Professor Jonathan Frankel: Historian of modern Jewry

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The Independent Online

Jonathan Frankel was the most highly regarded historian of modern Jewry of his generation. A man of unusual generosity of spirit and the author of many works, his academic reputation is based primarily on two masterpieces of historical scholarship – Prophecy and Politics: socialism, nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917 (1981) and The Damascus Affair (1997). He wrote, on an epic scale, dense yet lucid examinations of international politics and its intersection with Jews, profoundly original work that never broadcast its innovations, which were left to readers to discover, in prose that was subtle and unobtrusively learned.

Born in London in 1935, and educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, Frankel completed his PhD in 1961 and moved to Israel in 1964 to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He remained there until retirement, while also teaching (and holding, intermittently, a Chair) at University College London, and at Columbia, Stanford and elsewhere.

He came from a family of Jewish businessmen, public figures, professionals, artists, scholars and, in the not-too-distant past, rabbis, and he was raised in a traditional Jewish home with strong Zionist commitments. His devotion to Israel ran deep; it was wedded to an unyielding belief in liberalism, a crucial feature of Frankel's highly active political life as well as his scholarship, and he was a fixture of Israel's peace movement. He wrote often for intellectual magazines about Israeli affairs, and for years sat regularly at the Peace Now table outside one of Jerusalem's larger department stores, arguing patiently with passers-by.

In Prophecy and Politics, a book of 690 pages of small print, he rewrote the history of Jews and socialism, with its epicentre in the Russian Empire but with its indelible influence felt elsewhere, such as in Britain, the US and pre-state Jewish Palestine. He was a close reader of sweeping theorists such as Hannah Arendt and Jacob Talmon (who was a good friend of Frankel's) and a student in Cambridge of E.H. Carr, but his own scholarship turned its back on rhetorical excess and was built with immense care and patience, and due recognition of the achievements of others, on a commodious foundation of primary source material.

His academic ambitions were great and he sought to produce historical works no less sweeping than Arendt and Talmon's. (He once told me that nearly every year he reread Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism for its intellectual vitality, not its veracity.) He left his mark across the expanse of the modern Jewish experience: no historian better explained how impossible it was to understand Russian socialism without fully appreciating its overriding preoccupation with Jews. Few wrote with deeper insight about the intersections of personality and history.

Interested, above all, in the intellectual background to politics, Frankel never lost sight of the vagaries of biography, and the human portraits in his books are astute, and beautifully crafted. He preferred to examine history through the prism of crisis: in The Damascus Affair, he wrote a profoundly unsettling portrait of anti-Semitism on an international scale, a study of mendacity and expediency based on research in numerous archives over the course of many years. It is an indispensable study in international history.

Frankel was a lanky man, agile, a mountain climber, his voice softly rumbled, and he had a wry sense of humour, strong opinions and an overwhelming, pervasive gentleness. His laugh was boyish, never sardonic, and full of pleasure. A historian of brilliance and influence, he was not merely respected by peers and students, he was loved as few are. Those who trusted him ran the gamut of Israel's fractious cultural and political scene. He tolerated with good humour intrusions, and cared profoundly, to the detriment of his own time and peace of mind, about those around him. Until his last days, he could be seen on a walker on the Hebrew University campus hand-delivering letters of recommendation for students and colleagues.

He was a man of understatement and deep cultivation, but without pretence, a man with few regrets and a sense of fairness, humanity and empathy few could match. A selection of his essays will appear next year with Cambridge University Press, publisher of nearly all his books, entitled Crisis, Revolution, and Jewish Politics in Russia.

Steven J. Zipperstein

Jonathan Frankel, historian and writer: born London 15 July 1935; Lecturer, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1964-85, Professor 1985-2004; married 1963 Edith Rogovin (two daughters); died Jerusalem 7 May 2008.