Karl Marx wrote his essay, On The Jewish Question in 1844 to contest a thesis by Bruno Bauer how Judaism as a religion directly conflicts with the interests of a modern and free political society. Judaism is a religion of the merchant, a religion that only knows self interests and has no pragmatic grounding. They have no nation, cannot belong to any state but to their own imagined utopia as chosen people. In its bid only to accumulate money, the Jew trades relationships between man and woman, sell women as chattel and has no taste in art. Edmund de Waal’s book, Hare With Amber Eyes contests this Jewish Question. Speaking as an insider of the famous Ephrussi family, de Waal draws out a historical biography of Charles Ephrussi, an art collector and a connoisseur. The hare that has amber eyes is one among the 264 odd netsukes that Charles has collected and thereafter gifted them to his family making those into veritable heirlooms. Throughout the book, the author challenges Karl Marx and Bruno Bauer on the thesis on the Jews by investigating his own family history and shows how contrary in real life the Jews were to what philosophers and thinkers made them to be.
The netsuke is an interesting object; this is a Japanese arte d object used as buttons to toggle pouches hung from sashes of kimonos serving as pockets. The netsukes attained very high level of craftsmanship and aesthetic standards especially given the smallness of their dimensions. The netsukes emanate out of the Japanese way of mingling art into the everyday life of pragmatic applications and it is the Japonaise of finding the purity of aesthetics in the content of the practical that inspires realists like Renoir and Manet of Europe. European modernity is founded upon rationality and its esthetics is defined as the reconciliation of the opposites of the concrete and the abstract, the context and the rule, the specific and the general, the particular and the universal. The points of difference between West and Japan is while the former maintains the hierarchy of the universal over the particular, of the abstract over the concrete and the concept over the content, Japonaise finds the two sets of attributes intermingled. The sense of life in Japanese art does not rise towards a higher level of the sublime but becomes the sublime in its state of being. It is the state of being as the sublime that really attracts schools of art like realism and impressionism to Japonaise. Renoir and Manet are so much like the Japanese prints and since Charles has both paintings and prints, the similarities are explicit.
The Ephrussis are the Ashkenazi Jews, meaning the eastern Jews. It is a belief among such Jews that they and the Japanese were once, in the aeons of time, the same people. The repeated motif of the netsuke perhaps tries to establish ties with Japan. Japan is an important land; it aligned with the Nazis and fascists during the Second World War and hence by the logic of extrapolation was against the Jews. But the seeking of Japan by the Jews is interesting; it is the search of common interests of finance capital. The Jews were bankers, financiers of both war and grain trade, in fact grain trade was one of the main ways in which the Ephrussi and Rothschilds made their money. Japan was the non-European power that Europe admired and the Jews were quite instrumental in financing Japan’s trade of silver into Europe. Japan’s economic surplus that was invested into the various economies of European countries helped Europe emerge as a major economic bloc in the pre War era. Jews were well entrenched into these societies on the might of their financial powers and in fact befriended and pampered by Emperors.
The problem with Jews emanated with European nationalism. Nationalism was based on localism, linguistic uniformity and Christianity; it was rooted in manufacturing and industry. Jews holding onto a religion that was not grounded in the local contexts and histories, their fraternity with their ilk across national and linguistic boundaries and their pursuit of rituals that were not founded on folklore alienated them as being foreigners, non secular and anti-nation people. Jews, affiliated to and identified by religion had no place in secular politics.
If the Jews fell then they fell to persecution of nationalism and not by Empires. It was the nation with its rigid borders and the industries that chose to maximize margins within the enclosure of national economies that fell apart with interests that were of global finance. Nationalism brought wars and Jews, like most other citizens fought wars on behalf of nations. This was odd for the Jews because as nationals they fought cousins from other nationalities. They were suspected of not being dedicated enough to the staunchness that wars needed. When nations came to be defined as irreconciliable enemies of one another, Jews who were globalized found themselves as being irrelevant to the project.
The Eastern Jews were somewhat looked down upon by the Western Jews as well as by the Christians. The Christians claimed their superiority through a higher level of spirituality; a spirituality that was grounded and this worldly. The Jews on the other hand were pronounced as being merely mercantile in interests and covertly push their rather selfish interests through a ritualistic religion that claimed at best an inferior kind of other worldliness. But the author shows that the Jews because of their riches could finance and thus create very large art markets, art being one of the main arteries through which Christian spirituality claimed its legitimacy. Art is thus a way in which the members of the Ephrussi family seek their acceptance into the cultures and ideologies of the non Judaic people in whose society they stay in.
The character of Dr Elisabeth Ephrussi, the author’s grandmother with a doctorate degree is evidence that flies in the face of the contention that women were not free among the Jews. The Jews fashioned themselves after the rich and this in turn confined their women into the inner spaces of the dressing rooms, they pursuing fashions where it could take a very long time and a retinue of helpers to get the dresses on. This was unlike the Christians who modeled themselves along the poor and the workers; with greater simplicity that brought with it easier mobility. Elisabeth’s mother was one such a Jew woman who would take hours to dress and was so privileged that even her sexuality was not bound by marriage since her husband and lover coexisted in mutual congeniality. Some rich Jews pursued erudition in European history and the author traces how these very Ashkanazi Jews were the ones to have really studied, promoted and held most fondly created the history and culture of Europe. Yet, these are the very ones who Europe pronounced as being outsiders and dispensable to its reason of history.
As Jews were being persecuted, the lower classes among them felt the burden at first. Such Jews streamed from all over Europe into Vienna, the seat of European drama in the inter War period. During such exodus, the richer among the Jews were hateful of their less fortunate brethrens and it becomes rather clear in the later part of the book that the movement for Israel emanated out of a need of the lower classes of Jews to be placed under the protection of the richer ones in the community.
De Waal’s book is an interesting inside story of the glamoured opulence of the Ephrussi-Rothschild family; sometimes money, especially in Austrian Ringstrasse can become rather tiring for a mind that is more in tune with ideas of socialism, equality and citizenship. But it tells us the bitter truth that without money, the spirituality of civilizations cannot thrive and the Jews did a good turn to Europe by promoting art in a way that circulated its spirituality away from Churches into the secular world. One cannot help but notice the netsuke as being the core of the writing, and also notice that in recent times there has been a renewal of searching a link between Japan and the Jews, especially because Japan today owns most of the global financial capital like the Jews once did.