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October 8, 2009

Reflections on the Jews and Jewry

visiting the Jewish ghettos of Rome and Venice

The only people who have ever claimed to understand the full complexities of the Jewish phenomenon are anti-Semites. For the rest of us, Jews and gentiles alike, religious, or unbelieving, there will always be a certain mystery. The first difficulty is that of definition which causes uncertainty in Israel and even more in the diaspora; does one include only those who follow the prescriptions of the Jewish faith, those who in some way identify themselves with the Jews past and present, for whom Jewish history is their own history, or does one accept as Jews anyone who can plausibly (or even implausibly, as in Peyrefitte's opening paragraph of Les Juifs) be credited with a Jewish or part-Jewish ancestry?

If we confine ourselves to persons identifiable as Jews without much controversy from the time of the dispersion to the re-gathering in Israel, we can make two assertions: first, that the contribution of Jews to the general cultural inheritance of the Christian and Muslim worlds is disproportionately high in respect of their probable numbers, and second, that this contribution has generally been the result of interaction with the environment.

These facts would serve to dispel the view that Jewish achievements are a function of social persecution and would necessarily disappear if total toleration and nondiscrimination were to prevail, or if in Israel a wholly Jewish and therefore favorable atmosphere could be created and maintained. It is obvious, for instance, that little that was important came from the Jewish communities of the Muslim world for many centuries after their first flowering, and that the Spanish Jews and Marranos who found refuge there after the expulsion showed only in limited spheres the same creative capacity that they had done in Spain.

But to say that therefore these Jews, the Sephardim, are naturally inferior to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazim, is to overlook the fact that the notable cultural contributions of Ashkenazi Jews only appeared when the European enlightenment and then the French Revolution produced a sufficient degree of emancipation and of acceptance by the host society to make such contributions possible. It could, on the other hand, be argued that the result of total emancipation in predominantly secularist societies is to permit a high level of intermarriage and that this will lead to the eventual disappearance of the Jews as a distinct biological group. Somewhere between the extremes of total acceptance and total rejection lies the point at which the maximum degree of creativity is called forth.

Since we know that, at various periods both before and after the dispersion at the hands of the Romans, Jews have intermingled with surrounding peoples despite all the religious difficulties in the way, it is also difficult to accept a biological  explanation of Jewish achievements such as has occasionally been put forward. It is no easier to prove the racial superiority of Jews than their racial inferiority. The problem is a social-cultural one. Nor certainly is there any particular evidence for saying that Jews are by nature good at some things and less good at others. The reasons for specialization seem to be social or religious rather than natural or innate.

The obvious example is the fact that the Jews in Israel have proved better at soldiering, from which they had been largely excluded for centuries, than at many of the economic activities with which they had been particularly associated in the diaspora. Or, if Jews are thought to be more important for their contribution to music than to the visual arts, something must surely be attributed to the religious prohibition of image-making. If one thinks of the role of the visual arts in Christian places of worship and the impact which these must have had upon impressionable individuals from their earliest years, it is not surprising that the Jewish contributions to painting and sculpture were unimportant until the present century. With the divorce of Western graphic art from the Church, and with the decline in the Jewish consciousness of the full weight of the religious tradition, the significant role of Jewish artists both in Israel and in the diaspora today is not dif-ficult to understand.

But when all this has been said, one is still left with the question as to whether there is in the Jewish contribution to general culture a specifically Jewish residue or would Marx and Freud, Mendelssohn and Epstein, Einstein and Ehrlich have done work of the same kind if their ancestry had been impeccably Aryan? We must of course exclude, in dealing with literature and the fine arts, the use of material which is specifically Jewish; obviously it does not make sense to imagine a non-Jewish Chagall or Ernst Bloch or Bialik. Or again, Jewish or even part-Jewish ancestry may create particular sensitivity to certain aspects of social life -would a wholly Aryan Proust have been the same writer?

But all the natural sciences, much philosophy, most painting and sculpture is or has become international or at any rate Western in content and style, and to distinguish elements that are specifically Jewish except in order to brand them as "decadent" in the Nazi fashion is probably otiose. In any event it would be very difficult to do. No doubt many Jews derive some kind of pride or satisfaction from the achievements of more eminent Jews or more gifted ones-but one might think that this is again a reaction to centuries of humiliation. Often indeed such pride leads to the mistaken belief that once equality of opportunity is achieved, Jews are bound to show an innate superiority. Jewish parents in Western countries are particularly prone to such fond illusions about their children; yet whereas in England there is full equality of access to higher educational opportunities, observation would seem to suggest that although Jewish children mature rather earlier their ultimate performance is no different from that of others of their own social class.

In the same way the undoubted concentration of Jews in certain occupations or professions-and it might be higher still in medicine but for overt or concealed discrimination in many otherwise liberal societies -has historical and sociological reasons and is not attributable to any particular aptitudes or their absence. Nor is it possible to give easy assent to the familiar argument that Jews in the diaspora, because there is some kind of artificiality in their position, an absence of organic ties with the particular country, are inhibited in their contributions to cultural life and obliged to take on interpretative or critical rather than creative roles. It is true that a high proportion of great performers on the vio¬lin or piano are Jews and that they are relatively more significant than Jewish composers. On the other hand, Jewish dramatists are more significant than Jewish actors. Nor does the role of Jews in such occupations as journalism in different countries at different times seem something on which any great general theory can be built.

But this kind of discussion does point to one thing that is essential for any serious consideration of the subject, and that is the relationship between the role of Jews as individuals and the role of Jews as members of some kind of Jewish community. For many centuries in different parts of the world, and among both Ashkenazis and Sephardis, the latter was all important. The contacts between Jews and their neighbors were almost exclusively economic and Jewish contributions to culture were made within the framework of their own religious and philosophical tradition.

I t is a moot point whether the considerable difficulties of this kind of existence resulted in some kind of survival of the fittest so that when the ghetto walls were broken down, there was an enormous mass of human potential ready for release. It was in particular to the oppressed Jewish communities of the Russian pale of settlement that the great majority of those Jews who have made their mark in the world in the last 150 years trace their ancestry. That human reservoir was perhaps far from exhausted when the Nazi holocaust obliterated it for ever. But it was already the source of most of American and British Jewry and of a high proportion of the Jewish population in Israel.

An argument could be made for the view that it was not only the vitality of this branch of the human race but also the shock of confrontation with more advanced societies that stimulated achievement. One's impression is that it is the grand-children of the ghetto, not the great-grandchildren, whose performance has been the most remarkable. By the time opportunity can be taken for granted the pressure to achieve becomes diluted. It is diffilult to see in contemporary American Jewry the equivalents of a Brandeis, or a Frankfurter. One test may be whether the same proves true of the Jews now being allowed to emigrate from Russia. It is true that the Jews of Russia, the last great Jewish reservoir, do not live in ghettos today; but the degree of discrimination against them is probably sufficient for them to feel to some extent walled off psychologically from their non-Jewish fellow citizens. In Israel this feeling will give way to one of opportunity; some people think the Jews of the emigration may prove formidable competitors for leadership in every field.

In the end, Israel is the testing-ground for all theories about the Jews. The Zionists expected that the return would bring about a normalization of the Jewish situation, in that the Jews in Israel would be free of all the pressures that arose from their anomalous position in the diaspora; Jews would have to fill all the economic and social roles in a complete society. What they could not know was whether this would have the effect of obliterating the specifically Jewish aspects of cultural and social consciousness. Should Israel continue to produce an exceptionally high proportion of distinguished men, or should its quota be expected to be no higher than, say, that of Wales or Norway? It is much too soon to be able to answer this kind of question. One has to allow for the probable growth of secularization to see what elements in Jewish culture wane when the forms of worship and their associated studies are no longer   present in the experience of the majority. One has to see what will be the impact of having major Western languages as only the second language of a people whose original thought processes will be conditioned by Hebrew being their natural speech. When we talk of Marx and Freud and Disraeli and Leon Blum, we are talking of men who, whatever their biological affiliation, were men who talked and thought in German, English or French. Above all, we do not know what will be the effect of the juxtaposition and presumably eventual merger of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi streams in the population.

And we know even less what the impact of all these developments will be upon the rest of Jewry. Will secularization take its toll and lead to the total assimilation of Jews wherever persecution does not prevent it? Or will the identification that nearly all Jews today still feel to some extent with the fate and fortunes of Israel preserve a separate degree of sensibility among the Jews of the United States, Britain, France and so forth? Jews are traditionally united in joy at the feast of the Passover by the assertion that they are the descendants of those whom Moses led forth from bondage in Egypt. Today they are still united in sorrow in the knowledge that they are the survivors or the children of the survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Recent history is not the same for them as for others; and one must imagine that their sensibility is colored by this fact. Against it must be set pride in and hope for Israel which at moments of crisis can evoke echoes even among those apparently most fully assimilated. Raymond Aron's little book, De Gaulle, Israel et les Juifs is the most eloquent exposition of this feeling. The interplay between the Jews and Jewry is not yet fully worked out; history has not come to an end.  

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October 2, 2009