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Jews Among the Nations: A Unique National Narrative or a Chapter in National Historiographies / היהודים בחיי העמים: סיפור לאומי או פרק בהיסטוריה משולבת

שולמית וולקוב and Shulamit Volkov
Zion / ציון
Vol. סא‎, חוברת א‎ (תשנ"ו / 1996), pp. 91-111
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23563295
Page Count: 21
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Abstract

Jewish national history, formulated by Zionist historiography since the late 19th century, is now being re-examined by a new generation of historians, from original ideological perspectives and with the help of innovative conceptual and methodological tools. However, it is often overlooked that for more than a century Jewish historiography has been divided between two opposing camps: Those who were, indeed, busy 'inventing' a Zionist, national Jewish narrative and those who were at the same time 'constructing' a so-called Liberal history, viewing Jews as integral parts of their respective host-societies and focusing upon the processes of their differentiation as opposed to their unifying trends. Immediately after World War II it appeared that the Zionist historical version seemed to be vindicated, however the Liberal approach received new momentum since the general revival of 'ethnic' values in the West. In Israel, too, and not always for the same reasons, historians increasingly concentrated on the history of specific Jewish communities rather than on general Jewish themes. The uniqueness of the history of Jews in England, in France or in Germany has become the focus of their writings. The few non-Jewish historians in this field usually supported this approach. The case of German Jewry offers insights not only into the development of this historiographical alternative, but also into its faults and limitations. A good example is the way the riots against Jews during the revolution of 1848 in Central Europe have been treated - or rather not treated - in much of the historiography. Both historians of German Jewry and generalists dealing with German history as such fail to integrate these events into the historiography of the revolution. Thomas Nipperdey, for instance, among Germany's outstanding historians in our time, remarks only in passing on the 'credit-giving Jews', who were targets of peasants' attacks in March 1848, and even Jacob Katz in his book on antisemitism fails to mention the riots. These and other aspects of Jewish history are only considered in books on antisemitism, but such books in turn seem to belong to a separate category, often written by Jewish historians for Jewish readers, rarely integrated into any overall national narrative. Our task, no doubt, is to strive to break up this isolation, but it is also to rethink Jewish historiography itself. The detailed, professional research into the histories of Jews in various countries not only leads to the substitutions of 'order by constant flux', but may also point out new links and more complex generalizations. We are left today, once again, with two and only two basic approaches to Jewish history in modern times. Both are in some sense 'invented', like any historical narrative, and both are now at a point of reformulation. The separate histories of various Jewish communities face the danger of forever remaining marginal within their chosen context. The established, Zionist national narrative, on the other hand, has for too long been dominated by a dogmatic school, insisting only on the forces of togetherness and judging severely everything and everyone that seemed unfitting within its heroic scheme. While subjecting this school to severe criticism, however, we should not lose sight of its basic nucleus. We should not give up the effort to reconstruct an overall modern Jewish history, based on the findings of recent research and written by historians who are constantly conscious of the dangers of ideological tendentiousness and political manipulation.

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