Five Recommendations to Historians from a History Lover
By A. B. Yehoshua1
Translated by Yael Halevi-Wise and Vas Gogas
As someone who really enjoyed learning history in high school and who conducted a significant dialogue with historical materials in two novels that I wrote over the last decade—Mr. Mani and A Journey to the End of the Millenium—I am delighted to have been asked to open this conference of historians marking the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Israel.2
The twenty minutes assigned to me are a sufficient amount of time to deliver a nice unbinding general statement without clichés or contradictions. Nevertheless, I have chosen to take advantage of these twenty minutes to present something more pragmatic than poetic: to dare offer advice from a history lover to history scholars. It is pleasant to give advice when one is not personally required to implement it. I am not the one who must go to the archives to sift through documents and manuscripts, struggling with hefty tomes in foreign languages; I don't have to check if the subject that interests me will appeal to a publisher in Israel or abroad, and whether my research merely regurgitates known material or is genuinely innovative. However, you chose a non-historian to open this conference, so now you are obliged to endure his advice. I will allow myself five recommendations to match the fifty years of the State of Israel that we are celebrating here.
First of all, allow me to confess that I am among those who believe it is possible to learn from history about decisions that must be taken in the present, as well as about options that will open up to us in future crossroads. I am aware that historians are divided on this issue; based on a detailed knowledge of their research materials, important historians have warned us against drawing automatic comparisons between past and present. Yet, nevertheless, I hold true to my opinion that certain types of national, cultural and geographical interactions recur over time, and that a consciousness of history, along with a desire for change, are necessary if we want to avoid repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. We, whose history is saturated with tragedies, must become especially adept at developing such an historical self-consciousness and must learn to confront the truth rather than fall back on the concept of Jewish 'destiny'—an expression I try to avoid both in relation to Jews and other nations.
A historical consciousness is important not only to account for the past, but also to make decisions in the present and envision the future. How pleased we have been with the growing popular interest in the television series "Tekumah" [Revival] despite any justified or unjustified criticism leveled at this or that episode.3
I identify with Gershon Scholem's well-known statement that since the beginning of Zionism, the Jewish people have returned to history, from which they were severed during long years of exile due to a diminished involvement in many aspects of national life. Therefore, the main task confronting scholars of Jewish history from the beginning of the nineteenth century to this day is to wrestle with the myths that have controlled our consciousness. We must try to act out these myths in a detailed and systematic manner by providing a slow and meticulous analysis of cumulative events, layer upon layer, in order to identify that which is truly special and extraordinary—to research causes and contexts in order to assess the influence of non-Jewish environments on Jews, as well as the means of dealing with these influences, and all this in order to preserve historical memory in an accurate and critical manner. Metaphorically speaking, what I mean is that it is vital to examine separately the destructions of the First and Second Temples , which not by coincidence, were mythologized into a single day of mourning via the mechanisms of a traditional Jewish consciousness. The historian, by contrast, must make an effort to understand every event within its own time period, circumstances and uniqueness.
Here I arrive at the five recommendations I dare bring before you:
The first and perhaps most impertinent is that I suggest stopping, diminishing, or at least declaring a ceasefire to the quarrel tearing apart the community of Israeli historians—the famous argument between 'New Historians' and 'Old Historians'. This quarrel has become so hot and bitter that it seems as if every historian must now accompany his title and field of expertise with an additional identifying label, 'New' or 'Old'.
I am not against arguments. They are vital to challenge and expand our way of thinking. However, it seems to me that the fiery argument between Old and New Historians, which in recent years fills newspapers and journals, has turned from fruitful to paralyzing, from substantial to personal, and from an objective investigation of historical events to political clashes accompanied by ugly mudslinging.
I believe most historians considered 'Old' did their work seriously and conscientiously and were not 'historians at the service of…'. It is possible that they did not fully investigate a number of things to which they ought to have paid more attention. Their worldviews, beliefs and attachment to certain values may have blinded them to certain things they could have seen. It is also possible that new information discovered over the course of time did not sufficiently arouse their interest or attention. But the unqualified censure leveled upon them by New Historians who also sometimes call themselves post-Zionists, is certainly not justified.
Yet at the same time I also believe that some of the New Historians did and do their work faithfully, and although at times they formulate their points too aggressively, these points are necessary to dislodge general and habitual attitudes that tend to disregard some hard facts hidden behind the official stance. We have already seen the results of their work when conducted in an honest and moderate fashion in several episodes of the "Tekumah" series. It seems to me, though perhaps I am mistaken, that most of the so-called New Historians adopted an extreme rhetoric and sharpened their conclusions out of a belief that the Zionist enterprise is currently so strong, successful and self-assured that it would not be endangered by piercing criticism from this or that perspective.
To quell this quarrel I would like to bring up a small but hopefully useful suggestion: as much as possible try to avoid using the generalizing and divisive term Zionism. For example, instead of talking about "Zionism's attitude toward the Holocaust or Diaspora Jewry" or "Zionism's attitude toward the Palestinian problem," it is preferable to say "the attitude of the Jewish Agency between such and such years towards such and such events leading up to the Holocaust" or "the position of Ben Gurion and the Haganah's headquarters toward the Palestinian Arabs between years X and Y." Just as we talk about the policy of the French government toward Algeria in a specific time period or Winston Churchill's dismissal of certain problems during the Second World War. This manner of expression makes a difference. Over the past thirty years, I have tirelessly tried to control my own use of the term Zionism and express instead its essence according to its basic definition: the establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel, which also becomes the state of the Jewish people in accordance with the Law of Return. And that's all.
Among the most important aspects of this definition is its delimitation: Zionism is a family name, not a first name, as my friend Amos Oz once put it. The Zionist movement encompassed and still contains many different and opposed ideological positions, just as different ideological and opposed political stances exist in every other nation in the world. To describe any specific misguided historical step or failure as resulting from the essence of Zionism is incorrect for the simple reason that Zionism does not delineate a position toward any subject in the world except one thing: the establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel—it does not even adopt a specific position regarding territory or the borders of that state.
Why is this position so important? Because the inflationary and divisive use of the term Zionism raises our blood pressures and turns any argument between us into a fiercer, more generalized, and less focused discussion than it could and should be. Immediately the suspicion arises that the 'New' Historian is attempting to defile something precious to us all through accusations that, justifiably or not, pertain to the actions of a specific leader or the behavior of a specific population at a certain time. If the New Historian understands that he is not passing judgment over Zionism as a whole but only on the calculations and values of a specific leader, then it is possible that he will be less enthusiastic about attacking core values. Zionism is not an ideology but rather a common denominator for diverse ideologies, worldviews and systems of values that from every other point of view may differ from each other. Precisely because Zionism is important at least to our generation, and because we hope to bequeath its seed to future generations, we must be careful to avoid using this concept without proper distinctions and guard against its exaggerated and excessive use.
From here a second suggestion tied to the former. In your work about the history of Israel, or the history of Zionism and the Yishuv, try to incorporate or at least refer to moral norms common among other nations during the same time period. Since moral norms are sedimented in history, there can be no description of human relations in literature, historical research or sociology that does not entail normative judgments. It is therefore reasonable to criticize Israeli studies published in English, French or German that deal, for instance, with the deliberate expulsion of Arabs during the Israeli War of Independence without attempting to give their reader a sense of proportion by referring even in passing to the harsh, deformed or cruel behavior of English or French colonialism, or the rigid exploitative policy of the United States during that same time period; not to speak about the outrages of Communist regimes or the atrocities of Fascism. If any historian would like to dispel his colleagues' suspicion that he is pandering to foreign readers through exaggerated descriptions of the cruelty of the Jews, it would be beneficial if he would at least make a few objective moral comparisons between what the Jews did and what other enlightened nations did, for good and bad, during the same time period.
Since we know that political attitudes do underlie academic research in one way or another, it makes sense to occasionally expose them and express this self-consciousness within one's publications. Let us not forget that much contemporary research in the field of history refers to situations that have largely ended like colonialism or the Cold War; but studies dealing with Jewish history in the twentieth century are linked to problems and issues yet to be resolved, and to engage with this history is therefore to touch on current events as well. I do not think we should avoid passing moral judgment on past events, but when this judgment is presented in a comprehensive context, it immediately confers a more proportionate and objective perspective to the argument.
From here a third suggestion: as an observer from the sidelines, I am impressed by the vast scope of Holocaust research constantly being published. In scholarship as much as in the arts, the theme of the Holocaust attracts us like a magnet that lies at the bottom of a foggy well. Yet, just as we used to worry in the fifties and beginning of the sixties that the Holocaust might be relegated to the background of Israelis' consciousness, today there is danger that the Holocaust, despite its importance, will acquire such a powerful centrality that it could distort a chronological perception of Jewish historical memory—as if everything that happened before and after was nothing but a preface or consequence, and the significance of any moment in Jewish history derives only from its connection to the Holocaust. As a justification for Zionism, perhaps such descriptions of the Holocaust were important in the days of the big polemics with anti-Zionists. Yet in light of the ideological and in my opinion also the pragmatic triumph of Zionism, we can be more relaxed now. We should therefore try to describe the life of Jews in modern Europe without directing or referring it to the bitter end of the Holocaust, as if this is the only event that can confer significance to everything else. Less 'Holocaust-dependent' scholarly descriptions, if you allow me to use this weird phrase, would honor Jewish life in every time and place. We cannot construct the narrative of Jewish history in the twentieth century like the movie Titanic, where we are expected from the beginning to look at every passenger and every detail in light of the catastrophe of the end. This position is relevant, as well, to the manner in which Israeli literature and the arts have been focusing on the Holocaust, as if it were the only solid dramatic source available to Jewish historical memory.
From here to a fourth suggestion regarding the support that historians working on Jewish history can offer artists, especially novelists, playwrights and cinematographers. And here I refer to my own personal experience over the past few years.
I think Israeli identity—which according to my definition is the fullest form of Jewish identity, in contrast to Israeli citizenship, which includes our Palestinian minority—has been increasingly nourishing itself from historical materials as a result of growing confidence in its stability and a reduction of existential troubles. This important and welcome enhancement of local identities, attuned to historical, ethnic or geographic memory, forms part of a global phenomenon affecting all national and ethnic groups who are protecting themselves from a cosmopolitan or cyber identity that is overpowering us all through technological civilization. This enrichment of identity is happening mainly through the arts, literature and cinema, theater, painting and music, but it is also greatly assisted by the work of historians who provide interesting narratives about the past. For us, in Israel, this reconstructive work is harder than for other nations because the linguistic and territorial continuity that other nations preserved affords them easier access to materials from the past—churches, household utensils, clothing, and even ancient weapons, which render it easier to bridge over the centuries and recreate the past. For us, this is harder not only because the vast majority of Jewish history occurred outside the land of Israel, but also because Jewish life has been conducted in different tongues and through foreign cultural experiences. Even the remnants of this diasporic Jewish life have been barely preserved, just as a hotel cannot be expected to keep items belonging to a guest who departed. S.Y. Agnon wrote a hundred beautiful stories about Buczacz, his birth town, but contemporary Hebrew readers can connect to it only through their imaginations.4 In this we differ from French readers who can access Flaubert's Rouen or Balzac's Paris with their five senses and thereby connect more easily to Madame Bovary or Père Goriot.
Here lies an important task for scholars of Jewish history who through their research can supply us with elements missing from our daily culture. You can hook us to the past so that we can forge creative connections with it—for art provides the best means to preserve and dialogue with the past. Tolstoy's War and Peace helped preserve the historical memory of the 1812 Napoleonic War in Russia better than a thousand history books, and the French movie The Return of Martin Guerre contributed more to the memory of French feudalism in the sixteenth century than many important essays published in academic journals.
How wonderful and important for me was the enthusiastic help provided by Menachem Ben-Sasson, Israel Yuval, Avraham Grossman, Shmuel Safrai, Sofia Menashe and others while I was writing A Journey to the End of the Millennium. Without burdening me with too much research, they offered me the hooks to haul the cart of my story. And this is the right term—hooks. Hooks that entice an artist who is not learned to link his creativity and inner world to history. Please prepare such hooks for us in the course of your academic research—draw attention to them and package them in an attractive manner, perhaps even as a separate summary, in order to entice and attract the artist's interest and imagination. How marvelous were the tips I received from experts during the course of composing my novel! For instance, the tip about the Frauen Schul, a tenth-century women's synagogue in Worms, which I got from my friend, Professor Israel Yuval. All the trouble of going through that journey was worth it just to enter such a synagogue and wander around these women at the end of the first millennium. And we shall see what the cinematographer who comes after me will do with these women. Dear historians—think about us novelists and prepare such hooks for us. We shall take your studies directed toward a small minority and distribute them more widely.
A fifth and final recommendation—short, due to our time limit, but no less important than all the others: I strongly believe the peace process will be completed. We have gone eighty percent of the way and there is no reason we should not reach its completion. Our enemies might not become lovers or even friends but they can become neighbors. And when that happens, they will claim, and some are already alleging this: we know most of you Jews came to the land of Israel not out of great love for the East or nostalgia for your ancient homeland, but rather because Europe persecuted and vomited you out of its midst. We've also studied a bit of Zionist history and we know why and how Herzl woke up to it. But now that you're here, do you intend to sit with your gaze toward the sea and sky, traveling three times a year to New York, London and Paris and considering yourself part of Western culture, or are you also locals, real neighbors who have arrived to your first but also your final home? If so, please turn your gaze—not only militarily, but also economically and maybe even culturally and scientifically—to the Middle Eastern region where you live.
So here, too, we find a task for the historian: help us forge connections to the East through your studies. In your research on the Jewish people, turn more often to this region. I already told our dear president [Ezer Weizman], sitting amongst us today, that I will not relent until I see him wearing a keffiyeh like his uncle, our first president Hayim Weizman, the Jew from Motale, who already in 1918 understood the importance of demonstrating in symbolic fashion a Jewish identification with the Middle East by wrapping up his head in an Arab headdress, especially when standing next to a Saudi prince. To enable our current president to feel the same deep need to wear a keffiyeh of whichever color, please open the door to the East a little wider for all of us.
1. A.B. Yehoshua has grappled with the interplay of Sephardic distinctiveness vis-à-vis Israeli society in many of his novels and interviews. But although his personal Sephardic background affords him a perspectivized position from which to examine the interplay of ethnic identities in Israel, the thrust of his representation of Sephardic history and identity is concerned not with ethnic identity itself, but rather with refracting Israeli society through this compounded cultural prism.
2. A. B. Yehoshua's lecture was originally delivered at the President's Residence in Jerusalem in 1998. It was subsequently published in Yehoshua's Ahizat Moledet [Homeland Grasp: 20 Articles and One Story] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2008): 115-123.
3. The documentary television series "Tekumah" [Revival], which aired in 1998 to commemorate Israel's fiftieth anniversary, incorporated some New Historical emendations of Israel's foundational narrative.
4. Yehoshua refers here to the total destruction of Jewish culture in these areas.