For Two Thou­sand Years

Mihail Sebas­t­ian
  • Review
By – April 24, 2017

For Two Thou­sand Years by Mihail Sebas­t­ian | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

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. 

Anna Katz is a free­lance writer, ghost­writer, and edi­tor. She is the author of Swim­ming Holes of Wash­ing­tonEasy Week­end Get­aways from Seat­tle, and the forth­com­ing The Art of Ramona Quim­by

Discussion Questions