Edward Gibbon’s “Jewish Problem”: Can a Great Historian’s Anti-Semitism Be Exonerated?

Feb. 15 2017

In his recent Naïve Readings, Ralph Lerner offers essays on eight masters of rhetoric, ranging from Francis Bacon to Abraham Lincoln, and including the medieval Jewish philosophers Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. Among them is an analysis of the treatment of the Jews in the work of the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon. Steven Lenzner writes in his review:

[The essay] “Gibbon’s Jewish Problem” . . . presents Lerner with a problem: how to deal with a great author who denigrates (in a manner unworthy of himself) a noble people that has too often been the victim of thoughtless scorn. To be sure, Lerner would not tarry with an author who would engage in thoughtless scorn, but what of thoughtful and rhetorically allusive scorn? In a subtle and nuanced reading of the self-styled “philosophic historian,” Lerner reveals how Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, employed the Jews as a useful foil indirectly to criticize Christianity, of which he was no admirer and which could not, at that time, be subjected to frontal attack. . . .

Lerner clearly admires Gibbon, but he struggles to reconcile that admiration with his entirely reasonable disapproval of Gibbon’s embrace of a rhetoric that could (and would) be employed to render “Jews less than fully human.”

Lerner reaches a reconciliation—insofar as he can—in two ways. First, he draws attention to other elements of Gibbon’s writings and actions that point to a more thoroughgoing humanity: “In calling [the Jews] an unfortunate and unhappy people, the ‘philosophic historian’ displays more than a symptom of compassion.” The second way is by pointing beyond Gibbon to a contemporary “who had the vision and fortitude to declare openly an enlarged and liberal policy [beyond toleration] that he commended to the rest of mankind as worthy of imitation.” That would be George Washington.

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More about: Ancient Rome, Anti-Semitism, Christianity, George Washington, History & Ideas

 

Palestinian Acceptance of Israel as the Jewish State Must Be a Prerequisite to Further Negotiations

Oct. 19 2018

In 1993, in the early days of the Oslo peace process, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasir Arafat accepted the “right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” But neither it nor its heir, the Palestinians Authority, has ever accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Robert Barnidge explains why this distinction matters:

A Jewish state for the Jewish people, after all, was exactly what the [UN] General Assembly intended in November 1947 when it called for the partition of the Palestine Mandate into “the Arab state, the Jewish state, and the city of Jerusalem.”

Although the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state does not stand or fall on this resolution—in declaring the independence of Israel on the eve of the Sabbath on May 14, 1948, the Jewish People’s Council, [the precursor to the Israeli government], also stressed the Jewish people’s natural and historic rights—it reaffirms the legitimacy of Jewish national rights in (what was to become) the state of Israel.

The Palestinians have steadfastly refused to recognize Jewish self-determination. [Instead], the PLO [has been] playing a double game. . . . It is not simply that the PLO supported the General Assembly’s determination in 1975, rescinded in 1991, that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” It is that that the PLO leadership continues to speak of Jews as a religious community rather than a people, and of Zionism as a colonial usurper rather than the national liberation movement that it is.

The U.S. government, Barnidge concludes, “should demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish state” and refuse to “press Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians unless and until that happens.”

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Peace Process, PLO, US-Israel relations, Yasir Arafat