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Independent People

A History of the Jews

by Paul Johnson
Harper and Row, 644 pp., $25.00

For more than a millennium the Jews have been divided between Muslim and Christian countries, and there have been centuries in the Middle Ages when the intellectual influence of Arab philosophy might appear to have given a decisive direction to Hebrew thought. For reasons that Bernard Lewis can explain better than any other living scholar, this was in fact not so, and it is in Christian countries that the Jews have emerged as the most creative, determined, and innovative. In other words, they have profited from the centuries of Christian technical and intellectual superiority, the Italian Renaissance included.

This admits an element of paradox because the Jews, even perhaps more than the Christians, had a recognized position in the Muslim world, whereas, as far as I can see, only one way was open to them, in principle, in the Christian world until the nineteenth century—and that was conversion to Christianity. A mixture of murder and conversion of the Jews was attempted by the Crusaders before they went against the Muslims. Conversion or expulsion was the famous solution of Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. The point of conversion was still strong in the minds of the less liberal ecclesiastics of Italy in the years between 1938 and 1945, as many of us Italian Jews know by experience. How much this concern contributed to the silence of the Churches of Italy, France, and Germany during those years, and later, remains a problem.

The only legitimate historical approach to Judaism is of course to consider it the first national religion to have organized an ethical monotheism, at least since the ninth century BC: the morality of the ancient prophets, available to everyone in the Old Testament, is the morality the Jews have accepted throughout the centuries. This leaves two problems: 1) how much the Talmudic development, beginning around the first century AD, has affected and modified the prophetic foundations; 2) how far the teaching of Jesus himself has been separated from Judaism by later theological developments. The second point, just because it is a historical point, is of course a recent one to be discussed inside and outside Judaic circles. Less controversial is the fact that through the Talmud and centuries of study of other texts and commentaries, the Jews have acquired a passion for learning, for books and intellectual controversy, that has become part of the hereditary Jewish ethos.

So let us speak of the Jews as the members of a great and independent religion (no longer so national as it used to be) who learned ethics chiefly from the prophets and acquired scholarship, especially in Law, from their rabbis.

The author of A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson, is not a specialist in Jewish history. If anything he is well known for a history of our times. What matters positively to us is that Johnson has a strong, lay, interest in Jewish history and tries to see it without confessional criteria. The Jews in his view are not good or bad because they prepared the way for, or opposed, Christianity. Johnson, it seems to me, has put together in one volume an extraordinary amount of useful information, and talks realistically about the Jews of the last four centuries, to which he devotes more than half of his book. The forward-looking attitude of the book explains, though it does not justify, the limited interest in the mystical side of medieval Judaism, especially in Kabbala (though Johnson has more to say on later Hasidism). The excellent book by J. Dan, Gershom Scholem and the Mystical Dimension of Jewish History (New York University Press, 1987), appeared too late to help Johnson.

It seems to me that he has also committed a structural error about the nineteenth century, with which he is so familiar, by studying the Jews of each country in relative isolation. If he had described the Jews of Europe in the nineteenth century according to periods of twenty-five to thirty years, the different situations of the Jews in the different territories (not only Austria but, for instance, Hungary and Czechoslovakia) would have emerged more clearly. Italy and England exchanged Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the two most eminent members of the families Disraeli and Montefiore would never have worked out their careers in Italy as they did in England. Vice versa, whatever Sidney Sonnino and Ernesto Nathan might have learned from their English experiences and their English relatives, they adhered to what was after all the peculiarity of Italian Jews in the nineteenth century: to be important contributors to the creation of the new unified secular Italian state of the Savoy dynasty. In no other part of Europe (except perhaps in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution) did the Jews contribute to the creation of a state. Johnson seems to overlook this peculiarity of the Jews in Italy in the nineteenth century, which naturally attracted far more attention than their number warranted. Isacco Artom was Cavour’s secretary and confidant.

It is rather bizarre, moreover, that Johnson mentions only one name among the survivors of the Holocaust in Italy, and that is Bernard Berenson, who as an American citizen and a double convert to Episcopalianism and to Roman Catholicism was hardly a typical Italian Jew. I would rather mention the name of one of those non-Jews who in the confusion of 1938 unexpectedly gained from the anti-Semitic and pro-German currents of the time: Mariano D’Amelio (on whom there is now a fairly detailed biographical article in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Vol. 32, 1986). D’Amelio, who as president of the Supreme Court of Cassazione for almost twenty years during the Fascist regime, was perhaps the most influential legal mind behind it, managed to combine strict Catholic principles, Jewish legal friends and allies, and enthusiasm for the Germans. His wife was the sister of the eminent Jewish lawyer Angelo Sraffa of the University of Milan and he was therefore also the uncle of the anti-Fascist economist of Trinity College, Cambridge, Piero Sraffa.

The situation in which D’Amelio found himself between 1938 and 1940 defies rational analysis and may well also be an example of what Susan Zuccotti in her recent The Italians and the Holocaust1 does not manage to see, notwithstanding her minute care for details: the combination of clericalism and pro-Nazism in making acceptable to Italians the German extermination of the Jews. Another case, even more complicated, of clericalism (of a typically Venetian variety), of continuous trading with international Jewish financiers, and of collaboration with Nazi Germany, was illustrated a few years ago by Sergio Romano in his book on Giuseppe Volpi.2 Volpi, a Catholic whose second wife was Jewish, was one of the major organizers of the Italian industrial and colonial expansion between 1900 and 1943. Yet we have still to learn more of what passed through his mind during those years.

One cannot reproach Johnson, given the general orientation of his book, with having been very summary about certain aspects of Jewish society. One of these is the well-known contradiction that Jews have notions of the next world and yet in practice attribute little importance to them. The other is the equally well-known contradiction that Jewish women receive, or rather received, so little Jewish education, and yet the solidity of the Jewish household depends on its women. And perhaps it would have been useful to say something more about what the Jews thought about Christians and Muslims before the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. But Paul Johnson has played his part, and we are grateful.

Arnaldo Momigliani, a longstanding contributor, died in London on September 2. This review was one of his last writings. We mourn the death of a great scholar and friend.

—The Editors

  1. 1

    Basic Books, 1987.

  2. 2

    Bompiani, 1979.

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