Tuesday, January 25th | 23 Shevat 5782

May 21, 2019 7:45 am

Historians and Jews

avatar by Harold Brackman


Widener Library at Harvard University. Photo: Joseph Williams.

When the Nazis achieved power, Hanns Johst wrote the play Schlageter, which was performed on Hitler’s 44th birthday. Act I, Scene 1 was the source of a quote that was later, and wrongly, attributed to Hermann Göring: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.”

In the US in the 1920s, Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson appealed to Irish, Italian, and Jewish voters by attacking history textbooks that he said were disrespectful to America’s immigrant minorities.

Our current “culture wars” — and also our “history wars” — have been raging since the 1990s.

Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan declared war at the Republican National Convention in 1992: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”

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Not one word about “unpatriotic” Jews from Buchanan’s mouth — but there didn’t have to be.

My concern here, however, is the related “history wars” within the historical profession that started after World War II. This was when young Jewish GIs invaded (in Pat Buchanan’s view) elite American universities. By 1960, there was a PhD boom involving Jewish historians whose role model, Columbia’s Richard Hofstadter, excoriated Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination as the triumph of “the paranoid style in American politics.”

Hofstadter was succeeded by younger, radical Jewish historians who helped transform the profession by rewriting history “from the bottom up” — asking new questions about excluded racial and religious minorities, labor radicals, and anti-war crusaders.

As early as 1961, historian Carl Bridenbaugh, specializing in colonial America, smelled a dangerous rebellion brewing in the historians’ ranks in his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians (OAH) entitled, “The Great Mutation.”

Bridenbaugh fondly recalled how, as a farm boy, he had “gathered and sold chestnuts, fished, and trapped muskrats.” Alas, America’s rural culture had now been replaced by a secular urban-suburban civilization producing a new generation of college students who “have never known real piety.”

Again, Bridenbaugh did not have to mention the word “Jews.”

In 1961, Bridenbaugh still had some famous historians on his side, including the founding father of the profession, Henry Adams, an heir of the famous Adams family, who wrote about both medieval history and America’s founding. His intellectual autobiography is still widely read. Yet mostly in his private correspondence, he was a virulent antisemite who believed that Jewish immigrants were a threat to the survival of “Anglo-Saxon” civilization: “I detest [the Jews], and everything connected with them, and I live only and solely with the hope of seeing their demise, with all their accursed Judaism.”

Since the time of Adams — and Bridenbaugh — the American historical profession has changed much. In 1994, Yale’s David B. Davis was instrumental among the distinguished historians who denounced Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. So did African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard.

Yet in the 21st century, with new “multicultural,” “intersectional,” and “global” histories again rewriting the past, Jewish historians — once the leaders of the prior rebellion against old-fashioned “Anglo-Saxon” history — now see themselves pilloried as too closely aligned with the “colonial-imperialist” State of Israel. In 2014, the Association of American Historians (AHA) voted down an anti-Israel resolution, but put the subject on its future agenda. Stay tuned. The history wars are not over.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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