Reviewed by Dan Stone (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Published on H-Judaic (April, 2010)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
A Strange Separation? Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust
Is the Holocaust a part of Jewish history? To the man on the Tel-Aviv omnibus, this might seem like an odd question. But as David Engel demonstrates in this compelling study, most historians of the Jews do not think it is. Rather, they see the Holocaust as a problem in German or European history that tells us nothing about developments, trends, or changes internal to the Jewish world.
Engel's focus is on perceptions of the Holocaust's "proper role" in understanding the history of the Jews, rather than Holocaust scholars' understanding of the place of Jewish history. How have historians of the Jews made use of the body of work that comprises Holocaust Studies? Engel finds that, in general, historians of the Jews have not made use of the data generated by scholars of the Holocaust, not because they have examined the data and found them unhelpful, but because "they have dismissed a priori any possibility of locating them and thus rejected all efforts to do so out of hand" (p. xiv). Furthermore, he provocatively argues that "the situation was not a passing one, born of momentary circumstance, but the product of a principled position deeply rooted in the professional discourse of Holocaust scholars and historians of the Jews alike" (p. xii). Historians of the Jews have assumed that the Holocaust tells us nothing of importance about the lives Jews led before they were struck down by the Nazi onslaught. Engel does not dispute that this might be true; he merely notes that one needs to undertake some research before thus concluding.
To explain how this apparently paradoxical situation came about, Engel offers the reader a model study in historiography, showing in detail how the works of key figures in the development of Jewish history encouraged the split with Holocaust history. The book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, with a wealth of detail based on research in several languages, and a strong, well-backed up argument. His discussions of Gershom Scholem, Salo Baron and his students, Ben Zion Dinur, Shaul Esh, Jacob Katz, Uriel Tal, and down to contemporary Jewish social history represented most eloquently by Todd Endelman are carefully argued and, if occasionally longer than they need to be, well crafted. The analysis of the somewhat unusual case of Arthur Hertzberg is especially revealing; and Engel's detailed examination of the well-known case of Yad Vashem's refusal to publish Raul Hilberg's Destruction of the European Jews (1961) throws new light on that affair, by showing that Hilberg violated the Zionist historians' beliefs that the Jewish people should be understood in terms of their unity and continuity, and that the internal structure of Jewish society was more or less irrelevant to understanding the Jews' behavior under Nazi rule. Engel also persuasively shows how the attack on Hannah Arendt in the wake of her Adolf Eichmann book was based on an incorrect assumption that she was saying the same thing as Hilberg and Bruno Bettelheim. Arendt certainly did not think that a "historical law" determined Jewish behavior, as her detractors alleged.
All the above suggests that Engel is undertaking a kind of debunking exercise, revealing the machinations at work that have ill served scholars and the wider Jewish community. In terms of his scholarship and the way in which he traces the history of the division, this is an excellent, convincing study. But, as I read it, and as Engel repeats his basic claim about the split between Jewish history and Holocaust history over and over again, I began to wonder what exactly has made him so annoyed. The split that Engel describes is certainly present. But is it really as problematic as he asserts? Is the problem with the historiography as it stands or with Zionist historians who set up this false distinction?
For example, when considering the importance of studying the actions of the Jews themselves during the Holocaust, it is clear that this played the significant role of countering the still-prevalent belief that how Jews behaved had no impact on Nazi decision making. Yet this factor should not be overstated. Engel cites Dan Michman's findings that the difference between death rates in Belgium (40 percent) and the Netherlands (70 percent), despite those countries' similarities, was a result of the fact that most of the Jewish population in Belgium were recent immigrants from eastern Europe, who had a far greater, historically ingrained mistrust of the state than did their longer-established, assimilated counterparts in the Netherlands (p. 221). But he does not mention other factors: the concentration of the Jewish community on Amsterdam; the different approach to roundups and deportations in the two countries; the different role played by the local authorities, especially the police; or the possibilities or lack thereof for hiding. The case of France, where only 25 percent of the Jewish population was deported--and these mostly non-French citizens from eastern Europe--suggests that other factors need to be considered more important. Besides, Engel then goes on to cite Yehuda Bauer, a distinguished advocate of the study of the Holocaust in the context of Jewish history, who concludes that "actions by Germans in the first stages of the occupation of each studied location had greater influence on the manner in which local Jews organized to confront the occupier than any particular features of local Jewish life in earlier decades" (p. 223).
Perhaps one's position is everything. As a secular Jew teaching in a British university with few Jewish students, and as a member of a History Department, not a Jewish Studies Department (there are very few Jewish Studies programs in the United Kingdom, in any case), it seems natural to me that I should teach the Holocaust in the context of European history. In fact, I consider it even more important to teach the Holocaust to non-Jewish than to Jewish students. Both come with their own sets of preconceptions, but if the Holocaust is going to have an impact on the world's consciousness and conscience then it needs to be seen not just as a problem for Jews. I certainly welcome Engel's argument that seeing the Holocaust as part of Jewish history opens up new historiographical vistas--the recent rise to prominence of the previously much-neglected study of religious Jews during the Holocaust, for example--and helps to prevent the view of Jews as passive and helpless, the charge that lay behind the Zionist standpoint which Engel examines. I have written elsewhere about the need for and value of victim-centered historiography. But just as to understand the Holocaust one needs to place greatest emphasis on the perpetrators and their attempts to remake the world in their own image, so I think that teaching the Holocaust as part of Jewish history can bring much of value, but that ultimately the impetus for the genocide of the Jews needs to be seen in broader German, European, and even transnational and world history to be really effective and convincing. I have absolutely no objection to teaching the history of antisemitism or the Holocaust in the context of Jewish Studies programs. But when Engel cites "a Jewish Studies professor" (actually Stephen Fruitman, hardly an anonymous figure) from the University of Umeå in Sweden to the effect that "the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are central elements in the history of the West and should be taught as such, smack dab in the mainstream of European culture," I am not sure that the critical tone is warranted (p. 32). Similarly, Engel claims that Israeli scholars wanted to set Holocaust studies apart so that the scholarly agenda they had established in the 1920s and 1930s would not be disrupted: "Defining Holocaust studies as a distinct academic field, one that conceives the history of the Jews under Nazi rule as an aspect of the history of twentieth-century Europe no less, and perhaps even more, than as part of a transnational, autonomous history of the Jewish people helped them resolve these contradictory pressures" (p. 133). This may be true; but does one have to buy into the same agenda as Esh and others in order to hold the same view? Finally, when Engel writes, critically, that the study of the Holocaust "has been most widely figured as the story of those who perpetrated the murder (and, to a degree, of those among the populations of the German-occupied and German-allied states who aided them), and its study assigned primarily to historians of Europe, not of the Jews," I confess I thought: and quite right too (p. 178).
Engel writes that the criticisms he offers of those he studies in his book indicate the esteem in which he holds those figures, and I trust that my criticisms will be received in the same spirit. Engel has written a fine historiographical study, and his investigations into the papers and published works of some of the key players in the development of modern Jewish Studies is powerfully done. I simply found myself untroubled by the disciplinary split that he described. It is unsurprising and hardly to their credit that Zionists wanted to separate the two fields, but I remain comfortable with the Holocaust being taught as part of wider history, even if it would be desirable for it also to be integrated into Jewish Studies programs. Engel is right to be impatient with those he cites who explicitly want to keep Jewish Studies quarantined from the "contamination" of the Holocaust; but that should not make us also feel uncomfortable about teaching the Holocaust first and foremost in the context of European history.
At a time when Holocaust research institutes are increasingly turning toward the provision of Yiddish and eastern European languages as prerequisites for scholarly study, Engel's plea for an end to the division between Jewish history and Holocaust Studies seems especially timely. It may also already be in the process of being realized, at least as far as Holocaust historians are concerned. As long as the Holocaust remains first and foremost part of European history, if Jewish Studies students are also required to learn about it, then that is a satisfactory outcome.
. See my Histories of the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming June 2010).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Dan Stone. Review of Engel, David, Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|