Modern Jewish history is taught increasingly widely in Britain, but there has never been a good, up-to-date, single-volume textbook. Thanks to Lloyd Gartner that gap has been filled. Gartner's lucid survey of the Jewish world from 1650 to 1980 carefully situates Jewish history and culture in the wider social, economic and political context. His country-by-country analysis blends sound new scholarship with the best of the old. While he dissects the evolution of Judaism with profound understanding, he also incorporates the experience of Jewish women and pays attention to material culture.
Gartner begins with the 1650s when migration brought Jews to the emerging liberal, capitalist societies of western Europe. At that time, the more tolerant attitudes towards Jews that grew from secularisation were met by Jewish efforts at acculturation. Then, too, the trajectories of Jewish life in eastern and western Europe began to diverge, while the Ottoman empire and its Jewish communities stagnated. He chronicles the erosion of the medieval corporate community and the many versions of communal governance and Jewish identity that ensued. He never exaggerates the rate of change or the ambivalence of Jews obliged to adjust to new ways, but he dismisses the view of emancipation as a "delusion". Freedom offered Jews massive benefits, which he enumerates in the enduring case of the United States and, for a heady period, the USSR. Few writers have so fairly summed up the long Jewish love affair with Marxism.
In masterly fashion, Gartner expounds the effects of Jewish emigration from Russia between 1870 and 1920, which created a nearly homogeneous diaspora of Yiddish-speaking Jewish artisans and shopkeepers. During this period the Jews also became preeminently urban. Their identification with city life was one element of modern anti-Semitism. This subject, understandably, is treated with asperity and Gartner slightly loses his balance when describing anti-Jewish trends in inter-war Poland. Yet his handling of the Nazi debacle is judicious and poignant.
Although he disavows any redemptive, Zionist slant, the book ends with a summary of Israel's history that implies otherwise. There is no bibliography, but the footnotes are a reliable guide to further reading. Not only has Gartner written the textbook that teachers of modern Jewish history have longed for, he has created a work of such sagacity and breadth that it deserves to become a bestseller.
David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history, University of Southampton.
History of the Jews In Modern Times. First edition
Author - Lloyd P. Gartner
ISBN - 0 19 289259 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £13.99
Pages - 468