Commentary Magazine


Zion Revisited:
The Anomaly of Jewishness Remains

It is the things you don’t remember, that you couldn’t possibly remember, that come back with the most overwhelming sense of familiarity: you see them, you smell them, you taste them, and they are intimate and altogether familiar, as if you had seen or smelled or tasted them just the day before. And it is only your own wonder as to why you should notice them when they are so familiar—only this wonder that tells you how unfamiliar the scents and the sights really are, how long a time has passed since you were last among them. Outside the Lydda airport terminal building, the smell of the air of Israel was at once in my nostrils, and though I had not known before that I knew the smell, I recognized immediately what it was. There was the sea in it, and sand, and orange blossom—but one can no more describe a smell than one can remember it, until one smells it again. And as with smells, so too with tastes, and the sight of such things as the illuminated black and yellow boxes advertising Nesher beer, the white enamel plates with black lettering that doctors use to announce their specialties, the names of cigarettes, the sand that sifts through the cracks in the pavements of Tel Aviv. These and a hundred other things which I had forgotten were the most sharply familiar of all; the things I thought I had remembered, I found most changed. The mind distorts what it consciously remembers, keeps intact what if imagines it has forgotten.

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I

Let me say at once that I find it extraordinarily difficult to write coherently about Israel. Ten years ago it was, in a way, easier for me to deal with my own experiences there. I had come to Israel with half a mind to settle, deliberately seeking an involvement with the country. But on the present visit, made ten years after the first, and very brief and unexpected in itself, I had no intention at all of settling in the country: I went there simply as a tourist, leaving behind my career and my family in the country in which I lived. I was merely going on holiday: after an English winter I looked forward to being in the sun, to eating oranges, to hearing a strange language in my ears and looking at places which I could not expect soon to look at again.

I was in the sun, I did find myself in places which now seem remote to me. But I was not like a tourist in any other country, and I know that in Israel I never can be; it dismayed and disturbed me to find that I did immediately feel deeply involved in the country, and still do; to have to admit too that on my return to the country which I think of as “mine” and the life which is certainly “mine” I feel a deep discontent and impatience, even a resentment, that it should be as it is, and not otherwise. But how other would I wish it? I do not know. Certainly when I was in Israel I was thankful that I was no more than a visitor to the country, and that I would soon be going from it back to England.

There are many good reasons why someone from England or America can feel glad that he is not an Israeli. Israel is a country that has been made out of pain and unhappiness and suffering; it is a country where the parents and brothers and sisters and children of almost every other person one meets have been killed by bullet and gas and torture; and being there, one cannot but be oppressed by the knowledge of what this has meant, and still means to the people in it. Then, Israel is a bitterly poor country—how poor I had not realized until the present visit; last time I was there I had been too preoccupied with personal decisions and indecisions really to look at what the country in itself offered as a place of habitation. This time I saw more; and what I saw was disheartening. The country is pitifully endowed: its farmlands are tiny, its industries are largely artificial, its hopes of earning a Western standard of living for itself remote. And much of Israel is very ugly—not the country itself, which is harshly and poignantly beautiful—but the towns and the villages which have been built on it. Heaven knows one doesn’t have to go far in England to find ugliness caked and irremovable upon the ground, roofs like scabs, streets like jaws, acres upon acres, suburbs upon suburbs of such ugliness. Yet there are great parts of London, for example, which are beautiful to see, and even what is immediately ugly in London can be transformed by its relation to the great patterns of the city. There is no city, no town, no village in Israel about which this can be said, with the exception perhaps of Jerusalem, perhaps of Haifa. Everywhere else what one sees in the towns is shallow, disordered, scratched up, knocked down, cheap, fragmentary; and this ugliness is curiously exhausting and dispiriting, not only because there is so little relief from it, but because one feels it to reflect again the poverty and unhappiness from which it has arisen.

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Now I know it will immediately be said: for heaven’s sake, what else could you expect? The country is poor, the people in it have suffered, beauty cannot be catered to when the population of the country has tripled itself in ten years. All of which is true; and nothing I have said affects my admiration for what the Israelis have done in the last ten years, both in relation to the enormity of the tasks thrust on them, and in relation to what they were at the beginning of that time. And this is true of every sphere of Israeli life: true of the houses they have managed to build, of the people they have managed to train, of the roads they have constructed, the wars they have fought; true of their attitudes toward one another and toward the state they live in; true too of the attitude of the state toward them. The wonder is not merely that in spite of the population’s having tripled within the last ten years living conditions are now so much more comfortable than they were; nor merely that in spite of the unabated hostility of the Arab world there is much greater confidence than ever before that Israel will survive, and survive in strength; nor merely that the Israelis themselves are convinced (and they should know) that their life has been getting steadily better and better, and will continue to do so; nor merely that, as a result of the greater physical comfort and greater security, the manners of the people have so much improved, have become so much more relaxed and casual that it is comparatively (though not absolutely) pleasurable to drive in a car down Allenby Street—the wonder is something of which these are all parts, and yet that is greater than any single one of them. It is the sense one has of a constant and unending struggle in Israel to keep up standards, and even more, to find out what the best standards for the country really are: this seems to me the biggest achievement of all in Israel, and one without which none of the other achievements would have been attainable.

It is this, indeed, which makes me feel that no service is done to Israel for one to say, for example, that what is ugly is not ugly. If the Israelis are battling so hard for standards, it seems to me pointless and ungracious for people who visit the country to patronize it by dropping their standards as soon as they set foot on its soil. True, by English or American standards, the Israeli standard of public architecture and public manners, of food and mutual concern, might generally be low; but the Israelis have not forgotten that there are standards, and they are trying fitfully, erratically, wrongheadedly often, but always determinedly, to find out what these standards are: the standards for them, living in that country, with that past, that problematical future, these traditions, these hopes. The fact that they often fail to achieve their standards, or fall into sheer confusion, is unimportant compared with the fact that they try for them; ten years ago one could do no more than hope that this might happen, one could not really expect it.

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For this achievement it can be said paradoxically that the Arabs deserve something of the credit. The fact that Israel has been under constant threat (indeed under constant attack) since the inception of the state has—quite apart from the physical suffering, the brutal, recurring loss of life that it has caused—depleted the country economically to a degree that can hardly be measured; that can merely be guessed at by seeing the prominence everywhere in Israel of the army and its institutions. But on quite another level there is no doubt that the sense of constant threat has strengthened the Israeli sense of community, the sense of responsibility the Israelis feel toward one another and to the country; they know they need one another, and they know now that they can rely on one another. And this feeling remains powerful and coherent in spite of the fact that the problem of sheer survival is one that does not seem much to trouble the Israelis any longer. Indeed, one can say that the Israeli sense of community has become stronger because the outlook no longer appears so dangerous: their reliance on one another has found here its justification and reward. All this is quite apart from the role of the army as an educative influence in the life of the country. The army has taken in thousands of young immigrants, and taught them not just how to be soldiers, but how to be Israelis: taught them Hebrew, taught them trades, taught them what it is to be answerable to the community for their own actions.

Discussing the role of the army in Israeli life is as good a point as any to illustrate what I meant by saying that in Israel the attempt to maintain standards is simultaneously a search for what are or could be the most suitable standards. Before returning to Israel, I had wondered about Israeli “militarism,” which is something we hear a great deal about: the general idea people have of Israel nowadays is that it is a kind of Sparta, where even the girls carry guns. (Especially the girls carry guns, according to the illustrated papers.) And I was prepared to dislike Israeli militarism as much as I dislike any other, when it grows too big for its boots. In fact, and inevitably, as I see it now, I saw no signs of such a militarism: being in Israel one soon realizes that there is no room for the traditional and dangerous kind of militarism to grow. The Israelis are too democratic, too talkative, too untidy, too interfering, too independent, for the army or the officers’ corps to take to itself powers to which it is not entitled, even if it wanted to—which it obviously does not. There is very little spit and polish in the Israeli army, there are no socially elite regiments (the idea is unthinkable in the context of Israeli life); those officers who are politically ambitious have to shed their uniforms and go meekly into private life before they are able to realize their ambitions. But if anything Junker-like or junta-like is unimaginable in Israeli terms, there remains the need for an ethos which can be transformed into a military quality should an emergency arise: if the Israelis don’t admire the military mind and the military man, what do they admire? The answer is a curious one; and it typifies exactly what I mean by the Israeli need for their own standards of judgment and value. The “military” qualities which the Israelis seem to have decided upon as most worth admiration are those of physical hardihood and physical daredevilry—precisely those qualities which the country’s army most needs, and precisely those which are least dependent on the old kind of militarism. Of this daredevilry the suicidal marches to Petra, in Jordan, are the most dramatic examples; but there are others, less dramatic, but not less significant overall. Anyone can join in the annual march to Jerusalem (this year some twelve and a half thousand people were involved in it); any boy can try to join the paratroopers; anyone can go for a hike in the Negev along trails that only he knows about (the army was called out three times in the couple of weeks T was in Israel to find lost groups of hikers); and those who spoke admiringly of the former Chief of Staff referred first and immediately to his personal bravery, as though that were the quality above all others which most fitted him for his task. So, out of the need of the country, and their own deepest inclination of spirit, they have made a value, their own kind of value. And what is true here is true of other areas of Israeli life; true even of those where the issues are much less clear-cut, the needs more various, the inclinations more devious.

That there is a “crisis of values” in Israel is a commonplace. It can be described very crudely as a conflict between the collective and pioneering values of the past, and the personal and comfort-seeking values which dominate most other Western societies, and which are beginning to be dominant now in Israel too. To my mind, the “crisis” is going to persist indefinitely; it seems to me a healthy and inevitable development that young Israelis should find themselves wanting to live private lives, and to pursue their own concerns rather than the concerns of the community or the state. But it also seems to me beyond question that the pioneering, democratic, and collective values of the early days will continue to exert a powerful influence on the thinking and feeling of most Israelis, and on their style of life. Again, the Israelis are being forced to find their own distinctive modes of valuation: the point is that the search goes on.

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II

Jews have always been in the very center of the social and cultural and religious history of Western civilization. And somehow people had imagined that though the Jews were “normalizing” themselves in Palestine, they wouldn’t normalize themselves to the degree where this knack or fate of theirs would disappear. On the contrary, Jewish and Gentile Zionists alike prophesied immense cultural and spiritual and religious contributions to be made to the world by a restored Jewish state. “And out of Jerusalem will go forth the law”—surely, people believed, that would be true of a restored Jerusalem. And the kind of experiment in collective living made by the kibbutzim confirmed everyone in that belief—until now. Now the kibbutzim play a smaller role in the life of Israel than they ever did; and Israel plays a tinier role in the world’s intellectual life than anyone could ever have expected. There they are, these Jews in Israel, trying to make a living in a very poor country, speaking a language that no one else on earth speaks or wants to speak, thousands of miles away from the Europe that gave the country its birth, isolated from the countries around them, populated by immense numbers of non-European Jews—whatever kind of country people expected Israel to be, it wasn’t this. It wasn’t a country where some writers write in English rather than in Hebrew, so that their work will reach the audience they want it to reach; where painters take their paintings to Paris and London and New York to get the kind of appreciation and monetary reward they need; where students at the Hebrew University have to learn English in order to pursue their studies; where conditions, in a word, are those of cultural and intellectual provincialism or colonialism.

Now some Israelis who care about these things react in the way of chauvinism: they deny that the problem exists at all; they make exaggerated claims for Israeli poetry, architecture, intellectual achievements generally. But these people do not deal with the problem: they merely aggravate it. Fortunately there are others, many others, who are honestly bewildered and surprised and taken aback to find themselves living in what they recognize to be the provinces, and are wondering what can be done about it. Because they too had within themselves the conviction that Jewishness is centrality; now they are finding that Israeliness is not.

I had imagined that the decision of the overwhelming majority of the Anglo-Saxon Jews to remain where they were must have come as a great moral shock to the Israelis—a moral shock not in any way diminished by the fact that the Israelis know how much they are dependent economically and politically on the continued existence of Jewish communities outside Israel. But I found that whatever the more ardent among them might have been saying a few years ago, many Israelis now neither expect nor even want the Jews of the English-speaking world to come to Israel. They are positively glad that these communities outside are there, for to the Israelis the Jews of the English-speaking world are a lifeline, a passageway into the great world—the world which the Israelis, being Jews, are intensely reluctant to abandon. Israel is a small Middle Eastern country; but the Israelis want a stall in the world’s great marketplace of ideas, and they know that at present they are most likely to get one through their connection with the Jewries of the United States and England.

It is this which is taking the edge off their resentment: it is this too which offers to Jews outside Israel something more to do than raising funds. Fund-raising and fund-giving will have to be continued indefinitely, and for myself I cannot feel the contempt for the raisers and givers that is fashionable among some members of the Jewish intelligentsia: the bread of too many people depends on all this. But if money were all Israel wanted of the Jews who live in freedom and peace outside it, then the relationship would ultimately be a boring and enfeebling one on both sides. But Israel wants more, needs more: Israel wants immigrants, certainly, but she wants visitors too; Israel wants communication, dialogue, debate; Israel wants interest, concern, criticism; Israel wants to remain Jewish.

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And what of our needs? No one can look ahead nowadays further than about a generation; for that period of time we can see that the various Jewish communities scattered over the free world are going to continue as recognizable Jewish communities. Now this generation is our generation, is us: we have to deal now with our involvements and responsibilities and hopes for ourselves. And who can deny that Israel is among our hopes? Already there is so much we have gained from the existence of Israel: we are unquestionably better off in every sense than we would have been had there not been two million Jews living in a country of their own; and if a catastrophe were to overwhelm Israel, a moral catastrophe would happen to us. (And very possibly it would be followed by a catastrophe of another kind.) And even if Israel were to survive as no more than a second-rate Levantine state, we would be the poorer for it, emotionally and morally. Whereas an Israel peaceful and reasonably prosperous and open to us can give us a particular kind of pride, and a particular sense of release. There were people not so long ago who were making it their business to kill every one of us that they could lay their hands on; but they didn’t destroy everything, they didn’t kill everyone; and Israel, as it is today, is even in its very failures a testimony to the will not merely to survival, but to survival on terms laid down by the victims, by those who were once helpless but are helpless no longer. If there was nothing but luck between any of us and Auschwitz, there is a bond of another kind between us and Tel Aviv. Historical bonds are easily forgotten; but this one is not historical: it lives. That is the bond.

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III

I understand better now what it was that made me feel discontented and impatient on my return to England. What the Zionists have been promising us for so long is that once there was a Jewish state, the Jews within the state would become like any other people; the Jews outside would become, say, like the Irish or the Greeks in America; all that was anomalous and without parallel in Jewish existence would be done away with. And in some way or another I must have believed that this had happened, or could happen, now that Israel had come into existence. But, being forced to consider the dependence of Israel on the Diaspora, and the involvement of the Diaspora with Israel, I realize that what the Zionists promised us hasn’t happened, and isn’t going to happen. There is no country in the world like Israel; and there are no people in the world who have a relation to any country like the relation which the Jews of the Diaspora have to Israel. What Israel has done, in fact, is to give another aspect to Jewish singularity—a new and very welcome aspect. But the singularity, the oddity, the anomaly of Jewishness remains as singular and odd and anomalous as it has ever been. (And by definition it remains that for the Jews of Israel too, no matter how much “Jewishness” they are able to take for granted in their lives. Even the bare-armed and suntanned young men in the streets of Israel, with their confident, guttural voices, their cropped hair and fierce mustaches—they too had their secret place of bewilderment, their own puzzlement at what history had made of them; they too knew and did not know what it is to be a Jew.) All the grammar books tell us that there are no degrees of uniqueness, that a thing is either unique or it is not; yet I cannot help feeling that the State of Israel has managed to make more emphatic, not less so, Jewish uniqueness.

Our uniqueness is such a burden, such a mystery, to those of us without religious belief, who yet, in a way we cannot understand, continue to be Jews. And to come to Israel and to realize that not even in Israel or about Israel can the burden be laid down, is at first and inevitably dispiriting, disappointing. Was it for this that people toiled, and fought, and died of malaria, were hanged by the British, blown to bits by the Arabs—that we should still be different, and restless within our differentness?

Probably they did hope for more. Nevertheless, they have given us all it was in their power to give.

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