BOOKS : HISTORY : Judaism in shades of grey

THE SACRED CHAIN: A History of the Jews by Norman Cantor HarperCollins pounds 20
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THE American Jewish comedian Alan King used to tell a story along the following lines:

A boy comes home from his religious class and tells his father that the lesson was about the Exodus. "Wonderful," says the father. "Tell me about it."

"Well," the boy explains, "the Hebrews escaped from Egypt and the Egyptian soldiers chased them to the Red Sea. The Hebrews got away in submarines and helicopters and turned their weapons on the Egyptians and nuked them to a frazzle."

"What?" the father's jaw is dropping. "They told you that?"

"Well not exactly," the boy replies, "but if I told you what they really told me you'd never believe it."

Jewish history is in many ways the history of belief. The trouble is, as Norman Cantor points out in this energetic and provocative volume, that the history, so conventionally taught, is itself difficult to believe. And yet a majority of Jews, like the father in Alan King's joke, go on at least acting as if they do believe it, all of it, the whole megillah.

Traditional Jewish historians, Cantor contends, approach their material wearing blinkers. Intelligent and normally sceptical scholars (sometimes, admittedly, funded by conservative-minded millionaires) appear to be quite happy to take the miraculous at face value.

No wonder. The unblinkered alternative is terrifying. The centre cannot hold. History - from which the Jew draws his identity as much as he does from religion - stands revealed as mythology. Mystery is unravelled by anthropology and sociology. The quotidian replaces the awesome (a word itself now significantly absorbed into quotidian vocabulary).

The tools of modern scholarship will make light work, Cantor says, of the biblical narrative. And close objective scrutiny will dismantle many comforting notions Jews have about their origins, development and essence.

Professor Cantor is a great exponent of modernity. He certainly would claim to be exploiting every modern insight to the full and to be prodding, with a steady hand, at the nominally eternal underpinning of his chosen subject.

One aspect of conventional Jewish historiography for which Cantor reserves particular opprobrium is that which treats the Jewish experience as "a litany of Jewish victimisation". And The Sacred Chain's most valuable offering, it seems to me - certainly to Jewish readers - is its exposure of various patches of grey among the official black and white colours of received Jewish history.

Thus Cantor uncovers the existence of "a remarkable number of Jewish converts" among the Dominican friars largely responsible for staffing the inquisitorial courts of the medieval church and turning upon Jews and Jewish teaching with such venom. He reminds us, too, that the Chmielnicki massacres in the Ukraine in 1648 were preceded by years of severe subjugation of the Ukrainian peasantry by their Polish overlords, using Jews as their petit bourgeois local representatives. He even - in what is already regarded as a breathtaking piece of affrontery - looks for a share of Jewish responsibility for the savagery inflicted upon the Jews in our own tainted century. (Ironically, he thereby places himself in a curious if loose alliance with those reactionary ultra-orthodox rabbis who see the Holocaust as divine punishment for the abandonment of God's commandments.)

Having identified the role of David Ricardo and other Jewish theorists in the advancement of modern capitalism, and that of Jewish mercantilism in general in its consolidation, Professor Cantor appears to diagnose the world's pre-1945 economic difficulties by reference to Gentile failure - and attendant frustrations - to emulate those successes: "it may be argued that the Jews were convenient scapegoats for these systemic ills. That is true, but it is also true that the Jews were not entirely blameless victims, and the complaints against them were not totally without foundation."

While this line of thought may be useful in recognising the power of baser human instincts to hinder achievement and progress, it does sail dangerously close to the wind of justification for the worst criminal excesses and indeed passive acceptance of them. This is clearly not Cantor's intention, given his constant chastisement of the Jewish establishment for its failure to act at crucial moments of danger: "severe as the czarist measures were, when we look at the other side of the ledger and see what the rabbis and zaddikim were doing - aside from distributing charity - to get the Jews out of their stinking impoverished domiciles ... the answer has to be - nothing."

He is perhaps on firmer ground when criticising Zionist lack of appreciation of Arab and Islamic culture. That Jews and other formerly persecuted minorities - American blacks, for example - are themselves capable of racism is sadly apparent in some of the Jewish opposition to the present Israeli government's attempts to negotiate peace with their neighbours, and in the nauseating nonsense spouted by black demagogues like Louis Farrakhan.

Professor Cantor's is, in short, an opinionated history but a stimulating one, important in its re-examination of a number of ossified assumptions about Jewish history. He sets historical milestones in a meaningful context and is very informative on the interaction and inter-relationships of Jews with other peoples and cultures at every turn in their history.

The book is unfortunately flawed by a rash of stylistic horrors, mainly deriving from a populist impulse but also indicative of an unseemly, unacademic rush into print. Its author also occasionally falls prey to a sin of which he accuses others, that of trying to impose rigid patterns upon intractable material. And, in common with many historians, his powers of looking forward seem a good deal weaker than his ability to comprehend the past. His vision of a Jewish future built amid the ruins of a decayed religious culture with the weighty foundation stones supplied by secular Jewish luminaries of the 19th and 20th centuries is a desperately contrived ideal.

If the cultural impact of future Durkheims, Freuds, Wittgensteins and Chomskys is to be in any way Jewish in character, such individuals will need the sounding board possessed by their illustrious progenitors; an astonishingly resilient and influential system of ethics that, having survived against greater odds in the past and passing centuries, is surely likely to do so in the next.