Eminent Israelites

THE fortunes of the Jewish race since its dispersion are known, and even comprehended ; but it cannot be said that they form part of our working knowledge of history. When we view the Jews as a class, those of their qualities which strike the eye are such as command respect, and often esteem. But, unfortunately, inherited prejudices are not easily expelled the moral system ; and we are still far from the time when, however great their individual worth, the Jewish nationality shall be deemed free from taint. If the prejudice against them had continued to be the result merely of religious feeling, it would long since have died away, but for a long period this has served only to give color to a hatred which proceeds from still less creditable grounds : from the fact that the Jews are the greatest traffickers in the world’s most indispensable commodity, money ; and that they display a shrewdness, open-mindedness, and tireless industry which place them at an immense advantage in competing with their fellow-countrymen, whether Latins, Slavs, or Germans, wherever there is a fair field and no favor. That their superiority in certain mental and moral qualities is the sole still obtaining cause of the deeply rooted feeling against them we do not, of course, assert; but for other peculiarities of the race, the low character of the calling pursued by the majority and the filthy habits of their lower class, not they, but their Christian oppressors, are chiefly responsible. How, down to the French Revolution, Jews were in the main forced to earn a livelihood by means which their fellowsubjects either could not or would not practice is a story so familiar that we here need but to allude to it.

We have now before us a book1 which the author believes to be unique in the English language, and which has been written, he tells us, with a view “ to uproot prejudice, and to call forth among non-Israelites sentiments of respect for the ancient race,” as well as “ to instill into the hearts of Hebrews a love for their religion and people.” This last purpose, we suppose, is the reason why the reader will seek in vain, among the hundred Jews whose lives are here described, for Felix Mendelssohn, or Heine, or Börne, or Lord Beaconsfield, or Gambetta, all of whom, in name, if not in spirit, discarded the faith of their ancestors. The long list contains, in fact, but one really famous name, that of Rothschild, but secondrate celebrities are fairly numerous, embracing, among politicians, Bamberger, Crémieux, Fould, and Lasker ; Deutsch, D’lsraeli, and Heilpin, among scholars ; Halévy, Joachim, Meyerbeer, Moscheles, Offenbach, and Rachel, among musicians ; while philanthropy, literature, and the art of war are represented by Montefiore, Grace Aguilar, and Commodore Levy, of the United States navy. When a hundred lives are sketched in less than four hundred medium-sized pages, the result is necessarily a reference book rather than a literary production. We think the author’s purpose would have been better served if he had chosen to illustrate the merits of his race by a quarter as many examples, telling the story of their lives with correspondingly greater detail. His selection of subjects, too, seems to us arbitrary; for how else account for the absence from his pages of so eminent and faithful German Jews as Henriette Herz, Johann Jacoby, and Ferdinand Lassalle ? The most eminent American Jew, again, Judah P. Benjamin, is not mentioned. In spite, also, of “ close inspection of cyclopædias and scattered biographical notices,” the book is full of loose statements like this : “In 1801 the Landgrave or Elector of Hesse-Cassel . . . was obliged to flee on account of the approach of Napoleon, who, after the battle of Jena, had declared that ruler’s estates forfeited.” In 1801 the Hessian sovereign was not an elector, and the battle of Jena was not fought till 1806. The author should have said that in 1801 Rothschild became the landgrave’s financial agent. Venice, again, did not become part of the kingdom of Italy in 1860, as here stated, nor is William IV. of Prussia a monarch known to history. The liberties which the author takes with the English language, also, may be improvements, but they have not yet been sanctioned by usage. Literator is, perhaps, a desirable substitute for the French littérateur, but we fail to find it in the dictionaries; while constructions such as “ The Rabbi devoted his leisure moments to dive into philosophy and history ” we find entirely indefensible.

  1. Eminent Israelites of the Nineteenth Century. By HENRY SAMUEL MORAIS. Philadelphia: Edward Stern & Co. 1880.