AT&D #33. Historical Agency & Passivity

The concept of “Agency” in history addresses the extent individuals and groups have the ability to act or be active in a historical narrative. The opposite of this is being acted upon on or passivity, a term that is assigned to groups and individuals otherwise not

Based from a chapter in Armesto’s history book, who is given agency when empires and nations are used to study the past? Who is acted upon on? Does agency flow in a singular way or is it complex and interconnected? How does this impact (your) understanding of the past?

Judging by the reading, there are multiple examples of empires that have been given agency while their ruled people have been given likewise, passivity. Among the discussed on agency, the many empires of Europe dividing Africa and Britain controlling India are prime examples. However, there is a unique case where a group of people have been both subjected to agency and passivity. In Chapter 26, Armesto brings up the case of the Jews: “They had no national homeland.” Due to this, Jewish people subsequently spread throughout Europe and elsewhere in Asia (with the diaspora originating after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel / Judah), with each population being subjected under different empires (i.e. Holly Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, etc.)

Regarding this case, the Jewish people took the role of passivity as these empires told the narrative of their history; this was further exasperated by the rulers of these empires persecuting the religion of Judaism and encouraging anti-semitism. As a result, some Jews took the option of assimilating in their country of living, often to the expense of converting to another region to avoid conflict.

Others started to look toward what was and still is perceived as a new homeland (the Middle East which led to the establishment of Israel, the subsequent flow of Jews into the country, and cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict). When the latter took place, the role of the Jewish people went from passivity to agency as the goal of nation building took shape, in an effort to continue the narrative of what history they could bring (through the efforts of reestablishing their culture in one nationalistic setting).

Effectively, the Jewish people went through a role-reversal in this scenario. It is unique situations like this that describe how agency and passivity is a complex matter and how one nation’s or ethno-religious group of people’s act of agency may impact another’s own and vice versa. In all, our understanding of the past is affected by how much historical evidence there is from a nation / empire / culture in agency as they have more of a presence and prominence in regards to written resources and artifacts to base our knowledge of the past from.

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