Commentary Magazine


What It Feels Like To Be a Goy:
A Poet's Talk in Tel Aviv

“What It Feels Like To Be a Goy” was given as a talk to the Israel and Commonwealth Association in Tel Aviv earlier this year. 

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What does it feel like to be a Goy? Most modern Jewish fiction, or autobiography disguised as fiction, answers the complementary question “What does it feel like to be a Jew?” The goyim who surround each protagonist in these very similar dramas are described objectively; but the Jewish reader and the author himself can only guess what goes on behind their masks. Are they cruel, insensitive, or merely ignorant?

I am a goy, and the son of goyim: several generations at least on both sides of the family. It has recently become the fashion in the United States for young non-Jewish intellectuals to ransack their yellowing archives in search of a Jewish great-great-grandmother. The other day one of the Lowells of Boston told me with sparkling eyes that he actually has a Jewish great-grandmother. I cannot make any such claim. My father’s pedigree contains several medieval Kings of England, albeit through an illegitimate line, a Spanish King of Cordoba maternally descended from the Prophet Mahomet, and—since we Graveses married into several Irish families—any amount of legendary Irish kings and heroes. No Cohens or Levis, not one! I did have a German great-grandmother named Schubert, but unfortunately she came of solid Lutheran stock.

Perhaps a closer investigation of the Spanish strain might be rewarding. Once Philip II—I think it was he—decided that all males of Jewish ancestry should wear a hat of peculiar design to distinguish them from men of honest Christian lineage. He did not specify “Aryan,” because most of the great Southern aristocrats boasted of their princely Moorish blood. The next day Philip’s court jester appeared before him with three such peculiar hats. “Who are to wear these, Fool?” asked the King. “Why, ‘nuncle,” the Jester answered, “this one is for me, that one is for thee, and t’other is for the Grand Inquisitor!” So the hat was never heard of again . . . At all events, write me down as a goy and as a Protestant goy : than which nothing in the world could be more goyesque. Naturally, my family started with Catholicism, but a direct Graves ancestor was one of the two Roundhead colonels appointed by Parliament to guard Charles I’s sacred person at Holmby House in 1647, when he had been captured; and from him descends a long line of Anglo-Irish Protestant rectors, deans, and bishops until I break the sequence.

An early rabbi once declared that the worst day in Israel’s long history was neither that on which the ten tribes were carried off into captivity, nor those on which Solomon’s and Zerubbabel’s Temples went up in flames. It was the day when a group of seventy-two Alexandrian Sages (whom for some unaccountable reason we goyim call the “Septuagint,” or “Seventy”) translated your Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. That makes sense. Israel’s very personal religious archives—containing frequent confessions of her backslidings into idolatry, and gloomy records of her castigations—passed into enemy hands; with the eventual result that Christian goyim who cannot pretend even to be sons of Abraham, claim the God of Israel as their God and the Scriptures as their own Holy Writ; denying your stiff-necked and rebellious Jews any hope of the eventual salvation that your own Prophets had held out to you! And the Moslem goyim refuse you admittance to the Cave of Machpelah at Hebron, where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are interred!

An equally bad day for us goyim was that on which the Latin Bible first appeared in English translation. The Puritanism which this publication induced proved a severer blow to us than King Harold’s defeat at Hastings in 1066, or the revolt of the American colonies in 1776. Puritanism set my ancestors off their balance—because the Bible (here at least I agree with the Catholic priesthood) is a most dangerous book for private reading by people of limited education—and England has never recovered from the widespread mental disorder that resulted. The real trouble lay in having adopted a cult which did not make simple, homely national sense.

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For several centuries before this Protestant Bible-reading started, Catholicism had been a way of life rather than a religion, a prolongation of as much Greco-Roman culture as the barbarians had spared; and fitted Europe like an old shoe. The heel might be split, the sole might let in water, but it was wearable. The princes of the Church had allied themselves with temporal monarchs, grown rich, studied classical rhetoric, attended to their ritual duties, but interfered little with pagan holidays, customs, and popular traditions. If the people kept quiet, paid tithes, and reverenced the clergy, that was religion enough: masses were said in Latin, which they did not understand, and the priest discouraged any close interest in theology—promising that he would see them all safely to Heaven.

In 1534, when Henry VIII broke with Rome, he did so for political, not religious reasons. In fact, he was orthodox enough to have won the title “Defender of the Faith” from the Pope himself. But Henry would never have dared make the breach, had he not been supported by a large body of Englishmen who, while secretly studying the Bible in English, suddenly realized the immense difference between the teachings of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, and contemporary Church doctrine. They looked upon the Pope as anti-Christ, and his open sale of indulgences for sin shocked them. Hitherto their knowledge of the Scriptures had been carefully regulated. The priest chose only the more edifying passages for his commentaries; now at last both Testaments lay at their private disposal.

Soon a multitude of non-conforming sects sprang up. Since the monarchy lagged behind these in theological speculation, and maintained the Divine Right of Kings, civil war became unavoidable. And representatives of such extreme Independent sects as Anabaptists, Old Brownists, Traskites, Anti-Scripturists, Familists, Soul-Sleepers, Questionists, Seekers, Chiliasts, and Sebaptists—formed the fanatic Puritan spearhead. King Charles’s imprisonment and execution followed as a corollary.

It was old Christian dogma that the Mosaic Law, entrusted by God to the Jews, remained valid only until the Messiah came—that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus the Nazarene—that though the New Testament was inspired by him to replace it, the prophecies contained in the Old were authoritative proof of his destined Messiah-ship—that Christians were a New Israel, successors of the Old Israel which had denied Christ and been therefore rejected by God. So my Protestant ancestors, in order fully to understand their New Testament, pored over the Old, and came to remarkable and unsettling conclusions. Some, finding Jesus to have declared that the Law of Moses would never pass away until the end of the world, now regarded Jewish ritual obligations (so far as they could be observed without a Temple or priesthood) as still binding on Christians. For instance, they wanted to keep the Jewish Sabbath instead of the Christian Sunday, thought it wicked to eat blood-sausage, and would not remove their hats in church.

The most famous Independent of all, John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, went further. He could find no evidence in the Bible of any curse on the Old Israel, and was plagued by a desperate conviction that, not being of Jewish stock, he would be burned to cinders by God’s avenging angels at the Battle of Armageddon. These Independents, among them the Pilgrim Fathers who had sailed to New England before the Civil War, lived in constant terror of damnation, as it were keeping Yom Kippur all the year round; and their so-called Sabbaths, instead of being days of rest and joy, spread a profound gloom over the week. Even Jesus, whom the medieval Catholics had softened into a gentle, kindly presence—born of a gentle, kindly, semi-divine virgin-mother, a revival of the ancient European Sea- and Moon-goddess—menaced them in dreams with continual reproaches and threats. They did not accept the ethical Law as a sweet burden, like the Pharisees, but made it a yoke of iron; and learned to hate the irreligious Catholics as much, or more, than they hated Jews. Instead of confessing their sins to a sympathetic priest, paying a small penance for a light-hearted absolution, and then cheerfully sinning again, the people acquired individual consciences and a soul-destroying sense of guilt. Merry England, which implied a romantic Virgin-worship (now heretical), perished with Cromwell’s victory at Naseby in 1645. The Crown has been Protestant, by law, since 1688.

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What does it feel like to be a goy? Embarrassing, for careful students of religious history. The trouble began with Saul of Tarsus—later Paul—who once, when in danger of his life from an angry pilgrim crowd, claimed Jewish birth. He certainly became a Jew by adoption early in his career, but according to the Ebionites (the austere apocalyptic section of Nazarenes) was the son of Greek parents; and the Ebionites can hardly be suspected of deliberate falsehood. His story of having sat at the feet of Gamaliel, Israel’s Supreme Court Judge, is implausible, if only because Gamaliel required of his picked law students a deep and accurate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures; whereas Paul, in his Epistles, quotes only the Septuagint, even where the Greek wrongly differs from the original Hebrew text. Paul’s father was probably a Syrian-Greek God-fearer, the God-fearers being a Gentile fraternity who accepted the Ten Commandments and were well disposed to their Jewish mentors, but who “bowed in the House of Rimmon”—meaning, that they refused circumcision and obedience to the whole ritual Law, for fear of offending their Greek, or Roman, or Syrian city authorities. Those Jews controlled a great volume of Roman trade, and also international trade with Parthia, India, and beyond. The God-fearers wanted a share of this, and the Jews accepted them as business associates, though without the unquestioning trust that they reposed in proselytes who accepted the full burden of the Law.

To judge from a confession of Paul’s in the Epistle to the Galatians, “to the Jews I became as a Jew,” it seems that he underwent circumcision—a sine qua non for his secret-service work as an agent provocateur employed by the Sadducees (collaborators with Rome) against the Nazarenes, to whom all Romans were unclean blasphemers. The Acts of the Apostles frankly describes how Paul, after assisting in the murder of a Greek-speaking Nazarene named Stephen, used this breach of the peace as an excuse for getting the Jerusalem Ebionites arrested and imprisoned; and how, after a spectacular conversion to their faith at Damascus, he once more changed his coat and, three years later, went about collecting God-fearers into a rival religious society of his own. Still later, when accused of defiling the Temple, he declined to be judged by the Supreme Court of Israel, which was famous for its lenity. Suddenly disclosing his Roman citizenship, he appealed to the Emperor: well aware that no honorable Jew would dare to give evidence in a religious case judged by Nero. Nor would any pupil of Gamaliel’s, nor any Jew with the least pride in his race, have made such an appeal. Paul’s “Christian” Church became completely separated from the Jerusalem Church of Ebionites and other Nazarenes. The Jerusalem Church was presided over by Jacob of Bethany, an ultra-pious Temple priest, whom Christians call “St. James the Less,” and whose judicial murder, according to Josephus, brought about the downfall of the Roman-appointed High Priest Hananiah II. Jacob’s Nazarenes regarded Jesus as the Messiah, but otherwise remained no less loyal to the Law and the Prophets than Jesus himself had been. Paul presently claimed that Jesus’s crucifixion totally annulled the Mosaic Law, and that an act of repentance and a confession of belief in his Messiahship was the only needful passport to Heaven. Mystical accretions—some of them, like the Trinity doctrine, now given a Gnostic origin, others borrowed from paganism—expanded the Pauline faith. Yet Paul’s adoption of the Jewish ethic, as whittled down and reconciled by the God-fearers with obedience to their Roman overlords, stuck; and is still Christian dogma for Catholics and Protestants alike.

When Judaism had been proscribed and nearly battered out of existence, the Christians escaped by joining the hue and cry against their parent faith, accusing the Jews of Jesus’s murder, and rewriting the Gospels to present him as an original thinker who detested the Pharisees, knew better than Moses, and was honorably treated by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator. To substantiate the Trinity doctrine, they even went so far as to make Jesus identify himself blasphemously with God.

The Puritans could hardly repudiate St. Paul, whose epistles and life-story formed part of their Bible, and get back to the authentic Jesus. They chose a position somewhere between the Jews and the Catholics; but the diversity of their sects, and a great difference in opinion even within the Established Church of England, where they formed the Low Church party, made this “somewhere” an unhappily vague position. Catholicism never admits any sects; one is either a believer or a heretic.

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To us English, all Jews were a mystery for over four hundred years before Cromwell invited them back. They had been expelled in an access of religious hysteria: being accused of numerous unexplained crimes—especially the ritual murders of children, laid at their door, it seems, by members of a primitive pagan cult surviving in East Anglia, who actually committed them. Thus Shakespeare, who pilloried Shylock, the villainous Jew, in his Merchant of Venice, is unlikely ever to have met a Jew—unless perhaps a Sephardic physician attached to the Spanish Embassy in London. The tradition of wicked Jews who spat at Christ being endorsed by the Gospels, a Jew was a safe target; and Shakespeare borrowed his story from the Venetians, who had cause to be jealous of their Jewish trade rivals. An unusual feature in the case is Shakespeare’s sympathetic understanding of Shylock’s trouble.

Cromwell invited the Jews back for political, not religious reasons. They brought modern banking methods to London from Holland, and the City’s present financial strength rests squarely on the foundations they laid. Their descendants have met with little trouble since those days, always showing gratitude and loyalty to England. Yet although, a century ago, religious toleration reached a point where Jews could be enrolled in the British nobility, and one even became Prime Minister and founded the Primrose League (the most true-blue Conservative institution of all), it would be foolish to pretend that they have been fully assimilated into British social life. Jewish dietary laws, and the yearly reminder at Pesach that their true home lay far away, made this impossible. They remained guests, albeit honored guests.

Anglican church services are very odd, if one pauses to consider them. It cannot decently be denied that Jesus was a descendant of King David, rather than King Alfred; or that he was born in Judea of a Jewish mother, rather than in Wessex of an Anglo-Saxon one; or that he was acclaimed King of the Jews, rather than King of England. Yet he is always thought of as a blond, fair-skinned Anglo-Saxon wearing a Greek robe, like that of Socrates; and so are all his disciples—except perhaps Matthew, the converted tax-gatherer, and, of course, Judas. The oddest part of the service, as I look back to my country childhood, came when the local squire and his lady, the village worthies, and whoever else of the common herd attended Matins on Sunday, sang the Psalms of David: identifying themselves with the Israelites of old, and boasting of God’s help to them in Egypt and the wilderness. How unconvincing the psalm of the Babylonian captivity sounded from those bucolic Gentile lips!

By the waters of Babylon we sat down
And wept when we remembered Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up
Upon the willows that were thereby.
How can we sing the Lord’s song
In a strange land?

If only they could have celebrated King Alfred and the Danes, or the Battle of Agincourt, or something in their own glorious past! . . . I last attended an Anglican service (to please my mother) during the First World War, which the Church chose to support as a “Crusade Against Evil.” One of the psalms for that Sunday was Cur Fremunt Gentes? or “Why do the Gentiles so furiously rage together?”—an unanswered question which, since I had already come to suspect the Gospel denials of Jesus’s orthodox Judaism, provoked a bitter smile.

My mother, a saintly woman, educated as a German Lutheran, pitied our Jewish neighbors for their miserable stubbornness—a great tactical mistake—and went out of her way to show them kindness. They did not repel her, but they must have read her like a book. How much guilt underlay this self-enforced pity is problematical: but I do know that the chief motive force in Protestant charity, when directed by the well-placed towards the needy or underprivileged, is guilt. The origins of our British Welfare State can be traced to a sense of guilt in comfortable 19th-century Protestant homes; charity was showered on ragged victims of the Industrial Revolution. It took the form of soup-kitchens, free education, and the vote—as a result of which the former governing class are today being slowly but surely evicted from their ancestral snuggeries. The famous Balfour Declaration purported to be an act of gratitude for the loyal services of Jews in the First World War, especially for Chaim Weizmann’s free gift to the British of chemical formulas that greatly assisted the Ministry of Munitions. But the very looseness of the wording “A National Home in Palestine” is psychologically suspect: it suggests a sense of guilt struggling with Protestant orthodoxy.

A couple of generations ago other Puritans, John Bunyan’s successors, began to worry that they might not be the people celebrated in the Psalms of David. Yet the Church preached a New Israel chosen by God after the Jews rejected Christ. “Well, who are these Jews?” some troubled inquirer pondered and, on consulting his Encyclopaedia, found that they were the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, plus a few Levites and Simeonites. The rest of Israel had been carried into captivity and never released. “But an Israelite, except in a fanciful sense, must be descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” he argued, “and Englishmen cannot sail under false colors!” Then a happy thought struck him. “We Christians are those lost tribes!” Hence the extraordinary pseudo-historic theories of the British Israelites, a sect which included a number of wealthy and influential Britons, among them (it was said) the late King George V, Head of the Protestant Church. He hopefully called his heir “David,” but David chose to be named Edward VIII; and a beautiful dream ended in tears.

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While still a Protestant in faith as well as ethical conditioning, I could not feel at ease with Jews; but as soon as I grasped the historical implications of being a goy, and took pains to undo all the knots in which my youthful mind had been entangled, everything changed. In fact, a negative anti-anti-Semitism became a positive pro-Judaism. When the State of Israel was proclaimed, I rejoiced; and imagined myself home at church in my childhood, where the same squire and his family, and the same village worthies, were singing cheerfully:

When the Lord turned again the captivity
    of Zion,
Then were we like to them that wept!

But not meaning a word of it. . . .

So at last you Jews won what you had always prayed for: a return to your own land! I foresaw that “What it feels like to be a Goy” would soon acquire a new sense. A goy, in relation to Jews dispersed all over the world, who are living on sufferance as guests in a generally hostile environment, is one thing; a goy in relation to a small though dynamic nation of Jews, based on their original homeland, is another thing altogether.

Until that miraculous day, most European Jews were taught from earliest infancy: “Be careful! Never listen to the goyim! Swallow insults, keep the Law! Be patient; you are one of God’s Chosen, and precious in His sight. One day He will make us a nation again!” It was a superiority complex, and difficult for a sensitive goy to understand. Though he might be welcomed in a Jewish home and treated like a king, with all the extravagant hospitality of which perhaps the Irish alone are equally capable, he felt inferior and guilty; because he had not suffered a million slights and snubs and insults; and because he had been faithful to his national destiny. Often twenty generations of his ancestors had been around in those parts; but the Jews had been denied an ancestral home three times as long. Pity was not what he felt toward them, nor envy—it was a certain awe. And the Protestant in him said: “Not surprising; the Bible says that they are God’s Chosen People.” Even St. Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians had blurted out: “What advantage then hath the Jew? Much, chiefly that to the Jews were committed the holy oracles of God.”

Of course, a “but” followed; nevertheless . . .

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Ten years after the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, your government invited me to visit Israel. I answered in hot sincerity that it was the greatest honor ever paid me. Whatever vicarious guilt I felt for the persecution of your ancestors by mine, was at last officially purged. Here in Israel I am a goy in the new, different sense. The awe remains: that Israel is a nation once more, and not a sentimental show-piece either, a mock-antique, but a strong, proud, energetic, well-disciplined nation—one that continues to welcome homeless Jewish immigrants into an already crowded country, and establish them as useful citizens.

When I heard of the recent war with Egypt, I smiled a quiet historical, neutral smile: such as came to my lips the other day when I saw a “still” from the film Solomon and Sheba, showing Solomon’s army in flight before a squadron of Egyptian Uhlans. In 1926, I was professor of English at Cairo University, and saw something of the Egyptian army. Officers were then selected for advancement by weight; and if one of them did not like the look of a subordinate, he would force open his mouth—and spit in it!

My sense of awe has been heightened by the realization that Hebrew is again a living spoken language—the same Hebrew from which our vernacular Old Testament was translated at third hand, through Latin and Greek. And the blood-curdling life-histories of those who came here as ragged refugees, and can now hold their heads high again, seem to me a sufficient guarantee that the New Israel will endure. A friend named John, an officer in your merchant navy, though a member of a kibbutz at Caesarea—told me: “At first, my wife and I talked German in the home, but somehow we slid into Hebrew; it keeps us in touch with the children.”

John, by the way, hates being parted from his family by going on distant voyages, and has no natural love of the sea. “Then whatever made a sailor of you?” I asked.

“Dire necessity. All my family at Warsaw went into the gas-chamber, except me. But they helped me to escape, and I managed to buy the papers of a Polish sailor killed in 1939. I assumed his identity, and the Germans drafted me into their merchant navy. A week later I contacted the British secret service, so I did not have the crime on my conscience very long. Later, I was in a British prisoner camp on Cyprus, for smuggling arms to Israel. But I never cared to change my occupation. We are short of sailors.”

“And your salary?”

“High enough, though I don’t handle any of it. Everything goes to the kibbutz. Really, I’m an individualist, but the kibbutzim were needed to handle and organize immigrants, and I naturally show my gratitude, now that I’m well established. Besides, I have few wants except books, and the authorities indulge me in those.”

Colonel T. E. Lawrence, whose official biographer I was, thoroughly approved of the Balfour Declaration, and wrote to me before he died in 1935: “It is a problem of the third generation.” If he meant “the third generation from now” (for the Rothschild settlements had already attained a fifth or sixth generation of “Sabras”), he was wrong. Unlike Moses, who kept Israel forty years in the Wilderness, you have not needed to await that third generation. The first generation has speeded up history.

Most goyim are surprised to find that religious observance is not compulsory here; that, indeed, the orthodox are a minority and many Israelis seem to be free-thinkers. But you may remember what answer Hillel, President of the Sanhedrin, gave the young Roman who impertinently asked to be taught the Law in the time he could stand on one leg. Hillel quoted Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself!,” adding: “The Law and the Prophets amount only to that.” And Hillel discouraged all mystical speculations about the nature of God; he held that the task of loving one’s neighbor was exacting enough for most men. Despite minor disputes inseparable from a nation still in its pioneering days, loving your neighbor is the main task you Israelis have chosen; or so I judge from visits to five kibbutzim, where friends of mine are members. A little freethinking, short of active anti-clericalism, can surely be forgiven.

Our British Welfare State rests on a theory of social justice, and fair shares for all. But “Fair Shares For All” does not encourage overtime, or doing without luxuries so that as many poor fellows as possible can benefit from one’s own industry. “Love thy neighbor!” is a positive injunction—like “Six days shalt thou labor!” “Fair Shares For All” is negative.

What advantage therefore hath a Jew? Much: chiefly that unto the Jews were committed the holy oracles of God! And, though there have been saints in every land, and under every religion, Israel was the first nation to make brotherly love and mercy head the list of moral virtues. So, if asked to pronounce on the knotty question: “What is a Jew?,” I should answer: “Anyone who feels himself a Jew and will faithfully obey that Levitical text.” All other considerations seem to me legalistic and unworthy of Israel’s historical role.

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