Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Zvi Ben-Dor Benite

By Alec Israeli

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at New York University. He is the author of The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China (Harvard, 2005); The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford, 2009). He co-edited with Moshe Behar Middle Eastern Jewish Thought (Brandeis, 2013) and with Stefanos Geroulanos and Nicole Jerr The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept (Columbia, 2017).

Ben-Dor Benite discussed his recent JHI article, The Accountants of Nineveh: Exile Jews and Capitalism in British Imperial Thinking, published in April 2023, with contributing editor Alec Israeli. 

Alec Israeli: Your article concerns questions of temporality and spatiality, in different registers—biblical, secular, imperial, etc.—and I want to address this in the coming questions. But before getting to these wider points of theoretical framing: Who is James Rennell? How did you first come across his work — not just the book on Herodotus’s geography you focus on, but more specifically the small section thereof that discusses the exile of the Israelites?

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite: James Rennell was a product of the early British empire. His professional journey began when he was a youth in India. During his later life in England, he developed into the leading geographer in nineteenth-century Britain. He was undeniably a major contributor to the development of modern geography and its related fields, including oceanography. He was also passionate about classical studies, but was never formally educated in the classics. His background shows that without the formative years in Bengal, he would not reach the same level of achievement that he eventually did during his time in England. Remember, he did not know Greek or Latin. That suggests to me that he was not of the English upper classes. But Bengal made him a geographer, and a leading one. For him, empire was opportunity. And his involvement with Herodotus likely serves as a connection to the education he was lacking, while also providing insight into his own ideas about modern geography—the discipline he helped to develop.

Rennell was also a footnote in my book, The Ten Lost Tribes: a World History (Oxford, 2009). While compiling research for this book, I studied various early modern European geographical treatises on the world and Asia, such as Sebastian Münster’s cosmographies, Abraham Ortelius’s atlases, and later eighteenth-century works. I searched for records of the Ten Tribes to illustrate how the perception of the biblical myth and its related “geographical theology” had contributed to the evolution of modern geography. This is the path that led me to Rennell’s The Geography of Asia. I was certainly thrilled to come across a full chapter on the Ten Tribes in the book. But as I read it at the time, I was perplexed by the thought “What is the purpose of this?” I was puzzled why he interjected the chapter on the Ten Tribes and into book on the Asian Geography of Herodotus. I also did not understand what he wanted to do with the Tribes. It was not until I reached the conclusion of the chapter that I understood that Rennell’s exercise was about economics and Jews, rather than geography. This was the reason he was only mentioned in passing in the book back then. That raises the question of why I suddenly returned to Rennell, which I answer below.

AI: Rennell’s work, with its wide-ranging source base and eclectic quotations, functions as a kind of palimpsest, with each textual layer containing another. Following his references (and his references’ references), you take your reader on a literary journey through the King James Bible, John Milton, Herodotus, Enlightenment mythologists, the geographical works of an exiled Swedish officer, second-century Jewish apocrypha, and more. Some of this impressive archival source-tracking you do is forensic, pinning down what Rennell could have known and how. But also, I am wondering if there is anything of theoretical or methodological interest for you: in Rennell’s conversations across millennia, how does Rennell’s single section of text function as a repository of condensed temporal knowledge? Do you think that noting this stratigraphic density is remarkable in a text like Rennell’s, or could this kind of awareness be extrapolated to analyzing any given archival object?

ZBDB: Tough question! To begin with, let me say that when I prepared this essay, I attempted to imitate Rennell’s maneuvers. I hoped the reader would have a feeling of inquiry, questioning, “Why am I reading about this?” layer after layer before being hit with the surprise correlation between Jews and the economy that was Rennell’s intention all along. (Like I felt when I read it first.) I posit that his set of strategies was purposeful. I mention that the discourse about Jews and trade in Europe in his time was quite intense. But it was largely rooted in unfounded prejudice and baseless foolishness. In my opinion, Rennell sought to provoke his readers to reflect on Jews and commerce with no preconceived opinions. He constructed his case from the ground up, composed of what he deemed to be factual history, layer after layer. That is why he did not start with a statement like, “Jews are good with money. Now let me tell you why.”

As for what you aptly call “stratigraphic density” that characterizes his writings (I wish I had thought about this phrase myself!): I would attribute it to his background as a geographer and oceanographer. This is the man that mapped the currents deep in the ocean, explored the relationship between river and land in Bengal, and put together the first real map of India. As a writer, he was in dialogue with Herodotus’s geography and put it in dialogue with the bible. That experience must have impacted his writing. The result is the stratigraphy of this chapter.

AI: In reading Rennell through and with his sources, you engage in kinds of temporal source-jumps that seem to mirror or complement those of Rennell. For instance: you note that Rennell pursued a close reading of the Book of Kings so as to establish the political reasons the Assyrian empire exiled the Israelites in the eighth century BCE, with the aim of making secular sense of the event, stripped of its theological implications. Rennell concludes that the Assyrians, in a calculated way, exiled only some of the Israelites, an elite subsection with desirable skills for the empire. You supplement this with an overview of current archaeological evidence for this precise Assyrian practice—corroborating Rennell’s conclusion with knowledge he did not have, as you admit. But you insist that a “summary of this real history is crucial because it helps us to understand how [Rennell] imagined the workings of empire” (242). Here is a remarkable moment of layering, of historical self-awareness. Can you elaborate more on why or how current historical knowledge can, as a heuristic, illuminate the thought of figures who lacked that knowledge? Or, to entertain a counterfactual: how would this article of yours have gone differently if current archaeological evidence did not confirm Rennell’s conclusions about the Assyrians?

ZBDB: You allude to something that was highlighted more prominently in a prior version of this article that I had to cut. I am quite convinced that Rennell was trying hard to think like an empire builder. When he sat to read the Book of Kings, he was attempting to read the events not as the divine’s doings, but as the product of an intended imperial program. I believe he was, in a manner of speaking, empathizing with the Assyrian official, Rabshakeh, the Cupbearer, who delivered his address in Jerusalem in 701 BCE. It was as if Rennell was peeking behind this man’s shoulders, as it were. Generally, in my opinion, this approach allowed Rennell to gain insight into the calculations of the Assyrians, although much of the information we have about them today was not known during his lifetime. It is important to note that Tobit, the main character of the third section of the article, is employed as a top-level official by the Assyrian king. This, for Rennell, would have been a sign of good imperial policy and wonderful use of exiled elites in the service of the empire.

AI: The central thesis of your piece is that Rennell sought to locate the secular, historical content of the Israelite exile and situate it within a detailed Asian geography. If it was only a subsection of the Israelite population that was exiled (and not an entire nation), then it was logistically feasible that the exile covered such large distances; certain elite, skilled Israelites could be sent around the empire as needed. The biblical element is further eroded in the historical parallel Rennell draws between Jews in Assyria and the more recent Swedes in eighteenth-century Russia, similarly exiled to the empire’s administrative benefit. In the end, Rennell’s secularizing exercise was a didactic one, meant to use ancient and recent history to educate contemporary British conquerors, who might do well to station Jews—with their supposed financial and commercial acumen—around the Union Jack’s domain, Asia included.

I wonder what this lesson might have to say about the temporal framework of modern empire. Without its theological underpinning of sin, banishment, redemption, and return, the story of the Israelites’ exile becomes a footnote in imperial history rather than a major narrative frame of Western, Christian historical progression. The universal container of time, as it were, is not God’s covenant, but the boundaries of empire in which capital-H history is to occur. This is all to ask: what does Rennell’s reframing of this story say about how new concepts of time develop in tandem with imperial expansion? Is time, for eighteenth-century British imperialists, becoming necessarily secular, in order to establish their own claim to universal rule?

ZBDB: I concur with your assertion that the universal vessel of time, so to speak, is not the covenant of God, but the borders of empire wherein capital-H history is to take place. My interpretation of Rennell’s work shows that he was trying to take the theological apart while writing from within the tension between it and the secular. But I would caution against the notion that this phenomenon—a connection between empire and theology—belongs only in the past. Indeed, the tension between the theological and the secular around the question of empire is always there. These empires—Assyria, Babylon, and Persia—are tied to a theological point of view as stated in the Bible. Theology, as presented by biblical authors and prophets, is used to explain successes and failures of empires in the global arena of the time.

Fundamentally, the empires are the instrument of God—the primary figure in any biblical account. Cyrus the Great, for instance, is hailed in the Bible as the “Messiah of God.” For their part, the imperial founders and rulers of these empires never missed an opportunity to say that (their) gods were behind them. Now, it is true that we tend to view modern Western empires as “secular,” or better yet, detached from any political theology. If one delves deeper, one will find there have been many efforts from various groups to “uncover” the presence of God in the history of modern empires as well. With regards to the British Empire these include, for instance, the theology known as British Israelism—the idea that the Brits are the true heirs of “Israel” and that that is why the empire is so successful. 

AI: You write that Rennell’s geography was “reorganizing Asian space in the context of empire” (239–240). It is in this context, too, that he envisions the historical (not theological) exile of the Israelites: this concrete sense of frequent movement across distance is what you say leads Rennell to attribute great money-handling ability to Jews, in contrast to contemporaries, who saw this feature as somehow innate to Jewish religion. Rennell believed, as many did, that Jews somehow originated forms of credit and bills of exchange, but specifically because they had to handle money across large distances due to their diasporic, exiled state. Here in your article, are you trying to identify any particular identification between the rise of capitalism and new forms of imperial thinking about space, insofar as Rennell ties a key financial instrument to the exigencies of long-distance, intra-imperial exchange? Moreover, I wonder if the centrality of this spatial element has something to do with understandings of nascent capitalism being based in trade and commerce (movement), rather than, as later, being based in production (fixed investment), which is far more theoretically concerned with the management of time than of space.

ZBDB: When it comes to distance and Rennell, I’d say that when Britain went out and created its empire, it also had to grapple with the distance question. As the empire’s number-one geographer, he was giving it a lot of thought. Concerning distance and capitalism, your question touches on two dimensions of capitalism. One of course is trade and commerce, a dimension that was more dominant than “production” during the earlier phases of what comes to be capitalism. In this regard, the answer is yes. I’m linking empire, distance, and credit tools to commercial society or capitalism. More importantly, I wish to point out that others in the early modern period were noticing the same thing. If this article was centered on the history of capitalist thought, I would make this statement even stronger: capitalism is intimately connected to distance. This is definitely true about certain financial instruments, such as credit bills, that become key to capitalism.

But let’s tie “distance” to Jews. The article points out that many at the time thought the “dispersion,” or exile, of the Jews has something to do with their relationship to credit bills. If we want to translate this language to the question of distance, I would put it this way: exile/dispersion here means scattered communities of Jews, distant from one another, that are forced to overcome the territorial discontinuity between them and do it through credit bills. It’s fascinating to see how, when trade takes a backseat and production is the primary focus in later debates about capitalism, Jews are still linked to it, but their condition of exile or dispersion is not really brought up.

AI: Building off this: in another temporal jump, you contrast Rennell’s favorable historical assessment of Jews and capitalism with that of twentieth-century writer Werner Sombart, who, in an older vein, identified Jews with the origin of capitalism in a deeply essentialist manner. Sombart does so, you say, with “hostility” (261), not necessarily toward Jews, but toward the capitalism they had become yoked to in the Western mind. The key shift, you suggest, is not necessarily one in attitudes toward Jews, but in attitudes toward “the history of capitalism as an economic system” (261). Could you speak more to this shift? Is this something like a change from the starry-eyed visions of doux commerce in the eighteenth century, to the darker pronouncements of nineteenth-century critics (both radical and reactionary), or is it something more subtle? If changes in the system of and attitudes toward capitalism are fundamental, in a way, why the lens of the Jews now?

ZBDB: Beginning with the last question, I shall explain why I returned to Rennell sixteen years after I read him initially. Recently, the discourse concerning Jews and capitalism has resurfaced. The ugly side is all that we hear in certain corners about Jews and money in the wake of scandals surrounding crooks who happen to be Jews such as Bernie Madoff and Jeffrey Epstein. The pleasant side is several new studies that engage the question seriously and trace the connection as history or as a European idea. I am referring in particular to the excellent studies by Francesca Trivellato, The Promise and Peril of Credit: What a Forgotten Legend About Jews and Finance Tells Us About the Making of European Commercial Society (Princeton, 2019), and Adam Sutcliffe, What Are Jews For?: History, Peoplehood, and Purpose (Princeton, 2020). Both engage the question of Jews and credit bills, and both discuss Werner Sombart as part of the narratives they advance. Sutcliffe also offered a daringly nuanced rethinking of Sombart in a chapter in another book edited by Adam Teller and Rebecca Kobrin, Purchasing Power: The Economics of Modern Jewish History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

When I read these studies, I finally realized what he was doing. Sixteen years after reading Rennell and thinking: “Why am I reading this? Why was he writing his essay and ending it with Tobit?” I understood that this was making an intervention in the debates that Sutcliffe and Trivellato were engaging as historians. When I read Sombart, I was stunned, and happy, to see that he was also using Tobit. But as I say in my article, his use of Tobit, as opposed to Rennell’s, marks the shift from trade to production and, I would say, from distance and credit bills to limitless profit. The Jews seem to remain the same. You can hate or love them, but they remain the same. It is capitalism that changes.

As a conclusion, I would like to shed light on a point that did not make it into the article. In 1832, thirty-two years after Rennell published his book, David Sassoon (1792–1864), a Jewish accountant who happened to be hailing from Iraq, the site of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, was welcomed by the Brits in Bombay. His children created the first of several Baghdadi-Jewish gigantic merchant and finance empires in the East, all under the auspices of the British Empire. Was this because they or their hosts read Rennell’s book? I do not think so. It is a different history. But as an Iraqi Jew (from Nineveh, by the way), I am amused by this little detail.

Alec Israeli is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine and a recent alumnus of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he earned an MPhil with distinction in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research considers overlaps of intellectual history and labor history in the 19th-century Atlantic world, focusing on theorizations of free versus unfree labor in both political-economic and metaphysical terms. He is additionally interested in the philosophy of history (and the history of the philosophy of history). Alec received a BA in History from Princeton University. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog.

Featured image: Title page, James Rennell, The geographical system of Herodotus, examined; and explained, by a comparison with those of other ancient authors, and with modern geography […], 1800, public domain, Wellcome Collection.