Most work in the field of Jewish history deals with the almost invariably vast impact of the outside world on the Jews, who are almost invariably a small minority of the population. My concern is with the impact of the Jews on the rest of humanity. And, in particular, with the explosive transformation of this impact in the 19th and 20th centuries: that is to say, since the emancipation and self-emancipation of the Jews began in the late 18th century.
Between their expulsion from Palestine in the first century AD and the 19th century, the Jews lived within the wider society of gentiles, whose languages they adopted as their own and whose cuisine they adapted to their ritual requirements; but only rarely and intermittently were they able and, what is equally to the point, willing, to participate in the cultural and intellectual life of these wider societies. Consequently their original contribution to this life was marginal, even in fields in which, since emancipation, their contribution has been enormous. Only as intermediaries between intellectual cultures, notably between the Islamic and Western Christian worlds in the (European) Middle Ages, did they have a significant part to play.
LRB 20 October 2005 | PDF Download