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The Chosen People

In response to:

Some of My Best Friends Are Philosophes from the August 22, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I wouldn’t want to intrude, believe me! After all, if every shoe salesman in the country wrote a letter, where would you find room for the poets? It’s my mother! She wanted I should explain Trevor-Roper’s review of a book by Herzberg. “Ma,” I said, “it’s simple. He just doesn’t like Jews.” She said, “I don’t believe it!”

So, tell me, did I explain wrong? For Voltaire, the Jews had chutzpah (the quality which allows a man, after murdering his father and mother, to plead for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan) in claiming to be God’s chosen people, because everyone knew that the chosen people were those enlightened by the new philosophy. For Trevor-Roper, on the other hand, the Jews have chutzpah because everyone knows that God’s chosen people are the English.

I don’t believe it,” she said. And added in Yiddish: “Ah mahn vuss rayt fun parnassim, kennt aich ah bissel Gemorah!” Translated this means: a man who talks about parnassim can also comment on the Talmud!

I said, “Ma! If he doesn’t even know about Sigmund Freud, how do you think he knows anything about the Talmud?” She said: “That’s a non sequitur,” a phrase she picked up from reading Saul Bellow (she calls him Sol; do me something). So I retorted: “Listen, Siggie Freud could give Trevor-Roper spades and trumps when it comes to figuring out anti-Semitism. Just for an example, look at Moses and Monotheism. And plenty other places, too!”

Say, he even had an answer for Trevor-Roper. Someone once complained that the Jews of a particular country were too pushy. Freud came back: “The old saying is true: ‘Every country has the Jews that it deserves.’ ”

Even England.

Sidney Lipshires

Hartford, Connecticut.

H.R Trevor-Roper replies:

I am afraid that Mr. Hertzberg has totally misunderstood the part of my review with which he takes issue.

In my review I contested his interpretation of Voltaire’s opinion of the Jews. I did not offer my own opinion. I did not “agree with Voltaire” that “Judaism is an inferior spiritual tradition”—I never said anything about the spiritual tradition—nor did I say that tolerant cosmopolitans throughout the ages had rightly been angered by Jewish “singularity.” The adverb has been interpolated by Mr. Hertzberg. But what is the use of repeating what I wrote? I wrote it, I believe, with perfect clarity: I cannot, by mere repetition, make it clearer.

I wrote that the Christian fanatics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had justified their fanaticism by appeal to the Old Testament. This is an objective statement of fact. What is the point of saving that other ancient peoples were sometimes murderous (though they did not canonize butchery in the same way)? The fact is that Pope Pius V and the English Puritans and the Inquisitors and witch-hunters of Europe and America appealed not to mere ancient examples, which might as easily be deplored as followed, but to Scriptural authority, as commanding and sanctifying their massacres; and therefore the “enlightened” enemies of the Church attacked the Jewish Scriptures as providing a special moral justification of persecution. Whether Western tradition owes a more positive debt to the Bible is a legitimate question. I myself would agree at once that it does. But such a question is irrelevant to the subject of Voltaire’s alleged anti-Semitism. Therefore I did not mention it, or obtrude my own views, which are quite different from those which Mr. Hertzberg unwarrantably ascribes to me.

What I did write was that, since anti-Semitism has been a constant in history, and not only in Christian societies, “we must face the possibility that there is an objective basis for anti-Semitism in the continuing Jewish way of life.” This is a perfectly neutral statement, and I do not see how it can be resented except by those who resent the very processes of logical thought. Nowhere in my article, or in any other writing, have I suggested that, in looking at anti-Semitism as a social phenomenon, I take sides with the anti-Semites. But half the letters which my article has elicited from American Jews now denounce me as an anti-Semite. I am “the carrier of a nasty social disease”; my article could have been written “by Dr. Goebbels himself,” it deserves “contempt without bounds”; presumably, as “an Oxford don,” I hate the Old Testament because it is “so harsh on Sodomites,” etc, etc. Mr. Hertzberg, of course, is in a different class from these robust paladins of his people; but the charges which he makes are no less dogmatic, and no less untrue.

Mr. Hertzberg transforms almost every phrase of mine that he quotes. When I say that the Jews did not teach science to the Greeks, he misquotes me as saying that they were “inferior to the Greeks.” When I say that the Bible was used to justify Christian fanaticism, he misquotes me as saying that it was “the major source of bloodthirstiness in Christendom.” These are radical changes of meaning. Then he ascribes to me a specific social philosophy. He says that I style myself “a tolerant cosmopolitan,” and goes on to say that I have “no more doubt than Voltaire that this Jewish singularity ought to cease to exist.” Without total assimilation, no tolerance. Such a view, he says, is “a secularized version of medieval enforced apostasy.” It is “culturally arrogant and morally outrageous.” It is “totalitarian.” It is “the hubris of the West”; etc. etc.

Mr. Hertzberg is indeed, as I wrote in my review, too rhetorical. He should look at his texts before dashing off his commentary. Nowhere in my article did I identify my own attitude with that of Voltaire. Nowhere did I style myself “a tolerant cosmopolitan.” I stated that tolerant cosmopolitans had at all times noted with distaste the obstinate “singularity” of the Jews. I was thinking of the cosmopolitan officials of the Roman Empire and the cosmopolitan philosophers of the Enlightenment. This, once again, is a mere statement of fact. Of my own views I said nothing. I was trying to interpret other men’s views, and I was modest enough to regard my own as irrelevant.

However, since I am challenged, I shall now express my own views. I believe (and Mr. Hertzberg evidently agrees with me) that anti-semitism is caused by the continuing distinctness of Jewish social life in the Dispersion. (It is a legitimate objection that Jewish social life is itself diversified; but in times of exasperated social relations—e.g. of economic crisis—it is simplified in the eyes of demagogues and persecutors.) This sense of distinctness has been rationalized at different times in different, indeed in intellectually inconsistent ways, now as religious, now as racial; but basically, I believe, it is social. However, though I recognize this distinctness, I do not wish to see it eliminated. I do not share the views of those Roman administrators who would have absorbed Judaism into the Pagan polytheism and official emperor-worship of their time, or of those eighteenth-century philosophers who would have dissolved all “irrational” traditions and beliefs in a vague deism and universal “rationality.” I do not want total assimilation. The concept of “one world,” whether it is the world of Western or Eastern uniformity, of capitalism or communism, of Catholicism or “Reason,” or of that dreariest of abstractions, “the common man.” is repugnant to me. I prefer a complex, plural world of diverse and competing social organisms. This is not merely because I find emotional satisfaction in variety: it is also because I believe that such multiformity is the best guarantee of human liberty and the best basis for intellectual vitality. In political philosophy I am a whig: I believe, with Montesquieu and Hume, in the equal validity of different social forms, and, with Burke and de Tocqueville, in the organic strength and corrective balance of a complex society nourished by living traditions. In intellectual matters I believe in the rivalry of co-existing schools and traditions of thought: in heresy and variety, not in unity and uniformity. On both counts I wish to see the Jews (and other minorities) retaining their distinct social character, in as many varieties as they like. I do not wish to see them, or any other non-conformists, reduced to the blank conformity of an identical, and therefore banal society. I agree with Mr. Hertzberg that such a demand is arrogant. It also seems to me vulgar. It is precisely because I see positive value in variety that I am interested in the historical function of minority groups and their traditions, and have shown this interest by writing, from time to time, about English Catholics, French Huguenots, Quakers, Hutterites, and Jews. The general philosophy which. I have just expressed is, I believe, implicit or explicit in everything that I have written.

The only times when I may feel a momentary impatience with these minorities is when some of them, in their prickly heat, scream before they are touched and protest that any attempt to examine them is an itch to persecute. But I calm myself by recognizing that in this too they are socially conditioned.

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