Letting them live

Alan Ryan

  • A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 643 pp, £8.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 297 79366 7
  • The Burning Bush: Anti-Semitism and World History by Barnet Litvinoff
    Collins, 493 pp, £17.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 00 217433 2
  • Living with Anti-Semitism: Modern Jewish Responses edited by Jehuda Reinharz
    Brandeis/University Press of New England, 498 pp, £32.75, August 1987, ISBN 0 87451 388 X

Not the least of the intellectual legacies of Judaism is the tenacity of the conviction that history must have a meaning. Even the most secular among us wince when Shakespeare tells us the Gods just use us for their sport; even the most imaginative wonder quite how the Greeks coped with the conviction that the Gods intervened in human history to prove a domestic point or fend off boredom. The thought that history needed a plot, that it had purpose, an author and a destination, seems to have been a leap of the Jewish imagination which took the Jews into realms where no other people in classical antiquity had been. Other peoples had founding myths; innumerable petty kings claimed to govern with the assistance of one or a dozen local deities. Somehow, the Jews uniquely seem to have hit on the thought that there was one history, guided by one deity, starring one central collective actor – the Jewish people.

Whether or not this picture of the Jewish origins of a taste for eschatological history is exactly right, it is certainly the picture that dominates most attempts to write a general history of the Jews. Paul Johnson, already the author of a History of Christianity and a History of the English People, starts his third excursus into universal history with some self-interrogation. ‘Why have I written a history of the Jews?’ he asks, and offers four reasons. Three are variations on the theme of simple curiosity: nobody who had written a history of Christianity could help being curious about its progenitor, nobody who had written a history of the English people could help being curious about a people with a vastly longer continuous and self-conscious history, and nobody with Paul Johnson’s taste for the grand geographical sweep could help being curious about a people who sustained their identity across such vast tracts of Europe, Asia and ultimately America. The fourth reason is decisive: writing the book gave him the chance to think about ‘the most intractable of all human questions: what are we on earth for? Is history merely a series of events whose sum is meaningless? Is there no fundamental moral difference between the history of the human race and the history, say, of ants?’

There is, to be sure, a chicken-and-egg quality to the search for a meaning in history: as Barnet Litvinoff says, ‘why the Jews?’ is the question that haunts us, but it arises for the historian and the Gentile spectator because it has for the two thousand years of their exile haunted the Jews themselves. Jewishness, as a subjective state of mind, is largely built around this sense of playing a part in a historical drama, and it plays a large role in making it more intelligible that a people dispersed across three continents, without any base in geography or political organisation, should have held together on the basis of their attachment to a book. Even then, the process seems quite as astonishing as Paul Johnson finds it. Christianity and Islam have been the creeds of conquerors, carried into new regions by the sword and turned back by the sword as well. Judaism has been the religion of the underdog, and the history of the Jews for two thousand years has been history seen from the bottom. No explanation of Judaism’s survival wholly removes one’s surprise.

Just what weight ought to be given to the two factors of Jewish self-exclusion and their host societies’ exclusion of Jews from their national life as explanations of this survival is a familiar mystery. The Burning Bush purports to be a history of anti-semitism, but actually isn’t – not in any straightforward fashion, at any rate. It is certainly a history of isolation, exclusion and oppression. It is certainly a history of the Jews of the Diaspora. Its starting-point is not ancient Israel, but the ‘great catastrophe of AD 66-73, that desperate struggle against Roman rule which lost the Jews their Temple, their Holy City and their nationhood’: none the less, a good deal of it is a history of Jewish self-isolation, self-exclusion for the sake of preserving an identity and a destiny. Litvinoff and Johnson both point out how remarkable it was that the effect of the destruction of Judaea was not their blending into the Middle Eastern mosaic of subjugated tribes, but a turning inward to their scriptural resources, to what Johnson calls ‘cathedocracy’.

Their scriptural identity played an important role in the survival of the Jews as a people: but being a people of the book – or a people of both the book and the commentary, the Torah and the Talmud – preserved the Jews only among other peoples of the book, among Christians and Moslems. Jewish unwillingness to accept Jesus or Muhammad at their own estimation made the Jews unpopular, but the fact that they shared the same Holy Book brought them under one monotheistic umbrella. As Bernard Lewis’s wonderful little book on The Jews of Islam points out, Jewish communities beyond the joint range of Christianity and Islam did just die out; conversely, at the point where Islam swept through North Africa and the Middle East, Jews (and Christians) fared better than anyone else. For pagans, the choice was conversion or death, with a chance that death might be commuted to slavery; for Jews, submission and the acceptance of permanent social inferiority was also an option. Had Muhammad carried his wrath against the Jews of Medina to the lengths of a generalised anti-Judaism, massacre and conversion would have been the order of the day.

What makes The Burning Bush both a history of the Jews in exile and a history of anti-semitism is that Jewish history after AD 73 is substantially the history of anti-semitism: wherever the Jews lived, they existed on sufferance. They might run no great risk of violence or expulsion for considerable periods: none the less, under Islam as much as under Christian rule, they were required to endure continuous humiliation as the price of being permitted to exist at all. Jews might not carry arms, even though they were more likely than anyone to be the victims of assault and robbery; they were forbidden to wear costume appropriate only to free men; sometimes they were forced to wear special hats, coloured patches on their clothes; always, they had to pay additional taxes in return for the dubious protection of their secular rulers. Paradoxically enough, the way the Jews’ conception of their historical fate slotted into their oppressors’ very different but very closely related conception of that fate perhaps allowed them to shrug off these humiliations.

As Ben Halpern’s essay in Living with Anti-Semitism suggests, pre-Enlightenment Jewishness was defined in sacral rather than secular terms. Religion rather than race was the crux. Given that, the Jews and their oppressors could agree on the social implications of world views which neatly mirrored one another. Jews and Christians agreed that the Jews had rightly been expelled from their homeland and were now a people doing penance in exile: ‘as God’s Chosen People, for their own and the world’s Redemption, Jews said; in sign of their rejection by God, and as witness to the Revelation of the Gospel, Christians held.’ By the same token, segregation was right and proper: on the Jewish view, to preserve Jews in the faith of their fathers; on the Christian view, to prevent them from infecting Christians with heresy. Most Christian communities forbade Jews from trying to make converts; it was a crime meriting death, according to Koranic law. Few Jews were interested in making converts anyway, and the incentives to convert were few enough in all conscience. But campaigns for forcible conversion in the other direction were rare, and localised for the first thousand years of the Diaspora. Segregation, a powerful faith, a compelling historical story, and whatever equilibrium their oppressors struck between their anti-semitic convictions and their laziness, greed or tolerance, allowed Jewish communities to survive with their self-respect intact. The 18th-century Enlightenment and its attendant secularisation therefore posed as big a threat as it did an opportunity, since it removed most of these defences without reducing the crude anti-semitism of the greater part of Europe.

There are many large questions which dominate any thinking about these subjects. The question of what it must be like to live under the constant insecurity which anti-semitism made the perennial lot of Jewish communities is one of them. Another is the inescapable question of the Holocaust – though less in the form of ‘why the Jews?’ as ‘why us?’ How did rational, civilised, 20th-century Germans (and others) behave with the savagery of a Rhineland mob of the 12th century but on a scale only possible in the 20th? Another is an ill-formed but increasingly urgent question: how much of an answer to anti-semitism is Zionism? Has the creation of the state of Israel exacerbated anti-semitism, diverted it or reduced it?

To none of these questions is there any wholly satisfying answer, though Paul Johnson is as enjoyably opinionated as ever and Barnet Litvinoff is a careful, sensitive and balanced chronicler of whatever he touches; Living with Anti-Semitism is a useful collection of essays on disparate aspects of organised Jewish reactions to modern anti-semitism, as well as on individuals such as the novelist Michel Bursztyn and on the underground press of the Warsaw Ghetto under Nazi occupation. The question ‘why us?’ is raised and answered indirectly by both Litvinoff and Johnson. Litvinoff makes it seem less astonishing that the 20th century should have behaved so atrociously because he stresses the very limited success of 19th-century emancipation. The French Revolution found itself committed to extending civil rights to Jews only because there was nothing in the doctrine of the rights of man which ruled out the Jews: but it was a half-hearted business always vulnerable to popular anti-semitism. England is uninteresting just because prejudice did slowly diminish there; Eastern Europe was pretty well immune to the emancipatory pressures of the Enlightenment and the Jews were the victims of vulgar anti-semitism and political calculation in equal measure. Paul Johnson makes great play with the anti-semitism of Tsarist Russia, which was of a degree of nastiness unknown elsewhere. He quotes a chilling little conversation between the Tsarist Minister, Count Witte – by Russian standards a liberal and a moderniser – and Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, in the course of which Witte remarked: ‘I used to say to the late Tsar, Alexander III, “Majesty, if it were possible to drown the six or seven million Jews in the Black Sea, I would be absolutely in favour of that. But if it is not possible, one must let them live.’” Witte’s reasoning was that the Jews were poor, therefore filthy, therefore rightly loathed by the Russians, who had better allow the Jews to prosper a little so that they might clean themselves up. That was the view of a man who described himself as a friend of the Jews. It takes little imagination to see how easy it was to incite their enemies to violence against them. But Johnson goes to some lengths to contrast all this with Germany, where Jews played an increasingly energetic and prominent part in every walk of life.

The conjunction of forces which led in the end to the Holocaust is well brought out by Johnson and by several contributors to Living with Anti-Semitism. On the one hand, secularisation meant that Jews were now not merely fellow nationals practising a different religion but unreliable semi-strangers in whatever nation they happened to inhabit. Once nationality became the vital social cement, the Jewish position was more rather than less awkward. The difficulty in Germany was that assimilation worked too well: once Jews were allowed to take part in normal economic activity, they proved altogether too successful in the competition for middle-class and lower-middle-class occupations. Ancient superstitions survived all over Europe, too, so that it was not until the abolition of the Papal States after the reunification of Italy that Italian Jews were free from the risk of having their children kidnapped and forcibly converted to Catholicism, and it was in the most solidly Catholic areas of Germany and Austria that anti-semitism was most rife.

That leaves untouched one horror of the Holocaust itself, which is the way in which the extermination of a whole people became an object of government policy, carried out with the co-operation of innumerable ordinary people – clerks, train-drivers and book-keepers, as well as prison guards and SS forces. That Hitler was more or less mad is hardly in dispute; Johnson upends A.J.P. Taylor’s view that Hitler was pursuing the orthodox aim of German expansion and happened to kill millions of Jews while doing so, insisting instead that Hitler fought the war to kill all the Jews he could lay hands on. Murdering the Jews obstructed the military conduct of the war, quite aside from the fact that Hitler had made his enemies a gift of the best brains in Europe before the war began. The work of the non-mad ordinary German in all this unnerves most people because they rightly fear that they might have done exactly what all those co-operative and dutiful civil servants did; even the morally self-confident may be unnerved by the fear that routinised large-scale murder is not very different from much else that goes on in total war. The bombing of Dresden, Hamburg, Nagasaki and Hiroshima does nothing to palliate the horrors of the camps, but it may make them more intelligible.

One valuable task which two of the essays in Living with Anti-Semitism perform is that of taking the heat out of the argument about Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. Otto Dov Kulka’s ‘German Jewry and the National Socialist Regime’ treats the leadership of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland as serious, brave and honourable people who were no more able to foresee the Final Solution than anyone else, and who did their best to save whoever and whatever they could until they themselves were swept away. They may have been deceived, but they were neither over-concerned with their own positions – or lives – nor unconcerned for the fate of those they led. Michael Maurrus’s account of the Union Générale des Israélites Français in France is harder on the bureaucratic obtuseness that led the UGIF to provide the Gestapo with the names and addresses of Jewish children placed in homes and orphanages; he also points out that the UGIF provided a basis for Jewish work in the Resistance – and that, in the face of overwhelming disaster, the rescue of a few families here and there would have bulked larger in 1942 than it does with hindsight.

The role of Zionism in combating 20th-century anti-semitism is a much explored subject. This is partly because Theodore Herzl was an obsessive collector of every scrap of writing connected with himself and the movement he founded, and therefore left some wonderful source material. The son of a bankrupt Budapest banker, married to a millionaire, he ought by rights to have been an ardent Viennese assimilationist. So he was, to begin with. He had schemes for the re-education of the Jews, to teach them Christian standards of delicacy and honour; he proposed a deal whereby the Pope would lead a campaign against anti-semitism and the Jews would convert to Christianity. Russian pogroms, Viennese anti-semitism, and the Dreyfus trial taught him better.

Johnson says that Herzl exaggerated the destructive power of late 19th-century anti-semitism; Anita Shapera, more persuasively, credits Herzl with the first understanding of the dynamics of modern anti-semitism. It was ‘the result of neither church incitement nor Jewish strangeness and isolation but rather emanated from the modern process of emancipation and assimilation’. It was a democratic phenomenon, and would therefore increase in virulence as democracy spread, to end in some culminating disaster. Only by accepting the logic of nationhood could the Jews escape. Herzl saw that in an age of nationalism, the Jews had to form a nation. To form a nation, they had to have a homeland. With the publication of Der Judenstaat in Vienna in 1896, the modern Zionist movement was born. Herzl did not much care where the homeland was established: Argentina would do, so would Uganda. Religious Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe insisted on Palestine, and Herzl acquiesced.

Whether one or other of the innumerable abortive schemes for settlement on terms other than the creation of the Jewish state of Israel might have worked is unknowable. Whether the British could have done a very much better job between the wars is equally unknowable. It is hard to see how anything other than a Jewish state could have offered the Jews who wished to settle in Palestine the security they needed, and hard to see how it could have been created without arousing violent opposition. More interesting is the question of what happened after 1948 and the creation of Israel. Litvinoff observes glumly that the Holocaust and the creation of Israel between them have solved the problem of anti-semitism in Europe – more or less – only to bring it to life in the Middle East where it had not previously existed.

Equally, Israel’s dependence on the United States has done nothing for Israel’s politics or those of the United States. Paul Johnson’s hostility to all things Soviet blinds him to most of the ambiguities here: he sees the plight of Soviet Jews as one more instalment of Tsarist anti-semitism, and has none of the anxieties many Israelis feel. So he is unperturbed by the fact that a high proportion of emigrating Soviet Jews have changed their Israeli visas into American ones, giving some justification to the Soviet view that the emigrants are anti-Soviet rather than loyal Zionists. Barnet Litvinoff sees much more clearly that Israel’s status as a refuge for persecuted Jews has been muddled with its status as a base for the promotion of American interests in the Middle East. The muddle has innumerable alarming effects. It makes American politicians less than deft at distinguishing the American national interest from that of the state of Israel, and encourages American Jews to complain of anti-semitism as soon as US policy is anything less than wholly subservient to Israeli policy. The American Right, never before renowned for its philo-semitism, has lately discovered how to jump on the same bandwagon to attack American liberals who flinch at recent Israeli actions in the occupied territories. One further effect is that at a time when Israel needs more immigrants from the West, what she gets from America is Rabbi Kahane and his disciples, who add an All-American taste for brute force to racism and bigotry.

It is none the less a real achievement, though a small one, to have turned the peculiarly vile phenomenon of anti-semitism into something a bit nearer ordinary political strife. In casual conversation and in political debate, the Arab-Israeli conflict is tossed into a general account of those ills of the world before which we are asked to give up in despair – Sikhs in the Punjab, Tamil Tigers in Ceylon, civil war in the Sudan, and so endlessly on. Turned about, it is less of a litany of despair: these national and ethnic conflicts are characteristic – and ghastly – products of the 20th century, but they are politically soluble by a combination of geographical separation and economic growth. In that sense, though only in that very limited sense, Zionism has reduced the ugliness of anti-semitism to something marginally more manageable. If that sounds like gratitude for small mercies, so be it. Jewish history is not so full of large mercies that we can afford to sneer at small ones.