Few people today lack familiarity with at least some aspects of the oft-told history of the Jews, but Norman F. Cantor brings to his task both a Judaic passion for his subject and a professional historian’s capacity for fixing both familiar and unfamiliar events over the past three millennia in a larger social and intellectual context. His book is a candid, compelling, and controversial one.
The “sacred chain” of Cantor’s title alludes to a distinctive culture and society surviving through centuries of struggle and dispersion by virtue of an abiding conviction in a unique holy covenant and retaining its religious aura into an age characterized by increasing devitalization of traditional beliefs and observances. Cantor has arranged his material, with perhaps a glance in the direction of epic convention, in twelve roughly chronological, but primarily thematic chapters. The important ninth chapter, “The Response to Modernity and Modernism,” for example, illustrates one of these themes: the extraordinary upward social mobility of Jews worldwide between 1780 and 1910, which provides a perspective for the following chapter, “The Wall of Hatred,” centering on, but not limited to, the Holocaust. The final chapter, although secular in its emphasis, is, appropriately enough, prophetic, and reaches a conclusion likely to surprise many readers.
The author renders severe judgments: often, of course, against the Gentile world for centuries of prejudice and oppression, but a considerable number of them against the Jews themselves. For example, despite the formidable obstacles faced by Jews abroad at the time of the Nazi atrocities, Cantor believes that by strenuous efforts they could have saved as many as two million victims. He is untiring in his criticism of the modern rabbinate as out-of-date, ineffectual, and totally unable to come to terms with the challenges of the great modern thinkers. It should be noted that Cantor’s list of the five greatest of these thinkers—Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, Franz Boas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—is a roster of Jews. An additional quartet of postmodernist Jewish intellectuals—Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky, and Harold Bloom, all men whom he describes as typically Jewish in their intellectual style—also await integration into a Jewish cultural tradition severely rent by their collective achievements.
Cantor also charges this oft-victimized people with having frequently victimized themselves. He cites the Ashkenazi culture that emanated from a center of rabbinical scholarship in Mainz in the early Middle Ages and subsequently suffered at the hands of Jewish converts to Roman Catholicism, and the poor Jews in the Ukraine in the seventeenth century who owed their afflictions not just to absentee Gentile landlords, but also to their Jewish representatives who had forgotten, or neglected to apply, ideas of social justice from their own religious heritage. He views the prevailing attitude of West Bank Jews toward the Palestinians in the mid-1990’s as another instance of the former acting as their own worst enemies.
Sometimes Jews have done themselves damage not by forgetting their principles but by pursuing them zealously at the expense of prudent self-interest. In the early decades of the twentieth century, for example, Jews inclined to join with Protestant groups eager to maintain the “wall of separation” between church and state by opposing all attempts to divert public funds to schools under religious auspices, thereby cultivating the enmity of Roman Catholics seeking to relieve the burden of supporting two expensive school systems. Cantor argues that if Jews had joined forces on the opposite side, they might have been able to rejuvenate their own struggling religious schools and, at the same time, gained the good will of American Catholics, which later might have translated into desperately needed support for Jews at the mercy of the merciless Adolf Hitler.
If such arguments are liable to displease many Jews, his bold, calm, and frequent assertions of the intellectual superiority of Jews—a superiority that he consistently describes as genetic—cannot fail to disturb many others concerned with the hot potato of ethnic and racial differences. Given the disproportionately numerous achievements of Jews in the learned professions, literature, business, and entertainment, however, it is difficult to argue against his controversial contention (as it is difficult to argue against a similar interpretation of the vastly disproportionate achievements of blacks in athletic endeavors). Certainly Cantor fortifies his case with an impressive array of evidence.
Cantor’s annotated and very up-to-date bibliography substantiates his claim that a reappraisal of Jewish history involving a hard look at the meaning of Judaism is badly needed, but he sees two factors—the conservatism of wealthy Jewish...
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