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The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews.

Norman Cantor Harper Collins xxiv + 480 pp. 20[pounds]

The Jews have survived 2,000 years of persecution. How many years of freedom and tolerance will it take to obliterate them, peacefully, from the world scene? This question is being asked all the mare=urgently as demographic data chart the grim contraction of world Jewry since the Holocaust. Roughly 6 million Jews (3 million of whom were Poles) died as a result of Nazi genocide; but it is possible, given the rate of assimilation of German Jews, a century age, that much of German Jewry would have disappeared anyway, by incorporation into German and Austrian society (which was why the Nazis chose extermination of course, and were punctilious in tracing back Jewish ancestries).

In the USA, where you might say the Jews have never had it so good, over half the Jewish marriages are in fact inter-marriages with non-Jews; less than a third of these marriages involve conversion of the non-Jewish spouse to Judaism of any variety, and less than one in three of the children of these mixed marriages are raised as Jews, of any variety. There are currently reckoned to be about 5 million Jews, of any variety, in the USA at present; within the next century, according to Professor Cantor, most will have disappeared: `The point of no return for Jewish group survival has been reached'.

Professor Cantor paints an a wide canvas. Two themes strike me as important. The first is the culpability of the Jews for their own misfortunes. Jews have always seen themselves as the victims of history: Zionism amounted, in part, to a deliberate rebellion against this view of the past. But a dispassionate examination of the record does not fully bear out this belief. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 has traditionally been seen as an Imparalleled tragedy, both for the Jews and for Spain. In fact, about four-fifths of Spanish Jewry chose to remain in Spain, as Christians. The lure of the good life was too much for them.

In his contribution to the volume of essays 1492 and After, Professor Jerome Friedman explains how `1492 provided Jews with a wonderful opportunity ... With Spain at last fully Christian, there was no end to the possibilities open to ... those Spanish Jews accepting Christianity'. These Jews changed their religion, a fact which does not say much for the strength of their Jewish identity anyway; some of them even denounced their former co-religionists to the Inquisition, acts of betrayal which were, alas, to be repeated in Nazi-occupied Europe.

We might also note that there is a strand within Jewish orthodoxy which has always seen persecution as having a divine purpose for good. When the government of Tsar Nicholas I ordered that Jewish males be conscripted into the army, as a way of hastening their conversion, a leading Russian rabbi argued that the law should be obeyed: the weak-willed would sink into assimilation, leaving the strong-willed to keep the faith alive. During the dark decades of persecution, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Russian Jewry was ill-served by its rabbinical leaders, whom Professor Cantor rightly indicts. What were the rabbis doing `to get the Jews CUlt of their striking impoverished domiciles?', he asks: `the answer has to be -- nothing'. Even today, orthodox Jews can be found who are willing to explain the Holocaust as divine retribution for the embrace of Reform Judaism.

Professor Cantor's second theme addresses the Jewish encounter with modernity. Persecution kept Judaism alive. Tolerance threatened to destroy it. As the Enlightenment made its way across Eastern Europe, into the heartlands of Jewish orthodoxy in Russia, Poland and Romania, orthodox Jews struggled to keep it at bay. The physical destruction of ghetto walls (a routine exercise carried cut by the French-revolutionary armies) made easier that contact between Jew and non-Jew which the repressive laws of autocrats had kept under close regulation. Pre-1789, Jewish lay and rabbinical leaders had ruled over internally self-governing communities. Now all were equal before the law of the land. What had happened in fifteenth-century Spain was repeated on a much grander scale: Jews embraced a nominally Christian, but actually quite secular, culture of which they became the most enthusiastic exponents.

There was bound to be a backlash, but it came in two distinct forms. Nazism and Zionism shared the view that the Jew was ultimately unassimilable within European society. Nazism offered the cruellest of oblivions. Zionism offered a bespoke nationalism. I am not quite as pessimistic as Professor Cantor that `the Jews are going home now into the mist of history'. The1Ongevity of `Jewishness' is quire remarkable, as they who trace the post-1492 fate of the expelled Iberian remnant discover. For the moment the best hope for the long-term survival of the Jewish people lies within the State of Israel. But that, too, stands at a cross-roads.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has sanctified an anti-religious crusade which Israeli Jewish secularists have waged ever since the state's re-establishment. Indeed, long before Rabin's murder, Israeli intellectual's could be heard making plans to undermine not merely the Jewish character of the state, but also its Zionist basis: the repeal of the Law of Return (which gives most Jews the right to immigrate to israel); redesigning the national nag so that it does not incorporate the Magen 12avid (the six-pointed Star of David); replacing the Hatikvah by a non-Zionist, non-Jewish national anthem. What these propagandists seek is the complete separation of state from synagogue, leaving Israel as a secular society with an unofficial Jewish character, in much the same way as the USA is a secular state with an Anglo-Saxon character.

Should these plans succeed, Professor Cantor's prophecy is likely to be-fulfilled.
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Author:Alderman, Geoffrey
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Words:955
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