Field of Science

Book Review: "The Jews of Spain", by Jane Gerber

Jane Gerber’s “The Jews of Spain” is a superb and comprehensive look at the history of the Sephardim - one of the two major branches of Jewry, the other being the Ashkenazim. The Sephardim originated in Spain and today occupy a place of high prominence. While the Ashkenazim are better known, about sixty percent of Israel’s population consists of the Sephardim.

Two main qualities mark the Sephardim. One is common to all Jews, which is the ability to persevere and thrive against all odds through centuries. The other is more unique and was the flourishing of their numbers under Muslim rule. Except for Germany in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th, Jews have not thrived anywhere else so well after they were driven out from the Roman Empire.
The book starts with the miserable fate of the Jews in Spain under the Visigoths; the Jews had fled there after being persecuted under the Roman Empire. It was in 711 AD when the Arabs under Tariq invaded Spain and defeated the Visigoths that their fortunes changed. This was largely because of the tolerant, creative and far-ranging Umayyad Caliphate that moved to Spain from Damascus, with Abd-Al-Rahman I founding its branch in Spain. The Umayyad Caliphate marked one of the highlights of the history of Islamic Civilization, making its home in Cordoba at first and then in places like Seville and Toledo. Not only did it allow Jews to practice their religion freely but it employed them in almost all important professions. Jews still did not have all the same rights as Muslims, but they could trade, study medicine and the arts and sciences, compose poetry and music and generally take part in the political life of Islamic Spain to the fullest history. There were many notables among Jewish intellectuals, with perhaps the peak reached by Hasdai Ibn Shaprut who became vizier and foreign minister.
Politically, the most useful purpose the Jews of Spain served was to mediate between the Byzantine and Christian kingdoms and Muslim lands. In some sense, because they were equally loved and hated by both religions, the Jews could do this balancing act well as neutrals. The Jews of Spain assimilated Arabic and moved smoothly between Arabic and Hebrew, often translating texts between the two. Even more valuably, they translated important Greek texts on science and medicine into Arabic; later these Arabic texts were translated into Latin by Christian scholars during the translation movement of the 10th and 11th centuries. The Jews of Spain thus served as a critical conduit between the Muslim and Christian worlds, diplomatically trading and interacting with each world while performing valuable functions for both. Jews became great and far flung traders, braving pirates and trading precious pearls, textiles, spices and other goods. The Radhanites were a particularly prominent group of Jewish merchants who went back and forth between Spain and as far as India and China. Some of these Jews even made their homes in India and China, becoming for instance the Bene Israelites of Maharashtra in India.
This useful and productive existence came to an end with the Reconquista and the Christian invasions of Spain. After a period of more repressive and less tolerant Islamic regimes that included the Almoravids and the Almohads, the Jews started seeing a period of decline. After this brief resurgence, the Christians decisively defeated the Muslims in the Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212. Within the next few decades both Cordoba and Seville fell to the Christians, and only the Islamic Kingdom of Granada remained. When Granada fell to the Christians, the fate of Spain's Jews was sealed.
The next two hundred years marked a period of severe decline for the Jews of Spain. Many started converting under Christian pressure. But the real blow came when Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile unified the country. At first somewhat tolerant of the Jews, in 1478 they approved the dreaded Spanish Inquisition that started hauling converted Jews before feared magistrates like Torquemada, torturing and extracting false confessions from then. Finally the watershed came in 1492 when Isabella and Ferdinand issued the famous edict of expulsion that gave the 300,000 Jews of Spain the stark choice between converting or fleeing. The foremost intellectual among those expelled was the scholar Maimonides whose Mishneh Torah and Guide to the Perplexed remain, even today, touchstones of Judaism. Maimonides found refuge in Egypat. But many others left Spain and went to Portugal, where the Portuguese Inquisition was even worse. So pernicious were its methods that many Jews became marranos - underground Jews who quietly practiced their religion so cryptically that nobody knew. These crypto-Jews evolved a form of their religion that would have been almost incomprehensible to their ancestors. From these marranos arose some of the most prominent Jews of later years, including Spinoza.
When Portugal also denied the Jews sanctuary they dispersed to other parts of Europe and the Middle East. By this time the plight of Jews in Europe had become even more dire. The Black Death of 1347 had created an atmosphere of acute paranoia in which Jews were accused of perpetuating the blood libel and poisoning wells. Even the Catholic Pope cautioned against such unfounded rumors, but it did not stop violent pogroms erupting in which Jews were massacred wholesale and burnt alive. England had already banned the Jews a long time ago, and apart from scattered pockets in France like Bayonne, they could find no respite. It was at this point that the Jews saw their second resurgence in the Ottoman Empire - in Turkey.
The remarkable story of the Turkish Jews is a story unto itself, but in Istanbul under the Ottoman Emperors Suleiman, Bayezid and others, the Jews achieved a prominence that they had only achieved under the Umayyad Caliphate. Interestingly, it was here that they met the Ashkenazim who had come from Europe, and for a long time the much more affluent and educated Sephardim looked down upon their Ashkenazim co-religionists as uncouth and poor. Most importantly, and as a testament to the freedom they enjoyed, they were allowed to establish their own printing presses in the 15th and 16th centuries. The printing presses allowed them to keep not just their religion but many of their religious books alive. Once again they served as mediators with Christians in Europe. One of the most remarkable among these was the Portuguese marrano Dona Gracia, a self-taught Jewish woman who became a wealthy Jewish trader after fleeing from Portugal, led an underground pipeline for Portuguese Jews who were being targeted by the Inquisition and successfully organized a boycott of an Italian port after Jews there had been targeted by the papacy.
Unfortunately once the Ottoman Empire weakened in the 17th century and the Christian Kingdoms imposed a series of harsh punitive measures on the Jews there, they had no choice but to flee. The last part of the book describes this flight. The Jews of Turkey went in two different directions. Some went to Southeastern Europe, Greece and the Balkans. The others went to the Netherlands which in the 17th century was the most progressive country in Europe. Here the Jews found plenty of opportunities for trading and banking. One of the most important Jews here was Spinoza who was ironically excommunicated by his own people at the age of twenty-four and had to spend the rest of his life as a lens-maker to support himself. Nevertheless, he became the father of the Jewish Enlightenment and inspired many other philosophers in Europe.
From the Netherlands some Jews made it to South America, especially Brazil. But once Brazil was threatened by Portugal, a small group of Jews started out on a journey in 1654 to a hitherto unexplored country where they would establish the most important Jewish community of modern times - the nascent United States. Over the next one hundred years, Jews became successful traders and professionals in a secular republic, fought in the American Revolution and established thriving communities in many states, even making it as far as the Ohio Valley. The United States was to see two other great waves of European Jewry, one in the mid 19th century and the other in the early 20th century. They were welcomed with memorable words written on the statue of liberty by Emma Lazarus, also a Jew. But the Sephardim got here first, way back in 1654.
Sadly, the plight of the other wave of Ottoman Jewry was much worse. Greece was taken over by the Nazis and tens of thousands of Greek and Macedonian Jews were sent to the death camps. Once the war ended, scattered bands of Jews from all over Europe, the Middle East and survivors from the concentration camps started making their way back, looking for family and friends. Shattered to find most of these missing, they made their way to the only place that would give them spiritual solace - Israel. Today the majority of Israeli Jews are Sephardim.
The Sephardim retained a love for their ancestral country that was striking. After the Bosnian war in the 1990s, many petitioned the King of Spain to give them refuge back into a country which their ancestors had left hundreds of years ago. The ties that bound them to Spain were deep and invisible. Today when the Middle East is a cauldron of ethic and religious conflict between Israel and the Arab Nations, it’s worth remembering that historically, Jews had been treated much better by Muslim kings than by Christian ones. Their history in Spain and in the Ottoman Empire is testament to their doggedness, the resurgent creativity and their sponge-like capacity to absorb critical elements of the surrounding culture while staying true to their roots. It’s a glorious and moving history, and Jane Gerber tells it well.

Book Review: "The Pity Of It All: A Protrait of the German-Jewish Epoch", 1743-1933, by Amos Elon

Amos Elon’s ‘The Pity of It Al’ is a poignant and beautiful history of German Jews from 1743-1933. Why 1743? Because in 1740, Frederick of Prussia liberalized the state and allowed freedom of worship. The freedom did not extend to Jews who still had no political or civil rights, but it did make it easier for them to live in Prussia than in the other thirty-six states of what later came to be called Germany.

The book begins with the story of the first prominent modern German-Jewish intellectual, the fourteen-year-old, barefooted Moses Mendelssohn, who entered Berlin through a gate reserved for “Jews and cattle”. Mendelssohn was the first Jew to start an enduring tradition that was to both signal the high watermark of European Jewry and their eventual destruction. This was the almost vehement efforts of Jews to assimilate, to convert to Christianity, to adopt to German traditions and ways, to become bigger German patriots than most non-Jewish Germans while retaining their culture and identity. In fact the entire history of German Jewry is one of striking a tortuous balance between assimilating into the parent culture and preserving their religion and identity. Mendelssohn became the first great Jewish German scholar, translating Talmud into Hebrew and having an unsurpassed command of both German and Jewish philosophy, culture and history. While initially he grew up steeped only in German culture, a chance encountered with a Protestant theologian who exhorted him to convert. This encounter convinced Mendelssohn that he should be more proud of his Jewish roots, but at the same time seek to make himself part and parcel of German society. Mendelssohn’s lessons spread far and wide, not least to his grandson, the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn who used to go to Goethe’s house to play music for him.

Generally speaking, the history of German Jews tracks well with political upheavals. After Prussia became a relatively liberal state and, goaded by Mendelssohn, many Jews openly declared their Judaism while forging alliances with German intellectuals and princes, their condition improved relative to the past few centuries. A particularly notable example cited by Elon is the string of intellectual salons rivaling their counterparts in Paris that were started in the Berlin by Jewish women like Rachel Varnhagen which drew Goethe, the Humboldt brothers and other cream of German intellectual society. The flowering of German Jews as well-dot-do intellectuals and respectable members of the elite starkly contrasted with their centuries-old image in the rest of Europe as impoverished caftan-wearers, killers of Christ and perpetuators of the blood libel. Jews had been barred from almost all professions except medicine, and it was in Prussia that they could first enter other professions.

When Napoleon invaded Prussia, his revolutionary code of civil and political rights afforded the German Jews freedom that they had not known for centuries. The Edict of 1812 freed the Jews. They came out of the ghettoes, especially in places like Frankfurt, and the Jewish intelligentsia thrived. Perhaps foremost among them was the poet Heinrich Heine whose astute, poignant, tortured and incredibly prescient poetry, prose and writings were a kaleidoscope of the sentiments and condition of his fellow Jews. Heine reluctantly converted but was almost tortured by his torn identity. The Edict of 1812 met with a tide of rising German nationalism from the bottom, and Jews quickly started reverting back to their second-class status. Heine, along with Eduard Gans and Leopold Zunz who started one of the first scientific societies in Germany, had trouble finding academic jobs. The Hep! Hep! riots that started in Wurzburg and spread throughout Germany were emblematic of the backlash. Significantly, and again in potent portend, this was the first time that German intellectuals took part in the violent anti-Semtism; later when the Nazis took over, the legal basis of their murderous anti-Semtism was undergirded by intellectuals, and it was intellectuals who drew up the Final Solution in 1942 at the Wannsee conference. Jews in record numbers started to convert to escape discrimination.

For the next few decades, straddling this delicate and difficult balance between adopting two identities was to become a hallmark of the Jewish condition in Germany, although scores also converted without any compunction. Writing from Paris in 1834, Heine issued a warning:

“A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French revolution will seem like a harmless idol. Christianity restrained the martial ardor of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered savagery will rise again. The mad fury of the berserk of which Nordic Gods sing and speak. The old stony gods will rise from the rubble and rub the thousand year old dust from their eyes. Thor with the giant hammer will come forth and smash the granite domes.”

Extraordinarily prescient words, especially considering the Nordic reference.

The next upheaval came with the European liberal revolution of 1848. As is well known, this revolution overthrew monarchies - temporarily - throughout Europe. For the first time, Germany’s Jews could agitate not just for civil but political rights. A record number of Jews were appointed to the Prussian parliament by Frederick William IV. Unfortunately even this revolution was not to last. Frederick William reneged on his promise, many Jews were either ejected from parliament or made impotent and another rising tide of nationalism engulfed Germany. The next few decades, while not as bad the ones before, sought to roll back the strides that had been made.

It’s in this context that the rise of Bismarck is fascinating. Bismarck dodges many stereotypes. He was the emblem of Prussian militarism and autocracy, the man who united Germany, but also the liberal who kickstarted the German welfare state, pioneering social security and health insurance. When he declared war on France in 1870, patriotic Jews not only took part in the war but funded it. “Bismarck’s Jews” procured the money, helped Bismarck draw up the terms of French capitulation and occupation at Sedan. Among these, Ludwig Bamberger and Abraham Bleichroder were the most prominent - Bleichroder even used stones from Versailles to build a large mansion in Germany. While praising these Jews for their contributions to the war effort, Bismarck stopped short of saying that they should be awarded full rights as citizens of Germany. Nevertheless, in 1871, Bismarck passed an edict that banned discrimination on the basis of religion in all civil and political functions. It seemed that the long-sought goal of complete emancipation was finally in sight for Germany’s Jews.

But even then, as patriotic Jews signed up for the Franco-Prussian War, a dissenting note was struck by another Jew. Leopold Sonnemann was the publisher of a leading Frankfurt newspaper. In editorial after editorial, he issued stark warnings both to Jews and gentiles of the rising militarism and rigid social order in Prussia that was taking over all of Germany. He warned Jews that ironically, their patriotism may cost them more than they bargained for. Sonnemann was another prescient Jew who saw what his community’s strenuous efforts to conform were costing them. Sonnemann’s predictions were confirmed almost right away when a recession hit Germany in 1873 that was among the worst of the previous hundred years. Immediately, as if on cue, anger turned toward the wealthy Jews who had apparently grown fat and rich during the war while their fellow citizens grew impoverished. In 1879, a prominent Protestant clergyman named Adolf Stocker started railing against the Jews, calling them a “poison in German blood”, echoing paranoia that was leveraged to devastating effect by another Adolf a half century later. The Kaiser and Bismarck both disapproved of Stocker’s virulent anti-Semitic diatribes, but thought that it perhaps might make the Jews more “modest”. To say that this was unfair retaliation against a patriotic group who had bankrolled and helped the war efforts significantly would be an understatement.

Even as Bismarck was propagating religious freedom in Germany, anti-Semitic continued to grow elsewhere. Interestingly, in France where Jews had a much better time after Napoleon, Arthur Gobineau published a book arguing for Nordic superiority. About the same time, the fascinating but deadly English-German Houston Chamberlain, son-in-law of Wagner, published the massive “Foundations of the Nineteenth Century” in 1899 that became a kind of Bible for the 20th century pan-German Völkisch movement that fused nationalism with racialism. Both Gobineau and Chamberlain were to serve as major ‘philosophers’ for Hitler and the Nazis. In France, the Dreyfus affair had already exposed how fragile the situation of French Jews was.

As sentiments against the Jews grew again, German Jews again became disillusioned with conversion and conformity. The Kabbalah movement and other mysticism-based theologies started to be propounded by the likes of Martin Buber. Rather than keep on bending over backward to please an ungrateful nation, some sought other means of reform and escape. Foremost among these was the centuries old dream of returning to the promised land. Theodor Herz picked up the mantle of Zionism and started trying to convince Jews to migrate to Palestine. Ironically, the main target of his pleas was the Kaiser. Herzl wanted the Kaiser to fund and officially approve Jewish migration to Palestine. Not only would that reduce the Jewish population in Germany and perhaps ease the pressure on gentiles, but in doing so, the Kaiser would be seen as a great benefactor and liberator. In retrospect Herzl’s efforts have a hint of pity among them, but at that time it made sense. The ironic fact is that very few German Jews signed on to Herzl’s efforts to emigrate because they felt at home in Germany. This paradox was to prove to be the German Jews’ most tragic quality. Where Herzl sought emigration, others like Freud and Marx (who had been baptized as a child) sought secular idols like psychoanalysis and communism. This would have been a fascinating theme in itself, and I wish Elon had explored it in more detail.

As the new century approached and another Great War loomed, the themes of 1870 would be repeated. The ‘Kaiserjuden’ or Kaiser’s Jews, most prominently Walter Rathenau, would bankroll and help Germany’s war with England and France. Many Jews again signed up or patriotic duty. Without Rathenau, who was in charge of logistics and supplies, German would likely have lost the war within a year or two. Yet once again, the strenuous efforts of these patriotic Jews were forgotten. A young Austrian corporal who had been blinded by gas took it upon himself to proselytize the “stab in the back” theory, the unfounded belief that it was the Jews who secretly orchestrated an underhanded deal that betrayed the army and cost Germany the war. The truth of course was the opposite, but it’s important to note that Hitler did not invent the myth of the Jewish betrayal. He only masterfully exploited it.

The tragic post-World War 1 history of Germany is well known. The short-lived republics of 1919 were followed by mayhem, chaos and assasinations. The Jews Kurt Eisner in Bavaria and Walter Rathenau were assasinated. By that time there was one discipline in which Jews had become preeminent - science. Fritz Heber had made a Faustian bargain when he developed poison gas for Germany. Einstein had put the finishing touches on his general theory of relativity by the end of the war and had already become the target of anti-Semitism. Others like Max Born and James Franck were to make revolutionary contributions to science in the turmoil of the 1920s.

Once the Great Depression hit Germany in 1929 the fate of Germany’s Jews was effectively sealed. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, a group of leading Jewish intellectuals orchestrated a massive but, in retrospect, pitiful attempt to catalog the achievements of German Jews. The catalog included important contributions by artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, playwrights and politicians in an attempt to convince the Nazis of the foundational contributions that German Jews had made to the fatherland. But it all came to nothing. Intellectuals like Einstein soon dispersed. The first concentration camp at Dachau went up in 1936. By 1938 and Kristallnacht, it was all over. The book ends with Hannah Arendt, protege of Martin Heidegger who became a committed Nazi, fleeing Berlin in the opposite direction from which Moses Mendelssohn had entered the city two hundred years earlier. To no other nation had Jews made more enduring contributions and tried so hard to fit in. No other nation punished them so severely.

Book Review: "Against the Grain", by James Scott

James Scott's important and utterly fascinating book questions what we can call the "Whig view" of history, which goes something like this: At the beginning we we were all "savages". We then progressed to becoming hunter gatherers, then at some point we discovered agriculture and domesticated animals. This was a huge deal because it allowed us to became sedentary. Sedentism then became the turning point in the history of civilization because it led to cities, taxation, monarchies, social hierarchies, families, religion, science and the whole shebang of civilizational wherewithal that we take for granted.

Scott tells us that not only is this idea of progress far from being as certain, linear or logical as it sounds, but it's also not as much of a winning strategy as we think. In a nutshell, his basic thesis is that the transition from hunter-gatherer to sedentism was messy and mixed, with many societies sporadically existing in one or the other system. The transition from agriculture to city-states was even less certain and obvious, with agriculture emerging about 10,000 years ago and the first modern city-state of Uruk I in Mesopotamia emerging almost seven thousand years later, around 3000 BC. Until then people existed in temporary and fluctuating states of agriculture and hunter-gatherer existence.

Perhaps an even bigger message in the book is regarding the very nature of history which basically tells us the stories it preserves. Cities form the core of history because they leave traces like large monuments, but life outside cities which can be far more extensive - as it was until very recently - leaves no traces and is discounted in our narratives. The fact is that even after agriculture and the first city-states came along, cities were often temporary and fragmentary and often dispersed because of disease, famine, war, taxation or oppressive rulers, floods and droughts and reformed, much like an anthill. Then the population would live off the land as hunter-gatherers for some time and form city-like complexes again when the time was ripe. As part of his evidence that cities were by no means obvious, Scott makes the argument that the first civilizations formed around waterways and not in the plans and mountains. These civilizations were mixed models of hunter-gatherer and city-like existence at best.

Once we assume that cities were by no means enduring or certain, we can start questioning the wisdom of other narratives associated with them. For instance take the all-important nature of grains (wheat, barley, corn and rice) being the major staples of the world, then as now. Scott makes the brilliant argument that unlike other crops like potatoes and legumes, grains became the staple of city-dwellers not because they were objectively better in terms of nutrition but because they could be easily taxed because they were above-ground, ripened all at once and could be counted, assessed and carted away. But grains often consigned city residents to a monoculture, unlike hunting and gathering which could take advantage of a variety of food sources on land, water and brush.

The same arguments apply to domestication of animals. As Jared Diamond showed in his book "Guns, Germs and Steel", most of our modern diseases and pandemics can be traced back to diseases of animal or zoonotic origins, so domestication was hardly the wholly blissful invention we assume. With domesticated animals also came rats, sparrows, crows and mice which are called commensals, These brought other sources of destruction and disease. Finally, taxation which was a major feature of cities and which contributed massively to critical developments like slavery and writing could become very oppressive.

All this meant that cities were hardly the nuclei of civilization progress that we assume them to be. Not surprisingly, especially in a hybrid model, city dwellers often fled the unsanitary, tax-heavy, monoculture-rich environment of cities to a more flexible and open hunter-gatherer environment. In fact the vast majority of the population lived outside cities until very recently. Now, no means is Scott making the argument here, popular among "back to nature" paleo-enthusiasts, that hunting and gathering was fundamentally a better existence. He is saying that hunting and gathering continued to have advantages that made, until very recently, a permanent move to cities far from desirable, let alone inevitable. Unfortunately because cities leave archeological traces, we fall into the mistaken assumption that the history of civilization is the history of city-states.

In the last part of the book, Scott tackles the topic of "barbarians" versus city dwellers. Based on the ensuing discussion, it should come as no surprise that Scott is very cynical about the very word as invented by the Greeks and applied generously by the Romans. Clearly compared to the Roman and Greek city states, the barbarian countryside was often thriving and more desirable to live in. More importantly, the very distinction between barbarians and "civilized" folks is fluid and fuzzy - as is now well-known in the case of Rome, Romans could be barbarians, and barbarians could be Romans citizens (popularized recently in the Netflix show "Barbarians"). The fact is that Romans often willingly became "barbarians" because of the oppressive nature of the city-state.

Scott's book is one of the most important books I have read in years; it may well be one of the most important books I will ever read. The best thing about it is that it presents history the way it was, as a series of incidental, messy events whose end outcome was by no means certain. Whatever order we decide to impose on history is of our own making.

Two views of America

The United States is a country settled by Europeans in the 17th and 18th century who created a revolutionary form of government and a highly progressive constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion and other fundamental human rights which could be modified. It was a development unprecedented both in space and time.

At the same time, this creation of the American republic came at great cost involving the displacement and decimation of millions of Native Americans and the institution of chattel slavery on these lands. The original constitution had grave deficiencies and it took a long time for these to be remedied.

Many people can’t hold these two very different-sounding views of America in their minds simultaneously and choose to emphasize one or the other, and this divide has only grown in recent times. But both of these views are equally valid and equally important, and ultimately in order to understand this country and see it progress, you have to be at peace with both views.

But it’s actually better than that, because there is a third, meta-level view which is even more important, that of progress. The original deficiencies of the constitution were corrected and equal rights extended to a variety of groups who didn’t have them, including women, people of color, Catholics, Jews and immigrants. Chattel slavery was abolished and Native Americans, while not reverting to their previous status, could live in dignity as American citizens. 

This was the idea of constantly striving toward a “more perfect Union” that Lincoln emphasized. There were hiccups along the way, but overall there was undoubtedly great progress. Today American citizens are some of the freest people in the world, even with the challenges they face. If you don’t believe this, then you effectively believe that the country is little different from what it was fifty or a hundred years ago.

It seems that this election and these times are fundamentally about whether you can hold the complex, often contradictory history of this country in your mind without conflict, and more importantly whether you subscribe to the meta-level view of progress. Because if you can’t, you will constantly either believe that the country is steeped in irredeemable sin or sweep its inequities under the rug. Not only would both views be pessimistic but both would do a disservice to reality. But if you can in fact hold this complex reality in mind, you will believe that this is a great country not just in spite of its history but because of it.