For Two Thousand Years

Other Press  2017


Mihail Sebastian died in 1945, just after the Romanian government saw fit to align themselves with the Allied Powers. Legend has it he’d been on his way to teaching his first class after a long period of institutional exclusion when he was hit by a truck, an irony—the fact that he’d survived the Romanian Holocaust only to be killed by a road accident—that the protagonist of For Two Thousand Years would surely have noted. Published in 1934, this is a novel that reads like a journal, the plot just a backdrop to the protagonist’s musings. (Sebastian did keep journals, later published posthumously under the title Journals 1935-1944: The Fascist Years.) The unnamed protagonist does do things out in the world—he goes to school where he gets beaten and shoved out of the classroom, gets a job, has love affairs, talks with his friends about Zionism and workers’ rights and women over glasses of beer. Still, most of the story is within his own head. “I’ve no desire for psychological studies,” he says at one point, and yet he cannot escape this particularly Jewish pastime. It is that penchant for analysis partnered with the hard reality of his daily life which brings him back again and again to the unfortunate chicken-or-egg dilemma: Are Jews who we are because we’ve been persecuted for two thousand years, or have Jews been persecuted for two thousand years because of who we are? Or, as he puts it, “Which came first? Antisemitism or the Jewish threat?

For Jews reading this book, much of his ruminating is uncomfortably recognizable. “Do you not know how little it takes for people to turn against you?” he thinks in response to a fellow Jewish student’s outspokenness. “Do you not see that what you call ‘intuition’ and what I call your ‘antisemitism’ selects examples that can nourish it and ignore those which can refute it?,” he asks a friend caught up in populist opinion. “Haven’t they always told us we’re a dirty people?,” he asks himself, then responds: “Maybe it’s true.” Remember, this was before 1934, and the antisemitic wave had yet to reach its most horrific crescendo, though no doubt Sebastian felt it building. After the book’s publication, many people accused him of antisemitism—that is, those who weren’t focused on solving the “Jewish problem” by any means necessary. His contemplations aren’t always easy to stomach, but perhaps that’s because he was just writing the dark thoughts most of us have learned to keep to ourselves. Yet how can we not ask these kinds of questions in the face of so much longstanding hatred? Is the world to blame, or does the fault somehow lie within us? Don’t look to For Two Thousand Years for answers, because there are none.

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