Sergio Della Pergola
The scientific study of the Jewish population, also known as demography of the Jews or Jewish demography, does not actually claim the status of a distinct discipline. It is an area of specialization focusing on the changing size and composition of Jewish populations and on the determinants and consequences of such changes. This article outlines some of the main concepts, interpretative frameworks, and methodological issues in the field, followed by a short outline of substantive patterns and applied uses of available knowledge. The main scientific rationale for the study of Jewish populations rests with the growing interest in understanding the demography of religious, ethnic, and cultural groups and minorities. Demographic changes provide an important and occasionally indispensable background for an appraisal of Jewish history and cultural experience. Hence, the study of Jewish demography is organically tied to the development of Jewish studies.
This article notes that the study of the modern history of East European Jews is not a field driven at present by deep conceptual or ideological divides or abiding scholarly or methodological controversies. The past debates on this score between Israeli and diaspora Jewish scholarship have all but disappeared, as has even more dramatically the attempt at a Marxist version of juedische Wissenschaft. While the major works of the founders of the field from Simon Dubnov on ought to be studied and the impressive resurgence of interest in the history and culture of East European Jewry in the modern age is underway, the work is still largely undone. The crucial challenge to the field is not to succumb to the lachrymose and romanticized stereotypes of Jewish life in Eastern Europe while continuing to explore the history of this the largest Jewry in the world before the Holocaust.
This article describes conceptions of the early modern period in Jewish historiography, the Italian Renaissance, intellectual history, the Jews of Central Europe in the early modern period, the Sephardic diaspora in Western Europe, and messianism. Classical Jewish historiography depicted a sharp break between medieval and modern patterns, the movements of transformation seeming to emerge virtually out of nothing. Cecil Roth's The Jews in the Renaissance introduced Jewish historians to the riches of Jewish life in this multifaceted world. Jewish intellectual history in the early modern period is characterized by successful attempts to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 had a profound impact on the life of Western European Jews, even beyond that on Iberian Jewry itself. Meanwhile, the messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi reverberated strongly through the Jewish historiography of the early modern period.
This article begins in the early Middle Ages, and specifically addresses questions concerning the economic and political situation of Jewry in Western Europe. The period of the high Middle Ages follows, with a focus on developments in community life and the character of Jewish society. The discussion considers the Jewish foundation myths that were born in the twelfth century in an attempt to explain and interpret the social and cultural changes of the time. It examines the nature of the interaction and the form of discourse that characterized the medieval relations between a Christian majority and a Jewish minority culture. It also describes the legal status of the Jews in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The article also discusses Jewish life in Spain, since, for a significant segment of the period under study, Spain was under Muslim rule.
Mark R. Cohen
Islam arose in the seventh century in Arabia through the preaching of the prophet Muhammad (d. 632). Nineteenth-century Jewish historians of the ‘Wissenschaft des Judentums’ school painted the experience of medieval Jewry in the world of Islam in idyllic, almost mythic terms and in stark contrast to the sorrowful, oppressive, persecutory history of Jews living in medieval Christendom. This rosy comparison between the ‘Golden Age’ under Islam and the era of persecution under Christendom, sketched against the background of the political agenda of nineteenth-century Central European Jewish intellectuals, was carried forth into the twentieth century, reinforced by the brutal Nazi persecution of the Jews culminating in the Holocaust. On the other hand, the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine generated a fresh political issue which impacted on the historiography of medieval Jewry in the world of Islam.