Commentary Magazine


The Aryanization of the Jewish State, by Michael Selzer

One Man’s Israel

The Aryanization of the Jewish State: A Polemic.
by Michael Selzer.
Black Star Books. 119 pp. $5.00.

Anyone who has ever perused a John Birch Society pamphlet about the Communist Conspiracy will experience a similar sensation on reading this little book about Israel and Zionism. An impressive mass of data and facts has been assembled; historical perspectives have been traced; all the right quotations have been adduced; a good deal of the argument even manages to make sense; yet the outcome corresponds to a reality that exists solely in the mind of the author.

Michael Selzer is a young journalist who spent some time in Israel. He was born in India to Central European Jewish parents, educated in Pakistan and at Oxford, and is now a resident of the United States; his personal odyssey is sadly reflected in this book. During his student days Selzer was president of the Zionist Society at Oxford University; now he works for the violently anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. Not unexpectedly, his book has the unmistakable air of having been written by a disillusioned renegade, turning now with venom against the ideals he once so dearly—and naively—cherished. It seems safe to assume that Selzer’s erstwhile Zionism was as uncritical as his present virulent rejection of it.

The substance of the book can be conveniently summarized under three headings: that contrary to what the Zionists maintain, Zionism should not be considered the apotheosis of Jewish history, but is rather an aberration in terms of the Jewish heritage; that a Western culture is being forcefully imposed upon Israel’s Oriental immigrants; and that Israel will not be able to achieve peace with its Arab neighbors unless it “orientalizes” its culture.

Each of these arguments has some substance to it and none is highly original; all three have been repeatedly advanced—on different levels of sophistication—by various spokesmen both outside and inside Israel. Selzer could have certainly contributed to a fruitful discussion about the basic issues bedeviling Israel’s political and social life had he not chosen to sensationalize each of the arguments cited above to such a degree that it loses any kernel of analytical validity it might have possessed.

The explosive title of the book is a case in point. Though it will conceivably add to its marketability, it hardly lends credibility or integrity to its author’s purpose. A good argument can be made, for instance, that many of the spiritual and cultural roots of Zionism have to be understood within the context of 19th-century Central and Eastern European nationalism; that the Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe, the Haskala, was as unjustifiably critical of the Jewish rabbinical tradition as the French Enlightenment was of the Catholic Church and the Middle Ages and that, as a result, Zionism in its more propagandistic aspects sometimes inherited a somewhat distorted picture of Jewish history; and that consequently some of the facile Zionist images about the “parasitic” Jewish life in the Diaspora have their equivalents in anti-Semitic images. All this is known, and not particularly startling or novel; after all, Malcolm X’s characterizations of Negro deficiencies sometimes resembled white images about Negro laziness, drunkenness, and sexual promiscuity. But to proceed from there to statements like, “The Haskala origins of the Zionist Movement ensured that movement’s evolution along fundamentally anti-Semitic lines,” or that “Zionism wishes to transform the Jew into an Aryan,” and that consequently Israel is being “Aryanized,” is an insult to the reader’s common sense and basic logic. It is as honest as calling a plea for free medical services a “Bolshevization of America,” and the evidence brought to bear is of the same character (after all, the Soviets do have free medical services).

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What this “Aryanization” of the Jewish people implies, or what it is meant to include, is never clearly stated by Selzer; hence one cannot even try to judge him right or wrong. The only instance where he approaches some kind of concrete statement is in connection with the Zionist postulate of inverting the lopsided occupational pyramid of Eastern European Jewry. It may well be that creating peasants out of intellectuals and shopkeepers is not such a lofty idea, and there certainly is a lot of vicarious self-congratulation lurking in the enthusiasm of present-day Hadassah groups thrilling over Jewish “peasants” in Israel. Yet behind all this there exist the hard facts of social structure, and it would be foolish to imply, as Selzer does, that the 19th-century Eastern European Jewish social structure was either viable or commendable. Selzer may argue that some Haskala-oriented Zionists foolishly tried to turn themselves into peasants and workers; the millions of Jews who emigrated from Tsarist Russia to America, England, and South Africa, however, were not motivated by any such ideology, but rather by the hard facts of an abnormal, explosive, and degrading social structure. It may well be too that the Zionist critique of this structure included a lot of physiocratic romanticism, yet the motivation for this critique, as well as for Jewish mass emigration to the West, had deep social roots, and it is precisely these which Selzer so blithely overlooks. Selzer’s inability to confront sociological factors, his naive insistence that an ideology (“Zionism”) is at the root of all that went wrong, and that, furthermore, ideology can be discussed outside the context of social relations, all compound his incapacity to render any significant historical explanation of the phenomena he is trying to discuss.

This is not to suggest that one must endorse en bloc all the historiosophic claims made by traditional Zionism, but Selzer’s obstinate refusal to admit that Zionism might have been at least partly correct in its diagnosis of the Jewish condition leads him to perfectly absurd positions. In the latter part of the book he discusses Simon Dubnow’s ideas of Jewish socio-cultural autonomy within Gentile society; quite rightly he points out that many of the traits Dubnow wished to see realized in Eastern Europe can now be discerned in what the political jargon currently calls the pluralistic structure of America. This is fair enough; Selzer, however, simply does not confront the fact that Dubnow was preaching autonomism in Eastern Europe, and in Eastern Europe he was proved to be wrong—fatally wrong. That six million Jews were massacred in Europe impinges on Selzer’s intellectual game not a bit, nor does it affect his judgment at all that with regard to Eastern Europe the Zionists were, alas, right. This does not have to reflect itself, to be sure, in one’s views on American pluralism, but to read back from American pluralism to Dubnow’s autonomism without ever mentioning the Holocaust is like discussing the Negro in America without mentioning slavery. It is an interesting intellectual game, but little else.

Similarly cavalier is Selzer’s approach to the problem of Oriental Jews in Israel. No issue has been more debated in Israel than the gap between the Western and Oriental Jewish communities in that country; there seems to be a consensus, indeed, that ultimately Israel’s success or failure as an experiment in social reconstruction will depend on its ability to create a culture that can be commonly shared by Jews of both European and non-European background; and it should be emphasized that Israel has not as yet achieved a solution that can be cited as ultimate proof of success. There is little doubt that some of the initial attitudes of Israel’s oldtimers to the Oriental newcomers were tinged with a paternalistic humanitarianism which did not always make it easy for the bewildered immigrants to feel really at home. Yet the picture painted by Selzer in his book has very little to do either with the present reality of the situation or with the policies now being adopted in Israel to handle it.

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Selzer begins his account of the Oriental problem with the sensible statement that:

There is very little of what might be called overt racial discrimination in Israel. Occasionally, instances in which an Oriental Jew is refused housing or employment because of his ethnic origin do indeed come to the notice of the Israeli public. They are usually widely condemned and are in no sense characteristic of the Israeli social scene.

Yet what follows is such an amalgam of hyperbole, outdated statistics, and pure ignorance, that it is almost impossible to find one’s way through it. The variety of sources quoted is quite bizarre: as proof of some point about cultural orientation, for instance, the reader is presented with what Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, told Selzer while the latter was press officer at the Israel Museum; further buttressing the case is a 1930 quotation from the daily newspaper Davar. Selzer particularly delights in using the word Ostjuden as a term of abuse in a way reminiscent of its use by established German Jews in America during the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States. In addition, although he does refer to some sociological data, all Selzer’s quotations are from English-language publications; he seems to be totally unaware of the large amount of valuable research which has recently been done in Israel and published in Hebrew, and is as much an outsider to the literature of Israeli social science as any other foreign journalist.

In the absence of any coherent mastery of the situation, what emerges is a collection of anecdotes pasted over by sensationalistic jargon. The basic hysteria of Selzer’s argument is best exemplified by the term he uses to describe the attempt to introduce Oriental newcomers to European values: for him this constitutes “cultural genocide.” Now most Israeli sociologists and educators agree that the simpleminded imposition of Western values on Oriental immigrants has sometimes had shattering effects, and indeed a more pluralistic attitude has evolved over the years. Genocide, however, is a very specific term; invoking it in a purely figurative way may sometimes be journalistically rewarding, but it is the very height of intellectual irresponsibility. The absurdity of the charge is heightened by the fact that the only concrete example cited by Selzer to prove his thesis of “cultural genocide” is the Israeli law prohibiting polygamy. Now that similar laws have been enacted in some of the Arab countries, one wonders whether Selzer would call them “cultural genocide” as well. Similarly, and by the same standards, the abolition of the caste system in India might also be called “cultural genocide.” Where would Selzer stand on that? The basic intellectual dishonesty involved in Selzer’s argument on this and other issues has the effect of making those of his points that do possess validity disappear in the maze of generalized and unfounded statements.

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In all, it seems legitimate to ask whether what really underlies Selzer’s anger is not some genteel paternalistic racism. When he argues that Israeli school curricula do not incorporate enough of the Oriental Jewish heritage and are thus tailored to the European pupil, he seems to be airing a legitimate complaint. It may be a mere quibble that here too he shows himself ignorant of the changes in the curriculum which have been made in the last few years in that direction (and he himself in his chapter on Jewish history devotes no more than a passing reference to such products of the Oriental heritage as Maimonides and Gersonides). But what is more basic is that Selzer criticizes the Israeli school system because it is a Western system as such; his point is not that the content of teaching should be overhauled, but that the whole system, with its “Western orientation,” should be scrapped. In order really to integrate the Oriental children Selzer suggests that Israel should “orientalize” its school system. A similar cure is suggested for the Israeli-Arab conflict: “The first step toward any kind of accommodation with the Arab world must be the orientalization of Israeli society and norms.”

What should one make of such Oxford-based Oriental romanticism? While the whole non-European world is trying to modernize, to “occidentalize,” Israel should “orientalize.” While the Arab countries desperately attempt to become more modern and more Western, Israel, in order to accommodate itself to them, should become less Western. Now, we may grant that the general drive toward “modernization” in the non-European world, as well as Israel’s pressure-cooker methods, is sometimes naive and simpleminded; but isn’t it the fact that Israel is actually achieving with a reasonable modicum of success what Egypt and Ghana, India and China are all trying to do—at least in terms of education? It would be a fair guess to assume that, faced with a choice between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Selzer would prefer the Egyptian drive toward modernization to Saudi conservatism. But evidently this does not hold for Israel.

How, after all, does one “orientalize”? I hope it is not unfair to surmise that the reintroduction of polygamy would be one criterion. What next? Cut out science and math in school? Turn the Weizmann Institute into an Academy for Mysticism? Dismantle industry, turn Israeli farmers into fellahin? On a most fundamental level one wonders if Selzer’s doubt about the feasibility of Western education for Oriental children does not originate in a basic mistrust of the Oriental’s capacity to catch up with modern, rationalistic civilization. Israel believes that the Orientals are in fact able to do so, that there is nothing inherent about their “backwardness”; though modernization undoubtedly demands its price, the tensions in Israeli society seem on the whole less severe than in other societies, and the latest educational statistics show a slow but constant upward curve. Selzer, on the other hand, cherishes a romantic sentimentalism about Oriental values, with—ultimately—the hidden, condescending premise that maybe those “natives” really don’t have it in them to get ahead by Western standards.

The same goes for his advice concerning the orientalization of Israeli norms as a means toward the achievement of peace in the Middle East. It can be plausibly argued that the search for peace in that region has to be predicated on the adoption by Arab leaders of Western standards of reality, veracity, and rationality. But even if this premise be rejected, has the Middle East been such a haven of peace and tranquility over the last few centuries and decades that only Israel’s Western presence can be said to have disturbed it? What are the Oriental standards of political discourse that Israel should adopt? The norms of Egyptian-Jordanian relations? The standards of political power in Syria? The Yemeni idyll? It may well be that the broadcasts of Kol Israel are modeled too closely on the BBC (I wish they were), and that this is not the best way to communicate with the Oriental newcomer. But does the way out of this dilemma lead through an educational process that will ultimately make the newcomer capable of communicating on a rational basis—or should Israel simply adopt the standards of Radio Cairo? I wish Selzer would be more explicit in his prescriptions.

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Selzer’s disscussion of the integration and participation of Oriental immigrants in Israeli politics is likewise lopsided and uninformed. He rightly points out that the “communal” lists of Oriental candidates were never successful in parliamentary elections and never managed to elect even one member to the Knesset. Yet he fails to mention the most outstanding phenomenon in Israeli politics of the last few years: the gradual penetration and capture of local party machines by an ethnic, Oriental bloc. Here again, Selzer’s failure to understand or perceive social phenomena obscures his vision completely. Had he been better acquainted with the sociological literature on political integration of ethnic groups, he would have known where to look for the symptoms of integration. It is true that as of now only 12 per cent of the members of the Knesset are Orientals (as opposed to a figure of 35-40 per cent in the electorate as a whole), but this represents a substantial increase since the 1961 elections; the figure has been going up steadily from one election to the next, and it is a safe bet that it will be going up again in the elections of 1969.

In the area of ethnic integration, however, the significant level of political activity is not the Nacional but the local. Here it is true that the Oriental newcomers were initially manipulated by a European machine, or rather by a plurality of machines; it would be hard to overestimate the power wielded by the various party-machines over a bewildered immigrant population introduced to democracy under conditions of extreme socio-cultural dislocation. Yet, over the years, the same phenomenon Known to every analyst of urban politics in America has also occurred in Israel’s new towns and immigrant suburbs: European oldtimers have been ousted by Oriental ward-captains, who control the delivery of the ethnic vote. Thus, the real political power-base of the Oriental community is being created in the rough going of local politics. The percentage of Oriental city councillors is, on the average, double that of Oriental parliamentary representatives; Beersheva, Eilat, Dimona, Kiryat Shmona, and Ashdod have Oriental mayors; Jerusalem has an Oriental deputy-mayor; many smaller towns (like Or Yehuda, Zikhron Yaacov, Ramat Hasharon) have also recently elected Oriental mayors. Many cities and towns have Oriental Histadrut secretaries—a most powerful political position; many local Mapai branches have Oriental secretaries; the No. 2 patronage dispenser of Mapai is a Yemenite. Altogether, the Israeli local political machine looks today very much as the American big city machines looked when the Irish and Italians began to take over the Democratic party on the local level; the day on which a Kennedy might be elected President of the United States was still far off, but the power base had already been laid for such an eventuality.

It is this gradual Oriental takeover of town halls, Histadrut branches, party machines, etc., which is the most encouraging sign in the political development of Israel; its impact on Nacional politics is increasing from day to day. Some of these New Politicians might shock an Eastern European ideologue (they would also shock the genteel sensibility of Selzer); but political power grows out of smoke-filled rooms, and the fact is that the accent heard in those rooms today tends increasingly toward the guttural. Democracy has its own mechanisms of power, and the Oriental takeover of local politics is Israel’s best guarantee that the future of its Oriental population will not resemble that of the politically alienated and excluded American Negro but that of the Irish and the Italian immigrants who successfully used the democratic political structure as a means of social integration. Selzer has nothing of all this.

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In his opening pages Selzer is sensible enough to avoid a definition of what it is to be Jewish. He adopts a broadly pluralistic attitude, accepting the view that Jewishness is after all a matter of personal commitment and personal identity, and that there is no authoritative means of dictating a one-dimensional definition. Toward the end of his book, however, he seems to imply that the Zionist interpretation of Jewish history and identity is the one interpretation that is not covered by his pluralistic, laissez-faire approach.

This is a legitimate position, although it certainly reflects a less liberal world-view than the one implied in Selzer’s first pages. Yet it also raises a series of questions which are never tackled by the author—questions, moreover, of basic moral judgment. For how can one advocate a deep concern for Jews everywhere, but somehow have no concern about Israel? Israel may not be that special, but at the very least one must take into account the fact that over two million Jews live there. Nor does it seem consistent to demonstrate a deep preoccupation with the fate of Sephardi Jews in Israel, and at the same time to be indifferent to the fate of Israel in general. It is, to be sure, possible to argue that such a position, twisted as it might appear to the outsider, is legitimate in its tortured way; the author, after all, is searching in agony for his own identity, burdened by guilt as a Western man, and many have sought their own identity by denying the identity of others. But when these postulates are turned, as they are by Selzer, into already existing historical facts, one begins finally to entertain some basic doubts about the author’s good faith. Thus, for instance, in his concluding chapter, Selzer remarks, “Even those minimal bonds now existing between Israel and other Jewish communities throughout the world are diminishing. . . . Contacts between Israel and the Diaspora will now become increasingly insignificant.” A grain of truth there may be in this statement, but how silly it looks after the Six-Day War. There is no doubt that relations between Israel and the Diaspora are problematical, and that under normal circumstances will continue to be so; but relations among Jewish communities in the Diaspora over the centuries have been no less problematical. It is in times of stress, not in times of peace and security, that Jewish identity and cohesion come to the fore, and it is here that the Six-Day War of 1967 proved the basic assumption underlying Selzer’s argument to be wrong.

Now, I would be the first to admit that there was a shrillness occasionally evident in the reaction of many American Jews to the crisis that precipitated the June war—a shrillness, I believe, that is attributable at least in part to the fact that these were Americans, and many Americans react in a hysterical way to foreign policy issues. On the whole, however, American attitudes toward Red China, Cuba, and Vietnam have been far more hysterical and uncritical than was the attitude of most American Jews toward Israel last May and June. Their reaction, moreover, was not the calculated result of a successful Zionist public-relations campaign; Israel, however much it might like to be a Goliath in public relations, is simply not up to it. All ideological considerations aside—for they really didn’t matter in this case—what happened in May and June of 1967 was that many American (and European) Jews, who in their daily life care little about Israel, would certainly not consider settling there, and under normal circumstances would not bother themselves with fund-raising campaigns or any other ostensible sign of Jewish communal participation, realized all of a sudden that something that had a direct bearing on their Jewishness was now at stake, that they as Jews would be impoverished by the elimination pf Israel from the map. One would be hard put to explain in what precise way they felt that the survival of Israel was meaningful to them; one could, I suppose, adopt Selzer’s broadminded pluralism in answering this question, for it is, after all, a corollary to the question of what makes one a Jew.

Yet the fact remains that even when the feelings of agony and euphoria evoked by the Six-Day War will have worn off, historically a point has been proved. It is ironical that it was Israel’s Oriental Problem, the monthly bulletin of the Council of the Sephardi Community in Jerusalem (and a magazine once edited by Selzer during his stay in Israel) that stated in its issue of July 1967:

Those “Six Days in June” have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt how inextricably linked together are the fates of Israel and of Jewry. The spontaneous and unlimited support for Israel by Jews everywhere was characteristic of this oft-forgotten solidarity, whose practical implications we all felt with deep gratification.

The Sephardi Council of Jerusalem may also, of course, be fallible, and Selzer would presumably dissociate himself now from its statement. Maybe all those people should not have cared, and, in the case of Jews in the Communist countries, should not have stuck their necks out. But then Selzer is already speaking an increasingly private language, shared by very few people in the Diaspora. It is true that the House of Israel has many rooms; but it is a sorry sight to observe that in at least one of them a sensitive person is condemning himself to solitary confinement.

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