A Choice of Identity
Lewis Namier and Zionism.
by Norman Rose.
Clarendon/Oxford University Press. 182 pp. $29.95.
Perhaps the most celebrated cri de coeur in modern historical writing occurs in the opening chapter of Lewis Namier’s study of England in the Age of the American Revolution. In the midst of a paragraph asserting that the relationship of men to land generally determines the history of nations and their politics, one suddenly comes upon this declaration: “Only one nation has survived for two thousand years, though an orphan—my own people, the Jews. But then in the God-given Law we have enshrined the authority of a State, and in the God-promised Land the idea of a Mother-Country. . . . Take away either, and we cease to be a nation; let both live again, and we shall be ourselves once more.”
Namier wrote these lines in 1929, when he was preparing to lay aside his historical research in order to assume the political secretaryship of the Zionist Organization. In a life studded with improbabilities, this decision may have been the most surprising. Although his father was descended from no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon, Namier learned of his Jewish ancestry only when he was ten. His parents were highly Polonized, landed Jews who professed a nominal adherence to the church of Rome. Namier never participated in anything even faintly resembling Jewish communal life. Yet while Judaism itself had no appeal for him, he had been drawn to Christianity since boyhood. In 1947, on the eve of his marriage to Julia de Beausobre, a survivor of Stalin’s camps and a devout communicant of the Russian Orthodox church, Namier converted. This act shocked his Zionist colleagues, but Namier apparently believed that conversion was as much a fulfillment of Jewish destiny as aliyah. Next to these turnings in his life, the fact that a Polish Jew should have become the premier historian of 18th-century England seems barely remarkable.
Few historians make fit subjects for biography, but Namier, who was also the pioneer of what is now called collective biography (the systematic study of elites), is clearly an exception. Norman Rose’s volume adds to an already significant collection of Namieriana. Isaiah Berlin, Jacob L. Talmon, and Arnold Toynbee, among others, published brief memoirs shortly after his death in August 1960, and a full-length biography by Lady Julia Namier appeared a decade ago. Lady Namier reportedly planned a second volume on her husband’s complex involvement with the fate of his “co-racials,” as he sometimes called them, but before her death in 1977 she passed to Rose the task of writing “a political sketch” of his Zionist activities. Rose has interpreted this charge more faithfully than one might have wished. Still, his book provides a clear and thoughtful account of perhaps the least likely recruit Zionism ever commanded. Like everything else he did, Namier’s Zionist activities bore the burden of his eccentricities. Yet in its own way, his commitment speaks to the heart of the dilemma that has confronted the assimilated elites of Western Jewry.
Rose’s Namier is preeminently a man acting from political conviction. Two things brought Namier to Zionism, Rose argues. One was his recognition that the political changes sweeping over Eastern Europe after 1919 portended disaster for the concentrations of Jewish population throughout the region. The second was his intense personal attraction to Chaim Weizmann, in whom he found qualities of statesmanship that the “kosher gang” of Zionist functionaries conspicuously lacked. For his part, Weizmann courted Namier because he saw in the historian a powerful intelligence free from dogma and sensitive to the realities of British politics.
The two men collaborated in a number of negotiations with British authorities from 1930 to 1945. As Arab opposition to Jewish settlement in Mandate Palestine grew more cohesive and violent, global security interests led the government to adopt the restrictive policies codified in its May 1939 White Paper. Namier’s influence depended on his connection with Weizmann, but these developments undermined his patron’s position within the Zionist movement when the conciliatory approach favored by Weizmann produced few dividends.
Always a grim realist (and consistently anti-German), Namier had few illusions about appeasement, the impending calamity of European Jewry, or the shortcomings of Weizmann’s diplomacy. Yet the depressing events of these years only led him to plunge more deeply into the cause. In 1939 he became a liaison officer between the Jewish Agency and the various ministries sharing responsibility for Palestine. In fact he was not so much an intermediary as an advocate for Zionist concerns: the plight of refugees, easing of immigration restrictions in Palestine, the creation of Jewish military units, and the political future of postwar Palestine.
By emphasizing the role Namier played in specific events, Rose clearly establishes the depth of his commitment, but when it comes to explaining the sources of Namier’s Zionism or assessing its significance, his account is less satisfactory. Namier was, after all, only a minor actor. What makes him interesting is not so much what he did as what he thought and wrote. These are the aspects of Namier’s Zionism that now seem most arresting, but Rose does not accord them the attention they deserve.
Namier’s identification with the fate of his “co-racials” reflected condescension as well as conscience. He accepted as valid many of the stereotypes that inform the social dimensions of anti-Semitism. Namier “didn’t basically like Jews,” his widow once told the journalist Ved Mehta, nor did he admire “what had become of the Jewish character.” History had turned the Jew into “a petit bourgeois and a rootless creature; money had taken the place of ties and roots.” As Lady Namier would have it (and Rose generally accepts her authority), a mixture of duty and sympathy overcame this intuitive aversion to the Jewish character: “instead of leaving the Jews there,” she noted, “he became the most ardent Zionist of his time.”
His writings suggest, however, that Namier regarded his own overbearing personality as an example of the defects of the Jewish character. A description of the modern assimilating Jew in a 1941 essay reads like a virtual self-portrait: “He is too eager to please, too affable, too intimate; too intent and emphatic; he shows off and talks too much—in short, he is self-conscious and embarrassed, and his company becomes exhausting.” Moodily, perhaps neurotically introspective, Namier was sensitive to this issue because he knew it was his assertive, overwhelming manner that precluded the appointment he coveted at Oxford.
Nor did Namier exclude his own situation from the ambiguities accompanying Jewish success in business and the professions. In another essay he had seized upon the image of the Luftmensch—a man living in the air, on air, spouting airy notions and plans—to epitomize the rootless, precarious, and fantastic quality of modern Jewish life. What he called “the Luftmensch tragedy of us all” surpassed the plight of the “unemployables” of Eastern Europe. Again, it is difficult to ignore a personal reference in his statement that it was “[our] anomalous position which has made so many of us into traders or into ‘intellectuals’ (another kind of Luftmenschen).” Perhaps this explains his dismissal of Karl Marx as “a typical Jewish half-charlatan who got hold of quite a good idea and then ran it to death just to spite the Gentiles.”
Namier supported the Zionist movement because it promised to alleviate the deteriorating situation of East European Jewry; but his own Zionism was a response to the moral embarrassment he attributed to the assimilating Jews of the West. The establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine would resolve their dilemma in either of two ways. If the Jews’ anomalous status as a people without a nation were removed, those who wished to maintain their identity would be free to act normally, “to be no longer either ‘prodigies’ or outcasts,” even to “become altogether humdrum and mundane.” On the other hand, those who wished to assimilate fully would be able to do so from a position of moral responsibility rather than as “a confession of inferiority.”
It was this second alternative, of course, that Namier ultimately chose for himself. Having consulted more psychoanalysts than he could probably remember, Namier must have believed that his own character was incurably fixed. Resettlement in Israel, as he repeatedly reminded Weizmann, was not for him. After identifying fully and self-consciously with his people during his Zionist years, Namier felt free to proceed with the religious conversion he may have been contemplating for some time.
More than a generation later, the limitations of Namier’s analysis seem apparent. The establishment of the state of Israel and the continuing need to defend its legitimacy have obviously affected the self-perceptions of millions of Jews content to remain in exile. But the fulfillment of the Zionist dream has at best only partly resolved the anomalous status and ambivalent attitude that are inherent in an existence governed by conflicting pressures toward identification and assimilation. Moreover, the solution that Namier chose for himself is adequate for individuals only. Those who decide to assimilate fully solve their own Jewish problems—at what cost, we can only guess—but not the problem itself.
Was Namier’s choice indeed effective? There is no doubt that conversion and his subsequent marriage gave this troubled man a measure of stability and happiness he had never enjoyed. Namier remained a supporter of Israel, but his active involvement in Zionism was over. Lady Namier’s account of his last visit to Israel in 1958 suggests that he had placed considerable emotional distance between himself and his chosen people. The key incident she relates finds Namier gazing out over the Sea of Galilee. “Of course he walked on these waters,” Namier murmured. “Could again.” As for Israel itself, Lady Namier intimates that its “Arabization,” its transformation into an “Oriental” country, took him aback. The new Israelis “were not the people he had sacrificed so much to; and his distress for every one of them was over.”
Perhaps it actually was. Yet one wonders whether Namier ever entirely stilled his own unsettled feelings about his identity. Lady Namier’s prosaic description of the lecture he gave at Hebrew University on this same trip omits mentioning the moving scene first recorded by Jacob Talmon in these pages some years ago1 and now evoked by Norman Rose in the concluding paragraph of his book. Before a packed hall, “Lewis Namier rose to his feet. His voice trembled and tears rolled down his cheeks as he began with the Hebrew: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.’” Rose concludes that “there could be no more fitting epitaph for this turbulent Zionist,” but one cannot avoid wondering whether these lines from the Psalms did not also strike a confessional note.
Yet if Jerusalem in fact could never be Namier’s chief joy, remembering is the essence of the historian’s activity. Watching him that day, Talmon recalled, “One felt an intimation of the tremendous seriousness of the historian’s quest”—and, one wants to add, of the historian’s need to be honest about himself as well as the sources with which he works. In the end, it is the honesty of Namier’s commitment to Zionism, so clearly portrayed in Rose’s account, that seems most striking. He rejected the false compromises that life in exile demanded of the modern Jew, insisting in effect that the alternatives of identification and assimilation had to be confronted in a rigorous and morally respectable way. In the 1930’s, his analysis of the dismal situation of the Jews required a professional choice that he pursued at a severe cost to his own career. Later, his growing knowledge of himself led him to a religious choice that others would have avoided from sheer embarrassment. In both cases he acted with an honesty that few of us can achieve.
1 “The Ordeal of Sir Lewis Namier: The Man, The Historian, The Jew,” March 1962.