Jewish History and World History

Despite the proliferation of departments of Jewish Studies in colleges and universities in the United States in recent decades, Jewish history is still almost totally excluded from standard academic treatments of world history.  The main reasons for this state of affairs are as follows:


(1) In most colleges and universities, the first thousand years of Jewish history are generally treated as a subset of “Biblical” studies.  Characteristic of all forms of “Biblical” scholarship is a tendency to either credit the various religious versions of early Jewish history (whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim) or else avoid any analysis of that history which might conflict too sharply with a religious version.  Since most historians approach the subject of world history in a strictly secular spirit, they are understandably reluctant to rely too heavily on a “Biblical” narrative which they rightly suspect to be tinged with a religious point of view.


(2) Academic historians in the West have inherited from Christian tradition a belief that once the “Biblical” period was over, Jewish history was no longer of any significance or importance.  The Christian view that the Jews were doomed to suffer forever for their rejection of Jesus Christ was transmuted into the academic view that the only thing worth mentioning about the Jewish history of the past 2000 years was one or another persecution or massacre.  And since the persecution and massacre of Jews has come to be considered a questionable practice in the wake of the Holocaust, historians who wish to speak well of some culture that traditionally engaged in torturing Jews tend to omit even this aspect of Jewish history from their narrative.


(3) Early academic treatments of world history were dominated by a concept of “the West and the rest”, but as time goes on, representatives of “the rest” have become increasingly prominent in the field.  Their attitude towards Jewish history is shaped in large part by the negative attitude of most Third World countries towards the state of Israel.  This attitude leads them either to ignore Jewish history altogether or to focus only on those aspects of Jewish tradition which can be linked to Western imperialism and colonialism.  This tendency is further reinforced by the existence of a considerable body of Marxist literature asserting a close connection between Jewish tradition and capitalism.


The position of Jewish history within the academic concept of world history is mirrored in the position of Jewish Studies within the academic multi-cultural establishment.  Superficially Jewish Studies might appear to resemble all the other multi-cultural fiefdoms, such as Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Middle Eastern Studies and so forth, but appearances are deceiving.  Most of the other departments of this type were created in response to political movements which demanded greater attention and respect for their particular constituency.  This pressure naturally spilled over into the study of world history, leading to the emergence of a standard multi-cultural narrative in which the history and achievements of these various constituencies were given much greater prominence than had previously been the case.


Jewish Studies, however, was not created in response to political pressure from any part of the Jewish community.  Most departments of Jewish Studies in the United States owe their existence to two factors: first, the presence of significant numbers of Jewish students on campus, and second, the readiness of Jewish philanthropists and organizations to fund Jewish Studies programs in whole or in part.  Indeed, in many cases the facilities where Jewish Studies are taught are not even part of the college campus but are made available by local Jewish groups at their own expense.  And since Jewish Studies did not arise in response to angry demonstrations, there was also little or no pressure to include Jewish history in the multi-cultural narrative of world history.  To the contrary, the multi-cultural establishment has become permeated with hostility to the state of Israel, leading to the effective ghettoization of Jewish Studies within the academic world.


Because of these various reasons, the following bizarre situation exists.  On the one hand, even the most casual student of world history has to be aware of a whole series of major developments which are linked to the Jewish people in some way.  Two powerful religions commanding billions of followers on a world scale, namely Christianity and Islam, are clearly rooted in Judaism to one degree or another.  Moreover, there is a long history of Christian “heresies”, culminating in the Protestant Reformation, which resembled Judaism even more than “Orthodox” or “Catholic” Christianity.  Furthermore, the intellectual and cultural history of the past 150 years or so is filled with the names of Jewish individuals, such as Marx, Einstein and Freud, who played a leading role in the emergence of what is called “modern” society.  Yet on the other hand, despite all this evidence of Jewish influence, the Jewish people is nowhere to be found in most academic accounts of world history.  This or that Jewish individual or text might receive a certain amount of attention, but as to the social, intellectual, cultural and political history of the Jewish people itself, scarcely one word do we hear.


It should nonetheless be obvious that all the famous literary vehicles of Jewish influence which have appeared in the past 3000 years are rooted first and foremost in the actual social practice of the Jewish people.  If Jewish thought has traditionally been somewhat more egalitarian, rational and humane than that of the surrounding peoples, it was first and foremost because the Jews themselves embodied these qualities in their social relations to a greater degree than was typical elsewhere.  The reason for this is not far to seek: it is because the Jewish people originated as a nation of runaway slaves.


The memory of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt has been preserved in a mythical form in the Torah, but behind the myth stands a well documented historical reality.  Over the course of the past 100 years, innumerable inscriptions in Accadian cuneiform hieroglyphics have been unearthed in various parts of the Middle East making reference to a class of people called Habiru or Apiru.  They were described as living on the outskirts of the more settled areas, as subsisting as day laborers or mercenaries or bandits, and as being composed in large part of runaway slaves.  In particular, there are numerous references to Habiru taking part in a major rebellion against Egyptian rule in Canaan in the 14th century BCE, to Habiru being taken prisoner by the Egyptians and carried by them back to Egypt, and to Habiru working as slaves on construction projects in Egypt for the Egyptians.  Were it not for the prejudices which surround the subject of Jewish history, the identity of the Habiru slaves in Egypt with the Hebrew slaves in the Torah would long ago have been recognized as a historical fact.


Two main factors have prevented this recognition.  In the first place, most “Biblical scholars” have done everything in their power to avoid noticing the identity of the Habiru and the Hebrews because it means that the whole story of Hebrew descent from Abraham and Isaac and Israel and the twelve sons of Israel has to be treated as a myth.  The Habiru could not possibly have all belonged to the same family, or even to the same ethnic group.  And in the second place, both the “Biblical scholars” and the academic scholars of world history are not at all happy with the idea that the Hebrews really were runaway slaves.  Insofar as they are prepared to discount the story that the Hebrews were all descended from one man, the “Biblical scholars” would much prefer that they be idealistic “peasants” and “villagers” rather than bandits and outlaws.  And despite the existence of a considerable body of historical literature describing Messianic movements among just such bandits and outlaws in a number of different parts of the world, the last thing the scholars of world history want to see is the inclusion of the Hebrews in this category.


Unlike most such rebels elsewhere in the world, the Hebrews succeeded in creating a lasting political tradition embodying their conception of egalitarian social relations in written form.  This tradition was preserved by the Jewish people, both in words and in deeds, for 3000 years.  And just for this reason, the Jewish people has been subjected to unremitting persecution by the advocates of autocracy, empire and class rule continuing unto the present day.  Yet despite this persecution, Jewish conceptions of social relations have gradually made their way, both in a religious and in a secular form, into the consciousness of a large part of the world.  Were academic scholars to take note of these facts, they would have to place the Jewish people at the very center of world history.  And last but not least, they would have to adopt a positive attitude towards the state of Israel.


In truth, the prejudice against the inclusion of the Jewish people in world history and the prejudice against the state of Israel are one and the same prejudice.  It is the prejudice against the Jews as a nation.  The world is full of people who have no problem espousing ideas which are derived from Jewish sources, but as soon as the subject of the Jews as a nation comes up, immediately some idiotic accusation comes into their head.  Yet it is the Jews as a nation, and not God or a few Jewish individuals, who created the basis for all the famous Jewish ideas.  You cannot have one without the other.  And since the very idea of an objective, realistic account of world history owes more than a little to Jewish influence, those who uphold this idea owe it both to themselves and to others to show some respect for the source from which so much of their own thinking is derived..

One thought on “Jewish History and World History

  1. As a student of Salo Baron many years prior at Columbia University, I learned to question if not disdain what the great professor aptly termed “the lachrymose conception of “Jewish History.” While I agree with most of what Professor Wolfe writes, the salient argument seems too broad in scope and the finger of blame points to the wrong target. Not anti-Semites, I believe, avoid grappling with Jewish history but until recently the actual culprits were Jews themseves in a major thrust toward assimilation into host cultures and avoidance of the painful truths of enslavement and oppression. As a vocal securlarist and militant atheist, I find the return to medievalism among many intelligent people of the Jewish persuasion deeply disturbing. Ghetto mentality poisons the modern discourse. To teach Jewish history or to advise Hillel students. my metier starting during the 1970s, is profoundly frustrating for this observer. The growing ranks of arch conservatives, vide Eric Cantor, among those who reject core Jewish values of social justice, rachmonis for the poor, and compassion for the “stranger” or immigrant augurs ill for my vision of progressive as opposed to regressive Jewish experience.
    Professor Wolfe’s analysis, somewhat flawed in my opinion, merits attention and invites debate. We should do no less. Joe Dorinson

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