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 (né 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.