Commentary Magazine


Israel & the Intellectuals

Even our “friends” are not likely to forgive that we were victorious—we have suddenly stripped them of the chance to pity us or even help us.

Elie Wiesel

Three months after the war in the Middle East, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Israel’s stunning victory, whatever its final effect in altering political maps, has knocked askew a whole row of stereotypes of the Jew in his relation to history, his location in existence. I suppose we are much too close to the events even to guess whether they will have any permanent significance as a kind of watershed in the course of Jewish history, but making history nowadays is a considerably more complicated and ambiguous affair than it once was because, through the intervention of modern communications media, it has become so entangled with making images. One could argue that there have been many more important moments in Jewish history, but it is altogether incontestable that never before in history have the Jews been given such an overwhelming amount of public exposure in such a limited period of time. A good deal of serious consideration has been directed in recent years to the ways in which images of the Jew in the Western mind—especially as a demonic, inhuman, or subhuman figure—are the cumulative result of a long process of cultural indoctrination. What the saturation coverage of the Israeli military success did in effect was to offer to millions, at least in North America and Western Europe, a crash course in corrective reindoctrination, with results that are as yet incalculable but which could prove to be profound.

Some of the elements, to be sure, that the popular news media chose to stress in this reindoctrination bore an unsettling resemblance to certain stereotypes of the Israeli—chiefly products of the American subliterary imagination—that have long distressed sensitive observers both here and in Israel. Thus Moshe Dayan, with his fiercely photogenic eyepatch, on the cover of Life, Time, Look, Newsweek, and one flinches to think where else, had altogether too much the look of that recent fantasy figure, the Jew as modern buccaneer-adventurer, the pitiless, tough-as-nails Jewish fighter, or, to invoke the by now familiar paradox, the Jew as goy. For the most part, however, coverage of the actual fighting men of Israel was extensive enough to reveal them as more varied, more reassuringly human and familiarly Jewish, than anything dreamt of in the overwrought imagination of a Leon Uris. The outpouring of frontline reportage, journals, diaries, and the like with which we have been inundated shows Israel’s citizen-army as a force at once heroic and heimish, incredibly efficient yet engagingly makeshift, thoroughly adept at the implementation of destruction yet with scarcely a trace of the sentimental mystique of destructiveness that has poisoned the minds of such vast numbers in our century.

We proverbially admire the underdog, but especially when he proves in the outcome to be spectacularly successful, and the perfect match of sure conception and swift execution in the Israeli campaign against the poised armies of three surrounding nations captured imaginations everywhere. “In a single Blitzkrieg,” began a lead-article in Der Spiegel of June 12, “the Israelis have conquered . . . the Sinai Peninsula and the entire Federal Republic. With a single exemplary display of tough soldierly skill . . . they have entered into the hearts of the people in whose name once all Jews were to be exterminated.” (In general, the enthusiastic support for Israel in Germany during the recent crisis is a phenomenon that requires further pondering, and not necessarily with an eye to sinister implications. Not only the popular press but observers as acute as Günter Grass were deeply impressed by the new respect that Jews had won in the eyes of Germans.) In other Western countries, the ironic contrast of remembered horrors was of course not so pointed, but apart from that, response to the Israeli victory elsewhere seems to have been much the same as in Germany.

It is obviously true, as many intellectuals have been quick to point out, that this glamorous appeal of victory has its special moral perils. It is easily associated with an admiration of armed power, efficiency, and success as ultimate goods in themselves, and it may lead, as one can assume it did in the case of many Jews, to a simpleminded Schadenfreude, a closing of the imagination to the human suffering of the vanquished and the moral complications of the victory. But there is, I would contend, no attitude toward politics and history, however “ethical” it purports to be, that does not have its own lurking moral perils, and the positive didactic effect of the Israeli victory is hardly invalidated by the possible misuse to which the idea of the victory can be put. I may squirm at sharing even half an opinion with The Voice of Americanism, but I see no reason to disapprove of the Israeli military success simply because the radical Right gloats over it with bared cold-warrior fangs.

To the extent that the Jews have been thought of in recent years as implicated in history, not merely floating through the Chagallesque heavens of a recollected world of folklore, the image they have presented has been, necessarily, a grim one: endless lines of wan, gaunt figures trudging off to the factories of death. Against this terrible background, there is an inescapable sharpness in the counter-image of Jews in armored columns rolling across the Sinai to crush the massed army that had intended their destruction. The significance of this antithesis, perhaps because of its simple graphic boldness, does not seem to have been lost on the common man.

Goronwy Rees, writing in the August issue of Encounter, describes a popular English attitude toward the victorious Israelis which seems virtually identical with popular feeling in this country, at least as near as I can gauge it from the press and from personal observation. Among British intellectuals, Rees observes, the response to the victory was cautious, even ambiguous, and here and there in the British press one could actually detect an anti-Semitic sneer. The reaction of the British populace, on the other hand, seems to have been unequivocal and Rees’s assessment of its significance deserves careful attention:

The ordinary man’s response was in itself a reflection of one of the most remarkable achievements of the state of Israel; that is to say, to transform the popular image of the Jew, so that it has come to represent something which the great majority regard with respect and admiration, and this is itself only the counterpart of the feelings of pride, of confidence and self-respect which Jews all over the world have acquired as a result of the foundation of Israel. . . . It was this, just as much as any political issue, which was at stake in the Middle East. When General Dayan said that Israel did not need British boys to die for her, he was saying something which expressed the total transformation that has taken place in the relations between the Jew and his fellow men.

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This general view, to be sure, is one that has long been urged, at times with defensive insistency, in Zionist circles, but it takes on a new credibility coming from an intelligent outside observer, in the wake of the recent events. Now, apart from those who are clearly committed to the Arab world, whether for reasons of political expedience or cultural sympathy, there is one significant group of people in this country that stubbornly resists the idea of any such transformation, either of Jewish image or relations, whatever the accomplished facts of history. The group I have in mind is made up of the more self-consciously assimilated and militantly “progressive” segments of the American Jewish intelligentsia, whose members, by and large, prove to have such an immense vested interest in one notion or another of Jewish identity that they feel vitally threatened by the proposed validity of other notions.

It is becoming increasingly clear that for a good many Jewish intellectuals Israel’s victory was a profoundly unsettling experience. That notoriously tough-minded variety of the American Jewish intellectual, who knows the truth about the destruction of European Jewry according to the gospel of Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt, must surely have felt an uneasy stirring in his preconceptions at the sight of those Israeli Mystères flashing wing upon wing across his television screen, and at the voices of the professional analysts describing the Israeli campaign as the most perfectly executed operation in modern military history. From the growing reaction in print against Israel, it is apparent that many of these intellectuals are attempting to resolve their own uneasiness by directing at least a qualified hostility toward Israel, hastening to dissociate themselves from this use of naked power by Jews. It escapes me how any Jew can so smugly expect to have it both ways: on the one hand, to pass judgment on European Jewry for acquiescing in its own destruction; on the other hand, to look askance at Israel for its thorough and efficient use of force when the alternative was annihilation. Thus, Jews who fail to save themselves are victims of their own “ghetto mentality,” and those who are resourceful enough to rout their would-be murderers are lumped together, in a phrase that seems to be gaining currency at an alarming rate, as the “Prussia of the Middle East.”

In the aftermath of the third Israeli-Arab war, one begins to suspect that intellectuals may be more thoroughly enslaved by stereotypes than other kinds of people, perhaps because they are always so sure they can produce reasoned justifications for the particular stereotypes to which they cling. At any rate, some Jewish intellectuals have been exhibiting an impressive capacity to alter either the facts, or the terminology defining the facts, in order to keep their own cherished preconceptions intact. One simple way out of the quandary of discovering Israelis not behaving as Jews are supposed to behave is a flat insistence that Israelis are no longer Jews. A revealing instance of this particular approach is the review-essay on J. F. Steiner’s Treblinka by Bruno Bettelheim in The New Republic of July 1. Bettelheim makes no direct allusion to the latest war in the Middle East, and it is at least possible that he completed the review before the fighting broke out, but the relevance of his argument to the recent events is inescapable.

Bettelheim objects to Steiner’s account of the Treblinka uprising because it fails to make clear that everywhere in Europe those who tried to fight back were a pitifully minuscule minority, while the vast majority of victims submitted meekly to their own destruction because they were “ghetto Jews” trained by the centuries in the ways of submission. The only ones who resisted were those who had broken decisively with the ghetto culture. Bettelheim does not even try to explain how he proposes to attach the “ghetto” label to the masses of highly acculturated Jews from Germany, France, Holland, and the larger cities of Eastern Europe, who were murdered by the Nazis, and every step of his analysis is based on a thoroughly unexamined notion of ghetto Jewry as a fixed quantity in a crude historical calculus. As a kind of counter-refrain to the time-honored chant, “the people of Israel lives,” Bettelheim insists again and again in his essay that “though Israel is alive, the Jewish ghetto people . . . was murdered.” Which is to say, the connection between the people we call “Jews” in Israel and the real, ghetto Jews of Europe is merely a connection of homonyms—the same name for two completely different things. “Israel lives because long before the holocaust the active elements of ancient Jewry [in Bettelheim’s shaky historical vocabulary, apparently a synonym for ghetto Jewry] had broken with a medieval culture to create a new and entirely different nation.” As for those several million anomalies of today’s world who are by no means ghetto Jews but in whom a stubborn sense of Jewish identity persists, Bettelheim writes these off as “intermediary Jews—who I am convinced will pass away, either by becoming . . . citizen[s] of Israel, or by assimilation through intermarriage.”

Bettelheim’s uncompromising division between Israeli and Jew is identical with the one made by Georges Friedmann in The End of the Jewish People?, and since I have already debated Friedmann’s thesis at length in these pages,1 I will only observe here that Bettelheim, like Friedmann, reasons from an enormously inadequate and inaccurate conception of the Jewish people through the ages as a monolithic entity—in all times and places, pale, cringing ghetto-dwellers—and like Friedmann he shows himself quite out of touch with certain essential facts of consciousness shared by large numbers of Jews both in Israel and America. What is especially ironic about this restatement of the familiar thesis that the Israelis and the Jews are two different peoples is that it should be put forward now, at the very moment when an unguessed depth of solidarity between the Jews of the diaspora and the Jews of Israel has been so dramatically revealed. In the recent crisis, the mass of “intermediary Jews” in America and Europe shared with the “post-Jewish” Israeli nationals a profound sense of participation in a fatal juncture of Jewish history, and the very urgency of national feeling flowed from a common awareness that Jewish history had not ended at Auschwitz and could not be allowed to end in modern Israel.

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An opposite strategy of the Jewish intellectual for exorcising this new, unwanted image of a tough, self-reliant Jewish nation is simply to deny the facts. In its pure form, this response seems to be pretty well limited to the more wall-eyed adherents of the doctrinaire Left, but subtler, more restrained versions of the same tactic are detectable in the comments on Israel even of many moderate leftists. One extreme example may be instructive, simply as an illustration of the power of the mind to evade reality. In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle on June 20, Alvah Bessie, an old-time Marxist who was once drama critic for New Masses, and is now active in Bay Area leftwing politics, identifies himself to readers as an American Jew moved by conscience to express his moral horror over Israel’s actions. The letter, predictably, hews close to the Moscow and Peking lines on the Middle East: Israel was created by Western imperialism to be a “buffer and irritant”; the Israeli attack on the Arabs was a “Pearl Harbor”; Israel’s stand on occupied territory is sheer “arrogance”; and so forth. Serenely turning his back on history, Bessie, as an American Jew, “does not feel it possible to reverse the diaspora,” and were it possible, he would be opposed in principle. What is most interesting, however, as an illustration of how a supposed intellectual can be the captive of the most primitive mental stereotypes, is Bessie’s logical demonstration of why Israel must have had American help or collusion in the fighting:

Have the Arabs, whose fighting tradition is fierce, courageous, and historically conditioned, become cowards overnight, military imbeciles, or just plain stupid? Are the Israelis military geniuses or did they move with the tacit assurance that they had support in high places?

Bessie’s knowledge of Arab history and military skill would seem to be drawn exclusively from old Hollywood movies—technicolor visions of fiercely noble figures galloping across the desert with upraised scimitars, their white robes flapping in the wind. It has been a thousand years since the “historically conditioned” Arab warriors have won a war, and their military imbecility in the recent fighting—digging their tanks into the sand, following Russian manuals designed for other terrains and conditions—is a matter of public record. The very idea, on the other hand, of Israeli military genius is patently absurd, according to Bessie (despite the overwhelming evidence that it exists), because Jews, as we all have always known, are not fighters.

Less doctrinaire figures of the American Left, with a greater appearance of intellectual respectability, have been shifting the facts rather less violently, and in the opposite direction. The more reasonable among them appear to concede that Israel’s existence was actually threatened by the Arabs, but now that Israel has succeeded in warding off the threat so decisively, the Jewish state is exposed for them as a breeding-ground of chauvinism and brutal militarism, a callous victimizer of its vulnerable neighbors—which is pretty much what really “enlightened” intellectuals of Jewish descent had secretly suspected all along. This image of a bellicose Israel is all the more readily acceptable because it fits so neatly into a popular New Left mythology of world politics in which the nations are divided into sinister superpowers and innocent, freedom-loving peoples of the Third World. Israel, if not actually a tool of Western imperialism, is imagined as a beachhead of corrupt Western values, a sort of small-scale America, polluting the pure Third-World sands of the Middle East.

One instructive document in this respect is a petition circulated in the academic community this summer under the heading, “A Call for Respect and Humanity in the Middle East Crisis.” In the initial list of signatories, more than a third were Jews (the most notable was Noam Chomsky, the outspoken critic of American involvement in Vietnam), the rest were more or less evenly divided among Arabs, teachers of Arabic civilization, and teachers of Christian religion, with the additional name of Arnold Toynbee to give the whole a proper cachet. Let me say at once that the two broad aspirations of the petition are ones to which I feel any intelligent supporter of Israel ought to subscribe unhesitatingly: a call for compassion and material aid for the Arab refugees, and an appeal to the member states of the UN to put aside cold-war intrigues and act for the welfare of the peoples of the Middle East. More questionable is the call to the Israeli government to respect the Islamic shrines under its control, because of the gratuitous and misleading implication that Israel has ever done, or intended to do, anything else. The really peculiar note, however, of the petition is struck in its affirmation that it has been made “on behalf of the peoples of the Third World” by individuals who “identify intimately and respectfully with their traditions and creative goals.” One wonders why a Noam Chomsky or a Jerrold Katz, beyond the call of humanitarianism, need identify intimately and respectfully with the traditions of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, except for the naive assumption that all the petty dictators and minor-league Machiavels of the Afro-Asian nations somehow represent the progressive force in world politics and culture. But then Jews have been performing this kind of self-abasing mental backbend ever since they first took up the cause of world revolution a century ago: it has always been Jewish nationalism that has been denounced by Jews as a force of reaction.

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Probably the most influential statement yet made by an American Jewish intellectual on the Middle East crisis is I. F. Stone’s article in the New York Review of Books of August 3. Stone’s assessment of the situation is far more balanced, and somewhat more informed, than any of the others I have considered, but the neat equation he appears to make between Arab and Israeli claims is itself misleading, and his concern for a peaceful and progressive world order leads him to a moral attack on Jewish statehood which is based upon fundamental confusions about the meaning of that concept. Now Stone has on occasion written cogently about Vietnam and other subjects, and if one seeks to discover why he should have concocted here such an extraordinary brew of evasions, misrepresentations, and sophistries, I think the cause must be looked for in his own ambivalence as an American Jewish intellectual confronted by the intractable realities of the Jewish state. At one point in his essay, he speaks of a “moral schizophrenia” that Israel has imposed on the Jews of the world, but a careful reading of his argument suggests that the source of the moral schizophrenia is in the writer himself.

It is only toward the end of the article that Stone admits he has felt “honor bound,” as a Jew emotionally tied to the birth of Israel, to devote most of his account to the Arab side. In a curious footnote to this remark, he lists in chronological sequence all his visits to Israel and his writings on the founding of the state, apparently to establish both his sympathy for and expertise on Israel, though the latter in any case is belied by the garbled details on Israeli politics and culture in the body of the article. (It might be observed that since the recent war, a great many American Jewish intellectuals seem prepared to speak in this fashion as experts on Israel, often invoking the authority of “the prophetic tradition” for their views.) Stone’s conception of “honor” proves to be a peculiar one, because it involves not merely giving ample space to the Arab side, but the adjustment of certain key facts, and the forgetting of others, in order to make the Israelis seem culpable, the Arabs merely victimized. Thus Stone begins his essay by asserting that in each of the three Israeli-Arab wars both Israel’s territory and the number of Arab homeless grew, though of course there were neither refugees nor territorial gains after the fighting in 1956. The single, ghastly incident of Deir Yassin in 1948 is eased into a vague series of massacres by a rhetorical strategem, while the moderate Haganah (“Jewish terrorism . . . in milder form”) is casually lumped together with the militant Irgun whose extremist policies it bitterly opposed, so that a stronger case can be made for Israeli responsibility for the refugees. Zionists, according to Stone, “have always chosen to forget” the passage in the Balfour Declaration guaranteeing the civil and religious rights of minorities in Palestine, though in fact Zionists have always made a point of underscoring this provision of the Declaration as proof of its fairness, and the founders of the state made sure to incorporate it in Israel’s declaration of independence.

These and other strategic modifications of fact, together with a determined silence on the Arabs’ large share of responsibility for the plight of the refugees and on the sustained efforts of the Arab states to extirpate Israel, produce an image of the Jewish state as a cynical expansionist power whose intransigence toward the refugees and discrimination against its own Arab citizens constitute the main obstacles to peace in the Middle East. Even if we grant some broken, scattered lines of truth in Stone’s distorted picture of Israel, his “new approach,” as the New York Review heralded it, to the Middle East conflict leads nowhere because he fails so completely to distinguish between moral desiderata and political solutions. Israel should surely do much more for the refugees of both wars than it has done as yet, but the refugees, who were driven from their homes originally as a result of the first Arab assault on the Jewish settlement, have never been the source of Arab implacability toward Israel. Certainly in respect to Egypt and Syria, the two most militant of the Arab states, the total elimination of the refugee problem would make no difference in their posture toward Israel: they would both still be unswervingly committed, by nationalist ideology and popular feeling, to wipe out the “Zionist aggression,” as they term the mere existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

What is especially interesting about Stone’s presentation is why he should take such trouble to suggest this image of a callous, narrowly nationalistic Israel, and why he should insist on the use of high-sounding moral terms, and little else, to describe the political conflict and its possible resolution. Stone repeatedly reminds us that he judges Israel as a Jew, and the distinction he himself draws between Jew and Israeli is most revealing:

A Lilliputian nationalism cannot distill truths for all mankind. Here lie the roots of a growing divergence between Jew and Israeli; the former with a sense of mission as a Witness [sic] in the human wilderness, the latter concerned only with his own tribe’s welfare.

It is surely a bizarre irony that this spokesman for the modern progressive Jewish intelligentsia should unblushingly revive the mock-Christian Mission theology of classical German Reform Judaism, so thoroughly discredited by a whole century of Jewish experience, with all the naivete and spiritual arrogance of its assumption that the Jews have a unique role as guides to the conscience of mankind. Stone’s general view, moreover, of Jewish history and nationalism is oddly reminiscent of the 19th-century German intellectual climate. He identifies himself at the outset as a “man of rationalist tradition and universalist ideals,” and he soon makes clear his opposition in principle to all ethnocentric movements, which for him invariably involve “a certain moral imbecility.” This first principle of faith is too sacred to be violated by anything so impure as a historical fact. Thus Stone does not hesitate to assert that the greatest periods of “Jewish creativity” have been associated with tolerant, pluralistic civilizations; the thousand years of Jewish history that produced the Hebrew Bible are not, apparently, a period of creativity, while the Roman, Persian, and Islamic civilizations, in which Jews lived in ethnic enclaves, often surrounded by hostility, are to be thought of as modern pluralistic cultures where individuals are free agents. In classical Reform (or Christian) manner, Stone sees the prophets as the only glimmer of light in the Jewish dark age that preceded Philo because they were able to “overcome” their ethnocentricity. This may bring back to some readers nostalgic recollections of Wellhausen and the 19th-century evolutionist critics, but it does not jibe very well either with the evidence of the biblical record itself or the testimony of modern scholarship, both of which show an indissoluble wedding of universalist vision and ethnocentric imagination in the earliest stages of the Bible as well as in the noblest passages of the later prophets. There is no clearer example than the Hebrew Bible of how ethnocentricity, far from being opposed to universalism, can serve as the ground for its development. Such lapses in historical accuracy on Stone’s part expose the inner hollowness of his argument precisely because he pretends to measure the present against the standards of the Jewish past: what needs to be emphasized is that his measuring-stick is warped by ideology—and an oddly anachronistic one—and that it is held in ignorant hands.

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Building on this foundation of pseudo-history, Stone finds it easier to put down the state of Israel as an expression of “tribalism.” In the precise sense of the term, tribalism is of course a concept diametrically opposed to nationalism, but Stone uses it rather as a vague pejorative, perhaps even with the old self-mocking Jewish epithet, “member of the Tribe,” at the back of his mind. He professes to be “chilled” and “horrified” by the perfectly innocent declarations of David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan that they would like Israel to remain a Jewish state, but his shocked reaction is the result of his own insistence that Jewish nationalism means tribalism—which is to say, that the idea of a secular Jewish state implies chauvinism, exclusionism, racism, systematic suppression of minorities, and apparently even theocracy. There are, to be sure, visible gaps between Israel’s egalitarian ideals and the social and political actualities of the state, especially in regard to the Arab minority and the Jews of Afro-Asian origin. Stone, however, tendentiously exaggerates these existing inequalities—symptomatically, he cites a then unpublished manuscript with the provocative and propagandistic title, The Aryanization of the Jewish State, written by Michael Selzer, a young Jew born in India who briefly resided in Israel and is now in the employ of the virulently anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. A more essential failing is his refusal to see that discrimination against minorities in Israel stems from a combination of cultural and historical circumstances in no way intrinsic to the idea of a democratic Jewish state and which, one may reasonably hope, will be changed in the course of time. Minorities, after all, do not have to be persecuted minorities, though this is what Stone appears to assume.

On the evidence, moreover, of Israel’s cultural life, of which Stone seems quite unaware, the accusation of tribalism is still further from the truth. More impressive, finally, than Israel’s military achievements is the remarkable ability it has demonstrated over the years to remain part of the large and changing world of modern culture, even to make its own palpable contributions to that world, in scientific research and academic inquiry, in literature and the arts. It is hard to see why a J. L. Talmon, an S. M. Eisenstadt, a Claude Vigée, are any less “universalist” than their Jewish academic counterparts in the United States, or why, say, the Jewish intellectuals in Israel who write for Molad and Keshet are any more “tribalistic” than those in America who write for the New York Review of Books. If modern Jewish history has one lesson to teach, from the early Enlighteners and assimilationists to the good Jewish Marxists murdered by Stalin, it is that a lofty universalism with no roots in national identity exists only in the fervid imagination of the refugees from the ghettos, and that one must belong to a particular part of mankind before embracing the whole of it.

As a self-proclaimed Jewish universalist, Stone is intensely uncomfortable with the idea that the Jews should want and have a flesh-and-blood existence as a people in the real geography of this world. Instructively, his sense of unease is precisely that of the numerous American Christian leaders who are at once vociferous exponents of “dialogue” and implicit or outspoken opponents of Jewish statehood. Willard Oxtoby, one of the circle of Christian apologists for the Arabs in the department of religion at Yale, is even more explicit than Stone in echoing the aspirations of classical Reform. Writing in The Christian Century of July 26, he tries to explain to his fellow-Christians—after repeating the crudest Arab fabrications about Israeli atrocities—how deeply entrenched is this pernicious idea of peoplehood in the minds of American Jews. “There is slim chance,” he laments, “of a reaffirmation of the American Reform rabbis’ 1885 Pittsburgh platform: ‘We are no longer a nation but a spiritual community and therefore expect no return to Palestine.’” Reform Judaism, except for its lagging rear-guard, has long since renounced its opposition to Zionism as well as its disavowal of Jewish peoplehood, and one of the most bizarre turns of the recent events in the Middle East is that hostile Christians and progressive Jewish secularists alike have been moved to take over this vacuous and pretentious concept of the Jews as a “spiritual community.”

Speaking as a member of such a hypothetical community, a Witness in the wilderness of this world, I. F. Stone has no compunction about exchanging the role of political analyst for that of homiletic moralist. In the conclusion, or rather peroration, of his essay, he exhorts the latter-day Zionists to conquer the “steep and arid mountains of prejudice” in their midst, even as they once conquered swamp and desertland. This is surely an admirable sentiment in which we will all concur, but the implication that peace in the Middle East somehow hinges upon an act of moral nobility on the part of the Israelis (for Stone offers no other “approach”) is completely false and dangerously misleading.

Morality on the subject of Israel comes cheap to an American Jew because he is not directly confronted with the responsibilities of power, the naked needs of survival. This is not in any way to suggest that Israel should be immune from severe criticism, whether from without or within. Such criticism, however, must be made with the honest recognition that the Jews of Israel have chosen definitively to enter into a new relationship as collectively responsible agents in history, with all the complicated burden of practical and moral choices, all the tensions between values and actions, ideals and actuality, implied by such involvement in the mixed stuff of reality. The founding of the state has introduced a qualitative change in the facts of existence for every Jew, whether or not he chooses to be a Zionist. Israel’s very presence among the nations is an affirmation that the Jews are not symbols, witnesses, ghostly emissaries of some obscure mission, but men like other men who need to occupy physical space in a real world before they can fulfill whatever loftier aspirations they may have.

Now that Israel has so dramatically thwarted the enemies prepared to destroy it, there are many critics who want to see in the Jewish state an affirmation of physical might and nothing more. The soundest—and most influential—Zionist thinkers, however, have always envisaged the physical land as a place where a renewed life of the spirit could take root, and for all the talk about decline of values in Israel over the last few years, this vision is not dead, nor are the signs of its attempted implementation, however imperfect, lacking. The Jews and Christians who represent Israel as a falling off of the Jewish spirit into brute materialism are precisely those who insist that Jewish life be only a sickly half-life of vague idealism and piously remembered beliefs—in the “realm of the spirit.” I know of no saner and more eloquent answer to such people than these words of the Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, spoken in 1925 at the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem:

Without the Land of Israel—land in the plain meaning of the word—there is neither hope nor promise for a Jewish future in any place, at any time. Our basic conception of the nation’s material and spiritual existence has by this point undergone a radical change. We in no way accept this split or distinction between matter and spirit, just as we accept no such distinction between Jew and human being. We declare the law now not according to the School of Shammai, who claimed that heaven was created first, and not according to the School of Hillel, who claimed that the earth was created first, but according to the Sages, in whose view both were created at once through a single divine utterance—and the one has neither reality nor existence without the other.

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Footnotes

1 “The Question of Survival,” March 1967.

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