Category: Non-fiction

Michael Brenner
Kleine jüdische Geschichte
[A concise jewish history]

Review

Jewish history covers roughly three millennia from its mythical beginnings to the present. That is a large time span for Michael Brenner’s Kleine jüdische Geschichte to master. Is it even possible to report adequately on all of the long tradition of Judaism on three hundred fifty pages? Brenner is a renowned expert who knows that he has to limit himself and he sets the proper emphases. He avoids getting caught up in details, and instead draws a particular perspective to the fore: the theme of wandering. This is the thread that carries through the whole book; with its help the author separates the wheat from the chaff. And in this way the reader can also recognize the significance of the events depicted. In fact, despite its scope and complexity this nonfiction book is very reader-friendly. It is structured clearly and numerous illustrations supplement the text. In contrast to other relevant publications, Kleine jüdische Geschichte is designed more as a history book than merely a work of reference.

Certain stages in this history, such as the murder of millions of Jews in the Third Reich or the founding of the State of Israel, with its political implications, are widely known. The events of the second half of the twentieth century remain polarizing to today. Here, too, the leitmotif of “wandering” turns out to be a clever move that justifies the selection and form of the presentation: “Jews were not always wanderers, but migration has characterized Jewish history throughout all epochs and continents.” This is why the chapters are named according to the ground they covered: “From Ur to Canaan” or “From Everywhere to Auschwitz.” Every chapter begins with the story of a migration, accompanied by an illustration from the Passover Haggadah.

The most important themes in Brenner’s depiction are those of migration and homeland, of exile and nation. But the author also focuses on other subjects, such as the Holy Scripture. Judaism was the first religion that was based on the written word of God. That is particularly relevant for a religious community that is spread throughout the entire world. Their shared reflection on Holy Scripture offers Jews a way to remain tied to one another even beyond borders. The unavoidable encounter between the Jewish communities and their surroundings poses the question of assimilation or isolation. The author impressively shows that successful coexistence depended on both sides and was more the exception than the rule.

The foundations for understanding Jewish history, Brenner says, lie in the mythical beginnings long before the start of the Common Era. Even if the events passed down in the Hebrew Bible certainly cannot be confirmed historically, they have fundamental significance for the Jews’ sense of identity. The Bible, the “history book of their attributed ancestors,” provides a core theme of Jewish existence in the story of Moses’ exodus from Egypt. The Exodus became “a paradigm for the historical consciousness of later generations.” Brenner continues his journey through history with vivid portrayals of Jewish life under Greek and Roman rule. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE denotes a profound break. This destruction of the central shrine was followed by many centuries of life in the Diaspora.

The living conditions of the Jews was therefore always dependent on the respective power relations around them. This led to particular tension in countries where Christianity was dominant. After Jesus appeared as the “savior figure,” Christians viewed Judaism as obsolete. Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, thereby giving it more political power than the mother religion. Problems associated with coexistence ensued due to a fundamental ambivalence: Although Christianity developed from Judaism and was therefore close to it, the Jewish people were also considered the “murderers of God.” Especially in the Middle Ages, Jews were subjected to particularly repressive measures in regions under Christian rule.

Generally, their living conditions under Muslim rulers were better. While the Jews faced resistance even there, coexistence proved to be less difficult, not least because of the similar dietary laws. During the Golden Age the culture of Sephardic Jews was able to enjoy an amazing heyday. In the German states, however, the situation did not change until the rise of mercantilism, when one’s religious affiliation became less significant than economic considerations. Jews who had been excluded from the traditional guilds spent years gathering experience in finance; they became welcome partners of the German princes. The French Revolution brought equal rights for the Jewish population in Europe for the first time. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Americas, Jews were given the same rights as the rest of the population early on, during British rule. The United States became a preferred immigration country for Jews who were fleeing pogroms in Europe and Russia.

In the chapter on the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history, the Shoah, the author avoids negative superlatives. He explains that the exclusively racist definition of “Jews” was the prerequisite for systematically separating the Jewish and Gentile populations. The idea of annihilating the Jews, according to Brenner, was utterly burned into the heads of the National Socialist (Nazi) elite. In his Political Testament, Hitler reminded the Germans of the task before them: “Above all I charge the leaders of the nation and those under them to scrupulous observance of the laws of race and to merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.” Did the people know about the atrocities committed by the Nazis? Brenner takes up this question again and again. His conclusion is unambiguous: The disaster was plain for all to see who did not want to close their eyes to it.

The last chapter of the book is about the founding of the State of Israel. Brenner concentrates on a few facts about the Six Day War and indicates that a book on Jewish history cannot hope at the same time to be one about the Middle East conflict. He focuses on internal developments of the country and its significance for living Judaism. Brenner demonstrates once again that he know his material. The Kleine jüdische Geschichte benefits from the author’s ability to set priorities, distinguishing what is important from what is not. This makes the book worthwhile reading, both for experts and for a general audience interested in the subject.
Vorname Name

By Eva Kaufmann, 07.01.2009

Translated by Allison Brown