The Jewish Century
By Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press
'The modern age is the Jewish age, and the 20th century, in particular, is the Jewish century," affirms Yuri Slezkine in his opening paragraph, and then spends the next 437 pages of his brilliant, erudite and iconoclastic book backing up his thesis.
In the course of The Jewish Century, the author buttresses his case by calling on Greek mythology, Tevye's daughters, tribal anthropology and the Jewish people's "three paradises and one hell" of the last one hundred-plus years.
Slezkine, a history professor and director of the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, was born in Moscow 49 years ago into a family integrated into the Soviet intelligentsia.
When young Yuri was 11, he learned to his astonishment that his mother's side of the family was Jewish, and "I became half-Jewish," he writes.
The book's far-ranging scope can be roughly divided into three propositions:
Human societies have evolved through the interplay and tensions between "Mercurians" and "Apollonians." The first derive their appellations from Mercury, or Hermes, god of messengers, merchants, interpreters, craftsmen, guides, healers and travelers.
The second owe their name to Apollo, god of livestock and agriculture and deity of peasant-farmers and their superstructure of warriors and priests.
The Mercurian "service nomads," usually ethnic strangers in their host countries, have historically performed the tasks which the land-bound Apollonians shunned or were unable to perform.
Mercurians communicated with other tribes or lands, handled money and trade, treated diseases, were able to read and write, and domesticated fire to become metal workers.
No tribe produced more skilled Mercurians than Jews - "urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious and occupationally flexible."
But as the service and communication sectors in most countries vastly expanded in the 20th century and in the age of globalization, while the rural, food-producing sector declined, all advanced societies have become predominantly Mercurian and, in that sense, Jewish.
Ironically, maintains Slezkine, the only nation-state to have bucked the trend of becoming more "Jewish" is Israel, which tried to transform European intellectuals into kibbutz Apollonians.
Throughout most of history, Mercurians and Apollonians have despised and distrusted each other, with the majority Apollonians rising at regular intervals to do in the Mercurian strangers through pogroms, expulsions or worse.
An obvious target has been the Jews, but anti-Semitism, the oldest hatred, is neither as unique nor as unexplainable as we are wont to believe.
Many other ethnic trader groups in other countries have suffered similar fates, argues Slezkine, be they Roma-Gypsies in the Balkans, Armenians in Turkey, overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, Indians in East Africa, or Lebanese in South America.
But the last century became Jewish not only because most everybody else adopted the Mercurian prototype, but because Russian and other East European Jews set out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on three migrations in search of paradise.
(The contrasting hell, of course, was the Holocaust, which Slezkine sees partly as the ultimate rage of the Apollonian mind.)
One road led to America, where the descendants of the emigrants were highly influential in building the liberal-capitalistic state.
A smaller but influential wave reached the shores of Palestine to create a new brawny Jew and an egalitarian society.
The third and least reported migration was by the shtetl Jews confined in the Pale of Settlement to Moscow, Leningrad and other major cities during and following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
There the young, bright Jews of both genders became the devoted builders of the Communist state. In an awesome array of detailed statistics, Slezkine documents the large, frequently dominant, influence of the new Soviet "non-Jewish Jew" in the top echelons of the bureaucracy, KGB, espionage service, and even the Gulag administration.
Perhaps on the assumption that everyone has seen Fiddler on the Roof, Slezkine appropriates the names of three of the five daughters of Tevye the dairyman, to personalize the three great Jewish migrations.
In Slezkine's version of the Shalom Aleichem stories, Beilke follows her husband to the United States, Chava proceeds to Palestine, and Hodel, the revolutionary, moves to Moscow, where her husband Perchik becomes a commissar.
Perhaps most startling in a highly provocative book is Slezkine's view of Israel. As the rest of the world becomes more "Jewish," he writes, "only Israel continued to live in the European 1930s," building a society which "worshipped athleticism and inarticulateness, celebrated combat and secret police, promoted hiking and scouting, despised doubt and introspection, and embodied the seamless unity of the chosen.
"Israel of the 1950s and 1960s was not simply Apollonian and anti-Mercurian," but was so "at a time when much of the Western world was moving in the opposite direction.
"The attempt to create a 'normal' state for the Jews," Slezkine concludes, "has resulted in the creation of a peculiar anachronistic exception."
In an interview, the Berkeley professor acknowledged that his analysis of the nascent Israel "might not be quite as true today," but that such Apollonian characteristics as retribution, retaliation and ethnic purity still played a large part in the contemporary makeup of Israel.
Slezkine's opus is not without its critics, though even they are impressed by the author's erudition and literary grace.
UCLA historian David N. Myers, for one, questions Slezkine's "Judeo-centric vision" of history. He writes, "It strikes me as triumphalist and tunnel-visioned to award the entire 20th century, no less the whole modern age, to the Jews."
Given the enduring nationalism and ethnic violence of our time, Myers also considers it "a stretch to label our age Mercurian. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of ceaseless battles between Mercurian and Apollonian impulses, if not outright Apollonian victories."
Prof. Noah Efron of Bar-Ilan and Princeton universities, however, is almost awestruck. He recalls the astonishment of British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who, upon reading Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species for the first time, marveled that so clear and simple a treatise could explain so much that had been overlooked for so long.
"I could be Slezkine's Huxley," concludes Efron.
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