In­tel­lec­tual gi­ant of his time

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY BERNARD WASSER­STEIN Bernard Wasser­stein is Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of His­tory at the Univer­sity of Chicago

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.


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