“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’.” Genesis 12: 1-3
Civilizations are funny things, following mostly as they do the Spenglerian progression of “a spring phase, giving birth to a new religion and world outlook; a summer phase, culminating in philosophical and mathematical conceptualizations; an autumn phase, maturing into enlightenment and rationalism; and a winter phase, declining into materialism, a cult of science, and degradation of abstract thinking, leading to senility and death.” Whether the Aztecs or the Romans or the Aymara or the Persians or the Muslims or the British, all civilizations wax and wane. It is the natural order of things. And when they are gone, it is to never return. Oh sure the old buildings still stand along the dusty alleys in front of which beggars squat, but what made those places resonate with grandeur as long since departed. Which is what makes the Jewish story so unique. Over the course of 4000 years the Jewish civilization has been able to re-define itself and re-emerge, not once or twice but producing six distinct but all fully Jewish civilizational periods.
“Jews, God and History” by Max I. Dimont is the story of this. An extraordinarily well researched book which takes us through Jewish ancient history, a subset of human history, from the very beginning; from Abraham through Moses and the Prophets and the Kings and the Maccabees. I say a subset, because the Jews were present in most ancient civilizations and in which “all peoples of the world will be blessed through you.” The book then takes us into the roots of modern history through the Diaspora period of Jewish history as a stateless people interacts and engages with the Greeks and the Romans and the Islamic Caliphates and Medieval Europe, wherein all these civilizations were also blessed through the leavening and preserving presence of Jewish ideas and institutions. Then on into modern history, concluding with the rise as-yet-unwritten of the new chapter in Jewish history, the return to the land promised to Abraham so long ago by a God who does not forget His promises. It is a story also about individual people, names that roll off the tongue like Einstein and Brandeis and Spinoza. For history is not made by collectives but by extraordinary individuals.
This book tries to tackle that one controversial and complex truth of human history; that there is something special about the Jewish people – God’s chosen people – in their ability to not only survive in the most trying of circumstances, not only preserve their culture and institutions and ideas, but their ability to thrive. Dimont I believe was an atheist (or at least agnostic) so his attempts were particularly interesting for me, as somebody who believes our great God when he says, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you”. Dimont, however, spends his magnum opus searching for non-metaphysical reasons for this.
For Dimont Jewish exceptionalism emerged from the amazing ability of Jewish culture to be ahead of its time. Mono-theistic when everybody else was a pagan, and the natural ability of monotheism to focus people’s capacity for learning and understanding. Social programs like universal compulsory education which prepared the Jewish people naturally for bureaucratic roles in increasingly complex society and government while others forced their children onto the potato patches. A system of stateless social security programs which assured that as a civilization the Jews were not reliant upon the state with its often-malevolent coercive power. Their ability as a Diaspora to separate their identity from that of the state, and how this protected them (until it didn’t, see more below) allowing them to carry out functions unallowed by host civilizations (best example is profitable banking in Islamic societies – the less well known was the ability to escape from the noble-serf dynamic in feudal Russia and thereby become wealthy).
It is impossible to summarize this whole 4000 year old saga well, so please just read the book.
Now any review of Jewish history would be incomplete without a discussion of the holocaust. While this event was brief (in relation to the Jews’ 4000 year history) it was also perhaps the single most defining event for modern Jews (as it should be) and the greatest act of evil in world history; followed only by global communism’s orgy of blood. Socialism is the ideology of failure advanced by greed and envy unto violence. National Socialism is a variation of this that is not rooted in bad economics and does not consider classes or casts but instead blood and pigment. The rise of the Nazis was the bizarre story of a group of perverts and drug addicts and losers who captured the popular imagination of a disgruntled society through bitterness, pity and weaponized envy; turning itself into a colossal killing machine aimed against the prosperous members of that society, the Jews, for the purpose of pillage. To be sure, there were more Christians killed than Jews (7.5m to 6m); and the Nazis knew no quarter when it came to wickedness, but their particular animus, stemming from anti-Semitic ideas propagated first by Nietzsche (among others, though he was the worst) was against those who were ‘different’ than they and oh so much more prosperous. Murder those who you blame for your poverty and steal their wealth – that is what socialism, in all its varieties, comes down to. Incidentally, when the Russians overran the camps in Poland alone they found enough Zyklon B (for use in gas chambers) to murder 20 million people; evidence that the carnage was foreseen to continue. And only this year a little book went on sale in Canada, from Hitler’s personal library, outlining the locations and structures of Jewish communities in America down to the last village – in case anybody believes we would have survived the carnage had we lost the war. The holocaust is a story of collective failure to prevent a great evil; a stain on the 20th century, our supposed “Pax Americana”.
Finally, it is essential to discuss Israel. For 2000 years the Diaspora waited for the Messiah to return and lead them all back to the re-establishment of Israel. Following the holocaust (and leading up to it, through things like the Balfour declaration, etc.) a group of intrepid leaders decided that the time had come to give faith a little nudge. In 1948 they re-established their homeland on a tiny desert patch of earth which 4000 years ago was given to Abraham, 2000 years ago was lost to the Romans, and has now been reclaimed. It only makes sense, for when racism turned into anti-Semitism and the Jewish leadership decided they could no longer trust the world to protect them if they kept their heads down and did not challenge their states – the Diaspora’s 2000 year-old recipe for existence – it was time to go home. This has caused significant stress in the Middle East and led to conflict and frustration the world over, and nobody (especially most people in the Jewish community I know – I am a graduate of Brandeis University) has a cold heart for the Palestinians; however it must be clear that as for America we will always stand with Israel.
“Jews, God and History” is the important story of the Jewish people, a book that should be mandatory at all American high schools – for the best way to combat bigotry is through knowledge and understanding. This book is tinged with a prideful tone, and we will excuse that given that there is so much to boast about over the course of 4000 years. It is nevertheless a fair accounting of a tiny group of people and how they made their way in the world against all odds. And that is a great story!!!!