaiah Berlin's philosophy? Just asking the question at the heart of Arie M. Dubnov's intellectual biography of the great British public intellectual, Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal, sparks a potentially fertile and largely untapped direction for the study of Jewish identities.

The question of the role of Jewishness in the intellectual development of Jewish public intellectuals with little explicit connection to Judaism in their published work falls between two fields of study. Scholars of Jewish history tend to ignore these figures because their intellectual projects and personal involvements do not explicitly address Jewish communities, issues, or concerns. Intellectual historians study the thought of influential public intellectuals, but rarely view a thinker's Jewish heritage as playing an integral role in shaping the assumptions and theories of apparently deracinated figures. The somewhat arbitrary disciplinary division between Jewish studies and intellectual history thus limits the number of scholars with the training and interest to ask what is Jewish about leading modern intellectuals and political theorists.

In asking the rarely acknowledged question, Dubnov's biography demonstrates the challenges and opportunities of rethinking a public intellectual's intellectual biography in light of his Jewish journey. Like so many twentieth-century Jewish cosmopolitan intellectuals, Berlin's biography begins deeply rooted in a Jewish milieu. Berlin was born in Riga to wealthy Jewish parents, and Dubnov situates him within a web of familial connections to Jewish figures, from the Chabad Hasidic dynasty on one side of his family to future leaders of the Zionist movement on the other. At the same time, Dubnov acknowledges that German Baltic high culture had a far deeper influence on Berlin than traditional Judaism.

Once Berlin's family moves to England, and certainly by the time Berlin commenced his studies at Oxford in 1928, is there any reason to think that Judaism has any influence on the future political theorist whose negative comments about Jews and Zionism led Michael Ignatieff, Berlin's biographer, to view him as poisoned by Jewish self-hatred? Do Berlin's early encounters with Judaism have any impact on his later thought or is it a minor biographical detail that has little bearing on understanding the writings of one of the last century's most important theorists?

Dubnov's well-documented exploration of Berlin's personal and public papers suggests that Judaism is indeed one valuable lens through which Berlin's thought must be contextualized. Indeed, as Dubnov underscores, Berlin saw himself as having a strong ethnic dimension to his Jewish identity that would not change despite his years in England. Dubnov illustrates several ways in which this self-reported sense of identification directly affected Berlin's social circles, positions, and even writings. For instance, Dubnov uncovers a letter from Berlin in which he provides biographical information about the British members of the Peel Commission sent to Palestine in 1936 to his uncle, a Zionist leader in Palestine. In this letter, Berlin underscores which members of the committee might be likely to favor or oppose Zionist objectives. In an interesting twist, the figure Berlin flagged as potentially least sympathetic to the Jewish community in Palestine, fellow Oxford professor Reginald Coupland, ended up championing the Zionist project in the final Peel report. Berlin's tacit efforts to help Yishuv leaders prepare effectively for the members of the Peel Commission indicate a deep personal interest in developments in Palestine.

The relationship with Zionism became quite fraught, however. Dubnov uncovers new information about Berlin's fraught relationship with Jewish nationalism. In one of the most fascinating discoveries, Dubnov finds evidence that Berlin was preparing an op-ed piece for the London Times which critiqued the British government's arrest of Zionist leaders in 1946. But the letter never appeared in print. Dubnov suggests that Berlin decided not to publish it after he heard the news of the King David Hotel bombing. The incident demonstrates the competing pulls tugging at Berlin's competing identities as a Jew and a British liberal theorist. Dubnov's research shows a figure torn, ambiguous, and conflicted about Jewish identity and Zionism. But these uncovered documents provide far more depth than a simple reading...

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