The Jewish Century

by Yuri Slezkine

Paperback, 2006

Call number

940.049 SLE



Princeton University Press (2006), Edition: New Ed, 456 pages


This masterwork of interpretative history begins with a bold declaration: "The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century." The assertion is, of course, metaphorical. But it drives home Yuri Slezkine's provocative thesis: Jews have adapted to the modern world so well that they have become models of what it means to be modern. While focusing on the drama of the Russian Jews, including émigrés and their offspring, The Jewish Century is also an incredibly original account of the many faces of modernity-nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and liberalism. Rich in its insight, sweeping in its chronology, and fearless in its analysis, this is a landmark contribution to Jewish, Russian, European, and American history.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Miro
Yuri Slezkine is a professor of history at the University of California who in this book looks for the place of Jews in the modern world, or at least in the modern world of the last 100 years.

His thesis is that the modern world values abilities and attitudes that have a closer match to traditional
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Jewish activities which he terms "Mercurian" (transient, wanderer, trader, resident alien) rather than more settled national populations which he terms "Apollonian" (land, tradition, social obligations). He sees nationalism as an outdated concept with the Jews as the natural leaders of a new frontierless Mercurian world where "We are all Jews" and Gentiles could learn and follow the leading Jewish role.

He interestingly contrasts the three major migrations of Jews in the modern world and their very different sociological characteristics; the early 20th century and post WW2 emigration to the United States, the abandonment of the shtetl for the cities of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire and Russia, and the Zionist emigration to the new state of Israel.

However, I see a basic problem of the book in Slezkine´s equating Mercurial Jewishness with modernity. Tribalism clearly predates civilization and he surely identifies Jews as a tribal group. He actually analyses how tribal minorities survive as outsiders in societies as different as Sierra Leone (Lebanese commercials) and Malaysia (Chinese commercials) but he doesn´t deal with the obvious question of how minority tribalism works in the modern world of democracy and equality before the law.

Tribalism is presented as a route to security and power based on inter-group loyalty and trust in an uncertain world, in fact rather like traditional Middle Eastern power relationships (eg. Assad with his Alawites or Saddam Hussein with his Tikritis) seeking positions of power for tribal followers or family members. The book could have shown the fundamental incompatibility of minority tribalism and democracy (all citizens with equal rights and obligations) but the author chooses instead to simply list the high percentages of Jews in influential positions in for example pre WW2 Germany or the United States.

Also he doesn´t persue at all the interesting way in which the founding American (British derived) concept of individual liberty has morphed into minority (group) rights which is a completely different "special interest" concept that downgrades a primary national loyalty. He goes along with protected special interests, suggesting that national loyalty is out of date saying that, "... in America, where nationwide tribal metaphors could not rely on theories of biological descent.", which surprisingly ignores the Anglo (English - Scots) foundations of modern American society shown for example in Fischer´s book, "Albion´s Seed'; Four British Folkways in America".

The argument that nationality is out of date also doesn't fit even a cursory examination of the evidence. Holland and Germany are modern societies but the Dutch and Germans are strongly aware of differing national identities (despite being racial cousins). The same would go for the Japanese and Chinese, Israelis and Syrians or Poles and Russians.
Also, it is not clear how Germans can be Mercurians in pre WW1 Russia and Apollonians when they live in Germany. Furthermore, why are Germans the most commercially successful country in Europe when the author presents them as classic (non-commercial) Apollonians? Equally how does one explain the great industrial and commercial success of the Japanese who have always resisted resident (Mercurian) alien groups?

The main body of the book deals with the Jewish experience in Russia, mostly after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and highlights the leading role of Jews in the revolution itself and in the top echelons of the Communist government. In fact they had an explicitly protected status until the final years of the Stalin dictatorship and the author shows that they were the most enthusiastic revolutionary activists. An evaluation of their "work" is missing from the book but it actually involved supervising the murder of the Russian royal family, arranging the liquidation or transportation to work/death camps of all educated Russians, the murder of 50% or more of national minorities and organizing the killing of 3 million+ Ukrainian farmers in the winter of 1932-1933. The later atrocity was planned and executed by Lazar Kaganovich who astonishingly only gets a sympathetic page with regard to his childhood education. Furthermore, the slaughter of the Russian and Ukrainian Slavic population was accompanied by the establishment of a new Jewish "revolutionary" bourgeoise which Slezkine documents in some detail as they enjoy their new country dachas, worship Pushkin and attend elite educational academies (the inspiration behind Orwell´s "Animal Farm").

Finally, getting back to Homer, Slezkine portrays Odysseus as a Mercurian due to his wandering and use of subterfuge and trickery (doesn't modern business try to avoid these tactics) while Homer says that he was a Greek general who wanted to return to his island estate of Ithaca. He did use used cunning to defeat the Trojans and later the suitors who were laying waste to his land, so he would seem to be an Apollonian who behaved Mercurially when obliged to, and notably he killed all the suitors with Apollo's own weapon (the bow).

Overall a troubling attempt to claim a leading role for undemocratic minority tribalism and blank out large sections of European and American history.
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LibraryThing member Stronghart
very interesting


National Jewish Book Award (Winner — Eastern European Studies — 2005)
PROSE Award (Winner — Religion — 2004)




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