i9333 (1) - Copyrighted Material introduction Viewpoints on...

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Copyrighted Material introduction Viewpoints on Jewish History History is one thing, but the idea of it is something else, and it is manifold. Johann Martin Chladenius, Allgemeine Geschichtswissenschaft, 1752 h istorians cannot predict the future, but they have the power to interpret the past. In their hands, the past is shaped in the same way that the future takes on form in the eyes of the classical prophets. Thus for the poet and scholar Friedrich Schlegel historians were “prophets facing backward.” 1 Schlegel’s remark of 1798 can be understood in two ways, as Walter Benjamin explained: “Traditionally it has meant that the his- torian, transplanting himself into a remote past, prophesies what was regarded as the future at that time but meanwhile has become the past…. But the saying can also be understood to mean something quite different: the historian turns his back on his own time, and his seer’s gaze is kindled by the peaks of earlier generations as they sink further into the past.” 2 Benjamin interpreted Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as “the angel of his- tory,” the ideal image of a backward-facing prophet. 3 He acquired this picture in 1921 and bequeathed it to his friend Gershom Scholem (1897– 1982). In the concluding lines of a poem written for Benjamin in 1933, Scholem noted in defance of Benjamin’s interpretation: I am an unsymbolic thing, mean what I am. In vain You turn the magic ring; I have no meaning. 4 It may be characteristic that the twentieth century’s most important prophet of the Jewish past issued a warning against an excessively sym- bolic interpretation of history, which has been repeated ad nauseam by Benjamin devotees. Scholem was only too well aware how much the his- tory of the Jews in particular had to be kept open to the most diverse in- terpretations. Although its interpreters’ ambition was to regard historical “reality” objectively, the constantly recurring relationship between their
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2 Copyrighted Material Introduction ideological and political positions and their representation of history is clear. 5 This begins with the defnition of their proper object of study: Is it the history of a nation, a religious community, or a collectivity defned in some entirely different way? In the course of the past two centuries historians have constantly re- defned the history of the Jews. In the meantime, some of them have themselves become the subjects of scholarly studies. 6 But whereas a great deal has been written about Jews and Jewish history, and important stud- ies of particular aspects of Jewish historiography in the modern period have appeared, astonishingly enough there is still no general, compara- tive overview and interpretation. 7 This is all the more surprising because in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jewish historiography was seen as having a considerable political function. Jews had relatively little sub- stantial political or even military power to exert in support of their vari-
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