The end of Jewish history?

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Nearly a decade has passed since Francis Fukuyama announced that we had reached the ‘end of history’.1 His message struck a chord with many because it seemed at that time that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent triumph of economic and political liberal- ism, more than an era had come to an end. History as an epic or meta- narrative of struggle between the great contending ideas of communism and capitalism appeared to have reached some kind of resolution. Since the histor- ical train had reached its terminus, its destination indicator was taken down and history was left without a theme, without a purpose and without an end in view. Perhaps all that was now left for the historian was to be a chronicler rather than a grand interpreter of the direction of civilization.

For the historian of the Jews, the concept of the end of history has a special resonance for two reasons. First, because of the unique connection between Jewish and universal history for Christians no less than for Jews. For both, the Jews are intimately connected with the beginning and the end of the history of the world. For both, the Jews are present at the revelation that alone gives meaning to history. For both, the Jewish destiny is bound up with eschatological speculations and yearnings. And for both the end of history is understood as the point to which everything tends and as the purpose for which God has placed man on earth.

The second reason is that the Jews are almost certainly the most historically conscious of peoples. Isaiah Berlin spoke of the ‘retrodictive’ impulse of the Jews. This was interpreted recently by one Jewish historian as ‘the attempt to scour the past for themes or subjects that form a coherent, linear chain of historical development’.2 The effort is not merely a professional addiction of historians: it forms part of the very essence of the self-understanding of Juda- This presidential address to the Society was delivered in the Gustav Tuck Theatre of Uni-

versity College, London, on 2 November 2000. I wish to thank Professors David S. Katz

and David J. Wasserstein, both of Tel Aviv University, and Mr Edgar Samuel for their advice in connection with the revision of this lecture for publication.

1 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (London 1992). The book grew out of an article published in 1989.

2 David N. Myers, ‘Between Diaspora and Zion: History, Memory, and the Jerusalem Scholars’, in David N. Myers and David B. Ruderman (eds) The Jewish Past Revisited: Reflections on Modern ]ervish Historians (New Haven 1998) 96. ism and of Jewry. Berlin himself put it well in a lecture to this Society thirty years ago: ‘All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history. They have longer memories, they are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived.’3

The first scientific histories of

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