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Jacob Talmon: A Historian Ahead of his Time.

As a historian of the contemporary era, what filled Jacob Talmon with dread and horror--and which hovered over all his essays and lectures--was the bestiality and insanity of the 20th century, and the gnawing sense that, ever since the successful testing of the H-bomb, humanity was tottering on the brink. His writing is suffused with emotion and melancholy.

In his afterword [printed in the current collection of Talmon's essays, The Riddle of the Present and the Cunning of History], Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that British historian Louis Namier was awed by Talmon's energy but felt he was too sentimental. In his last book, The Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution, Talmon takes as his motto the observation of French philosopher Jules Michelet: "History serves no purpose if it contains nothing of the sorrows of the present."

Jacob Talmon was a tormented historian. He saw himself "as a kind of martyr, in constant anguish over the mystery of Jewish martyrdom and the secret of Jewish survival." The current volume is an anthology of public lectures, essays, research articles, and newspaper interviews with Talmon conducted in Israel and abroad. His widow, Irene Talmon, says she has more than enough material to fill another book.

The importance of such an anthology lies not only in the glimpse it offers of a polymathic scholar, but in the presentation of the observations of a historian endowed with a special sensitivity to the drift of contemporary life. The afterword written by his friend and colleague, Yehoshua Arieli, explains that apart from Talmon's famous views on political messianism and the essence of totalitarian democracy, he was an astute commentator on modern times who made his listeners feel that they themselves were partners in the unfolding of history.

Shortly before his death, writes David Ohana, Talmon was elected to sit on a European committee of eminent scholars, joining the ranks of such leading 20th-century historians as Arnold Toynbee, Fernand Braudel, Henri Pirenne, Karl Popper, Arthur Schlesinger, and Charles Beard.

Thirty-one years ago, three years after the Six-Day War, I led a discussion about Israel's image in the Diaspora and the international community in which Professor Talmon, Professor Benjamin Akzin, and Dr. Jacob Herzog took part. Some of the remarks made by Professor Talmon on that occasion are included in the book, demonstrating that this historian, who defined himself as a "hawkish dove" (in our day, he would be considered a very dovish dove), was already worried back then about Israel's intoxication with victory following the Six-Day War.

He spoke about the unwillingness of people to face up to unpleasant facts, about being swept up in fantasies, and about falling into a seemingly narcotic-induced stupor. "I am very worried about what will happen when we sober up," he said. "We must beware of dangerous illusions."

Talmon's generation had its roots in two of the most fateful chapters in the life of the Jewish people in the 20th century, if not all of modern times: the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Hailing largely from eastern and central Europe, it is a generation that grappled continuously with tension between Jews and Christians and yearned for a collective Jewish identity.

For Talmon, this relationship was neurotic at its core. For what is neurosis but a reaction that is out of proportion to the stimulus, like the reaction of a bull to a red cloth waved in front of him. Even if the real source of the illness is an imbalance in the patient, in order to treat it, we cannot ignore the stimulus.

The print media--and, it goes without saying, the electronic media--no longer spend much time on intellectual analysis that attempts to put the present in historical context. Like his historical research, Talmon's articles, to which the newspapers used to devote entire pages, were basically the "explication of an intuition"--an attempt to make sense of the present and help society come to grips with the problems facing it. Today, unfortunately, newspapers are more concerned about readership ratings than with intellectual insights that elucidate current events.

Talmon's essays in this volume represent the views of a group of professors and intellectuals who made their voice heard from the late 1950s through the 1970s (almost all of them residents of Jerusalem and affiliated with the Hebrew University, before influential groups of this type emerged in other parts of the country). Early on, in the wake of the Lavon affair, the group took a stand against David Ben-Gurion, which was of great consequence because of the status enjoyed by this group and the fact that Ben-Gurion had a typically Jewish awe of erudition.

In his article "Jewish Intellectuals in Politics," Talmon writes about how the intellectuals organized to protest against Ben-Gurion's decision to force Lavon out of office as secretary of the Histadrut labor federation.

"The public reaction surprised even the professors themselves," he asserts. "The demand that they continue to work as a group and the fact that they were pursued by several parties proved that Israel was hungry for leadership and disappointed in politicians. In the depths of their hearts, the masses had more respect for learning than for politics."

Talmon himself stayed out of the fray, but he looked forward to the day when scholars and spiritual teachers would find their way into positions of leadership. A Jewish state run by nimble bureaucrats whose primary concern was efficiency would no longer be a Jewish state, he argued. As John Stewart Mill once said, one man with an idea is worth more than a hundred solely motivated by interest.

The Zionist movement was founded by intellectuals, wrote Talmon, and predicated on the dream of an ideal society, spiritual renaissance, and a sense of universal mission. Indeed, Talmon was already decrying the dismal poverty of political thought in Israel in 1965.

In his intriguing and original book, History and Politics, Yehoshua Arieli writes that the academic historian not only rejects the notion that history and politics are inextricably bound to one another, but also the notion that a historian has a duty to preserve and commemorate the events of his day. From ancient times to Marx, Toqueville (Talmon's hero), Namier, and Talmon, Adeli states "historians have believed that their job is to safeguard historical truth for posterity, thereby placing a heavy moral and intellectual responsibility on their shoulders."

According to this view, a historian must be able to keep personal and human involvement at bay and maintain an intellectual distance that allows him to see the larger picture. Talmon strove to fit ideas and ideologies into the design of historical processes, according to Arieli. His goal was to bring all the different factors together to form a network of meaning--to create social and political belonging, to give direction to the raging tide of events.

If Talmon were alive today (he died in 1980 at the age of 64), he would warn against the dangers inherent in the sweeping messianic ideologies of our time. In the confusion, rationality has become a fragile thing. The search for shelter and hope has paved the way for political messianism. A firm believer in political Zionism, Talmon worded about the nationalist trends he saw emerging after the Six-Day War. He saw it as his mission to spread the word against historical and racist-religious determinism. In the articles in this book, he condemns the mindset that Israel is a "people that dwells alone" and a "nation under siege."

Two years after the Six-Day War, Talmon published an open letter in Ma'ariv to Yisrael Galili of the Labor party, taking Galili to task for saying that he did not regard the Palestinians as an ethnic category or a population with any national uniqueness. In an open letter to "the historian Menachem Begin," he responds to Begin's "not one inch" rhetoric by recalling Nietszche's adage about some victories being harder to bear than defeat.

Talmon, a supporter of Chaim Weizmann, repeated Weizmann's arguments about Zionism seeking a just solution to a problem that would always involve some measure of injustice. On the other hand, he was outraged at the idea that anyone should have the gall to get up and decide that a certain population was a nation or not--a decision that, by all accounts, was the exclusive right of the population in question.

In a letter to Ha'aretz in 1970, Talmon responded to an article by Professor Yuval Ne'eman stating that the Jewish neighborhood in Hebron was an important tool for "preparing the population of the Gaza Strip for cooperation with Israel, which in this case means willingness to live with the presence of the Israeli army." Talmon argued that the best way to bring about coexistence between peoples was to separate them and not create hotbeds of friction and agitation. Indeed, in all his journalistic writing, he opposes annexing a hostile, rebellious population. For the same reason, he objects to the return of Palestinian refugees under the "right of return." Both, he believed, would lead to the collapse of the state.

In his outlook Talmon was always a man of the West. He never took much interest in Islamic culture or the history of the Arab world. The essays in this collection accentuate his opposition to tribal isolationism and support for what America's founding fathers called "decent respect for the opinions of mankind." As much as they respected his moral approach, some political scientists responded to his frequent lament over the disappearance of ideology in Israeli society with the wry observation that pragmatism did not go well with pontification. Ohana's selection of articles, made in consultation with professor Yehoshua Arieli and Professor Hedva Ben Yisrael, who knew Talmon well, shows that such criticism was unwarranted.

The book moves along two clear axes: material written from a historian's perspective that has not lost its timeliness, and material that fits in with Talmon's perception of the tension between universal ideologies and national uniqueness. Ohana has done an admirable job.

The Riddle of the Present and the Cunning of History is a remarkable book by a humanist historian plagued by doubts and concerns, yet full of inspiration and a sense of purpose, who spikes his disappointments with the hope that in the long run, wisdom and liberalism will win.

ELI EYAL is a member of the World Zionist Organization executive and chief editor of the magazine Kivunim Hadashim ("New Directions"). This essay first appeared in Ha'aretz, 16 February 2001.

Chidat Ha'hoveh Ve'ormat Ha'historia ("The Riddle of the Present and the Cunning of History: Studies in Jewish History from a Universal Perspective"), by Jacob L. Talmon, edited and annotated by David Ohana, afterword by Yehoshua Arieli and Isaiah Berlin. Israel: Mosad Bialik, 340 pages.
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Title Annotation:a writer and his works
Author:Eyal, Eli
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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