A Wiki-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish History

I have an arsenal of reasons that I give students for why they can’t use Wikipedia. There is the old “anyone can edit it and you don’t know what kind of angle they are pursuing or what kind of real expertise they have” chestnut, which students mostly don’t find convincing. There is the feminist argument, which some students buy into and others don’t, but which I feel increasingly silly explaining now that feminist medievalists have gone back to playing ball and hosting wiki hackathons. And then there is the epistemological argument, in which I explain to them that in a university setting, we base our knowledge on primary sources, while Wikipedia uses a model of knowledge that completely rejects the legitimacy of analyzing primary sources; the university is fundamentally incompatible with Wikipedia.

At the same time, I kind of can’t believe that we are still having this conversation.

I have a new arrow in the anti-Wikipedia quiver, though: a kind of combination of Salo Baron’s polemic against what he named “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history” and a major violation of Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer a discussion continues on the internet, the higher the probability that someone will make a Hitler analogy. The corollary to the law is that the first person who crosses that line loses the discussion automatically.

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On this day in history, at least according to the Gregorian approximation of the Julian calendar, in the monumental year of 1066, a massacre of Jews took place in the city of Granada. Perhaps the most famous casualty was Yehosef ibn Naghrila, the Nagid, or Jewish community leader, of that city. His father was the battle-hardened poet Samuel, adviser to the Zirid court and known as twice a vizier: master of the sword and master of the pen.

The father was better-loved than the son, a politically ambitious hot-head who stoked conflict and was not possessed of a self-awareness that would have allowed him to see just how badly he antagonized the ruling political class and allowed himself to become a kind of institutional lightening rod for popular discontent with the government, especially with its tax policies, often enforced by Jews allied with Yehosef. The most visible contrast comes in a kind of memoir written by a deposed Zirid ex-leader from the exile in North Africa where he spent his final years, reflecting upon and defending his rule. The chronicle is known as the Tibyān, and its author, ‘Abd Allah ibn Bulugin, gives Samuel the honor of being called by his name throughout, while he refers to Yehosef contemptuously and pseudonymously as “the vizier” or “the Jew.” (For a further-developed treatment of this idea, click here and see pages 14-17 and chapter 1.)

Some of the primary sources are published in translation in the Medieval Iberia sourcebook:

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The “the Jew” spat as a negative epithet makes it difficult, on the surface, for a modern reader to see this as anything other than blatant anti-Semitism; but in fact, it is more complicated than that. The narrative content of the text makes it clear that Yehosef earned the ire of his neighbors because of his smear campaigns against beloved officials, because of his officious personality, and because he had been put in the position of carrying out unpopular policies; criticizing him as “the Jew” is a shorthand for those undesirable characteristics. This is why scholars distinguish between anti-Semitism, a racialized hatred of Jewish people, and anti-Judaism, a cultural outlook that uses Judaism as a cipher and a scapegoat for things that have gone wrong. They are related, to be sure, and the one is encompassed in the other, but they are not the same thing (click here and read the introduction).

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It wasn’t all hate mail: A letter praising a certain Joseph the Nagid, believed to be Yehosef ibn Naghrila.

***

And yet. And yet if you look up the events of this day in 1066 on Wikipedia, you find it as a part of a bundle of articles on anti-Semitism illustrated with the yellow Star of David badge worn compulsorily by Jews in Europe following the advent of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.

This is not that.

Massacres are terrible. The massacre of 1066 was terrible. But it was not a holocaust or a genocide. The Zirids were not the Nazis. When Baron coined the phrase “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history” he challenged his fellow historians to get away from the then-reigning teleological  and pessimistic model of writing Jewish history, in which all events inevitably pointed to the marginalization, expulsion, and/or death of Jewish communities throughout time and space. He found it to be a dishonest model of history, and one that ghettoized both its subjects and its practitioners.

Wikipedia’s decision to mark its entry on the Granada  massacre with a Nazi symbol is a neo-lachrymose move that places the two events in the same historiographic silo. Visually, it argues that if the beginning is an anomalous anti-Jewish massacre of a relatively small number of people, the only logical outcome is a society-wide drive to the gas chambers. It does a disservice to medieval and modern history and to readers who deserve a more complex and honest take. This is why the world needs scholars in the humanities and why those scholars ought to be writing for general audiences. Terrible methodology leads to terrible outcomes. Wikipedia is just terrible history; history, historians and history buffs alike deserve better.

On the basis of Godwin’s Law, Wikipedia loses the Granada massacre of 1066.

***

It occurred to me to look at the Wikipedia page for 1066 after seeing a few error-ridden Tweets about the massacre from on-this-day-in-history-themed social media accounts and becoming curious about where all the mistakes, missteps, and misinterpretations  were coming from. (In possibly related news, my inner Snark would like to know how it is possible to make three errors in the space of 140 characters.)

Wikipedia editors don’t necessarily know better than to resort to a lachrymose conception of the 1066 massacre. They are not privy to the debates and currents and changes in scholarship, especially when the work that is most freely accessible to them is the oldest material, the work that is out of copyright. Furthermore, seeing the broad panorama of historiographic change is much different than having access to factoids.

(Edited on December 31 to add: The good news is that Brill has announced that its books will be open access. The terrible news is that the open access will only be extended to the top 25 most active Wikipedia editors. So instead of making its unconscionably expensive technical books available to the scholars who have the greatest need for them as well as the expertise and ability to translate very specialized research for a lay audience, they’re being made available to 25 people who might or might not have the ability or inclination to use the resources effectively; and Brill is creating a surreal situation in which academics without good library access (or those with access to good libraries that just can’t afford Brill’s extortionist prices any longer) might find themselves having to pick through Wikipedia articles trying to dust off the nuggets of good scholarship that get couched in an wikipedian framework that is wholly incompatible with academic enterprise.)

Ultimately, Wikipedia and an “on this day in history” outlook are two sides of the same coin. They offer the same “just the facts, ma’am” fantasy that absolve the reader from critical analysis because they claim to be simple collections of verifiable, transparent facts; but they ignore that every fact, every juxtaposition of two facts together, every attempt to highlight a single most important event, is informed by much more deeply-rooted ideas about what constitutes a true narrative.

Sometimes during my start-of-term anti-Wikipedia statement, students will ask why they can’t just check a fact on Wikipedia and then carry on with their analysis. The 1066 massacre page is an illustration of the extent to which those things cannot be separated. Baron wrote about lachrymose history as dishonest. His question of honesty is at the heart of the matter, but it is different from the truth that students (who are by definition lay readers) think that they are seeking. Pulling them away from Wikipedia is an effort to teach them that facts do not equal truth and that those facts are always bound up in the analysis that tells the story, honest or dishonest. Wikipedia articles have an agenda and angle and they need to be read critically and unpacked just as much as any other, proper work of history. Or, better yet, read not at all.

3 thoughts on “A Wiki-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish History

  1. Your argument, especially regarding this particular Wikipedia article, is convincing. I can’t agree, however, with telling my students not to read it at all. I tell them to look up texts we’ll be exploring in detail both to get a sense of the plot, if there is one, to allow them to better focus on the themes instead of trying to figure out what’s happening, but also to clue them into the often-massive lacunae in Wikipedia’s collective knowledge, which tends to be a pretty effective demonstration of why it can’t be trusted the exclusion of anything else – much like most other secondary sources, even traditionally published ones.

    • I guess I still don’t see the need for that. With difficult texts I’ll sometimes set them up during the class before they’ll do the reading, sometimes give them a good scholarly article to accompany the primary text, and sometimes ask them to try their best and then walk through the difficult parts in class. There are other how-to-use-source issues that I like to cover over the course of a term, and I don’t see the need to spend a lot of time on the problems of Wikipedia when I’ll have told them that it’s epistemologically incompatible with what we’re doing.

  2. Pingback: “Both Sons of Spain”: Medieval Jews and Muslims in the Imagined Nation – S.J. Pearce

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