- Jewish History and Education:A Review Essay
From the 1960s up to the 1980s, historians in the United States, particularly younger ones, eagerly borrowed intellectual tools from the analytic and quantitative social sciences. Inspired by Marxist social and economic history in Britain, by the Malthusian demography of the Annales school in France, and by sociological analyses of social mobility and contentious politics in America, they took E. P. Thompson, Lawrence Stone, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Charles Tilly as their intellectual models and viewed their own discipline as a social science. They studied the social sciences, flocked to the summer program at the Newberry Library in Chicago to learn quantitative methods, and paid close attention to the history written by sociologists, political scientists, and economists. Sometimes they disagreed with it—particularly, with Robert Fogel’s and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (Little, Brown, 1974)—but they still read it and took it seriously.
Today, that sort of intellectual cohabitation has disappeared, at least in the United States, a victim of disillusionment with quantitative social science and of the disciplinary hegemony of cultural and intellectual history.1 Elsewhere, the affair between history and the social sciences continues, particularly in Latin America and China, where questions of inequality and economic growth make economic history too timely to ignore. But here at home, history and the social sciences are divorced. Most historians, it is fair to say, consider themselves humanists, and they would never even flirt with the social sciences.
Nonetheless, historical scholarship in social science departments goes on, and one could even say that it is flourishing, particularly in sociology, political science, and economics. Most of it, though, is simply ignored by historians, even though its scope is surprisingly broad. That is particularly true of economics, where historical research has reached beyond issues of slavery or economic growth in order to grapple with a wide range of subjects, from medieval commerce and religion to desertions during the Civil War or the politics of the New Deal.
How should historians react to this history coming out of the social sciences? What can they learn from it? Does it have anything to teach them? Those are the questions posed by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein’s The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492, which offers an example of the imaginative historical work undertaken by economic historians in recent years. Botticini, a well known economic historian from Milan, and Eckstein, a renowned labor economist from Tel Aviv, take up three sets of big questions whose answers lead them to rethink the history of the Jewish people. First, why did the Jewish people become a highly educated population that is disproportionally represented in trade, banking, finance, law, and medicine, when in the 1st century CE they were overwhelmingly illiterate farmers? In particular, why did they leave agriculture for commerce and banking in the 8th and 9th centuries, and why did move into moneylending in Western Europe in the Middle Ages? Why, in other words, did they quit agriculture before everyone else did? Second, why did the Jews spread out into cities across Eurasia and then the world from the 9th century on and why did they end up establishing a worldwide diaspora of urban communities? And third, why did the world Jewish population plummet between the 1st and 7th centuries and again in the late Middle Ages?
Other scholars (including famous ones, such as the historian Salo Baron or the economist Simon Kuznets) have wrestled with these same questions, but their answers, Botticini and Eckstein argue, fail to match the existing evidence. For Botticini and Eckstein, persecution and massacres cannot explain the Jewish diaspora or the two population declines, and bans on Jews’ owning land cannot account for their early abandonment of agriculture. And in Botticini and Eckstein’s view, other common responses to the three questions also fail the test against the evidence.
Their answer begins with the argument that Judaism was transformed after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. The religious leadership changed...