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

Yasir Arafat’s Decades-Long Alliance with Iran and Its Consequences for Both Palestinians and Iranians

Jan. 18 2019

In 2002—at the height of the second intifada—the Israeli navy intercepted the Karina A, a Lebanese vessel carrying 50 tons of Iranian arms to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Yasir Arafat’s relationship with the Islamic Republic goes much farther back, to before its founding in 1979. The terrorist leader had forged ties with followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that grew especially strong in the years when Lebanon became a base of operations both for Iranian opponents of the shah and for the PLO itself. Tony Badran writes:

The relationship between the Iranian revolutionary factions and the Palestinians began in the late 1960s, in parallel with Arafat’s own rise in preeminence within the PLO. . . . [D]uring the 1970s, Lebanon became the site where the major part of the Iranian revolutionaries’ encounter with the Palestinians played out. . . .

The number of guerrillas that trained in Lebanon with the Palestinians was not particularly large. But the Iranian cadres in Lebanon learned useful skills and procured weapons and equipment, which they smuggled back into Iran. . . . The PLO established close working ties with the Khomeinist faction. . . . [W]orking [especially] closely with the PLO [was] Mohammad Montazeri, son of the senior cleric Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and a militant who had a leading role in developing the idea of establishing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) once the revolution was won.

The Lebanese terrorist and PLO operative Anis Naccache, who coordinated with [the] Iranian revolutionaries, . . . takes personal credit for the idea. Naccache claims that Jalaleddin Farsi, [a leading Iranian revolutionary]. approached him specifically and asked him directly to draft the plan to form the main pillar of the Khomeinist regime. The formation of the IRGC may well be the greatest single contribution that the PLO made to the Iranian revolution. . . .

Arafat’s fantasy of pulling the strings and balancing the Iranians and the Arabs in a grand anti-Israel camp of regional states never stood much of a chance. However, his wish to see Iran back the Palestinian armed struggle is now a fact, as Tehran has effectively become the principal, if not the only, sponsor of the Palestinian military option though its direct sponsorship of Islamic Jihad and its sustaining strategic and organizational ties with Hamas. By forging ties with the Khomeinists, Arafat unwittingly helped to achieve the very opposite of his dream. Iran has turned [two] Palestinian factions into its proxies, and the PLO has been relegated to the regional sidelines.

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More about: Hamas, History & Ideas, Iran, Lebanon, PLO, Yasir Arafat