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Presidential Address Vol 4

Frederic D. Mocatta

<plain_text><page sequence="1">PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. By Mr. FREDERIC D. MOCATTA. 20th December 1900. Of all the studies which offer themselves to our attention none is more attractive and none is more eminently useful than history. The handing down a record of passing events, and preserving the memory of those individuals who have exercised an influence over their fellows, is a desire as natural as it is universal. No doubt the earliest traditions, nebulous and uncertain, were held in solution for many generations, being sung as ballads, or recited as epics, until they attained a certain degree of consistency. These myths and legends were passed from one tribe to another, not unfrequently disappearing to reappear in changed form elsewhere. The unreal and fantastic outlines by degrees assumed some sort of definite shape, which solidified as generations rolled on. Pictorial signs and effigies very soon took the place of oral traditions; and by degrees alphabets were invented to represent language, and to give permanence to ideas, which other? wise would have been fleeting and have perished. The art of writing is of such remote antiquity, and is so closely allied to pictorial signs, that no idea can be formed as to what nation first availed itself of it, nor what alphabet can assume to claim for itself any title of originality. As a proof of the belief which our remote ancestors entertained of the antiquity of writing, is the strange legend of the ancient Jews, that, among certain things necessary to render the work of creation com? plete, and which were brought into being on the sixth day, on the eve of the first Sabbath, was the alphabet; but of course the manner or semblance of that alphabet is not in any way intimated. At all ages and in all climes the desire of recording events seems to have obtained among mankind. The 10th chapter of Genesis is perhaps the most no</page><page sequence="2">PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. Ill remarkable archaic document which has come down to us, detailing the origin and distribution of the nations which made up the great human family. The countries which followed the courses of the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the Nile, are those which are richest in archaic monuments, many of which are covered with inscriptions and picturesque records. We learn from these the habits, the ceremonies, and religious notions of peoples which existed 4000 or 5000 years ago, and we are often struck by the similarity which exists between the occupations and modes of life of these primeval nations and our own. It is very strange that, in the deciphering of these ancient inscriptions, the hieroglyphics should have been reserved to so late a period as the eighteenth century, while those which cover the monuments of Nineveh, Babylon, and kindred great cities?especially the arrow-headed or cuneiform characters?after exciting violent con? troversies, should have only been made out within the last seventy or eighty years. Myriads of incised stones, cylinders of various material, tablets of clay, and occasionally of metal, remain which are still illegible to us, but which we may hope the efforts of future learned men may unravel; but it must be feared that the multitudes of inscribed monuments of the various countries of America, probably containing the histories of nations which have entirely passed away, will remain for ever without solution. Neither these, however, nor the many archaic vestiges found in various parts of India and China, directly concern the matter we have in hand. The Jewish race emanated from the group we first alluded to as covering the territory watered by the Euphrates and the Tigris. It had frequent relations with Egypt, the country of the Nile, and with the various regions and tribes which occupied the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. All these, and the powerful Empire of Persia were eventually swallowed up, as was Judea itself, by the all-absorbing Empire of Home. These states and tribes were ever at war with each other, rising and falling at various periods. Each had its national divinities, and its peculiar system of religion, generally derived from the observation of the heavenly bodies, which as a rule were deified, and with whom were associated popular heroes, defunct conquerors, and kings. These mythologies were very fanciful and complicated, and were composed of anthropomorphic conceptions, in which the</page><page sequence="3">112 PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. principle of evil seemed to vastly preponderate over that of good, and in which the element of terror appeared to be the dominant force. It is evident that where the deities who were held up to worship were so depraved and distorted, the multitude could neither have any exalted ideal nor attain to any idea of morality. The beauty of nature and its glorious kosmos seemed to strike men's minds far less than any abnormal and cataclysmal derangement; strange aberrations led to a waste of all that is highest in human intelligence, and to a pollution of all that is purest and holiest in our conception of nature. Among these revolting and monstrous practices it is consoling and refreshing to be able to point to one small group, rather a family than a tribe, having neither military nor political influence, who abhorred the cruel deities which were universally worshipped, and the obscene rites which accompanied their cult. This group was Israel, who, having no visible or tangible object of adoration, were possessed of a legal code?the Law of Moses?which they regarded as the rule of their lives. This kept them apart from the other nations of the earth, and contained not only a code of morals which was to guide their conduct, but also the history of their race, on which were based observances and ritual ceremonies which constituted their religious and their national identity. The Law of Moses was in those remote times, as it is at the present day, the Palladium of their existence. This Jewish race, often re? bellious, and led astray, falling from time to time into the worst aberrations of idolatry, imitating the excesses of the surrounding nations, and at various periods almost submerged and extinguished, has always preserved some spark of its holy origin, and kept alive some vestige of its peculiar individuality, floating as the Ark of Noah on the troubled waters which have overwhelmed the other nations of mankind. No people has passed through more vicissitudes or been subjected to more persecution than the Jews. Their nationality de? stroyed, their worship obliterated, their country absorbed by strangers, and themselves scattered in every direction, it is wonderful how they kept alive and managed to recombine, how they set themselves with vigour to revive the study of their law, and composed treatise after treatise to illustrate it, and how they imbued with their spirit many nations far different in their philosophies and far more powerful materially than themselves.</page><page sequence="4">PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. 113 Then began that long series of wanderings, and those painful persecutions which have, with but few intervals, lasted to the present time without in any way destroying their identity. It is pretty certain that long before the Romans under Titus conquered Judea, in the year 70, very many Jews had emigrated from that country, probably in the wake of Phoenician and Tyrian commerce ; and not only are traces of ancient Jewish settlements to be found in the various Eastern countries around them, but in Northern Africa, especially in Alexandria, where they much distinguished themselves, along the coast of the Mediterranean, and in Southern Spain. Large numbers settled in Rome, where many were sold into slavery. It is said that these latter were employed to build the Colosseum ; but there were others who attained high positions, and some who occupied offices in the State. Until the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century, the Jews had not often to complain of excesses of intolerance. It is true that in the popular mind Jews and Christians were often confounded, less perhaps from the similarity of their creed than from their mutual refusal to conform to the worship enforced by the State. Thus many Jews shared in the persecutions of Nero, Diocletian, and others. Then followed the Councils of Nicsea, of Elvira, and others, which violently opposed Jewish practices, and set up a mighty barrier between the two denominations. In the seventh century arose Islam, which added another very powerful adversary to the House of Israel, although both had much in common ; and the study of the Greek and Latin classics, which the Jews translated into Arabic, did much to keep them together as it did to advance learning. The history of a people which lasts 3000 years, fully half of which was spent among various nations, populations, climates, and circumstances?a people, which, holding aloof from all others, sympathised with, and to a certain degree influenced the various currents of thought throughout that period, is not an easy one to write. The Jewish Historical Society does not propose to itself to compose a history of the Hebrew people, but to illustrate the many crises through which the House of Israel has passed. Almost every town in which a Jewish congregation has existed offers an interesting history. There is too often a melancholy sameness in the recital of scenes of violence, oppression, and torture; but it is rare that traits VOL. IV. H</page><page sequence="5">114 PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. of constancy and faith, of devotion and courage do not come in to call forth our admiration at the same time as they excite our sympathy. Here and there in this vast and terrible desert we come across oases? where for a generation or two peace and quietness are left to the Jews; but the vale of tears is as a rule their habitation, and they seem to have been preserved, not only to attest the continuity of Divine love and the majesty of the law, but also to bear the sorrows of the world. It is right that England should be the seat of this Society, for it is here?as also in the sister-country, America?that the rights of the Jews are the most respected, and that their lot leaves the least to be desired. Though there are some few other lands where liberty and entire toleia tion to the Jews exists, it is sad to say that, despite the mental progress and the advance in humane feeling which are generally supposed to characterise the present age, the condition of the Jews is still as melan? choly and as trying in many countries, especially in those where they most abound, as it was in the darkest periods of the Middle Ages. Their sufferings are great, and they are exposed to tyrannous oppression and withering contempt. The five or six millions of Jews in Russia are living under painful disabilities, which seem to foreigners as shameful as they are absurd and detrimental to the State. Those of Roumania are under a cruel thraldom, and they are not only shut out from most honest industries, but difficulties are placed in the way of their giving their children a proper education. Austria and many of its Crown lands have for some time past raged against their Jewish population of nearly a million, and have encouraged the credence in horrible crimes said to have been perpetrated by them, crimes which have not only been proved to be false, but which are simply impossible. Learned and practical Germany has fallen within recent times into an anti-Semitism which is but very slowly tending to disappear, and even France has within the last few years followed the same downward course, and exhibited prejudices and antipathies which it never showed before, and which we may hope the good sense of the people will put an end to before the present generation disappears. The Jewish Historical Society will collect the details of the sojourn of the House of Israel in various lands ; it will bring out the influences upon itself of those under whom it has lived and suffered, as well as those which it has itself exercised among the</page><page sequence="6">PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. 115 populations in whose midst it has resided. The monuments bearing on the subject are not abundant, and in England are remarkably few, though much material is to be found in Germany, Spain, and many other countries of Europe. We have had experience of, and have much to hope from, the zeal, patience, and erudition of several of the scholars by whom we are surrounded, as well as from the research and devotion of others in neighbouring countries. We have already seen the interesting and valuable Transactions of this Society, and there is every reason to look forward to a long series, which will make Jewish history far more generally known than it is at present, and inspire through the world a respect for, and interest in, the House of Israel.</page></plain_text>

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