Commentary Magazine


“Never Again!”

Do not be like your fathers. . . .

Zechariah 1:4

Judaism is a tradition. The Jews are a community of memory, which is to say, of tradition. But tradition is what fathers bequeath to sons: a Jewish expression for tradition is “fathers’ inheritance,” and Jews pray to “our God and our fathers’ God.” The Bible emphatically and repeatedly commands fathers to teach sons, and the liturgy further emphasizes and repeats that command. Sons, for their part, are told to heed their fathers’ instruction.

Remarkably, Jewish sons/descendants are also warned not to be like fathers/ancestors. “Like your fathers”—ka’avotekhem—is used negatively wherever it occurs in the Bible (in II Chronicles 30:7,8, besides Zechariah): “do not be like your fathers,” who ignored the Lord’s earlier prophets; “and do not be like your fathers,” who disobeyed the Lord; “do not be stiff-necked, like your fathers.” And similarly with ka’avotam, “like their fathers” (which occurs twice in Psalm 78): “let them not be like their fathers” and “they were treacherous like their fathers.”

So that While tradition is the authority and example of fathers, in the Jewish tradition not all fathers are authoritative and exemplary. Isaac is worthy of receiving and bequeathing the blessing because he obeys his father Abraham, but Abraham was given the blessing in the first place because he disobeyed his father, the idolater Terah. Honor thy father and thy mother—provided they honor their Father, Who is in heaven.

Even when Jews were traditional, then, it was only the right kind of father upon whom a son was commanded to model himself. Since for some time now most Jews have not been especially traditional, the fathers’ presumptive right to obedience and imitation has been all the more in question. In the old days a son was supposed to ask whether his father was a God-fearing man, in modern times a son has been more likely to ask whether his father is a man.

“Do not be like your fathers.” For a young Jew today this may mean that the generation of the fathers, even those fathers who are themselves not traditional, have not been men; and that it is his duty to differ from them, rebel against them, by being a man. In what way have the fathers not been men? To go back no farther than the beginning of this century, we can instance Bialik’s revulsion, in his poem ‘Ir haharegah, “The City of Slaughter,” for the Jews who would not defend themselves with arms against the Russian government’s armed pogromchiks. (That was in Kishinev in 1903. In Kishinev in 1971 the Russian government brought Jews to trial for the crimes of studying Hebrew and wanting to go to Israel.) Everyone used to know that Jews were good businessmen and no farmers at all, and now Israelis will tell you, more proudly than regretfully, that they are good farmers and bad businessmen. The Jews who did not fight the pogromchiks were storekeepers—“businessmen”—rather than farmers. Israel was the effort of Jews who agreed with Bialik to transform themselves.

It is easy for young Jews to see in their fathers a negative model (“Uncle Jake”). It is easy even for fathers to see in their former selves (e.g., true believers in the Soviet Union as the enemy of anti-Semitism) a negative model for their present selves. Fathers and sons can agree: “Do not be like your fathers. Never again!”

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“Never again!” must have been used as a slogan long before nie wieder Krieg! (“never again war”) was popular in Germany, between Kaiser and Fuehrer. Among Jews the currency of the slogan seems to date from the anxious weeks before the 1967 war, when Israel was threatened with destruction. “Never again!” we said, the “again” recalling what Hitler had done, had been allowed to do, to the Jews. Never again, we meant, would we let others fool us or would we fool ourselves about the intention of those who intended to destroy the Jews. Never again would we lean on that broken reed, enlightened opinion. Never again would we do less than all we could do. Never again would we expose ourselves to our own reproaches for having done less.

The “never again!” that 1967 aroused in us (to the surprise of many in whom it was aroused) was not altogether extinguished when disaster to Israel had been averted. It remained, available, for mobilizing us in the defense of Jews, or Jewish needs and hopes, wherever else they were attacked or threatened: imprimis in the Soviet Union, but in the United States as well. Never again would we incur the guilt, or the guiltfeeling, of 1933-45.

In these times, how do you answer an eighteen-year-old son or daughter who asks you why the Jews of America were so well-behaved while the Nazis were murdering the Jews of Europe? You can tell the truth, which is that we did not know, or did not believe, how bad things really were; that because there was so much anti-Semitism in the United States we were afraid of increasing it, afraid of giving even more of a Jewish label to the war, by calling attention to ourselves; that we preferred to see the big, unparochial picture, with the liberals among us more comfortable about denouncing the State Department—we knew how to exempt Roosevelt—for being beastly to de Gaulle than for not losing sleep over the Jews, and the radicals sure that “socialism” would cure everything. We can tell our children that if they had been living then, they would have been as we were and done as we did. But that is a less than satisfactory answer to give them, or to give ourselves. Never again!

A Jewish March on Washington, or more Jewish criticism of Roosevelt, might not have made much difference for the Jews of Hitler’s Europe. The difference it would have made is for the Jews of the United States. We would feel less guilty. We might even be less guilty.

Moscow now is not Berlin then. The sclerotic Marxism-Leninism, the Great Russian chauvinism, and the Great Power imperialism of the Soviet apparatchiks are not the Nazism of Hitler and Himmler. All this is true. It is also true that Moscow, not Madrid, Athens, or Cape Town, is the present capital of anti-Semitism. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has more credit with—as the expression goes—the ruling circles of Moscow (and Warsaw and Prague) than of other cities, Damascus and Cairo always excepted.

What are the Jews to do? In the Soviet Union some have done wonders. The intensity of Jewish feeling, in a land with none or almost none of the Jewish things that Jews in the United States (or Canada, or Great Britain, or France) take for granted: synagogues, schools, seminaries, books, journals, camps, clubs, organizations, movements, El Al; the courage, bordering on recklessness, in demonstratively challenging a government of jailers hostile equally to Jews and to challenges—that after so many years, in a milieu so unpromising, any substantial number at all should give proof of such virtues, Jewish and human, is not easily to be explained or lightly to be explained away.

Outside the Soviet Union, what we can do is try to make the Soviet authorities pay a higher price than their anti-Semitism/anti-Jewishness is worth to them. For Hitler the destruction of the Jews was a good so transcendent that no price was too high: his managers and engineers told him his war plants needed more and more workers, and he murdered the Jews who could have worked in those plants; his generals told him he did not have enough trains to carry troops and munitions to the front, and he took away trains to carry Jews to the death camps. By the high price Hitler was willing to pay, he showed the value he put on destroying the Jews. The Soviet authorities know they must pay some price for their enmity to the Jews; but for them, unlike Hitler, the enmity is not beyond price. If their Jewish policy costs them too much, they may relent. This is the reasoning behind the publicity and demonstrations by Jews outside Russia. Within Russia, the demonstrative Jews reason that if they make enough of a nuisance of themselves, the authorities probably will put them into prison, but possibly will let them go to Israel.

In the first months of 1971 the Soviet Union let more Jews leave than at any time since the early years after the Revolution. This was due above all to the Russian Jews themselves. We hope it was due to us, too, a little.

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In the United States no Jew who cares about the Jews of the Soviet Union thinks we have done enough. (Except that Lubavitcher Hasidim. for instance, who care a great deal, have their own tactics and philosophy, and they think we are provoking Caesar imprudently.) Those who say we have not done enough will often blame our organizations and institutions. These, they believe, are inept, or are lukewarm, or because of rivalry get in each other’s way and harm the common enterprise.

Ineptness, lukewarmness, and rivalry are the friction of social machines, which can only be reduced, not eliminated. For the Russian Jews, American-Jewish organizations and institutions have worked with less friction than normal. The dissatisfaction we express with our organizations and institutions is really dissatisfaction with ourselves.

We need no particular bravery, nor any extraordinary intensity of Jewish feeling, to attend meetings, to write a Congressman, to send a cablegram to the Kremlin, to demonstrate, to picket. Yet how many of us have done even those things? We are a large share of the consumers of art and culture. In New York we may be an actual majority, week in and week out, of those who go to the theater, opera, symphony, ballet. Not many months ago in New York, connoisseurs assembling in Carnegie Hall to see a troupe of Soviet folk dancers brushed by a picket line that was pleading with them to boycott the performance in reproof of the Soviet government’s Jewish policy. Art—specifically, the art of the Siberian dancers of Omsk—was greater than political passion, those elevated souls were saying by their deeds; and people like us must strive to bridge, not widen, division. They would not have bought tickets to the performance of a troupe sent by the South African government, or brushed righteously by pickets distributing leaflets against apartheid. I have heard that at a major American university, after a visit by South Africans had been cancelled, one by a Soviet troupe was well-attended, despite picketing. Thus did the university community show its disapproval of the excessively-Jewish protesters’ insensitivity to art and international understanding. Jews are a large share of the culture consumers in universities, too.

But if we are a sorry lot, we are a bit less of a sorry lot than we used to be. That may be because of the example of Israel, or of the Soviet Jews, or of American blacks. It may be because America has changed for the better since the days when it was Hitler who was the Jews’ enemy. And it may be because we do not wish to be as we were then, or had to be. Whatever the reasons, we are now less fearful, less inclined to self-censorship, in defense of Jews.

Thirty years ago we insisted we opposed the Nazis because we were Americans and democrats. We had little choice. Lindbergh was only the most prominent of those who accused us of enticing America, for narrow Jewish interests, into a war that was none of her business. Today an occasional editorial revives that line—though with anti-Jewish language rather less blunt, and with Russia substituting for Germany as the country with which America (and all the West) must learn to live at peace: why should the Jews be allowed to jeopardize a détente so necessary to all? The revival of Lindbergh coincides with the revival of the Jewish-warmonger line. (Their coinciding, of course, is no more than a coincidence.)

So far, we have been able to persist. We say we will stop when the Soviet Union stops. Let it stop persecuting the Soviet Jews. Let it stop forbidding them to do what they need and want to do in order to be Jews. The Soviet Union must do its part for détente, and this includes Jewish freedom for the Soviet Jews.

But the pressures against selfish Jewish protests about the Soviet Union are likely to mount. Everyone is talking of a new coalition in American politics. A new America First movement may be that coalition, with room for Old Right and Old Left, New Left and New Right; and maybe also for a few Jews, as in the old America First. The new America First is likely to resemble the old in uniting upper-class and “responsible” types—more of them than we like to remember—with the slopebrows and the rancorous we remember so well. Lindbergh was pro-German. The second-generation Lindberghs will be anti-anti-Russian.

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The Jewish Defense League is often thought of as the purest, most unremitting expression of American-Jewish devotion to Soviet Jewry. That is a mistake. JDL was a latecomer. It owes its celebrity, and consequently much of any importance it may have, to the press and TV—especially TV. In part this is for technical reasons: JDL knows how to do and say “newsworthy” things. But in part, also, the press and TV like JDL, they need JDL.

Before Vice President Agnew began to say what he has said, a liberal academic had said something not very different. In 1968 Eric Goldman wrote, in his Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson:

. . . in the 1960′s . . . in the upper-income city neighborhoods and particularly in the suburbs, a new and influential type was emerging, the Metroamerican . . . youthful, educated, affluent, more likely to have some minority blood in his veins. . . . He had ideals. . . . He was liberal. . . .

Metroamericans were . . . especially important . . . because of their dominance in the world of books, magazines, radio and television.

(Today “minorities” apparently do not include the Jews, but in those far-off days of 1968 we knew what was meant by “minority blood.” Even the Catholics were a minority then: Goldman says that in the eyes of the Metroamericans, John F. Kennedy “was a minority boy who made it to the White House.”)

For years now liberals and radicals, especially if of Jewish parentage, have been telling themselves and us that American Jews have turned selfishly conservative, or actually reactionary. I can testify to this personally, because I have repeatedly1 found it necessary to show how wrong this is, as by citing the latest voting data. (In November 1970 the Jews were still voting more liberal than any comparable group, and still giving more liberal answers to the opinion pollsters. See the American Jewish Committee Research Report [December 1970] by my colleagues Amy Malzberg and Geraldine Rosenfield, “America Votes, 1970.”) For the press and TV, therefore, JDL could not be more opportune. The dull statistician may tell us the Jews are still disproportionately liberal, but here is JDL saying out loud what the Jews really think, showing them up for what they really are—as hard-hat as the rest of hard-hat America.

It is because of the violent and extremist impression of the Jews which JDL wants to give, and others want to receive, that the established Jewish community organizations have felt obliged to insist that JDL is unrepresentative, and damaging. Is it not clear that the further decay of restraint and the further growth of what has been termed the cult of utterness will be worse for the Jews than for almost anyone else? And when JDL acts most distinctively JDL-ishly, it does not help the Russian Jews, either.

JDL is said not only to be the voice of a besieged and resentful lower-middle class, but also to be Orthodox. If Orthodox means what is not conventionally liberal or enlightened, then JDL is Orthodox. (Meir Kahane is an Orthodox rabbi.) But its Orthodoxy is of a special sort—one is tempted to say, a folk Orthodoxy. JDL does not look to Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, or the decisors, or rashe yeshivot, or any of the Hasidic leaders and movements, or Breuer-Frankfurt, or even Mizrachi—no need to mention Agudath Israel, and a fortiori the quietist or actually anti-Israel sectaries. The derivation is from Vladimir Jabotinsky; and his attitude toward Orthodoxy, or more generally toward Jewish tradition, had some resemblance to Charles Maurras’s attitude toward Catholicism. Maurras was not much of a believer, but as a nationalist he was for French tradition, and that included Catholicism. Maurras attracted many Catholics, and Jabotinsky attracted some of the Jewish Orthodox. If I am not mistaken, a generation ago in Poland young Jews who had abandoned the political quietism in which they had been brought up but who refused to break with Orthodoxy were apt to join Jabotinsky’s party in Zionism; and in Palestine—as it then was—apt to join the Irgun Tseva’i Le’ummi instead of the Haganah. (Such rather un-Orthodox Jews as Ben Hecht, in this country, could support the Irgun, too.) When Rabbi Kahane was a boy he belonged to Betar, the Jabotinskyite youth movement.

Though most Jews are not for JDL, some defend it—not for what it is in itself but as a stick to beat the Jewish Establishment with. Of these, in turn, some dislike the Jewish Establishment because it is too much an Establishment, and some because it is too little Jewish. But that can be a distinction more logical than actual, and the one dislike may shade into the other. Thus the published accusation by “a young Jewish radical”: “The Jewish Establishment is so busy serving other people’s causes that it neglects the cause of its own people.” If he actually is a Jewish radical, he is probably alleging that the Jewish section of the bourgeoisie, insecure and vulnerable, curries favor with its superiors in the bourgeois ruling class by doing their dirty work, oppressing the non-Jewish and Jewish masses alike.

But suppose that the young man is less a Jewish radical than a radical Jew. Then his accusation can mean something different, and can have a thoroughly familiar Jewish ring. Song of Songs 1:6 reads: “. . . .they set me to tending the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not tended .” The Targum renders:

Said the Assembly of Israel to the peoples: “. . . they taught me to worship your follies and to follow in your ways; but the Master of the Universe, who is my God, I have not worshipped, and in His ways I have not followed, and His commands and His Torah I have not kept.”

For Yalqût Shim’oni, “tending the vineyards” means “honoring the [alien] nations”; and “‘my vineyard’—that is the Holy One blessed be He.”

According to the modern development of the old midrash, we are so busy serving other people’s causes that we neglect the cause of our own people; or, the Jewish Establishment is so busy serving other people’s causes that it neglects the cause of its own people.

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In a congregational bulletin the Orthodox rabbi of my community has written:

Permit me to present the hapless figure of Avraham Hershkovitz. He was apprehended boarding an airliner with weapons in his possession. The accusation against him was that he was planning to hijack an Arab airship. In the end, the charge against him was for falsifying a passport application.

Mr. Hershkovitz was held in $50,000 bail . . . no Jewish group . . . was willing to come forward to raise bail for him. One lone Jewish individual refused to let Hershkovitz spend Pesach in jail and he came forward with the necessary funds. . . .

I do not write to defend the plans and machinations of Mr. Avraham Hershkovitz, but why is a party for the Berrigans kosher and one for Hershkovitz trepha?

Now that Hershkovitz has been . . . sentenced to five years for falsifying a passport application, where are the voices to cry out . . . that the sentence may possibly be harsh with respect to the actual deed?

(Passover is when the Song of Songs is read in the synagogue.)

What the Orthodox rabbi and the radical Jew. and many in between, have in common is shame and anger that “. . . my own vineyard I have not tended.” The accompanying resolve is “never again!”

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Footnotes

1 COMMENTARY, December 1960, May 1961, January 1963, January 1965, July 1965, April 1967, March 1969, January 1970.

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