Commentary Magazine

Israel: A Blessing and a Curse, by Hedley V. Cooke

Judging Israel
Israel: A Blessing and A Curse.
by Hedley V. Cooke.
Stevens & Sons, Ltd. 308 pp. $3.50.


Just as Israel often feels it must justify its existence in the international community, so some of its supporters still examine their consciences to reassure themselves about Israel’s title to sovereignty. This is what Hedley Cooke has done. His book is a sort of moral accounting of the plus and minus factors involved in Israel’s creation and growth, from which he concludes that Israel is entitled to exist: “It is a tolerably good nation, with higher standards (even in actual practice) than the average.”

This conclusion would be objectionably patronizing if not for the fact that it comes after a painfully personal search by Mr. Cooke for the “truth” in the jungle of Israeli and Arab propaganda. After being appointed American consul in Jerusalem in 1943, Mr. Cooke found himself growing violently pro-Jewish and abnormally sensitive to any form of anti-Semitism. It was only after he left the foreign service in 1946 that he began to question his own emotional involvement in the issues and to understand how philo- as well as anti-Semitism had profoundly affected the Israel-Arab controversy. Later he spent three and a half years in Israel, re-exploring the country as well as his former feelings and viewpoint. Though he has now tried to arrive at an unprejudiced summary of the moral grounds of Israel’s position, his book is still an intensely personal one, alternately knowledgeable and perceptive, and misinformed, and obtuse.

Mr. Cooke’s search for morality in Israel’s position is both appealing and relevant. For no matter how much Israel’s citizens and partisans insist that it is a nation like other nations (that is, entitled to its share of cynicism, cruelty, and immorality), Israel is not like other nations. It stands for conscience. Its creation was an expression of the world community’s moral obligation, an international gesture of contrition. As the symbol and surviving reality of persecution throughout the ages, and as the bearer of a religion with a great ethical tradition, its people were expected to build a state where hatred and prejudice would wither away and where justice would be tempered with mercy. Its treatment of minorities would, naturally, be exemplary. Perhaps I have exaggerated these expectations, but the fact remains that the world community has set higher moral standards for Israel than for any other country except perhaps India—thanks to Gandhi.

Cooke, too, expected much from Israel, and was naturally disappointed. Were his expectations, then, too exalted or his disappointments too profound? I think not. I still cling to the notion that Jews have a particular moral duty toward the strangers who dwell among them. Even exponents of realpolitik continue to give lip-service to Deuteronomy 10:19 (“love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”), though they scarcely observe its spirit. If Israel is to be a Jewish state in more than merely a biological sense, then it is obliged to preserve Jewish morality. That this morality developed, in part, from the political powerlessness of the past has prejudiced many against it today; however, one cannot justify the cult of Joshua ben-Nun if it leads to the massacres of Deir Yasin, Kibya, and Kafr Kassem.

These massacres were state policy. They were criminal by any standard of national behavior, but particularly so because Jews perpetrated them. Perhaps most shameful was the response of the Jews outside Israel. There were a few outcries from Ihud and Ihud-types; but mainly there was a shamefaced silence. (To be sure, outrage was expressed by the American Council for Judaism and the Jewish Newsletter, but their attacks on Israel are unrelenting anyway.) After the Sinai war, public opinion in Israel forced a formal inquiry into the Kafr Kassem massacre, and Judge Moshe Landau ruled against the plea of following orders.

Cooke feels that the trial, the wave of revulsion that followed, as well as the cynical view among many Israelis that massacres don’t win them friends abroad, will all serve as future deterrents. Otherwise, he is quite satisfied with the way Israel treats its Arab minority and finds many redeeming features even where Arabs suffer hardships, like seizures of non-refugee Arab property for security considerations or military government regulations. As for the Arab refugees, he feels that Israel must acknowledge the right of the refugees to return and ought to accept 200,000. He believes that Israel can absorb that many as the crucial first step in the solution of the refugee problem. He reasons as follows: There are 900,000 refugees. If Israel takes 200,000, and if one then deducts another 100,000 who will stay where they are because they have jobs there, that leaves only 600,000. Then, 200,000 would “in all likelihood” become citizens of Jordan. Then, the other Arab countries would be “impelled” to take the remaining 400,000.



Cooke’s reasoning makes Menachem Mendel, Sholem Aleichem’s classical luftmentsh, appear as a hard-headed realist; but perhaps all he is really saying is that the Arab refugee problem, given the good will of both parties, is soluble. He is not so sure about the bigger problem he finds in the symbiotic relations between Israel and world Jewry and their potentially unwholesome ramifications. He is disturbed that Jews outside Israel care about Israel and that Jews all over the world maintain supranational ties. The time is past, he says, when a person’s race, religion, and nationality are all bound together. In an effort to find a definition for what, in his eyes, is outmoded and anomalous, Cooke calls this feeling of Jewish interdependence “tribalism.” I prefer the word “peoplehood.” I think Cooke means precisely the same thing, but he is baffled by its existence and persistence. It is unique; no other people has survived two thousand years in world dispersion. Cooke would like to think of Jews as adherents of the Jewish faith, and the additional dimension of Jewishness confuses him, since it eludes definition and comparison. Jews stick together, hence there is tribalism. Unable to cope with the persistent Jewish desire to perpetuate the Jewish people, Cooke puts the blame on the ideology of Zionism. In so doing he fails to see that Zionism is a consequence, not a cause, of that force he has chosen to call tribalism.

The word “tribalism” is curious. Its pejorative meaning has been popularized by the American Council for Judaism, which uses it to describe a condition considered primitive and uncivilized, parochial and provincial, instead of modern, cultured, broad, and universal. But it is hard to find anything attractive or morally elevating in denying affection and support to those we feel close to, whether by religion, culture, language, history, or tradition. Nor is any positive value to be gained from denying or denigrating that relationship, however attenuated it becomes.

James Baldwin, in criticizing the film Porgy and Bess,1 said that no white man could direct Negro actors because he could not understand the Negro situation. My first reaction was resentment—but Baldwin was right. How can whites know what it is like to be inside a black skin in America? So, too, there are aspects to being Jewish that Cooke, for all his good will, cannot grasp and about which it is presumptuous of him to lecture Jews.

Cooke’s objections to Israel’s exploitation of the symbiosis, particularly in America, are more to the point. Though he mistakes the one-dimensional, public-relations position for the three-dimensional reality, he is right when he says that Israel exaggerates its accomplishments, with the result that many Jews believe that the only factories in the Middle East are in Tel Aviv and that the desalination of sea water is an Israeli invention. He is right about Histadrut, an industrial giant and a mammoth employer, that puts on its trade-union hat when it goes fund-raising abroad among workers. It is also reasonably true to say that a kind of self-imposed censorship exists among most American Jews: don’t criticize Israel publicly, because it will hurt Israel and it will hurt the fund-raising business. The professional fund raisers among American Jews have helped to create an atmosphere in which the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto becomes something to be exploited for the raising of money. The Israelis cannot be absolved of all responsibility for the license and vulgarity of the fund raisers, but Cooke should also blame a community that allows fund raisers to set its moral tone.

Cooke takes up the further question of lobbying on behalf of Israel and the matter of dual loyalty. When he asks if there isn’t a smugness in the response of American Jews that their country permits mutiple loyalties on various levels, he fails to recognize that the apparent smugness serves only to conceal anxiety. Often Jews feel awkward about their intense lobbying, but so long as the Arabs refuse to accept Israel’s existence, everything becomes a matter of life or death: military assistance, economic aid, a friendly political gesture. If the Arabs can ever be induced to recognize Israel, the clamor of American Jewish lobbyists will surely decline.

Cooke concludes with a Polonius-like lecture to Israel: be good, be honest, be kind, be modest. This would be unobjectionable if not for the fact that he points to the “moral power” of such small countries as Austria and Switzerland as models for Israel. But what do Dollfuss, Schuschnigg, and the Anschluss say about Austria’s morality? And what of Switzerland’s close-fisted wartime and postwar refugee policy, or its role as broker for the Nazis to dispose of plundered European wealth and treasures? Also, if these countries have achieved the kind of morality that Cooke admires, I wonder how he can continue to think in terms of the Deuteronomic blessing or curse from which his book takes its title, and conclude that the people of Israel have all that it takes for the blessing, not the curse.




1 “On Catfish Row,” COMMENTARY, September 1959.

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