Shaping Jewish Identity: The Role of Memory and History
Jun 16th 2016

June 12, 2016 / Shavuot morning, 5776

I am inspired by a provocative claim made by the late Jewish historian, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. In his celebrated book, Zakhor, published more than three decades ago, Yerushalmi sets down an audacious claim about the 4,000 year adventures of the Jewish people. He delves into the two main strategies Jews have used to fortify their group survival. One strategy, he labels 'memory'; the other he identifies as 'history'; and he distinguishes sharply between them. 

Memory and history are two very different 'animals'. Yerushalmi writes: "If [the Greek historian] Herodotus was the father of history, [then] the father of meaning in history [are] the Jews."In other words, the Jewish people are preoccupied, even obsessed with the search for meaning. This quest leads to the shoreline of memory.

Extracting meaning through memory is personal and selective. From the totality of what happens to us in a day, in a month, in a year, we engage in selective filtering; we admit certain facts and events into our memory banks; others we consciously or unconsciously discard. Impressionistic snapshots are generally how we remember. Selective memory keeps us sane amidst so much around us that seems senseless and insane.

Compare this with history writing: The word derives from the Latin, meaning investigation; memory does not involve serious investigation; history does! Which is why historians speak of possibility and probability; they shy away from predictability because the future is unknown, always open to surprise.  

Yerushalmi scans the panorama of the Jewish experience, and concludes that we Jews gave up the art of writing history for almost 1,500 years. History writing came to an abrupt end with the appearance of Josephus’ History of the Jews, written shortly after the end of Jewish statehood in 70 CE. History writing didn't start again until the 16th century, only gaining steam in the 19th century.

Yerushalmi notes that nowhere in our sacred books is it commanded that our ancestors become a nation of historians. Instead, we became specialists in the art of recording memories. Sometime around 500-600 CE the memory throttle moved into high gear; our rabbinic sages compressed all events, crises and traumas into a simple saying, into an eternal law. This law governed relations between Jews and world empires, making it possible for generations of Jews to make sense of their destiny: מעשה אבות סימן לבנים —'ma'asay avot siman l'vanim', loosely translated as: What happened long ago will repeat itself in repetitive fashion in the future. (Genesis Rabbah 40:6).

This saying certainly has a positive meaning, yet it has more often than not conveyed a devastating and depressing idea: victimology! Or victimhood! What happened long ago as a negative will invariably happen again. Victimology declares Jews are a cursed people destined to dwell apart, fated to survive as an oppressed people, the butt of Gentile persecution; never to be accepted on their own terms!

The Jewish future is predetermined. As Ecclesiastes, the biblical preacher wrote: "What has been is what will be; there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9); the fortunes of the Jewish people are cyclical; the past repeats itself in a monotonous cycle. Is this not the core memory of Passover: בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו "In every generation they rise up to destroy us…?" This concise Hebrew saying takes a part of the Jewish experience and turns it into a full-blown explanation of Jewish destiny. 

I offer an illustration of how this memory-proverb has made its appearance on the stage of Jewish history. I will then show how it occupies center stage in contemporary Israeli politics.

We're familiar with the slogan: 'as sheep to the slaughter'; it appears in the Bible (Psalm 44:23; Isaiah 53:7; Jeremiah 11:19) with strong links to victimhood. This saying contrasts Diaspora victimhood with Zionism's call to arms and a return to the land of Israel. It was Hayim Nachman Bialik, later hailed as Israel's national poet, who chiseled 'as sheep to the slaughter' into the collective conscience of world Jewry in his epic poem בעיר ההרגה "City of Slaughter." 

The poem was a meditation on the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. Kishinev, located between the Ukraine and Rumania, was home to 125,000 people, half of whom were Jewish. Kishinev's Jews endured two days of mob violence. When it was over, 49 were dead, 500 wounded, women were raped, 1,300 homes and business looted and 2,000 families left homeless. After Kishinev, the word 'pogrom' entered the English language. As a journalist, Bialik was hired to provide a firsthand historical report on the bloodbath. He never did. Instead he composed his celebrated poem, "The City of Slaughter". It was a searing condemnation of Jewish passivity built around victimhood.

Here are some lines:

Descend then, to the cellars of the town,
There where the virgin daughters of thy folk were fouled,
Where seven heathen flung a woman down,
The daughter in the presence of her mother,
The mother in the presence of her daughter…
This is the place the wild ones of the wood, the beasts of the field
With bloody axes in their paws compelled thy daughters yield…
do not fail to note,
In that dark corner, and behind that cask
Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks,
Watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath the bestial breath…
Crushed in their shame, they saw it all;
They did not stir nor move;
They did not pluck their eyes out; they
Beat not their brains against the wall!
Perhaps, perhaps each watcher had it in his heart to pray:
A miracle, O Lord, and spare my skin this day!

How much of the poem is memory, how much is history? As a memory of victimhood it scores beyond the chart; as history, it comes up short. The image of Jewish passivity was inaccurate. Listen to this front-page report from the New York Yiddish press, the Forward:

"Armed with knives and machetes, the murderers broke into Jewish homes, where they began stabbing and killing, chopping off heads and stomping frail women and small children. If such a vicious, enraged mob would have attacked a Jewish town somewhere in [the provinces of] Volhynia or Lithuania, thousands of Jews would have been killed in an hour's time.

But Kishinev Jews are tough, healthy, strong as iron and fearless. When the murderous pogromists began their horrible slaughter, Jewish boys and men came running and fought like lions to protect their weaker and older brothers and sisters. Even young girls exhibited amazing heroism. They defended their honour with supernatural strength … The Jews, however, fought with their bare hands and the murderers, armed with machetes and knives, were primed to annihilate and decimate all the Jewish townspeople."

In fact, the counter-attack by Kishinev's Jews was so fierce that attorneys defending the Gentile hooligans put up as defence their clients were merely responding to immense Jewish aggression!

How did Bialik get it so wrong? Like many young Russian Jews, Bialik believed in the shame of Jewish passivity, even before he got to Kishinev. Zionist thinkers had been hammering home this theme for decades. It may also be that Bialik was influenced by a lecture he heard in Odessa where he  was living, before going to Kishinev. The lecture was by a little-known 23 year old journalist and Zionist revolutionary named Vladimir Jabotinsky who called for Jewish self-defense.2 Jabotinsky, as we know, later established the right-wing Zionist party, the Revisionists, and it was Jabotinksy who became the mentor to Menahem Begin and to Ben-Zion Netanyahu, the father of PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Also, at the lecture that night was the celebrated Diaspora-oriented, Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow; three decades later would be murdered by the Nazis in Riga. Dubnow also believed in Jewish self-defense, but concluded that Jabotinksy was an agitator with great oratorical skills. Dubnow believed Jabotinsky’s grasp of Jewish history was simplistic and one-dimensional; and that Jabotinsky had gone over the top in instilling fear into his young insecure audience.

So, here's the historical question: Was Bialik's poem and its condemnation of Jewish passivity influenced by Jabotinsky's call to arms? As for Dubnow, how correct was his view of Jabotinsky? Jabotinsky favored settlement in Palestine, whereas Dubnow believed in long-term Jewish life in the Diaspora? Do we see here a clash between two contending world views of Jewish survival?

Bialik’s emphasis on Victimhood over History is alive and well in Israel’s schools. A study conducted several years ago in a Tel Aviv teacher's college found that more than ninety percent of future teachers viewed the Shoah as the most important experience of Jewish history.

In challenging this perception, let me first give you Professor Yerushalmi's verdict: He believed he was fighting a losing battle in the Jewish world. Jews, he said, prefer to evaluate Jewish destiny around the image of a hostile world; Jews prefer to evaluate Jewish destiny through the prism of FEAR! They go with their gut, their intuition, not with logic and reason. Yes, he agreed there is Gentile antagonism and animosity towards Jews; yet, the Jewish people exaggerate its role in shaping Jewish identity and survival. 

If the professor were speaking to the Tel Aviv student-teachers he would deny the Shoah as the central motif of Jewish history. He would ask: is it truly more pivotal than the creation of the world, the exodus from Egypt, the delivering of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the stunning Jewish contributions to world civilization, the birth of Zionism, the founding of the State of Israel after two millennia, Israel's incredible absorption of more than a million immigrants in the past quarter century?

He would lay down the gauntlet: How much weight to grant to the Shoah's trajectory of colossal death, compared to the aptitude of the Jewish people to rise from the ashes, in Israel, and to rebuild Jewish life in the Diaspora? Does not our capacity to promote life trump cultures of death?

This question leads me to weigh in on the threat posed by a potential nuclear Iran. How should Israel meet this threat? Should it act independent of American pressure? Or, are Israel's hands tied because Israel is a satellite of American interests? How might facts and historical context, not memory, shed light?

The specter of a nuclear Iran has unleashed a debate in Israel. On one side is Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as other Knesset members who believe Israel can and must act independently, when and if the situation warrants it. The Prime Minister made this position crystal clear when he argued his case last year before a joint meeting of the American Congress. Taking Iran's supreme leader at his word that Israel must be destroyed, the Prime Minister maintained that the deal, now a done deal, doesn't take away the Islamic republic's ability to ultimately obtain nuclear weapons. 

Countering are a substantial number of Israeli military and nuclear experts. None of them is dancing for joy over the Iran deal. However, here is what some have said:

Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet; and former Navy commander-in-chief of Israel's Navy: "The agreement is the best possible alternative from Israel’s point of view, given the other available alternatives… In the Middle East, 10 to 15 years is

an eternity, and I don’t believe that 10 or 15 years from now the world will stand by and watch Iran acquire nuclear weapons.”

Eran Etzion : Former Head of Policy Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "The agreement prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for 10-15years. This agreement is not about trust, it's about verification. No agreement can be perfect. We live in the real world and it is the best agreement that they could reach.

Israel Ziv : Former IDF Major General: “This agreement is the best among all other alternatives, and any military strike – as successful as it may be—would not delay even 20% of what the agreement will delay.”

Even a vigorous supporter of the prime minister, Middle East scholar, Martin Kramer, President of Shalem College, acknowledges that it was only during the first two decades of Israel's existence that Israeli prime minister's dared to go against the will of three American presidents, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.

In those early years Israel acted independently because America had not yet fully decided how and where to place Israel within its overall Middle East strategy. This gave Israel wiggle room to maneuver on its own, even though it aroused the ire of the White House. However, history shows that that wiggle room has gradually disappeared as America forged a rock-solid alliance with Israel, which despite its ups-and-downs, has remained solid and bi-partisan. No wonder President Rubi Rivlin, himself a member of the Prime Minister's Likud party, has gone on record saying: There are three principles to Israel’s foreign policy,” “First, relations with the US; second, relations with the US; and the third principle—relations with the US.”

Place victimhood on the back burner for a moment; allow history to take its place. We then encounter the historical fact is that Israel is a satellite of American largesse. Israel can let her absolute red lines be known to her American 'overlord,' and then negotiate with Washington to cut the best deal. One of the operating principles of the American-Israel alliance is: בעל המאה הוא בעל הדעה" —Ba’al hame’ah hu ba’al ha’deah," —Washington controls the purse strings.Israel should not bite the hand that grants her an unprecedented $3.9 billion annually in military aid, as well as $8 billion in loan guarantees.

This kind of historical focus leads me to distinguish between memory and history. Anchoring myself in history helps me keep my sanity and balance. I do not allow myself to slide into the pit of victimhood, and the long-standing memory of a world that hates us uncontrollably. Yes, the memory of victimhood has a place around our table; memory contains kernels of truth; but it is hardly the sole topic, nor even the central topic of daily conversation in my family’s orbit..

As a description of the tapestry of Jewish life and Jewish history, victimhood is a dismal failure; it projects only a part for the whole. It plays into a black and white division of the world into Jews and anti-Semites. Victimhood is toxic, with strong links to paranoia. And were paranoia the engine propelling Jewish history, the Jewish journey would have ended long ago. Victimology implies that Jewish survival is a function of external pressure; and while there is a measure of truth to this, hostility cannot function as a cohesive force over four thousand years. Negative energy could not possibly sustain Jewish creativity over 4,000 years!

We have persevered because of Judaism's fanatical focus on pressing the coordinates of life, and because living a Jewish life in Israel and outside satisfies deep personal needs. If victimhood is what sustains the Jewish spirit then we have indeed given our enemies, in every generation, a posthumous victory!

So here is where I sit: Jewish memory's fixation on victimhood sees the cup of life as half empty; Jewish history sees the cup of life as half full.  

1Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi,  Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (New York: Schoken, 1989), 8.

2For details on the pogrom and its impact see; andSteven Zipperstein, "How the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom Changed Jewish History," public lecture, University of California, San Diego - January 14, 2014.