Thursday, December 31, 2015

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson (Book Review #100 of 2015)

A History of the Jews

The only way to get through massive volume like this quickly is to listen to it, which is what I did. You can discount all the negative reviews that say "just read a Bible!" because biblical history is only the first 15% of this book. Most Protestants have never read Maccabees and are generally unaware of the history of Israel between Micah and Matthew, making it hard to understand the contextual backdrop of the Gospels. Johnson comes from the Catholic tradition and almost assumes the reader has already read the Bible including the Apocrypha, so I think he gives the Maccabean and Hasamonean histories short shrift. Judah Maccabee surely is a more important figure even to modern Israel than it would appear in this book. Johnson does not claim to be a scholar but a "man of letters who writes history." I think that's a false cop-out.

The narrative of this book shows how the Jews have survived over the millennia. There is a remarkable ability to rally together around shared identity and the Torah. The Torah (and its formalization during Babylonian exile) gave the Jews a basis for Judaism. "Judaism created the Jews and not the other way around." The Jews gave the world "ethical monotheism," which was embraced and later copied by other religions. The Jews are ultimately survivors, the shared identity that binds them through the ages is the long list of persecutions. From a mixture of fighting for survival to adhering to the spirit of the Torah, the Jews have largely been industrious, increasing world GDP, contributing an untold number of scientists and philosophers, and being both a blessing and a curse to whatever land they inhabit. "The Jews believed they were a people of Providence, so they became a people of Providence."

Being such a wide and broad history (6,000 years or so), there is not much at which this book excels. The exception is the chronicling of the persecution and pogroms of Jews from the Seleucids of 175 the Poles immediately after WWII. The dates, numbers killed, eyewitness accounts, etc. add detail to the theme of the book, that the Jews are ultimately a sojourning people under constant suspicion and threat. The Nazi Holocaust is chronicled well, yet succinct enough that it is not an entire book in its own right. The biggest weakness of the book, I think, may be the lack of emphasis on the diverse religious and political views of Jews throughout history, and especially as they immigrated en masse to Palestine in the 20th century.

I read Ari Shavit's My Promised Land immediately after this, and I think he does a much better job with 20th century history than did Johnson, though they are admittedly 25 years apart. I think Shavit would say Johnson painted the Jewish reoccupation of territory in a too favorable light and without the philosophical introspection that it warranted. Johnson also does not explain the evolving Jewish religious thought toward characters like Abraham and Isaac. I note that absence from what Bruce Feiler included in his book Abraham. There is a lack of explaining any particular rituals, holidays, or beliefs that currently unite the worldwide diaspora of Jews.

Critics have written that Johnson is writing as an outsider bringing his Western Christian and politically conservative lens, but all of us bring our own biases to our work, Johnson admits his own interest in the history up front. Compare this to historical works by Jews and those of other backgrounds to get a more complete picture. Others have pointed out many factual errors, like writing that Jesus was somehow a disciple of Hillel; it is odd that for a Christian Johnson does not stop to ponder the reason given in the Bible for the conversion of so many Jews to Christianity-- the resurrection. If anything, there are places where Johnson stretches to find parallels between Jewish history and that experienced by Christians in Jerusalem in the first century. I'd be curious to read Johnson's history of Christianity, which he completed before this work. I give it four stars out of five. For a detailed summary, read on.

Part 1 The Israelites
Genesis occurred around the time of Hammurabi. There is plenty of evidence, both from the names used in the Genesis narrative to tablets that seem to corroborate events or customs that we see in the Jacob and Esau story, that the events of Genesis took place at the earlier of dates preferred by many scholars today. Abraham would have been familiar with Akkadian law and the various Akkadian/Chaldean myths.

Sarah is the first person in history to be recorded laughing. Those details make the Genesis narrative unique. Women are treated differently and with more respect under the Torah and in Jewish tradition than in surrounding cultures. Combinations of 12 and 6 tribes are also found in other ancient literature. Shechem is mentioned as early as 19th century B.C.

There were large numbers of Israelites in Canaan. Egyptian history records struggles with the people of Shechem. Johnson cites researchers who believe Israelites or at least descendents of Abraham and cousins of those in Egypt controlled the Shechem territory during the time of the Exodus. One evidence is that there is no mention in Joshua of conquering Shechem, as if there was no need to. There are parallels of the Joseph story in Egyptian and other literatures (the Two Brothers tale). Johnson believes the Exodus took place in the 13th century and was completed by 1225 BC.

Johnson notes that even ancient Greek literature praises Moses, crediting him as an architect of culture and writing. Thus, ancient writers were convinced Moses was a real person. The Mosaic law of 1250 was markedly different from other laws of the period, the Torah being a mixture of both "ethical monotheism," scientific, and religious ritual. Life was held as more sacred, there was no capital punishment for property crime and cruelty was limited. Men were held accountable for crimes against others, differing from the Hammurabi code, for example. There are 216 commands and 265 prohibitions in the Torah. The other scientific aspects of Mosaic law are similar to Egyptian laws of the period, but the commands regarding leprosy and circumcision were unique. Mosaic monotheism is "more rational" than the pantheism and pluralism of surrounding communities-- how can nature be both God and subject to nature, as the surrounding Canaanite religions held? Archaeology confirms that the invading Israelites were inferior in technology to the native Canaanites, suggesting the period in Egypt was not a productive one, or their labors served others.

Part 2 Judaism
Another theme of the Old Testament (and the Gospels, goes unmentioned) is that the established government and the order of man is overturned. The younger over the older, the slave over the Pharaoh, the boy over the giant, etc. Johnson gives his opinion from scholars on when the Masoretic text was compiled. The Pentateuch was canonized during the Babylonian exile around 632 BC. Samaritans had a separate Pentateuch that might predate the others and the Jewish diaspora later compiled the Greek Septuagint. Johnson ignores anything relating to what we now call Biblical theology-- Jesus or the Messiah being found throughout the Old Testament. He roughly ignores any of the texts we know from the Gospels that Jews read an interpreted a Messiah from.

In 300 B.C. there were roughly 120,000 people in Jerusalem. There were Greek colonies in Palestine, and different reactions to the growing Greek influence-- Essenes (which fell into many categories), separatists in Qumran, Hellenistic Jews who compromised and adopted the Greek tongue and culture, etc. The diaspora learned Greek while zealots plotted the overthrow of the reigning Seleucids. Johnson writes that Maccabees (never accepted into the Jewish canon) was the "first martyrology." The achievement of independence under the Hashamoneans ironically led to cultural compromise, and after Rome marched into Jerusalem and massacred its inhabitants in 63 BC, Herod was installed and set up a secular state. He executed 46 members of the Sanhedrin, several members of his own family, and generally ruled with great cruelty. Still, he promoted the welfare state and did large acts of charity. Some acts of charity, like rebuilding the Samaritans' temple, was simply a poke in the eye of religious Jews. The Sadducees flourished under Herod's reign; he died 4 BC.

Johnson generally looks at Jewish history in the 1st century AD apart from Christian history. He questions the reliability of Josephus, or at least the various texts we have of his histories. 

Part 3 Messiah

Johnson then returns to Messianic ideas found in Jewish literature. Abraham Feiler quotes scholars claiming that Jews in the time of Jesus, including those in Qumran, looked to Abraham to be the Messiah. Johnson does not mention this, if he is aware of it. He claims Jesus was a "Jewish universalist" member of the Hillel school of thought, as opposed to the Shammai school.  Shammai was of the strict pharasaical letter-of-the-law position whereas Jesus clearly was more about the "spirit of the law." "Jesus invented Christianity and Paul preached it." But Johnson never lays out why any Jews would follow Jesus or be willing to die for the cause. There is no mention of the resurrection and its centrality to Christian beliefs. He cites historical evidence of Nero's hatred for the Jews and points out that the Jewish revolt of 66 AD was also a Jewish civil war. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the break between Jews and Christians was complete.

It was up to rabbis and synagogues thereafter to continue the religious faith. The Mishnah was compiled in those early centuries and the Talmud were compiled in the 4th century AD; the Babylonian Talmud was "more academic." Johnson notes that Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria separated the body and soul, which later made its way into Catholic teaching, but mainstream Judaism did not, rejecting the (false, IMO) dichotomy of secular and sacred. (Hence, the Jews had a better theology of work.) The Pharisees had "rejected salvery because all men were created equal." Philo emphasized community and social justice from the Torah, something that is prevalent in Jewish culture today. The Mishnah put great emphasis on justice, truth, and peace. Later, Maimonedes (died 1204 AD) wrote the first full commentary on the Mishnah, outlining thirteen principles of the Jewish faith particularly in regards to Moses and the Torah:
One important tenet was that the Torah precedes God.
Johnson notes the battles for Jerusalem before forces of Islam conquer it in the 7th century.

Part 3 Cathedocracy
An interesting work I had not heard of was the Itinerary of Benjamin in Constaninople in 1168. (available here: This work chronicled the Jewish condition found along Benjamin's travels, including the various religious and philosophical divisions. There were 40,000 Jews in Baghdad, a community that would last until the 20th century. There were many in Spain, like Maimonides, and many worked in banking or as merchants. In their various persecutions, Jews did well to preserve many scrolls and fragments because it was illegal in Jewish law to destroy objects with the name of God on them. Maimonedes brought "rationality to the Torah," and Johnson considers him part of the Rennaisance. Maimonedes wrote that the best way to spread the good of society was to spread the Torah, because the purpose of the Torah is to fulfill both body and spirit. Maimonedes likewise downplays messianic texts in the Old Testament. While rationality was spreading, so was the Kabbalah, which is "the search for God through irrational means." Johnson cites sources of persecution of Jews in various locales, writing that it was worst in Byzantium during the Crusades.

It was during this period that the "blood libel" was developed and utilized by the Catholic church to justify the persecution of the Jews. Johnson chronicles all of the major pogroms and expellations from the 1100s through the 1400s. Some leaders publicly forgave "Jew slayers." The sow became a symbol in Germany for the Jew. Martin Luther and others held that Jews knew the truth but willfully rejected it, thus intentionally joining with evil. 

Part 4 Ghetto
Begins with a look at life in Italy for Jews circa 1600s. Life in Protestant and Catholic lands was a bit different for Jews. In 1543, Luther released a 65,000 word antisemitic tract calling on people to burn Jewish homes and synagogues and confiscate their property. Calvin was more sympathetic, but Jews were still expelled from Calvinist territories. Johnson is skeptical that the Protestant work ethic fueled European growth, and notes that wherever Jews went their shops and commerce thrived and help boost international GDP. Jews became famous financiers of the Hapsburg's wars. But Johnson chronicles the ongoing torture in Poland and the massive death due to antisemitic ferver that was growing in Europe. (Jeff Goldberg recently published a piece in The Atlantic about the modern persecution Jews are again facing in Western Europe).

In the 1500s, Jews became more superstitious and apocalyptic. There became more emphasis on the Kabbalah, magic, and other twists. Zionism also began to form as an idea along with Messianic outlook. Several false messiahs creating cults arose. Johnson wwrites of the life of Sabbati Zevi, a kabbalist born in Smyrna (Izmir) who claimed to be the messiah. When Sabbatai migrated to Palestine, he converted Nathan of Gaza who furthered his campaign. Jewish rabbis threatened his kingdom in Palestine so he returned to Turkey and eventually converted to Islam before finally being exiled by the Sultan in 1673.

After a mass slaughter of Jews in Germany in 1648, many looked west both to England and New York (1664). Johnson speculates that Jews got their stereotype of being miserly because they were always threatened with confiscation. Therefore they put their wealth into jewels and other objects that were easy to transport. In the New World they became jewelers. Jews were only one percent of the population of 1701 but made up 12% of the trade. By 1752 Jews were known to pioneer economies of scale and being loss leaders, accepting cheaper substitutes to undercut their competitors. Being a worldwide diaspora lended itself to commercial intelligence. (How much of this is Johnson just stereotyping or guessing?)

Johnson pivots to other Jewish intellectuals like the biblical commentator and scientist Ibn Ezra, and the philospher Spinoza who was expelled by the Rabbis. Spinoza wrote that God cannot be as we think he is (because he is infinitely more and we cannot make him man). Johnson explores the rise of Hasidic Judaism and the tzadik. Tzadik/sadik means "righteous" or "faithful" and is used to describe people like Noah. Maimonedes said that "One whose merit surpasses his iniquity is a tzadik."
As I understand it, tzadik emphasizes prayer for an internalized experience of righteousness, and Hasidic Jews are therefore found praying and swaying in order to generate religious fervor.

Moses Mendelssohn penned a first rational defense of Judaism while also translating the Torah to German in the late 1700s. This allowed Jews to argue their religion on rational terms and counter the Reformation claims that they were willfully joined with evil and sparked more interest in their religion. In the US, Jews were thriving under the new US Constitution where they were tolerated and allowed (after some legal restrictions early on) to build synagogues. The French Revolution put an end to Jewish hopes of rationality and tolerance winning the day as persecution broke out again. Johnson chronicles the 1806 attempt with Napolean to have a French-Jewish legal contract. That did not work out so well. Voltaire was antisemitic. When The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russia in the 1900s and became popular, European Jews allegedly had a sense of impending doom. (Johnson returns to the influence of the Elders of Zion. It was required reading in Nazi-governed schools and was admittedly read and believed by several Arab rulers. I see its influence in Turkish media and popular opinion today.)

Part 5 Emancipation
In the 1790s, Isaac D'Israeli published a collection of essays titled The Curiosities of Literature, which saw eleven different editions and was widely read through the early 1800s. It was one of the first mass-produced works by a Jewish author and covered anecdotes on historical characters and various books. D'Israeli was the father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin D'Israeli, evidence that Jews had found an open door in England as well as America. The House of Rothschild's ascension in England in the 18th century is well-documented in other books (see Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money for one).

Jewish scholars elsewhere in Europe had more mixed results. Heine's verse and prose were required reading in German schools, yet hated all the same. Johnson has a particular ire for Heine's cousin Karl Marx. Marx's grandfather was a rabbi and Marx had rabbinical study habits-- studying only in books and not actually living or working in the factories he seemed so concern with. Johnson writes that Marx's theory was just "Jewish superstition," complete with illogical errors and mistakes. Marx's superstitions were antisemitic, and he remained largely ignorant or mistaken about Judaism even though Johnson believes he was clearly influenced by his via his family.

Johnson searches for a rational explanation as to why Jews became part of the political Left if the Socialist Left was antisemitic (as it very much turned out to be in Russia). Johnson surmises that it is because social justice is an important part of the Torah; a Torah containing a commanded jubilee and freeing of slaves brings to mind modern policies of redistribution (plenty of Christian economists will take issue with that comment, I know). Demographics also played a role, Jews living in ghettos and facing pogroms saw a short life expectancy and this influenced their desire to help those less fortunate. (I think Johnson is reaching for Rawlsian justice here...) The anti-communist czars and later Nazis were no friends of the Jews. Socialists and communists promised education, guaranteed income, and elevated status of women, all of which appeal to ideas in the Torah.

In the 1800s there were several writers looking at the history of the Jews in an effort to make them more appealing to the Gentiles, but angering the Jewish rabbis in doing so. Jews even adopted certain practices of Protestant Christian churches in Germany, like the singing and preaching styles. Christians might have also adopted some of the Jewish styles of preaching and handling Scripture. However, the struggle for Jewish civil rights led to more rational appeals and secularization which was important in the later zionist movement. The Maskils were Jews who sought to re-educate the populace, and they preferred Hebrew to the Yiddish language spoken by 11 million people by 1930.

Johnson notes that "mountain Jews" in the Caucasus trace their migration to 597 BC. In 1820 there were 4,000 Jews in the US and only seven states gave them legal status for acts such as voting. By 1860 there were 150,000. By 1920 there were over one million in New York alone. There were plenty of Jews in czarist Russia but they were registered, excluded from civil service, and faced persecution. In 1871 the first major pogrom in Russia occurred in Odessa and spread from there.

Mary Ann Evans, who used the penname George Eliot to publish several successful novels (like Silas Marner), published a work titled Daniel Deronda in 1876, in which the title character abandons his British life after discovering his Jewish identity. Johnson credits this novel with the widespread popularization of zionism. As pseudo-scientific anti-semitism rose in France and Germany, Jews began to abandon the hope of civil rights in Europe and began to look to zionism. Even a German Kaiser supported mass exodus to Palestine. Between 1870 and 1900 there were several attempts to start Jewish settlements in Palestine. Theodor Herzl was a Hungarian Jew who was influential. At one point Herzl championed a proposal to make British East Africa as a haven for Jews. (Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia has a good look at characters involved in zionism in the early 20th century, along with the opening chapters of Ari Shavit's My Promised Land.) While we may consider zionism to be of religious nature today, the first decades of zionism was largely secular; many of the first zionists were atheists. Rabbis were opposed to secular zionism. Johnson notes other famous Jewish intellectuals of the early 20th century, among them were Freud and Einstein.

Part 6 Holocaust
WWI saw the breakup of the Ottoman Empire as well as Sykes-Picot and official rights of Jews to settle in Palestine under the British Mandate. There were by now colonies of Jews funded by the Rothschilds and others while receiving increasing help from new migrants with skills obtained abroad. The Balfour Declaration was problematic to Palestinian Arabs, in part because it left governance open to whoever had the majority. Arab pogroms and attacks on Jewish settlements led the British to simply restrict migration into Palestine. When the British increased the quota in 1934, the Arabs revolted. Eventually there was a 1937 pan-Arab agreement to prevent a Jewish state. Concerned Western Jews like Einstein criticized the zionist movement and feared the consequences of a Jewish state. Even British philosopher and humorist G.K. Chesterton was highly critical of the Jews.

Some secular Jews in Eastern Europe denied their Jewish identity. Many fought in the Soviet revolutions (Trotsky was a Jew). But this was forgotten as the Russian civil war took on an antisemitic bent and the Bolsheviks shut down Zionist movements and clamped down on migration. Bolsheviks popularized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Meanwhile, America was a bit more tolerant. Hollywood studios were owned by Jews (lending credence to the Protocol of the Elders?). All was not dandy, Henry Ford received a nod from Hitler in Mein Kampf for being antisemitic, and antisemitism rose during the Depression.

Johnson examines the peculiarities of Hitler's thinking. He thoroughly examines the Nazi position and proves that extermination of Jews was always one of the central tenets of Nazi thinking. Johnson chronicles the deportations, the disbelief in the West, and more. It is difficult to relive these years. The mass extermination campaign was halted in 1941 due to protest by German churches but begun again after the invasion of Russia. The worst the war went, the worse life became. Austrians were apparently more passionately antisemitic than Germans. Belgium and Holland offered resistance to the killing machine but tens of thousands were killed anyway. France had anti-semitic parties even before the war, some funded by the Nazis, claiming a conspiracy between England and the Jews to destroy France. (Sounds similar to some of their right-wing parties today.) Sadly, between 1942 and 1944 every Jewish synagogue in New York was desecrated and a survey found that Jews were seen as the biggest threat to America after the Germans in Japanese. Roosevelt did nothing, opting not to bomb Auschwitz when it was suggested, and not doing much before the war to grant more visas to Jews trying to flee. (As chronicled in Freedom from Fear, Hitler publicly stated he would give America as many Jews as they would, in his mind, foolishly take, seeing it as a way to undermine America.) By the end of the war there were six million dead; 250,000 still in camps. In 1945 there were continued antisemitic riots in Poland. There were few reparations ever made, most notably not by companies who profited off of Jewish slave labor. There were few apologies from churches, either in the West who did not demand greater action from Roosevelt or Congress, or from Germany where churches looked the other way even while smelling Jews burning in nearby death camps.

Part 7 Zion
"WWI made the Jewish state possible; WWII made it absolutely necessary." In 1947, the UN offered a proposal to divide Palestine between Arabs and Jews with separate states. The Arabs rejected this, and were left with the worse position of a UN mandated Israel in 1948. There were terror attacks on British bases in Palestine over support for Israel as well as anti-Jewish riots in England. The British government preferred to withdraw and let both sides fight it out. Truman, however, was more sympathetic to the Zionist position and the US was the first nation to recognize Israel. The Egyptians began bombing the night of the UN mandate. After heavy fighting and a brief truce, the Israelis got equipment and money and pushed back until a second truce was sign and an armistice in 1949.

Religious objections to a Jewish state included the belief that a messianic regathering to Palestine, rather than a secular one, was necessary first. There were further battles, more immigrants, the adoption of Hebrew in the army which furthered Hebrew as the official language, more immigrants, and the establishment of a secular democratic government dominated by the Labor Party whose founders had been among the first Jewish settlers under the British mandate. The seculars rejected the Torah as a basis for law, if otherwise they would not have secured the UN mandate.

Johnson writes that to Jews, the "raison d'ĂȘtre of the world is Israel." As the nation grew and more ancient land reconquered, the zionist project took an increasingly religious tone as eventually religious parties began to gain power (this is published in the late 1980s before that became an even larger problem). Maimonedes said that even though the Temple site was destroyed, God's shakayna glory was still there, so it was still appropriate to pray there. Hence, the retaking of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War was considered a key accomplishment. The "Wailing Wall" is the site closest to the Holy of Holies, so that is why Jews pilgrimage to pray there. (I personally found it awkward to pray there as a non-Jew when I visited.) Some rabbis argued it was best to begin rebuilding the temple in order to create religious ferver and repentance among the Jews which would then increase the odds of a prophet (messiah?) to rise up and consecrate it. (Johnson glosses over much of the brutality in the re-occupation of Palestine, the plight of the occupied territories, and modern Jewish guilt as chronicled in My Promised Land.)

Johnson classifies Israel itself as a "temple rebuilding project." Israel itself is a temple rebuilding project. "Anti-semitism always corrupts the society in which anti-semitism exists." The Marxist story of capitalist imperialism has its roots in the Marxist belief of antisemitism. To the Soviets, the Jewish state was just an outgrowth of "Jewish capitalism."
The USSR was ally to the Arab states at war with Israel, and many of the anti-semitic theories that exist today are a result of the Soviet propaganda machine after 1967, including a re-propogation of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion. Johnson talks often of Jewish contributions to society but neglects the vast number of Nobel Prize winners who were Jews. The West owes the Jews for their Torah and its emphasis on the sanctity of life and abstract ideas such as property rights. "The Jews believed they were a people of Providence, so they became a people of Providence."

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