Historian David Myers regularly delves deeply into the Jewish past but at the same time ignores neither the Jewish present nor future. The chair of the history department at University of California-Los Angeles believes the courses he teaches in Medieval Jewish history and modern Jewish history — his specialty — can shed light on Jewish challenges and opportunities for today and tomorrow.
On Thursday, March 22, Myers will discuss “The State of the Jewish Nation: What can history teach us about the state of the Jewish nation today?” at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
Myers graduated from Yale University with a major in Near-Eastern languages, then began his graduate studies at Tel Aviv University. After two years he returned to the United States, where he studied at Harvard, then Columbia University. There, he met a fellow graduate student in history, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, who is now religious leader at B’nai Abraham.
Myers spoke with NJ Jewish News in a March 2 telephone interview.
NJJN: How did your upbringing influence your work?
David Myers: I was raised in Scranton, Pa., which I describe as “the last medieval kehilla” or Jewish communal corporation. It was a small, tight-knit community with a very strong corporate identity. They interacted with other groups — the Italians, the Catholic Church, the Irish — in a highly ethnicized middle-Atlantic patchwork. The 3,000-4,000 Jews were about 3 percent of Scranton’s population.
NJJN: By studying Jewish history can you find an indicator of what might happen in the future?
Myers: I am dubious of those who attribute to history predictive powers. But I really believe it is important to infuse the historical knowledge perspective into public debate. I can think of many domestic and foreign policy decisions that have been taken in which the absence of historical knowledge has been noteworthy and a very significant liability. Adding the perspective of history allows you to have a richer sense of the array of options available in the future.
NJJN: Can you apply that hypothetically to the contemporary issue of Iran, Israel, the United States, and the possibility of nuclear war? Does history suggest anything to you that would offer ways of dealing with this issue?
Myers: I don’t want to turn history into a predictor, but the kind of things history can elucidate are a better understanding of Iranian national pride and Iran’s negotiating methods and tactics. In the first instance, we have to be mindful that achieving nuclear power is a source of great national pride for what I gather is a majority of Iranians. It is an Iran-specific sense of history, and I think we have to understand this better, and, at some level, respect it. Recent history shows Iran is extraordinarily skillful at playing this cat-and-mouse game of brinksmanship. I don’t know if that means they are actually prepared to produce nuclear weapons. I do know they have been successful in wrapping virtually every negotiating partner in a web of string in a corner and leaving them confounded.
NJJN: An analogy has been made between this situation and the Cuban Missile Crisis, with both sides talking tough and Iran, like the Soviet Union in 1962, backing down. Do you see that as a part of the historical perspective?
Myers: I am not an Iran expert, but if one can detach oneself from this, I think this is one of the most intriguing international relations issues we have seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
NJJN: What do you plan to speak about at Temple B’nai Abraham?
Myers: I want to discuss the state of the Jewish nation, which is what I call the “global Jewish collective.” We spend a lot of time thinking about our own Jewish community. We spend a lot of time thinking about Israel. But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about klal Yisrael, the entire people of Israel, and I am a believer in that concept. I am a believer in that concept because I spend a lot of time thinking about the 19th and early 20th centuries, when that idea was very prominently presented.
I am interested in reviving that energy and creative thinking about the nature of Jewish collectivity from that era. That era, from 1897 to 1933, was a period in which lots of groups from across the spectrum spent a lot of time thinking about what they called the “Jewish nation.” I am interested in that international nationalism which understands the entirety of the people that constitutes the Jewish nation and sees Israel as a vital pillar in that Jewish nation.
We have lost the language of talking about Jewish collectivity in ways that are constructive. I think we need to work hard to recover that language.