Alternative Jewish histories: Fun, instructive

What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld; (c) 2016 Cambridge University Press; ISBN 978110-7037625; 406 pages including notes and index; $34.99 hardback.

By Mitchell J. Freedman

mitchell j freedman

Mitchell J. Freedman

what ifs of jewish historyPOWAY, California –Counterfactuals or alternative histories remain controversial among historians mostly because it is an area where Literature with a capital L invades History with a capital H.  However, as history professor Gavriel Rosenfeld ably explains in the Introduction to this book which consists of sixteen essays or works of other historians offering counterfactuals in Jewish history, historians, including those who criticize counterfactuals, engage in counterfactuals whenever they analyze any “cause” of an event—“This happened, which led to that.” In doing so, historians expressly state, and most often imply, that if the “cause” had not occurred or something else entirely occurred, history would be changed which in turn would likely have significantly affected subsequent history. Historian critics of counterfactuals, though, are correct in stating that, when a writer decides to fully develop the other cause and subsequent history that arises from a different cause, or especially adds another figure who was either unknown in history or was a minor or ineffective player in history, that writer enters into a type of activity that characterizes writing a novel more than a historical inquiry. Such criticism of counterfactuals or alternative histories, however, denies the artistic, philosophical and historical value of novels, which, at their best, inform perspective and understanding of human life and human endeavor.

The advent of the novel, beginning approximately 400 years ago, not long after the printing press was developed, is perhaps one of the greatest artistic achievements of humankind. To imagine a world without the novel is like imagining a world without a steam engine or a computer.  It would deny a crucial aspect of modernity. And, perhaps most ironically for historian critics of counterfactuals, as our 21st Century develops, any de-valuing of an amalgamation of the humanities, or of the humanities with science and engineering, is increasingly anachronistic.  The scientist-novelist C.P. Snow rightly criticized a rigid specialization and separation of the sciences and humanities in his seminal 1959 essay, “The Two Cultures.” More recently, evolutionary biologist and entomologist E.O. Wilson has written of “consilience,” where, the more we learn as a species, the more we in the humanities world need to learn from scientific and mathematics communities and vice versa.  To rigidly demand we color between the lines within the humanities is perhaps too limiting when we confront artistically our interconnected, wired, software-based world.  Just as the telephone congealed into our television and our television congealed into our computer and back again for each, we should welcome the interplay between novels and historical chronicles and instead be demanding a literary and historical interplay that establish its own criteria of being intelligent, creative and thoughtful.

With that, we now enter a scholarly book which analyzes nearly every era of Jewish history and mostly collectively the suffering of the Jewish people, and asks, not only how did the Jewish people survive, but also, if there was a change of a single fact or cause in each of those eras, how would that change affected how subsequent generations of Jews saw themselves as Jews, and how would the history of Jewish interaction with a larger Gentile world itself be affected.

The results in this powerfully scholarly and yet lively series of essays or works meet the criteria of being intelligent and thoughtful, though less consistently creative.  Some of the historians dared to stretch themselves to write their essay topics in the form of a fictional alternative history proceeding from the change in a particular event or cause, and in doing so, some of the group meet with creative failure.  In other words, their literary touch is missing even as their scholarship is strong and interesting on their own terms.  Many of the historians in the book, wisely and thankfully, kept to their historian’s craft and have provided what fans of Philip K. Dick may call a historian’s “Minority Report” where there is a rich and contextualized presentation of historical data, information and analysis that positively and wonderfully enhances our understanding of the historical Jewish experience, from the Exodus, through the destruction of the Second Temple, the Pale of Settlement in Greater Russia and up through the modern era. The book’s endnotes, which a less demanding reader need not read in most instances, nonetheless provide a treasure trove of sources and sub-analyses that those with a deeper interest in Jewish history will find most valuable and rewarding. This is a book to buy, maintain and pull down from one’s bookshelf to read, re-read and review portions of the book at one’s leisure and for that argument you are having with a Facebook friend about something happening in the world today that affects world Jewry.  It is that thoughtful and that informative.

As an example of what was an excellent counterfactual essay, Bernard Dov Cooperman, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, provides us with a fascinating historical examination of the creation of “ghettoes” for Jews residing in Christian Europe during what many still often call the Middle or Dark Ages of European history.  Cooperman’s conclusion is that the creation of ghettoes was often a least worst choice rulers made in the face of a murderous populist hostility that Christian Europeans developed against Jews by the turn of the millennium of 1000 C.E.  Cooperman posits, very persuasively, that without the boundaries and literal walls separating Jews from their European neighbors, there may well have been extensive and immediate bloodshed against Jews that would have decimated the Jewish population of Europe hundreds of years before the Holocaust.  More positively, the separation or walls allowed Jewish culture in Europe an opportunity to develop, which led to great achievements in Jewish thinking, economic development and artistic development. Nonetheless, reading this counterfactual of having no separation or walls causes us to realize there are consequences similar to “The Twilight Zone,” where “the Jews” get what we think they would have supposedly wanted, meaning no Jewish isolation in Europe, and instead find that Jews end up likely being worse off than before and perhaps annihilated either physically in Europe in the late Middle Ages or disappear through assimilation into a larger Christian European culture.  The essay is a fascinating read and reveals the strength of a counterfactual analysis of actual historical events and cultural history.

Seven of the sixteen chapters speak to our modern sense of historical Jewry in being dedicated to the twin issues of the Nazi inspired Holocaust against Europe’s Jews and the advent and continued existential issue of the Jewish State of Israel.  What may be most extraordinary for American Jews reading the particular counterfactuals regarding the development of Zionism and the Jewish State of Israel (What if the Zionist Jews had established a Jewish State in East Africa as Herzl himself supported? What if the European powers established after World War I a Christian State in Palestine?  What if the Arab leadership in the form of the Mufti and rest of main Arab elite had chosen compromise with Zionists in Palestine the 1930s as the storm of World War II was developing?) is how these historians, including noted Jewish historian and Emory University professor, Kenneth Stein, dig deep into Zionism’s controversies within various world Jewish communities and question, with strong historical information, basic understandings so many of us have regarding the events leading to the founding of the State of Israel.

May one have substantive quibbles with these historians in their essays or creative works?  Indeed, but even a disagreement with a particular historian invites and influences more critically thinking of Jewish history and its echoes into today.  One essay, for example, on the establishment of a Jewish-Arab bi-national state in Palestine in the 1930s was too short to fully persuade there was even a reasonable chance of such an event or founding.  It is logical that it should have occurred if the Arab leadership were reasonable and Ben-Gurion capable of accepting, but the cynicism and hatred that already existed among the leading figures by the 1930s is, to use a literary metaphor, a bridge too far—again perhaps unless this was more fully developed in a much longer story or essay. The historian who wrote the work, history Professor David M. Myers of UCLA, brings outstanding scholarship and biographical skills in chronicling the activities of Musa Alami, a lawyer-diplomat in the Arab region who could stand face to face with his childhood acquaintance Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Muffi, and with Ben-Gurion, along with Ben-Gurion himself and Judah Magnes, the latter who was sympathetic to a bi-national state.  One sees even if we disagree with its likelihood the sense of fluidity and contingencies of history, especially when readers learn through Professor Myers how unlikely it was for Al-Hussieni to ascend to the Grand Mufti position in the first place.  We realize too that one of the reasons people respond favorably to alternative history is that counterfactuals may sometimes snugly fit within the framework of philosopher Sidney Hook’s “The Hero in History,” which challenged a particularly rigid Marxist interpretation of systems being dominant over individuals being in the right place at the right time.  On the other hand, those who see systems dominating human activities recognize that the range of contingencies may be very finite or limited.

Another more narrow quibble occurs when reading an otherwise brilliant essay entitled “What if the Exodus had never happened?” Here, historian Steven Weitzman seems to assume the conclusion of many archeologists and historians that the Exodus story may merely be an elaborate work of fiction. Notwithstanding Weitzman’s outstanding scholarship and the wealth of sourcing in his essay and in his endnotes, which were a joy to read, he never cited a particular scholar, Richard Elliott Friedman, a Harvard Theological School graduate who is a currently professor of history at the University of Georgia, not far from Kenneth Stein at Emory, who, in 2014, was interviewed in Reform Judaism magazine on the topic of the Exodus as actually having happened ( The interview is well worth reading in tandem with Professor Weitzman’s essay. Weitzman very astutely explains how there are competing stories of early Jewish history in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Chronicles, the latter that essentially ignores altogether the Exodus story in the history of the Jewish people in antiquity.  This has a somewhat analogous antecedent in the two stories of life on the planet that appear in the first part of the single Book of Genesis.  Again, Weitzman provides a wide array of scholarly sourcing in his essay and in the endnotes to his chapter, and makes it relatively easy for a general reader to absorb a new level of understanding of this pivotal moment in Jewish history (and for those who have a deeper level to test their own knowledge and analysis with Weitzman).  From a counterfactual perspective, Weitzman reaffirms that the suffering and redemption story is essential to Jewish self-image and pride, but makes a reasonable case that Christian and Islamic self-image was also heavily influenced by the Exodus story. Weitzman’s essay is the first of the “What ifs…” which follow Professor Rosenfeld’s Introduction, and is a great way to open a reader’s mind to explore and critically think about Jewish history and of the Jewish experience in human history.

Professor Rosenfeld’s own entry of “What if Hitler Had Been Assassinated in 1939?” and Professor Michael Brenner’s essay “What if the Weimar Republic had Survived?” are outstanding contributions to our understanding of the first half of the 20th Century in Jewish history.  Here, the two historians successfully write in a literary way that reveals creative potential in each while still imparting important historical information and analysis. Brenner introduces 21st Century readers to Walter Ratheneau, a then famous and much respected German Jewish statesman and minister in the early Weimar Republic, who was assassinated in 1922, but who, in Brenner’s story, survives and goes on to balance the competing German political forces in a manner that was surprisingly persuasive to those who may see the Holocaust as a genocidal culmination of a virulent German anti-Semitic history.  One contrasts with Brenner’s story Moses Hess’ famous observation in the 1860s: “Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism…” and Hess’ concern about the immutability of the Jewish nose and how changing black, curly or wavy hair into blond, straight hair would not stop German anti-Semitism.  But Brenner’s point is that the Holocaust had not occurred in the 19th Century either and there was reason to believe Ratheneau had enough statesmanlike qualities to have perhaps protected the German people from themselves in attacking what were their own neighbors.

Rosenfeld, for his part, provides a compelling Jason Bourne-like retelling of the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler, Georg Elser, a non-Jewish German, who this time succeeds, thereby throwing Nazi leadership into turmoil and limiting the effectiveness of the Nazi regime’s desire to oppress and eventually kill Europe’s Jews. Rosenfeld’s shows us, again with a “Twilight Zone” sense of irony, that in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s death, far more Jews were killed in Germany, Austria and nearby regions in Poland than in our time’s immediate aftermath.  No less than 1.5 million Jews were killed in a frenzy of mass murder between 1939 and 1941 in the alternative time line, much more than in our time line but much less overall in the period of 1939-1946. Rosenfeld nonetheless has his historian narrator use the word “Holocaust” for this much lower number as it was a word that was already coming into use in the early 1940s after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 formalized “the Final Solution” of mass murder of Europe’s and potentially the world’s Jews.  There is also a plot twist in Rosenfeld’s essay that was delicious reading regarding the interactions between Zionists and Nazis in the period of 1939-1941 that Ze’ev Jabotinsky fans will find much to admire.  Here, Rosenfeld again reveals how history is itself contingent and how a change of one event may open opportunities for others who failed in a particular goal to achieve that goal that seems so impossible without the one change of one event. The one, again, quibble I had with Rosenfeld’s essay is that he did not alert the reader even in the endnotes that there is reason to believe Georg Elser may have been a pro-Nazi agent provocateur who planned to fail in assassinating Hitler in order to enhance the power of the Nazi regime, much in the manner of the 1933 Reichstag Fire.  This would have compromised the essay at its heart, but a counterfactual should at least grapple with such a contrasting fact in endnotes if not the main essay or creative work.

One may go through each of the works of historical analysis and creative re-tellings in this highly intriguing and beguiling book without necessarily reading the entire book.  One may also find in reading all of the essays, as this reviewer did, not to one’s liking.  For example, I personally found the Kafka and Spinoza chapters much less interesting and too limiting in their scope or telling, a personal taste I am convinced is not a reliable criticism for those more interested in the topics.  Those interested in Spinoza or Kafka may love these alternatives where Kafka ends up in Palestine in the early 1920s and where a “new” document is found revealing that Spinoza repented privately to the Rabbis in Amsterdam.  The two essays feature a who’s who of Jewish literary and rabbinic figures into the early 20th Century that was for this reviewer the most enjoyable part of the essays to read, and how those persons were affected by these two changes involving two Jews who stood apart and within Jewish philosophical and literary tradition at the same time.

As a final set of comments, we should recognize Shakespeare’s ultimate counterfactual, “For want of a nail a kingdom was lost…” The Bard’s literary creations, particularly his theatric histories, illuminate the personal and technical aspects in life that have great consequences in human history and impel us to recognize contingencies in history.  Even in the world of so-called “pure” science, there is a continuing debate as to whether the physical world is itself fixed or contingent.  The debate features, not surprisingly, two Jewish scientists of great insight and learning, Albert Einstein and Stephen Jay Gould.  Einstein said, late in his life, contemplating the rise of quantum mechanics in physics, “God does not play dice with the world.”  Later in the 20th Century, Gould, discussing the historical aspects of evolutionary biology, proclaimed at least impliedly against Einstein, “Replay the (evolutionary) tape a million times … and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.”

I prefer something in between these two giants of science and society.  There are contingencies in the physical world and human history, but those contingencies are not endless or even a million times different in most given points.  As the world proceeds, the world becomes more complex and one must be careful and wider in scope of thinking when analyzing nearly any causation for events that precede or succeed each other. Just as there are limits to how a creature evolves at each given point in the evolution, there are limits to alternative histories or counterfactuals that may arise in the face of a contingent or serendipitous set of events.

Alternative history or counterfactuals, when ably performed, both raise our consciousness and ground us in humility and may inform both our literature and re-telling of human history.  Professor Rosenfeld, the historians he retained and Cambridge University Press are to be thanked for their contributions in this arena and one hopes their contributions will move us beyond the controversies of counterfactuals


Mitchell J. Freedman is a civil litigation lawyer in Southern California who, from 2007 through the start of 2016, was president of Ner Tamid synagogue in Poway, California.  Freedman is also the author of a critically acclaimed alternative history about Robert F. Kennedy surviving 1968 and becoming president, “A Disturbance of Fate” (2003).  Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)



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