The Unique and the Universal, by J. L. Talmon
Publishers do not like collections of essays because they do not sell well; critics are not fond of them because they are awkward to review. They may have challenging titles but usually they lack a central unifying theme, and even the best of such collections are, by necessity, uneven. Professor Talmon, the author of this collection of essays, needs no introduction. A great teacher of history, he writes forcefully and with erudition; his illustrations and anecdotes are always entertaining and he takes more trouble than most of his colleagues with presentation and style. He ranges widely; in this volume, he comments on the interaction between nationalism and socialism throughout the 19th century, on the sub-acute Kulturkampf in Israel, on Herder’s ideas, on the function of the kibbutz, and many other topics. His position (he says) is that of a Jew who has lived through the traumatic experience of Nazism and Communism, chosen Israel as his home, and at the same time feels deeply committed to Western traditions. Characteristically, and rightly in my view, he takes issue with Toynbee not only for misreading Jewish history but for his prostration before the East and his self-flagellation as a Westerner. He writes with particular understanding about the historical necessity of the nation and the dangers of nationalism. Talmon criticizes the late German historian, Friedrich Meinecke, for devoting the greater part of a long life to the victory of the idea of the National-staat, which is a law unto itself, over Weltbuergertum or universalism. For a Zionist, this is dangerous ground—the same charges were made for decades against the Jewish national movement by the assimilationists. There can be no doubt about Professor Talmon’s Zionism: history, he writes, would make no sense unless Israel were one day to be spiritually significant and, in conjunction with the Jewish diaspora, spiritually effective in the world. Obviously, there can be no effective cultural center without a state as its basis.
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