[Well, here it starts. God's favorite pets sure get a send-up in the first chapter – "an outshining of God himself upon the world", "would have solved all the great problems of civilization" – yikes! – JR, ed.]
"If any reference is made to the Jews, some hearer is sure to state that she, for her part, is not fond of them, having known a Mr. Jacobson who was very unpleasant; or that he, for his part, thinks meanly of them as a race, though, on inquiry, you find he is little acquainted with their characteristics. A people with Oriental sunlight in their blood, they have a force which enables them to carry off the best prizes. A significant indication of their natural rank is seen in the fact that, at this moment, the leader of the Liberal party in Germany is a Jew, the leader of the Republican party in France is a Jew, and the head of the Conservative ministry in England is a Jew. Tortured, flogged, spit upon,--their name flung at them as an opprobrium by superstition, hatred, and contempt,--how proud they have remained!" -- GEORGE ELIOT ("Impressions of Theophrastus Such").
THE STORY OF THE JEWS.
WHY THE STORY OF THE JEWS IS PICTURESQUE.
IN the fiftieth Psalm stands the passage: "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined." If we understand the word Zion in this sentence to mean, as it is often explained, the Hebrew nation, we find here an enthusiastic utterance by a Jewish poet of his sense of pride in his race: the Hebrew people is chosen out from among the nations of the earth to exhibit the perfection of beauty,--is, in fact, an outshining of God himself upon the world.
What is to be said of such a declaration? If it were made concerning any other race than the Jewish, it would be scouted and ridiculed as arrogance pushed into impiety, a claim not to be tolerated even in the most impassioned poetry. Can the world bear the assertion any better when it is made concerning the Jews? Such claims, at any rate, the Jews have always made. Declarations of Israelitish greatness scarcely less strong than that of the Psalmist, can be found in the writings of our cotemporaries. Says a rabbi of Cincinnati in a book published within a few years: "Had the Hebrews not been disturbed in their progress a thousand and more years ago, they would have solved all the great problems of civilization which are being solved now." The Earl of Beaconsfield, glorying in his Jewish blood, was accustomed to maintain, without qualification, the indomitable superiority of the Hebrews over the most powerful modern races, and alleged that in an intellectual sense they had conquered modern Europe. In the immense extent of time which stretches from the singer of the Psalms to the Cincinnati rabbi and the marvellous Jew who, a few years ago, superintended the management of the greatest empire of the earth, there is no age in which Israelites have not uttered just as confidently their conviction of Jewish supremacy.
In what way are we who are without trace of Semitic blood to treat these claims of our Hebrew neighbors? In the Christian world it has been customary, as far as the assertions of superiority relate to antiquity, to concede every thing. It is part of the Christian faith, in fact, to believe that the Jews were the chosen people of God, selected from among the races of the earth to be the subjects of a special covenant, guided through ages by successive supernatural revelations from Heaven, their history set with miracles, their poets inspired prophets, the royal house of David at length giving birth to a child in whom the Deity himself became flesh and dwelt with men. Here, however, the Christian pauses. The incarnate God was rejected by the very people among whom he chose to appear. They should have adored; they preferred to crucify. In penalty for this they have undergone for eighteen centuries the most unexampled punishment,--suffering and humiliation not less extreme than their previous exaltation. Such is the sentence imposed upon them by inexorable justice as a penalty for the worst of crimes.
But not all are Christian believers, even in countries nominally Christian. We find, besides, a class whom for convenience' sake we may designate as rationalists, and what treatment will Jewish assertions of supremacy receive from these? Even though we should deny all the supernatural claims made in behalf of the Hebrews, there is still much reason for holding them to be an extraordinary people. Not for numbers certainly, for at no time have they been numerous; not for the extent of their territorial dominion, for their empire, even in the days of its greatest extension, covered only a tract which afterwards formed but a small part of the successive empires of Macedonian, Roman, and Turk. But how wonderful in words--how wonderful in deeds! Even if we should reject the idea of divine inspiration, how extraordinary is the ancient literature of the race! In originality, poetic strength, and religious importance, it surpasses that of all other nations. The old Hebrew writers seldom employ their genius upon any trifling matter, but occupy themselves with the most momentous questions of life; as if, persuaded that God himself had dignified the characters of their language by tracing them with his finger upon tablets of stone, they dared not employ an alphabet so consecrated upon any frivolous theme.
Give a comprehensive glance at the career of the Jews. It is the marvel of history that this little people, beset and despised by all the earth for ages, maintains its solidarity unimpaired. Unique among all the peoples of the earth, it has come undoubtedly to the present day from the most distant antiquity. Forty, perhaps fifty, centuries rest upon this venerable cotemporary of Egypt, Chaldea, and Troy. The Hebrew defied the Pharaohs; with the sword of Gideon he smote the Midianite; in Jephthah, the children of Ammon. The purple chariot-bands of Assyria went back from his gates humbled and diminished. Babylon, indeed, tore him from his ancient seats and led him captive by strange waters, but not long. He had fastened his love upon the heights of Zion, and like an elastic cord, that love broke not, but only drew with the more force as the distance became great. When the grasp of the captor weakened, that cord, uninjured from its long tension, drew back the Hebrew to his former home. He saw the Hellenic flower bud, bloom, and wither upon the soil of Greece. He saw the wolf of Rome suckled on the banks of the Tiber, then prowl, ravenous for dominion, to the ends of the earth, until paralysis and death laid hold upon its savage sinews. At last Israel was scattered over the length and breadth of the earth. In every kingdom of the modern world there has been a Jewish element. There are Hebrew clans in China, on the steppes of Central Asia, in the desert heart of Africa. The most powerful races have not been able to assimilate them,--the bitterest persecution, so far from exterminating them, has not eradicated a single characteristic. In mental and moral traits, in form and feature, even, the Jew to-day is the same as when Jerusalem was the peer of Tyre and Babylon. In the greedy energy of the Jewish trader smoulders something of the old fire of the Maccabees. Abraham and Mordecai stand out upon the sculptures of Nineveh marked by the same eye and beard, the same nose and jaw by which we just now recognized their descendants. Language, literature, customs, traditions, traits of character,--these, too, have all survived. The Jew of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, is, in body and soul, the Jew of London, of St. Petersburg, of Constantinople, of the fenced cities of Judah in the days of David. There is no other case of a nation dispersed in all parts of the world and yet remaining a nation. Says Mr. E. A. Freeman: "They are very nearly, if not absolutely, a pure race in a sense in which no other human race is pure. Their blood has been untouched by conversion, even by intermarriage." It is an asbestos, which no fire of hate or love has been hot enough to consume. Many a Jew still looks to the old home of his race with affection abated by no single particle, and anticipates a joyful time when the throne of Jacob shall again be established upon Zion. They cling with startling tenacity to every element of nationality. Their history is like a great bear-baiting, in which every nation has figured among the bull-dogs, but with bite after bite of outrage and contumely, all have not been able to drive the life out of their Judæan prey.
Who will deny to the Jews pre-eminent force of passion and intellect in the most various directions? The skilful writer of fiction to-day, who depicts a Jewish personage, feels that at any rate the character must be made intense. A weak Jew would be the greatest contradiction of probability. Whether he loves or hates, he must go to extremes. We instinctively feel that no object is so cherished as that toward which the affection of the Jew is turned, whether it be parent or child, wife or friend. How Isaac of York in "Ivanhoe" defies the torturers as he thinks of Rebecca! How burning the charity of Nathan in the masterpiece of Lessing! What strange persistent ardor in Mordecai pouring inspiration into the soul of Daniel Deronda !
Nor does the world see elsewhere perhaps such capacity for malevolence. What scorn and scowl has the Hebrew had for the rest of the earth! The land which fell especially under his malediction, like Samaria, if human maledictions could blast, would have found the grass withering in its fields, and the water in its bosom. Perhaps avarice never wears its most hideous aspect except in the soul of the Jew. The pursuit to which oppression for ages restricted him, has exposed him peculiarly to be the prey of this vice. In the popular idea, the Jew is the embodiment of covetousness, and perhaps into no other soul does the love of gain eat with such bitter and deep corrosion; Fagin and Shylock are types as artistic as they are tremendous. Bad passions rage most violently in strong souls, as certain fevers are said to display their full force only in vigorous physical frames.
But not in the direction of earthly love or hate, of avarice or patriotism, has the force of the Hebrew nature exerted itself most strikingly. When it has been directed toward heavenly objects, it has constituted the most fervent piety which the world has ever seen. Those majestic prophets of old are counterparts of their countrymen to-day, only in them the national force shot strongly upward. They grasped heavenly things so vividly that even their bodily senses seemed to lay hold of God and angels. Spiritual presences faced the bodily sight in wilderness or burning bush, or above the ark of the covenant. The earthly ear caught tones from the other world in some still small voice, or pealing from a bare mountain peak. And here it is that the Jew has accomplished his most extraordinary achievement. His faith furnished the stock upon which Mahomet grafted the creed of Islam,--upon which one mightier than he fixed a scion, whose leaves, as the branch has extended itself, have been for the healing of the nations.
So stands the Jew to-day--his astonishing history behind him, his soul alight with such extraordinary fire, and set off with such intense, picturesque traits. What other human type has such vividness and color! It is not altogether surprising arrogance then when the Jew lays claim to a remarkable eminence. The Christian and the rationalist, on different grounds to be sure, are ready to say that there has been nothing in the world so wonderful as the career of the Israelitish nation. Certainly no intelligent man can fail to see with Freeman that the phenomenon of the Jewish race is one of the strangest in history. The more it is thought of, the more its utter strangeness appears--that its position is completely unique. To attempt some sketch of the progress of this people during its long history, to depict its ancient state, to sketch the depth of humiliation through which it has been forced to pass, and the signs that can now be discerned that it is about to issue into a time of extraordinary triumph,--this certainly is a theme of interest.