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A History of the Jews in the Modern World Paperback – September 12, 2006
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Starred Review. In this monumental and complex narrative, successor to his distinguished 1958 The Course of Modern Jewish History (substantially revised in 1990), Sachar, generally acknowledged as the preeminent scholar of modern Jewish history, proves himself to be not only a superb historian, but a compelling storyteller. The scope of this project is both exhilarating and daunting, including western and eastern Europe, America and the Middle East from the 17th century to the present; Sachar's major themes include the history of anti-Semitism, the development of the nation state, the rise of European fascism and the immigration of Jews throughout Europe and to the Americas. Sachar has constructed this history with such adroitness that it is best read as a sweeping chronicle of not just Jewish but world history. As always, Sachar's informal, almost conversational style is both inviting and accessible, whether sketching out the complicated position of Jews in Brazil during the country's fight for independence from Portugal in 1824 or demonstrating how Jewish religious thinking was vital in the advancement of modern medicine. For both the general reader and the scholar, this is an important addition to the literature on both Jewish and Western history and culture. (Aug. 17)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* Sachar, author of 15 books and the editor of the 39-volume Rise of Israel: A Documentary History, begins his new, compelling, and comprehensive book with an account of the European Jews and anti-Semitism they faced as early as the sixteenth century, in what he calls their "indeterminate status as non-Europeans." He goes on to describe such events as their life in western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French Revolution and Jewish questions, the Jews of czarist Russia, their struggle for civil rights in the 1830s and 1840s, and their place in what Sachar labels an emancipated economy. There are chapters on such topics as the impact of Western culture on Jewish life and coping with Jewish identity, the rise of Jewish life in America, the era of pogroms in Russia, the migration of east European Jewry (1881-1914), and the onset of modern anti-Semitism. Sachar discusses the life of Theodor Herzl and the rise of political Zionism, the effect of World War I on European Jews and postwar anti-Semitism, the Balfour Declaration in 1917, quotas limiting Jewish immigration to the U.S. in 1921, the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, and the birth of Israel. Sachar does not discuss the State of Israel, saying that the history of an independent nation deserves independent treatment, but otherwise he has written the definitive history of the Jews, unparalleled in its scope and depth. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Sachar presents a nuanced view of the Jewish experience in post-Reformation Europe: "These constructs must be judged in the context of their time, of course. If Jews possessed fewer rights than did their urban Christian neighbors, they also bore fewer obligations and enjoyed more privileges than did Europe's peasant masses."(p. 5).
A moderate amount of attention is devoted to the massive pogroms in 19th century Russia. Based on archival research, Sachar rejects the notion that the pogroms of 1881 had been instigated by the tsarist government (p. 199). However, Sachar believes that Tsar Nicholas II was in fact behind the 600 pogroms that took place in 1905 (p. 295). Sachar also recounts the experience of Mendel Beilis, who had been framed on an accusation of ritual murder (pp. 305-309). Beilis received a considerable amount of international support and was eventually acquitted.
After Poland was partitioned in the late 1700's, the erstwhile Polish Jews of eastern Poland became Russian Jews, as described by Sachar: "All attempts by Jews to participate in municipal government were effectively blocked by their Russian neighbors, on the grounds that the Jews engaged in "parasitical" "exploitative" activities among the surrounding peasants, especially through their control of the liquor trade. The latter charge actually was well founded. Accustomed in Poland to function as middlemen between aristocrats' estates and the countryside, Jews had become proficient in buying up and converting harvested grain and potato crops into mash, and mash into distilled spirits, which resisted the vicissitudes of the weather. The peasantry offered a sure and certain marker for liquor, and the Jews exploited it fully."(p. 54).
During the Russian rule of eastern and central Poland, a Jewish bourgeoisie developed in Congress Poland (pp. 70-71). In time, this pitted Poles against the mostly-Jewish industrialists. Of course, Jewish dominance of commerce also occurred at lower levels. Sachar describes the Polish-Jewish conflicts that became widely known soon after the resurrection of the Polish state: "In the 1920's, too, the government found ways to restrict Jewish economic activity. The rationale was Jewish overcrowding in commerce and the professions. Here, in fact, the statistics bore out the charge. By 1922, Jews comprised 52% of Poland's tradesmen and owned 48% of the nation's retail shops (although most of these were diminutive market stalls). A majority of attorneys in larger cities were Jews, and in medicine the Jewish presence ranked second only to the German."(p. 414). Sachar, however, doesn't put any of the foregoing statistics in context: Jews comprised only 10% of the Polish population.
Sachar elaborates on the role of Jews in Communism. On one hand, he cites Alexander Kerensky, who asserted that 99% of Russian Jews were anti-Bolshevik (p. 334). On the other hand, the very disproportionate number of Jews in Communism is striking. Bearing in mind the fact that Jews comprised a small percentage of the Russian population, one can appreciate Sachar's figures on Jewish Communism (the Zydokomuna). In December 1917, 5 of the 21 members of the Soviet Central Committee were Jews, prompting Sachar to remark: "Never before had so many Jews served in any European cabinet."(p. 327). Sachar believes that Jews were prominent in Soviet Communism no less so than they were in the Communist parties of western Europe. By the early 1920's, Jews in the Soviet Union accounted for 15-20% of delegates to party congresses (p. 330), and comprised an even higher percentage of party technocrats (including mid-level administrators).
Unfortunately, Sachar recycles an old canard from WWII-era Communist propaganda. He repeats the charge (p. 551) that Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, the head of the Polish Underground Army (AK) and later leader of the Warsaw Uprising, gave an order for the killing of Jewish partisans because of their "banditry" and "Bolshevism." In fact, Bor-Komorowski never ordered the killing of Jews. He did order armed resistance against bands of bandits. This has been twisted, without any supporting evidence, into a supposed veiled order to kill fugitive Jews. Anyone who has actually lived in formerly-northeast Poland during the German occupation will attest to the fact that banditry, conducted by bands of Poles as well as Jews, was in fact a serious problem. As for partisan action, even non-Communist Jewish partisans eventually became subordinated to the Soviet Union. Owing to the fact that the Soviets progressively came out as enemies of the AK, the Jewish partisans and the AK were also drawn into enmity against each other.
Sachar discusses the reparations for the Holocaust paid out by West Germany (p. 630), including the fact that the reparations cover property losses of the Jews. Those individuals and organizations seeking compensation from Poland for WWII-era property losses are clearly asking the wrong nation for reparations.
This is a tour de force, as always well written and researched and easily readable.
Seth J. Frantzman
Page after page, the Jews who trembled and the Jews who triumphed, come to life as Professor Sachar recounts Jewish life in the Old World. The array of information in the book is sometimes overwhelming but always revealing about how Jews hung on to life and beliefs through the tortured course of European history.
"A History of the Jews in the Modern World" tells it all. Between its covers American Jews will learn, identify and be grateful to their ancestors for coming to America