- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Martin Gilbert
Schocken Books, 426, 460 pages, illus.

In "Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-Year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith," a series of 140 letters to an adopted "aunt," Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill's peerless biographer and eminent historian, tells us in rich, encyclopedic and dramatic detail the story of the Jewish people but without dealing with a great mystery: Why have the Jews, God's chosen people, the People of the Book, endured so much suffering over, at least, three millennia? Why were a million and a half Jewish children, infants free of sin, killed in Hitler's death camps?
The mystery was faced by an Israeli general and left unanswered in Herman Wouk's novel, "The Glory":
"We Jews are unique in history, that's plain. We lasted thirty centuries and more. Unless we're God's people, how come? But if we're God's people, why have we gone through such a thirty-century wringer of calamities? Have we really been all that sinful?"
There is no answer to that awesome question nor can there probably be an answer which would make any sense to the victimized millions, those who survived and those who died in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps during World War II and to the millions before them who were killed in European and Middle Eastern countries. It is a question embodied in the traditional Hebrew song, "Eli, Eli, lomo azavtonuh?" Oh, Lord, why hast thou forsaken me? In one of his lectures, Isaiah Berlin quoted an 18th century theologian, Count Zinzendorf, as saying: "Who so wishes to grasp God with his intellect becomes an atheist." Perhaps that is the only answer.
The writer quotes from the memoirs of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military hero, recalling how he felt when the United Nations in 1947 voted for the creation of the State of Israel:
"I felt in my bones the victory of Judaism, which for two thousand years of exile from the land of Israel had withstood persecutions, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, anti-Jewish decrees, restrictions and the mass slaughter by the Nazis in our own generation …"
Today that "victory of Judaism" is imperiled as never before in Israel's short history. In the aftermath of 1947, the war against the Jews still goes on whether by an Arab suicide bomber or the anti-Semitic slur of a French ambassador. This time Israel is threatened by so-called moderates who support Islamic fundamentalists, actually no different from the fanatical Islamic sects, like the Almohades in Morocco in 1033, who massacred more than 6,000 Jews in Fez. Three decades later, in the year of the Norman conquest of England, 1066, a further 5,000 were killed in Granada, Muslim Spain.
We are told that in 1096 thousands of Jews died at hands of Crusaders. And then in 1648, the Jews of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine were attacked by Cossack leader, Bogdan Chmienicki. Over a period of eight years his men murdered more than 100,000 Jews, torturing hundreds of thousands more. The statistics listed by the author of anti-Semitic mayhem over the centuries would make it appear that the history of the Jews is a constant and sometimes hopeless struggle of how to avoid being killed either by their neighbors or by their own governments or, often as not, by both.
Yet despite a history of continued mass destruction, the Jews survive. because, says Sir Martin, of "their ability, while living in exile, to reconstruct, preserve and advance their religious life." That is one reason. Another is the pride in being a Jew. As an example, the author offers the inspiring story of Raphael J. Moses, a major in the Confederate Army, who in 1878 ran for Congress. His opponent taunted him with being a Jew. Moses replied with a letter:
"I feel it an honor to be one of a race whom persecution cannot crush, whom prejudice has endeavored in vain to pursue, who after nearly nineteen centuries of persecution still survive as a nation and assert their manhood and intelligence. Would you honor me? Call me Jew."
Perhaps we will never know the answer to the question of why has such persecution of Jews been so enduring.
This history is divided into four sections: The Biblical Era, the Historical Era, the Twentieth Century, Faith and Worship, the last being a learned and fascinating explanation about Jewish holy days and the origin of many customs and ceremonies. What troubles me about the writer's section on Jews in the Twentieth Century is its left-liberal politicization, his seeming ignorance about Soviet history and international communism.
He refers to the number of Jews who fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Republicans but seems unaware of the fact that the Soviet Jewish generals who served in Spain were under Comintern orders to betray the Spanish republic. I refer Sir Martin to "Spain Betrayed," by Ronald Radosh and Mary Habeck, two well known American historians who had access to Soviet archives.
The author speaks highly of the white South African political leader, Joe Slovo, never mentioning that he served as secretary and in 1991 as chairman of the South African Communist Party. There is no mention of the infamous Stalin-Hitler pact which not only helped start World War II but, on a more parochial note, helped Hitler's holocaust ambitions. While there is a great deal said about high public service by American Jews, left unmentioned are the disservice by Jews like the Rosenbergs and the myriad Jewish fellow-travelers both in the United States and Canada. He refers to the Hungarian counterrevolution which ousted Bela Kun, the Jewish Communist leader, "in which many Jews were among those killed."
There is no mention of Bela Kun's Red Terror administered by his comrade, Tibor Szamuely. There is mention of the iniquities of Joe McCarthy, who was not an anti-Semite, but nothing about the Jewish intellectual opposition, led by among others Sidney Hook, to McCarthyism. Utterly ignored is the rise of a Jewish conservative movement, led by Irving Kristol and later by Commentary Magazine's editor, Norman Podhoretz, or the importance of Jewish non-liberal economists like Nobelists Milton Friedman and Gary Becker.
Even more striking is the omission of distinguished and influential Jewish intellectuals like Leo Strauss and Lionel Trilling. I cannot understand how a historian of distinction like Martin Gilbert could so slight contemporary Jewish-American history and its leading figures.
Absent this failure, this learned history of the Jews and their religion is a fine effort whose errors of omission I hope will be rectified in subsequent editions of the book.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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