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Bad history: A Jewish perspective on presentism

A fracas among historians over how to frame the past begs the question of what happens when a straight line is drawn from the Crusades to Auschwitz
Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) depicting Jews being burned alive for alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492. (Wikimedia Commons)
Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) depicting Jews being burned alive for alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492. (Wikimedia Commons)

There was a major uproar in my academic discipline this past week, over “presentism” in writing history. The first shot was fired by James H. Sweet, President of the American Historical Association. Citing the words of the eminent scholar Lynn Hunt, Sweet admonished his fellow historians for no longer approaching the past as history, but as a landscape upon which one can project the moral imperatives of the present. “If history was little more than ‘short-term . . . identity politics defined by present concerns,’ wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead?”

The Twitter outrage started immediately. The keyboard warriors, many of whom are junior scholars in the profession, accused him of racism, of erasing the historical experience of African Americans, of using objectivity and neutrality as code to normalize the evils of the past, thereby giving white supremacists an intellectual seal of approval to propagate their own racism. His critics have demanded that we center the present in the past, because this is the only way social justice can be achieved, and achieving social justice, they maintain, is far more important than objectivity and neutrality. Sweet ultimately relented, and issued an (admittedly partial) apology. The mob silenced him.

Indeed, I put up a Facebook post agreeing with much of Sweet’s op-ed and included some screenshots from Twitter users that had vilified him. Not surprisingly, I was subsequently vilified, harassed, trolled, and (predictably) branded a racist.

I have not written this op-ed to defend my Facebook post (which I stand by), nor do I have any intention to wade into the debate surrounding identity politics and African Americans, who were taken to be the primary target of Sweet’s alleged “racist screed.” Sweet is hardly the first scholar to criticize the celebrated 1619 Project for its methodological shortcomings and there are trained American historians who can address this specific instance far better than I can.

My purpose is to interrogate Sweet’s argument in the context of my own field, Jewish history. Jewish studies, like most academic fields in the humanities, has become inundated with what has been called identity politics. Activism and a quest for social justice has affected the way Jewish scholars engage with the past in numerous ways, perhaps most conspicuously in Israel Studies, where the decried lack of justice for the Palestinians is often taken as the starting point for researching Zionism and the formation of the Jewish state. The upshot is not only poorly written history, but also the inexorable vilification of the Jewish actors who built Israel because, at the present moment social justice activists insist that Israel wields all power over the powerless Palestinians. If this is taken to be true in the present, then, it follows, we must view the history of Zionism through this lens.

Israel is merely the most blatant (and controversial) example of the dangers of presentism in Jewish history. The twentieth century bore witness to significant upheavals throughout the Jewish world and each one poses challenges to the scholars who wish to study them. As a historian I was taught to be neither presentist nor teleological in teaching and researching any of these topics, and I would argue, presentism is by definition teleological; it assumes the inevitability of the present and proves this by projecting the present onto the past. Avoiding presentism is not easy. How do we study Jewish life in Arab lands in the middle ages, which was relatively prosperous, given that virtually every Arab state expelled its Jewish community in the twentieth century? How do we study the far less prosperous history of European Jewry in the middle ages, which was replete with blood libels, massacres, and expulsions, without assuming the Holocaust was the inevitable outcome? Should our understanding of the mechanics of modern antisemitism be our starting point to view the European Jewish middle ages?

It is certainly tempting to do so. After all, the Medieval Western Church embedded Judeophobia into its theology. Jews were routinely expelled from European countries for their alleged perfidy, blasphemy, and usury. And surely it cannot be a coincidence that the eleventh-century Crusade massacres transpired in German lands, much as the progenitors of the Final Solution hailed from this region. It should seem obvious that Jewish history, in Europe at least, is built upon relentless persecution and little else. “The longest hatred,” as some pundits have called it. That antisemitism persists today in America, a land where the Jews were ostensibly accepted but have needed to look over their shoulders in fear in recent years, all but confirms our perpetual victimhood. Our history is reduced to one of “suffering and scholarship,” and little else.

Yet the history of European Jewry is far more complex. Between the periods of expulsions and massacres, many decades and even centuries passed during which Jews achieved a modus vivendi with their Christian neighbors. To be sure, there was always a structural power imbalance; The tenacious forces of Jew-hatred always loomed in the background. But amidst this power imbalance the Jews have a history and had a culture, much of which was not shaped by Jew-hatred. Here are the nuances of the past that historians must excavate in order to paint a more complete picture of all that happened. The fetishization of presentism would all but ensure that these complexities remained undiscovered. Drawing a straight line from the Crusaders to Auschwitz obviates the need for historians because the past is, after all, little more than the present.

To suggest that rejecting presentist and teleological history – i.e. to excavate the past as it actually happened, to analyze historical actors as they actually thought without judging them according to our values, our categories of identity, our politics – undermines the quest for social justice is ludicrous. Finding the unexpected moments where life was not hell in Jewish history hardly changes the reality that Jew-hatred undergirded Christendom for 1,500 years, let alone mitigates the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust.

Sweet writes that “the allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn’t.” Whether nor not the flattening of history into a static binary of good versus evil produces positive political results is open to debate. I honestly don’t know. As a Zionist activist I understand the allure because it engenders outrage, empathy, and political legitimacy, which is what social justice activists want. Nevertheless, presentism also engenders bad history, and our goal, as historians, should be to offer our students a complete picture of the past inasmuch as possible, so they can arrive at their own informed conclusions.

About the Author
Jarrod Tanny is an Associate Professor and Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History in the Department of History, University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa. He is also the founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network,
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