A People Apart - The Jews in Europe 1789-1939
by David Vital
944 pp. Oxford: Clarendon Press. £30
Even before Hitler made of the Germans savage mass murderers, my late father used to tell me that Jews in Europe are like salt in food - a small amount is necessary; a moderate amount can be tolerated, but a large amount becomes unacceptable - which means that anti-Semitism is endemic in Europe, to that Continent's lasting shame.
The notion that anti-Semitism is an endemic disease in the minds of most Europeans can be illustrated by the fact that Poland got rid of virtually all of its 3.3 million Jews, anti-Semitism there is still very strong, and foreign tourists who maybe suspected of being Jewish, are always stoned and abused.
The modern history of the Jews in Europe begins with the French Revolution. Emancipation, benefited Jews in innumerable ways, but it also increased the risks, because it replaced the personal by the impersonal and brought Jewish communities directly into contact with the modern State with all its power and unpredictability. In earlier periods, Jews had survived and even prospered through the well-loved skills of their leaders in making use of personal contacts with the great.
This seems to suggest that Jews should accept anti-Semitism as a fact of life and should only try to find out the best way to handle it. This is unacceptable.
The fact of the matter is that Democracy itself in the shape of majority rule is responsible for modern anti-Semitism. There is an obsession in the world today that Democracy means the rules of the majority. But, majority rule as an expression of Democracy is only valid where differences are over minor issues. In all societies divided by race, religion, language or colour, the rights of all sections have to be equally respected. Hitler came to power through the ballot-box, and then used his democratically obtained authority to destroy his opponents.
We are told, for instance that in 1931 of the total population of Poland of about 32 million, less than 65% were Poles. The Jews made up nearly 10%, and in towns like Warsaw, Cracow, Lublin, Lodz and Lwow, represented between a quarter and a third of the inhabitants. It is as if we have to show sympathy to the Poles for being only 65% of the total population. Why should the Poles not be only 65%, a 55% or any proportion.
Majority rule, even majority tyranny, is the root of political evil in a world which is becoming increasingly globalised.
Discriminated against they might be always, and actively persecuted from time-to-time. Jews were living on the slopes of Vesuvius, but the soil was rich and irrigated by a culture and religion of mesmerising power. The very fact that they were a people apart was a source of happiness as well as danger. But, of course, the volcano was there all the time, and when it finally erupted, the results were devastating. Vital's epilogue lists updated figures of the destruction of two-thirds of the civilian Jewish population of Continental Europe during the Second World War. Of a total population of 9,415,840 in 1939, the lowest estimate of losses was 5,596,029, the high one 5,860,129. Poland lost about 90% of its Jews, Lithuania 85% and in eight other countries losses were over 60%. David Vital's provides a grave and exhaustive account of the political background to this monstrous crime against a gifted, civilised and peaceful people, who, although numbering only one in 400 of world population, produced on their own the three most influential personalities of the 20th century - Marx, Einstein and Freud.
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