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A HISTORY OF THE JEWS by Paul Johnson (Harper & Row: $25; 629 pp.)

April 19, 1987|Jacob Neusner | Neusner, Ungerleider Distinguished Scholar of Judaic Studies at Brown University, is the author, most recently, of "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Exile and Return in the History of Judaism" (Beacon) and "Death and Birth of Judaism: The Impact of Christianity, Secularism, and the Holocaust on Jewish Faith" (Basic)

Paul Johnson is excited by "the sheer span of Jewish history." Loving these "long continuities," and seeing the Jews as having a "separate and specific identity earlier than almost any other people which still survives," he has come with great enthusiasm to a subject he in fact does not grasp at all. The result is a pleasure to read, but most of what is in it is either half-true or all wrong.

Liberal editor turned conservative historian, Johnson has published, among other works, "A History of the English People," "The History of Christianity" and--the best known and most idiosyncratic--"Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties." He is, by common consent, a talented writer and an indefatigable researcher. In this book, unfortunately, he is undone by--of all things--an error of theology.

Specifically, Johnson believes that the Jews have a separate and single specific identity. What he means by identity he does not say. But at the center of his book is the premise that a single group, which everywhere and at all times exhibited the same indicative traits, experienced a unitary and linear history, with a beginning, a middle, and, so far, a happy ending.

No such single group, with fixed traits, ever existed. I have nothing in common with "Abraham" (if there ever was the one we read about in Genesis) except for a circumcised penis and an aversion to pork. But then, Abraham ate milk with meat, and I don't. To Johnson, everything Jewish relates to everything else Jewish with only slight regard to circumstance and context. Johnson's notion of a single, linear "Jewish history," which he can tell as story, is oversimplification or pure theology; I think the latter. It is the historical theology of blood and peoplehood, representing many groups as one and finding a single linear history where there has been none.

Since before 586 BC, Jews have lived in various countries. Each country and its Jews have worked out their own history, whether in the Land of Israel (Palestine) or in Babylonia, in Morocco or in Spain, in Iraq or in Tunisia, in France or in the United States. Each history hangs together on its own terms and tells its own distinct and distinctive story. Sewing them all together into a continuous story yields "First they went here, then they went there," but the itinerary is one followed by only a few. A history of the Jews that leaves out most of the Jews in history is no history, and, alas, Johnson's history--splendid and engaging writer though he is--does just that. Professional historians don't write "histories of the Jews" any more, and with good reason.

Johnson gives us a cascade of discrete topics, the links among which he assumes we will all concede: They're all Jewish. But some Jewish turns out to be more Jewish than other Jewish. So we spend two of his book's seven chapters on the Jews of the land of Israel from "Abraham" to the 7th-Century Muslim conquest. Then we have two chapters on medieval history. Finally come three chapters on modern times. These latter five chapters center on the Jews in Europe, with only glances toward North Africa and the Middle East, mainly when someone wrote something philosophical or mystical.

Seeing the Jews as a single group, Johnson chooses particular Jews for each chapter in his history. The easy part comes first: the ancient Israelites of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Then follows a potted account of Judaism, meaning a variety of Judaisms to be sure, from 586 BC down to the rise of Islam. Jumping thither and yon, Johnson moves through the Dark Ages, the Muslim conquest, Maimonides, mysticism, the Crusades, the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years War, back to mysticism, then on to the Jews in England, the Jews' arrival in New York, and so on--an absolute farrago of topics. Emancipation brings us to 19th-Century European Jewry, and, of course, we end with the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel.

The deepest problem with Johnson's book is his adherence to a conventional picture of just which Jews made history at any given time. To give three examples, he has slight interest, in composing his narrative, in the Jews of Egypt in Greco-Roman times, the Jews in Babylonia prior to Talmudic times, and the Jews in the far reaches of Islam in the Middle Ages and modern times.

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