Remembering a Great Historian and Philo-Semite

January 13, 2023 | Paul Johnson
About the author:

Yesterday, the author and journalist Paul Johnson died at the age of ninety-four. Johnson wrote several magisterial works of history, which combine perspicacity, lucidity, and a rare ability to see the threads that bind the centuries together. Uncorrupted by the academy, he was able to adopt its scholarly virtues while avoiding its vices. He was also a deeply religious man, an aspect of his character and work that his son, Daniel, movingly explored in Mosaic.

In addition, Johnson was a defender of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, a sentiment that comes through in his A History of the Jews. His reflections on Jewish history include a 2005 essay in Commentary offering a comprehensive analysis of anti-Semitism, which he diagnoses as a “mental disease” unlike other forms of racism and xenophobia:

[A]nti-Semitism is very ancient, has never been associated with frontiers, and, although it has had its ups and downs, seems impervious to change. The Jews (or Hebrews) were “strangers and sojourners,” as the book of Genesis puts it, from very early times, and certainly by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. Long before the great diaspora that followed the conflicts of Judea with Rome, they had settled in many parts of the Mediterranean area and Middle East while maintaining their separate religion and social identity; the first recorded instances of anti-Semitism date from the 3rd century BCE, in Alexandria. Subsequent historical shifts have not ended anti-Semitism but merely superimposed additional archaeological layers, as it were.

What strikes the historian surveying anti-Semitism worldwide over more than two millennia is its fundamental irrationality. It seems to make no sense, any more than malaria or meningitis makes sense. In the whole of history, it is hard to point to a single occasion when a wave of anti-Semitism was provoked by a real Jewish threat (as opposed to an imaginary one). In Japan, anti-Semitism was and remains common even though there has never been a Jewish community there of any size.

Anti-Semitism is self-inflicted, which means that, by an act of will and reason, the infection can be repelled. But this is not easy to do, especially in societies where anti-Semitism has become common or the norm. What is in any case clear is that anti-Semitism, besides being self-inflicted, is also self-destructive, and of societies and governments as much as of individuals.

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