An Ambitious New Book about Jewish History, and Its Flawed Prediction about the Jewish Future

The ancient rabbis understood the Roman empire as the successor to the ancient kingdom of Edom, and the rivalry between the biblical Jacob and his brother Esau—the ancestor of Edom—as a prefiguration of that conflict. Later on, Edom came to signify European Christendom in the rabbinic imagination. In his recent book Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History between Nation and Empire, Malachi Hacohen, a self-identified “post-Orthodox Jew,” combines a history of this typology with a general argument about the Jews of Europe and prognostications about the Jewish future. In his review, Allan Arkush writes:

Jacob & Esau is a sprawling, often scintillating book, a work of great range and depth. Hacohen’s analyses of the political outlooks of modern rabbis of very different stripes, ranging from Moses Sofer to Samson Raphael Hirsch to Adolf Jellinek, are innovative and eye-opening. His ten-page intellectual biography of the literary critic Erich Auerbach does a marvelous job of explaining that man’s complex and regrettable attitude toward his Jewish heritage.

Nonetheless, his book contains a disconcerting number of errors, small and large. . . . Of course, mistakes in a book of Jacob & Esau’s scope and ambition are inevitable. Still they ought to give the reader some pause, for the rhetoric of Hacohen’s book turns less on persuasive historical argument than on an apparent sovereign command of more than 2,000 years of Jewish history and literature, which underwrites his vision of the whole. “Going beyond the polemics on Zionism,” Hacohen tells us, his book “makes it possible for pre-Holocaust and pre-Israel historiography, grounded in the longue durée, to speak to the Jewish future.”

He writes, then, if not for the ages than for the next age, when the explosion or implosion that he quietly predicts in Israel will already have occurred, the dust will have settled, and the surviving Jews will be able to begin their work of reconstruction. No longer blinded by what he at one point calls “the miraculous Jewish state,” they “will need to fashion new paradigms to explain the Holocaust and the Jewish state’s place in Jewish history”—with Hacohen’s presumably posthumous assistance. If, God forbid, that day should ever come, and a new post-post-Orthodox Yavneh is convened, I greatly doubt that Hacohen’s scholarly tome will be of much help to its sages.

Jacob & Esau is a brilliant, bewildering medley of myth, history, literary criticism, and prophecy. Readers should mine it (carefully) for what is valuable and disregard what Hacohen thinks about what lies ahead and how we ought to deal with it.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: European Jewry, Israel, Jewish history

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship