Commentary Magazine

Israel and Oriental Culture

To the Editor

In Mr. Aleph Sherman’s review of my recent book Israel Between East and West (August 1953), a false picture of the attitude of Israeli social scientists towards Middle Eastern culture and the cultural configuration of modern Israel serves as a basis for misleading statements about my book and for an unwarranted personal attack on me. . . .

Mr. Sherman points out that I “did not have the time to do serious field work during . . . two brief visits to Israel since 1947,” taking the information concerning my two visits from the preface of my book. But he carefully omits to mention that from 1933 to 1947 I resided continuously in Palestine. . . a fact which is also mentioned in the preface. In view of this it was interesting for me to note in the March 1953 issue of COMMENTARY that Mr. Sherman himself arrived in Israel only in the early part of 1952!

Mr. Sherman’s review reveals a rather superficial perusal of my text. He consistently fails to distinguish between my own statements and those quoted by me from other authors. For example . . . he says: “Professor Patai contrasts what he calls the ‘esthetic and emotionally immediate religious values to which the East has primarily devoted its attention’ with the ‘scientific, doctrinal, and pragmatic values upon which the West has concentrated.’” Had he read my page 335 more attentively, he would have found the following: “More systematically and more comprehensively than others, F. S. C. Northrop [in The Meeting of East and West] found that the fundamental problem of merging the East with the West with safe and positive results involves the task of relating the esthetic and the emotionally immediate religious values, to which the East has primarily devoted its attention, to the scientific, doctrinal and pragmatic values upon which the West has concentrated.” . . .

Similarly, when stating that “Professor Patai considers steam power as one of the main complexes . . . in Western civilization,” he overlooks the fact that the entire section entitled “The Western Pattern” . . . is a summary of an analysis made by the anthropologist O. W. Junek, as stated by me on page 32. . . . It would certainly seem that Mr. Sherman’s quarrel is not only with me but with a large body of distinguished social scientists.

Mr. Sherman’s own views on Eastern and Western cultures are, to say the least, surprising. “Now in fact,” he says, “Eastern and Western ‘cultures’ are not anthropologically distinct since they share a common history and philosophy, and began to diverge seriously only a matter of centuries ago. . . .” This categorical statement makes us suspect that Mr. Sherman has no clear idea of what “anthropologically” means and what is understood by a “culture”. . . .

Now as to the argument of Mr. Sherman that the great mass of Middle Easterners live a life devoid of any esthetic awareness. Had he found the time during his short stay in Israel to visit an Arab village or the home of a Yemenite Jewish family, or to read any of the several books published in Hebrew about the Arabs of Palestine . . . he would never have made such a blatantly mistaken statement. Mr. Sherman must be ignorant also of the almost ubiquitous manifestations of the influence in Israel of Middle Eastern arts and crafts and music, brought to the country not from the bazaars of “tourist cities” but from remote small towns and villages and distant corners of the Middle East.

This brings us back to the main issue. Mr. Sherman affirms that the consensus of opinion of most Israeli social scientists, as published in particular in the journal Megamoth, is that there exists in Israeli Jewry only “one central cohesive culture, with peripheral groups none of which has shown itself capable or desirous of living a self-perpetuating existence; in other words, Oriental culture does not have ‘equal validity for its carriers’”. . . .

Megamoth, as its subtitle states, is a “Child Welfare Quarterly.” Its contributions are generally of a high quality but touch rarely upon the problems to which my book is devoted. However, in 1951 and 1952 several of its articles, in the form of a symposium, dealt with the problems of ethnic differences in Israel. Upon a closer look at these articles, the only ones in Megamoth which Mr. Sherman could have in mind, his “most of the studies in question” boils down to one single opinion, that of Mr. Joseph Ben-David, whose statement (on p. 171, vol. III, no. 2, Jan. 1952 of Megamoth) bears a striking similarity to the “one culture” idea expressed less cautiously by Mr. Sherman. . . .



The view against which Mr. Ben-David’s single voice militates is held by such authorities as Dr. K. Frankenstein, editor of Megamoth, Professor E. Simon, Dr. N. Rottenstreich, and, outside the symposium series, by Professor S. D. Goitein. Dr. Goitein says (Megamoth, II, 2, Jan. 1951, p. 152): “First of all, the Yemenite Jew belongs to a completely different variety of human being from the one found today in our country. . . . We belong to the type of the ‘homo economicus’ who aspires toward a good life. . . while the Yemenite is a ‘homo religiosus’ who is concerned about the fate of his soul”. . . . This seems to be a far cry from the “one cohesive culture” with its “peripheral groups.”

Dr. Frankenstein himself says (Megamoth, II, 3, April 1951, p. 261): “Nobody denies the existence of ethnic differences. . . . Opinions, however, diverge sharply with regard to the meaning of the ethnic differences.” . . . He demands that the “receiving group,” that is the Western element in Israel, should reach a “self-knowledge and a relativization of the values which in their eyes seem established” (Megamoth, III, 4, p. “319), and he says, “We demand, therefore, that the receivers should give up their aggressive belief in the absolute superiority of their own principles of life. . . . We demand that the different should be honored inasmuch as it is different, on the assumption that only such an honoring can save the originality which is contained in it . . .” (ibid., p. 320).

Dr. N. Rottenstreich also finds that in Israel are represented “two essentially different cultural realities”: that of the Western, European Jews, “which enables the person to develop his individual potential,” and that of the Oriental Jews . . . “which does not include in its value-structure the right of realizing this potential” (ibid., p. 327). . . .

Professor Simon asserts (in words resembling the formulations of Enfantin, Julian Huxley, F. S. C. Northrop, and myself) that while the Orientals must learn from “us” several of the positive achievements of Western culture, “we” should learn from them the positive values of their culture, such as “the immediate and intensive character of their religious belief . . . the strength of their affective response to the manifestations of the good, the beautiful, the holy, and the real heartiness of their interpersonal contacts,” and should learn to appreciate “the indissoluble tie which exists between their primary approach to man and the world, and their developed artistic expression.” Simon warns, just as Northrop and others have, including myself, of the negative manifestations of modern Western culture and of the dangers of imposing it wholesale upon the Oriental segment of the Yishuv which can easily lead to “a complete lack of values” (Megamoth, II, 3, April 1951, pp. 278, 282-3; III, 4, July 1952, p. 321. Cf. my own warning against deculturation and Levantinism).

In fine, it must be said that Mr. Sherman simply misrepresents the majority opinion of those participating in the Megamoth symposium (or is it possible that his knowledge of Hebrew is not yet equal to the task of precisely grasping the relatively difficult Hebrew scientific style?). . . . The complaints in my book were directed against those students of the adjustment of new immigrants in Israel who, while recognizing the existence of a separate Oriental culture, nevertheless demand their complete assimilation to the Ashkenazi-Western cultural prototype. One part of those participating in the Megamoth symposium belonged to this school of thought, while the other approach was represented most characteristically by Frankenstein and Simon. But, I repeat, both schools, with the exception of Mr. Ben-David, agreed that there are two separate, widely differing cultures in Israel. . . .

Fortunately, such extreme views as Mr. Sherman’s sweeping denial of the very existence of more than one culture in Israel are very rare. . . .

Raphael Patai
Forest Hills, New York

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