Hope delivered by fear of a curse

A People Apart
March 3, 2000

With the words "This is a political history" opening his monumental history of the Jews in Europe from 1789 to 1939, David Vital describes his undertaking and signals his orientation. His book is a starkly Zionist diagnosis of the modern Jewish predicament, haunted by ghosts of the Holocaust. These include the historian Shimon Dubnow, murdered by the Nazis in 1941, who like Vital located politics at the heart of the modern Jewish experience and, like him, dated its inception from 1789. Vital shares with his father, Meir Grossman, the belief that Jewish political awareness depended upon a recovery of honour: the refusal to accept degradation, manipulation and persecution. By implication this coming to consciousness leaves one realistic political option: rejection of the diaspora.

Vital sees little difference between the structural situation of the Jews in the Middle Ages and the modern era. During the Enlightenment, rulers were driven by the force of abstract arguments to end the medieval regimen of discrimination and exclusion. The Jews were offered the chance to integrate into society on condition that they conformed.

Despite the massive ideological shifts in European society, Jews remained a disliked, mistrusted minority dependent on the state for their rights. But whereas in the Middle Ages they were left to govern themselves and cultivate their traditions, now they were under constant scrutiny. Inadvertently, the new dispensation spawned the Jewish plutocrats who became the effective leaders of their communities, the gvirim , but these men were as worried about their personal status as that of their people. Their authority rested fragilely on their wealth and access to the upper reaches of gentile society.

Emancipation - the grant of citizenship to the Jews throughout Europe (except the tsarist empire) from 1791 to 1870 - complicated their political situation. Jews were given rights as individuals, yet society still tended to group them. Perversely, when Jews formed new associations to assist co-religionists, at home or abroad, they were accused of clannishness. In a bewilderingly short time the myth of a powerful, international Jewry grew to explain transnational displays of Jewish mutual assistance.

In a series of case studies Vital shows brilliantly how Jewish leaders in every state were consequently hamstrung by the need to contain these claims and to act demonstratively in accord with the national interest. In addition to the indigenous lines of cleavage, divisive external ideologies, such as socialism, were imported into communal life. Except on rare occasions, Jews could not formulate a coherent response to any national or international crisis.

Vital passes harsh judgement on the quiescent Orthodox Jews, the self-interested gvirim , the ambivalent Jews who owed their status to political success in the gentile world, or the new communal professionals. His heroes are typically both secularised and loyal to the Jewish interest, men such as Adolphe Cremieux, Leo Pinsker, who invented modern Zionism, the Dreyfusard Bernard Lazare, and the Bund - the Jewish workers' party that heroically and competently represented Jewish interests in Russia and Poland.

The Soviet Union offered the promise of security, but only on condition that Jews liquidated their cultural heritage. Many Jewish leftists embraced this offer, continuing the Kulturkampf that had long riven Jewish society. Bundists mostly rejected it. Yet where else could they turn? Given the inescapable asymmetry of power that bedevilled the Jewish minority, electoral politics offered no salvation and armed physical resistance was futile. Ultimately, they could only follow the medieval prescription: celebrate Jewish culture, keep their heads down, and hope.

Vital concludes that the three main trends in European politics after 1918 placed Jews in a trap. Nationalism accentuated the pressure to assimilate to the point of self-dissolution. Popular sovereignty increased the proclivity of governments to exploit anti-Jewish feeling for votes. Class ideology, while supposedly free of prejudice, was just as threatening to Jewish interests. Yet, as he concedes, his pessimistic analysis does rest on hindsight. It was not predetermined to end tragically; above all, the rise of Hitler was never a foregone conclusion. It is hard to fault Vital's analysis of anti-Semitism. From the Enlightenment onwards, gentile policy towards the Jews was based more on mythic constructions of the "Jew" than on any facts. Paradoxically, the legends of Jewish power delivered the Jews their one boon: Palestine. With evident relish, Vital, pre-eminently a historian of Zionism, explains that the British assigned Palestine to the Jews in 1917 not as a result of persuasive Zionist arguments, but as a fig leaf for their imperial interests and as propaganda among the supposedly powerful Jews in America and Russia. The saving grace of modern Jewish history was an outcome of its greatest curse.

Unfortunately, Vital allows numerous digressions on Palestine to disrupt his narrative of events in Europe after 1918. A lack of editorial control is also evident in his prose, which often becomes long-winded. The book could have been trimmed, and it is its bulk (though not its competitive price) that may deter students and general readers. Even those who pick it up may be defeated by the excessively abstract style. This is regrettable since Vital can write incisively and, with all its contentious points and occasional pomposity, A People Apart is a tour de force. Here, at last, is a one-volume history of the Jews in modern Europe that is up to date, comprehensive and challenging.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history, University of Southampton.

A People Apart: he Jews of Europe 1789-1939

Author - David Vital
ISBN - 0 19 821980 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 944

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