The Jewish Century
Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press, New Jersy, 2004 La Decouverte (French translation used here) 2009

Review by Marc Eliany

Slezkine characterizes the Jews (alongside such groups as the Armenians, overseas Chinese, and Gypsies) as a Mercurian people "specializ[ing] exclusively in providing services to the surrounding food-producing societies," which he characterizes as Apollonian. With the exception of the Gypsies, these "Mercurian peoples" have all enjoyed great socioeconomic success relative to the average among their hosts, and have all, without exception, attracted hostility and resentment. Slezkine develops this thesis by arguing that the Jews, the most successful of these Mercurian peoples, have increasingly influenced the course and nature of Western societies, particularly during the early and middle periods of Soviet Communism. (Wikipedia).

The age of modernity is the Jewish century, the 20th century, characterized by being urban, mobile, as well as, educated and flexible from a professional point of view. Knowledge is the means of access to wealth and vise-versa. Adopting characteristics of modernity imply becoming Jewish . Certain specializations of Jews, such as commerce, law, medicine, interpretation of texts and culture, have become fundamental functions of modernity (p.9, see also p.327).

Throughout the ages, characteristics of modernity defined  Jews as ‘strangers’ and thereby defined their vulnerability, especially during the age of nationalism in the 19th century (p.10, 69). Jews are not the only group defined as strangers characterized by modernity and suffering similar consequences (p.67-74). Other groups fulfilled ‘Jewish’ functions throughout history and continents, i.e., Indians in Africa, Chinese in Asia, Lebanese and Arabs in Latin America, among others (p.13-64). Yet, Jew symbolize the Mercurial spirit of modernity, therefore the age of modernity is the Jewish Century (p.74).

Attempts to explain these empirical observations include the existence of ‘a protestant ethic’ (p.63), strategic position facilitating commerce (p.65) and especially the existence of ‘entrepreneurial nepotism’ based on either socio-biological or quasi-familial bonds (p.66-67), all suggesting a high level of cohesion, sometimes associated with a sentiment of religious election and cultural superiority (p. 67).

The new world of modernity relies on knowledge and wealth, as well as, careers based on them: business, law, medicine, science and journalism. (p.77). Protestants, like Jews among others in the new world, combine communal bonds to individual interests, creating a sense of cohesion in the form of nationalism, which at its extreme led to the destruction of others (i.e., holocaust) (p.79-84).  While nations adopt characteristics of modernity, Jews are no longer identified as strangers, thus gaining individual rights (p.84).  In general, European  Jews enjoyed a higher standard of living than their neighbors and were significantly over-represented among the more educated (p.95) and the more powerful economically and politically (already before WWI) (p.89-92), as well as, in media and culture (p.94).

Jewish over-representation, as discussed above, is associated by some with a mode of thinking, which anchors the ideal of democracy to rights and justice (p.100 Nietzsche’s moral revolt), due to religion, heredity (96-97, 104-105), as well as, wandering (p.106 Veblen’s spiritual wandering),  education to conform to ‘an ethic,’ which is equivalent of the protestant spirit (p.98-99). Jewish ethics then led to Jewish modernity and capitalism (p.100-101).

The process of modernization led both Jews and gentiles to adopt modernity characteristics, but Jews are better at it than their neighbors, who when adopting a sense of cohesion in the form of nationalism,  excluded competitors. Jews were wrong to assume their marginality/strangeness would disappear (p.110). In the beginning, Jews ‘assimilated’ by adopting liberal education, but it did not work because liberalism became synonym to Judaism (p.111-112). Gentiles did not pick up the pace and tended to become anti-Semites (p.112-113).  Jews wanted to be part of a new world based on universal rights (p.117), adopting in the process national cults and cultures with fervor  (p.120), i.e., becoming representatives of Russian culture, among other national cultures (p. 123), without intermixing with neighbors or living their daily life (p. 121, 124), thus perceived as intruders (p.124) and hated for it (p.125). Assimilated Jews faced  problems: discontinuity in their own heritage, even ‘self hate’ (p.127-128), as well as, limited access to newly adopted national cultures (p.129). And in an attempt to reconcile with themselves, some looked for redemption in Nationalism of their own, i.e., Zionism (p.128).

Thus, Jews became the symbol of modernity but also its faults (p.129), i.e., sense of nullity (p.130) and alienating solitude (p.149), which require redemption in  the comfort of one’s circles and/or heritage (p.131 (Proust)), Marxism or Freudian psychoanalysis (p.136-137, 148, 154), as well as, pacifism and feminism (p. 144-145). This in turn is related to the disproportionate tendency to radicalism among Jews, which is associated with the disproportionate number of educated intellectuals amongst them (p.152). Marxism, for example, which evokes the spirit of (prophetic) social justice, generated volumes of interpretations which exceed the Talmud (p.156-157). Many of these reflect a rebellion of a whole generation against parental values and traditions (p.163). Freud proposed a therapeutic approach to resolve this dissonance, while Marx suggested the rule of the proletariat to liberate society from ‘parental’ exploitation (p.166). But some Jews sought comfort in nationalism in the form of Zionism (p. 166-168) or a promise of a perfect society, which proved to be far from attainable (p.170).

Nazism also sought a resolution in nationalism, which turned murderous, as it blamed Jews for all evils, from capitalism, through liberalism and communism (p. 170-171). Consequently, Jews found themselves at the heart of a European crisis and in efforts to surmount it. In spite of remarkable accomplishments which symbolize modernity, Jews remained subject to exclusion, which at its extreme took the form of extermination. But exclusion also led to liberating escapes such as communism in the Soviet Union, Freudian liberalism in America and Zionism in Israel (p.172).
About 5 out of 8 million Jews lived in ‘a zone of residence’ in Eastern Europe, most under Russian rule.  Most served as middlemen or craftsmen in the service of Christian peasants. The two populations co-existed side by side as ‘two solitudes.’ Jews provided necessary services while being subject to occasional abuse. Jews were only one of the ‘mercurial’ minorities in Russia. Germans  in central Russia fulfilled a similar role to that of Jews in the zone of residence (p.173- 188). Typical measures of separation between groups consisted of residential segregation, economic specialization, religious and judicial autonomy and institutional quotas (p.188). Some assimilation occurred through military service, conversion, public education, farming and adoption of European clothing and customs (p.188).  Anti-Semitism was widespread. Other segregated groups suffered hostilities, but not as much as Jews (p.189).

Modernization processes, as well as, state regulation  allowed for more Christians to compete with Jews and by consequence marginalize the latter (p. 189-191). As a response, Jews emigrated to America (p. 191-192), moving to urban areas and adopting ‘proletarian’ occupations, but also upscale occupations, such as specialized professions and capitalists/entrepreneurs roles in modernizing economies (p. 192-205).

Jews also adopted national cultures, at times with the fervor of converts (music: p. 205, art: p. 206, national languages p.207-221). Modernization implied the universal reign of the mercurial draped in a national costume (p.222), often meaning also an escape from the parents’ Jewish heritage (p.223-224). Non-Jewish intellectuals in Russia, who also rebelled against their parents (p.229), accepted Jews into Russian cultural circles as devotees of Russian culture, without considering their religious background (p.233). 

Other Jewish intellectuals pointed to redemption in Hebrew culture, i.e., in Zionism. But this option, chosen by those of lower education and poorer economic background, proved less popular, as most Jews immigrated to America or to urban Russia, where universal values carried the promise of integration (p. 240-241).

In general, Jewish intellectuals were over-represented in radical groups which rejected the tsar’s regime (p.245). Jewish radicalism meant not only a rebellion against the state but also a mean to liberate oneself from Jewish heritage (p.246). In other words, Jews adopted universal values while shedding particular ones, thereby becoming modern at a faster rate than neighbors (p.247), thus being more likely than others to be over-represented in the leadership of the struggle against discrimination and state oppression (p. 248, 281). Typical Jewish business networking practices also made Jews apt to act as revolution facilitators (p.249).

Usually, punitive measures against rebels seem legitimate, but attacks on Jews appeared unacceptable and generated a sense of guilt (p.253).  The problem for tsarist Russia was that Jews were too successful in adopting modernization in a society that was in the process of modernizing and wanted ‘Russians’ not ‘Jews’ to assume new openings. As legislation did not appear efficient enough to constrain Jewish progress, violent measure were allowed (i.e., pogroms) (p.255). Jews symbolized the ‘mercurial’ enemy while being defenseless (p. 276-277). However, while Jews were over-represented in the revolutionary machine, (including in the execution of oppressive measures by the Bolshevik Tcheka), other Jews who were considered counter-revolutionary suffered from ‘red terror’ (p.283). But pogroms targeting Jews were considered part of ‘universal pogroms,’ as Bolshevik attacked all opponents (p.291).

Jews dominated the reshaping of revolution emblems such as Lenin, the flag and stamps, renaming palaces and churches with Bolshevik names (p.284-285), as well as, mixed marriages (p.286). The close relationship between Bolsheviks and Jews led some to criticize Jews for  destroying important Russian symbols, as well as, becoming ruthless executors, in  a remarkable metamorphose of Mercurians into Apollonians (p.287-292), where the Jew transformed into a Cosak (p.303 ( , abandoning Jewish-ness (p.311) and assuming  cruelty, as a necessary responsibility to contribute to the creation of  the ‘new accomplished human being’ in the image of the universal revolution which frees the Jew from himself (p.308, 314, 320).
Modernity is based on capitalism, as well as, on professionalism associated with scientific knowledge, while both are structured by nationalism. Socialism challenged capitalism, professionalism and nationalism, by offering an alternative. As Jews tended to possess multiple modernity characteristics, they were vulnerable, both as capitalists, professionals and nationalists (being often guardians of national cultures). Furthermore, Jews became vulnerable as trans-national socialists because they were perceived as impostors (p.327).

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews had 3 options of modernity:
America, i.e., USA., offered modernity in a non-tribal liberal universal context (p.327-328);
Israel, i.e., Zionism, proposed a secular Jewish nationalism anchored in a territory (p.329); while,
Soviet Russia offered modernity beyond national, tribal or class boundaries (p. 330).
Both Zionism and Bolshevism carried the promise of collective messianic redemption (p. 333). But both ended up in a steep hierarchy, institutional militarism, an obsession as to hostile opposition and an admiration to youthfulness and sacrifice (p. 335).

There was of course some vacillations between the three options. But most Jews chose immigration to America and Urban Russia. Some of those who went to America or Israel returned to Moscow, where they related to the language of international proletariat redemption (p. 336-341). Jews benefited from the soviet revolution, as it allowed access to education, where they excelled and made significant gains, leading to their over-representation in a wide range of occupations (p. 350-354). The move of Jews to urban Russia offered new mercurial opportunities, leading to forming a ‘soviet bourgeoisie’ (p.344), which was criticized and subsequently executed. Some of the executors were Jewish revolutionary writers, ansd/or leaders/bureaucrats (p.347-348).

The Soviet state needed talented people everywhere. Skilled Jews filled the gap, including in cultural circles, as well as, in providing legitimacy to the revolution, ensuring its success (p.352-355). Jews were sincerely devoted to the revolution, investing significant efforts to create a society where mediation is no longer necessary. In this process, they abandoned their own tradition with the hope to reduce their marginality. However, this transformation did not prevent them from filling mercurial roles in soviet Russia (p.372). Jews became the anchor of this transformation, as well as, its post revolutionary intelligentsia (p. 364, 374), characterized by a socialist ideology, as well as, universal humanism in Russian literature (p. 377).
As Jews made gains, a wave of anti-Semitism spread in revolutionary Russia, but official resistance did not allow it to become a significant political problem at first (p.380-384). Soviet ideology tried to combat ethnic discrimination by promoting national particularities and multi-culturalism (p. 385-386), turning Birobidjan into a Jewish region to entice Jews into farming (p.389), launching a vigorous campaign against anti-Semitism, including executing anti-Semitists (p. 390-392), as well as, implementing equalization measures, such as increased access to education and employment to non-Jews (p. 395).

In spite of the gains Jews made in Soviet Russia, those who immigrated to United States fared better economically. Further, children of these immigrants made significant achievement in education and professional occupations subsequently (p.406-409), leading to a cultural transformation, which included assimilation and a ‘protestant-ization of Judaism’ (p. 410-411). Upon university graduation, Jews became adepts of a cultural fusion of Jerusalem, Egypt, Greece and Rome, European Renaissance, as well as, liberty and equality (of France and Marx) and scientific norms (p. 412).
Israel, at the same time, assumed messianic redemption objective, in a particularistic national context, standing against adverse neighbors  (p.419), turning Mercurians into Apollonians, and urban dwellers into villagers (p. 420).

But not all went well in Soviet Russia. Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’ targeted members of the revolutionary political elite. Jewish members of this political elite suffered disproportionately, as they were over-represented at higher levels of the hierarchy (p. 425). Jews at lower levels were less affected (p.429). The Stalinization process promoted Russians of farming and proletarian backgrounds (p. 430). Efforts to accelerate transition into socialism became associated with ‘Volk’ Russification (p. 432), while promoting friendliness between non-Russian ethnicities in the Soviet Union (p. 433). The rebellion of Jews against their Jewish-ness appeared to fuse their internationalism with Russian heritage (p. 439).

Soviet policies recognition  of ethnic boundaries (p.443), which corresponded to Nazi racial classifications (p. 442), had significant consequences for Jews (p.445, 447). Anti-Semitism rose with the Nazi occupation and spread elsewhere deep into Russia, this time without encountering Party resistance (p. 449). Paradoxically, the Soviets exploited Jewish patriotism to call for the support of the ‘Jews of the World,’ as Nazi occupation progressed (p.450). In this horrifying context, Jews of all colors, ethnic, religious, communist, Zionist or else, appeared to belong to one family (p. 451). In ‘multi-national’ Soviet Union, Jews had no national territory of their own for refuge. Soviet policies, including the allocation of Birobidjan to Jews, could not turn Urban Jews into farmers (p. 456-457). Yet, as Soviet recognition of ethnic nations evolved, so did Jewish nationalism (p. 461). Consequently, Jews became perceived as hostile ‘strangers’ and ‘disguised’ Russian after the establishment of Israel (p. 461, 471). Jews became prime suspects in every field they were over-represented (p. 473).

Stalin’s offensive meant to get rid of all pre and anti Soviet groups (p. 477). At this stage,  the Soviet state turned against highly loyal citizens by classifying them in tribal terms, allowing for the spread of anti-Semitism (p.481), leading to the end of the alliance of the Jewish revolution with communism (p.486). This change in Soviet policies, aiming for a ‘purely ethnic communism,’ contradicted socialist internationalism principles and proved fatal for communism (p. 487). After Stalin’s death, Jews did re-occupy professional positions, although at a slower rate. In spite of Stalin’s ‘red terror,’ Jews remained the most modern group in Soviet Union, being over-represented in positions which characterize modernity (p. 509, 511).

Interestingly, a similar but not as ferocious purge occurred in United States (p. 487). But within a couple of decades after WWII, Jews experienced significant progress (p. 489), leaving behind communism (and Marx) while adopting liberalism (and Freudian well being therapy) (p. 493, 497). 

American Jews rediscovered Judaism for the same reasons Russian Jews did. Nazi genocide, Soviet and American purges, as well as, the formation of Israel impacted this rediscovery, but it is the spectacular success of both American and Soviet Jews that led to the renewed attachment to Judaism. Jewish penetration into elite ranks was perceived as a threat in Russia, leading to persecution, while it symbolized an accomplishment of liberalism in the USA (p. 506).

While nationalism appeared to weaken everywhere, it appeared to gain grounds in Israel. The Nazi genocide turned Israel into a symbol of  Jewish unity, where secular Zionism sidelined Jewish traditions, adopting instead messianic militarism and youthful idealism (p. 507).
Interestingly, in the same way that Jews experienced a sense of humiliation in the Soviet Union, in spite of significant accomplishments, so did other successful citizens (i.e., Andre Sakharov, as well as, non-Jewish nationalities (p.520)), because of a feeling of alienation from a Communist Party, which held on to making decisions, while ignoring a rising intellectual elite (p. 515-516, 518) and its merits. Leaders of the Soviet Union aimed to discriminate positively nationals of lower levels (farmers and proletariat), as part of ‘a permanent revolution policy,’ by consequence the mobility of Jews, among other groups, was constrained,  leading the latter to develop strategies to overcome unofficial discriminatory practices (i..e., changing names, hiding origins) (p. 521). The state too engaged in hiding the origin of revolution heroes, so as to prevent the association of bolshevism with Judaism (p. 522).  

Russian Jews had three choices: liberalism, Zionism and communism. Communism was discredited following the adoption of anti-Jewish measure against loyal followers. Liberalism and Zionism were illegal, making Jews suspect of disloyalty (p. 527). Communism turned out to be an illusion for many members of the old revolutionary guard (p.530-531). Some found comfort in Israel or became critical of the communist Party (p. 546-547), and when they kept a low profile, their children turned into dissidents on their behalf (p. 531-532). Yet, there was no collective mea culpa, as those awakened of the illusion still tended to credit the revolution with remarkable achievements such as the industrialization and the defeat of the Nazis (p. 533). Yet again, Russian Jews, young and old, became alienated with communism and chose to leave the Soviet Union behind, raising envy among other nationals who were not allowed to leave, as well as, questions as to the ‘brain drain,’  the calumny related to the ‘escape from the communist paradise’  and getting rid of Jews (p. 548).

Some young Jews in the Soviet Union rebelled against communism (p. 545) and turned to Zionism or Capitalism (p. 538, 544, 546), recalling the parents generation rebellion against Judaism and tsarism when adopting communism. An equivalent rebellion was identified in pronounced radicalism among Jews of younger generation in America (p. 538-540). Of all the modern revolutionaries, the Jewish revolution appeared to be the most fundamental, in all likelihood because it lacked national grounds and tended to be more meritocratic, urban and secular (p. 541).  In the end, the memory of the holocaust and the rise of Israel led Jews to the rediscovery of ‘old national’ roots, reconciling with modern nationalism in becoming Americans like other Americans of other origins (i.e., Italians...) (p. 543-544). Thus, American Jews felt free to lobby successfully for free Jewish immigration in exchange for trading with the URSS (p. 551).

The newly gained right for free immigration strained relations between Jews and the Soviet state, raising once again the question of loyalty (p. 551). Most Soviet Jews preferred immigration to the USA, but the way  to America (or European countries) went through Israel. Most Jews tended to agree that socialism was a tragic mistake (p. 552). It was no longer their choice (p.554). Yet, Soviet Russia left its marks on Soviet Jews. They carried with them the mark of ‘Russian’ Marranism (p. 553) and had to rediscover Jewish-ness in its American or Israeli form (p. 554). Most Jews tend to recall Russian persecutions and forget the association of the Jewish revolution with bolshevism (p. 555). While Russian nationalist tend to remind Jews of their contribution to shaping  bolshevism (p. 555), forgetting they were also its victims (p. 556).

Very Few Jews remain in Russia. Most tend to assimilate, identify with Russia and forget their Jewish origin (p. 557). Russians also adopted positive or neutral attitudes towards Jews and Israel (p. 557). In these conditions, Jews may choose to remain perpetual Mercurians (p. 558), facing possible Russian hostility (p.559). Russians may also adopt Mercurial characteristics increasingly in an age of modernity (p.559).

Zionism triumphed over communism, because nationalism and tribalism tend to win everywhere, as they are based on the universality of reproduction (p. 560). Nationalism won because it adopted a modern way to be tribal (p. 561). Zionism succeeded because it fulfilled realistic promises, a revival of the Hebrew, recapturing the land of Israel, and transforming mercurians into apollonians. Nevertheless, it remains a singular case as a bastion of Occidentalism in an hostile Orient, forced to live in a ghetto like fortified Masada, at a time when modern nations tend to dilute their nationalistic character to adopt a North American type of multi-culturalism (p. 562-563).  Israel’s nationalistic tendencies may be considered exceptional due to the necessity to respond to a hostile surrounding, but they also lead to an increased isolation in an age of modernity characterized by universal values. Israel may need to reconcile between nationalism and universalism to achieve an sense of normality in an age of modernity (p. 565).

Exceptional success tends to lead to discrimination and violence against minorities. America, however, adopted a mercurial ideology, which favors merit, allowing success without suffering negative consequences. Elsewhere, as mercurial values become more prevalent, Jews may lose their ‘strangeness’ (p. 570-572). Modernity then tends to carry the promise of an eventual redemption.