Explaining Why Jewish History Matters

Explaining Why Jewish History Matters: Drawing Big Lessons from a Small People

Jason Lustig, University of Texas at Austin

Image of the Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus. Regio X Palatium. CE 81. 

Throughout their history, Jews have been a tiny minority in both local and global terms. In the first century of the Common Era, the Jews topped out at an estimated 2% of the world population, and today they consist of less than one-quarter of a percent, essentially a rounding error in the course of world history. Why should anyone care about a people who are, by all accounts, miniscule in demographic terms?

The question of why Jewish history matters is a component of a broader intellectual and institutional challenge facing the humanities and social sciences, to explain why what we do is important—to our colleagues, to our students, to ourselves. This is not to say that we should be chasing contemporary relevance. Instead, it is an imperative to communicate the value of humanistic approaches in a contemporary culture dominated by STEM subjects.

Like all things, the urgency of this task is heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, the discourse of “essential” work should cause us to pause, to consider and offer an argument on its own terms about what makes scholarship and teaching essential to society. What is the utility of looking at a small subject, and how can we translate it into the largest possible lessons that will illuminate issues on a global scale?

There are a whole range of ways to answer such a daunting question. The problem is, so many of them—and especially those that reign in the popular sphere when it comes to Jewish Studies—are not particularly good ones.

One consistently bad argument for the significance of Jewish history is that it matters due to Jews’ “contributions” to society or world culture. Especially in light of the Jews’ small numbers, some people are attracted to the idea that Jews have a disproportionate number of Nobel prize winners, business leaders, and so on.

One should not dismiss the Jews’ impact over the centuries, both in terms of Judaism’s relationship with other monotheistic religions and the prominence of Jews in various fields in modern times. Nevertheless, this “contributions” narrative is quite harmful, even if it plays well with the synagogue crowd and those Jews who seek pride in their own culture. It leads directly to filiopietism—a self-centered, self-aggrandizing, apologetic, and antiquarian outlook that draws attention to specific details, often mostly mythical or otherwise exaggerated, rather than the big picture.

The idea that studying Jewish history, religion, and culture is worthwhile because Jews should be proud of their contributions might speak to some Jews concerned about the Jewish future. But it is not a rigorous reason why it matters. On a basic level, this perspective presupposes that Jewish history does not matter for its own sake. More problematically, it could make Jewish history of solely internal concern. One of the objectives of undergraduate education, and lifelong learning generally, is to expose oneself to cultures outside your own experience. For scholarship on the Jews to speak only to Jewish students would be small-minded, and also would ignore the fact that most students who take Jewish studies courses at North American universities are not Jewish.

This stance also plays into and amplifies dangerous misperceptions about Jewish history and culture. This is particularly evident when one considers the rise of Jewish studies in China, where I had an opportunity to lecture a few years ago. At institutions like Nanjing University and Henan University in Kaifeng, one finds flourishing departments and programs in Jewish studies. It is certainly exciting to see the field’s growth there, and one can understand this interest within the local contexts: In Nanjing, where the Japanese committed horrific atrocities, there is an affinity for the study of genocide and the Holocaust, and Kaifeng still maintains a small community of Jews. But it also reflects a fascinating fascination with Jews in Chinese culture more broadly, where people want to learn about Jews because they believe that Jews are powerful and wealthy—and they want to be like the Jews. Such perspectives turn antisemitic tropes on their head, but they are still fundamentally misdirected.

This points the way towards two core challenges we face in the college classroom. First, students often walk in (virtually or otherwise) expecting to learn about the Jews’ “contributions”—or the parallel version, their “successes.” This past semester, for instance, I taught a course on American Jewish history at the University of Texas at Austin. At the outset, I asked students what they hoped to learn, and two answers dominated our conversation: Jewish students wanted to learn about their own history, and all students (both Jews and non-Jews) wanted to better understand the “contributions” and “successes” of Jews in the United States.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to learn about your own history. In fact, if one polled Jewish Studies scholars—the majority of whom are of Jewish origin—I wouldn’t be surprised if many said that their own interest in Jewish history and culture, at the very least at the outset of their studies, had an element of self-interest. Just the same, there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn about the contributions that a group has made to the wider society in which it lives. But it is crucial that we teach Jewish history, religion, and culture in a way that is not just about the Jews. Indeed, it may seem self-evident from a scholarly perspective that Jewish studies should not be some kind of sectarian or intramural exercise in Jewish identity-building. And this is why narratives of “contributions” are profoundly problematic. 

The challenge before us, then, is that those interested in Jewish studies walk into the classroom, or into a public lecture, with notions about why it matters that are different from the narratives that we use as scholars. Consequently, we need to transform the broad interests that brought students through the door into a higher level of understanding that allows them to learn about Jewish history, religion, and culture in a way that will contribute to their broader conceptualization of the world.

All this is to say that are so many better ways to explain why Jewish history matters, and to extract large-scale, transferrable lessons from the Jewish past. At the beginning of my American Jewish history course, for instance, I posed the specific challenge: Why should we care about the Jews? And then I walk them through a series of ways in which Jews offer useful tools to understand other members of the societies in which they have lived, and not just the Jews themselves.

Perhaps one place to begin is actually to embrace the demographic challenge, even if it seems initially paradoxical: The history of the Jews shows that a group need not be large to be important or worthy of examination. This is in itself a powerful lesson. What is more, Jewish history is “good to think with,” a useful case study which we can apply to a whole range of important questions and issues.

Among them, we might consider the problem of ethnogenesis: How is it that a group becomes a religion or a people? Though some may claim to know where the Jews come from, there is not a clear-cut answer. And that’s perfectly fine, because it forces us to grapple with the reality of the complex pathways of group consolidation over the course of history. This is of great interest both as we think about the ancient world, and the dynamic cultural matrix out of which the Jews emerged, as well as in modern times when we face the constructed nature of nationalism. The fact that we cannot “prove” where the Jews came from forces us to understand that all group consciousness—national, religious, ethnic, and otherwise—is socially constructed.

The history of the Jews also offers a lens through which we can consider the history of minorities at large. Within any society, the people on the margins illuminate the central character of the wider culture. What is more, we can consider how is it that a minority culture produces its culture and reproduces it over the generations: What are the ways that subcultures survive within a wider world?

Jewish history also does not lack for contemporary relevance. “Fake news”? The history of anti-Jewish beliefs, most of which were completely disconnected from reality—the blood libel myth comes to mind—helps us to consider how it is that people may believe things which are patently false, and the broader spread of misinformation and its ties to xenophobia. The rise of conspiratorial antisemitism in modern times, too, is part of an important conversation about the power of conspiratorial thinking—from blood libel to Holocaust denial and, now, QAnon. The long history of false messiahs in Jewish history also can be a doorway into questions of how people can believe a vanquished political figure will still reign over the country.

Perhaps most importantly, we can look to the Jews as a people on a global scale. The fact that you can find Jews almost anywhere means that they offer a point of comparison. When considering medieval history, the Jews are a perfect case study to look at differences between the Muslim world and medieval Christendom. The expansive Jewish trading networks in the early modern world help us to understand the expansive growth of globalization. The history of crypto-Jews demonstrates the global reach of the Inquisition and the pursuit of heresy. And the involvement of Jews in global economic and social forces today (not to mention the antisemitic association of Jews with “globalism”) shines light on the functioning of our global world.

Especially in our present moment, when everything is dominated by COVID and its repercussions, we need to think globally. In this respect, we can draw big lessons from the history of the Jews, a relatively small people, by considering them as a global people. Because the Jews may be a small people, but they still matter: And in this respect, we can understand that there are ways that so many groups have a great historical and cultural significance—no matter how singular in stature or how small in numbers.

Jason Lustig is a Lecturer and Israel Institute Teaching Fellow at the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His first book, titled A Time to Gather: Archives and the Control of Jewish Culture, will be published in 2021 by Oxford University Press. He is the host and creator of the Jewish History Matters podcast, at www.jewishhistory.fm. He was previously a Harry Starr Fellow in Judaica at Harvard University’s Center for Jewish Studies and a Gerald Westheimer Early Career Fellow at the Leo Baeck Institute.