Commentary Magazine


Revolutionism & the Jews:2 - Appropriating the Religious Tradition

On telegraph avenue near the Berkeley-Oakland border, an easy walk from one of the cradles of hippie culture and still closer to the national headquarters of the Black Panther party, there is a billboard on which is written in six-foot-high letters this and nothing else: MAN, MYTH, AND MAGIC. This alliterative enigma is in fact the announcement of a new publication, but it could also serve as the motto for the “counter-culture” flamboyantly evident a mile away, and visible elsewhere across the country wherever the young and the dissident gather. The still growing infatuation with ritual, mysticism, and the occult is sometimes dissociated from political activity, in other cases—witness the attempted levitation of the Pentagon—curiously intertwined with political protest. Among Jews the new vogue of exotic traditions has had the peculiar effect of giving an unexpected cachet to Judaism—not, of course, the organizational Judaism of the “complacent” suburbanite in his million-dollar temple, but the unquiet faith of an inscrutable Kabbalah, of an ecstatic Hasidism, of the Prophets with their impulse of intransigent social criticism.

As with the Gentiles, so with the Jews—some manifestations of the cultic revival have been hyperconsciously religious (or psychotherapeutic) and basically apolitical, like Shlomo Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, where Hasidism, folk music, and an Esalen touch of togetherness join hands in exaltation. Most of the advanced Jewish young, however, are politically conscious, and for many of them the Jewish idea seems to be playing an increasingly important role in their political consciousness. As recently as three or four years ago, it might have seemed absurd to be “hung up” on ancestral traditions when one should be preparing to put his body on the line for the sake of his oppressed brothers and sisters in the black ghettos and in Southeast Asia, but today the concern with tradition is increasingly seen as a point of departure for political activism. This development is in part an imitative response to the continuing stress on militant self-affirmation, or “liberation,” among the dark-skinned ethnic minorities, but it is also encouraged by the discovery in the light of the new irrationalism that Judaism, as a vivid body of myth invested with the spiritual authority of three millennia, provides rich resources for dissent from the technological flatness and bureaucratic impersonality of a detested “Amerika.”

Since my account of this phenomenon already verges on the simplifications of caricature, let me stress at the outset that there are enormous differences in outlook, sensibility, and even political aims among the varied groups that now identify themselves as Jewish radicals (with the adjective emphasized). Indeed, there are currents of Jewish radicalism quite as far apart, at least in mentality, as the American Council for Judaism is from the Jewish Defense League. I shall not attempt here either a comprehensive survey of the new Jewish radical groups or a general critique of their political views. What I would like to do is to consider a few of the representative ways in which Jewish historical experience is being made a rationale for political involvement, in order to try to distinguish which of these ways may be viable, which problematic or dubious, and finally which may seriously violate the central values of Jewish tradition.

For some of the new radicals, the Jewish past is above all a source of vocabulary, and it is a vocabulary that has peculiar effects on the rhetorical tenor of political discourse and perhaps on political conceptualization as well. Let me offer as an initial example a central paragraph from the Statement of Principles of a group called the National Jewish Organizing Project.1

The authors of injustice and oppression in America are not Jewish. They are serving a set of social forms that is destroying Jews, and all Americans, as the Pharaohs destroyed the Israelites and all who lived in Egypt. We name the Pharaohs in Congress and the White House, who multiply the weapons that will someday burn us all to death. We name the Pharaohs in our great auto companies, who condemn the public to be mangled and die rather than spend their profits on a car that would protect its occupants. We name the Pharaohs in a hundred county courthouses and city jails and college administration buildings, who harass the young and break their freedom of speech and press. We name the Pharaohs who poison the air and water, the Pharaohs who build pyramids of steel and canals of concrete where once stood neighborhoods.

As an account of contemporary American society, this passage in its distortive intemperance is obviously of a piece with other kinds of New Left writing. One might note as a symptomatic expression of this mentality the paranoid certainty of “the weapons that will someday burn us all to death” where a sober assessment of the facts would have dictated at least the qualification of a future-conditional verb. The introduction of the pharaonic imagery does not change the fundamental view of America, though it would seem to increase the factor of distortion by inviting the writers to indulge in that most dangerous form of intellectual promiscuity, the melodramatization of politics. Midrashic exposition in general lacks all sense of historical perspective—which may be fine for the inculcation of a timeless divine law but is disastrous as a mode of political analysis. We are asked, apparently, to see a complete identity between the literal enslavement and mass infanticide reported in the biblical story, and the sundry institutional ills and inequities of contemporary America, conceived to be perpetrated everywhere by conscious despots of murderously malific intent. The casting, for example, of a Grayson Kirk or a Clark Kerr as a pharaoh in the administration building, harassing the young and breaking their freedom, reflects a ghastly absence of perspective on the concrete historical meaning of oppression, not to speak of a lack of all sense of humor. Incidentally, the composers of the statement do not hesitate to read back their own jaundiced view of the American present into the biblical past. The ancient pharaohs in their version destroy not merely the Israelites but “all who lived in Egypt,” an implication of which the account in Exodus is quite innocent.

All of this has precisely the quality of a bad sermon: it insistently invokes the Bible as a trope for contemporary experience in a way that must strike a sensitive listener as both arbitrary and pretentious. From the elevation of their pulpit, the exhorters easily assume that they have a Mission to carry the eternal Word to the sons of men, though in the realm of politics there are many words, and none is always right: “The age of the individual prophet is over, but the prophetic voice and mission must rise from the People, the Community, the Movement.” One might forgive this as, after all, a sincere statement of concern about injustice by serious young people were it not for the assumption of the prophetic burden, which is so self-important and spiritually vacuous. Such a politics of preachment, moreover, tends to assume, even without mentioning God’s name, a quasi-divine and hence absolute authority for its own particular view of contemporary problems—always a dangerous assumption.

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The initiators of the National Jewish Organizing Project are at least circumspect in beginning their Statement with the assertion that “Judaism is a religious civilization based on action”—Mordecai Kaplan, I fear, is being hustled to the barricades—but another group, the Jewish Liberation Project, is less inhibited in opening a working paper with the flat declaration that “True commitment to the Jewish tradition necessitates participation in revolutionary struggles.” Historically, of course, this is nonsense. We have had a Judah Maccabee, we have had a Bar Kokhba, and those who are so inclined may say that “we” have had a Marx and a Trotsky, but there is not the slightest indication of a consensus on revolutionary politics in “the Jewish tradition.” On the contrary, one finds in the traditions’ wide variety of inferable or explicit political views a good deal of conservatism and political quietism. The proto-Hobbesian outlook of Rabbi Hanina (Avot 3:2) is one that found abundant echoes in the psychology and practical politics of Jews over the ages: “Pray for the welfare of the government, since were it not for fear of its authority, men would swallow each other alive.”

I obviously don’t mean to suggest that a Jew need accept any particular political view simply because it has been articulated in the tradition, but the converse, where one’s own political views are imposed upon the tradition, is pernicious because it absolutizes politics, and one brand of politics at that. To the degree that the Jewish Liberation Projecters are seriously thinking in terms of the authority of tradition and not merely using tradition as a rhetorical prop, a Jew like Nathan Glazer or Irving Kristol must seem not just a benighted political opponent but a hateful heretic who has renounced the eternal Law and the prophetic heritage to become the accomplice of satanic pharaohs. Jews may commendably choose commitments to responsible political activism but this hardly necessitates politicizing Judaism itself. The appropriation of Jewish tradition by the Jewish Organizers and Liberators points toward the general restriction of human richness and variety that would be effected by those forces now seeking to subject all spheres of life—religion, education, domestic relations, the arts—to an imperious political impulse.

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Surely the most bizarre instance of the tyranny of politics over religion among radical Jews is a document entitled The Freedom Seder2 compiled by Arthur Waskow, a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. and one of the moving spirits in the National Jewish Organizing Project. Waskow explains in an introductory note that the idea of a “liberation Haggadah” occurred to him during the Passover of 1968, a week after the murder of Martin Luther King, in the midst of “the April uprising of Black Washington against the blank-eyed pyramid-builders of our own time.” Such a peculiar characterization of the events of April 1968 could be made only by someone who automatically identifies all black violence as an “uprising” against despots, and the body of Waskow’s Haggadah is completely in keeping with the political thinking and the rhetoric of this initial statement. Within a sketchy framework adopted from the traditional Haggadah, Waskow introduces calls for “Liberation now!,” the singing of “Solidarity Forever,” the chant of “all power to the people,” and a queer amalgam of quotations from Eldridge Cleaver, Herbert Marcuse, Allen Ginsberg, A. J. Muste, Thoreau, and Martin Buber.

Waskow’s call for liberation reaches a crescendo-pitch in the concluding verse of his adaptation of Dayeinu, which sounds like a comic parody but is, of course, entirely serious: “How much then are we in duty bound to struggle, work, share, give, think, plan, feel, organize, sit-in, speak out, dream, hope, and be on behalf of Mankind! For we must end the genocide [in Vietnam]3 . . . stop police brutality in many countries, free the poets from their jails, educate us all to understand their poetry, liberate us all to explore our inner ecstasies. . . .” The hollow hortatory tone of the politics of preachment is joined here with a total incapacity to make significant distinctions about the meanings of words and of different political situations. Of all peoples in a world that has lived through Auschwitz, Jews ought to be the last to accept mindlessly the propagandistic black-militant usage of “genocide,” yet for Waskow that terrible term seems an equally appropriate rubric for, variously, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in a civil war, for social and economic discrimination, cultural repression, and physical expulsion (of the items on his list, I leave out only the ruthless tribal persecution in Biafra, where there may be some justification for the term).

This inability to draw distinctions makes it dizzyingly easy for Waskow to identify Jewish tradition with the militant politics and the psychedelic sensibility fostered by the new mass culture of the young and the would-be young. At first glance, his updated Haggadah might seem to resemble those touchingly naive Haggadahs of the early kibbutz movement, where the four cups were drunk in pledges of solidarity to the workers of the world and bad Hebrew verses on the burgeoning soil were sung to sentimental melodies. There is, however, something much more wildly out of whack in Waskow’s attempt to combine tradition and ideology, and I think it has to do with his nearly total lack of discrimination about language, values, ideas, and historical experience. Revealingly, he begins his Haggadah by paraphrasing the traditional Havdalah ceremony in the following manner: “Blessed art thou, O Lord . . . who makest a distinction between holy and equally holy: between the holiness of this festival and the equal holiness of the Sabbath; between the holiness of light and the equal holiness of darkness; between the holiness of the Jewish people and the equal holiness of other peoples.” This may appear noble to some but it is profoundly un-Jewish. Traditional Jewish law in fact is built upon a hierarchy of holiness, with careful distinctions made among different levels and categories of holiness, and a sharp differentiation drawn between sacred and profane. The festival, in hard legal terms, is definitely not equal in holiness to the Sabbath, and, whether we find it palatable or not, the tradition clearly insists on the superior holiness of Israel to the other peoples. (On the question of divine election, the Re-constructionists are more honest in avowedly rejecting part of tradition rather than inventing a spurious tradition in consonance with their own values.) Later, at a culminating point in the Seder, Waskow’s leveling approach to hierarchies of sanctity becomes offensively shrill when he inserts between the first two paragraphs of the Hallel (Psalms 113 and 114) a poem by Allen Ginsberg which begins with the word “holy” repeated fifteen times and then continues:

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin
    is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and
    cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere
    is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an
    angel!

Aesthetically, of course, this is horrendous, not only because the stately linguistic decorum of the Psalms is interrupted by Ginsberg’s assertively coarse language, but also because we are suddenly thrust from one of the peaks of world poetry to the bathos of this Whitmanesque doggerel gush. The violation of aesthetic frameworks, however, merely mirrors the more serious violation of a framework of value. As in the orgiastic Frankist sect of the 18th century, Judaism is here fused with its opposite, the cult of Dionysus, the cult which, according to Nietzsche, denies the principle of individuation, affirms the valueless, identityless unity of all in a holy universal surge of primordial energy.

Waskow, admittedly, seems primarily a political animal rather than a religious one, and the inclusion of the Ginsberg poem may reveal more about his bad taste than his serious theology, if he has any. Nevertheless, the annihilation of distinctions programmatically affirmed in the poem plays an important role in his enlistment of Jewish tradition in the “liberation” struggle. Holiness is everywhere, all mankind is Jewish, and the emblems of religious authority are dispensed as freely as dime-store police-badges at a child’s birthday party. One may balk a little at Waskow’s “Rabbi Buber,” “Prophet Gandhi,” and “Prophet Abraham Johannes Muste,” but one could easily choke on “Ginsberg the Tzaddik” and “the Prophet Dylan,” while “Rabbi Hannah Arendt” seems an open invitation to a crude guffaw. This absurdly gratuitous bestowing of titles makes sense only in terms of Waskow’s need to invest political stances with religious authority, and of his consequent assumption that views resembling his own have a self-evident religious validation.

The process attains a grotesque extreme in the introduction of “the shofet Eldridge Cleaver (who went into exile like Moses).” A shofet is a biblical “judge,” defined flatly in the text of The Freedom Seder as a “revolutionary leader.” (Having thus absorbed revolutionaries into the tradition, the latter-day Haggadist feels free to set them in a single line with apostles of nonviolence.) It is curious that Waskow, who introduces a note of nationally self-lacerating moral sensitivity into his Passover service—“Search further, and inquire what our own fathers Moses and Joshua intended to do to our brothers the Canaanites”—should celebrate the shoftim, some of whom were no more than ruthless marauders or desperadoes, and who certainly mark one of the less edifying moments of biblical history. The shoftim, of course, fall within Waskow’s canon because they can be seen as precursors of the Black Panthers and the FLN, which suggests that it is really contemporary politics that gives its stamp of approval to tradition, and not the other way around: it is hardly surprising that Waskow’s text was first published in Ramparts. Waskow does not mention that the place of exile elected by the Moses-like Cleaver is Algeria, one of the world’s hotbeds of hatred for Israel, and that from this choice location Cleaver has been urging the destruction of the Jewish state with increasing stridency. At this rate, one may well look for the appearance of the shofet Yassir Arafat in a future edition of The Freedom Seder.

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Waskow’s Haggadah is in a very literal psychological sense a perversion because it is a document of self-loathing and self-abasement masquerading as an expression of self-affirmation. In this regard, the fuzzy-role in his text played by Israel is symptomatic of his wavering sense of identity. Waskow is not explicitly anti-Zionist—though, as we have seen, he does not hesitate to cite the authority of anti-Zionists—but the existence of Israel makes him clearly uncomfortable in important respects. For other “progressive” peoples, nationalism is an unquestioned birthright, but the Jew is obliged to be, first and last, a universalist. Thus, when Waskow cites the traditional Seder phrase, “This year here, next year in the land of Israel,” he must hasten to assure us that he is not a Zionist white colonizer preparing to move into the territory of a Third-World people: “And as another tradition says, ‘Ubi libertas, ibi patria’—where there is liberty, that is my country. That is my Israel.” One notes how when a Jew ceases to be a Jew he becomes either a pagan or a Christian or, as in Waskow’s case, both. Just as John the Divine transformed a flesh-and-blood people into a universal spiritual symbol of “true Israel,” Waskow converts the revolutionary fact of the reborn Jewish state into a facile moral abstraction, letting others worry about the fate of two million Jews threatened with destruction, while he continues to “dream, hope, and be on behalf of Mankind.” At this enormous remove from the agonizing political realities of Israel, it is easy enough to intone moralistic accusations about Israel’s abandoning of the prophetic legacy. Characteristically, in a quasi-poem by Marilyn Lowen appended to The Freedom Seder, Moshe Dayan is introduced as “that decadent prophet,” and then a quotation from Dayan, wrenched violently out of context, is offered to make him look like a savage and bloody-minded oppressor of innocent Arabs.4

The self-effacement before black militancy that underlies the Waskow Haggadah culminates in Marilyn Lowen’s poem, where Jewish self-hatred and white self-hatred combine: “our brothers our cousins/ our black our brown family/ before we were bleached/ in this desert of exile/ we too were healthy in color.” One might think that if the poet were so distressed as a Jew about her deficient pigmentation, she might move to Israel, where more than half the Jewish population is happily unbleached, with marriage between white and “colored” Jews a healthily growing phenomenon. But her poem, which ends with a prayer to be “next year in the third world,” explicitly prefers Cairo to Jerusalem: “This PASS-OVER/ we beseech thee O Lord/ Deliver us back into Egypt/ that we may join with our/ brothers.” If Miss Lowen is interested in knowing what the Arab attitude toward dark pigmentation actually has been, I would refer her to “Arabs and Negroes” (Encounter, August 1970), a beautifully documented essay by Bernard Lewis, the distinguished historian of Islam, but I make the rather unrealistic assumption that this sort of implacable self-rejection is susceptible to change through education. Jewish self-hatred is an all-too-familiar phenomenon. What is relatively new about this latest version—at least for Jews who have turned to political activism—is that it comes gaudily wrapped in a maxi-length prophetic mantle, the renunciation of Jewish ties made in the name of a higher Judaism.

One might note that the habit of approaching political issues with a holier-than-thou moralism has of late been encouraged by some established Jewish religious leaders. In this respect, it is instructive that Waskow should simultaneously revile the Jewish Establishment and seek its endorsement for his enterprise. Among the authorities whose help he acknowledges at the end of The Freedom Seder is the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Bernard Mandelbaum (who has since vehemently dissociated himself from Waskow), and Balfour Brickner, a senior administrator of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Elsewhere, in the first trial issue of Sh’ma, a new “journal of Jewish responsibility,” distinctly Waskovian wavelengths emanate from a piece by Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who presides over one of the most prosperous Reform congregations in the country. Denouncing supposed Jewish complacency about the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State killings, Wolf argues that Jews are now afraid to criticize American foreign and domestic policy because of their “cowardly acquiescence to Israel,” a conclusion that could be reached only through the now fashionable habit of contemplating one’s own need to feel moral about politics, not by any serious observation of the political activities and voting patterns of American Jews.

It is finally hard to take seriously any of the religious paraphernalia of The Freedom Seder because Waskow’s enterprise is so clearly the crude political rape of a religious tradition. At a rather different point on the political-religious spectrum, a Los Angeles group called the Radical Jewish Community enacted another kind of innovative Seder on the fourth day of Passover 1970, starting at a place called Goshen Avenue and moving on to the seashore and then to a hilly desert. This singular event is reported in detail by Richard N. Levy in the same trial issue of Sh’ma that featured Arnold Wolf’s sermonic obituary for the old Jewish liberalism. The difference in tone between the Los Angeles Haggadah and Waskow’s is strikingly illustrated by the words of instruction with which the Jewish Radical Community begins its service:

YHVH are four English letters corresponding to the four Hebrew letters comprising Ha-Shem, the “NAME” (yud heh vav heh) . It does not correspond to the idol of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition, “God.” The “NAME” is meant to connote that which can never be pronounced or understood in a word, and that which all words vainly struggle to express. We shall consequently never pronounce YHVH in the form of the spoken word. Instead, YHVH will be expressed among us in the form of one or two minutes of silent groping meditation.

This at least sounds like the expression of a serious religious awareness—instead of a self-advertising hullabaloo of holy-holy’s, an attempt to be still and feel the presence of real holiness; instead of the politics of preachment, with its easy arrogation of absolute authority for relative political views, a sense of spiritual humility in the face of the Absolute. The Radical Jewish Community, to be sure, does have an acute political consciousness, drawing upon the simplistic conspiratorial visions of modern society cherished by the New Left. “And the Amerikans drowned our pride,” this Haggadah says of what is conceived as the latest Jewish enslavement, “in hardworking powerless affluence so that our synagogues became haunted echo chambers.” The bit about the haunted echo chambers is not bad, but to attribute the inner emptiness of American-Jewish life to the sinister conspiracy of a quasi-Nazi Amercan Establishment is the kind of shameful evasion of historical reality and responsibility that collective paranoia always invites. More interesting is the way the Radical Jewish Community joins its political awareness with a very contemporary sense of the magical expressive power of ritual. The ceremonial parsley is dipped not in any piddling bowl of salt water but in the ocean itself, which enables the celebrants to remind themselves that the sea is the source and sustainer of all life, that its waters were once pure, and so: “May the dirt and bitterness we are about to taste remind us of the bitterness of our polluted waters.”

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Still in pursuit of immediate contact with primal realities, the young radicals roast a lamb in sacrificial style, with head and legs and innards, on the coals of an open fire, announcing, “We reject the phoney token shankbone which the Jewish Establishment puts on our Pesach Seder plate. . . . It is neat and sterile and too easily stuck into the back corner of our minds as are the grueling facts of ghetto life, the devastation of wars and the conniving warping of free spirits.” The tone at such moments becomes stridently aggressive, the sweeping of all real and suspected grievances onto the Seder plate having the effect of converting the Season of Our Rejoicing into a feast of resentment. What may nevertheless give some ground of legitimation to the Radical Jewish Community’s experiment with the Seder ritual is its professed sense of religious experience as an orientation toward ultimates that are beyond politics. Praise is properly given to God “As the One (YHVH)/ The true source of our liberation power . . . not to any gun or man or politics or nation or idea . . . but to the all which embraces all of these.” But despite the religious soundness of this particular affirmation, other statements by the Radical Community people make one wonder precisely where ideology ends and faith begins. These young radicals seem intent enough in their effort to recover a real sense of spiritual awe, yet their service mingles the stillness of prayer with the grating insistence of propagandistic clichés, and the edge of their resentment against the “Jewish Establishment” unwittingly cuts back through two millennia to the framers of tradition in the Second Commonwealth who established the Seder ritual that has been transmitted to us.

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If the blend, therefore, of activism and Judaism attempted by the Los Angeles group is untinged with Waskow’s homiletic hypocrisy, it is nevertheless Jewishly self-defeating, for, as Richard Levy justly observes, this insistence on an original and more “authentic” ritual has all the earmarks of a sect breaking away from the parent body. This is hardly the first time that Jews, disgusted with the emptiness of established religion, have gone into the desert to eat locusts, lamb, or other strange fare, and to restore the purity of the ancestral faith. Yet as a matter of historical fact, it was not the white-garbed apocalyptic sects in the wilderness but the practical Pharisees, articulating a public law in their academies, who transmitted the biblical vision to Jewish posterity. In any case, the Radical Jewish Community, though hardly a surprising development of the new Jewish radicalism, is by no means typical of it. What seems most representative of the new mood among Jewishly inclined radicals is a leftist militant Jewish nationalism, basically political and secular in nature, but not programmatically secularist like the Zionist Left of an earlier generation. I am not sure whether there are yet any reliable estimates of the numerical strength of this movement, but my impression is that it is growing. Last year about fifty campus groups in the United States and Canada joined to form a loose coalition called the Radical Zionist Alliance, and, at least to judge by the Berkeley campus this fall, such groups may be generating appreciably more interest and support among Jewish students this year.

A characteristic focus of activity for the radical Zionists is the organization newspaper, intended for circulation among a much larger body of students, Gentiles as well as Jews. Though these publications contain a predictable share of New Left clichés, Marxist or Marcusean pieties, and bad student writing, one also encounters in them a surprising amount of serious reflection and careful analysis, and even a good deal of hard information on the Middle East—often translated from the Israeli press—not easily available elsewhere in English. The young editors and columnists are impelled to affirm their solidarity with progressive forces almost as a matter of self-respect, yet they are by and large refreshingly free of the doctrinaire partisan mentality of more conventional radical groups. If, for example, the outspoken Israeli letfist journalist, Amos Kenan, is reprinted in these publications with conspicuous frequency, one can also find lengthy excerpts from articles by people like J. L Talmon, Shlomo Avineri, and Yehoshafat Harkabi who could hardly be called New Left writers. It is something of a relief to discover a group of “politicized” young Americans for whom the truth is not a matter of ideological orthodoxy.

In organizational terms, many of the groups in the Radical Zionist Alliance were formed in reaction to the political quiescence or “Establishment” nature of the Hillel Foundations at various campuses. Politically, the groups are a deliberate beachhead of counter-attack against the anti-Israel sentiment rampant in New Left circles. In the pages of their newspapers, the young writers insist on the legitimacy of Zionism as a movement of national liberation; denounce Arab terrorism; point out the alliance of Al Fatah with reactionary forces in the Arab world; excoriate the program of genocide—here the word is precise—directed by the Sudanese Arabs against the Sudanese blacks; call attention to the more enlightened of the policies that Israel has adopted toward the Arabs under its rule. They do not hesitate to criticize Israeli government policy harshly, but do not differ in this respect from perfectly patriotic Israeli groups with which they tend to align themselves, ranging from Siah (Israel’s New Left, a very small, vehemently anti-administration movement, though not anti-Zionist like Matzpen) to the more dovish Old Left Mapam people (like Simha Flapan, editor of the New Outlook) and the non-party peace activists in the Israeli academic community. They also do not hesitate to criticize figures like the shofet Eldridge Cleaver who in one issue of the Berkeley Jewish Radical is roundly rebuked for his pro-Arab stance and reminded that he once thought Zionism a worthy model for black emulation. Aliyah is, I would guess, a more seriously-weighed alternative for the new radical Zionists than for any group of young American Jews since the Zionist youth movements of the late 40’s, and some of the young people actually make the move to Israel soon after graduation. They all seem to have a powerful sense of klal yisrael, of a worldwide community of Jews; and so protest over the persecution of Russian Jewry has become their great passionate cause after Israel—a protest which is, to say the least, a far worthier expense of spirit than denouncing the Pharaohs in the college-administration buildings.

The tenor of these new Zionist groups is vividly conveyed by a trenchant review of The Freedom Seder that appeared in a mimeographed publication called the Jewish Liberation Journal, issued in New York, apparently by students having some connection with Columbia University. The author of the review, Itzhak Epstein, is identified as Israeli-born and educated in America, but his views do not differ noticeably from those of his native American associates. Fresh from participation in the initial enactment of Waskow’s Seder during Passover 1969, Epstein is willing to commend the nobility of Waskow’s progressive aspirations. He is, however, dismayed by the contortions of The Freedom, Seder’s universalist bias which, in his view, wholly destroy the original character of the Seder as a celebration of the national liberation of the Jews. “From reading this revised Haggadah,” Epstein pointedly observes, “one could not begin to guess that the State of Israel was reborn in our lifetime”; indeed, Waskow’s text “gives the overall impression that the most significant contemporary Jewish experience is the ‘Black revolution.’” Epstein never actually uses the word “self-abasement” to characterize The Freedom Seder—Waskow is, after all, a brother in The Movement—yet this is clearly what most disturbs him as a self-respecting Jew about the liberation Haggadah. He notes the oddness of a Jew quoting from the teachings of black radicals in order to please them and gain their respect. “For anyone to understand and respect my tradition, I would have to quote to him from Leon Pinsker, Ber Borokhov, Ahad Ha-am, Y. L. Peretz, A. D. Gordon, Hanna Senesoh, Amos Kenan, and the more political writings of Martin Buber.” This is sane and above all honest: there is no pietistic posing here, no invocation of Moses and Isaiah and the Baal Shem Tov, but a plain statement of real indebtedness to a varied line of figures, great and small, whose universalism is expressed in a humane, reflective commitment to particularist survival.

At a time when the union of socialism with nationalist awakening is suddenly the great political aspiration of “progressive” people everywhere, it is surely worth noting that the Zionists were the first to articulate this program on a serious scale, and in a period when doctrinaire internationalism was vehemently professed by all other social-revolutionary groups. It is understandable that Ber Borokhov, the major theoretician in the pre-Revolutionary period of the Poalei Zion, the Russian Left Labor Zionists, who used a Marxist analysis to argue for the historical necessity of Jewish national autonomy, should now become a hero for the new Jewish radicals. As they repeatedly contend, socialist movements today might learn a great deal from Zionism if they were not so busy denouncing it as a cancerous imperialist growth.

What the juxtaposition of a Waskow and an Epstein may suggest is that Jews can be fully credible in making Jewishness the explicit basis for their political commitments only if they begin by affirming some sense of connection with a polity of Jews. For nearly two centuries Jews have expended a vast wealth of ingenuity in denying or compromising their Jewish identity, in evading its human bonds and responsibilities by professing to assume instead a loftier Mission for all mankind. It is encouraging, then, in a political scene that offers so little cause for encouragement, to find articulate, politically-conscious young Jews who are sure enough of themselves to be themselves. As a final illustration of this new mood among some of the radical Jewish youth in this country, I would like to cite an exchange on universalism that appeared last winter in the Berkeley Jewish Radical. Shelley Schreter, a graduate student in sociology, developed with some care a theoretical justification for the need to introduce cultural particularism into a Marxist materialist analysis of history. National and ethnic cultures in themselves, he argued, “embody a fundamental attribute of human existence,” and for this reason universalism could never mean the eradication of particularism. “On the contrary,” Schreter concludes, “it is by way of the particular contexts that people reach authentic universalism” (his italics). Now, this may seem a reasonable enough position, envisaging a kind of particularism in which a people, through a proud sense of its own distinctive integrity, becomes aware of its implication in a larger human community. For David Biale, however, who published a rejoinder to Schreter in the next issue of the Jewish Radical, the very mention of universalism as the ultimate goal raises fears of the blight of Waskowism: “Perhaps we don’t all want to be universalists first and foremost; perhaps we want to be more self-confident than the sort of Jew who must always be defending himself against accusations of clannishness with ready rationales.”

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One young radical Zionist has suggested to me that the split between his kind of people and Waskow’s is a new version of the old opposition between Zionists and Bundists. Waskow himself seems ready to encourage the comparison: in “The Jewish Contradiction” (New York Times, October 21, 1970), a clarion call for Isaiah’s people to work for Isaiah’s vision, he claims that some of the “young, committed, Diaspora-centered Jews” have discovered and adopted the Bund as a historical model. The comparison, however, does considerable injustice to the Bund, for the Bundists, despite their anti-Zionism and their denial of an international Jewish community, had a strong, self-affirmative sense at least of Russian Jewry as a distinctive national culture. They left the Russian Socialist party in 1903 because they were not allowed to participate in it as an autonomous national group, and for much the same reason, the Polish Bund in the 1920’s refused to join the International. (There is an element of truth in Lenin’s famous quip that Bundists were merely Zionists who were afraid of a sea-voyage.) Unlike the Jewish Organizers and Liberators, theirs was not a parlor-and-pulpit socialism, for the Bundists had a large and serious constituency among the Jewish proletariat, whose lot they worked to improve; and as honest secularists, they were never guilty of pompously invoking Jewish ritual and myth in an implicit renunciation of their own rights to historical self-determination as Jews.

What seems to be happening today among radicals who stress their Jewishness, under the impetus of the new particularism and the new traditionalism, is a more extreme polarization than existed among such groups in the past. The self-deniers, for all their prophetical-rabbinic guise, are a world away from those Jews who refuse to renounce their prerogatives as the members of a people that deserves an equal place among the nations of the earth, not in some visionary Heilesgeschichte but in real historical time. At a moment when young people and intellectuals in this country are staging spectacles of self-degradation on such an unprecedented scale, one must be grateful that there are at least some young Jews for whom the generations to come will not have to blush.

_____________


Footnotes

1 The full text of the statement is reproduced in the Fall 1969 issue of Response, a new Jewish student journal.

2 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 56 pp., $3.95.

3 “Insert any that is current—such as ‘Biafra,’ ‘Black America,’ ‘Russia,’ ‘Poland,’ etc.—depending on the situation” (Waskow's footnote).

4 One may disagree with particular Dayan policies and yet safely affirm that he has infinitely more genuine understanding of and respect for Arabs as people than any prophetess like Miss Lowen. See, for example, Shlomo Avineri's references in these pages to Dayan on the Arabs in his article, “The Palestinians and Israel,” June 1970.

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