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Thursday, 22 November 2012

Eric Hobsbawm - Another Jewish Contrarian

Mark.UlyseasThis piece has also just appeared  in volume 1 of the December 2012 edition of Live Encounters magazine, edited by Mark Ulyseas. (

““Hampstead wasn’t good enough for you was it? You had to go poncing off to Barnsley. You and your coal-mining friends.””  (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, BBC TV)

Hobsbawm.FamilyWicked, I know! But the death in October  of Eric Hobsbawm, the much revered Marxist historian, reminded me of the scabrous Monty Python joke.

As a Communist intellectual par excellence, he was an archetypal denizen of that elegant, leafy London suburb, measuring others, not by the cut of their coat but by the breadth of their brain. “Not a first-class mind, what?”, he’d say of some lesser being. Nor did it stop him owning a second home. Indeed, one obituarist wrote:

“His wartime experience, he claimed, ‘converted’ him to the British working class: ‘they were not very clever, but they were good people’. His house in Hampstead remained a meeting place for Left-wing intellectuals from around the world. He also had a holiday home in Wales.”

I interpret this remark as from the mind of a secularised Talmudist – someone who judged others by the extent of their knowledge of Torah – but who had somehow become ambushed by modern life!

I guess that to understand Hobsbawm’s monstrous, if most amiable ego, we  must also reflect on the massive hunk of iron-faced chutzpa it took for any Jewish refugee from Nazism to brave the snobbery and social antisemitism they met in the  England of the 1930s and beyond. This, surely, is what helped to shape him and his friends like Ralph Miliband, father of politicians, Ed and David into classic ‘non-Jewish’ Jews and give them places in the smartest groves of academia.

This was self-preservation on a grand scale  so I suggest  first that it was remarkable how Hobsbawm abided by his mother’s advice “whatever you do, never deny you are Jewish” and second  that his pioneering ideas about ‘people’s history’ or ‘history from below’ were  in direct descent from the biblical prophets and thus imbued with classic Jewish thought.

Further, it appears that these principles filtered through to less well-known colleagues  like Dr William J (‘Bill’) Fishman who wrote East End Jewish Radicals  and  Bill Williams who went on to examine Manchester-Jewish history, not only through the lens of communal worthies and the institutions they founded but also through those of their more ‘ordinary’ contemporaries.

So what I find hardest to swallow is not merely Hobsbawm’s quite religious devotion to Communism but his insistence that he had “no  emotional attachment” either to Judaism or Israel which he described in his memoir as “the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds."

All this runs counter to his many deep friendships with fellow Jews – self-evidently he felt secure in Jewish company – and the warm Jewish-style hospitality he and his wife offered to scores of people in their home.

Further, in recent years his daughter, Julia has said she has felt drawn  towards some Jewish social practices like prioritising her family and encouraging them to gather for a Sabbath meal.Julia.Hobsbawm Sweetly, she also performed that most Jewish of roles by playing matchmaker in the romance of former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife, Sarah. Now, I suggest, Julia is like too many other people I know who resent their parents for not giving them a better Jewish education.

One of Hobsbawm’s close colleagues and friends is Professor Donald Sassoon, who like him was born in Egypt. He has tried to explain Hobsbawm’s anti-Zionist philosophy and why he became a founding signatory of the U.K.-based Independent Jewish Voices group, which claims that the Jewish establishment silences those who criticise Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians:

"He was certainly an anti-Zionist … He used that word, but for him it meant he did not share the idea of Jewish nationalism that there should be an ethnically defined state in Palestine. For him being Jewish meant cosmopolitanism and anti-nationalism. He hated any kind of nationalism, including Jewish nationalism. He was a Communist because he always thought that Communism was an international movement."

Later in an interview with The Guardian, Hobsbawm explained:

“I have never been in favour of destroying or humiliating Israel. I am a Jew, but being a Jew does not imply being a supporter either of Zionism and even less of the particular policies now being pursued by the government of Israel, which are disastrous and evil. They are policies logically leading to the ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories ... I am very strongly of the opinion that Jews must say it is possible to be a Jew and not to support Israel."

But I can confirm that his views did not prevent him from visiting Israel. When I wrote to him in 2009 about a family matter he said that he and my mother’s cousin, fellow historian Professor Avrom Saltman had “last met many years ago in Tel Aviv where he was teaching at Bar Ilan University but since then I have had no contact at all with him.”

He also recalled Avrom from Birkbeck College, University of London as a “very agreeable man with whom I remember getting on well while we were colleagues …”.

I had written to Professor Hobsbawm, then aged 92, about my mother’s brother, my uncle Sidney Saltman (a.k.a. ‘Steve Maxwell)whom he could not recall. I must put this down to age as in a genealogical paper about the Saltman family he published in 1998, Avrom had written: “When I was teaching at Birkbeck College, I would occasionally hear about Sidney from my distinguished colleague Eric Hobsbawm, who was acquainted with him. Hobsbawm is a Marxist – I believe a Party member until the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 – and met Sidney in those circles. He described Sidney, then teaching at Brunel College, as a promising political economist.”

As my cousin’s knowledge of Hobsbawm’s Communist Party affiliation was hazy it is unsurprising that Hobsbawm’s own memory lapsed when we  corresponded eleven years later.

Professor Hobsbawm is survived by his wife, Marlene, three children,, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. It will be interesting to see if anyone in the next generation returns to the mainstream Jewish fold.

* The picture of Hobsbaum’s childhood family shows him with his mother, sister Nancy and cousin Peter (centre) outside an alpine TB sanatorium in Austria in 1930.


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