Commentary Magazine


In the Light of Israel's Victory

It’s easy to forget. Here we are, some months later, and the news from Israel is of headache and annoyance, trouble and difficulty. We have almost forgotten the joy of unbelievable victory, and all the more our fear and depression in those weeks before the actual fighting broke out, when Nasser was tightening his noose. Political metaphors from thirty years ago kept running through our minds and conversations. We said, Munich; we said, Czechoslovakia; we said, salami tactics. As the days drew on we asked ourselves, “What are they waiting for? Why didn’t they jump on Sharm el-Sheikh right away? The longer they wait, the worse it will be.”

Some of us surprised ourselves and each other by our concern. Thirty and forty years ago we wouldn’t have felt that way. Not to be parochial Jews was our pride. Now there is less of that kind of anti-parochialism than there used to be—not none at all; only less.

In the same way, there is less self-hate than there used to be. The surprise is that some Jews still had to find a reassurance about themselves in the military valor of the Israelis. One would have thought that that had been taken care of in 1948, with the Israeli war of independence. Israel, it then became clear, provided for the Jews of the United States and other countries like it a kind of contemporary pioneer or cowboy ancestry, reassuring us by showing us what we wanted and needed to have shown—that while Jews can be pretty good with a fountain pen and briefcase, they can also if necessary be pretty good with a rifle or tank.

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This summer an unreconstructed anti-parochialist Jewish scholar was sarcastic. The Jews talk a great game of internationalism, he said, but when the chips are down they are nationalist. The answer to this is: not always; only now. Those of his age and mine aren’t happy about where our internationalism led us a generation ago. That the Nazis wanted to murder every Jew they could get their hands on was the last thing about Nazism that interested us. For us the big question, the question that called forth all our dialectical virtuosity, was, Is Nazism the final stage of capitalism? The middle-aged don’t want to incur that guilt again.

As for the young, I think that what happened to them a few months ago was a sudden realization that genocide, anti-Semitism, a desire to murder Jews—all those things were not merely what one had been taught about a bad, stupid past, not merely the fault of elders who are almost a different species. Those things were real and present. Internationalist, anti-parochial young Jews had taken it for granted that the Jews are the fat cats of this world and that no concern need be wasted on them. Concern should go to the wretched of the earth. Suddenly the Jews of Israel were seen to be potentially as wretched as anyone can be.

An aside to the Jewish young: each generation finds its own good reason for not being concerned about the Jews. Now it’s that we’re fat cats. Maybe so—though not all are—but earlier in the century most Jews were undeniably skinny. That made no difference. From prison Rosa Luxemburg once wrote a friend: “Why do you pester me with your Jewish sorrow? There is no room in my heart for the Jewish troubles.” The sorrow and troubles of others had filled all the room in her heart. On this J. L. Talmon has commented: “Twenty-five years later, after the Germans had occupied it, there was not a single Jew left alive in Rosa’s native Zamosc, which was also the home-town of I. L. Peretz.”

Today internationalism is less automatically an O.K. word or idea than it used to be. What is internationalism today, who is internationalist? Nasser? Nasser called for genocide. Old-fashioned pro-Sovietism? The Soviets were disgusting in the UN, cynical, even anti-Semitic. At best they were coarsely philistine, unable to understand that the things they said were repulsive—especially the repeated equation of the Israelis with the Nazis.

In fact, the Soviets’ calling the Israelis Nazis was itself Nazi-like. The Nazis told their lies for more than the usual reason, that they hoped to profit from telling them. They told lies because they were sadists. Lying, and above all their kind of lying, is a sadistic gratification: it twists, it tortures, it murders the truth. And this sadistic gratification can have an added, utilitarian advantage. By appalling and terrifying opponents, it can paralyze them. It can scare them into submission, or into the kind of weakness that makes their defeat probable.

Here were the Soviet authorities harping on Nazism and calling Israel Nazi, but in their own country they themselves have consistently repressed the truth about what Nazism did to the Jews. About a year ago a pathetic little victory was won for liberalism in the Soviet arts: the government allowed a book about Babi Yar to be published. Now even that is in question. The author was careful to say that the Nazis murdered others as well, besides Jews, but he also said that the Nazis found collaborators among the Soviet citizenry. The patriots, displeased with that unpatriotic statement, are charging him with having exaggerated the Jews’ suffering—a grossly counterrevolutionary thing to do.

In this country, grumbling about the Jewish masses’ desertion of internationalism was heard from a Communist spokesman, a political coprophage of many years’ standing. His kind of internationalism hasn’t changed. A few months before Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded Russia, the Union for Democratic Action was founded, at a meeting where two extraordinary speakers spoke. The first was R. H. Tawney, of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Referring to a neutrality that was then fashionable, he said it reminded him of the provincial lord mayor who, upon being invested with the insignia of office, promised the townsmen that he would be neither partial, on the one hand, nor, on the other hand, impartial. Reinhold Niebuhr was the second speaker. Of what the Communists called internationalism—in those clays they were denouncing the British imperialist war—he observed that not much can be said for the man who believes, “My country, right or wrong,” but even less for the man who believes, “The other fellow’s country, right or wrong.”

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Arabs, Castroites, and some of the New Left here have been saying that Israel is an artificial state. When intellectuals were the leaders of the Algerian independence movement, before the toughs had banished or imprisoned them, they admitted that Algerian consciousness was new: like the demarcation of the territory itself, it had been called into being by the French rulers and oppressors. Yet today no leftist would argue that Algeria is artificial. Israel is artificial—a country whose people have a consciousness of historical distinctiveness thousands of years old, affirmed in a literature that is ancient and living; a country, moreover, whose citizens identify their fate with its fate, and who were more determined than their government itself to pay the price of war for continued independence.

In 1967 Jews of all kinds, from the most parochial to the most internationalist, were resolved that there should be no more genocide against the Jews—particularly against the Israelis, whose Jewish weight, so to speak, is greater than that of other Jews. We thought of the Syrians in Haifa or Tel Aviv and felt sick. Compared with the Syrians, the Egyptians are calm and reasonable.

The change was best seen in France, and precisely among the French Jews of old stock. One of these people has said about himself and the others like him, “We aren’t assimilationist, we’re just assimilated.” In 1917 they (or their parents) were dismayed by the Balfour Declaration. They were zealous, spirit-of-’89 Frenchmen.

What was supposed to be in the French interest they held to be in theirs, and they would never oppose their government out of mere Jewish interest. In 1967 they opposed their government. The French government was neutral against Israel and the old-stock French Jews were for Israel. Experienced in what genocide against Jews is, they would have no more of it. About thirty years ago Maurice Samuel debated a Reform rabbi of the old school. The rabbi: “Mr. Samuel, how would you feel if you were an Arab?” Mr. Samuel: “Rabbi, how would you feel if you were a Jew?” Which doesn’t mean that we’re anti-Arab or don’t want to be friends with the Arabs. We would like to help them and be friends with them. But how? They won’t even talk to us. We feel for them in their humiliation, but what can we do? Our charity would only compound their humiliation.

In short, the Jews seem to be changing a little; but not as it may have been thought we would. For example, if by Zionism is meant agreement with Zionist ideology, we are no more Zionist than we used to be. Two or three days before the shots were fired, a midwestern professor told me about a plan he had for airlifting Israeli children to the United States, so that they would be out of danger when war broke out. He was sure that he could place five hundred children in his city. That was a personal undertaking. In France it was the official Jewish community that got ready to receive Israeli children. According to Zionist ideology, this was topsy-turvy: Israel is supposed to be the refuge.

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How then shall we describe the change that seems to be taking place among us? What has been happening is a slow bringing into consciousness of a disillusionment that has been going on for a long time now with the characteristic outlook of modern, Enlightened Jews. It is a shift from the general to the particular, from the abstract to the concrete.

The disillusionment is greatest with our old idea that our enemies aren’t on the Left—which is to say, that all our enemies are on the Right. For most practical purposes, that is where our enemies were, in the 19th century. The French Revolution had equality for the Jews as a corollary. We were for the Revolution and its extension, and the Right was against. Now the location of our enemies is not quite so simple. We have enemies on the Right, but also on the Left; and sometimes it is hard to distinguish between Right and Left. Sometimes our enemies on the Right and Left are happy to cooperate with each other against us.

Among all the Arab countries the one least our enemy is Tunisia, in the moderate center. Bourguiba jailed the ringleaders of a mob that wanted some fun with a pogrom. In Morocco the right-wing Istiqlal called for a purge of Jews from the civil service. So did the head of the left-wing labor movement, until the king jailed him. Nasser is supposed to be of the Left. After the war his newspapers went back to publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Actually, there was a more than negligible amount of anti-Semitism on the Left in the 19th century, as the historian and economist Edmund Silberner has shown. August Bebel had to warn the German workers that anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, and a reasonably firm anti-anti-Semitism doesn’t date from much before the time when Jean Jaurès was able to persuade the French Socialists, against important opposition, that the Dreyfus case wasn’t just an internal squabble of the bourgeoisie. As for the Protocols, their Stalinist version was the scenario of the Jewish Doctors’ Plot, which only Stalin’s death kept from being staged. In Stalinist Czechoslovakia the scenario was staged in court, and Slansky and others were hanged. Of those who weren’t hanged but only imprisoned, the survivors seem to have been rehabilitated—that is the technical term—but only personally and individually; the government and party have to this day not retracted the Protocols-like (and even racist) accusations, propaganda, and testimony that accompanied those trials.

In the summer of 1967 the Soviet authorities started another propaganda campaign that made you wonder whether Stalin wasn’t alive and in hiding, in the Soviet office of Jewish affairs. The article in the pro-Soviet Nouvel Observateur that Theodore Draper quoted here in August represents “a high Soviet official” as saying:

. . . some of our leaders began thinking of taking the risk of limited military action on behalf of Egypt within the framework of a “prudent challenge” to the United States. However, this solution was finally rejected. (As elsewhere, the pressure of Jewish opinion made its weight felt in the USSR right up to the leading circles.)

There speaks the anti-Semite, who knows that the inmost secret of things is the Jewish conspiracy. This high Soviet official and Marxist can imagine no other reason for his leaders’ avoiding an insanely rash adventure than “the pressure of Jewish opinion.” In the Soviet Union, the pressure of Jewish opinion—a melancholy joke.

India is generally held to be of the Left. In the United Nations India came up with a remarkable theory of international relations. India said to Israel: “If someone is strangling you, you have no right to shoot in self-defense. You have a right to shoot only if shooting is the method your killer has chosen.” What India didn’t say, because it hardly needed to be said, was that this applied to Israel alone. Certainly India wouldn’t adopt it for herself, as in her relations with Pakistan. Whoever supposed that hypocritical, self-righteous moralism was essentially Western, because a by-product of biblical monotheism—“the Judeo-Christian tradition”—must have been wrong. Look at India.

In the United States, later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—what’s in a name?—brought this forth: “Zionists lined up Arab victims and shot them in the back in cold blood. This [a blurred photograph] is the Gaza Strip, Palestine, not Dachau, Germany.” Then followed a few kind words about the Rothschilds. (The fascist National States Rights party’s Thunderbolt said the same things, at the same time.) SNCC anti-Semitic? Of course not. In answer to questions, it explained that it doesn’t oppose all Jews, “only Jewish oppressors”—including, besides Israel, “those Jews in the little Jew shops in the [Negro] ghetto.” Say what you will about Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Fidelism-Fanonism, what other mode of analysis would have been able to trace the causes of Negro oppression so unerringly to the real centers of economic and political power in international colonialism-imperialism and American capitalism—Israel and the little Jew shops? The New Left hasn’t much use for such old monuments as Bebel. Of what pertinence can it be to the young that the middle-aged remember a Nazi Left—the Strassers and their gang—which was anti-capitalist and anti-British) imperialist? Mostly, the New Left is back on the pro-Nasser and anti-Israel track.

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If we are becoming disillusioned with the Left, that could mean we are becoming more conservative. Hence, perhaps, some of our Gentile neighbors and friends’ irony at our expense during the excitement. The irony wasn’t necessarily malicious. In general, it was a way of saying: “Welcome back to common humanity. Your old enthusiasms always seemed strange to us, but your present enthusiasm we can understand very well. Naturally, a Jew would be worried about Israel’s danger and rejoice over its victory. That is the point. You Jews are becoming more natural.”

More natural, yes; conservative, not quite. In England the Conservatives were said to be the stupid party. (But if the Liberals were so clever, why are they dead?) In the United States the conservatives are the stingy party. The Jews still belong to the generous party, as is proved by the uproar in Wayne, N.J., where we were accused of being liberals, always voting for more liberal school budgets. The Jews of. Wayne didn’t attempt to deny it. They said that the purpose and effect of the statement were anti-Semitic, not that its substance was false.

What then are we becoming? To use symbols from the English political tradition, let us say that having been Radicals, we are slowly moving toward the Whigs (left-wing Whigs, of course). Or, to use an American symbolism of persons, we may say that having been partisans of Jefferson, we are growing more friendly to Lincoln.

Maybe it is as Whigs that we are learning new respect for old wisdom—such as that admonition of Oxenstierna’s: “My son, if you only knew with how little wisdom the world is ruled.” To the degree that we are not incapacitated for living in a practical world, we have always known that to be true, and we have made allowances for it in our own affairs and the affairs of government. We have done what engineers do. We have assigned to future events a Murphy factor—a margin of safety to guard against the accident and error and silliness that are bound to befall any human enterprise. (Engineers, told that a bridge should be able to bear a load of N tons, design it to bear 3N tons.) But here was a case where even an extravagant Murphy factor was not enough to guard against the surprise of human stupidity. Nasser deliberately goads the Israelis into acting militarily. He knows that a shooting war is about to break out, that it must break out. He isn’t quite sure whether his men or the Israelis will pull the trigger first, but he knows that someone is about to pull it. Having done all this, and knowing all this, he is then caught with all his planes on the ground.

There is the folk wisdom: too smart is dumb. General de Gaulle was too smart. A machiavellian, he overlooked Machiavelli’s caution against being caught practicing machiavellianism in broad daylight. “Put not your trust in princes”: everyone knows that governments will break their word when it suits them. But de Gaulle went too far. Who will now be prepared to give him even the small amount of confidence that earlier might have been given to him? Having so publicly betrayed Israel, how can he expect anyone else to believe him?

An old illusion was that war is good, to which moderns and liberals responded with the illusion that any peace is better than any war. It has been a long time now, at least since Rupert Brooke, that anybody has been able to hear that line of Horace’s, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—sweet and fitting it is to die for your country—without gagging or giggling. The proper stance has been black humor: Catch-22. But rather less so for the Israelis. Theirs was no artificial state, no absurd Moloch. Its citizens were willing to die for it because they knew that if it died, so would they and their families and their hopes. Not much alienation there. One almost envies them.

It is an old, sad truth: a state acquires its legitimacy—the opposite of artificiality—by the blood that its citizens shed in its defense; as the early Christians said, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. An elite acquires its legitimacy by being prepared to die in a higher proportion than others. Israel’s elite died disproportionately. The war dead included many majors and colonels.

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Modern, enlightened people, and especially Jews, have generally had a certain amount of contempt for the military enterprise. Our two great culture-heroes, Einstein and Freud, were notably contemptuous. What business is war for an intelligent man? (Note that this is bourgeois. Engels’s friends called him The General, because of his interest in military theory; Lenin annotated Clausewitz; Trotsky commanded the Red Army; Mao made the Long March and says that power grows from the barrel of a gun.) Now, for people like us, the Israeli generals are redeeming the military reputation. It isn’t easy to belittle what they did, or to upstage them.

One reads that the Israelis are a major military power in the Middle East. One reads that they have the best tactical air force in the world. Unbelievable. How could they have become such good soldiers? They had no living martial tradition. Peaceable men can become warriors because of love of country, and the roots of the Israeli army today lie in the more or less underground Haganah of twenty and thirty years ago; but while the Haganah could train company commanders, it couldn’t train a general staff. Where does the skill of the Israeli generals come from?

It remains true that the military temptation is a certain kind of stupidity. Fortunately the Israelis haven’t lost the old Jewish suspicion of goyim-nakhes—roughly, “Gentile fun.” This expression is to be found in Ulysses, Joyce having learned it from his friend Svevo, a modern Jew of the Hapsburg empire who remembered some scraps of moribund German Yiddish. (The East European phrasing would be goyish nakhes.) The first time I actually heard it used in speech was when an Israeli official, of German birth and early education, told me about a visit he had made at the Pentagon’s invitation to a crack unit of the United States army. Mostly he was impressed, but the spit and polish, snappy saluting, marching to the words and tune of a special song—all these struck him as goyim-nakhes.

When he said that, I remembered when the idea behind the words had become clear to me—at, of all things, a not very good movie of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. To defend Rebecca against an accusation of witchcraft, Ivanhoe fights the Templar Front de Boeuf. So that was what it was like when knighthood was in flower, I thought—grown men in iron, mounted on horses in iron, hitting each other with axes and huge swords, the metal clanging on metal making the whole thing sound like a machine shop. Isaac of York in the stands, looking scared and disgusted, seemed to me the only adult there. Maybe it is to avoid goyim-nakhes that the Israeli army affects sloppiness and informal manners.

If our respect for fighting and military men has gone up, for talking and diplomats it has gone down. Those were weeks when we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the proceedings at the UN. At home we compulsively watched television, in our cars we kept the radio on, to work we brought portables. We had no mind for anything else, and it wasn’t edifying. You asked yourself how grown men could sit there and pretend to take it seriously. Business was transacted somewhere, off in a corner, but the diplomats had to be physically present at the open sessions, pretending to listen to words—countless words, words innumerable—that were mostly meaningless and often malignant. It appeared to me then that the career of diplomat might not be much superior, for a grown man, to the career of king. What can a diplomat learn from that sort of thing that is better than what the Duke of Windsor says he learned from his experience as Prince of Wales and King Edward VIII? The Duke of Windsor says that he learned never to pass up a chance to sit down, or to go to the toilet.

In America the UN has had few friends more devoted than the Jews. Now we know not only that the UN can be no better than the states of which it is composed—including the so-called non-aligned nations, scurrying about on their little Soviet errands—but also that the organization itself, quite apart from the members, is slightly lower than the angels. “U Thant’s war” is unfair—about the most that can be said for him. Ralph Bunche was loyal to Thant—about the most that can be said for him.

We relearned the old truth that you can depend only on yourself: Israel had promises and friends, but even if it hadn’t wanted to fight on its own, it would have had to. We relearned the old, hard truth that only you can feel your own pain. Who has really cared about the Christian Assyrians? Does anyone know whether any Christian Assyrians are left alive? More Christian clergymen worry about the whooping crane than about the Christian Assyrians. When the last speaker of Old Prussian died, and the last speaker of Cornish, did anyone care? Did any Roman care when the last speaker of Etruscan died?

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Jews who maintain relationships with the Christian clergy were taken aback by the generally reserved attitude of official Christendom toward Israel in its hour of greatest peril. Why the surprise? Christian ecclesiastics have an interest in the Arabs, whether institutional or theological. Through the Christians’ eyes they could really not see what through our eyes we saw as most urgently obvious. We saw the incommensurability of Israeli and Arab war aims. We saw that the Arabs wanted to destroy Israel—which is to say, to destroy the Israelis. They saw Israeli prowess and Arab refugees.

What I am about to say, a Jew really shouldn’t say to Jews. When we talk with each other about Arab refugees, we shouldn’t defend ourselves against charges of heartlessness. We should leave that to our friends. Among ourselves we should remind each other how often we are commanded to love the stranger, not to wrong him or oppress him, and to have one law for him and for the homeborn, because having been strangers in the land of Egypt we know the heart of the stranger. Having been refugees, we should know what it is to be a refugee.

But our friends aren’t saying it and it needs to be said. Those who had to flee Bolshevik Russia or Nazi Germany were refugees, because there was no other Russian or German country to receive them. The Arabs are, or should be, more like the Greeks from Turkey after World War I. If the Greeks in Greece had not received the Turkish Greeks there would have been a Greek refugee problem, but the Grecian Greeks couldn’t bring themselves to deny refuge to the Turkish Greeks. After the partition of India there were Moslem and Hindu refugee problems, until Pakistan absorbed the Moslems and India absorbed the Hindus. Neither the Moslems nor the Hindus could bring themselves to deny refuge to their fellows from across the border. The West Germans couldn’t bring themselves to deny refuge to their fellows from across several borders. Only the Arabs have been able to do it, for almost twenty years. Therefore they have had a triumph. The Arabs turn their backs on other Arabs and the opinion of the world agrees that the Israelis are at fault. Israel, which receives Jews from the Arab lands, in a de facto exchange of populations, is condemned for the Arab refugees.

From a certain point of view, the suspicion of Israelis about the intention of Israeli Arabs shows greater human respect for them than the liberal urging of people like us for Arab integration into Israeli society. Your suspicious Israeli has enough respect for the Arabs to believe that their sentiments aren’t determined by a comparison of earning power under an Israeli and an Arab government.

Now the war has been won and humanitarians have their fears and worries over Israeli oppression refreshed by every news report about the looting of a dozen kerosene stoves. No one stops to think any more what victorious Arabs would have done.

A distinguished Protestant theologian wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times condemning “Israel’s assault on her Arab neighbors.” All, he said, “stand aghast at Israel’s onslaught, the most violent, ruthless (and successful) aggression since Hitler’s Blitzkrieg . . . aiming not at victory but at annihilation.” The most revealing things an intelligent man can say are his foolish things. Using Nazi analogies and direct references (“Hitler’s Blitzkrieg”), this man implies that the Israelis are Nazis. He actually says that the Israelis wanted to annihilate the Arabs. A learned man, he knows what “annihilation” means. It means making nothing (nihil) out of something, destroying utterly. His emotions make him condemn the Israelis for a war aim that was not theirs but, as he concedes, the Arabs’. It was a letter mailed in haste, and the writer must have wished he could recall it. (He was answered by another Protestant theologian, a former student of his, who was not so much pro-Israel or anti-Arab as anti-anti-Semitic.)

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The letter was a reaction to a stimulus—a rabbi’s persistence, after the Israeli victory, in blaming the Christian churches for their indifference to the probable fate of Israel’s Jews. Now, in our more Whiggish mood, we can see that it wasn’t reasonable to expect American ecclesiastics to take our peril as seriously as we did.

These are only innocent Americans. For them, what Hitler did is true but not real. Having failed to understand what Hitler did in fact, they could hardly be expected to understand what the Arabs only wanted to do. Europeans understood better—clergymen and leftists together. To be sure, Bertrand Russell and Ralph Schoenman were indignant about Israeli aggression; but they aren’t European, never having experienced a Nazi occupation. Jean-Paul Sartre wasn’t anti-Israel. In the Communist countries, and even in the Communist parties in other European countries, the official anti-Israel line was unpopular.

The fluttery censoriousness of certain Christian clergymen comes through nicely in a satire by Michael Frayn, a letter to “My dear Israel” from “Your affectionate Great-aunt Britain,” in the Observer, London—though Frayn had others in mind, as well:

. . . I have . . . felt obliged to condemn your unseemly haste in opening hostilities [and] your insistence on winning the war—particularly in such a brash and violent fashion. . . . to insist upon defeating your opponents is a discourtesy which they may find very hard to forgive. . .. What makes your behavior all the more perplexing is that when the war commenced you enjoyed the approval and sympathy of polite society as a whole. There you stood, surrounded on all sides by greatly superior hostile forces, whose proclaimed intention was to destroy you utterly. Everybody was deeply touched! . . . We shouldn’t have let you down! If things had gone badly, we had ships standing by which could have evacuated several thousand Israeli survivors—who would have had the unreserved sympathy of the entire world! . . .

Now we can be tolerant of that sort of thing. As the poker players say, winners crack jokes and losers snarl, “Deal the cards.” We can admit to ourselves that this behavior is normal. Are we much better? Think of the Armenians. What did I ever know about the Armenians, or what sorrow did I ever feel for them? I don’t suppose I had ever thought about them for ten minutes at a time until in a hospital I met an Armenian who had escaped massacre by the Turks fifty years ago. Yet Jews and Armenians ought to feel that they have a good deal in common—a favorite expression of his was, “We Armenians are a tiny people.” When I was a boy what I knew of them came from an incidental remark in one of those Mr. Tutt stories I was fond of—where, of a dogooding New England maiden lady, it was said with affectionate exasperation that “the starving Armenians” were her favorite cause. The Armenians were massacred and their survivors starved, but the only impression all that left upon me was of something faintly comical. Granted, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was written by a Jew, of sorts; but I have never read it. Why?

Another Whiggish outlook we have now, or have in a more pronounced way, is a respect for statehood. The enlightened, modern way of looking at things is to scoff at states and governments, but Israel has shown us they are nothing to scoff at. It has even begun to occur to some of us that if there had been an Israeli state in World War II, Hitler wouldn’t have been able to murder quite so many Jews—and not only because they would have had a place to escape to. If Israel had been a state, and an ally in the war against Hitler, the murder camps would have been bombed. In the absence of a Jewish state the grand strategy of Allied victory gave such a low priority to disrupting Hitler’s machine for murdering Jews that the camps were never bombed. Israel would have effected a higher priority—not that the strategists and planners would have been persuaded, but simply that otherwise Israel could have made too much trouble, as by threatening to send its planes on independent bombing missions. (The Israelis could have taken de Gaulle as their model.) With the bombing of camps and railroads, the gassed and cremated would have been fewer.

We may even be readier than before to appreciate the cultural importance of a state. Modern Hebrew would not be what it is if it were not the language of a state. As Max Weinreich has said, a language is a dialect that has an army and a navy. Before Hebrew was recognized as one of the three official languages of Palestine, about fifty years ago, it had long had a literary, religious, and philosophical vocabulary, but no real vocabulary for tariffs and police regulations. It was legal status and responsibility that compelled Hebrew to develop.

Something else we have learned—again—is to appreciate bourgeois democracy. After all, in the United States, in Great Britain, and in France, Jews can go counter to government when they feel that vital Jewish interests are at stake. In Great Britain the Jews could be pro-Israel even in the last days of the Mandate, when the Irgun was hanging British sergeants. Contrast a Communist state—Poland, which is supposed to be tolerable. Gomulka was horrified. He had heard that some Polish Jews were celebrating the Israeli victory with drinking parties. How shocking, in that abstemious country! He warned the Polish Jews about dual allegiance and being a fifth column. What a threat they must represent! Thirty years ago the ratio of Jew to Gentile in the Polish population was 1 to 9 or 1 to 10; today it is 1 to 1,250.

In a bourgeois democracy Jews may decide for themselves how Jewish they want to be, and when; and that is why they respond with gratitude and devotion. Some time ago a radical sociologist, critical of America and American Jews, said that self-respecting people have no obligation of gratitude for the elementary decencies, which should be taken for granted. Forget the Soviet Union; even Poland shows us that we can’t take the decencies for granted. In our circumstances it is ingratitude that would be problematic, not gratitude.

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Finally, religion. Religion is complicated. It is both conservative and revolutionary.

In the past century or two religion has been criticized for being a conservative force, for helping to avert needed revolution by giving opiates to the oppressed, or promises of pie in the sky. This criticism would have surprised Thomas Hobbes. In his experience and doctrine, the trouble with religion was the ease with which it could become revolutionary. Any jumped-up prentice, having learned to read, might open his Bible and conclude that the established religion was not in accordance with the Lord’s will; and then, incited by dreamers and visionaries, he might band together with other presumptuous enthusiasts like himself and overthrow a king, who knew better than they what religion would best insure domestic tranquillity.

The Jewish religious situation may be changing. Israeli Jews have generally been the kind of people who are bashful about using the word God, but after the victory many lost that bashfulness for a while. Speaking or writing, Israelis of whom it was not to be expected invoked God quite seriously, thanking Him for their victory and attributing it to His intervention.

It would be too easy to dismiss that as chauvinistic religion. The Kaiser used to say, Gott mit uns, and one cause of the revulsion from religion after World War I was that the churches had prayed for victory and had assured the faithful that God wanted their country to win. But most of the Israelis who spoke of God spoke of Him only after the war. (A minority had intensified their prayers and Talmud study.) It was the Arabs who invoked God constantly. A Jew must assume that He did not want the Arabs to do what they wanted to do—for, like Haman, they purposed “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day.” And we shall be misled if we confuse the diminished Israeli (and Jewish) bashfulness about God with foxhole religion. The Israelis didn’t so much petition God for victory as thank Him for it.

I hope I shall not be thought fetishistic about religious objects. By coincidence, in my last article here I mentioned tefillin in Israel. After the victory it was hard to find tefillin to buy in Jerusalem. There was a run on them. Men who had never had them before, or had lost them years ago, wanted to wear their own while thanking God at the newly re-won Western Wall of Old Jerusalem.

In an Orthodox synagogue in New York soon after the war, a friend of mine has told me, the rabbi called upon a young member of the congregation to speak—a student at the Hebrew University who had been one of the foreigners substituting for the Israeli teachers and social workers called into service. Of what he said my friend remembers this best: “We Orthodox usually distinguish between religious and irreligious Jews, especially in Israel. My experience during the war showed me that this is wrong. Some Jews are more observant and some are less observant.” Now of course this is not altogether true. It exaggerates our religiousness. But if not altogether true, then at any rate it is less untrue than in a long time. With the Israeli war there was a reassertion of an old Jewish feeling about God and Providence, of a kind that we have not seen in many years—in the United States as well as in Israel.

The newspapers here reported that in those days of strain before the shooting broke out, a great scholar who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary gave to the United Jewish Appeal a sum of money large in its own right and immensely large for a professor, a member of a class not usually noted for its philanthropic capacity. The letter he sent to the alumni of the Seminary was not reported. This was no time, he said in the letter, for any effort short of the maximum; everything depended on exertion and sacrifice. Having put the greatest possible emphasis on human effort, he concluded with a verse from the Twentieth Psalm: “Some invoke chariots, and others horses; but we the name of the LORD our God.” That was enough for the rabbis. Naturally, they completed the psalm in their minds: “They will totter and fall down, but we shall rise and stand upright. O LORD, save; may the King answer us when we call.” Rabbis can be expected to know this psalm particularly well because it is read on most weekdays, toward the end of the morning prayer. And because psalms, especially the liturgical ones, recall each other even when they contradict each other, in the end emerging into a harmonized tension with each other, this weekday-morning psalm, about not invoking chariots and horses, must inevitably have recalled the 144th Psalm, which introduces the evening prayer after the Sabbath. It begins: “Blessed be the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”

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Not long before this, the Reform rabbinate had said it was going to revise the Union Prayer Book. The last revision, made twenty-five or thirty years ago, is considered to be no longer relevant to contemporary needs. Especially does the prayer then inserted for the welfare of coal miners seem a little irrelevant now.

Well, if you’re going to make revisions every twenty or thirty years you run the risk of being irrelevant much of the time. If this year you compose a prayer for the welfare of computer operators, in twenty or thirty years computer operators may be technologically obsolete. In our desire for relevant texts we can produce something like a daily newspaper, and there is nothing so dead as a newspaper from the day before yesterday. The Twentieth Psalm speaks of chariots and horses, which no army has used for some time now. Would it be more relevant to our contemporary needs or sensibilities if the psalm spoke of tanks and planes? Chariots and horses make the point quite well.

The Twenty-third Psalm says, “The LORD is my shepherd.” There’s an obsolete occupation for you. There are few shepherds in the United States, and them we call sheepherders; yet somehow, to say that the Lord is my shepherd seems to have meaning. Or the 107th Psalm: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters—they see the works of the LORD, and His wonders in the deep.” I should imagine that not only a sailor but also a flyer, or even an astronaut, might find this psalm relevant, though it speaks of ships rather than planes or spacecraft.

In fact, the Jewish liturgy of the entire period in May and June, from the beginning of the crisis to the end of the war, suddenly seemed to have the most immediate relevance to our anxieties and hopes—above all, the specifically scriptural parts of the liturgy, both the fixed passages and the Pentateuchal and Prophetical lessons of the annual cycle. (Not to mention the very names of the Israeli captains: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses and Aaron; Amos and Isaiah.)

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Every morning a Jew who prays recites the Song of the Sea, from Exodus: “. . . when Israel saw the wondrous power which the LORD had wielded against the Egyptians . . . they had faith in the LORD and in His servant Moses. . . . The LORD is my strength and might; He has become my salvation. . . . The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil. My desire shall have its fill of them. I will bare my sword, my hand shall subdue them.’ . . . The LORD will reign for ever and ever!”

On the last Sabbath of May we read the final two chapters of Leviticus, which hold out the blessing and the curse. The blessing: “. . . I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. . . . I am the LORD your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. . . .” But the curse: “. . . you shall be smitten before your enemies; those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you . . .”—and worse. On the first Sabbath in June, two days before the shooting, the Prophetical lesson was from Hosea, with the verses we recite when we bind the tefillin as a sign on our hand: “. . . I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.”

On the next Sabbath, the war over, the second group of chapters from Numbers was read as the Pentateuchal lesson, including the Priestly Blessing: “Thus shall you bless the children of Israel. . . . ‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.’” The Prophetical lesson was the annunciation to Samson’s mother, in Judges: “. . . the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, Behold, you are barren . . . but you shall conceive and bear a son . . . and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”

Then came Shavuot, with the Ten Commandments of Exodus as the Pentateuchal lesson: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods beside Me.” . . . And, as if to warn us and our brothers in Israel, a seemingly legalistic and priestly passage follows: “Make for Me an altar of earth. . . . But if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.” Here “your tool” is the right translation, but what the Hebrew actually says is harbekha, “your sword.” The sword profanes. (A horror of impious iron inherited from the Bronze Age?) It was given not to David the warrior but to Solomon the man of peace to build the Temple.

On Shavuot we recited the Hallel. Not much irrelevant about the 118th Psalm: “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes. . . . Hark, glad songs of victory . . . the right hand of the LORD does valiantly. . . . The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” And the verse that the fierce Huguenots liked to intone, in Clément Marot’s version, as they rode into battle: “This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

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This little religious thing we now have isn’t much of a creed, but for many of us it is rather more than we have ever had before. And it is ours. We can recognize it.

Each of us Jews knows how thoroughly ordinary he is; yet taken together, we seem caught up in things great and inexplicable. It is almost as if we were not acting but were being acted through. In the 1961 COMMENTARY symposium one man said we had been a big thing in antiquity and were now only a little thing. That is not so. In Deuteronomy we are told that even then we were “the smallest of peoples.” How many are we? The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us.

If one may say at all that the Bible argues for the existence of God, it has two kinds of argument. The first is the argument from nature, as in the Nineteenth Psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The second is the argument from history, or from Israel, as in Deuteronomy:

For ask now of the clays that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. . . . has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation . . . with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no others besides Him. . . . know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.

Those big things that happen to us, those things that are bigger than we, are not always good things. We have not been promised that they will always be good. We have been told about the curse as well as the blessing. In I Samuel the Psalm of Hannah says, “The LORD deadens and quickens”; and Jews continue to declare that, several times a day, in the Standing Prayer.

In this last third of the 20th century we may be beginning to believe again that the history of the Jews points to some kind of providential order, which—for reasons having to do not with our merits, but at most with the merits of the Fathers—has a special place for it.

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On shavuot the first chapter of Ezekiel was read—a Prophetical account of revelation to accompany the Pentateuchal revelation of the Ten Commandments. I suspect I was not alone then to be reminded of another passage in Ezekiel (ordinarily not my favorite prophet): “What comes to your mind shall never happen—your thinking, ‘Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, worshipping wood and stone.’ As I live, says the Lord GOD, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, will I be king over you.”

When the Psalmist says, “I,” the pronoun is singular and plural, individual and collective, personal and referring to the children of Israel—as in that other verse from the last of the Hallel psalms: “I thank Thee, for Thou hast answered me, and art become my salvation.”

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