- Israeli Historiography on American Jewry
On Rosh Hashanah Eve in 1969, a three-volume set on the history of the Jewish people from biblical times to the mid-twentieth century was published in Israel. In the foreword, the editor, Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, wrote that “the work offered here to readers is the joint enterprise of a number of historians. Despite the differences in their fundamental historical outlooks and research approaches, the different sections merge into a continuous view of the history of Israel from the beginnings to the present day.”1 For a generation, these volumes were the most important textbooks on the subject for Israeli universities and high schools. They sketched the lineaments of the long history of the Jewish people, highlighted key events and processes in its life, and served as a roadmap for understanding the annals of the Jews in different periods and on different continents.
The volume on the modern age was written by Samuel Ettinger of the Hebrew University, one of the country’s leading historians at the time. It begins with the Jews’ migrations and economic activity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and concludes with the establishment of the State of Israel and the challenges it faced in its first two decades. The focus is Europe, Western and Eastern; only a few pages are dedicated to the Jews of the United States. In his immensely influential book, Ettinger almost totally ignored the largest Jewish community in the world. In this he faithfully reflected the attitude of Israeli academia and historians about American Jewry.
These attitudes were deep-rooted decades before Ettinger. The historian and bibliographer Getzel Kressel noted that Israeli research into the Jews of the United States was sparse and inadequate. It was
difficult to say that in the recent talk about American Jewry, and even more so in journalistic writing, one can find some background knowledge—even limited—about this Diaspora community.… Our widespread ignorance about everything associated with American Jewry and its history … is unforgivable, [End Page 501] given that that community has played such a decisive role in these decisive years for us, such that we must not ignore it.2
Kressel’s article was written to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the American Jewish Historical Society and the appearance of the fortieth volume of its publication series. Kressel called Hebrew readers’ attention to the fact that the AJHS had been founded in 1892 to conduct basic and methodical research into the history of the Jews of the United States. He noted that the manifesto issued by its founding convention in the late nineteenth century resulted in the collection of many documents that made it possible for historians to study American Jewry thoroughly and intensively. As for the publication series, he wrote that its volumes were rich and extensive and shed “new light on the previously unknown episode that is the emergence of the largest Jewish community of our time. The scholarly meticulousness that typifies the hundreds of studies and articles that have been published in its dozens of volumes provides solid support for any scholar or historian who deals with this story.”3
Kressel was aware of American Jewry’s importance for the new state and for Israeli society, and emphasized the need to study this important Jewish community. He added that one reason for Israelis’ unfamiliarity with the history of American Jews was the absence of accessible scholarly literature in Hebrew for readers living in Israel:
There is no doubt that the fault rests with publishers, both public and private, who have taken pains to offer us volumes about every corner of the world, from India to Ethiopia—and only American Jewry has remained beyond the pale. Consequently the vast and abundant literature created in America about the history of the Jews on the American continent in general and the United States in particular is a closed book for our reading public.4
In the present article I examine Israeli historiography’s treatment of American Jewry, and try to understand why Israeli historians, born and educated in Israel, hardly studied the American Jewish community until the 1990s and early years...