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How did the Jews survive? Two unlikely historical explanations

How have the Jews survived over the centuries? This is a question that has intrigued and perplexed many. While powerful world empires have risen and fallen, this miniscule, largely stateless, and often despised group has managed to ward off countless threats to its existence and survive for millennia. In seeking to answer the question, a wide range of theological, political, and sociological explanations have been proffered.

Clearly, the Jews developed a remarkable capacity to move, integrate, and adapt to different settings over the course of time. But what lies behind that adaptive mechanism? Two unlikely and somewhat controversial factors can help us understand: assimilation and antisemitism. Far more commonly, these explanations are seen as causes of Jewish decline or disappearance. But in fact they have served, especially in tandem, to sustain the Jews.

Throughout much of their history—bookended by ancient and modern experiments in sovereignty—Jews have dwelt as a diaspora people under the control of Gentile hosts. It is a commonplace assumption that they lived apart from the rest of society, at least until the nineteenth century. In fact, an ancient Jewish adage has it that the Jews survived because they refused to adopt non-Jewish names, languages, and dress habits. It turns out, as a historical matter, that Jews continually adopted non-Jewish names, languages, and dress habits. The great first-century Alexandrian philosopher, Philo, was responsible for translating primal Jewish theological beliefs into a sophisticated philosophical system, thereby allowing for a key moment of invigoration for Judaism. It is important to recall that Philo bore a non-Jewish name, spoke and wrote in a non-Jewish language (Greek), and absorbed non-Jewish dress habits. His example is not the exception, but rather the rule in Jewish history. From Philo’s Alexandria to Hasdai ibn Shaprut’s Spain to Gracia Mendes Nasi’s Constantinople, Jews have adopted, through a natural process of osmosis, the culture of the societies in which they have dwelt. This accounts for the extraordinary richness of Jewish minhag, or custom, which reflects the artistic, liturgical, and cultural norms of the local non-Jewish environments in which Jews lived. What minhag also shows is that Jews never integrated local customs without leaving a distinct imprint of their own religious and ritual traditions upon them. In the most notable of cases, Jews absorbed the language of the land in their long diaspora history, but very frequently adapted that vernacular by inserting Hebrew words and rendering the written version in Hebrew characters.

This process of cultural absorption and adaptation led the American historian Gerson Cohen to refer provocatively to “the blessing of assimilation in Jewish history.” Without this constant form of cultural exercise, Cohen argued, Jews would have atrophied and disappeared long ago from the stage of history. It is precisely assimilation, or the cognate term “acculturation,” that provided the requisite interaction to keep Jews dynamic and alive.

And yet, just as the Jews set their own limits to assimilation by rendering the vernacular in Hebrew letters (which was intended for an exclusively Jewish audience), so too the surrounding Gentile world set its limits. Alongside daily economic relations in the marketplace and less visible forms of cultural exchange, there were deep undercurrents of hostility between Jews and non-Jews from ancient times to the present. A distinguished line of thinkers, from the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza to Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th to the contemporary historian David Nirenberg, took note of this hostility and hinted at its constitutive and even preservative impact. Thus, Spinoza observed in the Theological-Political Treatise that Gentile enmity had the ironic effect of preserving Jewish distinctiveness.

What did this mean in practice? It meant that the Jews’ ongoing adherence to a distinct set of ritual practices while dwelling under Christian or Muslim regimes highlighted their minority status. This adherence also triggered, in the Christian context, the long-standing accusation that Jews were guilty of the crime of “deicide,” and thus “worthy” of social segregation and debasement. The resulting stigmatization served to impede the advance of assimilation, preventing the full immersion of Jews into Gentile society but affirming at the same time their sense of uniqueness. In this way, assimilation and anti-Jewish expression were counterweights on a scale, encouraging the regular rejuvenation of Jewish culture while also assuring the perpetuation of a sense of separation from the majority culture. Of course, this carefully calibrated system could be and was undone by instances of murderous violence, which has marked the long history of the Jews, most infamously in the Holocaust a mere seventy-five years ago.

In thinking of the future, it is worth asking whether antisemitism will continue to impede the path of Jews into the mainstream of the societies in which they dwell, particularly in North America. Might the relative absence of antisemitism upend the dynamic that assured the Jews’ remarkable, long, and anomalous historical journey? Or given its recurrence today, will antisemitism continue to be a paradoxical force of preservation of the Jews?

Featured image credit: home building architecture by stux. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Matt McLaughlin

    Answer: converts

  2. Doreen

    Interesting that antisemitism helps us become more cohesive. This makes sense as wo/man struggle the glue that keeps Jews and other like groups whole is the need for self-preservation.

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