Commentary Magazine


This Year in Jerusalem, by Mordechai Richler

Bad Trip

This Year in Jerusalem.
by Mordechai Richler.
Knopf. 292 pp. $23.00.

Mordechai Richler first came to prominence by virtue of two novels set among the Jews of Montreal. The first, Son of a Smaller Hero (1959), recounts the struggle of its hero, Noah Adler, to free himself from the prejudices and limitations of the Jewish community; the second, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), later made into a movie, is a rags-to-riches story, formulaic but also satiric (it was reviled in some parts of the Jewish community). Since then Richler has written seven more novels, numerous screenplays, and, in 1992, a book (Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country) severely critical of the Quebec separatist movement.

As we learn from his latest book, which is in part a memoir, Richler grew up in a hasidic family in Montreal. He attended a traditional religious school but also became involved in the Labor Zionist youth movement called Habonim, not out of strong commitment to Zionism but, as he freely admits, in order to spite his pious grandfather and lay hands on girls broken loose from the bonds of piety. But those “hallelujah days of Habonim” (as he calls them here) were also a time of moral certitude, when he still believed that Jews deserved a state of their own and that the best young people would leave the wasteland of the Diaspora, where Jews were destined for assimilation, and make their way to the land of Israel as pioneers.

Soon, however, Richler found that the American novelist John Dos Passos “spoke” to him more than Jewish writers did. His “ride into goyish culture,” begun at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University, was so “exhilarating” that in 1950 he set sail not for Tel Aviv but for Paris, where he lived for two years before going on to London for another twenty. So far had he emancipated himself “from childhood religious observances” that in 1951, he writes, he was surprised to find a kosher restaurant—to which he wished to take a Gentile friend—closed on Yom Kippur. Nor do the ensuing decades appear to have brought him back to Jewish sources: a reader, for instance, curious about the origin of a sentence Richler quotes here from an ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah, will be directed by the endnote to consult Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish.

Although Richler made a brief visit to Israel in 1962, it was not until 1984 that he became curious about the path not taken, about those old friends from Habonim in Montreal who had actually moved to the Zionist homeland. Still, he managed to restrain his curiosity for eight years until he was invited to be a guest at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim, an elegant guest house to which the Jerusalem Foundation invites artists and intellectuals, and so was afforded an occasion for writing this book.

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This Year in Jerusalem combines Richler’s talents as a chronicler with his new penchant for social-political criticism, now applied to Israel (whose prospective division into two states he contemplates far more favorably than the possible dismemberment of Canada). Insofar as a jerry-built book can be said to have a narrative skeleton, it is supplied by Richler’s travels through Israel to look up his old friends from Montreal, ostensibly to show us what has happened, physically and spiritually, to comrades from the old neighborhood who now live in Israel’s cities or kibbutzim.

Haphazardly draped over and obscuring this skeleton are recollections of his family, memoirs of growing up in Jewish Montreal, bits and pieces of Zionist history culled from secondary and tertiary sources, and political commentary on Israel and every other Jewish issue that happens to cross his field of vision. If there is a unifying theme underlying Richler’s observations, it is Albert Einstein’s declaration (of 1938), quoted as an epigraph and repeated in the fourth chapter—that the “essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders” and that nationalism will cause severe “inner damage” to Judaism.

Readers familiar with the Israeli scene and its interpreters will find very little that is new in Richler. We get the standard horror stories about ultra-Orthodox religious leaders, the fulminations against religion by Israeli members of the Peace Now movement (to which Richler also belongs), a reactionary Moroccan-Jewish taxi driver, an Arab expelled from a home where his ancestors lived “for a thousand years,” the incessant depiction of the 100,000 Jews living in the disputed territories as Uzi-toting lunatics expecting the Messiah to arrive next month, the repetition ad nauseam of the mindless slogan about how “you make peace with your enemies,” and—this above all—the ritual depiction of Arabs as Jews.

Since Richler’s preferred guides to the Israeli-Arab scene are the leftist journalist Amos Elon, the leftist novelist David Grossman, and Village Voice reporter Robert I. Friedman (who, Hillel Halkin once wrote, shows “how it is possible for a reporter to be thoroughly dishonest without telling too many outright lies”), he must know just how stale this formula is; yet he doggedly adheres to it throughout the book. Palestinian nationalism is for him the mirror-image of Zionism. Just as Grossman, in his The Yellow Wind (1987), likened a boy he saw on the roof of a house in an Arab refugee camp to a “fiddler on the roof,” so Richler reports that Arab junk collectors in Jerusalem make their pitch in Yiddish. If Jews call Sukkot Ha-chag, then Arabs use the word hagg to describe the pilgrimage to Mecca. And so forth.

But the cultural aspect of this equation is trivial compared with the political-military. If 750 “collaborators” were executed by their fellow Arabs during the intifada (actually the number is much higher), then, admonishes Richler, we must recall that the Stern Gang (allegedly) did the same to about twenty Jews between 1940 and 1948. If it is really the case that the PLO is in collusion with Hamas, why then “its mirror-image was arguably the Zionist faction that was once led by Vladimir Jabotinsky.” If Jews do not much care for “Hamas youngsters . . . sharpening their daggers in praise of Allah” (is that all they do with those daggers?), then the ever-ready Richler recommends that they contemplate “the God-crazed settlers wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, Uzis protruding from their belts.” (The exhortation to make peace with one’s enemies would appear to extend only to enemies wearing keffiyehs, not to those wearing yarmulkes and tefillin.)

It never occurs to Richler to ask why, if the Palestinian Arabs are a distinct people requiring a distinct state, they (abetted by a thousand publicists) need to represent themselves as Jews. The answer is not far to seek: to misrepresent an aggression against the Jewish state as a case of victimization by that same state. Neither does Richler ask an equally obvious question about the missing element in his Arab-Jewish equation: in which cafés in Damascus have Syrian novelists argued for the legitimacy and moral necessity of Israel? In what purlieu of Montreal is there a Canadian-Arab writer making the case for the Jews?

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Although This Year in Jerusalem is social commentary rather than fiction, it resembles Richler’s novels in at least one important respect. Those books elicit disdain for the vulgarity of Montreal’s Jews without ever showing anything that might complicate that vulgarity with the weight of the Jewish past; they display, in the novelist who wrote them, a lazy weakness for the easy target and the easy laugh. That laziness is still in evidence here. In fact, the same straw men into whose mouths Richler puts the crudest objections to his novels—“You earn big money writing novels that make fun of the Jews.” “Are you a Jewish anti-Semite?”—turn out to be also the most foolish Zionist rams for his sacrificial knife.

Now and then, however, he overcomes his intellectual indolence and appears to sally forth against strong adversaries. One such is David Bar-Illan, executive editor of the English-language Jerusalem Post, Israel’s most unabashedly Zionist newspaper and a standing affront to Diaspora visitors of the Peace-Now persuasion who (like Richler) do not read the Hebrew press. Declaring that he “almost never agree [s] with” Bar-Illan, Richler tries to rebut him.

According to Richler, Bar-Illan’s “case” against the Arabs is based on two shaky, irrelevant premises: one, that Palestine was a desolate land before the Zionist return; two, that the notion of a Palestinian-Arab identity is a recent invention, since, prior to the 1960’s, the only people who called themselves Palestinians were the Jews. But, retorts Richler, even if the land had gone to ruin over the centuries, this did not justify the “stiff-necked” Jews coming in, saying “move over or get out” to Arabs who had tended their sheep and olive groves “for generations,” whether they called themselves Palestinians or not. And besides, “the dispute is not about semantics.”

It would be too much to expect a dilettante with Richler’s prejudices to have delved into the history of high Arab in-migration into predominantly Jewish areas since the inception of Zionist settlement in the late 19th century, or to be aware that the coastal plain, for example, really was empty of population on the eve of Zionist settlement. But one might think that a person who earns his living as a writer would acknowledge the importance of words and the political potency of linguistic larceny. If semantics are unimportant, one wonders why Richler is so punctilious about referring to the “Old Testament” instead of the Hebrew Bible, about saying “West Bank” instead of Judea/Samaria, and “Greater Israel” instead of Land of Israel, or why he takes the trouble to include a glossary in which he disputes (for example) the definition of Fatah Hawks as terrorists.

Much later in the book Richler seems about to take on a second adversary: Hillel Halkin, an American who settled permanently in Israel in 1970. Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic (1977) is one of the most important books to come out of Israel since the founding of the state, yet Richler could not, he complains, manage to read it because it is “out of print.” (Apparently there are no lending libraries in Montreal.) Therefore, in preparation for a Tel Aviv meeting with Halkin, he read a short magazine essay by him so that he could paraphrase Halkin’s argument for aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel.

As usual, he gets it wrong. “Halkin’s assumption that it was impossible to lead a full Jewish life in America was unnerving,” Richler writes. But in his book Halkin says nothing of the kind. Rather the opposite:

I am not saying that you cannot live an authentic Jewish life in the Diaspora; I am saying that if the criterion is the future of the Jewish people, you are living it in the wrong place.

Although he has only the vaguest idea of what Halkin’s position is, Richler “refutes” it by listing a score of prominent, “caring” Jews who by virtue of living (and writing) in the Diaspora disprove the Halkin thesis. Had Richler taken the trouble to look, he might have thought better of this mode of argument. Here, for example, is what the late Irving Howe, one of Richler’s Diaspora all-stars, wrote about Letters to an American Jewish Friend:

When . . . Hillel Halkin sent from Israel a powerful book arguing that the Jews in the West now had only two long-range choices if they wished to remain Jews—religion and Israel, faith and nationhood—I searched for arguments with which to answer him. But finally I gave it up, since it seemed clear that the perspective from which I lived as “a partial Jew” had reached a historical dead end.

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Repeatedly, from his Einsteinian epigraph until the book’s end, Richler harps on the theme that Jewish nationalism, i.e., Zionism, is “contrary to what had evolved as the Jewish tradition.” But in him this non- or anti-religious Diaspora “Jewish tradition” amounts to nothing but a puffed-up “pride” in Jewish neighborhood origins and a fossilized left-wing ideology. That is a considerably deader end even than the one Irving Howe confessed to, but it is in that dead end that Mordechai Richler complacently has chosen to live. This book shows it.

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