Opinion: Why does Jewish history not count?

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Opinion: Why does Jewish history not count?

The contributions of the Jewish community to life in this country should be viewed from an historical context, not through the prism of the Israel-Hamas conflict, writes Colin Shindler

Sandys Row Synagogue (Credit: Deror avi)
Sandys Row Synagogue (Credit: Deror avi)

This Thursday in the House of Commons, MPs will debate the possibility of holding a Jewish History Month. Nicki Aiken MP who has secured the debate, argued that it would compliment Black History Month and Islamophobia Awareness Month — both of which have celebrated the value of difference.

Even so, it is worthwhile to ask why this idea has emerged now. When the news broke about this initiative, one headline read ‘Stars and MPs back calls for Jewish History Month amid rising anti-semitism in UK’ — and not ‘Teachers and Academics welcome Jewish History Month as an investment in the communal future’.

It has come about due to the realisation that for many non-Jews, Jews don’t count, whereas other minorities certainly do. The pogrom of ethnic cleansing on 7 October in Israel has been either ignored or glossed over by far too many in the UK — and this was before the bombs fell on Gaza.

It is also abundantly clear that there are also many within the Jewish community itself who are deeply interested in our history. This is indicated by talks at JW3, Harif, Limmud, Jewish Book Week and other organisations. The enduring interest in the Jewish past is exemplified by the continued existence of the Jewish Historical Society — it was founded when Queen Victoria was on the throne!

There has also been a veritable explosion in Jewish genealogy due to the advent of DNA matching and this in turn has led to understanding the turmoil and tragedies that confronted our forebears.

Yet Jewish history has hitherto been seen as the poor relation in communal endeavours. Only Holocaust education and in recent years the study of antisemitism — more as a reaction to the Corbyn years — have escaped this complacency. So should an appreciation of Jewish history be regarded in its own right rather than simply a response to a crisis outside?

The businessman, the late Robin Spiro and his wife, Nitza, thought that Jewish history was fundamentally important when the Spiro Institute was established over forty years ago.

Robin’s persistence resulted in a GCSE in Jewish History amidst widespread apathy from leadership. The Spiros inspired numerous British Jews to continue their studies at university.

Colin Shindler

Today there are many academics who teach modern Jewish Studies at universities throughout the UK but without doubt, they are an underused resource which could benefit the community. Indeed during these dark days, would not a knowledge of Zionist ideology and history have been an asset in challenging the superficial coverage of the terrible events in Israel and Gaza in the media?

This is far different from the US where Jewish Studies including Jewish history is both appreciated and well-funded. Admittedly there are more Jews and more money, but there is also a different attitude — a frame of mind that values the educational and intellectual reclaiming of episodes in Jewish history.

This has led to the establishment of respected institutions such as Brandeis University in the US — and a plethora of Jewish Studies Centres at American universities.

Simon Schama however has indeed been sceptical about the value of a Jewish History Month as a quick fix and placed greater emphasis instead on the importance of teaching Jewish history in schools.

Even so, this does not negate the belief that such a Jewish History Month would encourage a wider acceptance of the importance of knowing the rich history of the Jewish people in this country and elsewhere in the Diaspora amongst both Jews and non-Jews.

It should not be a temporary flash in the pan to satisfy the political demands of the moment. It would also be a boon for younger teachers and academics who are coming up through the ranks.

Up until two hundred years ago, the teaching of Jewish history was defined within purely religious parameters — more Judaic history than Jewish history. It was Heinrich Graetz who wrote the first History of the Jews in German. He started this monumental task in 1853 because he understood Jewish history as a national history.

It took him 23 years to complete this task. Graetz spoke about ‘the miracle exhibited in the history of the Jewish people over 3,000 years…a marvel not to be overlooked’.

Wise words which should be heeded today.

  • Colin Shindler is a professor of Israel studies
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