Commentary Magazine

The Jews in Our Time, by Norman Bentwich

Guidebook to Modern Jewry
The Jews in Our Time.
by Norman Bentwich.
Penguin Books. 176 pp. 95¢.


Norman Bentwich’s survey of the modern Jewish scene is the second “original” devoted to Jewish matters to be issued by the English publishing house of Penguin Books; last year they brought out a historical survey, Isadore Epstein’s Judaism. The publication by Penguin—noted for its serious, even scholarly, titles—of these two volumes, would seem to be another indication of a widespread intellectual interest in Jewish life, based on the belief that a knowledge of its past character and present tendencies is worth the attention of the educated man. On Jewish life in the modern world, Penguin could scarcely have found a more knowledgeable writer than Norman Bentwich. From 1918—1931 he served as attorney-general in the civil government of Palestine, and for the following twenty years was a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University. He was also the director of the High Commission for German Refugees in London during the 1930’s, and since 1948 has been the chairman of the United Restitution Office. In all, he has written some twenty books on Jewish subjects, ranging from Hellenistic Judaism to Palestine-Israel.

The Jews in Our Time, like most of Bentwich’s works, is addressed to a popular audience. And the weakness in the apparatus of its scholarship is evident in the total absence of sources or bibliography, and in the far from adequate index. There are mistakes in names, and important content has been omitted from the discussion at some points. Elsewhere, Bentwich tends to exaggerate the significance of certain ideological conceptions—belied, in fact, by his own observations. Nevertheless, the general problem of the non-technical survey is solved remarkably well by the author. The Jews in Our Time is a model of effective condensation, distinguished by a notable grace of style. The historical introduction telescopes the background story from Abraham to the State of Israel in some fifty pages, with a fairly dazzling virtuosity.

Bentwich’s perspective is essentially a contemporary one, with Western Jewry in the foreground. Intended primarily for the British reader, the book devotes twice as much space to the development of Jewish life in England as to East European Jewish history up to 1939. Bentwich tells us where the Jews live today throughout the world: describing their socio-economic status and their relations with their non-Jewish neighbors, their intellectual and religious life, and their attitude toward Israel. Depicting the Jews as a national-ethnic group, with diminishing religious content, he shows that their position on the margins of society has enhanced their contribution to the intellectual life and economic development of the countries in which they live. Bentwich seems pleased with much of what he sees in Jewish life today: an established Jewish state and a prosperous Jewish Diaspora of high intellectual stature—here of course he is considering mainly British and American Jewry. The dark side of the picture is that of Russian Jewry and the shadow that was cast across all Jewish life by the German genocide. Thus Bentwich’s little book becomes a serviceable guide—for Jew or Gentile—to some measure of understanding the present Jewish situation against the background of the Enlightenment, anti-Semitism and Nazism, and Jewish nationalism.

Moreover this Penguin serves, I think, as a necessary corrective to Epstein’s Judaism (which according to Penguin’s latest ad, is its 29th best-seller among American college students). Despite Epstein’s credentials (he is a rabbi, with doctorates in philosophy and literature, the principal of Jews’ College in London—Britain’s rabbinical seminary—and editor of Soncino’s 36—volume Babylonian Talmud in English), it is unfortunate that his has become the paperback which tells the world about Judaism. His point of view is fundamentalist and Halachic—he devotes in all a mere thirty-five pages to Judaism after the Enlightenment. Fortunately then, for Penguin readers, Bentwich has reversed Epstein’s emphasis: telling us what the Jews are, as against what they should be, according to Epstein’s literal reading of the Bible and atavistic approach to Jewish law.



Norman Bentwich hag described himself in his autobiography as A Wanderer Between Two Worlds, thus emphasizing in the title his passage from the Victorian world to the modern, and calling attention to the special meaning of his career. Dedicated all his life to Zionism, he has nevertheless chosen to think of himself, as a Jew, in this ambivalent way, and the same ambivalence is reflected in his present book. Much as Bentwich loves and admires Israel, he cannot conceive of a world without a Jewish Diaspora, of a civilized society without benefit of individual Jewish powers of mind and spirit. “Jewish dissimilation,” Bentwich writes, “is as important for the well-being of the whole society as Jewish assimilation.” The creation of Israel cannot mean the eventual disappearance of a Jewish Diaspora, Bentwich says, emphasizing that “since the First Captivity, dispersion has been an essential quality of the Jewish people.” Bentwich, a disciple of Ahad Ha-am, holds the view—popular today among many Zionists who once repudiated it—that Israel may become a great spiritual center with a message for all the world: “If that message is given, Greater Jewry, distributed over all parts of the globe, will be linked by a chain of the spirit with Israel, and will strengthen their attachment to a Judaism revived and reinvigorated by the influences that come again from Jerusalem.”

Nevertheless, it must be said—against the optimism that pervades Bentwich’s little book—that today, under conditions of material well-being, there is relatively little creative Jewish life in the Diaspora. Individual Jews contribute richly to the culture of the nations. But, despite the unprecedented multiplication of institutions and organizations, synagogue membership and Jewish school enrollment—Jewish communal and religious life remains essentially inert. Nor do there seem to be any stirrings of Jewish creativity in Israel that could have meaning for the Diaspora. Of course Israeli culture must; naturally and inevitably, develop in different directions from the Jewish past. Bentwich himself describes the alienation of the sabra from the past of two thousand years, and the efforts of the Israeli Ministry of Education to remedy the situation with courses in Jewish Consciousness. But it will take more than that to bring about a true cultural interchange between Israel and the Diaspora.



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