Commentary Magazine


Diaspora, by Howard M. Sachar

In Exile

Diaspora: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Jewish World.
by Howard M. Sachar.
Harper & Row. 539 pp. $27.50.

Howard Sachar's survey of the condition of what he calls the “third world” of contemporary Jewry—that is, the 4.5 million Jews who live outside of Israel and North America—belongs unmistakably to what Thomas De Quincey called the literature of knowledge as distinct from the literature of power. The function of books in De Quincey's first category is to teach, that of books in the latter category is to move. “What do you learn from Paradise Lost?” asked De Quincey. “Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery-book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But would you therefore put the . . . cookery-book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem?” De Quincey's point was that a million separate items of knowledge are but a million steps along the same earthly level, whereas the very first step in power sets the reader on a Jacob's ladder that reaches toward a region above the earth.

Since literature, however construed, is not religion, one cannot expect it to raise us from this world toward the one to come. But we might reasonably expect that a massive study of Diaspora Jewry would at some point at least mention, if not explore, the fact that in the Jewish religion exile has a specific theological meaning. It is surely very interesting to know that the Viennese Jews who survived World War II were still people of principle who would have nothing to do with Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews), and that 15,000 French Jews demonstrated their understanding of the Jewish meaning of that same war by converting to Roman Catholicism after 1945, and that leftists in Argentina who cared nothing for Israel throughout their lives became instant Zionists when aliyah was their only alternative to prison. It is even interesting, if somewhat less so, to learn that by 1909 Jews controlled more than half the licensed brothels in Buenos Aires, or that the holdings of the Feffer family of São Paulo include “not less than 70 million trees,” or that the Hebraica Sports and Community Center of Buenos Aires is fourteen stories tall and has a gymnasium, ballet rooms, and a swimming pool as well as a library.

But it would also be instructive to learn what the many Diaspora Jews interviewed by Sachar think are the implications for them of the regular ritual acknowledgment by observant Jews that “Because of our sins we were exiled from our country and banished far from our land.” This traditional explanation of why the Jews are in exile, an explanation that assigns blame for their misfortunes to the Jews themselves and not to Romans, Crusaders, Cossacks, and Nazis, never comes into play in Sachar's book. The reason for this is that the author appears to have forgotten that the Jews are in exile, and many of his subjects, like the Syrian refugee in Brooklyn who unblushingly declares that only the poor and backward Syrian Jews went to Israel, believe that exile is a sign of reward for virtue rather than punishment for sin.

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Sachar's inquiry into Jewish exile amputates from exile its religious meaning and is therefore like a stream that can rise no higher than its source. Nevertheless, to navigate this stream is to learn a great deal about the present condition of Diaspora Jewry. The scope of the book is wide, ranging from Australia to Peru, Finland to South Africa. Those who are curious about how Jews live, how they came to live, and why they continue to live in such places as Uruguay, Australia, and Ecuador will find much to satisfy their curiosity in this book.

Inevitably, Sachar has had to be selective, yet he never tells us what his principle of selection is. Why, for example, should there be a discussion of the Jews of Chile but nothing at all about the Jews of Ethiopia? Inevitably, too, he has had to give more attention to the Jews of certain countries, such as the Soviet Union and France, than to others. But it is never clear what principle of organization requires that Belgium and Holland be included when they are accorded only perfunctory treatment, barely distinguishable from a Jewish travel-guide entry. It is easy to forget that exclusion is as much a function of intellect as inclusion if you are writing a book that tells stories but lacks a plot or unifying argument.

Whenever possible, Sachar has woven his account of a particular community around the story of a prominent figure in that community whom the author has taken the trouble to know and to interview. In Italy, this is Bruno Zevi, the renowned architect, who provides Sachar with a vivid account of the reaction of the Jews of Rome to the conversion of their chief rabbi to Catholicism in 1945. In Denmark, it is Rabbi Bent Melchior, who contributes the observation, echoed in virtually every part of the Diaspora Sachar visits, that “Synagogue attendance is our Achilles' heel. . . . Among our young people, Israel, not organized religon, is the focus of identity.” In Brazil, it is Benno Militzky, a Diaspora rarity (it is to Sachar's credit that he recognizes him as such) who tells the various world-betterers among Brazilian Jewry that the Jewish way to reform society is to begin by making an honest man of yourself, thereby guaranteeing that there will be one less rascal in the world. But alas, says Militzky, “since the beginning of the Diaspora we Jews haven't learned to live in an open society, haven't found the proper balance.”

At the center of Sachar's lengthy, judicious, and shapely account of Soviet Jewry are the stories and the voices of Mikhail Zand, the linguist, and Lydia Slovin, who in the early 1950's experienced the birth of the organized hysteria of the “doctors' plot” just as she was giving birth to her second child, who later became a leader of the samizdat and aliyah movements, and who still later felt her triumph turn to ashes in the mouth when, as a Jewish Agency official in Vienna in 1979, she had to compete with the representatives of HIAS and the recruiters of the Satmar Hasidim for the Soviet Jews who rode to freedom (but not necessarily to Israel) on the coattails of heroic figures like herself, Zand, and Mark Azbel.

The greatest paradox of Diaspora is that its hero is Zion. Despite important local variations, the Jewish communities of the Diaspora are all being eroded by intermarriage, assimilation, and a suicidally low birth rate. In Denmark, in Greece, in Latin America, in Great Britain, Sachar finds compelling evidence that the Jewish community is on the road to extinction; in France only the “transfusion” of Maghreb immigrants saved an ancient community that had been atrophying for a century. In virtually every corner of the Diaspora, what keeps the Jewish community alive is Zionism, the main principle of which has always been, precisely, negation of the Diaspora. In Sweden, we learn, members of the B'nei Akiva youth movement are fortified as Jews by visits to Israel, though they will not live there. In France, Israel has been the principal focus of Jewishness since 1956. Across the channel, “the integuments binding Anglo-Jewry appear to be neither faith nor a shared cultural heritage, but a kind of unfocused Zionism. . . .” In Argentina, the whole crazy quilt of Israeli political parties has been incorporated into elections within the Ashkenazi community.

Instead of ending the Diaspora, Zionism has perpetuated it, politically as well as spiritually. Whatever his own ultimate sympathies may be, Sachar (who is the author of A History of Israel) is scrupulously honest in assembling evidence that Israel, far from exacerbating the vulnerability of Diaspora Jewry (as anti-Zionist Jewish leftists frequently allege), has in fact enhanced Western Jewry's legal and physical security and even its political status. He deviates from this position only when the image of a Likud government disturbs his sense of the eternal fitness of things. Thus, he complains that Menachem Begin's government greatly discomfited “Diaspora Jewish liberals” by its “annexationist policies,” but makes no similar complaint about the discomfiture caused South African Jews by Labor government votes in the UN, or Argentinian Jews by the capture of Adolf Eichmann, or Ethiopian Jews by the indiscretions of Moshe Dayan. Also, although he has much to say of the consequences, good and bad, of Israeli actions for Diaspora Jewry, we hear little of the damage done to Israel by such sinister Diaspora figures as Bruno Kreisky and Jacobo Timerman.

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Because Sachar is a good listener, he brings us voices, Jewish voices, that continue to haunt the air after we have finished this book. Two in particular linger with me. One is the Jew in the mountains of Ecuador who mournfully asks: “Are we Jews, heirs to one of the world's most sophisticated civilizations, to end our days here among illiterate Indians?” This voice is music to Sachar's inward ear, but for the wrong reason. He cannot understand why Jews would want to live out their lives in Indian, mestizo, or black Latin America. He does not see that the question, if asked by someone committed to the future of the Jewish people, is also relevant in France or Britain, if not so obviously compelling as in Ecuador.

The second voice, a kind of foil to the Ecuadoran, is that of Herman Abrahamsson, a Swedish Jewish immigrant to Israel whom Sachar interviews in Haifa. “ ‘What brings you here?’ I persisted, with the oblique delicacy I had learned from the Israelis. ‘Zionism?’ ‘Narishkeit,’ he sighed. ‘Utter foolishness.’ ” Here the meaning of the dialogue comes through, as in one of Lemuel Gulliver's solemn accounts of the strange people he met in Lilliput or Brobdingnag, as an ironic increment to what is actually said. That the irony is unintended becomes clear from the conclusion to the book, the only section where Sachar tries to make a case for the “principle” of Diaspora.

That case, roughly, is as follows. The only kind of Jewish survival that is worth having comes from facing the “challenge of emancipation” offered by the Gentile world. Jewish culture has only flourished when Jews were in touch with “the talents and progressive ideas of advanced surrounding cultures.” When they lived in isolation from the Gentiles, they produced only “kabbalistic sterility,” hasidic “hysteria,” and other abominations. The real threat to the Diaspora is not cultural or economic or political, but demographic. Yet even here Sachar sees hope coming from the Gentiles. Perhaps “the Viking women proudly wearing Stars of David in Stockholm and Copenhagen may . . . yet be joined in future years by other Europeans and Latin Americans”—presumably because some conservationist impulse will make them want to replenish a community that is incapable of retaining even the few offspring it has.

What Sachar conveniently chooses to overlook in this sanguine conclusion is that the Jews who were in the past able to respond creatively to their Diaspora cultural environments without ceasing to be Jews had a culture and an inner world of their own, something that Sachar's own book shows them to have lost. His declaration of faith in the cultural renewal and demographic resuscitation of the Diaspora, coming as it does after nearly 500 pages of evidence to the contrary, is like the assertion of the biologist who, after diligently tracing the evolution of man from his pre-simian ancestors, conjectures that men will ultimately become elephants. You cannot contradict such a person. But before he can expect you to share his opinion, he ought to produce evidence that our ears are getting more floppy, our skin tougher, our noses growing into trunks, our incisors developing into tusks, and our height and weight increasing in Brobdingnagian proportions.

Ironically, the only indisputable evidence of demographic growth in the Diaspora that Sachar can produce issues from the very same place that sustains the Diaspora culturally and spiritually: namely, the state of Israel. But the infusion of large numbers of Israeli citizens into the lands of exile is no more likely to be a source of comfort to the Diaspora than it has been to Zion.

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