A HISTORY OF THE JEWS
IN THE MODERN WORLD
By Howard M. Sachar
Knopf. 831 pp. $40
Howard M. Sachar has a good story to tell. The history of Jews in modern times -- from the 18th century to the present -- is an epic saga, and Sachar attempts to hit all the high points, dealing with the six continents on which Jews have lived. (Only Antarctica does not come into play.) He concludes with an assessment of Jewish prospects in the 21st century. The result is a rich and balanced account of the emergence of Jews as major players in the worlds of commerce, culture and politics -- and also as victims of vicious and at times murderous anti-Semitism. The book is also more reader-friendly than its length and global ambition may suggest because each of its many chapters is brief enough to be read in a sitting.
Sachar, an emeritus professor at George Washington University and the author of 15 previous books, focuses on political history to trace the fortunes of Jews as the countries in which they lived (particularly in the United States and Western and Central Europe) expanded their definitions of citizenship to include the Jews, who had previously been treated as aliens and disparaged as religious deviants. Although he discusses the efforts of Jews to improve their legal status, their emancipation -- the conferring upon them of citizenship -- essentially depended on the development of various models of the modern nation-state and not on Jewish lobbying. The new nation-states did not emancipate their Jews out of benevolence but because they would not tolerate a self-governing community in a polity supposed to be composed of individual subjects. Enlightenment concepts of toleration, combined with the centralization of state power and considerations of economic utility, necessitated equalizing the status of Jews with that of other residents, rather than expelling them. As he depicts these changes in all the major centers of Jewish life, from Britain to Germany to Russia, Sachar provides the political context of developments affecting the Jews in each locale.
With their newfound equality, emancipated Jews increasingly became agents of history. After the removal of the old, pre-Enlightenment anti-Semitic restrictions, and because of their long experience with commerce and finance, Jews were well-positioned to take active roles in the development of capitalist and industrial economies. Sachar pays considerable attention to prominent Jews such as the Rothschilds, who greased the wheels of capitalist economies, and to Jewish entrepreneurs who excelled in newspaper and book publishing and pioneered the establishment of department stores. He is similarly intrigued by the importance of well-positioned Jewish plutocrats like Moses Montefiore of England, Gerson Bleichroder of Germany and Jacob Schiff of the United States, who functioned as diplomats on behalf of Jewish victims of discrimination worldwide. Sachar's thumbnail portraits of these men is particularly good, as are his lucid summations of complex political and diplomatic incidents. His presentation of Zionism and his portrait of Theodor Herzl are judicious. His pages on the Dreyfus affair -- the judicial railroading of a Jewish army officer, which tested the limits of French democracy and became an international cause celebre at the turn of the 20th century -- accomplish the difficult task of presenting key elements of a convoluted historical event. He is similarly successful in his considerations of the varieties of anti-Semitism -- above all the Holocaust -- with which Jews have contended in the modern period.
Sachar's emphasis on politics, however, leads him to scant other important aspects of the modern Jewish historical experience. Judaism as a religious phenomenon, not just a social one, is scarcely examined. Sachar sees Jewish mysticism and Hasidism -- two important religious movements that have recently yielded much innovative scholarship -- as mere psychological reactions to the stresses that beset Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries. He concludes that in the 19th century, Hasidism "devolve[d] into an unregenerate defender of pietistic obscurantism." Indeed, many forms of traditional Jewish observance are described here as parochial or fundamentalist. Similarly, while Sachar is fully aware of the transformation of modern Judaism, its adaptation to Western norms of decorum, its challenge of traditional Jewish law and the emergence of non-Orthodox denominations, he assumes that today's Reform and Conservative movements are merely pragmatic adaptations to the conditions of modernity -- to the need to appear like one's fellow citizens and function in an economy in which Saturday is scarcely a day of rest. He does not expect his readers to be interested in the ideas and practices of these denominations or the spiritual meaning that their adherents sought and continue to seek. For Sachar, religion is a mere reaction to social conditions rather than a shaper of events.
The historical experience of ordinary Jews -- the very heart of the Jewish social history that dominated historical study in the last decades of the 20th century -- also takes a distant second place to the dramatic political and diplomatic issues that Sachar foregrounds. The approach of cultural studies, with its emphasis on conflicting self-definitions and the ways in which groups construct cultures and subcultures, is entirely absent. Although Sachar deserves kudos for not limiting his history to Europe and North America, his interest in the Jews of Muslim lands, in particular, does not extend to their distinct culture. Finally, if you are at all interested in the history of Jewish women, you will have to look elsewhere.
These omissions point to Sachar's failure to incorporate the scholarship of the last generation into this sprawling book. Although he lists a few recent works in his bibliography, he mostly relies on books published before 1980. Even when a later book is included in the bibliography, it is difficult to discern its impact on Sachar's narrative (unless it contributes to a diplomatic or political story).
There is no other book that attempts, as this one does, to recount the history of Jews in modern times in all its geographical variation and breathtaking disparity. Despite its limitations, this is a wide-ranging comparative study that provides a comprehensive -- and readable -- overview of modern Jewish history. *
Paula E. Hyman teaches modern Jewish history at Yale University.