Eventually, nearly every discussion of the Jews, pro or con, sympathetic or hostile, gets around to their alleged singularity. Twelve or thirteen centuries ago, when everyone from the Indus to the Atlantic was choosing sides between the crescent and the cross, the Jews were sticking to a path all their own, studying their own books, formulating their own laws and rejecting everyone else’s. They were stubborn, clannish and standoffish, and even when they stopped wearing those funny clothes in the modern era and tried to blend in–especially when they tried to blend in–something about them remained at odds with the larger society. In W. Somerset Maugham’s marvelous short story “The Alien Corn,” the narrator finds himself at lunch with a wealthy Jewish family in their picture-perfect country estate:

I was the only Gentile at the table. All but old Lady Bland spoke perfect English, yet I could not help feeling that they did not speak like English people; I think they rounded their vowels more than we do, they certainly spoke louder, and the words seemed not to fall, but to gush from their lips. I think if I had been in another room where I could hear the tone but not the words of their speech I should have thought it was in a foreign language that they were conversing. The effect was slightly disconcerting.

Outwardly the Blands ( the Bleikogels) were very much the same, but inwardly they were not. Of course, one might reply that it was the English, with their elaborate class distinctions, who were slightly disconcerting. But Fitzgerald and Hemingway made more or less the same point, so there had to be something to it. All agreed that the Jews were out of place wherever they went. They were nowhere at home because nowhere was their home. They were different.

In The Jewish Century, however, Yuri Slezkine, a Russian-Jewish historian now ensconced at Berkeley, mounts an elaborate counterargument. Jews are not unique, he maintains in his fascinating new study, and it is only European provincialism that makes them seem that way. Otherwise, they are of a type that is very common the world over: border crossers, ethnic transgressors and other nomadic and seminomadic elements who enter into complicated relations with host nations that are complementary and symbiotic. We think of the Jews as singular because over the course of Western history they have performed singular functions: as intermediaries between the Christian and Muslim realms during the early Middle Ages and then as moneylenders and pawnbrokers when an expanding European economy led to a growing need for capital. These were functions that Europeans (which is to say, Christians) could not or would not do for themselves, thanks to a strict church ban on usury. So they turned to outsiders–intimate strangers, so to speak–to do them instead.

The result, among other things, was a deeply ambivalent relationship that multiplied itself in a variety of ways. Both sides were contemptuous of the other but also envious. Both needed the relationship to continue but wished they could do without. The Jews, being militarily vulnerable, had to be especially careful. They had to make themselves at home while at the same time insisting that their real home was far away (in Jerusalem, of course). They had to know their customers while making sure their customers did not know them. They had to be alert for opportunities but at the same time on guard for signs of trouble.

Strange–except that other ethnic groups have carved out parallel roles for themselves in a variety of circumstances. In medieval Korea, according to Slezkine, the Koli such’ok and Hwach’okchaein peoples specialized as hunters, butchers, sorcerers, torturers, border guards, buffoons, dancers and puppeteers. In Japan, a group known as the Eta specialized in “animal slaughter, public executions, and mortuary services,” while a group known as the Hinin “monopolized begging, prostitution, juggling, dog training, and snake charming.” In Somalia, the Yibir people engaged in magic, surgery and leatherwork; in southern Ethiopia, the Fuga were ritual experts and entertainers; in the Sahel, Sahara and Sudan various traveling blacksmiths doubled as cattle dealers, grave diggers, circumcisers, peddlers, jewelers, musicians and conflict mediators. Again, these were functions that the people they traveled among could not or would not do themselves and that they likewise delegated to others. We can imagine the similarly mixed emotions such itinerant specialists aroused whenever they pulled into a new village or settlement. Although some people might regard anti-Semitism as somehow sui generis, Jews are not the only ones to arouse both envy and disdain, welcoming and trepidation. They are also not the only ones to regard their social role as unique and therefore indispensable and to encourage others to think the same.

Slezkine has a name for such specialists. He calls them Mercurians and their hosts Apollonians. In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god of livestock and agriculture and hence of settled existence in general. Hermes–Mercury to the Romans–is, by contrast, a trickster god who serves as “the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens,” i.e., less permanent types who prefer to live by their wits. Rather than settling down and blending in, the Mercurians seek the opposite goal: to keep themselves apart by deliberately cultivating strangeness‚ strange customs, strange languages and so on. Gypsies developed a variety of Romani and Para-Romani languages whose chief purpose, non-Gypsies have long suspected, is to keep outsiders in the dark. The Inadan gunsmiths and jewelers of the Sahara make themselves incomprehensible to their Tuareg hosts by adding the prefix om– or the suffix –ak to certain nouns. Jews have created a variety of languages out of Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian, among others. Although long regarded as a German dialect that they picked up crossing the Rhine, Yiddish, according to one linguist, may actually be a more complex “fusion language” composed of equal parts German, Hebrew, Loez (Judeo-French and Judeo-Italian) and Slavic, a mélange whose overall purpose is similarly communicative and noncommunicative–to facilitate communication within the community, that is, while erecting a linguistic barrier around it. Jews learned other people’s languages, but other people rarely learned the Jews’, a one-way linguistic street that was not without its advantages.

Jews are different, in other words, except that other people are also different in comparable ways. Not only do Mercurians tend to be multilingual–Hermes was also “the god of eloquence,” Slezkine notes–but they are also usually endogamous (marrying within the group so as to avoid outside entanglements), devoted to elaborate purity codes involving food and blood (another means of limiting contact with the outside world) and, in the case of the men, seemingly weak and feminine (since they usually avoid confrontations with their more numerous hosts rather than seeking them out). The Jains of India started out as members of the Kshatriya warrior caste but then, upon adopting vegetarianism and nonviolence, turned to moneylending, jewelry-making, shopkeeping and, eventually, banking and industry. No one knows whether vegetarianism or moneylending came first, but there is no question that they were mutually supportive. The Parsis of Bombay and Gujarat, descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia after the Muslim conquest, practiced endogamy as a way of avoiding entanglement with the Hindu caste system. Their self-imposed outsider status led them to take up peddling and liquor dealing and then, with the arrival of the Europeans in the 1500s, brokering, moneylending, shipbuilding and eventually international trade. “By the mid-nineteenth century,” Slezkine writes, “the Parsis had become Bombay’s leading bankers, industrialists, and professionals, as well as India’s most proficient English-speakers and most determined practitioners of Western social rituals.” We can be sure their English overlords also sneered at them as parvenus for weakly imitating European ways.

If Slezkine had left off there, his book would have significantly added to our understanding of minority cultures and the functions they perform. But this is merely the opening gambit in a richly detailed study that aims not only to recast our understanding of the modern Jewish predicament but of the modern predicament as a whole. In essence, The Jewish Century argues that the world passed through a Star Trek-like portal somewhere in the late 1800s so that, for the first time in history, Mercurian values became ascendant over Apollonian ones. Jews were intimately bound up with the change not because they were better than other Mercurians but merely because they were closest to the center of action. For the first time in centuries, their special mix of skills and abilities–multilingualism, adaptability, intellectual agility, etc.–were in demand.

Slezkine is hardly the only one to link Judaism with the emergence of capitalist modernity. And nowhere was the connection more striking than in czarist Russia, a vast agrarian empire on Europe’s eastern edge and a kind of frozen monument to the Apollonian virtues of staying put. When at last this edifice began to crack in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a number of Mercurian elements rushed into the breach–Armenians, ethnic Germans and high-achieving Old Believers (Russian Orthodox dissidents analogous in some respects to the Amish or Quakers). But no one was more prominent in the changeover than the Jews. Despite endless legal impediments placed in their way, Jewish capitalists were soon conspicuous in banking, shipping and mining and were involved in the construction of fully three-fourths of the czarist rail system. In Odessa, Jews were responsible for 57 percent of factory output as of 1887 and 90 percent of grain exports as of 1910. They ran much of Russia’s timber industry and, on the eve of World War I, owned a third of all sugar mills in Ukraine. Elsewhere, Jews flocked to the universities, entered en masse into professions like medicine and law, and flooded into the arts. “Jews are so clever that no law can be counted on to restrict them,” czarist finance minister V.N. Kokovtsev complained in 1906. But “they needed to be restricted,” Slezkine adds, simply because “they were so clever.”

If the Mercurian triumph created an opening for Jewish capitalists, it created an even greater one for Jews on the revolutionary left. Russian radicalism developed in two stages, an early agrarian stage followed by a proletarian-industrial stage from roughly the 1890s on. Jews were prominent in the first, but they retreated in confusion when peasant radicalism turned anti-Semitic. They were far more at home in the second, whose values were completely different. Mercurian rather than Apollonian, to use Slezkine’s terminology, Russian socialists extolled industrialism, urbanism, learning, mobility and modernization. They despised tradition, religion and rootedness in general. For Lenin, one of the positive aspects of capitalistic development is that it tended to “replace the thick-skulled, boorish, inert, and bearishly savage Russian or Ukrainian peasant with a mobile proletarian.” A quarter Jewish himself (although he didn’t know it), Lenin unabashedly admired the “great, universally progressive traits in Jewish culture: its internationalism and its responsiveness to the advanced movements of the age.” Ironically, Jews were at first more numerous among the Mensheviks. But once the Revolution and Civil War got under way, Jews flocked to the Bolsheviks because they were the only ones who took a strong line against anti-Semitism. According to Slezkine,

For those who wished to fight, there was but one army to join. The Red Army was the only force that stood earnestly and consistently against Jewish pogroms and the only one led by a Jew. Trotsky was not just a general or even a prophet: he was the living embodiment of redemptive violence, the sword of revolutionary justice.

Slezkine’s attitude toward the Soviet Union is ambivalent at best. He dedicates The Jewish Century to his grandmother, who was imprisoned under the czar, immigrated to Argentina, returned to Russia in 1931 to help build socialism and in her old age, he says, “considered most of her life to have been a mistake.” Plainly, a latter-day Bolshevik he is not. But while he regards the Soviet experiment as a failure, he believes “the Jewish century” presented the Jews with a series of choices, none of them completely satisfactory. They could lose themselves in the Mercurian transformation of imperial Russia. They could immigrate to the United States, a country founded by Protestant Mercurians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and take their place alongside all the other Mercurianized immigrant groups as part of a general celebration of American “diversity” and “ethnicity” (however bogus those terms may be). Or they could turn Zionist, move to Palestine and become tillers of the soil, Apollonian peasant warriors in a world struggling to leave all that behind.

The first choice led to a dead end when Stalin’s neo-Apollonian Russification policy led to a resurgence of anti-Semitism. The second has led to Bush, while the third has led to permanent warfare in an ethno-chauvinist state that Slezkine describes as “the sole Western survivor (along with Turkey, perhaps) of the integral nationalism of interwar Europe.” The very concept of a Jewish state, he adds, is the contemporary equivalent “of such politically illegitimate concepts as ‘Germany for the Germans’ and ‘Greater Serbia,'” while “the rhetoric of ethnic homogeneity and ethnic deportations, tabooed elsewhere in the West, is a routine element of Israeli political life.” American and Israeli Jews should not automatically assume that their choice was the right one.

Slezkine’s interpretation of Jewish history, meanwhile, has its strengths and weaknesses. It is wonderfully antiparochial not only vis-à-vis the Jews but vis-à-vis America, which, he reminds us, not everyone saw as a promised land and which large portions of the huddled masses struggled to avoid. (His discussion of how Fiddler on the Roof Americanized Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, who actually despises the United States, is particularly bracing.) Considering the flood of right-wing propaganda inundating us nowadays, the fact that he shows any sympathy at all for the Russian Revolution is faintly astonishing. Far from surrendering to the Bolshevik steamroller, Jews were active participants, carrying out a revolution against their own rabbinate and bourgeoisie that in many respects was more ferocious than the larger revolution of which it was a part. “Most Jewish rebels did not fight the state in order to become free Jews; they fought the state in order to become free from Jewishness,” Slezkine observes. In a 1903 letter to Theodor Herzl, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann complained that even though the unfolding revolutionary movement “consumes much Jewish energy and heroism, and is located within the Jewish fold, the attitude it evidences towards Jewish nationalism is one of antipathy, swelling at times to fanatical hatred. Children are in open revolt against their parents.” Thus, Jewish Bolsheviks revolted against Judaism not so much because they wanted to destroy it but because they wanted to use it as a springboard to something higher.

On the negative side, Slezkine is a captive of his metaphor, and the picture he paints is to a degree one-sided and incomplete. Reading The Jewish Century, one sometimes gets the impression that all footloose service providers are Mercurians and that all Mercurians are in the vanguard of social change. But this raises the question of why some Mercurians become part of the vanguard and others do not, and why some wind up doing both. The Jewish response to the first wave of European modernization, for instance, was not to rush forward and embrace the brave new world unfolding around them but to pull back further into their shell. Lost in Talmudic obscurantism, they seemed as hopelessly backward from roughly the fifteenth to the eighteenth century as the Gypsies, those other European Mercurians, may seem today. It was not until the French Revolution that attitudes began to change, and not until 1848, as Eric Hobsbawm recently noted in The London Review of Books, that they became prominent in the front rows of European radicalism. Only then did the image of the Jew sealing himself off behind high ghetto walls give way to the image of the Jew as pioneer of the new.

The Jewish Century falls short in another respect. By reducing everything to a matter of Mercurians versus Apollonians, Slezkine comes close to lopping off an entire intellectual dimension. Jews played a key role in the creation of the modern world not merely because they were close to the center of action but because of their ideological role in what, from the tenth century on, was becoming the most ideologically fraught corner of the globe. Although small in number, they were the Christians’ and Muslims’ intellectual equal for much of the medieval period and their superior for a portion of it. Not only did they pioneer the concept of universalism; they used it to mount a sustained critique of their own behavior. (As the classical historian Morton Smith said of the Golden Calf episode and other instances of Hebrew backsliding in the Old Testament, “That constantly recurrent national apostasy should be made the leit-motif of an entire literature is something unparalleled in antiquity.”) Jewish self-excoriation–or self-hatred, if you will–may seem neurotic, but it turned out to be highly useful in an age of neurosis based on ruthless intellectual self-examination and debate. Some sons and daughters of rabbis and peddlers tried to turn themselves into model Gentiles à la Maugham’s Blands/Bleikogels. (“You know,” Bland père remarks hilariously at one point, “I’ve got an idea that nowhere in the world now is the Greek ideal of life so perfectly cultivated as by the English country gentlemen living on his estates.”) But once the idea of a universal god had fallen by the wayside, others sallied forth to do battle with the new universal ideas taking its place–psychoanalysis, theoretical physics, socialism and so on–astonishing the world with their aggressiveness and intellectual ferocity. If Jews felt a special affinity for Bolshevism (which they undoubtedly did), it was because it was the most universal, radical and militant form of Modernism yet and hence the only kind they could completely embrace.

Somehow describing them as merely another group of wandering craftsmen and information purveyors seems inadequate. Slezkine also observes that Jews are not the only Mercurians to suffer barbaric violence. Levantines in Latin America, West Africa and the Caribbean; Chinese in Southeast Asia; Indians in East Africa–all have been at the receiving end of riots and pogroms that are no different from those of czarist Russia. Yet, he writes, “there is no word for ‘anti-Sinicism’ in the English language, or indeed in any language except Chinese (and even in Chinese the term, paihua, is limited in use and not universally accepted).” On the one hand, this suggests that the Jews are not unique. On the other, by showing how anti-Jewish animosity has been uniquely ideologized, it suggests that something about their role is different after all.

Although Howard Sachar’s A History of the Jews in the Modern World covers some of the same territory, it is vastly different in its tone and conclusions. Where Slezkine goes out on a limb, Sachar plays it safe by telling us the story in a way that most people will find agreeable. Consensus history of this sort is fine when the consensus is right, but not so fine when it isn’t. He tells us, for example, that “the largest numbers of Russian Jews had never adopted a Bolshevik political agenda” before the October Revolution because their petit-bourgeois economic position rendered them ill disposed to a program of mass expropriation. This is what Sachar’s American readership would like to believe, and it is even true to a degree, although it ignores the extent to which Jews were dissatisfied with their position, aware that it was increasingly untenable and all but primed, consequently, to respond positively to a more sweeping and radical program when it finally seemed practical. He tells us that Jews were anti-Bolshevik in 1917 because they favored the Jewish cultural autonomy that Lenin opposed. Again, this may be accurate as a snapshot of Jewish attitudes at a particular moment, but it does not explain why millions of Jews abandoned cultural autonomy at the first opportunity a few years later, moving to Leningrad, Moscow and other large cities and taking salaried positions in the expanding Soviet technocracy. Whatever sense cultural autonomy may have made in a period of czarist stagnation, it made no sense whatsoever amid the “bonanza of upward mobility,” as Sachar describes it in nearly the same breath, triggered by Soviet industrialization.

Such lapses are unfortunate, because much of A History of the Jews in the Modern World is judicious and balanced. Sachar’s discussion of the interwar period in Central and Eastern Europe is especially impressive. The problem, as he shows, was all too simple. The Treaty of Versailles had given rise to a slew of bankrupt authoritarian states straight out of The Merry Widow or, better yet, Duck Soup. With roughly one citizen in four a member of one or another beleaguered minority, their ethnic policies were as vicious as their economic policies were comical. Hungarians in Romania, Ukrainians in Poland, Germans in Czechoslovakia–all were made to feel like unwanted stepchildren. And of course the most unwanted stepchildren of all, the ones all other stepchildren despised, were the Jews. The three great liberal powers–Britain, France and the United States–made fitful efforts to encourage a modicum of good behavior. Treaties were imposed on Poland, Czechoslovakia, Serbia and a half-dozen other states, requiring them to extend full civil rights to all citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity. Greece would be for the Greeks, but also somehow for the Jews, Turks, Bulgarians and others falling within its borders. Poland would be the same for Ukrainians and Jews. American Jews were jubilant. As Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee and a key adviser to Woodrow Wilson who helped negotiate such treaties, told an overflow crowd at Carnegie Hall in July 1919:

For the first time, the nations of the world have recognized that, in common with all other peoples, we are entitled to equality in law…. It has now become an established principle that any violation of the rights of a minority is an offense not only against the individuals but against the law which controls all of the civilized nations of the earth.

But such treaties were not only impossible to enforce; the very fact that the imperial powers had imposed them made the agreements all the more resented. A dangerous dynamic was put in place in which the only way Poles, Czechs, Romanians, etc. could demonstrate their national independence with regard to London or Paris was by abusing all those non-Poles, etc. London and Paris were urging them to protect. The Depression and concomitant rise of anti-Semitism in the imperial West didn’t help matters; neither, needless to say, did the Nazi takeover in Germany. Much like–dare we say it?–today’s Palestinians, Jews found themselves with nowhere to go. The only thing that squabbling nationalists could agree on was that they should leave and that someone else should take them in. Singing “Hail, Freedonia!” the Marx Brothers were Jews cavorting on the edge of the precipice.

As one might expect, Sachar ends his book with a tribute to Israel, whose military prowess, he says, has led to a net improvement in conditions for Diaspora Jews from Western Europe to Argentina. This may indeed be the case, although, as he also admits, the situation has hardly been as clear-cut for Jews in the Muslim world and the former Soviet bloc, where Israel’s role may have been to their net detriment. But conditions have changed since the 1950s and ’60s, when Israel was seen as a model social-democratic state, filled with sunburned kibbutzniks and Soviet-style pioneer youth. As Palestinian resistance has stiffened, Diaspora Jews have found their fortunes tied to a heavily militarized right-wing state whose ethnic policies are increasingly reminiscent of interwar Poland or Romania. If Jews benefited from the good will shown toward Israel before the 1967 war, the question is whether they will suffer from growing revulsion felt for it afterward. Anti-Semitism is the anti-Zionism of fools, but there are a lot of fools in the world, and all too many of them are falling into it already. It is morally catastrophic that a people who once allied with the most advanced, democratic currents in the world should now find themselves in bed with the most backward, e.g., all those “Christian Zionists” running around in Bush’s America. Remarkably, the Jewish question is no closer to resolution at the start of the twenty-first century than it was at the start of the twentieth.