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’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in