The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine
The equation of Jewishness with the quintessence of modernity, the central thesis of Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, is hardly new. Neither, however, is it as old as modernity itself. If one goes back to the time of the Enlightenment and the beginnings of the industrial revolution, one finds the Jews widely regarded, by their own Europeanized intellectuals no less than by Christian society, as the epitome of backwardness. Self-imposed isolation, religious primitivism, economic and social stagnation, intellectual obscurantism—these were the attributes attached to them. A small number of them, like the Rothschilds or the Oppenheimers, had become or were becoming cosmopolitan entrepreneurs and bankers involved in changing the face of Europe. But these were assumed to be either mere throwbacks to the medieval Jewish moneylender or anomalies, atypical of the Jewish world beyond whose confines their success had propelled them. One of the first European intellectuals to propose otherwise was the perfunctorily baptized German-Jewish poet and essayist Heinrich Heine. In an essay written after viewing a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in London in 1838, Heine remarked: All Europe is catching up with the Jews. I say catching up because from the outset the Jews embodied the principle of modernity [das moderne Prinzip] that is now visibly unfolding among the peoples of Europe.
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.