The Space Between | Historian links up seminal Jewish thinkers on digital map

In the early days of Facebook, famous figures from history — Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth, Moses — began to show up as individuals with an assortment of “friends.” These stunts were mostly ironic — would Moses friend Pharaoh or not? — but also revealed how the new social networking technology was changing our view of how people connect.

Arie Dubnov, a Stanford University history professor, is engaging in a more serious version of this idea, creating and analyzing networks of Jewish intellectuals to ascertain not just who was friends with whom, but which odd connections or pairings might have been central to the development of key 20th-century ideas.

With his emerging project “The Émigrés Lab: Mapping Intellectual Migrations and the Transformations of the Jewish Republic of Letters, 1933-68,” Dubnov wants to help create a more effective synthesis of big ideas and big data, and with it to open new vistas onto the machinery of modern Jewish history.

Over coffee at a sparkling new engineering building at Stanford, Dubnov, 36 — Russian-born and Israeli-trained — reflected on the digital possibilities now available to scholars, and the sea-change about to take place in the use of technology among historians.

“Much of the older faculty doesn’t really understand what goes on with technology, or is simply technophobic,” he says with gentle insistence. “Their advice for young scholars is, ‘Work on your German, not [coding in] Java.’”

Part of Dubnov’s inspiration is Stanford’s Republic of Letters project, in which scholars use social network analysis to focus on the worldwide web of letters shared by Enlightenment figures like Locke and Voltaire. Why, Dubnov wondered, couldn’t Jewish historians try something similar?

What has been missing in Jewish intellectual history, he suggests on the home page of a new digital platform called Netzwerkerei that he co-founded with Sinai Rusinek, is a more profound understanding of the “web of relations, contacts and interactions” that connected mid-20th-century Jewish intellectuals. “After all, a large part of what one finds in the archives is bountiful direct evidence of this social network in the form of letters.”

Examples of projects referenced on Netzwerkerei are an “interactive digital tabletop” prompting new insights into the German Bauhaus movement, and a map of the Jewish presence in the Byzantine Empire using geographic information systems.

Arie Dubnov photo/ronit citri

A result of these new technologies is not just the accumulation of huge amounts of data, but the ability to organize them visually in ways that make their meaning instantly clear.

“What I like about the new field of digital humanities is the ability to zoom in and out,” explained Dubnov, a descendant of the historian Simon Dubnow. “Without ignoring the small details, we can also see the entire map of the world, and how thinkers move through it.” Connections that would have taken months or longer to ferret out can be intuited now with a passing glance.

An example: How did German refugee Hannah Arendt transform herself into an American public intellectual, whose books on Eichmann and totalitarianism helped change America’s view of the 20th century? A more granular look at her relationships and correspondence reveals that a brief stint working with Jewish agencies in New York put her in contact with Salo Baron, the towering Jewish historian.

“With the right tools, I can show that Arendt was in conversation more often at that point with American Jewish intellectuals than German intellectuals,” he said. And with enough data, “quantity becomes quality.”

This kind of network mapping seems tailor-made for understanding not just the movement of Jews, but of Jewish ideas. In the same way that Jewish merchants and scholars constantly carried themselves from one region to another, the ideas they promoted moved in complicated routes among cities that can now be precisely, statistically mapped.

Dubnov is also trying to break down the cliché of these intellectuals “sitting at their desks, in scholarly solitude, with only old books to keep them company.” Instead, they worked — and saw themselves as part of — complex networks that sustained them.

Dubnov quotes philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the subject of his recent biography “Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal”: “I am what I am as a result of social forces,” and “some, perhaps all, of my ideas about myself, in particular my sense of my own moral and social identity, are intelligible only in terms of the social network in which I am (the metaphor must not be pressed too far) an element.”

But press it Dubnov does, as new technologies become not just the tools for study, or the lens through which to view the creativity of the past, but a social network of thinkers forging “a scholarly web parallel to the one we are studying.”


Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.