Periods of History that had a Major Impact on the Jews

The following is the description of a course taught by T. Pavlidis in the Fall of 2002 as part of the Adult Education Program of Temple Isaiah at Stony Brook, Long Island, New York

The plan is to cover several periods in world history when events took place that had a significant effect on the life and/or culture of the Jews. We will start with Germany during 1930-37 covering the acquisition and consolidation of power by the Nazis that ultimately led to the Holocaust. There is a strong parallel between that period and the present because the Nazis received wide support in order to "fight Communism," much as radical Islam in recent times received support to "fight Communism."

The next period will be that of a positive era, Hellenism. After Alexander's conquests most Jews adopted the Hellenistic culture. The period offers several parallels with current Jewish life in the United States where most Jews have adopted the mainstream culture.

Depending on the time left and the interests of the participants we will study such periods as the Roman oppression and the rise of Christianity, the Hyksos period in Egypt which may be considered to be a pre-history of the Jews.

GERMANY 1930-1937

During the 1920s several observers saw the Nazis as a lunatic fringe, distasteful, but not to be taken seriously. By the summer of 1936 Hitler was the undisputed master of Germany, admired by most Germans. How did it happen? The world-wide depression that started in 1929 pushed the poorer people to see communism as an attractive alternative and in turn it caused alarm amongst the affluent.  The latter saw the Nazis as means to "fight Communism."

The rise in power of a party that aimed at the elimination of the Jews is particularly striking in the context of the overall successful integration of Jews into the German society. The illustration below is from a detail from a memento of the Franco-Prussian war (1871) showing German Jewish soldiers and officers holding a field service for Yom Kippur. Comparisons with the current successful integration of Jews into American society and the support of radical Islam as means to "fight Communism" are inevitable.
Main reference:
  • James Pool Hitler and his Secret Partners (Pocket Books, 1997). The book documents the widespread support of the Nazis both by the German establishment and outside powers, such as king of England Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor).
Additional sources will be selected parts from the following:
  • James Pool Who Financed Hitler (Pocket Books, revised edition, 1997).Covering the earlier part of Hitler's rise to power.
  • John Cornwell Hitler’s Pope (Viking, 1999). The role of the man who later became Pope Pius XII in helping Hitler’s rise to power.
  • Joachim C. Fest Hitler (Vintage Books, 1975, reprinted in 1999, transl. from the German). A detailed account of political machinations and the use of anti-Semitism to gain power.
  • William L. Shirer The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960, Simon Schuster reprint 1990). An excellent overall source, although a bit dated. However Shirer's Afterword in the 1990 editions is remarkable.
German Jewish soldiers praying on Yom Kippur German Jewish soldiers praying on Yom Kippur during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. (Detail from the 5760 Jewish Calendar of the B’nai B’rith Klutzick National Jewish Museum.)

Examples of Discussion

  1. The occupation of the Rhineland

    Background: In March 1936 Hitler sent his troops to occupy the Rhineland, a part of Germany that had been demilitarized by a treaty. He did so against the advice of his generals. He admitted later "if the French had (mobilized) we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs."  Shirer (p. 293) claims that the result from a strong French reaction "would have been the end of Hitler." Later Hitler himself referred to the 48 hours after the occupation as the "most nerve-racking" period in his life. (p. 293 of Shirer and pp. 496-497 of Fest). It was a gamble that paid handsomely because, amongst other things it solidified his own position within Germany, not only over his own generals but also over the rest of the population. The remilitarization of the Rhineland was enormously popular in Germany in its own right and with that action Hitler crossed the threshold from a politician to a national leader. Before that Hitler's opponents had hopes that they could get rid of him, but that step extinguished all such hopes. (ref. Shirer)

    Question: But was it really such a gamble?
    Answer:Chapter 4 of Pool’s book (pp.89-113) provides an answer offering evidence that the new English king (Edward VIII) who had just ascended to the throne (January 1936) provided significant information to Hitler, in effect, encouraging him in his plan. His future wife, Mrs. Simpson, appears to be have been a messenger.

    Further Questions:Was Edward VIII forced to abdicate because of his ‘love for Mrs. Simpson,’ or because of his pro-German policy? How close did the world come to a British-German alliance with all its horrendous portents for the Jews?

  2. Who benefited most from the persecution of the Jews?

    While most of the killing of Jews occurred after the start of the war, the persecution during the 1930’s benefited Hitler’s financial backers. Chapter 5 of Pool’s book (pp. 114-138) describes how this happened. Jewish owners of major businesses were forced to sell them to "Aryans" at a fraction (as little as 1/10th or less) of the true value. There was no publicity associated with this (in effect) confiscation and, since these Jews generally survived, relatively little attention has been paid to these events.

    Questions: Which companies benefited from this process? What happened to them? Where are they now? Most important: Was this is a significant motivation for unleashing the terror against the Jews?

    A coincidence?Most of these confiscations started in 1937, after the occupation of the Rhineland!

HELLENISM AND JUDAISM

I had not realized the extent of the adoption of the Greek culture by the Jews until I visited the Jewish Museum in Rome. The museum contains a large exhibit of ancient tombstones, all of them in Greek that are almost indistinguishable from Greek tombstones I had seen in museums in Athens. In a few cases one can see a depiction of a  menorah otherwise one must read the text to realize that they are Jewish Tombstones. For example, the word ΑΡΧΙΣΥΝΑΓΩΓΟΣ (head of the Synagogue) can be found often. That led me to a series of readings and the eventual realization that modern Jewish culture is second only to modern Greek culture, and if we exclude the language, barely so, in containing elements from the ancient Greek culture. (This apparent paradox is probably due to the uprooting of many ancient Greek traditions in Greece itself by the Christian church.)

Main reference:
  • L. I. Levine Judaism & Hellenism in Antiquity (Univ. of Washington Press, 1998). The author is on the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. -- Highlight: The concluding sentence: "Without its ability to change and adapt, Jewish civilization might well have atrophied long ago. The dynamic interplay between cultures - its own and others - is an essential feature of the Jewish historical experience."
The supplemental references:
  • V. Tcherikover Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Hendrickson reprint in 1999 of the original 1959 edition). The classic treatise on the subject.
  • S. Schwartz Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 BCE (Princeton University Press, 2000). The author is on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. This is a new book with a startling new theory of the Jewish history of the period. It is a serious scholarly book, expecting a significant effort on the part of the reader, so it will not be used as the main reference of the course.

Example of Discussion

The impact of assimilation
In spite of large scale cultural assimilation during the Hellenistic times Judaism not only survived but also prospered. (The Encyclopedia Judaica states that 10-12% of the population of the Roman empire were Jews.) How did this happen and what implications does it have on modern concerns about assimilation?

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