Two Very Different Stories of Modern Jewish History

Jan. 18 2018

Simon Schama, author of The Story of the Jews, Volume Two: Belonging, 1492-1900, is a distinguished historian of modern Europe who, although Jewish himself, had written little about the Jews until producing the first volume of this work. By contrast, Shmuel Feiner, author of Et Ḥadashah (“A New Age”)—the first of two projected volumes on 18th-century European Jewry—is a leading expert on the Jewish intellectual history of this period. Finding both books impressive in different ways, Allan Arkush compares them in his review:

[T]he two historians share a refreshingly old-fashioned determination to tell the story of the Jews as a story. . . . [Thus, both] attempt not to relate the whole history of the Jews during the period covered by their [respective] volumes but to tell these Jews’ story—indeed, to a large extent, to let them tell their story in their own words, culled from their letters, diaries, and autobiographical works. The chief difference between Schama and Feiner is the story they consider it most important to tell.

Schama . . . constructs a narrative that is focused mostly on the drama of Diaspora Jewry entering or being excluded from the society around them. Feiner, a historian of the Haskalah [the Jewish Enlightenment], is more concerned with telling the story of how 18th-century Jews conceived of themselves and lived, as individuals, in relation above all to Jewish tradition and their fellow Jews, and only secondarily to the world around them, even if it left deep marks on them.

But why should one expect [Schama,] a Diaspora-based historian of Europe and European art attempting to tell his people’s story to a broad audience, and [Feiner,] a historian of the Jewish Enlightenment living in Israel who is now ready to repaint the picture of a whole century, to share an agenda? Examining the Jewish past from their differing vantage points, both have brought their subjects to life with far more success than many of the specialists in Jewish history of whose works they make very profitable use.

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More about: Haskalah, History & Ideas, Jewish history

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times