JEWS: The Essence and Character of a People
Controversial Book Claims Jews Haven't Changed in 4,000 Years
by Marilyn Silverman
Senior Staff Writer
The Jewish Post of New York
Every historical epoch is besmirched by the memory of the persecution of its Jewish inhabitants. Why do these hapless, persecuted minorities never fail to defiantly and heroically rebuild their shattered lives? Can one trace an essential Jewish character that has remained basically unaltered for an astounding 4,000 years? Can anti-Semitism be attributed to the Jews themselves due to their obstinate and persistent deviance from society? Do Jews willingly accept the designation of chosenness?
These questions and more, are addressed in a provocative new book, Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, by Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer (San Francisco-Harper Collins, 1998). Its the authors self-admitted assertion that this book is scandalous since it alludes to an external Jewish character; in fact, several American and European publishers rejected it due to the anticipated negative reaction from the Jewish community.
The concept of chosenness is based on a moral superiority to the enemy - to the "goyim." For the duration of their suffering in the Diaspora, Jews incorporated an optimistic spirit into their psyches - they would survive due to the ultimate intervention of God for his chosen people. But in modern times Jews question their pivotal status of chosenness due to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, that Jews did survive despite the destruction of millions of their brethren, again reinforces the premise of Jewish chosenness.
A controversial premise is contingent on the existence and persistence of an essential Jewish character, since this invites accusations of anti-Semitism as it delegates a stereotypical viewpoint of Jews.
A common thread that links Jews over the millennium is the concept of belonging to an extended family - fleeing Jews are traditionally accepted with open arms by their new Jewish hosts. There's an inherent dichotomy within the Jewish psyche - to maintain and preserve their own distinct culture, distinct from the majority populace, and yet to be accepted by the majority populace. There are also those who often reluctantly assimilate into the pagan, Christian, or Muslim world; the latter, as history demonstrates, is a common practice, though not cause for alarm. Jews will never become an extinct people. This will to persist, this defiance, is a trait that identifies today's Jews as well as Jews who resisted the dominant cultures for centuries.
The authors justify the Jewish propensity for dwelling in the Diaspora on the grounds of the Jewish nomadic tradition whereby curiosity about the outside world makes them a very nonsedentary people. In the modern state of Israel, after completing their mandatory military service, one year of world travel is the next stage in the maturation process.
Assimilation, as the authors observe, has been the escape route for a sizeable number of Jews during our history, from the scourge of anti-Semitism. However, the vast majority of Jews are antagonistic to assimilation, preferring to inculcate their children with stories of exile, persecution, and pogroms. These lessons are taught so as to link the present with the past, with their illustrious ancestors, no matter how horrendous that past might be and in fact was.
Ancestors who, despite the repercussions, defiantly and steadfastly resisted hostile cultures. Exile, persecution, and pogroms no longer plague the modern post-Holocaust Jew; nevertheless, Jews are still a defiant people, a people who are committed to the belief in the righteousness of their values, for whom calmly accepting their fate has always been a rejected option. The authors audaciously blame Jews for instigating anti-Semitism since they habitually and historically challenged the dominant ideology.
The Misfortune of Being Jewish for Woody Allen. In a chapter interesting titled "Hard to Be a Jew," another category of Jews are those who bemoan their Jewishness. Woody Allen, in "Deconstructing Harry," condemns Jews who deliberately force their separate Jewish identity on others. He's also troubled by God's inexplicable absence during the Holocaust. Sigmund Freud accepted what he considered to be the Jewish temperament - that of the outsider, the member of the minority subclass, a theory he articulated in a speech to the B'nai B'rith Society in Vienna, 1926. Franz Kafka blamed his parents for introducing him to a world of pain. "The Trial" depicts the Jew as the eternal victim since the hapless protagonist Joseph K. is arrested based on lies and innuendoes, not based on the commission of any specific crime against humanity.
Any book on Judaism inevitably must address the explosive issue of the Holocaust. The authors' justification for the creation of Israel was the collective guilt of American Jews for their inactive role in rescuing their relatives. The strategic location of Israel in the geopolitical world and in Jewish consciousness, is pivotal since Israel was created to put an end to the power less and stateless Jews exiled from country to country.
Since the Holocaust's modus operandi was to target the Jewish race for extinction, American Jews thereupon made teaching of the Holocaust in religious schools a taboo subject, until the 1960s and especially the 1970s. Survivors' memoirs flooded the marketplace; future generations were not to forget. The authors cast aspersion on notions that explain where God was - that he sometimes conceals his face from the world; that Jews were being punished for disobeying God; that they were punished for not learning the lessons from their world history; that they should have emigrated en masse from Europe concomitant with Hitler's rise to power.
Arthur Hertzberg is the Bronfrman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at N.Y.U., and past president of the American Jewish Congress and lives in New Jersey. Aron Hirt-Manheimer is editor of Reform Judaism Magazine and past recipient of the Anne Frank Medal and lives in Connecticut.
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