“Betrayed by History?” Book Review of Judas by Amos Oz

by Bert de Vries.
book cover of Judas by Amos Oz

Amos Oz, Judas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016)

It is 70 years since the state of Israel was born out of the first Arab-Israeli War under the leadership of the much-revered founding father, David Ben Gurion. Thinking Israelis must wonder how political life degenerated from that heroic beginning to the corrupt and racist prime ministry of Mr. Netanyahu. Amos Oz’s Judas takes us back to that beginning and tells a gentle and thoughtful story to help us see that the country’s present troubles are rooted in that apparently idyllic past.

At one level Amos Oz’s book can be read as a historical novel set in the 1950s, when Israeli society was still absorbing the nationalist ideological outcome of the Jewish victory in the Arab-Israeli War of 1947-8. To understand this core topic, I find it helpful to lay out the historic ‘branches’ of Zionism which developed from Theodor Herzl’s incipient, innocent Zionism (“a national home for the Jewish People”). See the APPENDIX below for explanation of the 4 types.

Amos Oz’s Judas is about the victory of Type-2 over Type-3 Zionism and its consequences. Those who supported the notion of a state in which Arabs would have equality with Jews lost sway during the Second World War, when news of the Holocaust reached Palestine. As a result, the new state of Israel won the 1948 War under Ben Gurion’s nationalist leadership, which enabled him to establish the exclusivist ideology of Israeli statehood as the mainstream, while those who favored rapprochement with the majority Arab population fell out of favor. Amos Oz fictionalizes this event as the recalling of a debate between two former players in this drama, one a “Ben-Gurionist” and the other a “Buberist” (my invented shorthand) brought together in one household by the marriage of the son of the first to the daughter of the second.

That’s the core topic. The core issue of the book is that the verdict of history has now labeled the “Buberist” a traitor, though his position was once respected as righteous. The discoverer of this conundrum is a young neutral observer, a grad school dropout anti-nationalist, who comes into the house to provide elder care. However, it so happens, this student’s thesis research was an inquiry into the place of Judas Iscariot in the Judaic intellectual tradition. His research, in a nutshell, led him to discover that Judaic scholars labored to show the Christian labeling of Judas as “traitor” is a maligning of the ‘true’ story: The tragic disintegration of Judas’ faith in the divine power of Jesus as he watches him bleed to death on the cross, just like any other human being (including his two crucified companions).

The most powerful passage in the book is the reconstruction of the story of the crucifixion as seen through the eyes of Judas, who in a parallel process suffers the descent of his own psyche into the empty despair that climaxes in infamous suicide.

Interestingly, for those of you who need romance in a novel, that legacy of despair flowing from inability to overcome the deep sense of messianic failure is embodied in the “Buberist”’s daughter. A beautiful war widow, she is rendered permanently incapable of loving anyone as she dwells bitterly but impassively on the branding of her father as a traitor to Israeli national destiny. How that plays in the growing love of the young student for this older woman is another thread in this tapestry of interwoven stories.

Amos Oz’s architectural design of these intertwining tragedies is masterly. While I learned to understand the conundrum of the beginning of Israeli nationhood better, I also felt Oz gave me a more nuanced sense of tragic sympathy for the role of Judas in incipient Christianity, in its parting of the ways with Judaism – and in the further darkening of the Judas character in Christian anti-Semitic lore.

Oz has used his career as an Israeli novelist to level soft, but introspective, critiques at the Israeli state and society. His is not the hardened salvo of condemnation for the destruction of villages one reads in Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which covers the same period. Yet, in his subtle and thoughtful book Oz makes clear that the principle of the universal equality of all humans, including Arabs, was deemed as traitorous disloyalty to the state from its very beginning.

I recommend this book for both its introspective tone and its refusal to find an easy solution to the still unreeling tragic dilemma of Israel’s existence. This is also a good story. Read it and weep – for those betrayed by history.

APPENDIX: Tiers of Zionism (from right to left)

1. Jabotinsky Zionism – hard-right Jewish nationalism, centered on the goal of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine and the exclusion or removal of Palestinians Arabs. Jabotinsky, a successor of Theodor Herzl in the early Zionist movement, saw Arabs as inferior and unsuited to peaceable coexistence with Jews, and advocated military force to coerce Palestinian Arabs into accepting the state of Israel. Today reflected in the right-wing Netanyahu coalition government.

2. Ben Gurion Zionism – more moderate Jewish nationalism that purported to stand for co-existence (though not equality) with Palestinian Arabs. Nurtured in the myth of the first Arab-Israeli War (1948) as a heroic, defensive war of independence against militant Arabs. Dominant through the Labor Movement until the early 90s.

3. Martin Buber Zionism – nationalist “soft” Zionism stressing co-existence with Palestinians based on the shared and equal humanity of Jews and Arabs. Lost momentum during the Holocaust, but still prevalent among the Israeli academic left and the Peace Now movement.

4. Jewish Anti-Zionism –secular (more American: Noam Chomsky, Alfred Lilienthal) and religious (more Israeli: Naturei Karta). Never politically effective, but possibly gaining among those members of global Judaism who are disgusted with Ariel Sharon’s and Benyamin Netanyahu’s overtly racist anti-peace regimes.

Bert de Vries (Director, Umm el-Jimal Project) is professor emeritus of the History Department, but he continues to administer and teach the Archaeology Minor Program at Calvin. Ironically, as his teaching duties faded the Umm el-Jimal Project, which he directs, has flourished. 

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When History Comes Crashing Down on Your Head: Reflections on Erik Killmonger of Black Panther

by Eric M. Washington

Spoiler warning! This post contains major plot details from the film Black Panther.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther. (Image by Marvel / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Everett)

Two weeks ago, the highly anticipated Disney-Marvel film, Black Panther premiered. According to a New York Times article published on Sunday, February 18, there was an estimation that by Monday, February 19 the film would gross a record breaking $218 million in North America alone. In a Deadline.com article published last Thursday, it was reported that the film would push past the $500 million mark globally by today. (In fact, as of today, the film has reached $780 million worldwide.) Forbes is reporting today that Black Panther has passed The Amazing Spider Man and will surpass Deadpool in sales tomorrow. In terms of the dollars, Black Panther is a blockbuster if there ever was one.

Beyond unprecedented success at the box office, Black Panther has been a cultural success, especially for the millions of Africans and Africans in the Diaspora who donned their African garb and marched to pack movie theaters. I avoided the masses on the opening weekend to watch the film carefully in a half-filled theater last Thursday, and again, this Thursday. Watching without the hoopla from other movie-goers allowed me to be reflective about one of the characters of the film, the villain, Erik Killmonger; yet as movie villains go he has resonated with African-American audiences. Killmonger has brought to the surface the historic pain, aspirations, and the tensions that exists between continental Africans and Africans of the Diaspora (here I’m primarily referring to the descendants of enslaved Africans). I cast Killmonger as an African-American anti-villain.

Unbeknownst to the viewers, they are introduced to a young Erik Killmonger in 1992 as he dribbled on a basketball court outside of his apartment complex in Oakland, California. While playing basketball on the street something life-changing occurs in his apartment that he shares with his father. His father, Prince N’Jobu, a spy of Wakanda (the fictional African kingdom that is the most technologically advanced kingdom in the world, but has hidden this progress to the world), dies at the hands of his brother T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda. The brothers had argued over the use of Wakanda’s weapons made from the strongest substance in the universe, vibranium, which only Wakanda possesses. N’Jobu had lived in the US and witnessed the oppression of African Americans, and he hatched a plan to arm them with weapons made of vibranium to overthrow their oppressors and rule. It is interesting that this takes place in Oakland, the former headquarters of the Black Panther Party.

In time, we learn that Killmonger desires to put his late father’s plan into action. Upon overthrowing his cousin, King T’Challa, as the new king of Wakanda, Killmonger sets a plan into action that will distribute vibranium weapons to oppressed peoples globally. This plan fails to have the full support of the top brass in Wakanda, who would rather use their weapons to fight against injustice only when necessary. This is where the audience should pause and question Wakanda’s position: you, an African kingdom, hiding this most valuable metal, have chosen to act only in certain situations to aid people, but there are other Africans and Africans of the Diaspora suffering and you refuse to help them and justify this based on your traditional ways? This is a troublesome question, but one of critical importance if viewed from an African Diasporic lens, which Killmonger does.

Though his father was a Wakandian prince, Killmonger grew up literally cut off from that heritage. This reflects part of the narrative of Africans in the Diaspora. Enslavement cut them off from their kin, a process that sociologist Orlando Patterson has labeled Social Death. The history of enslavement, colonization, legalized segregation and disfranchisement came crashing down on young Erik Killmonger as he had to live life without his Wakandian father—his direct link to an African Dream. Yet Killmonger experienced the African-American Nightmare. He witnessed African-American impoverishment, mass incarceration, and death rooted in the history of African-American oppression. African-American audiences know this pain.

Yet there is a thick layer of complexity to Killmonger. His method of liberation is rooted in the system of colonial oppression. As made clear in the film, he is a product of the new style of American imperialism. Killmonger is a graduate of Annapolis; received a graduate degree from MIT; and he became a Navy Seal. Killmonger also participated in supplanting regimes that created power vacuums that allowed for the US to seize influence over new territories. This is what he knows; this is what the US Navy and the CIA trained him to do. He is poised to use this knowledge against global oppressors. It gets even more interesting: Killmonger desires the liberation of oppressed people only to rule them himself in the name of Wakanda. In a solid piece on Killmonger in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer wrote that “Killmonger’s goal is world domination.” Because Killmonger is just as imperialistic as those who colonized Africa and other parts of the world, he is a villain. Possibly.

In thinking through the issues this film unearths, Killmonger remains an anti-villain. It is through his death that I saw the redeeming qualities of his desire to liberate the oppressed. In the most moving dialogue in the film, Killmonger refuses T’Challa’s offer to heal him of his battle wound by saying that he’d rather die free than in bondage as did his enslaved ancestors who jumped off slave ships plunging themselves into the murky Atlantic along the Middle Passage. In the end, T’Challa travels to Oakland and purchases the complex where Killmonger lived as a child to make it into a community center that will help African-American boys and girls flourish. In addition, King T’Challa reveals a new Wakandian way. He states that the kingdom will share its knowledge globally. This sets the stage for Wakandian global leadership based on a clear humanitarian posture. I think this will appease Killmonger’s ancestors.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Going Public

by Kate van Liere.
Group of students standing in the snow near a historic house museum sign.

History 293 students left the classroom behind to explore local public history.

Crowd of students in a local museum

Visiting Lowell Area Historical Museum

This January the Calvin history department launched a new course, Public History, which we intend to continue as regular offering. If you wonder just what “public history” means, you’re not alone. It’s a confusing label for an important phenomenon. It generally denotes pursuits that fall outside of so-called “traditional” or “academic” history. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War, and the “Life of the Mind” exhibit that just closed at the Grand Rapids Public Museum are fine recent examples. (One could certainly cite bigger and better-known museum exhibits, but “Life of Mind” earns precedence here, as the brainchild of three Calvin history majors.) In a way, using the term “public” to distinguish between non-academic history and academic history is misleading. Good academic history certainly has an important “public” aspect; it often aims to reach a wide audience or to engage questions about public life or the public good, or both. Few traditional historians would want to label what they do “private history.”

Yet traditional history, as taught in most of our classes at Calvin, does revolve largely around a very private activity: reading. We read and interpret sources, and we write down our stories and arguments in articles, essays, or books, which we write for an imaginary reader. Even if we’re optimistic and hope to reach a huge audience, we tend to envision this audience as a long series of individual readers. So one way to think about “public history” is that it intentionally addresses an audience that is more collective than individual, and with other media than just the written word. It comes out of the classroom and off the page, into some other arena—whether a theater, a museum, a living historic site, or a public park.

Students in a museum storage room near a historic car.

Behind the scenes tour with Grand Rapids Public Museum curator (left).

Students in a museum storage room.

Visiting GRPM storage rooms.

Multi-media presentation and broad outreach are no means new to our department. Many of our classes and programs have reached out in “public” directions, from Prof. Bert DeVries’s Umm el-Jimal Project in Jordan, to Prof. Frans van Liere’s Indian Mounds oral history project, to the GR Walks tours created by students in Prof. Kristin Du Mez’s social history classes. For many years our majors have pursued internships at the Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) and the Gerald R. Ford Museum. Since 2014 we have added many more local institutions to the list, including the Historical Societies of Lowell, Kentwood, and Cascade, and the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council. Since 2015 all of our majors have produced museum exhibit proposals for the GRPM as part our Research Methods class. But we have never had a single course that focused solely on “public history.” As more and more of our graduates explore careers in museum work and related fields, we noticed increasing interest in such a course. The first iteration this January was a joy to teach, and it also produced some outstanding student work that we hope will attract a broad audience of its own.

The course had three main components: a series of field trips to local institutions that “do history” in non-academic contexts; an in-class historical reenactment game about the controversy over creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and a hands-on project that had students design and create their own small-scale history exhibits on Calvin’s campus. The field trips took us to eight sites in all, from Calvin’s own Heritage Hall on the first day, to the Gilmore Car Museum near Kalamazoo on the last. We focused heavily on vocation, meeting curators who took us behind the scenes, showed us how collections are created, preserved, and exhibited, and explained their own diverse career paths into public history.

We learned about the complex partnerships between public and private interests that sustain museums (even such “public” institutions as the Gerald R. Ford Museum and the Grand Rapids Public Museum relying heavily on private sponsorship), and the delicate political balancing that these partnerships require. We learned about the sometimes explosive politics of historic preservation, while walking the Heartside Historic District with a preservation consultant who helped to create it. We witnessed the indispensable role of volunteers in a range of diverse places, from the 19th-century towns of Lowell and Fallasburg, whose historic sites are sustained almost entirely by volunteers, to the well-endowed Gilmore Museum, where a veritable army of volunteer interpreters supplements one of the largest paid museum staffs in Michigan. We also learned, more poignantly, about the struggles of small museums-in-the-making like the GRAAMA, which was on the agenda for our first trip downtown, but could not open for us as planned when its one-man staff had car trouble.

“The History of Throwing” exhibit

Students examine the exhibit they created.

“Celebration & Foundation: 1876”

Another question animating our field trips was: what makes a history exhibit compelling, educational, and attractive? After reflecting on these questions in class discussions and journals, students put their conclusions into practice in their final project, designing and producing display-case exhibits in teams of four. In just three weeks they produced some deeply impressive exhibits. We’re very grateful to the colleagues across campus who made spaces and artifacts available. One project, housed in the foreign language department, chronicled the career of Cuban immigrant Desi Arnaz and his influence on American culture. Unfortunately this exhibit recently came down, but the other four will remain on display through February and possibly longer. “The History of Throwing,” on the lower floor of the Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex, juxtaposes artifacts from Calvin’s own track and field team with images from earlier eras to trace the story of these sports from antiquity to the present. (This will probably be the next to be dismantled, as the track and field team will soon need to reclaim the javelin and discus for the spring season!)

Students point to the exhibit they created.

“Our Horizon Grows Smaller: Dr. Lee S. Huizinga and the Chinese Civil War”

Students show off the exhibit they created.

“The Times They Are a-Changin’: Calvin College Fifty Years Ago”

The other three exhibits are installed on the main floor of Hekman Library. “Celebration & Foundation: 1876,” by the main entrance, colorfully interweaves local and national stories, recalling 1876 as the triply memorable year of Calvin College’s foundation, Grand Rapids’s 50th anniversary, and the centennial of the U.S.A. Two other exhibits, thanks to the generous cooperation of Heritage Hall’s new archivist Denice Fett, display some of the rich resources of Heritage Hall, the archive of Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church. “Our Horizon Grows Smaller: Dr. Lee S. Huizinga and the Chinese Civil War” tells the compelling story of the medical missionary for whom Huizinga residence hall is named, featuring maps, letters, and commemorative objects from his life. “The Times They Are a-Changin’: Calvin College Fifty Years Ago” looks back at 1968 as a tumultuous year in Calvin’s history. It too features riches from Heritage Hall’s own collection, including photographs, clothing, and issues of both Chimes and The Spectacle, the protest newspaper edited by Jeannine Oppewall and Paul Schrader. This exhibit features particularly impressive research, including interviews with multiple alumni from the class of ’68. Rumor has it that some class members have requested that the exhibit remain up until their 50th reunion in May, and we hope their request will be granted. The other displays may not last quite that long, so go and see them while still you can. We think you’ll be impressed.

Kate van Liere is a historian of early modern Europe, with particular interests in Spain, intellectual and religious history, and historiography. She has edited a collection of essays about Christian historical writing in Renaissance Europe. She also teaches in the Spanish and Dutch departments at Calvin and previously directed Calvin’s Rhetoric Across the Curriculum program.

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