CESARANI AN APPRECIATION
Intellectual giant of his time
THE GREAT Jewish historians have generally been blessed with long lives. Salo Baron died at the age of 94; Simon Dubnow (at the hands of the Nazis) at 81; Gershom Scholem at 84. So shock at the death of David Cesarani is compounded by his comparative youth: he was just 58.
Yet he managed to pack tremendous achievement into a foreshortened career. He was the leading figure in a new wave of Anglo-Jewish historians who shed the apologetic stance of many of their predecessors. They were no longer interested in chronicling the “contributions” of Jews to British culture and society nor in celebrating the relatively tolerant welcome that Jews encountered in this country.
Instead, they tried to fashion a more critical and realistic view of British attitudes towards Jews in the modern period and of the dynamic interactions of Jews with their non-Jewish neighbours and with one another.
Although he wrote a great deal about antisemitism, David was not one of those militants who leap into print or grab the microphone at the slightest provocation from some tinpot extremist.
He was no Pollyanna and recognised and weighed hostility to Jews wherever it might appear. But he took a measured view of the degree of threat that it posed.
Earlier this year, he wrote deploring what he saw as the “hysteria about the ‘rise of antisemitism’ and the flight of Jews from Europe”. And he went on (in words that have continued relevance now): “Invoking the fate of the Jews under Nazi rule is not only inappropriate — it is inflammatory and insulting to the victims.
“Raising the spectre of ‘antisemitism’ will not help anyone cope with the threat posed by Jihadists and extreme Islamists.”
David was a strong defender of Israel’s right to exist in freedom and security and an advocate of the “two-state solution”. Over the years, however, he grew more and more frustrated with what he called the “blundering idiocy” of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians which “has reached new depths of bad PR”.
A sense of responsibility prevented him from uttering his thoughts in full in public but he would explode in private. For example, in a moment of despair in the spring of 2002 he wrote to me: “Lord Jakobovits (I think it was him, in 1982, after Sabra-Shatila) once said, more or less, that if Israel amounted to no more than a normal state that committed atrocities, then it was not worth the Jewish effort. If the rot comes from within the two ideological systems that form the pillars of Jewish-Israeli society how can you justify the edifice as a whole?”
As a historian, David suffered no inhibitions. He followed the evidence fearlessly wherever it might lead. An example was his biography of Arthur Koestler. He did not fall into the common biographer’s trap of idealising his subject.
Far from it: he exposed the great writer as a misogynist, bully, and rapist. But he also revealed that it was Koestler who had drafted the Jewish Agency’s appeal to the British government in 1944 for the bombing of Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to the death camp. (The request was, of course, rejected.)
David was a surprising and potentially controversial choice to write a history of the Jewish Chronicle to mark its 150th anniversary in 1991. He faced two huge difficulties: first, almost all the records of the newspaper had been destroyed by bombing during the Blitz.
The second was in many ways even more challenging: this is a paper whose audience has an intimate love-hate relationship with it. Readers adore many things about it and often criticise others. But the problem is that they all love and hate different things, so that David could not hope to please everybody.
He took the brave course of not concerning himself at all with giving pleasure. Instead, he wrote a narrative as he deduced it from the evidence available. The result was no respectful company history but a fascinating work of social and cultural history.
He showed, in particular, the paper’s evolving relationship with Zionism and Israel. Thus he recorded how, notwithstanding its almost reflexive support for the Jewish state, there came moments, as at the time of the war in Lebanon in 1982, when it expressed “a terrible unease, an anguish of the soul”.
David was his own man rather than any kind of spokesperson. When he expressed views in public on Jewish issues, he invariably did so forcefully and effectively but in his own voice and on his own recognisance.
Yet he always spoke with a sense of responsibility and a consciousness of the dangerous power of rhetoric. In 2001, after the attack on the twin towers in New York, when some commentators maintained that the atrocity was in part a response to US policy in support of Israel, David wrote a piece for the Guardian in which he analysed “the forensic trail [showing] that Israel had little role in the chain of events leading to the atrocity on September 11”.
He demonstrated how “in their fusion of anti-Americanism with anti-Zionism, Israel and Jews, long the victims of dehumanisation, are being used to de humanise America and the Americans”.
But he did not stop there. He also seized the unpopular — but at the time very necessary — opportunity to warn against the danger of assuming “that Islam is automatically anti-Western and hostile to America”. The Guardian, otherwise often hospitable to his writing, chose not to print the article.
David was also an academic entrepreneur. At the University of Southampton, as Wiener Library director, and latterly as research professor at Royal Holloway, he did more than build impressive centres of scholarship.
He sponsored imaginative enterprises that interpreted Jewish history in novel ways. For instance, a collective project on “Port City Jews” between 1590 and 1990 compared the experiences of communities as apparently dissimilar as Livorno, Amsterdam, Curaçao, Hamburg, and Glasgow. The port city pro--
David was his ownman.He expressed his views forcefully and in his own voice
vided a useful social-science model for these disparate stories. Characteristically, however, David did not overwork the concept.
David played an important role in persuading the British government to establish an annual Holocaust remembrance day. But he was not one of those who believed that Jewish identity or culture should or could be based on the black hole of misery that is the Shoah. He knew that it must be remembered but that, even more, it must be understood and explained.
My last communication with him was fourweeksago,aftertheBBCre-broadcast a moving radio documentary he’d made in which Kindertransport children were traced in their current homes and spoke about their childhood experiences.
With typical modesty, David attributed the success of the programme not to himself but to its producer. He added: “The programme stood the test of time well. I never dreamed, though, that 15 years later it would be as, or even more, pertinent to current events.”
Like all the best contemporary historians, David understood his job not only as exploring the grey no-man’sland between the worlds of the living and of the dead but also as illuminating the present through the medium of the past. We might have hoped for several more decades of his effervescent, amiable presence and yet more incisive work. His books and his example will endure. But he is gone much too soon.