Commentary Magazine

The Wineskin and the Wizard, by Michael Selzer; Zionism Reconsidered, edited by Michael Selzer

“Normalizing” the Jews

The Wineskin and the Wizard: The Problem of Jewish Power in the Context of East European Jewish History.
by Michael Selzer.
Macmillan. 241 pp. $6.95.

Zionism Reconsidered: The Rejection of Jewish Normalcy.
by Michael Selzer.
Macmillan. 257 pp. $6.95.

The astonishing Mr. Selzer is at it again. Three years ago he presented us with a modest volume entitled The Aryanization of the Jewish State, in which he sought to demonstrate that the State of Israel was the creation of a small but determined band of anti-Semitic conspirators from Eastern Europe whose sinister scheme it has been to remake the Jewish people in the image of the Gentiles and to perpetrate “cultural genocide” upon their unfortunate brethren from the Sefardic and Oriental communities of Asia and North Africa.1 Now, in The Wineskin and The Wizard, Mr. Selzer has moved on to the high ground of theology and world history. His thesis, in keeping with his native talents, is simple. Whereas Zionism represents Jewish consciousness as the will to secular power, “the traditional Jewish commitment has been to powerlessness.” True, powerlessness invites oppression, but oppression is precisely what being Jewish is about. “To be a Jew is to be afraid . . . [It] means to feel a frightful intimacy with our ancestors in their suffering; it means to live with the fear of persecution and discrimination; it means to anticipate the most devastating calamities in the future, if not for ourselves, then for our progeny.” Because Zionism has sought to put an end to this situation, it must be viewed as “a collective abandonment of Jewish standards and the acceptance of majority ones in their place.” Moreover, the Zionist apostasy threatens the future existence not only of Judaism but of the Jewish people as well, for “one of the most startling paradoxes of Jewish history” is that “the ability of Jewish communities to survive seems to be in inverse proportion to the amount of physical and political power they enjoy.”

Not the least startling feature of this paradox, of course, is that historically it is demonstrably false, but history, it turns out, is not really one of Mr. Selzer’s strong points after all. Indeed, the case with which he defends his proposition that power and survival have been mutually exclusive forces throughout the course of Jewish history is so patently specious that it hardly deserves serious refutation. Ignoring obvious examples of Jewish communities that flourished for centuries despite their enjoyment of impressive amounts of physical and political power, such as those of the First and Second Temple periods or the Jews of Babylonia under the Parthian Empire during the Talmudic age, and of others for whom the sudden loss of all physical and political power spelled equally sudden extinction, such as the Jews of Spain in 1492 or those of Eastern Europe during World War II, Selzer offers as polar paradigms for his equation of two Jewish communities from the early and late Middle Ages. The first are the Jews of Khazaria, that obscure Turkish kingdom that held sway along the banks of the Volga between the 7th and 13th centuries, during which time, for reasons that are still largely a matter for historical speculation, it adopted Judaism as a state religion; the second, the Jewry of Poland and Western Russia as it was organized during much of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries into the Council of the Four Lands, a self-governing body that was granted extensive home rule by the Polish crown in matters social, religious, and economic. Since the ultimate fall of Khazaria to its Moslem and Byzantine rivals left behind no historically identifiable Jewish community to carry on in its place, Selzer regards this as proof positive that “Jewish experiments with political sovereignty have [always] been unsuccessful and ephemeral.” The Council of the Four Lands, on the other hand, stood, he asserts, for “a radically different mode of Jewish existence . . . one which did not seek mundane power as its guarantor but which was built around a complete acceptance of the utter powerlessness of Jewish life.” To this acceptance of powerlessness, Selzer claims, belongs the credit for the rich religious culture that developed among Polish Jewry and that formed the basis of what has come to be known today as the East-European Jewish heritage.



Selzer’s descriptions of both the Jewish Khazars and the Council of the Four Lands bear virtually no resemblance to historical reality. Regarding the Jewishness of the Khazars, of course, so little is known that it is possible to argue almost anything, but two points at least, neither of which is compatible with Selzer’s thesis, are generally agreed on. First, even at the height of their influence Jews constituted a small minority of the total population of Khazaria, which could therefore be called a “Jewish kingdom” in a formal sense only (i.e., the official allegiance of the royal house). Secondly, the Jewish Khazars did not simply disappear into thin air after the fall of the empire that had sheltered them; some no doubt converted to Christianity or Islam, but many others must have migrated southward and westward to merge with the Jewish communities of the Caucasus, which continue to exist to this day. In effect, far from being a Jewish experiment with political sovereignty, the kingdom of the Khazars represented an experiment of political sovereignty with Judaism, and one that certainly cannot be said to have been an unqualified failure for either side (the kingdom did after all maintain itself against powerful enemies for over half a millennium).

Even more distorted is Selzer’s picture of the Council of the Four Lands. Indeed, historians of East-European Jewry have made it abundantly clear that the Council was ridden by continual struggles for power from the day it was born, as might be expected of any body that attempted to administer the daily lives of tens of thousands of people. The wealthier communities within it fought each other for dominance and then banded together against the poorer communities that demanded their share of the wealth; individual fought individual, family fought family, and faction fought faction for pride of place, commercial monopolies, and tax-farming privileges; the Council’s secular arm fought its rabbinical arm for executive supremacy; and finally, the Council’s representatives in the Polish court fought as best they could to protect Jewish financial and religious interests as a whole. True, the Council of the Four Lands never sought to declare itself an independent state, and this Selzer seems to interpret as an “acceptance of utter powerlessness.” One might as well argue that blacks in the United States are indifferent to the use of power because they have not yet seriously attempted to establish a black republic or to stage a coup in the White House.

For what after all is power? It is the ability to influence or control one’s environment for good or for bad, and of this political sovereignty is only one form, although admittedly among the potentially most lethal. Had Selzer understood this elementary distinction he might have spared himself and his readers a good deal of nonsense, without in the least having to compromise himself as an anti-Zionist; for what was new about Zionism in Jewish life was not its interest in power—Jews have always had an interest in power, like human beings everywhere—but rather its aim of attaining it through the agency of a Jewish state. Indeed, one of the more accurate perceptions of Zionist thought was that as power in the modern world became more and more concentrated in the hands of the nation-state, the non-sovereign means by which Jews had traditionally exercised a modicum of counter-power to defend themselves stood to be increasingly threatened. Ultimately these were annihilated completely, with consequences the enormity of which no one could have been expected to foresee. But Mr. Selzer has a message for the victims of these consequences too. They did not, he assures us, die in vain, because “Judaism rejects power” and because “without the Jew, man would have no symbol of man-inflicted suffering. . . . The mission idea functions. . . . If there had been no Jews to memorialize, we may well have dismissed the entire Nazi trauma with a mere shrug of the shoulders . . .” [!]



Mr. Selzer fortunately is not to be taken seriously. The same cannot be said, however, of a number of the figures whose essays appear in his recently published anthology, Zionism Reconsidered: The Rejection of Jewish Normalcy. The selections in this volume fall for the most part into three groups. The first of these may be identified with that wing of extreme Orthodoxy that has been irreconcilably opposed to Zionism since its inception as an eschatological heresy, an attempt to “hasten the end,” in the words of the Hebrew phrase, and so usurp God’s exclusive privilege to determine Jewish destiny. A second group numbers two Hebrew thinkers, Ahad Ha’am and Yehezkel Kaufmann, who were Zionists themselves but had serious reservations about the tactics and ideology of political Zionism; their inclusion in a volume whose overall contents they would have violently rejected would seem to be a matter of questionable propriety. (It is certainly ironic to see Ahad Ha’am presented on the same “team” as the English Reform leader Claude Montefiore, whose views on Judaism he so scathingly attacked in a well-known essay.) The third and largest group is composed of a type of semi- or wholly-assimilated modern Jewish intellectual that Isaac Deutscher, in an essay here reprinted, has called “the non-Jewish Jew,” and includes, besides Deutscher himself, Morris Raphael Cohen, Hans Kohn, Hannah Arendt, and David Riesman. This last group is also the most interesting, both because of its indisputable intellectual stature, and because, in regard to Zionism if nothing else, its members share a common set of assumptions that have come to be identified with the anti-Zionist position by most Jewish intellectuals in the West today.

“The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry,” writes Deutscher in The Non-Jewish Jew, “belongs to a Jewish tradition,” of which he proceeds to give his version of the familiar pantheon: Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud. That such a tradition in the broad sense does exist, and that there are historical explanations that can help to account for it, is beyond doubt, but it is worth pointing out that as Jewish traditions go it is not a very old one. Apart from Spinoza, who historically is a category in himself, it is a product of the Enlightenment that does not go back earlier than the 19th century, while in its more mythicized version of the Jew as a romantic culture-hero of alienation, it is a considerably later development even than that. None of the essayists in Zionism Reconsidered subscribes to the more banal aspects of this myth, but all join in conceiving of the Jewish role in Western history as ideally being that of the permanent outsider, dwelling, as Deutscher puts it, “on the borderline of various civilizations . . . in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it,” a unique cross-pollinating carrier, as it were, without which the host-cultures of Europe and America would have borne the poorer fruit. Since Zionism aspires to eliminate this extraordinarily productive marginality in the name of a “normalization” of Jewish existence with its inevitable leveling down of the characteristic intensity of Jewish intellectual life, all view it with varying degrees of hostility or distrust.

One of the peculiarities of this position is that though its proponents have commonly identified themselves with the liberal or socialist Left, it has a curiously elitist ring. Marx, Trotsky, and Freud may indeed represent the flowering of the Jewish spirit at its fullest (though this too, one trusts, is not beyond debate), but is the production of future Marxes, Trot-skys, and Freuds really to be the sole standard by which millions of less exceptional Jewish lives and deaths are to be measured? One searches in vain through the pages of Zionism Reconsidered for mention of the fact that when Zionism first appeared as a serious force in Jewish life toward the end of the 19th century, the great masses of European Jews were already frantically seeking to “normalize” their lives as best they could—whether through assimilation, emigration to America, or the gospel of proletarian internationalism—and that the great ideological debate within the Jewish community between Zionism and Socialism was not over the desirability of “normalization”—only the Orthodox disputed this—but over how it might be most rationally and authentically carried out. It is one thing, after all, to choose the burden of abnormality for oneself; it is quite another to choose it for others who may not want it, as do Miss Arendt and Messrs. Deutscher, Riesman, Kohn, and Cohen.

In his introduction to Zionism Reconsidered, Selzer quotes with relish a remark made to Franz Rosenzweig by the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, who said of the Zionists: “Those bums, they want to be happy !” I must confess that the more I ponder the infinite superciliousness of these words, the more merciless an indictment of their speaker they seem to become. Can so natural and universal a desire really be so contemptible? Presumably Cohen would not have reviled it among Danes, Finns, Serbs, or Congolese. Much is written in the essays included in this anthology about Zionism’s arrogant nationalism and tribalist particularism; but which is ultimately the greater arrogance and which the more tribalistic, the insistence that Jews are somehow above the ordinary range of human business and concerns, or the belief that this revolt against one’s common humanity is, and always has been in Jewish history, at once a tragically self-flattering and self-denying illusion? One wonders.



1 See the review in these pages by Shlomo Avineri, December 1967—Ed.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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