A startling discovery

Martin van Creveld, the Israeli military historian and one of the very few genuine geniuses I have ever met, observes that, contrary to what he was taught, his people are not unique:

Great books, like great teachers, are those which make you reexamine your assumptions. By that standard, there can be little doubt that Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century is a very great book. To help you understand why, let me start with a brief description of the way we in Israel have been taught Jewish history for so long.

Once upon a time—no one knows just when—there was a man called Abraham. Born in Ur, modern Mesopotamia, he was 75 years old when God revealed Himself to him and told him to move to Canaan, aka the Land of Israel, aka (much later) Palestine. Which country, He solemnly promised, would forever belong to him and his offspring. A relative handful of converts apart, it was from Abraham’s loins that all subsequent Jews were and are descended. Their history is like that of no other people; after many twists and turns, they were finally driven (almost all of them) from Canaan by the wicked Romans. Scattered in all directions, but held together by their unique religion, for close to two thousand years they lived without a homeland of their own. Now tolerated and exploited, now subject to pogroms and/or driven away from one country into another, always at the mercy of their non-Jewish neighbors, they somehow succeeded in retaining their identity like no other people on earth. Something not even Adolf Hitler, who set out to exterminate them and killed one third of their number, was able to change.

In comes Yuri Slezkine, a Russian born (1956- ) Jew who currently lives in the United States. The Jews, he explains in the first chapter of the book, are not unique at all. Instead they are one among a great many nations whom he groups together under the rubric, “Mercurian.” Including, to mention but a few, the Gypsies of Europe, the Persians and the Jain of India, the Copts of Egypt, the Fuga of southern Ethiopia, the Ibo of modern Nigeria, the Eta of traditional Japan, the Armenians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, the Nestorians in the Middle East, the Mormons in the U.S—an example Slezkine does not mention–and, above all, the overseas Chinese.

“Mercurian” peoples were and are distinguished from the rest—Apollonians, is what Slezkine calls them—in two principal ways. First, they regard themselves as a people chosen by God. Not just any God, but specifically their own tribal one. To retain that status they develop and maintain a different religion, a different language, a different culture, different mores—as, for example, in wearing turbans (the Sikh community of India) and eating only kosher food—as well as an often strictly enforced endogamy. Second, whether out of their own will or because of the restrictions under which they live, they tend to avoid production—first agriculture, later industry—in favor of other, specifically urban, professions. Including money changers, bankers, peddlers, traders, physicians, pharmacists (both in my family and that of my wife there were several of those), scribes, writers, musicians, actors, fortune tellers, matchmakers, agents, lawyers, and middlemen of every kind. The sort of people who, compared with their mostly rural neighbors, tended to be well ahead in terms of literacy and modernity in general.

Thus, contrary to what I and countless Israelis have been taught, we Jews are not unique.

Self-aggrandizing fictions notwithstanding, what Israelis are taught is still considerably more historically accurate than what Americans are taught about themselves. At least they are not taught that they are nothing more than the physical manifestation of an idea that anyone on the planet can adopt and thereby transform himself into a genuine American every bit as as baseball and apple pie as the direct genetic posterity of the Mayflower settlers and the soldiers of the Revolution.

Read the whole thing there.


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