The Return of War, the Jews, and the Crisis of History

Why have historians been unable to qualify the October 7 massacres as part of the history of anti-Semitism? Jacques Ehrenfreund analyzes this crisis in the profession as a symptom, highlighting its connection with a form of radical criticism of the Jews on the rise in the West. This criticism, which blames the Jews for having failed to learn the right lessons from history, and in particular from their persecution, has less to do with modern anti-Semitism than with Christian anti-Judaism…


Alexander Rodchenko, ‘Stairways’, 1930, wikiart


“When a Jew takes a slap, not only does he take a slap, but he also makes an enemy.”

This old Jewish proverb took on a new dimension on October 7. From the day after the massacre, it was obvious to anyone familiar with Jewish history that a hostile discourse would soon emerge and that Israel would be blamed for what had just happened to it. What was surprising was the speed with which it happened. In Western societies, there was a simultaneous incomprehension of the war Israel was waging to avert a threat whose gravity had been demonstrated on October 7, and astonishment at the massive outpouring of anti-Jewish hatred. The inability to see the connection between these two phenomena means that we are powerless to act against what is shaking Jewish life in Europe as never before since 1945, to the point of threatening its very survival.

The incomprehension surrounding Israel’s war is rooted in a relationship to history that urgently needs to be re-examined. Since the 1960s, less than twenty years after the Holocaust, Europe has agreed to condemn anti-Semitism and to adopt policies aimed at curbing its spread. This was all the more necessary because anti-Judaism had for centuries been a fundamental pattern conditioning the relationship of Christian societies to history. The Church, Verus Israel, claimed to have taken the place of the ancient people of Israel, whose existence should therefore have come to an end. Its continued existence became a mystery and a scandal. A unique relationship to history was built on this “theology of substitution”-ancient Israel was recognized as the bearer of a truth contained in its texts, but a truth fulfilled by the coming and sacrifice of Christ. This pivotal event in human history put an end to history as told by the Jews; the Church had inaugurated a completely different history, one of redemption, spirituality, and unity. Why did the obstinate people persist in a fallen existence, why did they continue to pretend that nothing had happened? Wasn’t this inability to see the Christian truth an insult and a threat to the unity of the human race?

The assumption that the Jews, by stubbornly going against the grain of history, threaten the peace and unity of humanity was revived last October. This basic thread of anti-Judaism may explain why, at the moment of the most important massacre of Jews since 1945, the most radical criticism of them was also voiced.

History is a fundamental resource that allows us to situate ourselves in normal times and to find our bearings in stormy weather. A historian is a person who, by profession, must be able to identify an event when it occurs and to determine whether it represents a turning point in the normal course of time.

Robert Morris, ‘Philadelphia Labyrinth’, 1974, wikiart

The greatest historians are those who have demonstrated the ability to identify a rupture, to spot an event out of the ordinary. Two examples come to mind—Marc Bloch, in “L’Étrange Défaite” [Strange Defeat], offers an incomparable analysis of the collapse that France has just experienced, an analysis that goes beyond the testimony of a mere contemporary, because it is based on the long experience of the historian.

Yitzhak Baer, too, decided to leave his academic ivory tower and his field of specialization—the Judaism of medieval Spain—to hurriedly write, in 1935, what he considered absolutely necessary. “Galout,” published in Berlin in 1936, is an interpellation addressed to German Jews from Jerusalem, intended to make them take the measure of what was happening. Baer analyzed the collapse of the possibility of Jewish life in the dispersion. He understood what few had yet grasped, i.e., that an unprecedented threat hung over Jewish life in Europe, from which he re-examined the entire history of the Dispersion, that form of life characteristic of Judaism since antiquity.

Identifying the singularity of the event meant, for both Bloch and Baer, fulfilling their vocation as historians; it meant addressing a specific audience with a diagnosis of a crisis that threatened the very existence of France, for Bloch, and of the Jewish people, for Baer.

The extreme crisis reveals this essential feature of the historian’s work—historical discourse should both be addressed and situated. Historians address, inform, and challenge a specific audience with which they have an intimate bond. This bond is both the condition that makes historical work possible and a political resource. While historical research presupposes the neutrality of the researcher, the latter examines the past from a particular perspective, which he or she must assume as such.

On October 7, Jewish history should have been this resource for understanding what had just happened—to understand an event is to situate it in a series of previous occurrences, or to make visible what has never been seen before. In the days that followed, the lack of this resource became clear.

The debate that erupted almost immediately on the 7th focused primarily on how to describe the event. It is precisely this lack of qualification that is the most powerful indicator of the crisis in history.

Two days after October 7, information about what had just happened was already massively available—systematic, indiscriminate massacres, massive rape and sexual abuse, torture, kidnapping, hostage taking of babies and the elderly, relentless desecration of corpses, meticulous destruction of homes and kibbutzim… All this pointed to a genocidal impulse of the pogromist type. It is precisely in Israel, the very state whose vocation was to ensure that there will never be such massacres of Jews anymore, that the pogrom made a comeback in an ironic twist of history. One might have expected that specialists in this history would have seen it and said so. Some did, but by no means all.

On October 9, the AJS (Association for Jewish Studies), the professional association federating American Jewish studies, issued the following statement—“The members of the AJS Executive Committee express deep sorrow for the loss of life and destruction caused by the horrific violence in Israel over the weekend. We send comfort to our members there and our members with families and friends in the region who are suffering. We offer support during these dark times.”

This is the real-time analysis of the event by the professional association of historians of Judaism. It denounces “terrible violence” as if it had fallen from the sky. The singular dimension of the event—the resurgence of the pogrom into the present—seemed beyond the conceptual reach of the message’s editors. They demonstrated a complete inability to grasp it and address those who had just experienced it in their flesh with anything other than soothing, useless words. The AJS failed at the most crucial moment when its expertise was most urgently needed—it proved incapable of naming what had just happened, and what should have mobilized the long experience of Jewish history.

Joseph Beuys, ‘I like America and America likes me’, 1970, wikiart

But along with those who didn’t see what they should have seen professionally, others seemed to see things that hadn’t happened, or more accurately, immediately began to put the event into context.

We recall that the UN Secretary-General was the first to claim that the event had taken place in a context, even though the dead had not yet been buried.

There can be no doubt that contextualization is the main task of the historian. He must mobilize his scholarship to make connections that allow for a deeper understanding of events. This part of the historical operation is undoubtedly the most delicate, the one that leaves the most room for subjectivity, the one in which the historian’s perspective ultimately insinuates itself. What is most surprising in this case is that it is precisely the mobilization of Jewish history that some specialists have rejected and even denounced.

On October 12, Omer Bartov, an Israeli-born historian who teaches in the United States and specializes in the Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia (today’s Ukraine), explained the massacre in its geographical context, refusing to link it to his field of specialization. For Bartov, October 7 was solely a consequence of Israeli policy. “He who sows the wind reaps the whirlwind,” he repeated over and over again in the German press, in the United States, and even in Le Monde. Asked about his expertise in the field of genocide, he first insisted that what had just happened was not genocide. On October 14, he initiated a second version of the “Elephant in the Room” petition[1], in which the Hamas massacre and kidnappings were condemned, but linked in a mechanical causality with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Omer Bartov, a specialist in the annihilation of European Jewry, joined other colleagues in expressing concern about the instrumental use that could be made of this history. Not content with situating October 7 exclusively as a consequence of Israeli policy, these historians, once again in a public text, explicitly called for the Holocaust not to be “instrumentalized,” i.e., kept out of the reflection on what Hamas has just accomplished. Putting the event in context meant, first and foremost, not situating it in the history of anti-Semitism and pogroms. These two neologisms, however, have a congruent history and first appeared in the 1880s to describe what was happening to Jews in Europe.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider this modality of contextualization—to postulate a causal link between Israeli policy, however criticizable, and October 7 is to obscure the genocidal dimension of the event. But this dimension is the radical novelty that historians should be able to grasp. This newness is what Israel is facing and the basis on which it must plan its actions. Let’s not forget that Hamas acted on the very territory of Israel that the international community unquestionably recognizes. Mobilizing the colonial context means refusing to see the singular dimension of what happened on October 7. In a territorial conflict between two national claims, even if they are asymmetrical in terms of military power, we can imagine actions to force the enemy to accept what it stubbornly refuses. The military operation is conceived as an element of preparation for future negotiations, knowing that a compromise will eventually have to be reached. The Palestinian national movement has used this strategy many times in the past.

Clearly, the goal of October 7 was not to force the other side into negotiations or political compromise. What emerged amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was an action that targets Jews for who they are, not for what they do. It designates them as an enemy with whom no reconciliation is sought. Even a cursory knowledge of the Hamas charter, of its radical and exterminatory anti-Semitism, should have been enough to recognize this dimension of the event. But it was precisely those who should have made it possible for the said dimension to be grasped who made sure that it did not come to light.

Conversely, many genocide historians have seen it as their duty to denounce the Israeli military operation as potentially having such a dimension. Inversion is a traditional modus operandi of anti-Judaism. The blaming of Jews for what has just been done to them, or is about to be done to them, has traditionally been the way to justify violence in their regard. Before the expulsions of the Middle Ages, accusations of poisoning wells or ritual murder flourished. Christian anti-Judaism, in particular, mobilized the accusation of deicide—the responsibility for the death of God Himself—and fueled the designation of Jews as enemies of humanity.

Francis Bacon, ‘Crucifixion’, 1933, wikiart

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the reintegration of Jews allowed Europeans to overcome, at least superficially, the guilt of the event and to evacuate the question of anti-Semitism. But can we assume that the oldest motives for traditional anti-Judaism have disappeared altogether? Among these, the most central seems to be the postulated inability to understand the meaning of history, and especially the lessons to be learned from the destruction of the Jews of Europe. To understand how October 7 could have unleashed an unprecedented wave of hostility toward the Jews, we need to understand what has been replayed from a traditional anti-Judaism, as distinct from anti-Semitism.

Christianity’s relationship to the Old Testament is the foundation of its relationship to history and its profound meaning. In fact, the Jewish corpus is simultaneously recognized, denied, and fulfilled, that is, obsolete. Christianity has never ceased to present the texts of the Old Testament as particularistic, but also as figurative of Christian truth. This is why truth could emerge from their overcoming, but it is also what made their preservation necessary.

Traditional Christianity believes that it rescues the profound meaning of the Jewish corpus by proposing to overcome definitively its particularistic character. It fulfills the profound meaning of the text precisely because it frees it from what is perceived as an obsession with the people and the law. This transcendence is the prerequisite for the emergence of a religion in which all humanity can commune and in which peace can finally reign.

Modern anti-Semitism differed from anti-Judaism in that it departed from the ambivalence at the heart of Christianity. For 19th-century anti-Semitism, the Jews were exclusively on the side of negativity. To understand what we are dealing with today, we need to understand what of the old ambivalence has resurfaced.

After the war and the discrediting of anti-Semitism, a powerful movement emerged in Europe to reintegrate Jews, to make room for them. Paradoxically, however, this moment of discovery of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, while breaking with anti-Semitism, also revived the ambivalence typical of anti-Judaism. What reappeared in this movement was the hope that the Jews would finally shed their particularism, recognize their error, and finally rejoin a humanity that was all the more undivided because it had gradually shed its overtly Christian coloration. Since the 1960s, Europeans have seen themselves as the vanguard of a movement of secularization and progress; they are convinced that they have learned all the lessons of their past mistakes, which culminated in the destruction of the European Jews. They are now sure that they have understood the deeper meaning of history and have drawn the right conclusions from it. War and nationalism are merely negative expressions of a particularism that must be urgently put behind us. The meaning of history is peace and unity, in short, the end of history. It is well known that this development has been the site of a crisis in professional history, and in any case, has led historians to attempt to rethink their discipline as a group—from now on, their discourse must be addressed to undivided humanity. Global history is the new mode of writing, and anyone who takes a different approach is accused of feeding a “national epic.”

In the eyes of Europeans, the contemporary history of the Jews has a unique significance because of their extermination—there is a special urgency to keep the memory alive precisely because it is from the overcoming of this history that the new world has emerged and reconciled with itself, a world that has finally overcome its divisions and put an end to war once and for all.

For Europe, there is no greater source of pride than to have succeeded in achieving peace and unity—this would demonstrate that all the lessons of recent history have been learned.

The union of Europe would be the culmination of this overcoming, hence the role that falls to the Jews, the same role they played in traditional anti-Judaism.

The problem is that the Jews are once again proving, this time through a state, that they have not understood the universalist message. By waging war—a war that is quickly labeled genocidal—they are once again threatening world peace and unity.

Man Ray, ‘The Gift’, 1921, wikiart

The story Europe is telling itself is one of overcoming suffering and rediscovering unity. After two world wars and the worst massacres, unity finally seems to reign. Israel, as a state in which Jews wage war, stands in the way of this narrative.

Once again, the Jews seem unable to draw the right conclusions from history, even from their destruction. They seem to lack the ability to grasp the deeper meaning of their own history, just as they have failed to grasp the meaning of their own texts.

The Holocaust should have made them realize that their particularism was over, but they interpreted the event in terms of the imperative need to establish a state committed to their defense, including through war.

The Jews have drawn a national and particularist conclusion from the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust—this is the accusation leveled at them, and today it is doubled by the accusation of misusing this event.

For most Jews, the Holocaust was the indisputable justification for the Israeli project, whose vocation was precisely to prevent its recurrence.

Europeans, post-nationals, post-colonials, and convinced post-modernists, see the Jewish state as a bad solution, if not the worst possible answer. In their eyes, the Holocaust is the ultimate proof that all nationalism is potentially genocidal and that all territorial conflict is potentially colonialist.

And so Westerners who thought they had done away with anti-Semitism, who thought they had made room for the Jews since the Holocaust, now blame the latter, who have become overwhelmingly pro-Zionist and pro-Israel, for not drawing the right conclusions from their destruction.

Ever since Europe became the continent of unity, justice, and peace, it has maintained a relationship with its history that is as depoliticized as possible.

This new inability on the part of the Jews to understand the deep and true meaning of their own history has led to a new disappointment—they go to great lengths to wage war, to defend themselves, sometimes to conquer, to kill, and to colonize, precisely because they have not understood what the Europeans have drawn from their history.

The new hostility arising from this criticism is not directed at Jews as such but at their refusal to grasp the deeper meaning of their history. It’s not anti-Semitism in its 19th-century version, but a return to the ambivalence that was at the root of anti-Judaism.

A new disappointment has arisen, linked to this inability, as on the first occasion, to accept the sense of history pointed out by the majority. Why so much obstinacy in the pursuit of a pointless adventure? This seems to be the question addressed to Israel by a Europe convinced that it is finally living in a world that has left behind the vicissitudes of war. The outbreak of a conflict in the heart of the continent in February 2022 had begun to shake this certainty, without, however, making it disappear. The war waged by Israel against an Islamist organization that has already threatened Europe and constantly repeats its desire to do so again could have marked a moment of convergence between Jews and Europeans. This is not the case, however, and a deep-seated mutual incomprehension is being rekindled on this occasion.

Jacques Ehrenfreund

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