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Perhaps the best single volume history available
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.