"Jewish History" and "General History": Reconsidering Disciplinary Divisions

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"Jewish History" and "General History": Reconsidering Disciplinary Divisions.

International Research Discussions at the Simon Dubnow Institute,

May 10–11 / November 13–14, 2002

In the broader historical landscape of inquiry, Jewish history is often viewed as a peripheral or even “exotic” particularistic history with limited salience for more general history. This relegation to a circumscribed niche on the historical sidelines, so to speak, is due in part to internal causes. Moreover, Jewish experience, most especially in the century just ended, has help to promote a further retreat into construing Jewish history in terms of its particularity. That is especially true of the various variants of “national” Jewish historiography (though these look back to far longer skeins of tradition) – variants which continue to live on in current albeit modified forms. Modern Jewish historiography, itself beholden to a more open perspective, also tends to privilege the familiar internal perspective over a more encompassing and inclusive field of vision.

Yet German, Israeli, Swiss and Austrian historians who convened in Leipzig in May and November 2002 for working discussions were consensual in their assessment that “Jewish history” and “general history” do not constitute an insurmountable opposition or binarism: rather, they agreed that methodological constriction can be overcome by an integrative historiography of the Jews which seeks to embed the kaleidoscope of Jewish historical experience within the universal context. The two research discussions on the relation between “Jewish and “general” (or “universal”) history were organized within the framework of the DAAD-sponsored International Quality Program (IQN) at the University of Leipzig “Geschichte der Juden im Kontext allgemeiner Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften” (History of the Jews in the Context of General Historiography and the Cultural Sciences). Participants in the dialogue included Israel Bartal (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Yaakov Barnai (Haifa University), Verena Dohrn (Göttingen University), Ernst-Ludwig Ehrlich (Riehen/Switzerland), Jonathan Frankel, (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Jakob Goldberg (Simon Dubnow Institute / Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Michael Graetz (Hochschule für jüdische Studien, Heidelberg), Raphael Gross (Leo Baeck Institute, London), François Guesnet (Berlin), Frank Hadler (Center for the History and Culture of East-Central Europe, University of Leipzig), Joseph Kaplan (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Matthias Middell (University of Leipzig), Monika Richarz (Berlin), Winfried Schulze (Munich University), Hannes Siegrist (University of Leipzig), Gerald Stourzh (Vienna University), Stefan Troebst (Center for the History and Culture of East-Central Europe, University of Leipzig), Yfaat Weiss (Haifa University) and Moshe Zimmermann (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

As the Simon Dubnow Institute director Dan Diner noted in his programmatic introduction, Jewish history, as a history of the various Jewries, is by its nature predestined, far more than other histories primarily national in their focus, to converge toward something akin to a key signature of general European self-understanding, albeit particularistic in its calibration. By this seeming reversal, the purported constriction of the lens of Jewish history emerges as the most general and embracive perspective on European history in the modern and contemporary eras. Its ubiquitous existence in time and place, its characteristic elements of “trans-nationality,” “trans-territoriality,” “urbanity,” “mobility” and “textuality,” its character as an imperial people, with innate affinity to the structures of the multiethnic empires, imbued the Jews and their history with a significance that was indeed epistemic.Exploring a very concrete example, Israel Bartal illuminated the problematic nature of a separation between “Jewish” and “general” history exemplified in the context of Israeli educational policy. A new curriculum for the teaching of history in the secondary schools worked out by a team under his direction, giving greater emphasis to general historical contexts, met with vehement opposition and criticism, especially within the Israeli political right, though also on the Zionist left. Critics argued that the new curriculum neglected national history, sacrificing core elements of distinctively Jewish historical experience to a perspective grounded on a frame of world history. Moshe Zimmermann and Joseph Kaplan underscored the role which the institutionalization of the field of history in Israel played in catalyzing the separation between “Jewish” and “general” history. Yaakov Barnai explored the causes and circumstances underlying the separation of the two historiographic disciplines as well as attempts to overcome that split as reflected in the history of the Jerusalem School of History. Beginning in the 1930s, history was taught at the Hebrew University and later at other Israeli universities especially within the armature of Jewish Studies. The discipline was distinctively stamped over several generations by important exponents of a decidedly national historiography such as Fritz Baer, Benzion Dinur, Shmuel Ettinger or Chaim Hillel Ben-Sasson. Generally speaking, general European history existed only as a secondary thread in this weave. Since Israeli public opinion was accustomed to this familiar bifurcation and the primary centrality of Jewish history, more recent attempts to integrate the two disciplines were necessarily doomed to failure.

Tobias Brinkmann pointed to common features and differences in the specific academic anchoring of the field in Israel and the United States. He described the genesis and establishment of the multidisciplinary field of “Jewish Studies” at universities in the United States. Ernst-Ludwig Ehrlich explored the contribution made to this development – i.e. the transfer of components of tradition of a distinctively German “Wissenschaft des Judentums” to American academic soil – by German emigré scholars, highlighting the example of Eugen Täubler. Several participants, including Gerald Stourzh and Winfried Schulze, emphasized the importance of “Jewish” history for general European history. Stourzh stressed the necessity to compare the life-worlds of Jewish populations in the various imperial states of the 19th and 20th centuries and to compare and distinguish between different territories within these empires. Winfried Schulze pointed to the importance of the early modern period as a kind of “rehearsal stage for modernity,” underscoring the methodological challenge that era still poses for contemporary historiography, still largely configured along basically “national” lines. The deepening process of European integration and the search for a common “European identity” infused the history of the early modern period, and most especially the early modern history of the Jews in Europe, with special significance.

Hannes Siegrist and Dan Diner examined the transformation of religious ties of belonging into ethnic bonds, looking at the question of a possible comparison between these processes in the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. Frank Nesemann and Verena Dohrn discussed the distinctive situation of the Jewish population in czarist Russia, while Yfaat Weiss explored the role of European colonial concepts for the history of the Orient and Oriental Jewries. Jonathan Frankel pointed to two differing approaches in methodology with important consequences for how historians deal with the relation between “Jewish” and “general” history. While a “vertical approach” emphasizes more the continuity and cohesion of Jewish history (downplaying dimensions of general history in the process), the more extended the time frame for historical analysis, a “horizontal approach” by contrast tends to focus on more narrow historical periods of time, thus placing far greater emphasis on the importance of the general-historical impact of contexts.

The participants in both research discussions also examined the function of different concepts of what constitutes history in general, Jewish and Islamic historiography (history – toldot – ta’rikh) as well as salient differences between the associated perspectives on history. Finally, they also discussed the role which alternative concepts such as “hybridity” or “conversion” could have within an integrated view of Jewish history
It is planned to continue these working research discussions on the relation between “Jewish” and “general” history in two further confabs to be scheduled in 2003.

Dirk Sadowski

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