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on 16 January 2014
Paul Johnson has once again attempted a daunting task, and succeeded. Having previously read other comprehensive studies of Jewish history, this is the far superior comprehensive study on the market.
The opening chapter, Israelites, follows the Biblical narrative of the founders of the Hebrew nation, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon, and then later, at the time of Isaiah, the narrative changes from when the descendants of Abraham became known as Jews, rather than Israelites.
The chapters Cathedocracy and Ghetto follow the story of the Jewish people after the fall of Jerusalem and their attempts to find place in European society. What follows is the story of various expulsions, ranging from the 1492 expulsion from Spain, the persecution under the Spanish Inquisition, and how the general fortunes of the Jewish people could change intermittently, as their rights under their hosts could often be (and were) revoked.
The chapter Emancipation is a general study of Jewish progress in the modern era, with the various Jewish intellectual achievements of the age, such as Freud and Marx (though Johnson makes no attempt to hide his critical attitude toward Marx) and the various Jewish leaders and politicians of the age. Although Theodore Herzl is examined very well, perhaps more background on the founder of modern Zionism could have been given, though the work is more about the movement, rather than the individuals.
A particular strength of Johnson's study is the chapter Holocaust. While this may be very familiar ground for any student of modern history, Johnson has at least covered new ground for this reader. Johnson approaches the infamous crime with a particular question, why did it happen in Germany, the most educated and advanced country in the world? Germany was once a country that had a very good record of treatment of Jews, but this was gradually upturned. Johnson provides a detailed analysis of how Jews were gradually stripped of their rights starting with the 1933 disenfranchisement of most civic rights, and how the moves toward the Final Solution were done in a stealthy manner.
More surprising, however, is the general incredulity of the allies toward what was actually happening. The United States was reluctant to accept Jewish refugees, and Great Britain, perhaps the most philosemitic country in the world at the time, was generally set on continuing Jewish Emigration to Palestine, rather than absorbing an influx of refugees.
The final chapter, Zion, examines the creation of the state of Israel. As a Graduate of International Relations myself, the examination of the partition plan, the six day war, and the 1973 war seemed very familiar, but where Johnson sheds new light is in the dynamics of Israeli politics and society, and how Israel very narrowly avoided becoming a one-party state dominated by the Labour Party.
Johnson also contains additional gems of knowledge such as the various manifestations anti-semitism could take, including the most absurd conspiracy theories (Protocols being one of many), the extent to which they were believed, and the rationale (or lack of) behind them.
The only critique this reader has of Johnson's work is that the general themes of the chapters later in the work seem to overlap. The beginning of the chapter Holocaust appears very clearly as a continuation of Emancipation, and the actual namesake of the chapter is not reached until later on, however with a work this good it is difficult to find fault.
Johnson writes passionately, and not only is his work illuminating and filled with gems of knowledge, it is also immensely readable, and is perhaps, the best single volume work on the history of the Jews available to the general public.
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on 21 September 2013
Paul Johnson is nothing but thorough in his massive and well researched history of the Jews. Though he is clear and at pains to show the truth about Jewish history and to praise Jews throughout for their contributions to the world, one cannot escape the lack of 'mea culpa' in the Catholic role of persecution - he is after all, a leading Catholic writer. He also avoids Geza Vermes' conclusion that Jesus and his followers were indeed wholly Jewish, and not some self-appointed Messiah cult. It was Paul who created the fatal schism between followers of Jesus (Joshua, to give him his right name) and the more traditional Jewish disciples who took part in the events of his life and death. All the Gospels accepted by the Church were written by Paul's followers well after his split with the Jews, and became increasingly anti-Jewish after the First Revolt against Rome. That Johnson is ignorant of these facts is simply not possible.

With these caveats, I doubt anyone, Jew or Gentile, would not learn a great deal from this one volume. I know I did. Johnson is intelligent, clear eyed, and creates some wonderful insights into the facts. That Israel today is riven by the same tensions between the worldly (Saul) and the religious (Samuel)is one bold and largely true insight. Johnson is clearly full of praise for the Jews throughout, though he is not sparing in his adept analysis of Jewish self-hatred, as seen in Marx and many other characters. This is due to the astonishing persecution throughout the ages, and the internal fight between the worldly and religious. There is much to think about here and reflect.

Johnson is also unsparing about his views of tormented Israel and the role of the Arabs, Soviet Union and oil money in creating a topsy-turvy image of Zionism as racism. Haven't Jews suffered enough? This is the question asked by the pious Jews who see Israel as man's presumptions over-stepping Gods -no, there is more to come. Though written in 1987, this book has enough bite to be relevant today, and if you have the time, patience and resolve, reading it is well worth while.
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on 4 August 1998
As an Orthodox Jew, an "insider", I was absolutely (and positively) amazed to see an "outsider", like Mr. Johnson, penetrate through the layers of confusion and misunderstandings and really "gets it". In the words of Rabbi Berel Wein (a contemporary Jewish historian), "Mr. Johnson did a much better job than many secular Jewish historians". There are many things I disagree with in this book but more often then not I found myself nodding in agreement and underlining key sentences. All this is my commentary on the CONTENTS of the book, when it comes to lucidity, choice of words and philosophical depth, well... Brilliant is putting it mildly. This book is a must-read for Jews and non-Jews alike!
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on 3 April 1997
This book definitely opened my eyes as to the deep and full history of the Jewish people. For the non-Jew, it was a very moving and disturbing book. It traces the development of the Jewish nation, from Abraham to Menachim Begin. What struck me most was the immensity of the tragedies that have followed the Jews throughout history, from the Diaspora to Hitler. Johnson details their story with sympathy, but not without noting their failings as well. I found it superb and I highly recommend it. It changed my view on Jewish history and the Jewish people completely.
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on 5 August 1998
Exceptionally well written and accessible. How does anyone encapsulate 4000 years of history - Johnson has managed it. At times provocative while still remaining informative. It's take on the early Christian era is distincly Judaic and for this period I would suggest refering to the compelling "THE Autobiography of Jesus of Nazareth..." by Richard Patton which stands outside Judaic AND Christian politics. For all that "A history of the Jews" is precisely that and answers many questions both for the Jew and Gentile. The more people can know about each others cultures, the less aggression there will be and this book is a prime example of the need for inter-cultural communication.
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on 9 December 2014
I am about halfway through with the Kindle version of this. As is usual for Paul Johnson, it is an engaging read and hard to put down.

The reason I give it 4 stars, however, is due to the Kindle version having a few OCR rendering issues, which detract from the text occasionally (it seems about every other page in some sections). This means sometimes that I have to go elsewhere to see who or what Johnson is writing about.

(Until I started using Kindle, I had no idea how many manuscripts weren't committed to digital format by the publishing companies - some are so distractingly full of OCR rendering issues. I assume this arises from being copied from hard copies.)
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on 3 December 2013
Enjoying it. Some odd gaps so far, which probably have more to do the the reality of pre-history than Johnson's ability. One is the idea that the tribe, that became the nation, that became Israel seemed to emerge with a sense of self before even the religion, or area of settlement became real. Another is the observation that at one stage, about 0AD, perhaps 10% of the population of the Roman empire was Jewish, and had already spread though Italy and many other geographies.

Enjoyable read on a big subject.
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on 26 February 1997
Historical surveys are usually anything but fascinating; Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews breaks the mold. Using an active voice and an upbeat pacing that lets you linger without getting stuck, this 600-page tome is a must-read for most people.
Indeed, all 1.2 billion Christians in the world and all 900 million Muslims owe their religious existence to Judaism, the first religion to pray to one god; the first religion to set up rules governing ethical and moral behavior; and the oldest organized and recorded religion in the world.
Most important, the book reviews in detail the persistent persecution Jews have suffered throughout history, without becoming emotionally overwrought. There's no need to. Persecution of the Jews has typically been so boldly sinister--whether it's the massacres of 1648, the Russian pogroms of the 19th century, or "The Final Solution" of the Holocaust--that the descriptions of these acts need no embellishment to highlight their horror.
If there's one message to take away from this book it is If such injustices can be perpetrated against the Jews, they can happen to any of us at any time. It rests in us--not laws, not government--to remain vigilant against hatred.
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on 28 December 1998
As a Catholic tragically aware of what he owes to the people of the Bible, I have been reading Jewish authors over the last twenty years, developing my own ghetto within my religious family and becoming extremely sensitive to gentile - not so gentle - oversimplifications concerning the Jews. Reading Paul Johnson was a permanent pleasure, if not bliss. From the standpoint of ethical monotheism, which he rightly so attributes to the Jews, he offers a thrilling travelogue across 4,000 years of human history, being honest enough to Christianity and Islam as Jewish sects which finally found a life of their own. Much before reaching his chapter on the Holocaust, his presentation on the seeds of antisemitism are extremely enlightening. This book is one of the best presents one can imagine for those who are prepared to suffer and rejoice with a people that cannot renounce to be God's elect.
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on 25 September 2012
This book does not cover everything - but then no work on such a vast topic can.

What Paul Johnson does cover he does very well - both on history, and on theology, philosophy, economics and politics.
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