Elias Canetti

The Jews





An image of the Jews that stresses more their dissimilarities than their homogeneity. The only common aspect seems to be their persistence to be considered a people, and in this they are quite like the other semitic people, the Palestinians.

Source: Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1962



No people is more difficult to understand than the Jews. Debarred from their country of origin, they have spread over the whole of the inhabited earth. Their talent for adaptation is well known, but the degree of their adaptation is immensely variable. Among them were to be found Spaniards, Indians and Chinese. They carry languages and cultures with them from one country to another and guard them more tenaciously than their possessions. Fools may tell stories of their sameness everywhere, but anyone who knows them well will be inclined to think that there are more varied types among them than among any other people. The extent of variation between Jews, both in their nature and their appearance, is one of the most extraordinary phenomena there is. The popular saying that both the best and the worst men are to be found amongst them is a naïve way of expressing this fact. Jews are different from other people, but, in reality, they are most different from each other.

The Jews have been admired for continuing to exist. They are not the only people who are found everywhere; the Armenians are certainly equally far-spread. Nor are they the oldest people; the history of the Chinese goes back much further than theirs. But, of the old peoples, they are the only one which has been wandering for so long. They have had most time in which to disappear without trace and, in spite of this, they are more here now than they ever were.

Until a few years ago, they had no territorial or linguistic unity. Most of them no longer understood Hebrew; they spoke in a hundred tongues. To millions of them their old religion had become an empty sack. Even the number of Christians amongst them was gradually increasing, especially among intellectuals; and the number of those without any religion at all was far larger still. Speaking superficially, from the point of view of self-preservation in the vulgar sense, they should have done everything possible to let it be forgotten that they were Jews, and to forget it themselves. But they cannot forget it; nor do most of them want to. One is driven to ask in what respect these people remain Jews; what makes them into Jews; what is the ultimate nature of the bond they feel when they say ‘I am a Jew'.

This bond has existed from the beginning of their history and has been re-formed over and over again with astounding monotony during its course: it is the Exodus from Egypt. Let us visualize the actual content of this tradition: a whole people, numbered, it is true, but none the les a multitude, wanders for forty years through the desert. Their legendary forefather had been promised progeny numerous as the sand on the shores of the sea. Now this progeny exists and wanders, sand through the sand of the desert. The sea allows them to pass, but it closes over their enemies. Their goal is a promised land, which their swords will conquer for them.

The image of this multitude moving year after year through the desert has become the crowd symbol of the Jews. It has remained to this day as distinct and comprehensible as it was then. The people see themselves together before they settled and then dispersed; they see themselves on their migration. In this state of density they received their law. If ever a crowd had a goal, they had. They had many adventures and these were common to all of them. The crowd they formed was a naked crowd; of all the many things which normally enmesh men in their separate lives scarcely any existed in these surroundings. Around them was nothing but sand, the barest of all crowds; nothing is more likely than the image of sand to emphasize the feeling of being alone with itself which this wandering procession must have had. Often its goal was obliterated and the crowd, threatening to disintegrate, had to be roused, gripped and held together by chastisement or exhortation. The number of people in the procession - 600,000 - 700,000 - was enormous, and not only by the modest standards of remote antiquity. The duration of their wanderings is of particular importance. What this crowd sustained for forty years can later be stretched to cover any period of time. This long wandering inflicted as a punishment contains all the torments of later migrations.


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