To the Editor:
I very much enjoyed Ruth R. Wisse’s article, “Jewish Guilt and Israeli Writers” [January]. Over the past decade, the American media have been inundated by hand-wringing, mea culpas, accusations, and downright animosity directed at Israel by Israeli writers. Many sympathizers of Israel exposed to all this have no doubt felt themselves at a loss. After all, these are the views of the self-declared representatives of the kinder, gentler Israel of conscience.
The truth is that Israeli literati are by and large afflicted by the same hubris, naiveté, and detachment from ugly realities that are so characteristic of their cousins throughout the democratic world. Most (but clearly not all) seem convinced that their own claims to superior “sensitivity” confer upon them unique expertise for resolving political and strategic problems and for redressing economic and social problems. All who refuse to acknowledge this superiority in their view are moral Neanderthals.
The Israeli writers at the Berkeley conference described by Mrs. Wisse (and some were “writers” only if the term is to include journalists as well) are no more representative of Israeli public opinion than, say, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, or Anthony Lewis would be of American opinion. Some Israeli writers, like some of their overseas colleagues, just do not like their country, their people, themselves.
There is, of course, great irony at play here. In recent years many Israeli writers have devoted themselves to bewailing the plight of Arab “victims” of Israel, pushing other issues even including the Holocaust to the back. Apparently this reflects their view that the Middle East conflict is quintessentially about injustice inflicted upon Arabs by Jews, whereas the overwhelming majority of Israeli non-writers see the opposite as true. . . .
Note that not a single Arab writer has committed to paper an expression of empathy for or depiction of Jewish suffering, including that during World War II. Anti-Semitic diatribes are another matter. . . .
Israeli writers have regularly conducted “private peace negotiations” in meetings with Arab writers in and outside of Israel. These invariably produce “peace proposals” indistinguishable from the PLO position. After one such meeting three years back, one well-known Israeli novelist emerged in a tantrum. Having just denounced at length the “crimes” of the Israeli government, he was enraged to find that not a single Arab writer would match quid for his quo and criticize the PLO murder of children and other civilians. Yet I have never met a single Israeli non-writer who was surprised by this refusal.
Steven E. Plaut
To the Editor:
Eloquent and elegant as always, Ruth R. Wisse deserves praise for her handling of the rude shocks sustained . . . at the Berkeley conference held last October on the writer and the Jewish community.
Permit me, though, to challenge the title of Mrs. Wisse’s article. . . . What is so Jewish about those people anyway? . . . This was no symposium of Jewish writers but simply a symposium of writers who—with the exception of Anton Shammas—happen to be Jews. Judging by Mrs. Wisse’s report, the conference seems to have been no more than an extended Two Minutes of Hate by a fairly standard group of contemporary liberals and leftists. By definition, these people identify with no religion, no ethnic group, no patria—with nothing but their own “beautiful souls,” the Israeli equivalent of American “bleeding hearts.” . . . There are probably more Left-liberals of this stripe per capita in Israel than anywhere else, even though that little country can ill afford them. . . .
Tragically, the contemptible need of these so-called intellectuals to set themselves above the masses (while adopting politically trendy poses in their names) only serves to encourage the Arabs in their . . . continuing attempts to weaken and divide Israelis from one another, and from the Jews of the Diaspora.
They do indeed, as Mrs. Wisse writes, constitute a mortal danger.
J. S. Sorkin
New York City
Ruth R. Wisse Writes:
I would like to thank Steven E. Plaut for his interesting letter. I would also like to thank J. S. Sorkin for his support, but I cannot dismiss the writers who attended the Berkeley conference as inadequate Jews. To the contrary, I believe that Israeli Jews by virtue of being citizens of the Jewish state in such demanding years contribute more to the security, dignity, and enhancement of the Jewish people than even the staunchest Zionist outside the country. But it was very sad to see that few of the writers appreciate their achievement, and that some treat it with contempt.