It may be the most beloved song in the entire Jewish tradition, Dayenu. It is, as Gavriel Rosenfeld points out in his introduction to What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism (Cambridge University Press, 2016), edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Judaism’s first foray into counterfactual history, the exploration of how alternative pasts might lead to alternative presents and different futures. Rosenfeld is a reigning expert of counterfactual history, especially the enormous subfield of Nazi counterfactuals. (His recent book, Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture, has to be the funniest title for any historical monograph in recent history.)
There are 16 essays in the volume, starting with “What if the Exodus Had Never Happened?” and “What if the Temple Had not Been Destroyed by the Romans?” The former essay is less concerned about whether the Exodus never happened (it probably didn’t) but what would be the consequences if the Exodus was not a part of Jewish memory. The author, Steven Weitzman, concludes that without the exodus myth Judaism probably would not survived as a religion. As for the Temple, René Bloch concludes, Temple or no Temple, Jews probably would have abandoned sacrifices around the 5th century CE. The book then skips a millennia and a half to the question of what would have happened if the Jews had not been expelled from Spain in 1492, and then after a few early modern counterfactuals—“what if Spinoza had repented?” is one—the volume then turns its attention to the 20th century, equally divided between the Nazis and the creation of Israel.
The most interesting of the modern essays included Derek Penslar’s penetrating narrative “What if a Christian State had been Founded in modern Palestine?,” imagining what would have happened if there had been a colonial enterprise in Palestine that was not specifically Jewish. He concludes that while the overall pattern of colonial and anti-colonial resistance might have been quite similar, the shape of the nation and its treatment by the rest of the world, would have likely been quite different. Other essays I liked included one by David Myers, in which David Ben-Gurion and the Mufti of Jerusalem bowed to reality and buried the hatchet in 1936 and agreed to create the binational state of Filastin-Eretz Yisrael. Michael Brenner writes of a Germany in which the Jewish foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, the Jewish German foreign minister, was not assassinated in 1922 , and went on to be elected chancellor of Germany in 1925, while “a brash, right-wing fanatic named Adolf Hitler” played an insignificant role in German history.
Of course, you can’t read a book like this without creating one’s own counterfactuals. I would have liked to see more pre-20th century. What if there had been no return from the Babylonian exile? What if Paul had not allowed gentiles to abandon Jewish law and a version of Judaism became the official religion of the Roman Empire? Or alternatively, what if Muhammad, rather than fighting Jewish tribes near Medina, joined them, and is Jewish-Arab tribesmen conquered the Middle East? What if the kingdom of the Khazars endured? What if Shabbtai Zevi, rather than converting to Islam, was revered today as the greatest Jewish prophet since Moses?
I also would have liked to see a wider geographic distribution of essays. All the essays, save one, an interesting account of the Jewish state created in Uganda after 1904, were located in Europe or the Middle East, and the United States was conspicuous by its absence, though Jeffrey Gurock speculates, in a clever article, that without the Holocaust, the new state of Israel would have aligned with the Soviet Union, and all American Jews would have been targets of Cold War anti-Communism. But American Jewish history needs more alternative histories! Along with the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, the success of Jews in America, was the third great transformative event in the history of the Jewish people in the 20th century, and other than Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America in which an Anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh became president in 1940, the terrain is pretty barren, perhaps because unlike the Holocaust or the creation of Israel, American Jewish success seems less contingent, less happenstance, and less unlikely. But there are certainly counterfactual histories to imagine. What if Jews and Muslims, rather than Christians, had hired Columbus and colonized the New World? What if there had been a 19th century American equivalent to Benjamin Disraeli? And most globally, what if Jews had not been welcome in America—or Columbus had been right and there was no New World to discover in the first place—how would the history of the Jewish people been different?
Alternative history, counterfactual history has been a lively field in recent years. This genre has been a staple of science fiction for generations, and now “serious” historians are trying their hand at writing thought experiments, poised between fact and fancy, where history takes the road not taken. What accounts for this popularity is not clear, perhaps because “scientific history” of the sort that leads to preordained ends, is less fashionable, and we have all become more attuned to the contingent, and history as a contention between possibilities.
At a time, when all of our thoughts have been dominated by the counterfactual question, “how would the world have been different if Hillary Clinton had won the election in 2016” or perhaps “what would have happened if Hillary had received better tech advice” we face a future radically uncertain. Unfortunately, the question of “what would happen if Donald Trump became president of the United States” which might have the plot device for a very scary novel, is no longer counterfactual history. But that only makes What Ifs of Jewish History ,a giant midrash on the actual course of Jewish history, all the more important. It is a reminder, perhaps comforting, that there are unanticipated and unintended consequences that follow from every historical turn, and that the future remains ours to make.