Commentary Magazine


Israel's Mission

To the Editor:

We have already had the benefit of Robert Alter’s opinions of those Jews who tend to think that Israel is meaningfully Jewish only in the demographic sense of the word in his long letter in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. Segments of that letter have been lifted bodily into his article [“Israel and the Intellectuals”] in the October [1967] issue of COMMENTARY but gain nothing in their new setting. . . . For example, there is the suggestion . . . that the allegedly “mock-Christian Mission theology of classical German Reform Judaism” has been “thoroughly discredited” by the last hundred years of Jewish history. But the “bizarre irony” in this—to use Mr. Alter’s words—is not the fact that a spokesman for “the modern progressive Jewish intelligentsia” should “revive” this “theology” (which of course never needed to be revived because it was never dead, and which of course too is as intrinsic to Judaism as the Covenant between God and His Chosen People). It is, rather, the fact that a man of Mr. Alter’s caliber should imply that tragedies all the way from Kishinev to Auschwitz were Jewish failures, that the fundamental tenet of Judaism could be “thoroughly discredited” by the barbaric behavior of Central Europeans which, surely, is the supreme and bizarre irony. Auschwitz proved the need for a Chosen People, if proof indeed were needed; and it is too paradoxical for my non-Zionist mind to understand why he should assert that Petlura or Hitler or any other Fascist could have refuted and discredited our Jewish religion. I am led to believe that Mr. Alter, and many like him, suffers from what David Riesman has, in this very context, discussed in his essay, “A Philosophy for Minority Living.” Mr. Alter would be well advised to consider what Riesman described as a traditional Jewish attribute: “the nerve of failure.”

The central issue dealt with by Stone and others, and by and large merely jeered at by Alter, is that Israel’s claim to be Jewish cannot rest on its character as a state conceived or patterned in accordance with that meaning of the word “Jewish” which has to do with morality, justice, and so on. In this context let me mention that, contrary to what Alter implies, I did not live all that “briefly” in Israel but spent four years there, for the most part working for the Council of the Sephardi Community in Jerusalem. I think that this entitles me to claim a somewhat greater expertise on Israel’s social character than those people whom Mr. Alter rightly dismisses as phony experts and of whom he may indeed be one. Equally, I did not write my book after I joined the American Council for Judaism, but nearly a year before; and my anti-Zionism is not based on a priori considerations but on my experiences of living in Israel—to which I originally migrated because I was convinced that it really was the “Jewish” state. Of course minorities do not have to be persecuted minorities; but in Israel as presently constituted they are. And this not because of the seemingly accidental “combination of cultural and historical circumstances” by which Alter explains the situation in Israel, but because of the very nature of the state of Israel as originally conceived and presently structured. Ben Gurion or Dayan are not making “perfectly innocent declarations” when they say that Israel must and will remain a “Jewish” state; and the situation of the Arab minority in Israel cannot blandly be explained away on the basis of the “visible gaps” between “Israel’s egalitarian ideals” and political actualities. As the Jewish state, so-called, Israel cannot permit the full and equal participation of Arabs in its social, political, economic, and cultural life and has demonstrated that it has no intention of doing so. Ben Gurion’s statement to an Israeli Arab quoted by Stone but not commented upon by Alter, is one illustration of this and is worth repeating here. “Israel is the country of the Jews and only of the Jews,” said Ben Gurion. “Every Arab who lives here has the same rights as any minority citizen in any country in the world, but he must admit the fact that he lives in a Jewish country.” Legal inequality of rights is, incidentally, built into Israel’s emerging constitution, for instance in the Law of Return and in the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization Status Law which give Jews rights and statuses in Israel not enjoyed by Israeli Arabs. . . .

The disabilities from which the Oriental Jews suffer in Israel are no less fundamental and even more difficult to analyze in a few words than those of the Israeli Arabs. They too are inherent in the structure of Israel and in the Zionist philosophy which brought that country into being. My observations while living in Israel led me to the profoundly depressing conclusion that the dominant European minority in Israel, accepting the validity of anti-Semitic stereotypes, saw as the only path to Jewish redemption the one which led to refashioning the Jews in the image of those who hated them most—a common enough psychological phenomenon when the nerve of failure—the nerve to be what you are despite the contumely of others—gives way to a failure of nerve. The European Jews have shown remarkable agility in achieving this ambition but, for all sorts of reasons, feel compulsively obliged to force the same achievement on the Oriental Jews too, who have, to date, fortunately shown little interest in this. . . .

I refuse to laud this newly Aryanized Jew for two reasons. Most essentially because, come what may, I want to suffer because of my nerve of failure and not suffer from a failure of nerve. An editorial in one of the Jewish newspapers here exulted, immediately after the recent war, “The glorious fighters of Israel have made an automatic hero of every Jew in America, yea, of the world. Because of Israel’s bravery and shining courage Jews today stand ten feet tall.” I do not believe that Jewish greatness, bravery, courage, or stature can be or ever have been achieved in this way; rather, they are to be achieved only through affirming our unconditional adherence to the notion that morality is the only obligation that matters.

Secondly and secondarily I deplore the Prussian triumphalism of Israel because I can see only too clearly where it is leading: to Israel’s ultimate discomfiture. Your might is worthless, Nebuchadnezzar!

Michael Selzer
New York City

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To the Editor:

As a so-called “intellectual Jew,” I would like to second Robert Alter’s contention that the Israeli “victory was a profoundly unsettling experience.” . . .

In an era of militant nationalisms all over the world, the very idea of an Israeli version of the Blitzkrieg, is enough to make an idealist shudder. . . .

In an imperfect world with a less than perfect (to say the least) world law (as embodied in the United Nations), no one can say that Israel had no right to defend itself. But to glory in victory by force of arms is another story.

Jerome S. Thaler
Peekskill, New York

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Mr. Alter Writes:

Let me begin with matters of historical fact. It is simply false to pretend that the idea of Mission or the concomitant notion of the Jews as a non-national spiritual community is “as intrinsic to Judaism as the Covenant.” While the Covenant is clearly and repeatedly stressed in classical Jewish sources beginning with Genesis, Mission is barely present at all in those sources, except for the Suffering Servant passages of deutero-Isaiah—and then only if one hews closer to the Christian interpretation than that of Jewish tradition, which, if anything, tends to be anti-Mission (see, e.g., Maimonides’s responsum on the dangers of teaching Torah to the Gentiles).

It was the idea of humanity that was discredited by Auschwitz, not “our Jewish religion,” and in any case the inference that I attributed the refutation of Mission theology solely or chiefly to the Nazis and their like is quite fantastic. The hundred years of Jewish history to which I referred involve stirring as well as horrifying events, the creation of a viable Jewish state and a renascence of Jewish culture as well as the Holocaust. Through the examination of their own consciousness against the background of history, most Jews have discovered they simply could not believe that they had a divinely appointed mission to the Gentiles, that they were a confessional group and in no way a people, or any of the other tenets of the program of interim assimilation concocted by those 19th-century pseudo-religionists so anxious to be thought of as “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” It is instructive as well as admirable that last June spokesmen for American Reform Judaism, less than a century after the anti-Zionism of the Pittsburgh Platform, were among the first to denounce the cabal against Israel among American Christian leaders.

On the subject of living as a minority or a majority, I’m afraid Mr. Selzer beclouds the issues by invoking David Riesman’s double-talk—which, it is interesting to note, is now being circulated by a Beirut government publication. The collective refusal of Jews to continue in the role of victim surely does not imply that they must assume the role of their traditional victimizers, and the comparison between Israelis and Nazis upon which Mr. Selzer—like the Russians and Arabs—insists is even falser than it is morally offensive. (Here let me also point out to Mr. Thaler that it would do no violence to his idealism to recognize a radical difference between Israel’s necessary defensive war waged against surrounding armies poised to attack and Hitler’s murderous onslaught against the civilian masses of innocent nations. The only similarity is in the swiftness of the initial victory.) One wonders what Mr. Selzer finds that is “Prussian” about Israel’s democratized citizens’ army (it doesn’t even march in step!), and that term is even more grotesquely inapplicable to Israel’s cultural and moral climate. A comparison of the Israeli and American press, moreover, reveals that it was Time and Life that struck notes of “triumphalism” after the war, while Ha’Aretz, Ma’ariv, Yediot Aharonot, etc., stressed rather a sense of gratitude, relief, pride saddened by the awareness of the war dead.

In the matter of Israel’s minorities, Mr. Selzer refuses to admit the self-evident distinction between social prejudice and official persecution. Many Israelis of European origin do regrettably assume an intrinsic superiority to people from the Arab world, but all Israeli citizens are equal before the law. The Law of Return enables Jewish immigrants to become citizens without a process of naturalization, for, in the terms of the Balfour Declaration, the country is conceived as a Jewish homeland, but Gentiles may become citizens through other procedures and they enjoy the same rights after the fact of citizenship. The chief historical circumstance I had in mind as a cause of Israeli suspicion (though, remarkably, not hatred) of its Arab minority is of course the fact that the Arabs of the surrounding states have been dedicated for twenty years to the extirpation of Israel, have conducted campaigns of terror against Jewish civilian populations throughout this period, and, indeed, as far back as the early 20′s. This essential negative circumstance is manifestly one for which Israel cannot be held accountable.

Since Mr. Selzer is at pains to establish his own credentials, a note of identification on the Council of the Sephardi Community may be helpful for American readers. It is a special-interest group organized on a racist bias, and as anyone who reads its monthly newsletter can testify, its vision of Israeli politics and culture is frequently paranoid. Mr. Selzer’s association with this group during his four years in Jerusalem explains why he has such peculiar notions about Israel and Israeli minorities. He was in his work for the Sephardi Council what he is in his present work for the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism—essentially a propagandist, and it is therefore hardly surprising that he should be so given to obfuscation, confusion of terms, offensive pejoratives, and misrepresentations.

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