This Is How We Ruined Toynbee's Theory

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) was an important British historian, who through his controversial theory on civilizations found a place in Israeli and Jewish awareness as an "anti-Semite." According to his theory, civilizations, like human beings, have life cycles that are marked by rises and falls. But the story of the Jewish people, who were determined to survive 2,000 years in the Diaspora only to rise again as a modern nation, did not suit his theory. Thus Toynbee described the Jews as a historic "fossil" - not dead, true, but also not really alive.

When he published his theory at the beginning of the 1960s, he was invited to a debate. The person who invited him was Dr. Yaakov Herzog, at the time Israel's ambassador to Canada, son of the former chief rabbi Yitzhak Herzog and the younger brother of Chaim Herzog, a brilliant scholar and diplomat. Many of Foreign Ministry officials were wary of this debate, which was reminiscent of the mythological word battles in the Middle Ages between Jews and Christians. In the end, however, all those who were present at the debate that took place in January 1961 in Montreal were convinced that Herzog had won.

Michael Bar-Zohar, who was Herzog's biographer, related that Pnina Herzog, the ambassador's wife, who sat next to Toynbee's wife, heard her saying to her husband right: "I told you not to take part in this debate!"

In the wake of that failure, Toynbee indeed moderated the sharpness of his statements about the Jews. However, two articles in which he refers to Israel and the Jews have recently been uncovered. The articles, which had been stored away, were written a short time after the well-known confrontation and have been published in the most recent edition of the magazine Kivunim Hadashim (New Directions). The way in which these two articles arrived at the doorstep of a publication of the World Zionist Organization is no less interesting than the articles themselves.

This is how it came about: Yaakov Ba'al-Teshuva, an Israeli living in New York, received an offer from an American publisher in 1961 to edit an anthology of articles to mark the "bar mitzvah" of the State of Israel. He commissioned articles from numerous important personalities, among them Toynbee. When the article reached the publisher, he decided it would not be fitting for a festive publication about Israel to include an article from an "anti-Semite" - and subsequently ordered that the article be rejected. But even before the decision was made, Ba'al-Teshuva purchased another article from Toynbee for a book, which would deal directly with "Toynbee, the Jews and Israel." Ba'al-Teshuva decided not to use the idea for the book but was then left with the two articles by Toynbee.

A few months ago, Eli Eyal, the editor of Kivunim Hadashim, visited Ba'al-Teshuva and discussed the articles; he was immediately riveted and asked for permission to publish them. Eyal, who formerly worked as a journalist at Haaretz, says that he did not hesitate for a second. "Once a journalist, always a journalist," he said. "The story was too good to give up. I also feel that today we could hold a debate on his claims."

In the first article, "The Mission of the State of Israel," Toynbee makes it clear that he indeed objects to the establishment of the State of Israel, but since it has been established, Israel has a mission - a triple mission to be more exact: not to take advantage of the sympathy of the Jews of the West and thus put them in a position of dual loyalty; to correct the injustices done to the Palestinians, and to make a contribution to worldwide efforts to prevent the outbreak of nuclear world war. (The article was written at the height of the Cold War, and a year later the missile crisis between the U.S. and Cuba broke out.)

Toynbee also claims that one of the reasons for Arab enmity toward Israel is the fact that it is wedged between the Asian and the African parts of the Arab world. Therefore, he contends in the article, Israel should find ways of allowing the Arabs to move through its territory. The fear of nuclear war is also the basis for the second article whose title now seems most pertinent: "The Jews' Choice in the Atom Age." In effect, this is a choice which he puts to mankind in general: Do away with nationalistic states, which serve to increase world hostility and could bring about the destruction of humankind through nuclear weapons.

The diversity of mankind can be maintained, he proposes, in the field of culture and religion and not in states. (Toynbee apparently had not heard then about "the clash of civilizations" and the dangers of religious confrontations.) He explains his special call on the Jews through two arguments: On the one hand, the Israeli-Arab conflict increases the chances for a nuclear war, and on the other hand, the Jews are closer than others to a solution - they have already created a "universal" religion and all that is required of them is to "open it up" to other nations.

Even though he had no qualms about publishing them, Eyal felt the need to add a response to Toynbee's articles, written by the historian Aviad Kleinberg. Kleinberg, an expert on the history of Christianity, sees Toynbee's way of thinking as a secular variation on the old Christian perception of the Jewish Diaspora as a punishment for rejecting the messianism of Jesus.

Toynbee's proposal for universal brotherhood is also viewed by Kleinberg as a variation on the proposal to do away with nations, as mentioned in the New Testament. In his opinion, Toynbee's attack on the Jews simply stemmed from the fact that "we annoyed him" and ruined his theory.

Before the next intifada

At a time when different Arab-Israeli organizations are competing to determine the wording of documents, whose aim is to eliminate the state's Jewish character, it is refreshing to hear Nazir Majali's views. Majali is a former Communist party activist who today works as the newspaper Sharq al-Awsat's Israeli affairs analyst. Majali is spearheading the opposite move - not only does he recognize the Jewish state, he does not seek minority status. He even does not have a problem with participating in civilian national service. All he asks for is that the state be faithful to its definition as "a Jewish and democratic state" and provide the Arab public with equal rights and resources.

This is not merely a political matter. Majali would also like to study Jewish history and culture in order to understand the fears and pain of the Jews. Majali heads an organization called Nass, an Arabic acronym for "Remember the Pain on Behalf of Peace."

He made the move toward reconciliation during the turbulent October 2000 events. Majali sat down with some friends "to think how to prevent a deterioration [of the situation]. We mulled over a couple of ideas and all the time we were wrestling with what the reaction would be on the part of the Jews. And then, we said: 'That is precisely the problem, we have to study the Jews and Judaism.'"

This conclusion led to a Jewish-Arab trip to Auschwitz in May 2003, after a year in which the Arab participants studied the history of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The political conclusion was clear: "I understand that the Jewish people want to have a state of their own, and it won't be in another place, and I want to honor this wish just as I want them to honor my wish for a state for my people."

Majali views the radicalization expressed in some of the documents (drafted by Arab-Israeli organizations), not as a substantive ideological change, but rather as an expression of despondency at the chance of achieving equality: "People simply don't see a real change in government policy. On the contrary, it seems like the confrontation is merely getting worse." He identifies a dangerous cycle of radicalization in which every side makes its position more extreme vis-a-vis the threat it feels from the other side.

"It is a dangerous situation which could both lead to an intifada on the part of Israeli Arabs and to a Jewish intifada against us." In order to break the vicious cycle, he is offering his program to get to know the Jewish state without asking for anything in return, as a confidence-building move. "This is not weakness. If someone comes to 'transfer' me, I will know very well how to fight back. I'm also not doing this for the Jews but for us, the Arabs. Only a few hundred years ago, we were at the top of the pyramid of human culture. It is important to me that we take our place there again; that our children be scientists, computer experts, film and sports stars - and not just fighters."

His group, which includes several hundred members, does not plan on becoming a political party, but rather will strive to change the mood of the Arab sector and its political representatives. He is aware that right now this is an approach that goes contrary to the dominant mood, "but that is also because our points of view have not received serious media coverage. Anyway, every majority in history started off as a minority." His dream is to turn the woes of the Arab population into an optimistic situation, a bridge between their nation and their country. "If that is the direction, I believe we will turn into the majority among the Arab public," he says.