Commentary Magazine


The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine

The Jewish Century
by Yuri Slezkine
Princeton. 344 pp. $29.95

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.

Heine continued, explaining himself:

The Greeks and Romans championed the soil, the Fatherland. Subsequently, Greco-Romanized northern Europe championed the person of the chieftain, replacing the patriotism of antiquity with the vassalage and fidelity to princes of the Middle Ages. The Jews, however, championed only the law and abstract thought, as do the cosmopolitan republicans of our own age, who esteem above all neither homeland nor ruler, but law alone.

Heine’s point was that in modern, capitalist Europe the individual’s connection to his fellow was being defined less and less by determinants of blood and birth like tribe, polis, family, clan, guild, and social caste, and more and more by universally recognized rights and obligations that regulated all of human life. The single bureaucratic state was now the theater of operations for everyone, and everyone was an autonomous player on a vast field of interlocking relationships—economic relationships, above all—where performance was increasingly a function of private abilities, talents, and proclivities.

And because (Heine thought) the original model for a society in which a commitment to law replaced personal loyalties was the Torah and its rabbinic exposition, by whose precepts Jews had always lived, the Jew was the modern, capitalist man par excellence. The rise of families like the Oppenheimers or the Rothschilds from small-time merchants and moneylenders to international economic powers was, far from being an anomaly, an essential expression of their Jewishness. All that had changed was that the same Europe that once, in medieval times, had excluded the Jewish “shylock” as a pariah was itself now being “Judaized,” so that Shylock could compete on equal terms. The Oppenheimers and Rothschilds were only the first; many more like them were sure to follow.

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Heine was not alone in his day in associating the Jews with the transformation of values that had turned the pre-modern world into the modern one—a transformation that would be systematically described decades later in the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies’s classic Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Moses Hess, the Jewish socialist and subsequent early Zionist, expressed similar thoughts, as did Karl Marx, who in place of law substituted money as the ultimate abstraction that the Jew was devoted to. Marx’s The Jewish Question (1843), declaring that “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist” and that the “god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world,” was to become a seminal text for the anti-Semitic European Left.

On the whole, however, late-19th- and 20th-century Jewish historiography, though it did not slight the economic and social role of the Jews in modern times, failed to follow up on Heine’s aperçu. (The one important exception was the German economist Werner Sombart’s The Jews and Modern Capitalism, published in 1911 and later put to anti-Semitic purposes by the Nazis.) Perhaps this was because, as the writing of Jewish history became a more academic discipline, it also became a more cautious one. Moreover, it was a discipline largely in the hands of Jewish scholars, educated and rooted in Jewish society, whose work had both an insider’s perspective and an apologetic bias.

In this perspective, Jewish life, when seen from close up, was intricate, multifaceted, and riddled with internal conflicts and contradictions, and thus hardly amenable to sweeping generalizations like Heine’s. Why make, or even discuss, grandiose claims for it that would only provide more grist for the mills of the anti-Semites, who already blamed the Jews for all the ills of capitalism and modernity alike?

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As the author of a book that begins by paraphrasing Heine with the declaration that “Modernization is about everyone becoming Jewish,” Yuri Slezkine, who teaches history at the University of California, is therefore, one might say, the right historian at the right time. Russian born and educated, he comes to his subject, despite the Jewish grandmother that he tells us about, very much as an outsider, having had neither a Jewish upbringing nor training in Jewish history. And writing about 19th- and 20th-century Jewry at the start of the 21st century, he has returned to Heine’s proposition in an era in which it is no longer a handy weapon for anti-Semites, at least of the “progressive” variety.

Not that anti-Semitism, alas, has ceased to exist. But the anti-Semitism of our global village has largely reverted to the period when the modern age began: it blames the Jews, and especially the state established by them, for being backward and tribalistic as the rest of humanity enters the age of universal man. Gemeinschaft, the comfortingly coherent community of the pre-modern past whose disappearance it was once fashionable to mourn, is today intellectually out; Gesellschaft, the fluid, open society of the post-modern present, is in. To make the case, as Slezkine does, for the Jews having been the supreme engineers of Gesellschaft is thus to pay them the highest compliment.

Slezkine does not use Tonnies’s terminology, just as he does not mention Heine’s Merchant of Venice essay. Nor, coming 150 years afterward, is he looking at quite the same things. Indeed, in equating the Jews with das moderne Prinzip he faces a paradox different from the one faced by Heine. The latter had to ask himself the question: how is it that the same Jews who are everywhere still mired in backwardness are also at the cutting edge of a new capitalist class that is forging the future of Europe? Slezkine, whose area of expertise is Russian history, asks a different question: how is it that the same Jews who were everywhere so prominent in the development and advance of modern capitalism became also so prominent in the great anti-capitalist movements of the times, and specifically of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet society it constructed? How explain that, judging by every statistical means of measurement at our disposal, the Jews, more than any other people, were the outstanding success stories of two such opposite processes?

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Much of The Jewish Century consists of marshaling those statistics, which, though composing a picture that has been sketched many times, are impressive when presented in bulk. Take pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, for instance. On a single page (and there are many others like it), Slezkine informs us that, as recorded in different years of the late-19th and early-20th century, Jews in Odessa accounted for 57 percent of the city’s factory production and 90 percent of its grain exports, and controlled most of its banks; that in Ukraine they owned one-third of all sugar mills; that in Kiev (in which the average Jew was not even allowed to reside), they composed 36.8 percent of all corporate managers; and that in St. Petersburg, where they made up a mere 2 percent of the population, they were 43 percent of all stock brokers and 37 percent of all business owners. And this, in a period when the overall Jewish situation in the Russian empire was so dire and seemingly so hopeless that 2 million Jews, most of them impoverished, were emigrating westward, largely to America.

Comes the 1917 revolution: did Jews, who comprised, as Slezkine documents, a remarkably high proportion of the Bolshevik leadership in its early years (45 percent of the Bolshevik Central Committee, 31 percent of Bolshevik delegates to the First All-Russian Congress, 40 percent of elected officials in the Red Army, 41.7 percent of the governing bureau of the Petrograd Soviet, etc.), lose out now that their capitalist skills were no longer in demand? Not at all. Not only were they, in 1935, 38.5 percent of the “leading cadres” of the Soviet secret police, but in 1939, when they made up only 1.8 percent of the Soviet population, they were 17.1 percent of all university students in Moscow, 19 percent in Leningrad, 24.6 percent in Kharkov, and 35.6 percent in Kiev. In Leningrad, they were 69.4 percent of all dentists; 58.6 percent of all pharmacists; 45 percent of all defense lawyers; 38.6 percent of all doctors; 31.3 percent of all writers, journalists, and editors; and 24.6 percent of all musicians. They were 19.6 percent of all physicians in the entire Soviet Union and 14.1 percent of all researchers and university professors.

Indeed, until the Holocaust and the semi-official anti-Semitism that set in soon after World War II, the Jews of the socialist Soviet Union, Slezkine shows, were achievers every bit as spectacular as the Jews of the capitalist United States. Simply putting this down to inbred Jewish intelligence would be at best a partial explanation; although three times as many Jews as Russians had a Soviet high-school education in 1939, Jews were certainly not (if one may be allowed a statistical joke) three times as smart. Some other way of accounting for it must be looked for.

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Slezkine’s way of doing this is to invent a terminology of his own that he then uses to link the Jews, anthropologically, with a wide range of other minorities: Indian traders in East Africa, Chinese businessmen in Indonesia, Gypsies, Irish tinkers, and even exotic groups like the Humli-Khyampa of Nepal and the Inadan of the Sahara. Resorting to ancient Greek mythology and religion, Slezkine describes all of these as “Mercurians” vis-à-vis an “Apollonian” majority in whose midst they dwelled.

Being “service nomads,” he writes, these Mercurians were

nonprimary producers specializing in the delivery of goods and services to the surrounding agricultural or pastoral populations. Their principal resource base was human, not natural. . . . They were the descendants—or predecessors—of Hermes (Mercury), the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, art, and craft. . . . What all of Hermes’ followers had in common was their mercuriality, or impermanence. In the case of nations, it meant that they were all transients and wanderers—from fully nomadic Gypsy groups, to mostly commercial communities divided into fixed brokers and traveling agents, to permanently settled populations who thought of themselves as exiles.

Hermes, writes Slezkine, “had nothing except his wit.” His “big brother” Apollo, by contrast,

possessed most things in the universe because he was the god of both livestock and agriculture. As the patron of food production, Apollo owned much of the land . . . protected sailors and warriors, and inspired true poets. He was both manly and eternally young, athletic and artistic, prophetic and dignified—the most universal of all gods and the most commonly worshiped. . . . The difference between Apollonians and Mercurians is the all-important difference between those who grow food and those who create concepts and artifacts. The Mercurians are always sober but never dignified.

In the pre-modern past, the “sober but never dignified” Jewish merchant, artisan, shopkeeper, and moneylender had made his living from the “manly” Russian, Polish, or German peasantry and ruling nobility; the two, Jews and Christians, lived side by side, joined, as “Mercurians” and “Apollonians” always are, by mutual need and mutual disdain. And as always, too, despite the Mercurian’s mental advantages, it was the Apollonian who, being physically stronger and more numerous, “had the upper hand”—until, that is, modern times came along and “things began to change.”

This, writes Slezkine, was because modernity was about

everyone becoming a service nomad: mobile, clever, articulate, occupationally flexible, and good at being a stranger. . . . Some Apollonian groups would prove willing and able to convert to Mercurianism; others would balk, fail, or rebel. No one would remain immune, however, and no one was better at being a scriptural [i.e., educated and literate] Mercurian—and therefore “modern”—than [the original] scriptural Mercurians, old and new.

We are in a sense, then, back to Heine. The modern European Jew, Slezkine maintains, possessed not only native intelligence but a set of attitudes that, while they had helped him to survive in the medieval period, too, were of limited power in a Christian world that had exploited but not honored them and that lived by different values of its own. What modernity did was to turn “Jewish” values into general ones—not because Jews imposed their values on Christians, but because, under capitalism and socialism alike, old hierarchies collapsed, giving the advantage to whoever, like the Jews, was by habit quick and changeable enough to spot and seize new opportunities. Although modernization was about “everyone becoming Jewish,” it would have taken place even had the Jews never existed. The fact that they did exist, however, gave them a running head start.

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The Jewish Century revives, with intellectual sophistication and stylistic verve, an old perception of the Jew’s centrality to modernity. Yet we did not need Yuri Slezkine to tell us that the Jews, when they have not been persecuted and murdered, have done extremely well in modern times under highly varied conditions, and that this must have something to do with their pre-modern mode of life. Why, then, has The Jewish Century been showered by reviewers, even those critical of aspects of it, with accolades like “daring,” “original,” “audacious,” “provocative and brilliant,” and “a bracing breath of fresh air”?

The answer, it would seem, lies in the conceptual apparatus surrounding Slezkine’s “Mercurian/ Apollonian” distinction. In his long opening chapter, “Mercury’s Sandals,” which is the book’s most interesting, he indeed does a masterful job of integrating a wealth of information, culled from dozens of studies ranging as far afield as “Peddling in East Afghanistan” and “The Function of Peripatetics in Rwala Bedouin Society,” in order to show how much Jews have had in common with other “Mercurians” or “service nomads” all over the world.

Of course, comparing Jewish commercial functions in pre-modern Europe with those of Chinese inhabitants of southeast Asia or of Indian settlers in Africa is also old-hat. Yet what Slezkine argues is that the traits shared by Jews with other “service nomads” extend well beyond the occupation of similar economic niches. They also include such things as distinctive religious beliefs; a sense of diaspora or exile; institutionalized feelings of superiority; endogamous marriage; social clannishness; dietary taboos and other ritual means of keeping apart from one’s “Apollonian” hosts; “secret” languages, often created, as in the case of Yiddish, by introducing incomprehensible foreign vocabulary into the local, “Apollonian” tongue; high literacy rates (a necessary requirement for conducting commerce and keeping books); and “corporate kinship” arrangements, whereby family businesses expand by taking in relatives rather than employing strangers. Seen in this light, Jewish “exceptionalism” was not very exceptional.

This raises an interesting hypothetical question. Obviously, modern European and American Jews would not have accomplished all they did, not only in commerce and the professions, but in the arts, sciences, entertainment industries, and other areas, had not Western civilization already attained high levels in these fields before the Jews entered them. Does this mean that any other developed “Mercurian” population—the overseas Chinese, for instance—would have done just as well had they had the good fortune to be, not in southeast Asia when the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution took place, but in Europe and America? Might they also then have ended up incinerated in a Holocaust, the victims of the jealousy and hatred of de-Apollonianized Apollonians? Would some of them have sought (as Slezkine describes the Zionist movement as having done) defensively to “Apollonianize” themselves, at the very moment that Europe was becoming “Mercurianized,” by creating a Chinese Zionism? Would Yuri Slezkine then have written a book called The Chinese Century?

Although hypotheticals like this cannot really be answered, many historians, and certainly many Jews, would instinctively react to such questions by saying: “No—despite everything, the Jews have been different.” But the clear implication of Slezkine’s analysis is “Yes.” Nothing that he says about the “Mercurianism” of the Jews gives us any reason to suppose that, substituted for them, another group of “service nomads” would not have had the same fate. In the end, if there is no need to be a Jew in order to be “Jewish,” being a Jew cannot mean very much.

This is the problem with Slezkine’s categories. “Apollonianism” and “Mercurianism” may explain many things, but when used as all-purpose historical tools they turn out, like all tools when applied to tasks for which they are not precisely fitted, a very roughly finished product. There is an old journalist’s quip that, in order to write a good book about a foreign country, one has to spend either less than two weeks in it or more than ten years—that is, to have either an outsider’s fresh but superficial impressions or an insider’s detailed knowledge, since anything in between is merely confusing. The Jewish Century is, on its own terms, a successfully provocative work, but only because Yuri Slezkine’s visit to Jewish history has been a brief one. Had he stayed any longer, he would have rightly begun to feel confused himself.

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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.




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