Jewish history, Jewish religion
by Noel Rooney
[ bookreviews ]
Every nation, religion, and culture shrouds its history in a miasma of myth and legend; the job of a good historian, in the first place, is to see through the fog and get at the facts. Facts, in the form of documents and records, or archaeological evidence, are abundant, and regularly contradictory to the prevailing mythos, for many cultures; ergo we should have an abundance of historical literature disproving our fondest myths and sobering our view of our own group, be it ethnic, religious or political. The fact that we don't is a sad vindication of Chomsky's observation about the intelligentsia; they mostly spend their time propping up the status quo, however unpalatable that might be.
The Jews are no different to any other group in regard to their history; mythical and legendary elements are integral to the narrative. There is, however, a sensitivity about that narrative, a sensitivity shared by Jew and gentile alike, that is practically unique. Even writing about this sensitivity seems to be a sensitive subject. Needless to say, given this situation, the number of Jewish and Israeli historians who take the soft option is disproportionately high. But the dissident minority is redoubtable and recently vociferous; all the more reason to read this book, first published in 1994, if only to realise that the 'new historians' are not completely new.
Israel Shahak did not spend too much of his precious time propping up the status quo. As both historian and political activist, he made himself deeply unpopular in Israel by speaking the unspeakable. Jewish history, Jewish religion is the pinnacle of his achievement as an historian, and to describe its subject matter, and Shahak's interpretation of it, as controversial would be something of an understatement. In this book, Shahak peers deep into the political soul of Israel, and what he discovers there is dark and disquieting.
His basic thesis is simple and brutal: the modern state of Israel - and the majority of its citizens - is much more influenced by religious orthodoxy than it cares to admit, and the attitudes engendered by that influence are on the whole baleful. The result is cruel and inhumane treatment of neighbouring populations, of whom the benighted Palestinians are only the most egregious example. The shadow of the Talmud looms over the history of the Jews, and especially so over the state of Israel.
Shahak divides that history into three periods: the early Talmudic period, up until about 500 AD; the period of classical Judaism, from around 800 AD until the early 20th century (there is some variation in this dating depending on the country under discussion); and the modern period, until the troubled present. It is the period of classical Judaism which he regards as formative of the values and attitudes now prevalent.
In the period of classical Judaism, there were no Jewish peasants. This simple observation is crucial to Shahak's thesis. The Jews were co-opted by unpopular rulers in many states to act as a buffer between the aristocracy and the native peasantry, with predictably unpleasant results for all concerned. This did two things: first, it cemented the contemptuous attitudes offered by the Talmud; and second, it meant that when the peasants revolted, the Jews were often a main target. The religious and secular powers of the time were usually supportive of the Jews more than their own peasantry.
This situation changed when the fragile system of monarchy was gradually replaced by a national consciousness. At this point, the fortunes of the Jewish populations in many countries changed radically. Many of those populations were expelled, and many found a haven in the pale of settlement, where a particularly rigid system of orthodoxy held sway. These people would form the core of Zionism, and their prejudices would engender a vicious legacy in the way Israel treats its minorities and neighbours.
Anti-semitism, as it is commonly understood, actually stems from this period. The ascription of the earlier uprisings, however murderous, to pogroms in anything like the mould of the atrocities carried out against Jews, and others, in the first half of the twentieth century, is misleading, according to Shahak. He also points out that leading Zionists were apt to have surprisingly cosy relationships with the very people promoting anti-semitism in many European states.
It almost seems an injustice to merely sketch out the complex ideas, and subtle investigations, contained in this book. It is written in a succinct and direct way, and the obvious scholarship is not a burden to the lay reader. Shahak is a comprehensive analyst, and critic, of most of the conceptual infrastructure of modern Judaism and modern Israel. And he doesn't just lay it bare; he challenges it trenchantly.
The historical analysis is prefaced by a passionate plea to Jewish people to rethink their prejudices in light of what history reveals. There is also an illuminating, though brief, investigation of what the Talmud actually says about Jews, gentiles, and how Jews and gentiles should interact. Many readers will be seeing these occasionally shocking revelations for the first time; apart from the fact that the Babylonian Talmud is not especially widely read these days, it is a curious fact that most modern English translations of the Talmud do not include some of the more contentious prescriptions and opinions, or are offered euphemistic formulations in their place.
Finally, he looks at how Zionism shares the attitudes promulgated by classical Judaism, through a singularly prejudiced reading of a prejudiced text. He also effectively says that Israel's founders and first leaders were aware of the disjuncture between historical actuality and the version of it used to justify the Machiavellian domestic and foreign policies it adopted. We are left with the strong impression that much of what goes on with both government, and tacit public, approval in Israel is founded on a lie.
The book's re-issue by Pluto is timely; other books exploring the same territory are taking centre stage on Israel's best-seller lists currently. Schlomo Sand's recent book on the invention of the Jewish nation (the English version is published early next year by Verso), and Avraham Burg, in his The Holocaust is over: we must rise from its ashes (recently published in the UK) offer critiques of both ancient and modern Jewish history which are in total accord with Shahak's perennial poignard. It is arguable that these books taken together represent a challenge to the legitimacy of the state of Israel; certainly they share a profound dislike for current domestic and foreign policy, and the attitudes that lie behind those policies.