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Anti-Semitism, it has often been observed, is remarkably adaptable. Across countless centuries, anti-Semites have targeted Jews because of their wealth and their poverty, their power and their frailty, their piety and their godlessness, their tribalistic chauvinism and their rootless cosmopolitanism. The pretexts for Judeophobia are as varied as the cultures in which they have taken poisonous root.

To a lesser degree, the same may be said for that far less common creature: the philo-Semite, one who not only tolerates Jews but deeply appreciates their culture, history, and achievements, and generally delights in their existence. Philo-­Semites have likewise been motivated by a variety of factors, including the Jews’ cultural contributions, religious ideals, philanthropic ethos, social ­conscience, communal cohesion, and even their fabled business acumen. The most rare and potent form of philo-Semitism, however, is the philosophical or ideational form—the conviction that the Jews have introduced and exemplified a set of powerful principles that have contributed to the advance of civilization.

It was this last type that animated one of the greatest philo-Semites of our time. The prodigious writings of the recently deceased English historian and journalist Paul Johnson are suffused with a compelling and erudite form of philosophical philo-Semitism. For the Jewish reader, it is perhaps the most salient element within his entire oeuvre. The prominence and irreducibility of the Jews is a theme that runs through several of Johnson’s popular historical works—Intellectuals, Modern Times, A History of the American People, A History of Christianityand is sprinkled liberally throughout his articles. This disposition is also the foundation of Johnson’s monumental A History of the Jews, an insightful and opinionated recapitulation of four millennia of Jewish history. For Jewish historians (I speak as a very junior member of the guild), it is slightly galling that the richest, most thought-provoking, and most scintillatingly written one-volume history of the Jews was authored by a devout Catholic. Johnson’s attitudes and ideas on this subject are of great consequence for Jew and gentile alike.

Johnson’s presentation of the Jews was heretical, even scandalous, by today’s academic conventions. Eschewing the fashionable conclusion that Jewish communities scattered across various continents and millennia represent merely a loose constellation of disparate cultural units, Johnson insisted that the Jews are what they have traditionally imagined themselves to be: a single national entity, whose unique place in history is secured by their disproportionate contributions to the broader human story. In Johnson’s eyes, the Jews are special because they taught the world a set of indispensable guiding principles. Such principles are not the contingent results of organic cultural stirrings or historicized necessity, but rather immutable convictions about God, humanity, and the world. The Jews’ embodiment of these principles as a religious and social modus vivendi has shaped, even determined, the contours of Jewish history, which is guided primarily by internal ideals rather than the vagaries of external circumstance. Put simply, ­Judaism created the Jews, not vice-versa.

This analytical framework lends Johnson’s historical investigations the unique and exciting attributes of an exercise in ideological reverse-­engineering. By scrupulously chronicling the peaks and troughs of Jewish history, Johnson retroactively deduced the nature of the Jews’ foundational ideas. Concluding his historical examination, he declared that the great Jewish innovations include

the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice.

Johnson developed this paradigm even further. In consonance with other late-twentieth-­century theorists of Judaism, such as Yuri Slezkine and George Steiner, Johnson claimed that these ideas limned the contours not only of Jewish history, but of human civilization. The principles the Jews have introduced to the world—which, ­Johnson posited, may not have been discovered otherwise—are essential for the progress of humankind. Through cultural osmosis and the expansion of Judaism’s daughter religions, they have become the ­patrimony of all humankind, the mental and moral apparatus with which humans negotiate an otherwise bleak existence. The Jews, under this conception, are nothing less than the maligned authors of progress itself.

As is the case with all essentialist portrayals of Judaism (or any other historically evolving, multi-­faceted entity), Johnson’s assessment is ­only partially correct. Certainly, Jews have often punched well above their weight in setting the cultural and intellectual tone of their native ­societies. This has been especially true during the past two centuries, in which the contribution of Jews to the humanities and sciences defies plausibility, summation, or analogy. Furthermore, scholars in recent decades have argued that the role of the ­Hebrew Bible in the modern period—especially in debates regarding individual rights, the overturning of the divine right of kings, the abolition of slavery, and the introduction of civil rights—has been immensely consequential. Nevertheless, Johnson’s claims about Jewish contributions are generous to a fault. They elide the unfortunate historical fact that for long periods in the Christian West and the Islamic East, Jews lived as a scarcely tolerated minority, and were thus in no position to act as cultural influencers. Johnson also minimized the fact that Jews have proved perfectly capable of producing figures, texts, and practices that fell short of their own lofty standards. Jews experienced ­various “dark ages” of their own, and were not immune to the tendency of all nations to betray the best principles of their own humanity. It seems reasonable to claim that Jewish civilization, as represented by its most dazzling expositors, has aided and abetted human progress. But to imply that this influence was constant and uniform, or to claim that ideas such as ­individual conscience or human dignity are exclusively inventions of the Jews, or that these principles were not drastically expanded and refined within the Christian and humanist traditions, is less than faithful to the untidiness of the historical record.

Of course, John­­son’s perception of Judaism was not unstintingly rosy; it included stinging criticisms and partisan judgments. For instance, when Johnson described the different forms of Judaism on offer, particularly during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, his own preferences rose to the fore. He unfavorably, and somewhat reductively, compared the “backward, narrow-minded, obscurantist” Judaism within Israel to the “expansive, rich, cosmopolitan” communities of the diaspora. More jarringly, he reserved a special antipathy for the ritualistic Judaism practiced in the ancient Jerusalemite temple, believing it to be an aberration from the “true’” ethos of ­Judaism. He considered it shameful that while the Jews of Hellenistic Egypt, Persia, and the Italian Peninsula were acculturating themselves ­appropriately,

the God of the Jews was still alive and roaring in his Temple, demanding blood, making no attempt to conceal his racial and primitive origins. . . . To the unprepared visitor, the dignity and charity of Jewish diaspora life, the thoughtful comments and homilies of the Alexandrian synagogue, was quite lost amid the smoke of the pyres, the bellows of terrified beasts, the sluices of blood, the abattoir stench, the unconcealed and unconcealable machinery of tribal religion.

This attitude constitutes perhaps the one clear superimposition of ­Johnson’s preconceived (arguably Pauline) notions of religion onto the contours of Jewish history. Here Johnson finds himself, wittingly or unwittingly, participating in one of the most ­acrimonious debates in modern Jewish history. Reform ­Judaism, which captured vast swathes of Western European Jewry during the nineteenth century, broke with centuries of rabbinic tradition by rejecting ­many ritualistic aspects of the religion, swiftly excising all mention of the temple and its sacrifices from the liturgy. This project was motivated both by the ideological imperative to “purify” Judaism as a universally applicable ethical monotheism, and by the political imperative to prove the national loyalties of Jewish communities by rejecting a messianic redemption that would require the repatriation of Jewish communities to Israel.

The emergence of Reform Judaism horrified Orthodox authorities, as the restoration of the ancient temple with its ritualistic accouterments remained at the heart of their ­messianic vision. The controversy over ancient ritual in general, and the Jerusalemite temple in particular, accounts for much of the chasm dividing Jewish denominations in the modern era. ­Intriguingly, Johnson’s overall sympathies did not map neatly onto this ideological terrain, as he repudiates the notion of a central temple, yet generally ­recognizes the conservation of Jewish praxis as a bulwark against assimilation. One might have expected Johnson to recognize, as do many other historians of the Jews, that the tribalistic and ritualistic elements of the Judaic faith established a centripetal force at the heart of the Jewish life, preserving the coherence and distinction of the Jewish collective. His minimization of this fact reveals much about his own notions of religious excellence.

Johnson similarly promoted his ideological preferences within his descriptions of modern Jewish political movements. He excoriated “non-Jewish Jews”—those Jews of the modern period who sought to divest themselves of their Jewishness in order to achieve parity and acceptance within their host societies. This intervention into modern Jewish political debates was characteristic of Johnson’s historical analysis, and must be understood against the background of his grounding assumption: that the fate of the Jews, and of the ideas they purvey, is central to the progress of human civilization. With the sincerity and fervency of a rabbinic preacher, Johnson fulminated against those who sought to liberate themselves from, or wage war against, traditional forms of Jewishness.

If the Jews and their ideas occupy a central role in the development of civilization, their influence is perhaps exceeded only by that of anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews, dismissed by many historians as a lamentable human defect, takes center stage throughout Johnson’s writings. ­Johnson perceived no major trend of modern world history in which gentile attitudes toward Jews did not play a decisive role. The example of Marx is instructive. Most commentators view Marx’s (auto-)anti-­Semitism as a vindictive or self-flagellating personality quirk, separable from the main thrust of his ideas. For Johnson, by contrast, Marx’s ideology is an outgrowth of his early anti-Semitic writings. It is certainly the case that the early Marx denigrated Jews as a mercantile, capitalistic, emergent bourgeois class, declaring that “in the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” His later philosophical framework, which depicted an all-consuming, eternal struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, is portrayed by Johnson as an expansion of this same economic conspiracy theory. The entire bourgeois class is imbued with undesirable “Jewish” traits, and thus must be eradicated in order to usher history and society toward its utopian climax.

For Johnson, Marxism underwent a great expansion: “[O]riginally based on the oldest form of conspiracy theory, anti-Semitism, in the late 1840s and 1850s this was not so much abandoned as extended to embrace a world conspiracy theory of the entire bourgeois class.” Anti-Semitism, under this conception, lies at the very foundation of Marx’s worldview, which seeks to expand the anti-Jewish witch-hunt far beyond its traditional confines. Of course, such an analysis presupposes Johnson’s basic assessment of Marxism, as “the most dangerous kind of superstition, belief in a conspiracy of evil,” which provides neither a coherent historical diagnosis nor an accurate economic prognosis. It seems more defensible, however, to claim that while Marx’s dislike of mercenary capitalism was intertwined with his delusional anti-Semitism, his socio-economic program was forged largely in the crucible of Left Hegelian philosophy and revolutionary social circles. Anti-Semitism, though potent, cannot account for everything.

Anti-Semitism as a catalyst of civilizational decline is a regular theme in Johnson’s historical analyses. Anti-Semitism is cast as a major factor in the decline of the Spanish empire in the early modern period; in the cultural civil war that weakened France in the decades leading up to the two world wars; in the onset of a totalitarian Russian state in its late imperial and early revolutionary periods; and in the internal vicissitudes within post-war Arab societies that have forestalled modernization and democratization. Perhaps most contentious of all, anti-Semitism was not only the primary impetus behind Hitler’s domestic repression and foreign belligerence, but also functioned as the destabilizing factor in his incomprehensible decisions to invade Russia and declare war on the United States.

For a philo-Semite like Johnson, the presence of Judeophobia at decisive junctures of modern history is no coincidence. If the Jews are the inventors and couriers of mankind’s greatest moral insights, then a hatred of the Jews is a repudiation of the best principles of individual and collective behavior. Anti-Semitism is a mass cultural death wish, the widespread adoption of which sounds the death knell for any society.

As is often the case when intellectuals address the nest of thorny difficulties known as the “Jewish Question,” Johnson’s writings on the subject reveal a great deal about the author himself. The admirable Jewish principles he most frequently invokes—rational analysis of the world, equality before the law, prioritization of the individual, and a finely-honed historical sensibility—are the same values that undergirded his own worldview. Further, while reading Johnson’s Jewish writings, one can’t escape the impression that he was attempting to work through some of the tensions at the heart of his own religious and political worldview.

Without wishing to psychologize Johnson, one can hardly ignore the fact that Johnson’s own early life was spent in a Catholic milieu that had yet to be reformed by the Second Vatican Council’s repudiation of anti-Semitism. Daniel Johnson, the historian’s son, pointed out in conversation with me that his father almost certainly encountered a wide variety of attitudes in his earlier life, some of which would have belittled or denigrated the Jews and their place within history. If so, Johnson’s writings on Jewish issues constituted a conscious rebuttal to latent prejudice within his own tradition. Taking to heart the dictum of Pope John Paul II that Jews are “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham,” Johnson’s writings provide a justification for an abiding Christian appreciation of the role of the Jews in the realms of faith and ideas.

Johnson’s justification and promotion of more conciliatory attitudes is of great significance in the broader history of Jewish–­Christian relations. Throughout most of the history of Christianity, the notion that the ­Mosaic covenant—and consequently the Jewish people as a national ­entity—had been superseded by the new covenant of Christ and his teachings seemed an incontestable doctrine. This tenet was usually accompanied by a belief that the Jews, rejected by God, had been reduced from a proud nation to a horde of parasitical itinerants, whose sole purpose was to provide witness to the truths of the New Israel. Alternatively, in the words of St. Augustine, the Jews’ preservation of their own scriptures provided “testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”

This belief in the historical obsolescence of the Jewish people received a veneer of intellectual respectability in German philosophical writings during the nineteenth century, wherein Judaism was assigned a decidedly primitive role within both the Kantian framework of moral autonomy and the Hegelian dialectic of national-historical progression. (The transformation of the complexities of theological fulfilment into a crude anti-­Jewish bigotry remains a blight on the Age of Reason.) Universally, the Jews were presumed to have ceased their productivity in the first century of the Christian era, having ceded their commonwealth to the Romans and their religious legitimacy to the Church. This accusation was carried into the twentieth century, most notably by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who branded the Jews a “fossil remnant” and considered their national story to be the merest prolegomenon to the superior civilization of Christendom.

By the late twentieth century, the Catholic Church had made significant strides toward more positive theological assessments of Judaism. Major documents of the Second Vatican Council, such as Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae, repudiated anti-Semitism, encouraged interreligious rapprochement, and cleared the Jews of the ancient calumny of deicide. Although it remains an open question whether Johnson, a devout Catholic, believed in some form of Christian supersessionism, his writings went to great lengths to counter some of the uglier extremes that arose from these attitudes. He did so through two important maneuvers.

First, he posited that the early Church owed ­many of its central characteristics—especially those that made it both attractive and familiar to early converts—to its Jewish precursors. Early Christians adopted, in largely unchanged forms, Jewish communal structures, ethical norms, and social protections for society’s most vulnerable members. For Johnson, far from replacing Judaism, Christianity had given a “fresh interpretation” to the institutions and dogmas of its parent faith, to which it owed an incalculable debt.

Second, Johnson’s insistence on the range and depth of the Jewish story constitutes a resounding rejection of accusations of Jewish ossification. Johnson’s investigations reveal two millennia of vigorous and turbulent exilic Jewish life, demonstrating that diaspora Jewry satisfied all the criteria for a thriving national organism. In this narrative, there was no truly “quiet” era of Jewish history, let alone cultural atrophy. Jewish accomplishments in the religious, economic, political, social, and intellectual spheres placed them at the epicenter of ­many great civilizational narratives. The Jews have no need of reintroduction into world history, for the simple reason that they never left. In this regard, Johnson joins the company of the great Jewish historians of the nineteenth ­century—men such as Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, and ­Heinrich Graetz—whose presentation of the Jewish past served a similar polemical point: that the productivity and dynamism of the Jewish nation throughout its entire history places it in equal rank with the greatest nations on earth. In our present age, in which the world’s only Jewish nation-state is under sustained attack from malicious and ignorant actors across the political spectrum, the proposition that Jews constitute a fully-fledged nation with a robust national-historical consciousness must be defended with vigor. It is in the context of this battle that Johnson’s works remain invaluable.

In his Jewish writings, Johnson grapples with perhaps the most important question to face a religious historian: the presence, or lack thereof, of a higher providence within history. In the Jewish context, this theological issue is manifest in the question of whether the unparalleled longevity and influence of the Jews (expressed in traditional Jewish theology as “chosenness”) is the result of blind fate, historical contingency, or divine intervention. Johnson poses this question in the prologue to his A History of the Jews, which may be read as a six-hundred-fifty-page reflection on the meta-historical question of divine providence. Attentive readers of this mammoth work witness Johnson’s vacillations between his academic and religious instincts.

On the one hand, as a hard-nosed historical researcher, Johnson is aware that history is replete with anomalous, even inexplicable phenomena, and he refuses to compromise his investigations by invoking a God of the historical gaps. On the other hand, as a thinker who appreciates finely woven grand narratives, Johnson cannot suppress his instinctual perception that the survival of humanity’s most important moral and religious couriers is beyond mere coincidence. In the end, Johnson opts for a compromise: The Jews are indeed “­chosen,” but are so through their own creativity and tenacity. The Jews, having made some extraordinary claims about themselves and the world they inhabit, proceeded to fulfill their own prophecies, transforming human civilization in the process. In a way, the Jews assume the role of God within their own history, harnessing humanity’s greatest principles and practices to ensure that their own grand narrative, in the final analysis, depicts and enacts an arc of redemption. By introducing the world to a God of history, the Jews have transcended and defeated historical immanence. In an age of disenchantment, to make this argument, as ­Johnson does, may be a historian’s highest compliment.

A Jew naturally welcomes philo-Semitism, but this great historical writer does more than cheerlead. Johnson’s upbeat, essentialized, laudatory conception of Jewishness contains an urgent contemporary lesson for Jews. In a zeitgeist that lionizes and commodifies victimhood, many Jews have been tempted to deal in this cultural currency. Jostling for a higher position on the pyramid of grievance, some Jews—especially those with a tenuous connection to the Judaic religion or ­nation-state—have emphasized anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as the central and defining elements of Jewish identity. Such activists claim that the Jews, arguably the most persecuted religious minority in history, are now invested with the moral superiority that victimhood apparently confers.

This approach is a colossal error. To make suffering and persecution the central feature of Jewish identity stands as an unconscionable betrayal of a civilization whose profundity and venerability defies description. Judaism, as Johnson ­emphasizes, is based upon a set of ideas and practices that have remained a powerful force for the edification of the entire human race. Nor have these ideas diminished in their potency, as contemporary practitioners of Judaism—including men and women of all races, nationalities, and political ­persuasions—cultivate its texts and traditions as a force for good within their own worlds. It is not historical oppression, but rather the embodiment of a divine calling (whether understood in a religious or a secular vein), that remains the cardinal meaning of Jewishness. To be Jewish means being part of a tradition that apprehends, uplifts, and redeems creation. Few understood this as deeply or communicated this as powerfully as Paul Johnson, our generation’s great philo-Semite.

J. J. Kimche is a PhD candidate specializing in Jewish intellectual history at Harvard University.

Image by Djampa via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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