Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction

Professor David N. Myers writes:

* we lack basic extra-biblical evidence that could attest to the existence of the Israelites and Moses in Egypt and, more particularly, to their flight to freedom. Even without overwhelming external evidence, the Israelites’ tale of Exodus has had deep resonances beyond the Jews, becoming one of the most widely replicated and admired narratives of liberation from oppression.
What we do possess is an important piece of external evidence from the thirteenth century bce that makes explicit reference to “Israel.” It is the Merneptah stele, a stone inscription that describes, in verse, the triumph of an Egyptian king, Merneptah, over a number of groups in the land of Canaan. The final line relates: “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” It is not clear what battle the stele is describing, but it seems to be referring not to a place name but to an ethnic group. Indeed, we begin to pick up the trail of a group or groups associated with that name in the thirteenth century, when Egyptian imperial control over the land was beginning to wane. Neither a unified social cohort nor an established polity existed at this point, but rather a network of nomadic tribes, which may have been divided according to the sons of Jacob…

* The Bible is replete with references to the distinct tribes; the Book of Joshua, for example, offers a detailed description of the disparate tribes joining forces to regain the land of Canaan, which God had promised them. Whether they consolidated themselves outside of Canaan or molded their distinct tribal identities within, we do not know. But it is reasonable to assume that between the thirteenth and eleventh centuries bce , residents could be found in the central mountain region of Canaan who shared a number of key properties that identify them as precursors to today’s Jews:
• Family : The most basic unit of social organization for the Israelite tribes was the tight-knit family with its own land presided over by the head male figure, father or grandfather, from whom identity was transmitted at this point.
• Genealogy : Members of families traced their own histories back several generations and linked their particular stories to the wanderings of the children of Israel. This became the foundation for Israelite historical consciousness.
• Language : Israelite tribes of Canaan spoke an indigenous Semitic language that would later be referred to as Yehudit and which we call today Hebrew. The formation of this language reveals the extent to which its speakers belonged to the larger Canaanite cultural world of the day.
Little concrete evidence exists of a fully developed religious system by this point, apart from the Bible. The Book of Exodus makes reference to a portable Ark of the Covenant that the tribes brought with them from Mt. Sinai that contained the Ten Commandments. This terse set of prescriptions would become one of the Israelites’ most notable contributions to the world—a moral code that has anchored both religious and political systems ever since. One of the Commandments declared that they should worship no other god than the God of Israel. But when exactly to date the advent of this important development—the rise of the monotheistic faith in a single god—remains an open question. Some scholars trace the idea to the preceding Egyptian period. Others date it centuries later, noting that the tribes continued to worship a variety of local gods such as El, Asherah, and Baal, only gradually developing the conviction in the supreme power of a god known by the letters YHWH. Even at this early stage, we can imagine a process by which the Israelites remolded local practices and ideas with which they were intimately familiar into their own distinctive forms.

* This impulse to distinguish people based on blood anticipated a key tenet of modern racialist discourse. Blood came to be seen as a determinant of racial purity in nineteenth-century debates about the evolution of humans. Alongside Charles Darwin’s iconic On the Origin of Species (1859), this debate included those who were intent on establishing fixed racial hierarchies, such as the German composer Richard Wagner in Judaism in Music (1850) and the French diplomat Arthur de Gobineau in Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855).
While Jews were often targeted in this new discourse, they also acquired fluency in the idiom of racialism, which was an ironic reflection of the extent of their integration into European society. Jewish scholars in the early twentieth century, such as Elias Auerbach, Maurice Fishberg, Arthur Ruppin, and Ignaz Zollschan, engaged in the study of anthropology, statistics, physiognomy, and phrenology (measurements of the skull) much as their non-Jewish contemporaries did. They had twin goals: to bring glory to the Jewish race and to elevate the study of race to the rank of a legitimate scientific discipline.

Beyond these narrow circles, Jews in Europe and North America frequently invoked the language of race and blood when describing themselves. Their invocation, even though intended to honor Jews, strikes an unsettling note. After all, it was race—and more particularly, the assertion that Jews were an inferior race—that drove the Nazi campaign to annihilate them. Hitler formalized the racial distinctions between Aryans and Jews at a Nazi Party meeting in Nuremberg in 1935, which produced a highly detailed scheme of racial classification that became a platform for mass murder.
In light of this history, one approaches claims of racial or biological characteristics of a given group with trepidation. And yet, the dramatic advances in understanding the human genome over the past half century have prompted scientists, often Jewish themselves, to aver that Jews possess deeply rooted genetic affinities that distinguish them from other groups. These unique properties lead, they claim, to a Jewish proclivity not only toward certain kinds of mental and physical ailments, but also toward a higher-than-average IQ. One of the most prominent researchers of Jewish genetics today, Harry Ostrer, builds on the work of the early-twentieth-century Jewish racial scientists in his book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People , especially in concluding that the “evidence for biological Jewishness has become incontrovertible.” Expanding on this claim, some scholars have argued that Jewish genes can be found among various unlikely groups around the globe, including the Lemba tribe in southern Africa. Not surprisingly, the work of Ostrer and like-minded colleagues has generated stiff criticism that disputes the notion of a shared Jewish genetic origin.
Most Jews in the world, mindful of the Holocaust, would probably eschew use of race or biology in defining themselves. They would likely acknowledge an enduring, though often unarticulated, sense of connection to fellow Jews, triggered by past memories, particularly of trying events. They might even speak colloquially and unscientifically of a Jewish “gene,” for example, when expressing a measure of pride at the high percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates.
That said, variations abound among Jews in defining themselves. Jews in Israel, the largest body in the world, tend to identify themselves with the state of which they are citizens. Jews in the United States, the second largest group in the world, tend to identify on a different basis. Whereas earlier generations saw themselves as Jews by religion, a study by the Pew Research Center in 2013 reveals that more than 60 percent of American Jews today identify principally with their shared “ancestry or culture.”
These most recent attempts at self-identification recall for us two related points. First, Jewish identity, like Jewish history itself, has never been a static proposition; from their humble desert origins, Jews have continually reimagined and renamed themselves—and been renamed by others—in response to shifting historical circumstances. And second, despite the constant change in their modes and names of self-identification, Jews have managed to hold on to a shared sense of history and fate that finds few parallels in history.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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