Commentary Magazine

The Topless Tower of Babylon

When the whole world had the same language and the same words . . . men said to one another, . . . “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and make a name for ourselves; or we shall be scattered all over the world.” But when the LORD had come down to see, . . . He thought, “Well, it is because they are one people, all with the same language, that they have begun to accomplish this, and now nothing they decide to do will be out of their reach. We had better go down and confuse their language there, so that they will no longer be able to understand one another’s speech.” Then the LORD scattered them all over the world, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was named Babel—because the LORD had made a babble there of the whole world’s language. . . .

This myth is as compelling as the earlier one in Genesis, the myth of Eden and the expulsion from the Garden. The myth of Eden explains why we are unhappy. Knowledge and thought, sundering us from the animal life of instinct, have given us shame and guilt. Knowledge and thought have made us mortal—it is because we know we are going to die that we are mortal. We have subjugated nature, only to be haunted by that dream, or anamnesis—the dawn-age water hole at which a man drinks, an animal crouching side by side with the other animals. He does not know he is going to die, does not cast the shadow of death over his life, does not torment himself with reproach and judgment. What happiness to be an animal! Still greater happiness it would be to know and think and yet to be animal. In the Garden that was not yet impossible, but God has cast us out of the Garden. Or else a fatal weakness in us has led us to body forth from our self-alienation, in order to perfect our unhappiness, a God or gods.

But even granted that that water hole and the Garden are no longer for us, why should the City and the tower with its top in the heavens not be for us? Why have we not built on earth a Heavenly City? The Bible itself blurts out the answer. It is religion’s fault: God was jealously fearful of what men could achieve undistracted and undivided. (Or was it the gods who were jealously fearful? In those Genesis verses the Lord comes down and scatters, in the singular; but “we” are exhorted to go down and confuse, with plural verbs. Those could be plurals of majesty, but equally they could be literal.)

If religion used to divide, today we are rather less religious than we used to be. What else, by dividing us, still keeps us from building the City? Again the myth instructs us. Speaking one language we would be undivided, and undivided we could build. The multitude of religions may do less harm than it used to, in a more credulous time, but the multitude of languages is as bad as ever. It is appropriate that Zamenhof, the Jew who thought of Esperanto as the one, unifying language, should also have thought of Hillelism as the one, unifying religion.

More than anyone else, a modern Jew would yearn for the end of religious difference. In the past, religious difference had caused persecution of the Jews; and even now, even in the most tolerant countries, even if you were only ambiguously a Jew, it caused you some discomfort. You could not really approve what your forerunner Heine had done, half-heartedly—the cynical baptism, the second-best of pretending to acquiesce in an official incorporation of your small tribe into a larger. You wanted more than an equivocal exemption from paying your tax for difference, you wanted the honorable transcendence of difference. With Zamenhof, Hillelism; in the United States, Ethical Culture.

As to language, if Zamenhof had been alive he would have predicted that a General de Gaulle would do battle against le franglais and the expansion of English. Zamenhof was not only a modern Jew, he was also a modern Polish Jew (the son of a maskil, an Enlightener). He lived amidst Polish, Russian, German, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, Hebrew; and he could not believe that one would yield peacefully to another. He could more easily believe that all would yield to something else entirely. For Poles, Esperanto might mean the defeat of Polish, but at least it would not mean the victory of Russian. Poles would be less ready to speak Russian, or Russians to speak Polish, than both to speak Esperanto—just as Jews would be less ready to become Christians, or Christians to become Jews, than both to become Hillelists, or Ethical Culturists. Universalism is the peace with honor that ends the wars of particularisms.

There is a similar argument for socialism. Is not war the ultimate, most inhuman division of men from men? Capitalism means war. Socialism means internationalism: the socialist hymn is the Internationale. It was to Jews above all that the internationalist promise of the socialist revolution appealed. Jews were conspicuous opponents of Stalin and his Socialism in One Country.

As a boy I would sometimes glimpse, out of the corner of an eye, certain people who though Yiddish-speaking or Yiddish-accented were unlike my parents or that other kind of middle-aged Jews I was aware of, the members of the Workmen’s Circle. These odd people were vaguely bohemian, as well as vegetarian and unconventionally socialist, or anarchist. (Not many were Communists, I think. I do not associate them with the newspaper Freiheit.) They also had a way of letting you know they were Esperantists. In short, if I thought of it at all I thought Esperanto went with anarchist vegetarianism, or vegetarian anarchism. After I had begun to reflect on such things, it appeared to me that logically some Communists, too, ought to have been Esperantists. And since what can be will be, the missing link has turned up.

Juliusz Katz-Suchy is the refugee in Denmark who once was the ambassador of “socialist” Poland to the United Nations and then to India. I wrote about him here in April, and later the American Hebrew-language weekly Ha-do’ar published an open letter to him from a classmate in the University of Lwow in the early 1930’s. Do you remember, the classmate asked Katz-Suchy, our professor of economics, author of the plan for a cold, economic pogrom against Polish Jewry? Do you remember the Polish and Ukrainian students who used to beat Jews, in or out of the university? Do you remember the segregated benches they made us occupy? In the Jewish students’ association I was president of the Zionists. Do you remember how I used to deliver an oration in Hebrew at our annual assemblies? Because you Communists objected equally to Zionism and to the “dead and reactionary” Hebrew language, your spokesman used to deliver a counter-oration—in Esperanto, the language of brotherhood and the friendship of peoples.

In Denmark Katz-Suchy has insisted that he is a Pole and that Poland is his country. More recently, attending a scholarly conference in Jerusalem, he has insisted on his family’s centuries of settlement in Poland and on the loveliness of his birthplace. Whatever happened to his Esperanto and internationalism?

Esperanto was necessary for Katz-Suchy at a certain time. The Zionists and Hebraists challenged him and his friends with this: “We are Jews. What are you?” Speaking in Esperanto and invoking the Revolution that would build the Heavenly City enabled Katz-Suchy (or anyone else like him) to answer: “Your question belongs to the dead past, with its petty and murderous division of men into tribes and languages and superstitions. You ask what I am, and you think that if I don’t want to say, a Jew, I will have to say, a Pole; and then you will laugh. How foolish I must be, you will think, to imagine that the centuries of Jewish settlement in Poland have made Poles of Jews! For the real Poles a Pole is a Catholic, or just possibly a lapsed Catholic, whose grandparents spoke Polish not Yiddish and prayed in Latin not Hebrew. So I answer you in Esperanto, and the medium is the message. I belong to no tribe, the dead have no claim on me. I define myself by the future not the past. I am of those who are building the City of one mankind, with one language.”

At the time Katz-Suchy may have thought he meant what he was saying, because only later would a Jew’s laughable claim to being a Pole become less obviously or less permissibly laughable. Then, the Revolution having been imposed, he was in and Esperanto lost its charms. Esperanto-universalism, which had been thought a destination, proved to have been only a way station—or a decompression chamber. The function of Esperanto-universalism had been to allow Katz-Suchy and his friends to pass from their own particularity, which they despised, to another, which they valued; and to conceal from themselves what they were doing. The concealment was necessary if they were to avert the self-contempt that Heine’s shuffle to the baptismal font had cost him.

In Katz-Suchy’s triumph he did not know that the dialectic of Revolution had yet a further turn to make. In his defeat he knows. Now the new Poles are denying his claim to the quality of Pole as effectively as the old Poles denied it—more effectively, in fact, because the old ones did not expel him, and told fewer lies about him. They did not call him a Zionist, they called him a Communist. (In Israel, Katz-Suchy has recalled that until the age of fourteen he belonged to a youth group of Ha-shomer Ha-tza’ir, the left-socialist Zionists. Pirqe Avot teaches that this world is like a prozdor, a vestibule, to the next. Between the two wars some Polish Jews used to say that Ha-shomer Ha-tza’ir was like a prozdor to the Communist party.) And now it is too late for Katz-Suchy to resume the game of Esperanto.



Like the Polish Jews’ Esperanto, the American Jews’ Ethical Culture served as a way station, or a decompression chamber. Like the Esperantist, the Ethical Culturist was challenged, at least implicitly, by the Jews who remained Jews. They asked him: “We are Jews. What are you?” To which he gave this reply: “You think I must be either a Jew or a Christian. Why? A Jew is a man who can believe what the congregation affirms when the scroll is elevated: ‘This is the Torah that Moses set before the children of Israel [Deuteronomy 4:44]—at the Lord’s command, by Moses [Numbers 9:23, etc.].’ I cannot believe that, modern biblical scholarship does not let me believe it. Neither can I believe what Christians affirm, like the divinity of Jesus. Anyway, look to the future not to the past, to deeds not creeds. How do I define myself? I am of those who, of Jewish birth but unable conscientiously to be Jews, and associating in honorable equality with those of Christian birth but unable conscientiously to be Christians, devote themselves to the improvement and unification of mankind.”

That was Ethical Culture’s ideology. Its function was to prevent or mitigate, for some Jews in their passage from the Jewish community to a Christian denomination of high social status, Heine’s trauma. There is an American. As was said of King David, he is full of years, riches, and honor. His parents (generation A) were Jews. Him (generation B) they brought up in Ethical Culture. He married an Episcopalian lady. Why should he not? His children (generation C) and grandchildren (generations D, E, and so on) are likewise Episcopalian. Why should they not be? One can only admire the smoothness and easy conscience of the whole thing. Neither A nor B had to do or say anything spectacular or shocking, like baptism or a Christian confession of faith. Unlike Heine, they need not reproach themselves or see merit in others’ reproaches. It was a baptism prolonged and attenuated over two or even three generations, and at the end C, D, and E are more secure, are on a more exalted plane, than mere Jews can be. Some people are lucky. They can take the cash without having to let the credit go.

The question asked of the student Katz-Suchy, Jew or Pole?, is a variant of the older, more encompassing question, Jew or Christian? That is an infuriating question. Why should intelligent people accept the limitations set by limited people? You ask me to choose one of two. Can you count no higher? What makes you so sure your two are exhaustive, or immutable? What makes you so sure your two are not about to be subsumed by something greater than either, which, consummating both, will make both obsolete?

The most unforgivable thing limited people can do to the intelligent is to be more right than they. Denial and evasion of the narrow, stupid either/or go back to the French Revolution; but narrow and stupid as the either/or may be, it has stood the test of a long reality, while the denials and evasions are, or should be, an embarrassment to all. Katz-Suchy’s experience lengthens the long reality. In Israel, when a Ma’ariv reporter pressed him to define himself now, he answered, at last (“quietly”), “I am a Jewish refugee from Poland sojourning in Denmark.”

After the initial Danish publicity about Katz-Suchy, a dispatch was sent to the New York Times about others like him, but less well-known. Parts of it are prime:

Some [of the Polish Jews in Denmark] have become Catholic or Lutheran. Some younger [Jewish] Poles are firmly anti-Israel, reflecting the Warsaw regime’s denunciation of Israel as imperialistic. Some . . . are strongly nationalistic [Poles] and some were members of the Polish Communist party. . . .

Rabbi Melchior [of Copenhagen] said that many of the Polish Jews told him that they had been subjected to humiliation and harassment before they left. But the refugees have a curious way of talking about it.

A university professor from Warsaw told friends here that he was discharged in 1968 and that he took a job as a milkman to support his wife and two children. He found this impossible and thus he came to Denmark last year for, as he expressed it, “financial reasons.” . . .

[An] architectural student . . . expressed it this way: “My father is a lawyer and . . . my sister . . . was a doctor at a hospital. . . . There was a general uncertainty everywhere. I felt there was no future. It was very much a strain.

“I suppose we left for moral reasons,” he said.

It pays to be smart. Who else but a professor, lawyer, doctor, or architectural student could have come up with those reasons for being in Denmark? The reporter’s “a curious way of talking” shows he is puzzled. If he were a Jew he would not be puzzled. He would be used to such smartness.

Financial reasons, moral reasons.

Q. Doctor, I’m from the Times. Why are you in the street, and wearing pajamas?

A. Well, the room was getting hot, with all that fire spreading. I suppose I jumped for comfort reasons.

Q. Professor, will you tell the viewers, please, why you aren’t in your laboratory?

A. Well, after the explosion there was glass in the air and chemicals were beginning to mix—that sort of thing. I suppose you can say I left the lab for health reasons.



The Rabbis tell us that not Yom Kippur alone but every day is judgment day. For modern Jews every day is Election Day. For modern Jews there are only two parties, the Jews and the Christians. You have to vote for one or the other. There is no such thing as not voting. If you refuse to vote, you vote Christian. If you write-in a third or fourth or twelfth party—Esperanto, Hillelism, the unity of mankind, socialist internationalism, the republic of learning—you vote Christian. If you try to jam the voting machine, you vote Christian. For a Jew, everything but voting Jewish is voting Christian. To vote Christian you don’t have to pull the Christian lever, to vote Jewish you have to pull the Jewish lever.

It is unfair. Citizens of the world, whose parents or grandparents just happen to have been Jews, find themselves compelled to make up their minds whether they want their own grandchildren to be Jews or Christians. The local color of “Christian” is secondary. Berenson when Bostonian was Episcopalian, when Florentine Catholic. Those refugees know that in Poland one is Catholic and in Denmark Lutheran.

What will smart people do now, seeing they cannot evade or deny the either/or? They will evade or deny it.



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