What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism
edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
(Cambridge University Press 2016) pp. 412
Noel Coward wrote Peace in Our Time, a play which imagined defeat in the Battle of Britain and a Nazi occupation of the
UK, in 1946. Writers from Philip Roth (The Plot Against America) to Robert Harris (Fatherland) have since constructed a parallel universe whereby 20th-century history took the path not taken.
This interesting book of essays by noted scholars looks at the related subject of ‘what ifs’ in Jewish history. It combines literary imagination with academic knowledge and ingenuity.
Judaic history rather than Jewish history was considered to be an expression of God’s will. It was predicated on the belief that the course of history was inextricably tied to the commitment of the Jews to the divine commandment. Rabbis therefore discouraged any consideration of ‘what ifs’ and dedicated themselves to law rather than history. It is only recently that Jewish historians, influenced by the European and Jewish Enlightenments, have begun to write the history of the Jews. Moreover, it was the Greeks rather than rabbis who introduced the idea of chance in history; consequently a counterfactual history of the Jews has been long in coming.
Derek Penslar argues that the very idea of Zionism was originally so improbable that it lends itself to counterfactual analysis.
He asks what would have happened if Germany had won the First World War. There would have been no British conquest
of the Holy Land and no Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jews a home in Palestine.
In the absence of the Holocaust, a new protestant state would have arisen in Palestine, based on the settlements of the
Swabian Templars: a Christian state that would have attracted evangelicals from the West. The US would have felt an affinity,
while the Arab world would have regarded it as a settler-colonial, apartheid entity. The western intelligentsia, burdened by the
legacy of past imperial adventure, would become fixated on its every act.
David Myers imagines a first meeting between the radical leader of Palestinian Arab nationalism, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the
Mufti of Jerusalem, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Instead of the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and al Husseini’s sojourn in Nazi Germany when he met Hitler, the Mufti and Ben-Gurion agreed to compromise and negotiate with the British Mandatory authorities as partners in a joint endeavour.
Suppose the Jewish foreign minister of the Weimar republic, Walter Rathenau, had survived his assassination in 1922. Michael Brenner argues that this act would have shocked the German Right into a sense of political reality. Hitler would
subsequently have been arrested and incarcerated, where he would have committed suicide. Rathenau would have stood as
the candidate of the Left and beaten Hindenburg in the 1925 election. Jewish intellectuals such as Martin Buber and Shai
Agnon would have remained in Germany and not emigrated to Palestine. Rathenau would have helped facilitate the partition
of Palestine into two states; Germany would have been one of the first to recognise the new state of Judaea in 1938.
Gavriel Rosenfeld postulates what would have happened if Hitler had been assassinated in November 1939; killed in a bomb
blast at a ceremony to commemorate the Beer Hall putsch of 1923. Himmler, Hess, Bormann and Streicher also met their
maker, leaving Herman Goering as the new Nazi leader. The war in the East claimed 750,000 Jewish lives. But Hitler’s demise led to splits in the party with Goering and the Wehrmacht allied against the radicals, Goebbels and Heydrich. In January 1940 the Wehrmacht launched its offensive against the radicals. Heydrich was killed, Goebbels poisoned himself and Eichmann was arrested. By June 1940 a peace agreement was concluded with the Allies, but there was still a reluctance to recognise the fate of the Jews and to offer restitution. Germany and many other European countries were still eager for the Jews to leave. A Jewish state in Palestine thus came into existence on May 14th, 1941. Decades later, Hitler’s assassin,
Johann Georg Elser (1903-1958) was honoured as one of the righteous of the nations by the Jewish state.
Such is the stuff of dreams, no doubt bolstered by subterranean wishful thinking. Unlike novelists and playwrights, this book moves the historical goalposts without diluting the seriousness and tragedy of the past. The accounts are satirical and stimulating. Some are purely fictional while others entertain the possibility of a counterfactual alternative and the mixture does not always gel. Nevertheless, the writing of what could have been is compelling.
History Today March 2017