Commentary Magazine

Swastikas, Resolutions, Scholarship

Milton Himmelfarb’s new department, “In the Community,” will appear regularly from now on at intervals of four months.





The pandemic of swastika and “Out with the Jews” scrawlings has abated by now, but the newspapers were full of it in the month or so after Christmas Eve. It started in Germany and spread to Western Europe, Great Britain, a few places behind the Iron Curtain, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia; in Tel Aviv a Jewish boy was caught in the act and sent to a psychiatrist. An inordinate number of persons and institutions issued pronouncements and a UN commission put the matter on its agenda. The State of Israel asked the various governments what was happening and what they intended to do, though most Jews were not keen about Israel seeming to act as their protectress.

So much suspicion, or at least reserve, was reawakened about Germany that Chancellor Adenauer, by a species of Communist reasoning, at first wanted to blame the Communists. The Communist detective’s maxim has always been is fecit cui prodest—who stands to gain did the job, if not actually then “objectively”; and objectively the Russians profited greatly. Still the suspicion, or reserve, is justified. No one need worry about Adenauer, or Theodor Heuss, or Carlo Schmid, but that is not true of all those judges and permanent undersecretaries, or even a minister or two. And German schoolchildren are still taught nothing about the Third Reich. Then there is the Merten case.

On trial for war crimes, Maximilian Merten was described as “all-powerful after God” in Nazi-occupied Salonica. He extorted the last drachma from the Jewish community, with his own hand he killed two Jews, and he sent 54,000 of the 56,000 Salonica Jews to be murdered in Poland. He was arrested when he had the gall to return to Greece in 1957 to intercede for a friend, at ease in Germany and listed by the Greek authorities as a war criminal. A year ago a Greek court sentenced Merten to twenty-five years’ imprisonment. He was released in November, arrested by the West German police when his plane landed, and again released two days later. The January-February issue of Evidences, the French bimonthly published in Paris by the American Jewish Committee, says that the Greeks let him go because former collaborationists pulled strings and, more importantly, because the German government exerted intense economic pressure—the Evidences writer calls it blackmail—on his behalf.

As for the other countries to which the swastikas and slogans spread, most people thought at the time that imitation had more to do with it than organization, and they seem to have been right. What was encouraging was that official and respectable opinion—governments, schools, churches, the press, civic organizations—unanimously abhorred and condemned. Even the neo-Nazis in Germany went through the motions of expelling two members who were caught. Of course they did not mean it, but thirty-five years ago the young men would have murdered, not daubed, and the Nazis would have banqueted instead of expelling them. The difference is all to the good.

But why was this a kind of youth movement? In Germany most of those who were caught had no personal memories of Hitler and his times, and in the other countries the young people had to read about him in history textbooks. And what did they have against the Jews? Most of the German offenders had never seen a Jew, and if in the desperate 30’s the Jews made a good scapegoat everywhere, in 1959—60 there was no great need for one. It is not enough to say that the scribblings were a way of expressing malice or defiance against the respectable, like more conventional and less topical obscenities. The Hakenkreuz, after all, was the emblem of the death camps.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones/But names will never hurt me,” we used to chant when we were children. Yet when synagogues were bombed or threatened with bombing, in 1958, most Jews were calm. Their reasoning seemed to be that even if the psychopaths in this country were only one one-hundredth of one per cent, they would still come to 18,000—a large number but an insignificant ratio, and probably no real cause for fear. Though the same reasoning is beginning to be applied to the swastikas, a residue of doubt remains. Nor is it remarkable that a set of straight lines and right angles should be more frightening than bombs. For adults it is only yesterday that the children’s jingle was proved wrong and that names—the Nazi ideology and propaganda—had consequences far worse than sticks and stones, or even a few bombs. It will be a long time before the swastika loses its association with the death camps and ceases to arouse, by its reminder of brutishness coupled with technology, loathing, revulsion, and dread.



A Vote to Table

Last November Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, president of the World Jewish Congress, president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, untitled animator of the World Conference of Jewish Organizations, and until recently chairman of the Presidents’ Club (now the Conference of Presidents), ran into trouble. The United Synagogue of America, the association of Conservative congregations, met in the Catskills and decided to table a proposal to affiliate with the World Zionist Organization. To table means to strangle rather than to behead.

It had not been easy for Dr. Goldmann to get the WZO to allow organizations like the United Synagogue to affiliate directly, and not through the country federations. The Zionist Organization of America was unhappy about being by-passed, and thus downgraded, and the Orthodox Mizrahi parties resisted to the end such recognition of a non-Orthodox group that presumed to call itself religious. (In December the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations threatened to withdraw from the Conference of Presidents if it became a “regular” organization, but it is said that the true objection was to a plan for naming as chairman the head of the Reform congregational association.)

Goldmann prevailed in the WZO because it needs all the strength and prestige it can get. The accession of the United Synagogue—or B’nai B’rith, which has also been mentioned—could be used to show that the Zionist movement is not the anachronism that the Israelis, especially, think it is, as well as to support the WZO’s demand for designation by the Israeli authorities as the exclusive mediator between Israel and diaspora Jewry. Besides, Goldmann’s hold on the WZO’s presidency is slipping. He has to show new achievements. The agreement for German reparations is no longer recent and the old question is beginning to be asked, “What have you done for me lately?” His peculiar strength through weakness—his acceptability as head of a coalition precisely because he represents no strong faction within it and has no power base of his own—is not what it used to be. Prime Minister Ben Gurion is not enchanted with him, and it is said that Mr. Ben Gurion’s Mapai party would like Abba Eban to have the post.

Dr. Goldmann may have thought that it would be easier to persuade the United Synagogue than the WZO. American Conservative Judaism has traditionally been more Zionist than Reform or Orthodoxy, more receptive to appeals in the name of the unity of the Jewish people, and not less eager to affiliate with assemblies, conferences, and councils. Yet he failed, though his arguments used rhetoric that the Conservative movement had found irresistible before.



As usual, the speeches gave the good reasons, pro and con, but not the real reasons. Mordecai Kaplan, arguing for affiliation, repeated what he has said insistently for many years—that the great danger to continued Jewish existence lies in the ambiguity and weakness of the modern Jews’ identification with his tradition and his people, and that there are two ways to meet the danger: to create an organization that will represent the Jewish entity, and to enter formally into a covenant, as in the days of Ezra. (At a convention of the Conservative rabbinate some years ago, he said that just as no one can be a soldier without an army, so no one can be a Jew without an organized Jewish people; American Jews are not soldiers but veterans.) The argument against affiliation was that the Conservative movement, if it joined the WZO, would confuse the sacred with the profane, and indeed subordinate the sacred to the profane.

What the speeches did not reveal, and what some of the speakers may not have divined, was the calculus of institutional interest. Left to themselves, the unsophisticated laity would probably have voted for affiliation, but they were not left to themselves. The Seminary and the rabbinate, or some influential rabbis, were against it. They are hardly less pro-Israel than before, they merely doubt that affiliation with the WZO is necessary for helping Israel. Actually, some of them think that their movement can do more for Israel as a technically non-Zionist than as an officially Zionist body.

Most of the Conservative rabbis like Mordecai Kaplan and all of them like what he wants, but not all who agree with his end agree with his means. As to Goldmann, why bestir themselves for him and his organization, especially at the expense of their own status and their own institutions? They are more and more confident that the future is with what they represent, not Goldmann. So the Seminary and the rabbinate arranged for the polite resolution to table.

Dr. Goldmann was furious. After the convention he made speeches about the pretensions of the synagogue and about the basically Christian and assimilationist character of the idea that the synagogue dominates or should dominate Jewish life. By saying harsh things about the synagogue rather than about the rabbis, he played into his adversaries’ hands. The irony is that whatever the motives and the probable secularism of Goldmann and people like him—for example, Emanuel Neumann, president of the World Confederation of General Zionists, who has been making similar speeches—they are basically right. By a semantic sleight of hand the American rabbinate, Orthodox and Reform as well as Conservative, is trying to popularize the equation: Judaism = the synagogue = The Synagogue; and they do not object if others add The Synagogue = the rabbinate. This sort of thing has historically been more Christian than Jewish, as one can see by substituting Christian for Jewish terms in the equations. But whether it is inspired by Christian example or by American specialization and division of labor—which when applied to Jewish matters means that most Jews are perfectly willing to give the rabbis sole responsibility for Judaism—does not matter. If a generation ago the American rabbi who wanted to make his mark was likely to try to be a Zionist leader, today he is more likely to try to be a spokesman for The Synagogue. The development is natural and probably healthy, but one can understand Dr. Goldmann’s bitterness.




Jewish scholarship does not get the support it needs, because it is unimportant for most American Jews. Someone once told me how he convinced the three powers in his local federation to double its allotment for the Seminary. He intercepted them in the country club one Saturday afternoon, between their showers and their gin rummy, and asked what would happen if Father Coughlin went on the air again to broadcast that the Talmud instructed the Jews in all kinds of dishonesty and immorality. They agreed with him that they could not answer the charge. Then experts were needed to prove that Coughlin was wrong, he argued. They agreed. The greatest Talmud experts in the world were at the Seminary, he concluded, and it was only elementary prudence to maintain the Seminary as a defense force in reserve. They agreed again, and the Seminary got more money from his federation. Other scholarly institutions have not been so lucky in their advocates.

In 1957 the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds finally decided to survey the field in a National Jewish Cultural Study (a misnomer, because the surveyors soon decided to concentrate on scholarship). CJFWF gave as its reason a kind of communal guilty conscience, and that no doubt entered into it. Other reasons were at least as compelling. With the rise of the American form of the welfare state, the growth of health and hospital insurance, and the rapid decrease among Jewish immigrants and poor, contributors to Jewish federations may be losing their enthusiasm for the traditional relief and healing philanthropies; the contributors’ loyalty might be kept by Jewish culture, because unlike hospitals or family agencies, it cannot hope for government or community-chest money. Some federation people are simply tired of being pestered by representatives of many cultural agencies, to each of which a token contribution has to be given. They would just as soon hand over the sum of those tokens—but no more—to one institution and let it worry about distribution. And finally, there are the zealots for centralization, who do not see why they should withhold its blessings from culture. The result was that a committee of thirty-three community people, assisted by an advisory committee of thirty-three experts, looked into the state of Jewish scholarship and research, archives, and publication in this country. While the scholarly activities of the seminaries were taken into account, the seminaries themselves were regarded as primarily institutions for training rabbis, not cultural agencies. Examples of those that were so regarded are the American Jewish Historical Society and the Jewish Publication Society.

Toward the end of 1959 the committee submitted a report and recommendations, which CJFWF accepted. The report found much to admire in achievement, and much to lament in the starvation and neglect that scholarship has suffered at the hands of the Jewish community. It also saw great opportunities for the future, given the proper support and organization. The two major recommendations were for a foundation, to raise and distribute funds, and for a council of Jewish cultural agencies, to foster cooperation, to coordinate, and to submit recommendations to the foundation.

The foundation is a good idea. With luck and good management, it ought to be able to get substantially more money for Jewish scholarship, and that will help. But the council is another matter. Coordination and cooperation do not require that kind of machinery; a lunch meeting of six or eight people every other month will do. Creating a council puts the emphasis on agencies and their vested interests rather than on scholarship and scholars. It suggests the kind of group-project thinking that American foundations generally are rightly criticized for, and it suggests also a greater passion for community organization, according to the centralizing notion of what the Jewish community should be like, than for scholarship.

One of the scholarly bodies that the foundation may be able to help is the American Academy for Jewish Research. Its 1959 Proceedings, which appeared not long ago, are based mostly on papers read at its meeting in December 1958.

Looking through the Proceedings, I remembered something. The night before that AAJR meeting I went to a party. Most of the people there were college English teachers, in New York for a convention of the Modern Language Association, and nearly all seemed to be Jews. I mentioned to one of them that I was going to be at the AAJR the next day. He looked a little surprised and asked, “Don’t you find that rather parochial?”

The talk that night was of Melville and James.

The six AAJR papers I heard on the following day spanned the time between Hammurabi and Stalin; the countries were India, Mesopotamia, Israel, Egypt, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, and Russia; the primary languages were Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Arabic, Greek, Yiddish, Lithuanian, and Russian; the secondary and ancillary languages included Latin, Dutch, German, Persian, and the Romance languages.



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