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Genetics of Jewish History and Prediction of the Next Tragedy.
By Boris Draznin
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” Hegel
According to the Jewish calendar, we are currently living in the year 5771. However, the traditional history of the Jewish people begins only in 1761, with Abraham. He was the leader of a nomadic tribe that made a covenant with one true G-d after Abraham led his family from the city of Ur in approximately 2000 BC or 1761 by the Jewish calendar. The next 4010 years of Jewish history are best described as a spiral consisting of repetitive periods of calm and prosperity alternating with tragedies replete with unimaginable terror and repeated attempts at annihilation of the Jewish people in all corners of the world.
The key question that one would like to answer is whether or not we can foresee the next incoming tragedy for Jewish people and avert it. Is it possible to use the lessons from our 4010 year history to predict the wave of violence much as the scientists are trying to predict the next tsunami or volcanic eruption? Is there anything in the spiral history of the Jewish people that can lead us to the recognition of events foretelling an impending disaster?
To date, the most rational answer to this question is etched on the walls of the Ort der Information ("Place of Information") under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. It is a statement by Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish scientist and writer, a Holocaust survivor, who finally succumbed to the burden of his tragic experience in Auschwitz. He wrote, “It happened, therefore it can happen again…” so simple, so matter-of-fact, and so true. Dismissing this possibility would not eliminate the threat. Discovering the ways of predicting the next Holocaust or the next major threat to Jewish communities around the world could help avert the disaster.
If the Jewish history is a helix, by analogy with the genomic structure of life, one could imagine the building blocks of the helix of Jewish history are FAITH (F), ASSIMILATION (A), and DEATH (D). Making another assumption that the determinants of the well-being of the Jews is a double helix, we can see that F, A, and D can meet their match in a random fashion, creating periods of peaceful existence ( F-F, F-A or A-A) and periods of tragedies (F-D or A-D) or even Holocaust (D-D). The question before us is whether a periodicity of these combinations could display a pattern revealing signs of impending disaster.
For 400 years after Abraham and his extended household left Ur in the year 2000 BCE, and until Joseph brought them to Egypt in 1600 BCE, Jews crisscrossed the land of Canaan fighting some local tribes, much like everyone else did, but basically lived in a period of calm characterized by faith and devotion – F-F.
Jews remained in Egypt for 400 years until Moses led them out in 1200 BCE. How many of these 400 years they lived in peace and prosperity (F-F, F-A or A-A) is unknown, but what is known that beginning with Joseph himself, Jews entered the Egyptian work force and, to a substantial degree, assimilated into Egyptian society if not into paganism (A-A). It is highly likely that the A-A period (strong assimilation) predated the life of Jews as slaves in Egypt, a period of disaster and death – D-D. Their welcome as brothers and family of Joseph when they entered Egypt was replaced by a period of slavery 400 years later – the first major tragedy of Jewish people. It may have been the very first time when tragedy followed a period of assimilation.
Enter Moses, the greatest hero of Jewish people. He had not only led Jews out of slavery in Egypt and through 40 years of wandering in Sinai, but into a new period of faith, peace and prosperity (F-F) that lasted through the Age of Judges and the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon, a total of some 400 years from the exodus from Egypt in 1200 BCE until Assyrians took over their land in approximately 800 BCE.
Babylonians replaced Assyrians in 600 BCE and the years of captivity, exile, and death (F-D, A-D and D-D) continued until the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 400-500 BCE.
Life under Persians and subsequently under the Greeks had returned to normalcy. Prosperity opened the doors to assimilation when Hellenization of Palestine began in earnest sometime in 330-320 BCE under Alexander the Great and lasted under Ptolemaic and Seleucid influence. This was a period of rapid Hellenization of Jewish people who accepted many cultural and social habits of the Greeks. Even though these Hellenizing Jews had never abandoned their monotheistic religion, the power and influence of their faith on everyday life diminished drastically. The Jews moved rapidly from the F-F to F-A, and then into a strong assimilation (A-A) period.
Not surprisingly, revolt had followed. The observant Jews, led by Mattathias of the Hasmonean house (collectively known as Maccabees), rose to defend the core values of the Torah, fighting both the Greeks and the Hellenizing Jews. Death and destruction, the D-D period, had entered Jewish history again replacing the period of strong assimilation (A-A).
The Hasmonean dynasty (F-F period) lasted for almost 120 years until the new world power, mighty Rome, conquered most of the former Greek empire. The Roman culture was largely built on Greek roots, with improved engineering, agriculture and military capabilities.
As the Hasmonean reign came to an end, failing to secure longevity of their initial success in one of the world’s most famous revolts, the Romans appointed an Idumean convert to Judaism, Antipater, as the administrator of Judea. His son Herod was later appointed King of Jews by the Roman Emperor Octavian, better known as Augustus. After three years of violent struggle, Herod, with significant military help from the Romans, was finally able to defeat the remaining Hasmoneans and became ruler of Judea for the next 46 years.
Herod ruled with “a heavy hand and iron fist”, murdering his rivals, his favorite wife, several of his sons, and ordered to slay all male infants of Bethlehem, presumably fearing a prophecy that a rival to his throne would be born there. Overall, he was not liked by the Jews, but he was absolutely true to Jewish religion, built new cities, fortresses, and remodeled the Temple. Ordinary citizens of Judea lived with faith and prosperity (F-F) during his forty-six year reign. Tragedy struck almost 70 years after his death.
When Augustus realized that the heirs of Herod the Great were unable to govern the province, he appointed the first of seven procurators (governors) to rule Judea. Their atrocities forced more and more Jews from different parties to join the Zealots who were advocating a new uprising, a total all out war against the Romans. In 66 CE, they stormed the Roman garrison outside of Jerusalem, igniting an open rebellion throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. This time the helix of Jewish history entered the F-D and subsequently D-D period without significant assimilation.
In 70 CE, the Roman General Titus, a future emperor of Rome, destroyed Jerusalem and burnt down the Temple. The Jews were defeated but continued to rebel, with a second revolt in 113 CE, and the third one, led by Simon Bar Kochba, in 132 CE. At the end, the Romans slaughtered thousands of men, women and children, killed Bar Kochba, and made Jerusalem and the entirety of Judea off limits to the Jews. The remaining Judean Jews were dispersed through the vast frontiers of the Roman Empire – exile and Diaspora were now the way of life for almost two thousand years. The devastation of the Jewish Wars was so immense that Jews did not defend themselves with arms in their hands until the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1944.
Expulsion of the Jews from Judea was the first large scale bifurcation of the Jewish Diaspora. Jews in the East, in the former Babylonian Empire, were now thousands of miles away from the Jews of the West who settled around the Mediterranean sea and deeper in the Iberian peninsula as well as in what is now France, England and Germany.
Life in Babylonia that remained largely under Persian control until the sequential conquests by the Arabs, the Mongols and the Turks, was by and large in the long-lasting peaceful F-F period. It was the time of Gaonim and Talmudic Academies. Rabbinical influence was immense and there was almost no assimilation into the ruling tribes and Nations. This was mainly peaceful and stable period in Jewish life and it lasted until approximately the beginning of the second millennium, year 1000 CE.
In contrast, the life in the Western Diaspora under the rule of Rome was anything but tranquil and prosperous. With the fall of paganism and the rise in Christianity, the new monotheistic religion had to establish its superiority over the old one. In addition to the Jewish-Christians, hundreds of thousands of heathens and barbarians were converted to Christianity throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor. The competition between the two religions grew into a violent rejection of Judaism. Jews were perceived as people who not only misunderstood the message of G-d and the messiah, but actually put Jesus Christ to death. This collective punishment was assigned to Jews by the new church for generations to come.
As the great Roman Empire crumbled under the swords of the Barbarians, the Jews, caught in the middle, suffered. But the greatest suffering fell on them as the Barbarian tribes converted to Christianity, one after another. The new church that had to establish its dominant position was intolerant of Judaism, entering the centuries of religious fight against the Jews. Religion-based anti-Semitism, which frequently spilled into anti-Semitic violence, was born.
Jewish history, depending upon the region of the world, continued in the F-D and A-D periods, with no major disasters, but with a constant threat of violence and a permanent fear of unruly and easy to incite neighbors.
The tribe of the Iberian Visigoths was especially cruel; when the Moorish army of the North African Mohammedans invaded Spain, the Jews welcomed them warmly and eagerly embraced their rule. The Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain began when Moorish invaders eliminated oppressive restrictions imposed upon Jews by the Christian Visigoths.
Peaceful and prosperous life for Jews in Spain peaked at the time of the reign of Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son Al-Hakam II. In a relatively short span of time, Jews who enjoyed their full civil rights, contributed to all spheres of life – science, mathematics, medicine, literature, poetry, philosophy, and politics. In this truly Golden Age, Jews became well integrated into the political, economic, and cultural life of Islamic society. The F-F, F-A, and A–A periods characterized Jews life of that time.
With their own unparalleled economic prosperity and expansion, the Jews promoted the prosperity of the Caliphate of Cordoba. Despite Jewish commitment to the Caliphate, they remained Jewish, a distinct religious group. Even though they reached prominence in cultural and political life, they were never accepted by the population at large. Ascension of the Jews to the upper echelons of the society caused tremendous resentment from the masses. This resentment remained silent, beneath the surface, for a long period of time, but when it burst out, it turned into a torrent of terror.
As the Caliphate began to weaken, jealousy of the Moslem population bubbled to the surface. They could no longer tolerate prosperity and success of their Jewish neighbors. The resentment eventually spilled into open violence when a Moslem mob in Granada stormed the Royal Palace, crucified the Jewish vizier and killed 4,000 Jews in one day, known to history as “Granada massacre of 1066.”
The Moslem rule of Spain switched to various strict sects originating in Morocco and the life of Jewish communities deteriorated significantly. Many moved east to Egypt, Italy and Asia Minor, others moved to the North, where they joined Christian forces in their battle to reclaim Spain. Helping the Christian army reconquest the Iberian Peninsula did not help the Jews in the long run. The new monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled Jews from Spain or mandated conversion. Fifty thousand Jews of Spain decided to stay and accepted Catholicism. They preferred assimilation (A-A) to expulsion. However, some of them continued practicing Judaism behind closed doors and shutters. If they were caught or even suspected of practicing their previous religion, they were tortured and executed by Inquisition. Once again, for many the A-A assimilation period ended up in the D-D, the period of peril and death.
The vast majority of the 500,000 Jews of Spain did not convert. They left the country and resettled in Holland, Germany, Poland, Italy, Greece and Moslem countries. Some began moving overseas into a newly discovered America.
Life for Jews in medieval Europe was a chain of expulsions and violence with intermittent periods of calm. They were expelled from England, France, and the German and Italian states. Periodically, some of them rose to prominence at various European courts, only to be eventually accused of crimes against locals. Their property was confiscated, many people were killed, and the rest of the community expelled. The entire medieval time in Europe can be designated as F-D, faith and death with almost no assimilation.
The Middle Ages were a period of time when Jews were excluded from the European societies. They were relegated to the ghettos and were not considered the citizens of any country. They were expelled and re-admitted and then expelled again. Few of them spoke local languages; even fewer had meaningful contact with the local population. The situation in the Western European countries began to change in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the industrial and social revolutions.
As the Modern Age began descending upon Europe, Moses Mendelssohn led the Jews of central Europe out of their ghettos and into the secular societies of their countries. As a young teenager, Moses ran away from his shtetl to Berlin, taught himself German and other languages and rose to become one of the most respected philosophers and thinkers of his time. He understood that if Jews stayed in their shtetls and ghettos, they would be destined to lead a meaningless life, falling behind the advancing societies. He knew they must come out, must participate in all aspects of contemporary life. But this would only be one side of the equation. The second part would be the way to remain Jewish in this increasingly secular world. He thought it would be possible to assimilate socially but not religiously. Even though Moses Mendelssohn remained an observant Jew, he failed to solve the second part of this equation for the majority of Jews whom he led into Enlightenment.
History solved this problem for him as millions of Jews left behind their birthplaces in order to take advantage of the opportunities that had just been opened to them, to learn arts and sciences. They either converted to Christianity to gain equality in society, or kept their religion to a comfortable degree, abandoning the orthodox and halahic way of life. This eventual liberalization of religion led them to Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. The magnet of assimilation into surrounding societies proved to be too strong to keep bright minds in the shtetls and ghettos.
Waves of these bright Jewish minds stormed the world. Within one or two generations they moved into a strong A-A period of massive assimilation culturally and economically if not religiously. Their success was met with jealousy and another wave of resentment. Nowhere was it more evident than in Germany, the country where Jews achieved the greatest success. Their highly visible positions as ministers, financial leaders, professors at the Universities and scientists were sores in the eyes of ordinary Germans. Every Nobel Prize given to yet another Jewish scientist, every public statement made by another Jewish politician, every economic success story achieved by a Jewish businessman caused nothing but bitterness and anger.
Desire to assimilate was even stronger in Jews of Russia and Ukraine who, at the time of the Communist Revolution, coming out of the oppressive and anti-Semitic Czarist regime, joined communists en mass, embraced equality under the banners of socialism and communism and discarded their religion in favor of the State-supported atheism. The prospect of a new and better life was overwhelming and irresistible. The A-A period of assimilation was sweeping through the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.
Tragedy did not have to wait. The National Socialists came to power in Germany and anti-Jewish terror, known to us now as the Holocaust, decimated the Jewish population of Europe. The Nazis perfected mass extermination of Jews of Europe. People who considered themselves Germans, Poles, French, Hungarians and others just a few years ago, were suddenly reminded that they were still unwanted foreigners in those countries. They were Jews to everyone else and subjected to this collective punishment.
In Russia, state-promulgated anti-Semitism reached its peak in the late 1940s – early 1950s. Jewish intelligencia was persecuted and thousands were killed. Luckily, the leader of the Soviet Union, Comrade Stalin, died in March of 1953, sparing thousands if not millions of Jewish lives.
The A-A assimilation period of life of European Jews, both in Western and Eastern Europe, was replaced by the period of death (D-D) that wiped out several million Jews in a span of one or two generations.
Jews who left Europe at the turn of the 19th century went mainly to the United States of America, the “Goldene medina”, as they were telling to one another. A new era of prosperity and assimilation of Jewish people began on American soil. Even though this country was built on the principles of equality, independence, and civil rights, Jews had to have their share of fight to gain all these rights. By 1950-1960 they reached the middle and the upper classes of the American society. Once again, they showed their prominence in the intellectual and economic life of their adopted motherland. Slowly, but surely, they also moved into the political life of the United States, accounting for a sizable number of congressmen, senators, judges, governors, commentators, and advisors to political figures. The overwhelming majority of American Jews moved far away from the orthodox religion, joining the modified religious movements in order to keep their version of religion at a level of personal comfort. The great assimilation, the A-A period of Jewish life in America is now stronger than it has ever been in any other part of the world.
Turning back to the pattern of the genetic code of Jewish history, one can see that with rare exceptions, the greatest tragedies (D-D periods) followed the periods of strong assimilations (A-A). The greater the visibility of Jews in a given society (stronger assimilation, A-A), the greater became the risk of a subsequent tragedy (D-D period). Whenever Jews penetrated the upper crust of the society, it caused enormous resentment. Whether this initially hidden resentment is based on economic or religious foundation, it inevitably spills into an open violence at any opportune moment. As “no good deed remains unpunished”, throughout their history, Jewish assimilation ended up in tragedy. Why would the current A-A period be an exception?
A counterpoint, adopted by many socially assimilated American Jews, is that keeping all diverse groups, including Jews, at equal footing publicly and openly will prevent a sudden burst of violence against one of these diverse groups. The argument makes theoretical sense, but has not been proven by history, whereas the precedent of cyclical violence against Jews has long historical support. The statement proudly pronounced by many American Jews that “I am an American who happens to be Jewish” sounds politically correct in the today’s society, but it can be upturned into the historically more familiar “You are Jewish and we do not consider you an American” by a disgruntled mob in an instant.
As Jewish history continues its spiral way, the words of George Santayana shall not be ignored, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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