Saturday, 29 September 2012

Phyllis Goldstein, "A Convenient Hatred" (2011)

Goldstein's 'History of Anti-Semitism', published by Brookline, has been received by respected and knowledgeable reviewers as an informative, objective, compelling overview of a particular type of persistent, irrational hatred.

Goldstein begins with the occupation of Samaria and Judea approximately 700-500 years before the Common Era. Even at this early date, tensions existed between the Jews and populations such as the Egyptians and the Greeks, primarily stemming from religious differences. Jews, of course, are monotheistic, while at this time neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians were. As the policy-makers in their respective domains, both groups expected respect for - if not wholehearted worship - of the gods recognized by the dominant power. In the observation of the Sabbath and other unique religious practices, the Jews not only stood out as 'different' but also flouted the authority of the state.

The rise of Christianity presented a new set of problems for Jews. While Christians were monotheistic, and the figure they respected as their spiritual leader was Jewish, their relationship with Jews hinged on the question of how that leader felt about Judaism (was he a reformer or the Moshiah?), and how the Christians understood the role of Jews in the Christ's death. From early Christianity into the Middle Ages, the response to both questions suggested that Jews were in the wrong (they didn't accept Christ as the Moshiah, their absence from state/imperial power made them easier to blame for their role in the Crucifixion than the Romans, and it was easier to recruit adherents from around the Mediterranean to a de-Judaized version of the Christ's teachings).

Particularly fascinating - at least for this reader - is Goldstein's discussion of how Jews fit into Europe's social order (perhaps better written as 'orders') during the period between the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Competition for economic advantage, and at times protection of what was identified as the 'domestic' advantage of non-Jews, led alternatively to charters of limited but clarified and usually expanded social privileges for Jews - whether in terms of their ability to engage in economic, social, or religious activities - and at other times, repeal or disregard of these charters, and often persecution within or ejection from kingdoms or city-states.

Self-organization by Jewish communities - led in particular by kehillot (something like community councils, but not democratic) - allowed Jews to sometimes exercise their growing numbers and economic power. In particular, Goldstein relates how during the 1550s, Jewish importers organized a boycott of the Adriatic port of Ancona, within an Italian papal state, supported by notable figures such as the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The boycott, and pressure from the Sultan, resulted in the release of Spanish Jews who had converted to Christianity, but had nonetheless been imprisoned by the Papal representative (it should be noted that by the time some of the prisoners were released, others had been killed).

Also fascinating was the history of relations between Jews and the Polish kings during this period. Within Poland, the early embrace of rights for Jews within the Kingdom of Poland is often held forth as a significant accomplishment. It cannot be overlooked, however, that these rights were not entrenched in any way, were repealed several times as rulers changed (within the Kingdom, and within territories within the Kingdom), and that pogroms and other forms of persecution still occurred.

The weakest coverage - in the humble opinion of this author, of course - is given to the post-1945 period. It is easy to argue that our familiarity with the concerns and events of recent decades allows us to be more critical of anyone's explanation and summary of them. It is this familiarity, however, that leads me to see what I think is deft management of information and careful phrasing of observations to lend support to Goldstein's position. For instance, in describing the beginning of 1967's "Six Day War", Rosenstein states, "By mid-May, Nassey was convinced that war was inevitable and began making plans for the coming conflict. He closed the Straits of Tiran to ships coming to or from Israel... Those acts, in turn, convinced the Israelis that war was inevitable. On June 5, 1967, war began." (329) Never mentioned is that Israel carried out the first, overwhelming air strike on Egypt that saw the formal outbreak of hostilities. (See, for instance, .) While Rosenstein might claim that aggressive border skirmishes had already occurred, and that the closure of the Straits of Tiran was an aggressive action against Israel, none of these were enough to begin a war in and of themselves.

This criticism in mind, Rosenstein's book is tremendously useful, and does provide an insightful, interesting, compelling read. It is certainly full of value as an generalist overview to one of the most entrenched, persistent problems of human behaviour of the last two thousand years. Not without shortcomings, these are likely more the result of trying to narrate more than two-thousand years of history in 360 pages than a conscious attempt to falsify history or propagandize.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ron Graham, "The Last Act" (2011)

The full title is, The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada.

Graham's summary of the Canadian political zeitgeist between the 1960s and the early 1980s is succinct, clear and compelling. Complex issues are generally made understandable, and I very rarely felt that Graham was giving any of the contending positions or players short shrift. Frankly, this book represents a model for how to write popular political history.

The only weakness I could identify in this book - and that in itself is a revealing indication - is that occasionally the minutiae of constitutional proposals, and the debates stemming from them, were difficult to keep track of. This is more likely a result of the topic, however, than Graham's eminent ability to keep challenging material readable for a general audience.

Here's a brief Q&A with Ron Graham, as published in Samara.