Conflicting Perspectives on Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth

Reviews by Michael Berenbaum and Jeffrey Herf

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015. 462 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Michael Berenbaum, American Jewish University

Timothy Snyder’s much-acclaimed book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, published by Basic Books in 2010, aroused serious concern among many Holocaust historians. They feared that his emphasis on dou- ble genocide—German and Soviet—was a backdoor attempt to diminish the uniqueness and singularity of the Holocaust. In Black Earth Snyder’s emphasis on the Holocaust and its lessons should assuage these critics. Early in the book he writes: “The History of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal and its lessons have not yet been learned. . . . The Holocaust is not only history but warning.” He makes good on this promise, perhaps too good. He treats the Holocaust as the axial event of modern history, thus giving testimony to its centrality.


Begin biography moving, not convincing

March 12, 2014

Daniel Gordis

Daniel Gordis

In his new biography, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” (New York: Next Book, Schocken), Daniel Gordis writes passionately and poignantly about the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, from childhood in Brisk (now Brest-Litovsk) to the post of prime minister of Israel. Along the way, Begin escaped from the Nazis, was tortured by the Soviets and hunted by the British in Palestine. Because of his role in the pre-state battles among Zionists, he was ignored by the Israeli establishment and suffered multiple electoral defeats before becoming Israel’s first non-Labor prime minister. He made peace with Egypt and attacked the nuclear reactor in Iraq, securing Israel and the West from Iraqi nuclear terror. He was undone by the 1982 War in Lebanon and unraveled by the death of his beloved wife, Aliza. His journey from hunted “terrorist” to Nobel Peace Prize winner is the stuff of legend, and Gordis skillfully capitalizes on it.


Living at the heart of a “Promised Land”

Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013) pp. 449).

The anguish of the believer is not the same as that of the renegade, and Ari Shavit writes as a believer in the Zionist enterprise. Not Zionism in the mystical sense that sweeps away all reality and overlooks all issues and problems, but as a man loves his wife of many years, fully aware of her virtues, fully mindful of her flaws and fully embracing the love that is at the core of their relationship. He writes of Israel as “we,” not “they.” He hears in the many discordant Israeli voices that often rage at one another voices that make the society thrive.

Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is a tour de force. Written in lyrical prose by a distinguished journalist who listens attentively when he interviews, Shavit engages his subjects and also the land of Israel. He is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a religious English Jew who came to survey Palestine in 1897 to evaluate its potential as a national home for the Jewish people and then returned to create a familial home, a national home. Shavit does not write of others, but of his own nation, his promised land.


Antisemitism: A History

Albert S. Lindemann add Richard S. Levy, eds.. Antisemitism: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) pp. 288.

Some books are good and some are useful; this is both.

In fifteen well written, concise chapters, this work covers the entire history of antisemitism from the pre-Christian era to contemporary times. Though written by different authors, there is a rare uniformity of quality that is difficult to obtain from a multi-authored collection; more rare still, each author has stuck to their assignment, writing an essay that is deep enough to be of interest to scholars, broad enough to serve as a general introduction, clear enough to serve as a classroom textbook both for an overview course and for a more specialized one. The editors provide the bookends with Lindemann’s important essay on the Jewish Question and the persistence, duration and intensity of antisemitism and a conclusion that is both a wrap up overview but also indicates what remains to be understood.


The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos During the Holocaust

Dan Michman, The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos During the Holocaust (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) pp. 191.

Holocaust Studies is not a field that yields much pleasure. The material is emotionally and intellectually taxing and the insights that one gains, especially if they are important, are often profoundly depressing with regard to the human capacities to inflict evil one upon another. But one of the pleasures that one can have in this field is to see its maturation, to read the new work of young scholars and the fresh work of experienced scholars who are taking innovative approaches to their field of studies.