David Vital describes his work as a political history, whose subject is the exercise of legitimate violence. He recounts how the Jews of Europe addressed the political crisis that overtook them between the end of the ancien regime in 1789 and the collapse of their rebuilt social order in Europe in 1939: His subject is nothing less than the political evolution of the Jewish people.

Beginning with an account of Jewish politics over the long centuries of Christian rule in Europe, Vital proceeds to an analysis of “integration and fragmentation.” Having demonstrated how Enlightenment thinkers in England, France, the Germanys, Poland, and Russia all defined the Jews “as an encumbrance to be dealt with,” he considers early responses, fearful as well as positive, to political emancipation before turning to the formulation of “the Jewish Question” —that is to say, the re-characterization and re-demonization of the Jews. The second part of his account describes “movement” (pogroms, poverty, migration, decline, and the focus on Eastern European Jewry as “the question”), then moves on to “auto-emancipation” (the Jews’ reconsideration of themselves as a political entity, foreshadowing Zionism), and, finally, to “crystallization,” the crisis of the final third of the 19th century in which antisemitism emerged as a violent political movement.

Part III embraces World War I and Zionism; “Bolshevik Russia and the binding of its Jews,” “the great slaughter” of the period of the Bolshevist wars; the nation-state as grindstone and ancient frictions in the new Poland; Polish equivocation and Jewish ambivalence; the crushing of the German Jews; and, lastly, “denouement,” which describes Jewish political organization and the aims of Zionism, the needs of the Jews, pragmatism and honor, the final rejection, and—as epilogue—a couple of pages on the culmination of a century and a half of Jewish history, amounting to the mass murder of more than five-and-a-half million Jews.

A sad story, but also a tale that has been told many times; the challenge presented by its dramatic power and form have proved irresistible to historians over the centuries. Indeed, just as the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C. led to the formation of the Pentateuch and the authorized history from Genesis through Kings, so, quite naturally, have historians sought to identify, organize, and explain the events that led directly from 1789 to 1939. The particular perspective of Zionism, with its interest in the Jews’ taking control of their own destiny and acting on their own initiative, certainly compels a hearing, since many identify the creation of the state of Israel in 1948—not the destruction of European Jewry— as the proper epilogue to the tragedy.

Given the importance and massive complexity of the subject and the obvious control exhibited by Vital over his material, I wish I could report that the book is a success and deserves a wide reading. Alas, if within this ungainly sprawl of 900 pages there is a 300-page book waiting to emerge, Oxford’s editors have not helped to discover it. (The publisher’s slipshod approach is elsewhere apparent: a glued, not sewn, binding for a book of nearly 1,000 pages!) To put matters bluntly: A People Apart is not so much a weighty work of thought as a ponderous, heavyhanded cobbling together of little narratives into a single big, tedious, only occasionally coherent story.

Part of the problem is stylistic. Vital writes verbose, endless sentences strung out in paragraphs sometimes running for a page and a half. This in addition to truckloads of infelicitous word choices, acres of prose lacking any sense of rhythm or music, to say nothing of simple mistakes in grammar missed by the copy editor. There are sentences in the book that, reread three and four times, still prove beyond comprehension. Some are simply awkward, the product of a tin ear for language, as in the following passage:

And everything in the invertebrate and increasingly fragmented structure of Jewish society continues as before to militate against ideas, reflections, and programs being pulled together as a basis for coherent and co-ordinated action or even the very simple declarations of common purpose and intention on which the least of political acts is necessarily contingent.

What can Vital possibly mean by that sentence? Imagine reading 940 pages of such soggy, clunky prose! Readers discovering for themselves that a random sampling yields still more appalling assaults on the English language will share my curiosity: Where were Lord Bullock’s and Sir William Deaken’s minds when this book came their way, and how could the editors at Oxford University Press be so utterly distracted as not to have noticed that this book is only marginally intelligible?

If Vital’s prose utterly lacks grace and music, his narrative is a match for it, being as ponderous, slow-witted, and heavyhanded as the language. Vital seems generally to have outlined his topics and constructed his paragraphs accordingly, resorting to transitions of a facile character for what he must have hoped would make for a sustained presentation. But history should be narrative, and, in the hands of a master, it is. Because Vital fails to compose a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, he fails to inform readers of what they need to know when he introduces a given subject, necessary to his outline but not logically called for by the narrative strategy he has adopted. The logic of his book is not a narrative logic, and so what coherence A People Apart has owes nothing to the traditional historical method which insists on presenting a well-shaped story with urgency and energy. As an historian. Vital appears to be competing for a Nobel Prize in Boredom.

Still, if the book is dull, the topic is not. The real problem is its heuristic assumption: The Jews, having long constituted a nation among other nations, in the 19th century faced the problem of finding a place for themselves within other nations as the old order, which had accommodated their particular nationality on its own terms, gave way. In response to this crisis, Zionism amounted to the re-nationalization of the Jewish nation. Presented in this way, the story of the Jews in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries becomes the story of antisemitism and the Jewish response to it. Vital hands the antisemites a victory they did not earn: the power to define what matters about the Jews and their history. But this reading, by politicizing and externalizing “the essential condition of the Jewish people,” inevitably secularizes as well the supernatural understanding of “Israel”—meaning those who know God—by which the Jews defined the social entity they so long constituted. The framing of the issue facing the Jews, the selection and orchestration of events into an historical narrative—these beg the theological question that Vital finds himself unable to confront.

Any history should allow us to make sense of what happened next, but Vital’s story of the Jews in Europe does not prepare us for what took place after 1939—which is nothing less than the rebirth not only of the state of Israel but of the Jews in Europe and of Europe’s overseas diasporas —in North and Latin America, for example. And so the logic of the Zionist reading of Jewish history shatters against the fact of continuity beyond 1939—the continuity, especially, of Zionism itself.


[A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789-1939, by David Vital (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 941 pp., $45.00]