Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library Shopping Mall of Zion AHAVA Hero Products 250x250

בס"ד

Jewish Antiquity and Nationality.

New York, February 8th, 1844.

Mr. Editor—Emboldened by the kind indulgence with which you deigned to receive my first communication, I venture to send yon the subjoined letter, leaving it to your editorial discretion, whether you will find it fit for publication in the Occident. The circumstances under which it was composed, are as follows: About two years ago I left Germany and repaired to England, where I resided several months. At the time I bade adieu to my fatherland, the Prussian government was preparing a new law for her subjects of the Mosaic persuasion. When this law was being discussed in the Prussian Council of State, reports as to its restrictive nature, bordering on the barbarism of the middle ages, came into circulation, and filled the bosom of every philanthropist with melancholy forebodings. Soon the agitation throughout Germany became immense, and the press, as usual, caught the fire of excitement and entered the campaign with spirit and alacrity. Much was said pro and contra. Our adversaries rejoiced at having found an opportunity to give vent to their smothered feelings of hatred, and belched forth torrents of spiteful lava in endeavouring to revive against our brethren all those hateful prejudices, that have long been thought consigned to the tomb of oblivion. But the champions of the cause of liberty were not idle. With justice and right on their side, supported by eminent talent and intelligence, they disputed manfully every point; and, although they could not boast of a complete victory, as the discussion of the law in question was only abandoned, and things remained in status quo, they retired from the field with laurels, awarded to them by the thankful hearts of our co-religionists, and with the gratification of having espoused a good and sacred cause,—leaving to their antagonists lacerated feelings of shame and mortification at being foiled in their odious exertions. It was during this time, when every letter I received from my friends in Germany was filled with accounts of the state of things; that in a letter of one of my most intimate friends occurred the objectionable passage, which called forth the following epistle. Now, dear sir, I do not intend to injure the feelings of our Christian brethren by some of the sentiments therein expressed, nor is it an over-estimate of its literary merits that prompts me to publish it, (for too well am I conscious of my deficiency in that respect;) but, after re-perusing it a short time ago, I came to the conclusion, that its publication might contribute a little to the strengthening of the faith of those of our brethren in this country, who are פסחים על שתי הסעפים "stepping on two sills," and that it might tend towards promoting in our midst a unity of religious feeling. It is for this purpose only that I wish its publication, and I hope, that you will be convinced, that I have at least the will to contribute, to the best of my poor ability, towards "developing the purity of our belief before the eyes of an admiring world."

My Dear David—In your letter, containing a description of the condition of our co-religionists in Prussia, you use the following words: "They reproach us with our antiquity and nationality, against which we have always protested." This sentence awakened in my mind various reflections, and I, therefore, consider it worth while to speak of it at length. Though I deem your zeal manifested in our sacred cause praiseworthy; your right to repulse with indignation the varied, unjust and hateful insinuations against our brethren unquestionable: yet I cannot approve of the above sentence, as, according to my opinion, every Israelite should be proud of his antiquity and nationality. You have thought right, and, as it seems, only erred in expression. You will, therefore, permit me to state, what I understand under the said terms, and, should I err, direct me aright without ceremony.

Antiquity is a quality appertaining to old age, to old times, to the ancients, as also to the relics of the ancients, whether they consist of languages, monuments, customs, or the like. Whenever "antiquity" is then applied to a nation, it can only mean, that this nation was formed as such at a very early period of history, and has ever since enjoyed its existence distinctly and conspicuously. There can, surely, be no disgrace connected with this idea. Every thing coming to us from antiquity enjoys, according to its nature, a certain degree of venerableness. This veneration varies in its manifestation, as the object is of general interest, of pure aesthetical tendency, or as, it comes in contact with the principles and doctrines of parties, whose acknowledgment is withheld by egotistical and uncharitable feelings.

Now, my dear friend, ought we to protest against our antiquity and renounce the venerable quality that it implies? How can we be imprudent enough so to do? Nay, are we capable of doing so and bid at once defiance to all the documents, sacred and profane, that testify to our antiquity? Such a demonstration would appear useless and ridiculous. Moreover, I know of no nation that did not endeavour to date its origin from the remotest period.

But do you, perhaps, understand under antiquity an "antiquatedness," implying our unsusceptibility for civilisation? Are we a ruin of days gone by, as we have been very charitably styled by some of our amiable enemies? Has the all-destroying tooth of time so much gnawed and disfigured us, have its tempests so much shaken the foundations of our structure, that we are reduced to an irrecognizable monument? Oh no! A monument we certainly are, but one that is living, healthy, growing; a monument of the Lord, in the words of the Prophet: "I am the Lord and you are my witnesses, says the Lord." Like me, you shall be everlasting. When, in perusing the pages of history, we find that all the colossal empires of antiquity, Assyria, Media, etc., have faded into air; Sidon, Tyre and Carthage, the emporiums of commerce; Greece, the seat of art and science; Rome, swaying its all-conquering sceptre nearly all over the inhabited parts of the Old World, have vanished from the face of the globe and left but dead monuments of their once possessed grandeur and power:—we find on the other hand, Israel yet enjoying their existence, preserved by and clinging to their religion, and though scattered among all nations, a living testimony of the living God. Our history is as old as the beginning of all history;—but we are not antiquated. If, therefore, you mean to say, that we have always protested against such an imputation, I have nothing else to do, but to add most readily and emphatically my own protest. The modern history of Israel affords too ample a proof, that there is yet a youthful blood flowing in our veins, and that, like the phoenix, we only arise from our ashes resplendent in greater brilliancy.

As to ours "nationality" (With which we are more frequently reproached), I certainly do not remember that we have ever protested against it. And how could we voluntarily renounce a quality of which every nation is jealous? Only think what an intense feeling of nationality inspires the Englishman, Frenchman, etc., and but recently the German?* And should it be considered as shame with us, when it does honour to every other nation? Well do I know that we always have been unjustly dealt with; that our enemies were pleased to style our consistency—obstinacy; our constancy in the faith—stubbornness; and by this procedure changed every virtue into a vice. But should we be therefore so blinded by the repeated attacks of hatred, to believe ourselves at last the charges that sophistry and rancour prefer against us? No, my dear friend, let us be national as Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews, no matter under which of these names we be known, since each of them conveys the idea of "the chosen people of the Lord." And when every nation glories in its great men, we likewise have good cause to be proud of our great men in every age, from Abraham down to Mendelssohn. We also can boast of heroes, who were patterns, incomparable patterns of valour and magnanimity, who deposited their life, their all on the altar of liberty and independence; men whose superiority of mind and nobleness of heart have been recognized by the whole civilized world; men who had the welfare of the whole human race in view, who were not actuated by selfishness, whose chief characteristics were humility and resignation. Was not even the so-called redeemer of mankind, who expired on the cross—a Jew? I should almost think that this "overwhelming" superiority gave rise to the inveterate hostile mania of our antagonists.† And what a heroic spirit must be possessed by the Israelites, collectively and individually, that it could enable them unflinchingly to endure for many centuries in succession the oppression and opprobrium, that have been heaped upon them, and which, alas, are yet in our enlightened age resorted to. Well may we apply to us the words of the English bard:

"Affliction is the good man's shining scene;
Prosperity conceals his brightest ray:
As night to stars, woe lustre gives to man."

* The national-feeling in Germany has not at all times been universal. The cause may partly be assigned to its division in so many petty states. But it is owing to this want of nationality that Germany has become so frequently the prey of its ambitious neighbours. The time I am alluding to is that, when the Oriental affairs brought the cabinet of France in collision with all other European cabinets, and the then Prime Minister Thiers threw out threatening hints against Germany; a single "Rhein-Lied" roused the national feeling of the German to its highest pitch.

† It is a moral phenomenon that small favours gain the affections of our fellow­-beings, whereas great benefits, which cannot be reciprocated by the receiver, make him wince before his benefactor's superiority, and engender in him a feeling of jealousy which ultimately grows into implacable hatred. I should say that we are in a similar position. It seems that our Christian brethren cannot forgive us for having been chosen by the All-wise as the guardians and propagators of the eternal truths; they cannot forgive us that, whilst we are adoring the "Holy One" in the spirit of Scripture, they have been persuaded by one who sprung from our midst, to leave the groves of Paganism and to bask in the benign sunshine of the true God— in the shape of a "united plurality." Whenever they meet a Jew, tile idea must recur to their mind: that all they enjoy of eternal truth and hope, they are individually indebted to him, and that his mission to preserve and to propagate the knowledge of the Eternal One all over the globe, is not yet accomplished. No wonder, therefore, that strenuous exertions have been and are yet being made to banish such a sight from their eyes. "Surrender your faith or die!" was the watchword for a long, long time, and reverberates even yet, though rarely and slightly on our tympanum. "Surrender your faith or die!" and we will immortalize your name, and will erect monuments on your tomb, and will chant hymns in praise of your martyrdom.

But, my dear friend, you will say, that we have ceased to be a nation, that we are natives and citizens of that country in which we live, and the benefits and protection of the laws of which we enjoy; but that as long as we cherish a distinct national feeling as Israelites, we are to be considered as a "status in statu," and are, therefore, unworthy of being treated as legitimate citizens. This objection, indeed, seems, superficially viewed, to be very important; it will, however, soon be reduced to its insignificance, if properly illustrated.

It is a well-known fact that, as I have already mentioned above, every nation strenuously endeavours to preserve its respective nationality and origin. This is not only to be perceived with great nations, composing a particular empire, such as France, etc., but also with small ones, who, in the course of history, have been joined to or amalgamated with a greater power; as for instance, the Scots and Welsh in Great Britain, the Basques in Spain, etc. And if we direct our eyes to Austria, how many different nations, composing the great body politic, do we meet there? Not less, though not so strikingly, is this the case in Prussia; for we find the Teutonic in the western and the Slavonic and Wendish tribes in the eastern parts of that kingsom. But has a sound argument ever or could one ever have been adduced and sustained, to refuse to some of these tribes, merely on account of their origin, liberty and equal political rights? Have not most of them retained their customs and habits, and pride themselves to this day on their genealogy? Are they therefore less esteemed than their fellow-citizens of a different lineage? And with us Israelites alone, our parentage, the nobility of our birth, shall be considered a political disqualification? Have we not shown on many occasions, how willing we are to sacrifice wealth and life for the welfare of our country? I should reasonably suppose that the patriotism and loyalty, so frequently manifested by us, ought to have ultimately conquered the long entertained and worn-out prejudice against our nationality, and that we should be recognized as children of that country, where we were born.

Let us now, my dear friend, consider the subject in a religious point of view, and you will then easily conceive, that it is utterly impossible to resign our nationality. Our religion is too strongly founded on an historical basis, the most prominent features of our nationality are too intimately interwoven in its tissue, to render this possible. I need scarcely say, that nearly all our festivals are anniversaries of the most important national occurrences. A renunciation of our nationality, therefore, is synonymous with a renunciation of our religion. And, indeed, it is but for this latter end, to which the efforts of our opponents are directed: which efforts, however, thanks to a merciful Providence, have always been foiled, and will, I sincerely hope, never be realized. It is painful, indeed, to the devout Israelite, to behold that the continued invectives of our enemies, and the consequent unfounded disgrace attached to our name, aided by a defective, unsystematic religious education and self-conceited charlatanry, have led astray many of our fashionable heroes, so much so, that they think it a glory and honour, when in public assemblies, their oriental cast of features is mot recognized. For the honour of our friendship, my dear friend, I will hope that you are not labouring under any such delusive ideas. For (I will avow it), there was a time, when I also shared to a certain extent the sentiments of that class, and when my opinions differed greatly from what they are now. But as Schiller says:

"Die Philosophy schlägt um
Wie unsere Pulse anders schlagen."

My sentiments and views have undergone a change and are more consolidated. And I can assure you that I feel more content and independent.

From what I have said, I hope to have convinced you how inconsistent it would be to protest against our antiquity and nationality. I will readily believe that you have been overpowered by your intensity of feeling, and paid no particular attention to the wording of a confidential letter. But I also hope, that you will do me justice, and recognize in this letter, my duty as a friend, to correct an erroneous opinion. For my part, I feel greatly obliged to you for having been the cause to lead me to meditate on this subject.

Yours,

J. K. G. [James K. Gutheim]