Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) 52-67
[Access article in PDF]
In Defense of Jewish Social History
Todd M. Endelman
It is well known that historians rewrite the past in light of the present and that current concerns inspire the subjects they choose, the questions they ask, and often the answers they provide. However acute their self-awareness, however well developed their methodological introspection, historians cannot banish the influence of time and place and the unconscious. Thus, writing about the past is always, in Ismar Schorsch's phrase, "a refraction of the present." 1 Moreover, if this is true about historians in general, how much more so for historians of modern Jewry, for whom past and present constitute a seamless web and the present always seems to be unsettled and crisis-ridden, freighted with memories of the past and fears for the future.
Still, despite their awareness of the influence of the present on the past, few historians write in a self-reflective way about the doing of modern Jewish history, casting a critical eye on what determines its agenda, emphases, and results. David Myers calls this the "unreflective impulse" of Jewish historians and attributes it to their unwillingness to relinquish the "steadfast claim to objectivity that has accompanied their efforts from the advent of Wissenschaft des Judentums" almost two centuries ago. Moreover, he links this--their "hyper-scientism," their "obtuseness to their own biases," their refusal to acknowledge the influence of nonscholarly considerations--to their social insecurity as Jews. As outsiders and newcomers to the academy, they feel vulnerable, fearing that others question the legitimacy of their work, and thus they cannot acknowledge the role of extra-academic influences in its production. 2 Whatever the truth of Myers's suggestion--clearly there are other reasons as well, including the relative youthfulness of the field-- [End Page 52] who can disagree that the history of modern Jewish historical scholar-ship is impoverished?
Despite this lack of historiographical introspection, modern Jewish historians do seem to agree that two mid-century events--the destruction of European Jewry and the establishment of the State of Israel-- shaped the writing of modern Jewish history in the second half of this century, writing not only about the events themselves but, more important, about other, earlier events as well. In the 1970s, for example, a torrent of books and articles appeared on Jewish political behavior and Jewish responses to antisemitism in pre-war Europe and their relation-ship to nationalist and integrationist definitions of Jewish identity. Their appearance was not fortuitous. American Jews inside and outside the academy were caught up in a heated public debate, beginning in the wake of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the publication of Hannah Arendt's tendentious account of the trial, about the character of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust. This debate, in turn, raised questions about Jewish politics in the Diaspora in general and stimulated historians to ask how Jews responded to threats to their emancipation in the half-century or so before the war. The same decade also saw the publication of an equally large cluster of books on the history of Zionism, especially in western Diaspora communities. Here too the Holocaust was instrumental in directing the focus of historical research, as were, obviously, the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Tellingly, neither area of research--Jewish responses to antisemitism or Zionism--interested graduate students who wrote dissertations in the 1990s, at least in the United States.
The historiographical impact of the Holocaust and Israel's establishment is widely acknowledged, and there is no need to comment further on this. What has not received the attention it warrants is an influence of a different character, equally as powerful, rooted in events at home rather than abroad. Paula Hyman referred to this in a lecture in 1987 at a centennial conference of the Jewish Theological Seminary in which she surveyed the writing of modern Jewish history. 3 At the heart of her analysis was the astute observation that the writing of modern Jewish history was becoming "normalized," by which she meant that...