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Varied Jewish Political Capabilities Through Time. Theodor Herzl on Fancied Jewish Power, etc.

jan peczkis|Friday, May 1, 2015

Because there are so many matters raised by author Biale, I mention some particularly interesting information, and then focus on a few themes.


Moses Maimonides advocated capital punishment for Jewish heretics, notably the Karaites (the sect that rejected the Talmud). (p. 218; see also p. 53 and p. 81). This is perhaps ironic since Maimonides was, for a time, rejected by many Jews as a heretic. [It also contradicts the notion that Jews, unlike Christians, were non-dogmatic in theology.]

Even during pogroms, Jews were not helpless victims protected by the rulers. Jews not rarely bore arms, as for self-defense during the First Crusade. In contrast, monks and women did not or could not bear arms. (pp. 73-74).

The distinctive Jewish garb must be put in the broader context of medieval society, in which people of different social strata wore specialized clothing. (p. 67). When Jews wore distinctive clothing or emblems, it was an identification of protected status. It was not for purposes of humiliation or segregation, as during the Nazi era. Pointedly, the yellow patch was first worn by Jews in Islamic countries--as a mark of official protection. (p. 67).

Compulsory ghettoization of Jews did not exist in the Middle Ages. Residential restrictions against Jews emerged in 16th-century Italy, and then spread to Germany. (p. 91).


Most analyses of this subject begin and end with Christianity demonizing Judaism over the Crucifixion of Christ, or with Christians tolerating Jews out of a fear of the disorder that would occur if pogroms were a regular occurrence. Author Biale, in contrast, has a more objective view, as he writes, (quote) Christianity viewed the Jews as living proof of the veracity of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, and their conversion to Christianity was regarded as a necessary prerequisite for the Second Coming. The Jews had to be preserved for these purposes and therefore were entitled, from a theological standpoint, to protection. (unquote). (p. 61).

The deterioration of Jewish-Christian relations, at about the 12th century, was at least partly based on theology. Jews, as followers of the Talmud, were increasingly seen by Christians as a new religion (NOVA LEX). This meant that Jews were no longer fully protected by Church dogma as the Chosen People of the Bible. (p. 88).

Jews were immune from persecution by the Inquisition, but fake or presumably-fake Jewish converts to Christianity were not. (p. 68). That was notably true of the conversos (or marranos) of Columbus-era Spain.


Though Jews were sometimes persecuted, this was exceptional overall. Biale comments, (quote) If they [the Jews] were dependent upon the good graces of secular and religious rulers for their very existence, this was very much the norm in the Middle Ages. (unquote). (p. 65). Persecution of Jews occurred during periods in which authority slackened or broke down, as during the First Crusade and the Khmelnitsky revolt. (pp. 65-66).

Most of the time, Jews did not have it bad, (quote) Throughout the Middle Ages, the Jews had accepted a dependent, though not necessarily inferior, status in exchange for community autonomy. (unquote). (p. 111). In fact, in many places and over long periods of time, Jews were effectively privileged. Biale writes, (quote) The legal status of the Jews in places such as Spain, France, Germany, and Poland was considerably better than that of enserfed peasants and in many cases approached that of the nobility and the burgher class. In medieval Christian Europe, the Jews were considered to be a free people. (unquote). (pp. 62-63).

The political dependency of the Jews must also be kept in perspective, (quote) If power means the ability to act autonomously, the Jews surely could not be called powerful. They did not wield power in the modern sense of sovereign state power, but in the Middle Ages such a notion of power hardly existed. In an era of political fragmentation and insecurity, virtually no group in society might be considered autonomously powerful. Medieval society was hierarchical and was built on complex relationships of loyalties and privileges. Even kings were not fully autonomous in their power over their territories, for they had to contend with princes and bishops who might have conflicting loyalties to other authorities. (unquote). (p. 64).


We often hear that the verses in the Talmud, on pagans, applied to the peoples of antiquity, and did not apply to Christians. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of the latter, the reader must realize that Talmudic prohibitions against pagan courts most definitely applied to Christians. Biale writes, (quote) The rabbis enforced the exclusive power of their courts by forbidding Jews recourse to gentile courts. While the right of judicial autonomy derived from gentile privileges, the rabbis nevertheless made it a principle of their legal theory. One Talmudic passage states this principle, which was honored for most of the Middle Ages, as follows: "It has been taught: Rabbi Tarfon used to say: In any place where you find heathen law courts, even though their law is the same as the Israelite law, you must not resort to them." (unquote). (p. 53). [This was based on Gittin 88b in the Babylonian Talmud. (p. 219)]


Jewish separatism (and even "Jewish nationalism") was long-standing. Biale comments, (quote) Of course, the Jews had always seen themselves as a nation in exile as well as a religion, but they had not been a nation in any concrete sense since late antiquity. (unquote). (p. 121).

Jews effectively became a nation again in the Pale of Jewish Settlement in tsarist Russia [and, later, in post-1918 Poland], owing solely to the huge number of Jews living there. (p. 121). Obviously, the formal emergence of modern forms of Jewish nationalism (Bundism and Zionism) was not necessary for these Jews to consider themselves a separate nation, and to act accordingly.

Jewish anti-assimilationist tendencies did not exist solely out of a sense of being excluded or discriminated against by gentile societies. Biale quips, (quote) Many nineteenth-century Orthodox German Jews feared that full emancipation or equal citizenship would undermine both the Jewish community and the Jewish religion. (unquote). (p. 108).

Finally, Jewish patriotic identification with the host nation did not generally exist until fairly recent times. Biale writes, (quote) Although Jews had always recognized the importance of a practical alliance with political authority, they never regarded the state with anything akin to modern patriotism. The new attitude began to emerge several centuries before the Haskalah, probably under the impact of absolutism. (unquote). (pp. 104-105).


It is interesting that not only anti-Semites, but also some 19th-century Jewish thinkers, adhered to the trope of the all-powerful Jew. With reference to early Zionism, Biale comments, (quote) Public opinion meant that politics had to be carried out in public. It was here that Theodor Herzl was a real pioneer. By using dramatic techniques in organizing Zionist meetings and by exploiting the anti-Semitically inspired rumors of immense Jewish power, he was able to create the illusion that he was the leader of a state-in-the-making, rather than an eccentric with a fringe band of followers. (unquote). (p. 130). (Quote) Herzl seems to have believed that the financial power of the Jews was enormous and that it could bring about the technical miracles he foresaw. His exaggeration of Jewish power was something that he shared with the anti-Semites of his day, and for that reason he may have been given a more receptive hearing than would have been the case if he had been more accurate. (unquote). (p. 135).

The foregoing has unmentioned implications. According to some commentators, Theodor Herzl and Asher Ginsberg had a hand in the creation of THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION--not as a Jewish world-control conspiracy, but as a Jewish utopian fantasy of virtually-unlimited Jewish power.


Nowadays, Poles (especially the Endeks) are often demonized for having preferred so-called enthonationalist constructs over so-called civic nationalism. Poles thought in terms of a Catholic-centered nation and generally did not want a pluralistic, democratic state in which Jews would assimilate and function according to a fully coeval footing with ethnic Poles and Roman Catholics.

Notwithstanding all the rights possessed by Israeli Arabs, much the same concerns exist among Jews in Israel today, and moreover do so even in an entirely nonreligious context. Biale comments, (quote) Would an Orthodox state mean that Israel will become little more than a resurrected version of the medieval community? Yet, if Israel adopts an entirely modern ideology of democratic individualism and true equality between Jews and Arabs, it may lose its self-identity as a Jewish state, particularly if it retains the large Arab populations of the territories occupied in 1967. (unquote). (p. 168). (Quote) It is a virtue of Bernard Avishai's TRAGEDY OF ZIONISM that he calls for a "post-Zionist" political theory, one in which Israel would presumably give up its exclusively ethnic character in favor of democratic pluralism. (unquote). (p. 234).

The double standard is obvious. If Israeli Jews can define the Jewish nation as they see fit, then why can Poles not define the Polish nation as they see fit?


Author Biale contends that relatively few American bankers and industrialists are Jews, but intellectuals and scientists are very disproportionately Jewish. Citing some figures from the 1980's, he comments, (quote) For example, the percentage of Jews employed as faculty members at the top-ranked universities in America is 20.9 percent, some seven times their number in the population. A study in the 1970's that identified 545 leaders in government, business, labor unions, and other areas of importance in American society found that 11.4 percent were Jewish, nearly four times their percentage in the population. The highest Jewish participation (25.8 percent) was in the media. (unquote). (p. 180).


Author David Biale understands "Jewish passivity" during the Shoah as one outcome of the ruthless efficiency of the modern totalitarian state in destroying targeted peoples and suppressing all significant resistance from them. In fact, he finds Soviet Communism more effective than German Nazism in this regard. (pp. 143-144). [Perhaps the appreciation of the power of totalitarianism should be extended to the ill-founded complaints about the Catholic Church, and Poles, "not doing enough" to forestall or ameliorate the Nazi extermination of Jews.]

The concept of the supremacy of the Holocaust, over others' genocides, did not develop until some twenty years after WWII. It has since become a part of America's civil religion. Biale writes, (quote) During the two decades after the end of WWII, the destruction of the European Jews had little impact on American Jewish life...The Holocaust has become the primary historical event around which the American Jewish community unites...It is remarkable testimony to the contemporary political power of American Jews that the Holocaust has acquired virtually sacred status in the vocabulary of American politics forty years after WWII... (unquote). (pp. 200-201).
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