The Stakes of His­to­ry: On the Use and Abuse of Jew­ish His­to­ry for Life

David N. Myers
  • Review
By – April 12, 2018

In The Stakes of His­to­ry, David N. Myers strives to demol­ish the osten­si­ble con­flict between his­to­ry and mem­o­ry. His­to­ry that moves in the direc­tion of pure fact, Myers sug­gests, miss­es oppor­tu­ni­ties to gen­er­ate larg­er mean­ings and appli­ca­tions. His­to­ry in the ser­vice of mem­o­ry is like­ly to offer sus­pect com­pro­mis­es, to be over­ly and point­ed­ly selec­tive — per­haps, ulti­mate­ly, to be not much more than propaganda.

The author’s intro­duc­tion, His­to­ry, Mem­o­ry, and What Lies in Between,” defines the intel­lec­tu­al play­ing field. Three num­bered chap­ters iden­ti­ty three sig­nif­i­cant func­tions of his­to­ry: His­to­ry as Lib­er­a­tion,” His­to­ry as Con­so­la­tion,” and His­to­ry as Wit­ness.” Myers micro­scop­i­cal­ly explores how each func­tion oper­ates, its memo­ri­al­iz­ing poten­tial­i­ties, and — by impli­ca­tion at least — its lim­i­ta­tions. The stream of ref­er­ences with­in the dis­cus­sion, includ­ing some to oppo­si­tions among schol­ars of his­to­ry, sharp­ens and tex­tures the issues.

But wait: Jew­ish His­to­ry” is part of the title, and Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans (as well as non-Jew­ish explor­ers of the Jew­ish past) are pieces that the puz­zle-mak­er bril­liant­ly shuf­fles. Some will feel that it takes too long for the specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish face of Myers’ inten­tion to show itself.

The author makes ref­er­ences to mod­ern eth­nic and nation­al con­flicts to under­score the old cliché that his­to­ry is large­ly writ­ten, and mem­o­ry large­ly shaped, by the win­ners. But it’s the losers (lucky to be sur­vivors) who are most need­ful of the lib­er­a­tion, con­so­la­tion, and wit­ness that his­to­ry affords. In his con­clud­ing chap­ter, Myers brings the read­er more ful­ly into the Jew­ish dimen­sion of his con­cerns. Which his­to­ry of the trag­ic Arab-Israeli saga will pre­vail? Which mem­o­ries will be implant­ed in the future?

While this dense­ly packed vol­ume is aimed pri­mar­i­ly at schol­ars of his­to­ry and his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, Myers has kept the non-expert read­er in mind by offer­ing just the right amount of the­mat­ic rep­e­ti­tion and exem­pli­fi­ca­tion. The struc­ture of his book, designed with a pro­found sense of pur­pose, leaves read­ers wait­ing for this near-res­o­lu­tion. The pay­off goes beyond the won­der of the author’s eru­di­tion and his inspired, though still aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly fla­vored, prose.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions