What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism
Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
Cambridge University Press
406 pages (including notes)
What if you had made a different choice at a key moment in your life? A different career, a different school, a different mate. Would your life be significantly different today?
These are the type of questions that are posed in what – according to Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, a respected historical scholar – is the emerging field of study of counterfactual histories. In building counterfactual histories, one must examine the elements of a historical situation at the moment when a key element or decision of the time could have been reversed or changed. One must then extrapolate into the future known economic, political and social pressures and influences of the time, given a particular change in the key element being looked at, which has itself to be justified by counterfactual possibilities in the history of that period. It is hoped that, in this way, historical processes can be more thoroughly analyzed and understood.
There are other similar attempts in fiction, which Rosenfeld calls “alternate histories.” These include Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, an alternate history of Second World War-era America when anti-Semitic isolationism prevailed, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in which Yiddish-speaking Jews had been allowed to immigrate en masse to Alaska before the Second World War broke out.
Fictional, they delve much more into the psychology of the individual characters and spend less time explaining and justifying their theory of the origin of their fictional world or the details of why it came about.
What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism contains seven alternate histories and nine counterfactual histories.
The alternate histories include stories of how the Jews were saved from being expelled from Spain in 1492; Spinoza’s repentance and reacceptance into the community; a Jewish state being established in East Africa; Franz Kafka moving to Israel and continuing to write; the establishment of a binational state of Arabs and Jews in place of Israel; the survival of the Weimar Republic, never overthrown by the Nazis; and the successful assassination of Hitler in 1939.
Counterfactual histories include the absence of the Exodus from Jewish history; the non-destruction of the second Temple; no ghettoes; no Pale of Settlement; a Christian instead of a Jewish state in Palestine; Arab elite compromise with Zionism; the Nazis win the battle of el Alamein; the Nazis complete their Final Solution; and the Holocaust averted.
A broad span of Jewish history is examined, but the focus is on destruction, survival and a Jewish Land. It does not, however, mention Abraham except in the Introduction. Rather, Exodus is the first key event examined by Steven Weizman, who argues that another history without the Exodus can be found in Chronicles, where it is not mentioned and he proposes what this might mean. All the stories and histories show that each alternate or counterfactual history has unforeseen effects and can sometimes lead to results that are, in a sense, similar outcomes despite changes.
I found the alternate histories engaging and fascinating in their fictional presentations. To some extent, these are focused on hopeful positive outcomes where a large part of the interest is centred on the motives and characters of key individuals. Why would David Ben-Gurion and his Arab counterpart agree to a binational state? In reality, why did they not?
Although drier in tone for the most part, the counterfactual histories also raise important questions about luck, timing and the persistence of the Jewish character regardless of the changes envisaged. This is one of the most interesting results for me.
Rosenfeld attributes the previous paucity of Jewish counterfactual histories to the Jewish notion that history has a direction and that everything has a cause related to Jewish behaviour or God’s future plans for his people.
In fact, Jewish life is counterfactual. We are the chosen people, yet we have suffered more than many others. As the rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof” asks, “For once, couldn’t you choose someone else?”
The book shows how successful Jewish historians and writers can be in dealing with the counterfactual. After all, what can be more counterfactual than Maimonides’ statement, reflective of Jewish life and experience: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may delay, nevertheless I wait for his coming every day.”