Stern on Hacohen, 'Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History between Nation and Empire'

Malachi Haim Hacohen
Eliyahu Stern

Malachi Haim Hacohen. Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History between Nation and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 752 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-64984-8; $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-316-51037-7.

Reviewed by Eliyahu Stern (Yale University) Published on H-Judaic (December, 2019) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

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Jacob & Esau explores the history of Jews’ relationship to modern Central European politics, the limits of the nation-state, and the possibilities offered to minority groups living under imperial regimes. It challenges our understanding of modern Jewish history as a liberal project and highlights the political and spiritual opportunities that at one time were provided through federated forms of collective organization. “Since the nation-state emancipated the Jews,” its author, Malachi Haim Hacohen tells us, “critics and admirers alike have regarded them as modernizers of European life.” The historical record suggests the opposite, he maintains, “Jews were full of imperial nostalgia” (p. 373).

Who better than Hacohen to call into question the liberal biases of Central European Jewish history? The author of an earlier work on the twentieth-century liberal thinker par excellence, the Jewish Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper, Hacohen comes to his subject matter with a unique expertise in the very story he is attempting to critique: the notion that Jews’ entry into modernity ran through citizenship, embourgeoisement, secularization, and religious reform.

Hacohen correctly asserts that scholars have relied on Hannah Arendt and other acculturated Jewish intellectuals, mostly from Weimar Germany, as exemplars of modern European Jewish politics. These Jewish intellectuals, for Hacohen, should really be seen as liberal secularists who did not at all represent the majority of European Jewry. One does not need to accept Hacohen’s dismissal of Weimar Jewish “authenticity”—which will nark scholars of religion who long ago discarded such categories—to take his point that a small select group of liberal and acculturated Jewish thinkers have long overshadowed the place of other Jewish types in the story of Western and Central European politics.

While Hacohen still spends considerable time unearthing the political legacy of the highly acculturated German-speaking Jewish émigrés, such as the German scholar Erich Auerbach, his main contribution is bringing to light one of the most understudied aspects of modern Jewish history, namely, rabbinic and traditionalist communities. In contrast to Auerbach who developed a theory of Christian typology that made sense of historical time through the idea of Christ, Hacohen puts forward a Jewish typology of Jacob and Esau (the twin children of Isaac and Rebekah). For Hacohen, the Jacob and Esau typology illuminates the history of Jewish and Christian relations from the vantage point of the rabbis and their heirs. “Esau came to embody the Roman Empire in the second century, and Jacob/Israel’s struggle with Esau became one of a nation against empire,” he claims (p. 15). Though Hacohen demonstrates how the typology was employed at various points not only by Jews but also by Catholics and Protestants, it is the rabbinic distinction between Jacob as Jew and Esau as empire that he believes is critical for understanding Jewish political thought in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Others have written about modern rabbinics within the contours of various confessional debates (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox), but Hacohen places rabbinics on the broad canvas of imperial Austro-Hungarian politics. Hacohen spotlights rabbinic figures who addressed Europe’s relationship with the more unassimilable sectors of its population. “Traditional Jews,” writes Hacohen, “emphasized their loyalty to the state everywhere, but they were suspicious of the modern nation” (p. 34). If European scholars wish to take cultural difference seriously, he maintains, then they must grapple with Jews that emphasize their difference from the populations in which they resided. For Hacohen traditional Jews include not only Orthodox Jews but more generally also those who remained tethered or engaged with the rabbinic tradition. The imperial framework, he suggests, offered them the freedom to operate as a distinct entity, the space needed to generate an independent vibrant culture, and the autonomy necessary for a strong communal identity. Whereas Jewish liberals embraced the social and political program of the nation-state with its ideals of legal and social equality, the rabbinic tradition, Hacohen claims “preferred empires” (p. 223).

For example, Hasidim living within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hacohen argues, “drew an illiberal multicultural vision of the peaceful coexistence of closed Jewish and Christian communities” (p. 259). Similarly, Moses Sofer, the titular leader of early nineteenth-century Hungarian Jewry, “banked Jewry’s future on [the] containment of liberalism and the nation-state.” In contrast to the Jewish “Reformers’ vision of Jewish citizenship, [Sofer] counterposed an illiberal multicultural vision” (p. 223).

Hacohen seems to connect a rabbinic predisposition to empire with a host of surprising counterparts. He sees Sofer’s “illiberal multiculturalism” as a reflection of ideas first advanced by Johann Gottfried Herder. “For good and bad,” Hacohen writes about Herder, “illiberal multiculturalism held him from entering modernity. Those who know how emancipation ended may not judge him too harshly” (p. 207). Likewise, Hacohen maintains that Austro-Hungarian socialists also embraced imperial politics. Discussing the attraction of Jews to socialism in Austria in the 1890s, Hacohen notes, “they were the one political party that replicated the imperial pluralist structure and supported the empire the most” (p. 330). Similarly, he writes, “as much as Austro-Marxism and socialist practices subdued traditionalism and Jewishness, imperial cultural diversity and a broad range of Jewish identities found their way into Austrian Socialism” (p. 331).

Hacohen focuses on early nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian Marxists, such as Karl Renner and Otto Bauer’s wartime imperial program. He points to the 1899 Brünn program as an attempt to transform the monarchy into a multinational democratic state. What at first glance might be considered to be a concession to German ethno-nationalism, Hacohen suggests, should be understood as a form of socialist federalism that was, for the most part, democratic and pluralist. It “respected cultural diversity and made peaceful coexistence possible” (p. 299). Hacohen is fully aware that historians of twentieth-century politics might be surprised by the narrative he draws around the Austrian Empire and Austrian socialist parties. “Neither historians nor the Socialists themselves have recognized, any time since 1918, just how embedded the Socialists were in the empire,” he tells us (p. 296).

Indeed, his intended audience of “European historians and Jewish Studies scholars” will find it difficult to incorporate Jacob & Esau into their fields (p. 14). European historians will be mystified as to what Hacohen is trying to achieve by placing Orthodoxy’s “illiberal multiculturalism” alongside Austro-Hungarian Marxists’ “imperial federalism” and Herder’s romanticism. To be sure, one can appreciate his fondness for the idea that socialists and Orthodox Jews could all pay homage to empire. But Hacohen’s narrative seems puzzling when we look at the development of these denominations and parties and where they reside on the contemporary political map.

Students of religion will not be surprised to learn from Hacohen that Orthodox leaders supported political regimes, imperialist or other, that provided them with a maximum degree of autonomy to enforce sexist, racist, patriarchal, and xenophobic social policies. But they, as well as students of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian, French, Italian, and English political history, will be left wondering what it means to think about Orthodoxy in the same context as left-wing politics.Hacohen’s story might illuminate late nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian politics but it seems more idiosyncratic in the context of modern Western and Eastern European history.

Scholars of Judaic studies might be intrigued by a book on modern Jewish politics that spends nearly 150 pages on early rabbinic writings. But those who care most about those writings will be unable to rely on a study of Jews and gentiles in rabbinic literature that has not engaged in the requisite manuscript work necessary for such an undertaking. Hacohen cites from texts that in many instances were heavily edited and for which there are dozens of manuscripts. The term “gentile” (goy) is probably the most tampered with term in the entire rabbinic corpus. Hacohen would gain greatly from looking at C. Merchavia’s Ha-Talmud be-Rei ha-Natzrut (1979), which documents the various ways in which Christian censors carefully monitored and edited sections of rabbinic works that deal with the very subject of his book.

One wonders why editors did not ask Hacohen to write two or three separate books or at the very least edit the extraneous elements and redundancies in this six-hundred-page tome. The relationship between the first part of Jacob & Esau on the rabbinic period and second part on modernity is unclear. Hacohen seems to assume that there is a relationship through rabbinic texts that links the first and second part of the book. But we simply do not know what access the modern figures Hacohen discusses had to the various early and late Talmudic and Midrashic sources that make up the first third of Jacob & Esau. Very few towns and Jewish communities in early modern Europe even owned a full edition of the Babylonian Talmud let alone more obscure works like Bereshit Rabba, Shir Hashirim Rabba, or Eicha Rabba that Hacohen repeatedly cites.

In a moving epilogue, Hacohen ominously declares “Let it be remembered that there was a moment in history when a postorthodox Jew could imagine European culture accepting traditional Jews, and indeed recognizing them as an important marker of its history and culture” (p. 614). His passion and creativity will certainly inspire students of European and Jewish history. His work should be read as a provocative and deeply personal meditation, one whose conclusions will not satisfy its intended academic audiences but whose questions promise to inspire future research.

Eliyahu Stern is associate professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale University.

Citation: Eliyahu Stern. Review of Hacohen, Malachi Haim, Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History between Nation and Empire. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

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