To the Editor:
In your April issue Amos Elon describes Harold R. Isaacs’s Americans in Israel as a “richly documented” and “detached” book. This is an astonishing characterization of a study which makes no pretense of serious, let alone rich, documentation, and which in a number of important particulars suggests something far less than what generally passes for detachment.
Mr. Isaacs himself advises the reader that his study consists essentially, if not exclusively, of a series of interviews with “about fifty American settlers” out of the estimated ten thousand now living in the country. He adds, moreover, that when he does venture larger statements, these are based not on any mathematically reliable data but on his own “perceptions, judgments, and interpretations.” I have no quarrel with this subjective and impressionistic approach, but to speak of it as either detached or richly documented is patently absurd.
Unhappily, Mr. Isaacs too frequently forgets—and Mr. Elon neglects to recognize—the severe limitations of this methodology. In his introductory chapter, for example, Isaacs seems to know precisely why American Jews go to Israel—to “belong,” to become “insiders . . . to solve in the most explicitly political way the problems of marginality and outsiderness which dominated the Jewish experience for so long.” But several chapters later he frankly admits that “many of these reasons remained elusive, and the feeling underlying them even more so. . . .” Elsewhere he declares without qualification of any kind that when Jews fail to participate “in the public affairs of the country, they create an anomaly which may be somewhat less painful than avoiding military service but it is nevertheless considerably less than comfortable.” This may be true, but how can Mr. Isaacs be so certain? Especially when in the very next breath he adds, “So it, too, becomes a ‘private’ matter about which people prefer not to talk.” To have obtained so much information from people whose reasons and feelings remained elusive and who guarded their privacy behind a wall of silence must surely be accounted a remarkable exercise of the interviewer’s art.
Mr. Isaacs engages in other even more questionable practices. Aware, no doubt, of the sparsity of his sampling, he attempts to compensate by inflating the significance of the most trivial evidence or by dwelling at inordinate length on the most extreme case. I cite only two examples. A European psychiatrist tells him that his American patients are “alienated people.” This sounds authoritative—until one learns that the patients amount to “only two or three.” And there is a vivid sketch of a sadly troubled American, so obviously neurotic, if not psychotic, that one can only wonder how anybody even remotely interested in an approximately fair sampling could devote two and a half pages of a very brief book to this melancholy and certainly atypical woman.
Mr. Isaacs’s perceptions, judgments, and interpretations are equally suspect, particularly so when he seeks to substantiate his case for “Zionist anti-Semitism” by describing a young Israeli dance troupe he saw entertaining at a tourist hotel. Their version of a Hasidic dance was, according to Mr. Isaacs, “calculated to win—and it did win—uncomfortably derisive laughter from an audience made up largely of visiting Americans.” This description of what I take to be the Hebrew University Folk Dance Group is ludicrous. . . . Having been present in the company of a number of American friends at two different performances of the group, I can testify that the only laughter I heard was the laughter of delight. Yet it is on similar perceptions and interpretations that Mr. Isaacs bases at least a few of his larger statements. . . .
Far more serious, however, is the implicit charge that Americans are less than absolutely ideal in their commitment to the State of Israel. This is . . . a vicious half-truth. American settlers in Israel are unique in two respects—they have not enjoyed the benefit of dual citizenship and they come to Israel not under the compulsion of persecution but of their own free will from a comparatively affluent society. Granting the failures of the maladjusted . . . I can think of no other group in Israel, except for the early settlers, more committed to a selfless ideal of service. What is genuinely amazing is not that so many return to America but that so many take roots in Israel in spite of the numerous economic obstacles and the almost constant threat of annihilation. It is this ineluctable fact that neither Mr. Isaacs nor Mr. Elon can perceive or explain.
Bronxville, New York