The Jews As A Separate People by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

The argument for the separation and distinct current of the Jews, flowing as they pretend of the river Rhone through the Lake of Geneva–never mixing its waters with those which surround it–has been by some infidel writers defeated and evaded by one word; and here, as everywhere else, an unwise teacher will seek to hide the answer. Yet how infinitely better to state it fully, and then show that the evasion has no form at all; but, on the contrary, powerfully argues the inconsistency and incapacity of those who urge it. For instance, I remember Boulanger, a French infidel, whose work was duly translated by a Scotchman, answers it thus: What is there miraculous in all this? he demands. Listen to me, and I will show you in two minutes that it rests upon mere show and pure delusion. How is it, why is it, that the Jews have remained a separate people? Simply from their usages, in the first place; but, secondly, still more from the fact that these usages, which with other peoples exist also in some representative shape, with them modify themselves, shift, alter, adapt themselves to the climate or to the humour or accidents of life amongst those amidst whom chance has thrown them; whereas amongst the Jews every custom, the most trivial, is also part of their legislation; and their legislation is also their religion. (Boulanger, by the way, is far from expressing that objection so clearly as I have here done; but this is his drift and purpose, so far as he knew how to express it.) Take any other people–Isaurians, Athenians, Romans, Corinthians–doubtless all these and many others have transmitted their blood down to our ages, and are now living amongst us by representation. But why do we not perceive this? Why do the Athenians seem to have perished utterly? Simply for this reason: they were a plastic, yielding, unobstinate race. An Athenian lived in a port of Italy, married an Italian woman; thence threw out lines of descent to Milan, thence to Paris; and because his Attic usages were all local, epichorial, and tied to a particular mythology which has given way, or to a superstition which is defunct, or to a patriotic remembrance which has vanished with the land and the sympathy that supported it; hence, and upon other similar arguments, the Athenian has long since melted into the mass with which he was intermixed; he was a unit attached to a vast overpowering number from another source, and into that number he has long since been absorbed; he was a drop in a vast ocean, and long ago he has been confounded with the waters that did not differ, except numerically, from his own. But the Jews are an obstinate, bigoted people; and they have maintained their separation, not by any overruling or coercing miracle, but in a way perfectly obvious and palpable to themselves–obvious by its operation, obvious in its remedy. They would not resign their customs. Upon these ordinances, positive and negative, commanding and forbidding many peculiar rites, consecrating and desecrating many common esculent articles, these Jews have laid the stress and emphasis of religion. They would not resign them; they did not expect others to adopt them–not in any case; a fortiori not from a degraded people. And hence, not by any mysterious operation of Providential control, arose their separation, their resolute refusal to blend with other races.

This is the infidel’s attempt to rebut, to defeat, utterly to confound, the argumentative force of this most astonishing amongst all historical pictures that the planet presents.

The following is the answer:

It is forgotten that along with the Jews there is another people concerned as illustrations of the same prophetic fatality–of that same inevitable eye, that same perspective of vision, which belonged to those whose eyes God had opened. The Arabs, as children of a common ancestor, ought not to be forgotten in this sentence upon their brother nation. They through Ishmael, the Jews through Isaac, and more immediately through Israel the son of Isaac, were two diverging branches of one original stem; and to both was pronounced a corresponding doom–a sentence which argued in both a principle of duration and self-propagation, that is memorable in any race. The children of Ishmael are the Arabs of the desert. Their destiny as a roving robber nation, and liable to all men’s hands, as they indifferently levied spoil on all, was early pronounced. And here, again, we see at once how it will be evaded: it is the desert, it is the climate, it is the solemnity of that unchanging basis, which will secure the unchanging life of its children. But it is remarkable enough that Gibbon and other infidels, kicking violently against this standing miracle (because, if not so in itself, yet, according to Bishop Butler’s just explanation concerning miraculous per derivationem as recording a miraculous power of vision), have by oscillation clung to the fixture of basis, and rejected it; for now Gibbon denies that the Arabs have held this constant tenor of life; they have changed it, he asserts, in large and notorious cases. Well, then, if they have, then at once falls to the ground this alleged overruling coercion a priori of the climate and the desert. Climate and desert do not necessarily coerce them, if in large and notorious cases they have failed to do so. So feels Gibbon; and, by an instinct of timidity, back he flies to the previous evasion–to the natural controlling power of climate and soil, admitting the Scriptural fact, but seeking for it an unscriptural ground, as before he had flown in over-precipitate anxiety to the denial of the Scriptural fact, but in that denial involving a withdrawal of the unscriptural ground.

The sceptics in that instance show their secret sense of a preference from the distracted eagerness with which they fly backwards and forwardwise between two reciprocally hostile evasions.

The answer I reserve, and meantime I remark:

Secondly, that, supposing this answer to have any force, still it meets only one moiety of the Scriptural fatality; viz., the dispersion of the Jews–the fact that, let them be gathered in what numbers they might, let them even be concentrated by millions, therefore in the literal sense not dispersed, yet in the political sense universally understood, they would be dispersed, because never, in no instance, rising to be a people, sui juris, a nation, a distinct community, known to the public law of Europe as having the rights of peace and war, but always a mere accident and vagrant excess amongst nations, not having the bare rights of citizenship; so far from being a nation, not being an acknowledged member of any nation. This exquisite dispersion–not ethnographic only, but political–is that half of the Scriptural malediction which the Boulanger answer attempts to meet; but the other half–that they should be ‘a byword, an astonishment,’ etc.–is entirely blinked. Had the work even prospered, it would still have to recommence. The Armenians are dispersed through all Eastern lands, so are the Arabs; even the descendants of Ali are found severed from their natal soil; but they are not therefore dispersed: they have endured no general indignities.

Thirdly, it does not meet the fact of the Jewish existence in any shape, whether as a distinct or an amalgamated people. There is no doubt that many races of men, as of brute animals, have been utterly extinguished. In cases such as those of the Emim, or Rethinim, a race distinguished by peculiar size, so as to be monstrous in comparison with other men, this extinction could more readily be realized; or in the case of a nation marked, as Herodotus records, by a slighter texture of scale, the extinction might be ascertained by the physiologist; but no doubt it has often occurred, precisely as a family is extinguished, or as certain trees (for example, the true golden pippin) are observed to die off, not by local influences only, but by a decay attacking the very principle of their existence. Of many ancient races it is probable enough that no blood directly traced from them could at this day be searched by the eye of God. Families arise amongst the royal lineage of Europe that suddenly, like a lamp fitfully glowing up just the moment before it expires, throw off, as by some final effort, a numerous generation of princes and princesses; then suddenly all contract as rapidly into a single child, which perishing, the family is absolutely extinct. And so must many nations have perished, and so must the Jews have been pre-eminently exposed to perish, from the peculiar, fierce, and almost immortal, persecutions which they have undergone, and the horrid frenzies of excited mobs in cruel cities of which they have stood the brunt.

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