Never, perhaps, has criticism of the state of Israel by American Jews been so open, so widespread, and so bitter…
Never, perhaps, has criticism of the state of Israel by American Jews been so open, so widespread, and so bitter as it is today.
Some of this criticism clearly represents a return of the various traditions of opposition to Zionism that in the pre-state period enjoyed such a lively existence. With the founding of the state forty years ago, these traditions went into temporary eclipse, but lately, and especially since the Lebanon war, they have come back again, couched in updated forms and espoused by people who may or may not be aware of their provenance. They include the old (Orthodox) charge that a secular state in the Holy Land runs counter to Jewish religious teachings; the old (Reform/humanist) idea that statehood represents a betrayal of the supposedly universalist mission of the Jews; the old (socialist) notion that Zionism is a regressive expression of bourgeois nationalism; even the old (assimilationist) claim that by raising the specter of dual loyalty a Jewish state compromises or actually endangers the position of Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
In addition to all this, there has been a marked change even among American Jews whose commitment to Israel has long been unambiguous and steady. Not only have such Jews become increasingly willing to criticize Israel’s policies and even Israel itself, they have also been more and more disposed to do so in public. Conversely, it is hard to remember a time when favorable comment about Israel has been so muted and so scanty within the American Jewish community.
This, then, is the paradoxical situation as Israel approaches its fortieth birthday. In trying to determine what justification, if any, there may be for such a state of affairs, COMMENTARY addressed the following questions to a diverse group of American Jewish intellectuals:
- Have your own attitudes toward Israel changed in recent years? Why? Why not?
- To what extent do you believe Israel has fulfilled, or disappointed, the hopes vested in it?
- How do you feel about the upsurge of Jewish criticism of Israel? Is it healthy? Is it dangerous? What does it portend?
The responses—forty-nine in all—follow in alphabetical order.
Among the supporters of Israel I am a Jonathan-come-lately, for I held back from actively or even explicitly supporting the new state during the 50’s and early 60’s. My attitude then I would describe as one of tolerant acquiescence in Israel’s existence, but this did not change to unequivocal backing until the 70’s when I finally became aware of how bankrupt were my previously held Marxist-socialist views. I vividly recall the remark of a close friend during the late 40’s—in 1947, I believe—about an interesting piece of Harold Rosenberg’s in COMMENTARY [“Pledged to the Marvelous,” February 1947], which argued for the support of Israel in irrationalist terms heavily dependent on Kierkegaardian subtleties. It was an odd piece, and may have prompted the gibe of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “There are certain Jews who would have quit the Jewish fold had it not been for Sören Kierkegaard.” My friend, who had undergone the same Trotskyist influences I had, said to me: “I can’t think of anything worse intellectually than for Harold, who has been an internationalist, to come out for Israel, a nation-state.”
But there is a problem in supporting Israel today, even if one is not conflicted in having to hold both nationalist and internationalist principles. The problem is raised by Israel’s political behavior, most recently its invasion of Lebanon, which called down on it the wrath of Jacobo Timerman, Arthur Hertzberg, and the editors of the London Review of Books. Israel’s rule over the West Bank has already alienated the British intelligentsia and now threatens to alienate the Jewish intellectuals in America, even those in New York.
What if the Israelis relinquish the West Bank? My hope is that they will finally adopt such a policy. But the fact is that they are still governing the West Bank’s Palestinians, many of whom support the PLO. What is proper for someone who is judging Israel from New York City to say about all this?
There is an event in Trotsky’s struggle with Stalin which I find pertinent here, possibly instructive. Outmaneuvered by Stalin and about to be exiled, Trotsky, at a party meeting, took this stand: “There are bourgeois politicians who say, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ I say, ‘Even when it is wrong, I support my party.’” Hearing this, Stalin knew he had triumphed, and commented sagely: “Comrade Trotsky is in error. At times it is wrong to support the party, as Comrade Lenin made clear. He was never afraid to break with the party when it was in error.” So there was Trotsky, whom I shall for the moment call Trotsky-Stalin, setting the party above any criticism of it, and there was Stalin, whom I shall refer to—but just this once—as Stalin-Trotsky, setting political criticism above the party. In this reversal of roles, Trotsky was at his weakest, Stalin at his most brilliant.
The incident touches on a dilemma which it might be useful to explore. What value could take precedence over the fortunes of one’s country or, for that matter, of a political party to which one has sworn loyalty? One may of course criticize one’s country if no risk to it follows from one’s criticism, and the same might be said about criticizing a favored political party. However, it should be clear that if a country could never be endangered by some criticism of it, no one would ever have said, “My country, right or wrong.” The meaning I take that statement to have is this: “I shall not set a moral principle (perhaps a prejudice) above the interest of my country, should it be threatened.”
But Israel has always been under threat, and the threat has taken the form precisely of moralizing. A moral consensus after World War II brought Israel into existence; it could well be destroyed by the moral consensus now being prepared against it. I do not believe the assertion of Arthur Hertzberg that in 1967 Israel was ready to take on the whole world, and I am very much afraid that reckless assertions of this sort may lead to the whole world taking on Israel.
So I come to this question: is it wrong to put the good of one’s country above a moral opinion? I use the word “opinion” here advisedly, for those who today assert that moral judgment may be set above the interest of one’s country do not also insist that such moral judgments have to be strictly true. They are, I assume, sophisticated enough to know how difficult it is to say of any moral assertion that it is more than an opinion, that it is strictly true.
We have been told by the excellent Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo that, in the twilight of metaphysics we live in, the ideas we cultivate ought to be weak. How in the moral order can we differentiate weak from strong ideas?
A strong moral idea would be (1) universal, and (2) independent of whatever followed from holding it. Kant thought his moral principles universally valid and independent of consequences. He held that property rights were sacred, and condemned the sailors who helped themselves to some figs carried by the ship they were on when the crew’s food had been consumed. Pressed as to whether the sailors should have died of hunger rather than consume figs belonging to others, Kant replied without hesitation in the affirmative. Which tells us something about the character of strong moral ideas: they hold universally, and are not invalidated by what might follow from adhering to them. In the case of the sailors, this would have meant death by starvation.
That the moral judgments made against Israel are of the weak variety may be seen in the fact that they are stated as opinions rather than as truths, and are never said to be valid without regard to consequences. In fact they are stated in a manner which suggests that there will be bad consequences for Israel should it not heed them. But can what is presented as of value to Israel really be more valuable than Israel? Or, more generally, can weak moral ideas be more important than one’s country?
I am for Israel, which has given me the automatic right to become a citizen of it, and I put its existence above all the weak moral judgments others make of it. I would like Israel’s leaders to accommodate my moral feelings and do certain things. For example, I would like them to get out of the West Bank. But if they choose not to do so, I still choose to support Israel. Moreover, whatever they do, I too am doing. For I do not want to claim innocence in New York for what may be wrongly wrought in Jerusalem.
I believe now, as I did twenty years ago, that Israel represents the best, perhaps the only, hope for Jewish collective survival, and that its security and well-being constitute an end for which American Jews should be ready to suppress their baser impulses—self-righteousness, self-indulgence, self-love—in favor of self-discipline. I believe now, as I did in 1967, that Israel is a country under siege, beleaguered by enemies eager to reduce it to sandy wastes. I am unimpressed by the arguments, crystallized in the American-made slogan “Peace Now,” that Israel’s policies or its presence in Judea and Samaria are the sole impediments to peace in the Middle East. The Arabs, on June 4, 1967, had been in possession of these territories for nineteen years, during which time they showed no interest either in establishing another Palestinian Arab state or in making peace.
Israel has fulfilled many aspirations of the Zionist ideal but, so far, failed to realize others. How could it be otherwise? “Is a land born in one day? / Is a nation brought forth at once?” Enormous numbers of Jews fleeing persecution have been welcomed in Israel. Sephardi Jews, despite many difficulties (caused largely by Israel’s European socialism whose demise is now daily lamented by its American Jewish critics), have now been integrated into most areas of Israeli life, especially local government. That valley of dry bones called Soviet Jewry was raised to new life by the very existence of Israel, which then willingly received the best fruits of this renaissance. While the anti-Zionists of the world were castigating “Zionist racism,” the real Israel was rescuing and welcoming 12,000 black Jews from Ethiopia. Some months ago, while walking toward the Bikur Cholim Hospital in central Jerusalem, I was stunned by the sight of close to a hundred Ethiopian Jewish girls resplendent in the blue and white uniforms of nursing trainees out on their lunch break. “Yes,” I said to myself, “in spite of blackcoats, turncoats, Kahane, Aloni, Benvenisti, and even the Haifa Municipal Theater, this is a remarkable country, a great country.”
Among the practicing Zionists of Israel, as among the professing Zionists of America, there are, to be sure, many imperfections, imperfections that the Israelis cannot, like their American cousins, blame on the surrounding Gentile culture: power inevitably taints. The narrow, often religiously illiterate, culture of socialist Zionism produced a system of education that has worked to detach Jews from their Jewish roots and weaken the bonds that most profoundly attach people to life. Despite this, Israel has instilled in the majority of its citizens a national character without which the sacrifices Israelis make cannot be fathomed. I am filled with admiration for a colleague at Tel Aviv University who stays up through the night to mark Shakespeare papers because he must leave early in the morning to do three weeks of reserve duty with what he facetiously calls “our gallant boys in green.” I think always about the courage, the absence of self-pity, the resilience of close friends who, after their sons have fallen in Israel’s wars, continue to do their duty in life, often a very arduous duty. I think especially of an old friend who, within a day of his own son’s death in combat, was treating wounded soldiers flown by helicopter to the Ram-bam Hospital. And these are the people who make up what one of the most aggressive American Jewish critics of Israel—Jacob Neusner—calls “a Jewish society in which no one gives a damn for anyone else”!
Although American Jewish groups that specialize in negative criticism of Israel seem to have persuaded their sycophants (see the Wall Street Journal, July 6, 1987) that they came into existence during the Lebanese invasion, the truth is less flattering to their sense of heroic daring and tender conscience. American Friends of Peace Now, for example, first unfurled its banner, as Ruth R. Wisse pointed out in these pages [“‘Peace Now’ & American Jews,” August 1980], in June 1980 in the immediate aftermath of a more than usually foul barrage of anti-Israel invective from the PLO and its European stooges. There is nothing “healthy” in such cravenness or in hallucinating moderation in a murderous enemy when you are not the one who will have to face his attack. Peace Now and the hissing Israel-haters of New Jewish Agenda do not respect the sovereignty of democratically elected Israeli governments, whose decisions they can condemn with impunity because where once the earth opened up to swallow the sons of Korah, the boards of Jewish federations now open to welcome them. On the question of whether withdrawal of American Jewish moral and political support from Israel is as dangerous to Israel as it is safe for its critics, I prefer to save my breath to cool my porridge.
Yes, the old fear of accusations of dual loyalty is at work among Jews, and could be seen in the more pusillanimous responses to Gore Vidal’s anti-Semitic ejaculations of 1986. Arthur Hertzberg expressed his “delight” that Vidal had said (actually, he hadn’t) “complimentary things about Peace Now.” Saul Bellow bewailed “the price we have been paying for our solid support of Israel over 40 years” and warned that the Pollard affair might retroactively confirm Vidal’s accusations of dual loyalty.
But there is also a real duality that troubles many American Jewish intellectuals. They find themselves uncomfortably situated between recognition that the flourishing of Jewish life here has been dependent upon Jewish rebirth in Zion, and resentment of the faulty, un-American behavior of the people who actually live (and, alas, also vote) in Zion. They need Zion, but wish it weren’t in Israel. The lowbrow, leftist version of this need to define oneself in opposition to Israel is found in an Arthur Waskow or a Balfour Brickner, whose contribution to theology is the doctrine that Sandinista Nicaragua is the true Israel, the middlebrow version in Neusner, who tells National Review readers that the very idea of Jewish unity, of the people Israel, is an Israeli concoction, “an ideology of blood.” For this prophet of Jewish disunity, America is “the Promised Land for Jews,” and he cannot abide the fact that millions of American Jews still find in Israel a lodging for the organized memory of Jewish national feeling.
But we must not raise questions about the inalienable right of such American Jews to criticize Israel in public, for they are sensitive plants liable to shrivel at the first question as if it were exhaled by a basilisk. Thus Neusner, after publishing his famous broadside against Israel in the Washington Post and 450 other papers, followed with a plaintive piece claiming that he had been “martyred” by the very American Jewish community he had courageously championed against Israel, made a victim of “murder by silence.” “They won’t print you, they won’t let you speak, they won’t review your books, they won’t argue with you.” What parades itself as high idealism turns out to be self-love, not a promising foundation for a new, American Jerusalem, but lethal enough to damage the old, original one.
The most fundamental fact about the state of Israel is that it constitutes a radical turning point in Jewish history. We have not had such an opportunity as a people in 2,000 years—and, indeed, the last instance of national independence, under the Hasmoneans, represented less real autonomy and exhibited far less political decency than Israel does today. We are not likely to have such an opportunity again, and so I find it hard to imagine how one can choose to be a Jew at this point in time without a staunch commitment to the urgency of Israel’s survival. I have felt this way ever since I began to think about such questions, and nothing that has occurred in recent years has altered this conviction, including policies and actions of the Israeli government that I view as misguided or self-defeating.
Israel, whatever its imperfections, has certainly fulfilled the hopes vested in it. The most essential of these are the establishment of political autonomy, so that Jews need no longer be passive victims in the historical realm, and the creation through that autonomy of a new secular Jewish culture in the Hebrew language. These are, it seems to me, the reasonable hopes to have been vested in Israel. But the moment one’s hopes for the Jewish state are pitched in a messianic key—something that has been done not only by the occasional unreconstructed messianist but more conspicuously by many people who are “attracted” to the messianic idea though they stand at a great distance from both Zionism and the Jewish people—then of course the state of Israel must be a bitter disappointment.
Mismanagement, obtuseness, cynicism, and corruption are variously perceptible in all governments of which I am aware, past and present, and so all governments are vulnerable to criticism. This does not mean, however, that one cannot make sharp qualitative distinctions between, say, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Margaret Thatcher’s England, or more specifically to our point, between Syria’s massacre of over 20,000 of its own citizens at Hama and Israel’s intermittent violation of the civil rights of Arabs on the West Bank. I do not believe in moratoriums on criticism of Israel, and I have from time to time publicly expressed such criticism myself, including in the pages of this magazine. But a great deal depends on the tone of the criticism, the assumptions on which it is predicated, and the contexts in which it is pronounced.
Saul Bellow makes the tart observation in To Jerusalem and Back that what the Alps are to skiers, Israel has become to the moral critics of the world. In part, he means simply that Israel is judged by a more exacting standard. What is more ominous—and I suspect Bellow also has this in mind—is that the criticism of Israel often has a querulous undertone, implying if not actually stating that unless the Israelis can demonstrate unfalteringly that their behavior is beyond moral reproach, the state is a “tragic error,” and has no right to exist.
As Americans, we may view the continuing spectacle of deception, blundering, and borderline criminality in our own government with varying degrees of unease, distress, or anger, but nobody outside the bomber Left construes any of this as calling into question the legitimacy of our national existence. I cannot see why the case should be different for Israel, a country which, like America, exercises various democratic checks on the abuse or inept exercise of power.
In regard to the context for criticizing Israel in this country, let me offer one experience as a kind of illustrative parable. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, I had some misgivings from the start about the wisdom of the action—misgivings that became much more pronounced during the year following the incursion, which I spent with my family in Jerusalem. Nobody asked me for my opinion, and when the widespread vilification of Israel in the American press became evident, I would in any case have said nothing that might seem to amplify that chorus of hostility.
On the second day of the war, there was, predictably, an anti-Israel demonstration in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, birthplace of the student revolution of the 60’s. Among the placard-bearers I noticed three Israeli graduate students, including one who had taken a number of courses with me. Knowing the vehemence of their political position, I thought remonstration then and there would have been futile, but I would have liked to tell them the following: a protest against Israeli actions in Sproul Plaza means something rather different from a protest on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. In this particular American context, whatever the seriousness of the protesters’ objections to the policy at stake, protest becomes a way of saying, We are not that kind of Israeli, not that kind of Jew. And to display slogans like “Israel Out of Lebanon” in the same marching circle with people actively disseminating every distorted propaganda release from the PLO as hard fact, people who are known by past actions to be ideologically committed to the destruction of Israel, is to convey to onlookers another message, “Israel Out of the Middle East.”
All this involves a painful dilemma because it is surely unhealthy to renounce the prerogative of criticism, and I would even argue that there is a kind of immorality in American Jews’ giving any Israeli government an automatic blank check when they care deeply about the future of the Jewish state and see things that seriously disturb them. But remembering Sproul Plaza in 1982, I think considerable vigilance must be exercised to ensure that the time, place, and manner of the criticism do not conspire to make it an instrument that can be turned against Israel’s most vital interests.
Jerold S. Auerbach:
Even the idea of a Jewish state, to say nothing of the reality of Israel, seldom inspired feelings of passionate attachment in the majority of American Jews. There were some conspicuously exceptional moments of identification; but between Herzl and the Holocaust, as from the Independence war to the Lebanon war, the characteristic American Jewish response was indifference, yielding to evident fear and trembling whenever Jews felt that their loyalty to the United States was threatened. The recent outpouring of criticism surely is unprecedented, but after nearly a century of American Jewish detachment from the Jewish national revival it is not entirely surprising. Now as always, the most vocal American critics, captivated by the siren song of secular liberalism, remain tone-deaf to the resounding national and religious themes of Jewish history.
I recognize the symptoms because I once suffered from the disability. I can recall, vividly if painfully, my own eagerness to superimpose American categories on Israel, and my impatience with such varied forms of Jewish intractability as resistance to Arab terror and Sabbath observance. But living in Israel for two years, I came to appreciate the legitimate imperatives of Jewish history, quite apart from the prevailing fashions on the East Bank of the Hudson. I learned that Yasir Arafat is not George Washington; the hostility between Arabs and Jews is not an instant replay of the American civil-rights struggle; Lebanon is not Vietnam; Isaiah and Jeremiah were not the co-founders of Americans for Democratic Action; and the Torah still says to Jews something even more profound than the First Amendment about their lives, their homeland, and their identity as a people.
Zionism, after all, is not merely the modern Jewish expression of Western liberalism, sprinkled with obligatory references to prophetic justice. It taps the oldest, deepest yearnings of Jews to live in the land that God promised to them. (Even David Ben-Gurion knew that “the Bible is our mandate.”) Judaism and Zionism are too complex, even idiosyncratic, to fit any narrow mold of “enlightened” secularism. As a Jewish state, not the 51st American state, Israel must take seriously the covenantal relationship, originating in divine command, that has bound a people to its land ever since the Exodus. This is a difficult concept for many Jews (even in Israel) to absorb, but if it cannot find expression in a Jewish state, where will it be respected?
The liberal fantasies of American Jews about Israel were demolished by Menachem Begin. They had idolized Ben-Gurion, embraced Golda Meir, and appreciated the eagerness of Labor leaders (Shimon Peres especially) to submit to American pressure. But Begin, the irascible shtetl Jew, expressed memories, gestures, and priorities that made secular liberal Jews uneasy (a prime minister who wore a kippah and prayed at the Western Wall?). His strident commitment to Eretz Israel was alarming (a Jew who took seriously the divine covenant with the patriarchs?). American Jews ignored the singular achievements of the first prime minister of Israel to make peace with an Arab state; to legitimate the two-party system; to extend political recognition to the Sephardi underclass; to reinvigorate the venerable Zionist principle of settling the land of Israel; and to inflict a military defeat upon the PLO from which it has yet to recover. Once Begin grafted traditional Jewish symbols to the civil religion of Israel, he confronted American Jews with the wicked dilemma that elicited their unrestrained denunciation: would they ride the turbulent currents of Jewish history and destiny as members of the Jewish people or would they, as American outsiders, retreat to the safety of their protected sanctuary?
It is evident that Israel disappointed the hopes of its liberal partisans, who still yearn for the good old days of halutzim in short pants draining swamps by day and dancing the hora at night; repulsing the Arab Goliath with their slingshots while consigning religion to the dustbin of Diaspora history. American Jews tolerated Israel as long as it was vulnerable, responsive to external pressure, and insufficiently Jewish to cause embarrassment. The more independent, and distinctively Jewish, that Israel has become since 1977, the more it has antagonized American Jews. The pre-state critique of Jewish nationalism has yielded to an even more impassioned denunciation of religious Judaism, strengthened by evident discomfort with the determination of Israel to settle and defend the borders of its homeland.
Criticism of Israel is an admission ticket to some respectable Western liberal salons. It also expresses the self-interest of American Jews, who are protected by six thousand miles from any consequences of their op-ed columns. Unless they can bring themselves to voice such criticism from homes in Kiryat Shemona or Kiryat Arba, it is an irresponsible indulgence. It may enhance their comfort as Americans, but it surely heightens the vulnerability of Jews in Israel. Anyone who welcomes a Jewish state that expresses the intricate texture of the Jewish historical experience, rather than the constricted modern liberal rendition of it, should be heartened by the exuberant creativity of Israel as it struggles to reconnect itself to some of the innermost and abiding sources of Judaism. For even as Tel Aviv, the city built on sand, has become a cultural suburb of Los Angeles, we are reminded (by Isaiah) that the word of God will come from Jerusalem, the holy city.
The flight of American Jews from Israel (especially in academic and journalistic circles) is a spiritual emigration of alarming proportions. It is lamentable that American Jews, internalizing the indictments of the most hostile enemies of Israel, should so distance themselves from their own people (even in the caring guise of “protecting” Israelis from their folly). It recalls that sorrowful episode, in 70 C.E., when some Jews fought against the Roman invaders while other Jews fought among themselves—until nothing was left to fight about, except Masada. The Temple was not destroyed by the legions of Titus, the rabbis remind us, but by sinat hinam, “groundless hatred” among Jews.
Must we not distinguish between criticism of the state of Israel and criticism of some of its policies, much as one would distinguish between criticism of a regime while still being a believer in the society? There is often strong disagreement between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. Since 1967, when my emotions about Israel were directly engaged, I have been a supporter of Mapai and thus have also been critical of Likud. I am also a supporter of the Peace Now movement, many of whose active members have been members of the Israeli military. Does opposition to the adventurism of Ariel Sharon or to the annexationist dreams of a Geula Cohen make one “anti-Israel”? More importantly, I do not understand the “thrust” of the COMMENTARY statement, since it leads to the questions: what is wrong with criticizing Israeli policies and doing so in public? I always assumed that such an attitude was a healthy one. (Look at poor Boris Yeltsin, who went “public”) There would seem to be a “hidden agenda” in the COMMENTARY statement; if so, what is it?
Eric M. Breindel:
The answer to COMMENTARY’s first question about whether my “attitudes toward Israel” have changed in recent years is a simple no—assuming that the term “attitudes,” in this context, refers to underlying sensibilities. My affection and concern for Israel are constant and unconditional.
I believe that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is a necessary and normal historical circumstance; that Israel’s existence gives meaning to the notion of Jewish peoplehood; and that a world without the state of Israel should—for Jews—be unimaginable.
That there needs to be one place on earth where Jews from every corner of the world can—if need be—take refuge is a proposition whose truth has been amply demonstrated by history, both pre- and post-1948.
There would have been no Jewish awakening in the Soviet Union, and no possibility of a Jewish emigration movement in the USSR, without the existence of a Jewish state (a fact in no way challenged by the inclination of many Soviet Jews to go to the United States). Yet without an Israel, anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union would doubtless have continued, and might even have become more severe.
Jews in Arab lands could well have suffered untold persecution had there been no Jewish state to which they could flee. And anyone who thinks that anti-Jewish sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world is solely a response to Zionism ought to consider not just the pre-Balfour Declaration history of the Jews in the Maghreb and the Levant, but also the fate of non-Muslim minorities under Khomeini and his brethren.
Israel, in other words, has fulfilled its Zionist purpose as a Jewish homeland. And it will doubtless continue to do so: first as a place of refuge for Jews who are, in varying degrees, oppressed, since there is no indication that anti-Semitism is about to disappear; and second as a country for Jews who prefer a Jewish state even to the United States, the most glorious Diaspora in Jewish history, or Western Europe.
This sort of “fulfillment” seems to me the kind that matters most. But it’s also a happy fact that Israel is a more pleasant place to live than most countries in the world; a freer society than most; and, for that matter, a more secure and stable enterprise than, say, most of the UN member-states—despite the fact that Israel is surrounded by nations pledged to destroy it.
That all this, plus an extraordinary cultural life and (relatively speaking) a high degree of social cohesion, has been possible in a society permanently under siege leaves one only to wonder what a day or two of peace might bring.
And while peace isn’t exactly in the offing, the fact of the treaty with Egypt, the effort by Communist states to reestablish diplomatic ties, and the inclination of many African countries to do the same, all leave Israel in a better position now, from a diplomatic standpoint, than at any previous point in its history.
So much for the good news. The bad news, of course, is that over the past five years, American Jews have indeed engaged, as never before, in public attacks on Israel—attacks, moreover, that frequently go unrebutted.
The most insidious aspect of these attacks is that they hail from groups and individuals who profess sympathy with the Zionist undertaking—they appear, in other words, disguised as “concern.” There is, to be sure, still unreconstructed anti-Israel agitation carried out by ultra-Orthodox elements—no more than in the past, probably less—and by the few remaining followers of the old “assimilationist” creed of the American Council for Judaism. But the Jewish voices raised in criticism of Israel that are audible to the American public at large belong to individuals and groups which identify themselves as sympathetic to Israel.
Many of these critics had no encounter of any kind with Israel before they began attacking it. Protesting Israeli policies in the occupied territories, or Israeli policy during the war in Lebanon, was an inaugural experience in “Zionism” for a fair number of the writers, artists, and professors who signed the manifestoes critical of Israel that proliferated a few years ago.
Almost always, these documents—and statements issued by groups like Breira—began by expressing disappointment in Israel’s failure to measure up to the Zionist ideal, thus implying past enthusiasm for that ideal. But some of the key players in these endeavors have been altogether disingenuous. They come from a staunchly anti-Zionist left-wing tradition—socialist, Trotskyist, whatever. Others in this class of critics have their roots in the contemporary liberal-Left political culture and never gave Israel a moment’s thought, one way or the other, until attacking it became fashionable within that culture.
But there is yet another element in this “more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger” school of criticism—individuals who can legitimately claim the title “friend” (or, in some cases, “ex-friend”) of Israel. And this group lends credibility to the entire school.
Are the activities of these critics dangerous? Yes—their efforts help to legitimate the anti-Israel rhetoric of forces blatantly hostile to Israel. No doubt it would be a mistake to exaggerate the importance of these “more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger” critics in the American Jewish community. But they are there—and their numbers may well be growing.
The validity of Zionism, the raison d’être of the state of Israel, has certainly been lacerated over the past four decades.
Israel was self-created; an active Jewish (Zionist) minority had succeeded, by the end of World War I, in becoming a factor of world history. Accepted by the League of Nations, the Zionists built up an infrastructure between the two wars that after World War II was expanded into a state recognized, in turn, by the United Nations. Even with the loss of the vast reservoir of Jews destroyed by the Holocaust, especially Polish Jewry, this state has sustained itself after a series of wars with surrounding Arab states.
Propped up by the support of the United States, and with hopes of a substantial aliyah, Israel might have seemed at the outset to be a unique phenomenon—a state revived after two millennia. But the difficulties, pointed out by critics both hostile and friendly, that have emerged since the beginning may reasonably be taken to have eroded the foundation of the new state.
Aliyah, first of all, has been negligible, in terms both of the need and of the response from the Diaspora. The exception, of course, has been the involuntary aliyah from the Arab world after the establishment of the state, which now makes up more than half the population of Israel, without being necessarily Zionist in outlook.
At the other end, the Marxism endemic among the “Left” Israeli parties has remained a potentially doubtful factor in the general world view of Israelis; the kibbutzim, vital in the early phase of establishing the state, retain elements profoundly skeptical of, not to say alienated from, Zionism. In particular, such elements fundamentally contest the validity of the Jewish claim to the land, to say nothing of the zeal required to defend it.
In the Diaspora, countless Jews reflect this same attitude of negation, camouflaged by lip-service to the idea of Israel. “Universalism,” in one form or another, retains its potency as a source of practical hostility to the conduct of any particular Israeli government
Religious frictions, manifest from the outset of the Zionist movement but seemingly accommodated, more or less, for the first few decades of the state, have lately been surfacing with rapidly growing violence. The democratic framework of the state, which enables a swing vote to extract inordinate concessions from the bigger parties, has had the effect of intensifying the civil-war atmosphere commonplace in Jewish communal life since the Enlightenment. Extremist elements on many sides, drawing moral and financial support from the Diaspora, seem to be edging toward the likelihood of bloodshed as though it were a natural consequence of an inherent irreconcilability.
All this is taking place against the background of the most sinister development now looming up within Israel itself: Arab hostility, contradicting the original Zionist optimism about an eventually acceptable community of interest between Jews and Arabs, has now been massively fortified by a fundamental fact—the Arab birth rate.
If we add to this the strategic hostility of the Soviet Union, with its many allies, agents, and puppets, a vast question mark may well seem to overhang the existence of the state of Israel.
Nevertheless, the foundation of Israel is solid: in foreign affairs the United States is still the guarantor of Israel, for practical as well as idealistic reasons. Domestically, the Israeli economy has realized some of the hopes held out for it by enthusiastic Zionists at the beginning: with all its faults, it is resourceful and productive. Despite the crushing burden of armaments, the economy is viable. And the Arabs, despite all their rhetoric, have proved incapable of uniting in action; or rather, since the bulk of ordinary Arabs are indifferent, practically speaking, to the intransigence of their political elites, for the foreseeable future successful wars cannot be mounted by Arab forces alone.
Thus, if one uses a real-life criterion for judging the fulfillment of early hopes, it must be said that there has been something well-nigh miraculous both about the creation and endurance of the Israeli state.
It is true that the hopes of visionaries have been to some extent disappointed, but visions cannot be realized in full, particularly the visions of those who—soaring above the humdrum reality of Israel’s becoming “like all the nations”—require the country to be uniquely moral, uniquely impeccable, before according it their support.
Criticism of Israel may be helpful; it is in any case unavoidable. But it is generally presumptuous to think that advice from outside will have much effect on people living in Israel, who are bound to trust their own experts, even with respect to “public opinion” abroad.
We must, however, distinguish between honest criticism and the willful nagging generated by the countless enemies of Israel whose true agenda is hidden. It is obvious that those Jews who have become hostile to Israel because it is not perfect project their moral disappointment, genuine or feigned, as a camouflage for active hostility from a wide variety of angles (generally some form of universalism, most often Marxism).
This is all part of the landscape of the recent past: the major problem facing Israel now, in a long run that has become very short, is surely the statistics of Arab demography. It may be necessary, in the near future, to consider practical solutions of the problem and to contemplate an extension of the population transfers that in any case underlie Israeli society, with some 800-900,000 Jews having been propelled into Israel by the various expulsions from Arab countries after 1948.
The five million square miles of total Arab territory, or even the one million contiguous with Israel, could obviate all such problems.
If territorial accommodation to the Arab birth rate could be achieved and there were a serious aliyah at last, and if the United States, and the West in general, survive the current Soviet expansion, Israel (whose fate is surely bound up with the fate of the West) could then serve as a new beacon of hope, both practical and, for that matter, visionary.
My attitude toward Israel has fluctuated lovingly over the past decades. When I was a boy, the subject was rarely discussed in my parents’ house. My very assimilated mother and father seemed to be a-Zionists, not Zionists or anti-Zionists. When I was just seven or eight, my father would rouse me out of bed so that I could see history being made on TV. I remember the night Strom Thurmond walked out of the 1948 Democratic convention, but I have no memory of Israel’s War of Independence, no memory of statehood.
Nevertheless, Israel became very important to me. In 1961, I decided to escape Harvard University’s very Protestant version of American history and literature and find myself among my people by spending a year in Israel. I believed my visit there would solve the mystery of my family’s assimilation, and tell me who I was as a Jew.
I loved the country. The tough sabra arrogance that annoys so many Americans appealed to me from the moment I encountered it. These people were casually proud of the fact that they were Jews. It was an attitude I wanted to adopt.
For four months that year I taught the children of North African immigrants in the town of Beersheba. I was impressed by Israel’s efforts to furnish them a decent education, to find them jobs, to provide them with housing. I also knew many Israelis of European background in the city. Many of them had come to Beersheba, a poor, hot town, because the idea of working with new immigrants appealed to their idealistic nationalism. Nevertheless, some talked about North Africans in much the same way white Southerners talked about blacks. So I was acutely aware of the tensions between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, but so were most Israelis. In Beersheba the subject of immigrant absorption was discussed with a raw, informed passion. It seemed to me the bold, ethnically insensitive, humanly unworkable effort to settle so many people was testimony to Israel’s passion for equality; to the prejudices and injustices that passion would always create; and to the creativity and idealism at the country’s core.
In those days, I’d meet American college students who complained that Israel was not Zion—not the place they’d dreamed of in their synagogue youth groups. They lived in their American-bred fantasies, not in Israel. I was glad that I wasn’t encumbered with those fantasies; they bred a double standard. And I was glad I’d spent time with North Africans in Beersheba, not among other Americans. I felt immersed in Israel, not in ideas about Israel. From then on, I’ve always distrusted the opinions of well-meaning outsiders who spend a day or two in some newsworthy place, talk to the usual Israeli interviewees (those who speak English), and then discuss Israel in terms of their own preconceptions.
Like most American Jews, I felt a surge of pride in the Six-Day War. I wanted to go to Israel and fight in it. But those were the Vietnam years, and the peace movement was at the core of my intellectual and social life. Since I was dovish about American foreign policy it seemed logical to be dovish about Israel, too. When I spent the summer of 1979 and some weeks in 1980 there, dovishness seemed like prudent politics. I remember driving through Nablus and realizing—as I still realize—-that there is no way a city of Arab nationalists can be governed without authoritarianism and violence. The newspapers make that clear every day. It doesn’t matter whether last December’s violence on the Gaza Strip was provoked by Israelis or Palestinians; the occupation itself has become a dance of death.
That’s an easy rhetorical flourish, but it’s just the beginning of the question. For one has to ask whether the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is soluble at all. Does liberalism—compromise, constructive dialogue—make sense in that situation? Would a return of the West Bank bring about peace? Or (to ask the unaskable of a dove) is toughness now necessary?
How could an American tailor such questions to Israeli reality? Certainly, we have to understand Israeli political categories instead of using terms like liberal and conservative, hawk and dove, that we’ve developed out of our own culture. I think we have to know much more about North African Jews—the other Israel, the ethnic majority. For example, it’s useful for a liberal like me to talk with working-class Sephardi Jews. In doing so one realizes that some of their xenophobic feeling’s about Arabs arise out of memories of family experiences in North Africa. One sees as well that their anger at movements like Peace Now has a great deal to do with their resentment of the privileged college students who belong to them.
But what is their vision of the Israel they will soon control? Do they have different ideas about democracy, about justice, from those we usually associate with Ashkenazi Israel? For that matter, is there a “they”—or just a patchwork of people who happen to be of North African descent? In 1979, I realized that these questions were crucial to an understanding of Israel’s future, but they are seldom discussed in the American Jewish press. It’s one of the reasons we debate the Israel that exists in our head—not the one that exists in the world.
After that visit, I found I couldn’t write about Israel. I knew too little. Oddly, that feeling grew stronger after the invasion of Lebanon. The invasion seemed immoral and imprudent to me, and I signed the usual dovish ads. But they made me uneasy. I didn’t care about washing dirty linen in public. If Israel can survive inflation, the problems of absorbing millions of new immigrants, the constant threat of terrorism, it can certainly survive media skirmishes among American intellectuals. But I felt increasingly unwilling to be a participant in those skirmishes. I felt as if most of us (I’m excluding people who immerse themselves in Israeli life) were using a people and a culture we barely understand to fit our liberal or conservative polemics. In other words, whatever our politics, we tended to use Israel as a weapon in the domestic war American Jews are always waging against one another.
I don’t want to add my voice to that cacophony of opinions, even though I think the debate itself is a sign of Jewish health and of our acceptance in America.
So let a thousand flowers bloom—a thousand writers and intellectuals disagree about Israel’s political policies. But I won’t be among them until I have reexperienced the country, in all its marvelous complexity, with a full, informed, and feeling mind and heart.
Werner J. Dannhauser:
When the UN voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947, I was an enthusiastic member of the Labor Zionist youth movement called Habonim. That night, my friends and I got drunk for the first time. Our dreams of a Jewish state had come true—but I did not really want to live in such a Jewish state, or at least my desire to go to college proved stronger than my desire to go to Israel.
Now Israel is young at forty and I am no longer young, but on a recent visit I realized that my urge to live in Israel threatened to overpower my urge to stay in America.
What caused me to be overwhelmed was not my vestigial Zionism, but simply the living land in its dense “thereness,” a place where so many live heroically without false heroics, a society in which people of all kinds keep fashioning for themselves a real life. I had of course heard and read much about the various tensions that are supposed to be tearing Israel apart. At close hand, they loom large enough, but if they are not of the kind one can solve, they are at least of the kind one can muddle through. Here assertions must serve as arguments: the Left showed itself more patriotic and the Right more flexible than I had feared, and I found a glimmer of hope that Orthodoxy was coming to understand its duty to deal with ultra-Orthodoxy. Moreover, beneath the parliamentary wrangling and media hysteria, I discovered political debate so weighty and thoughtful that it must surely be, I thought, the envy of the Free World.
After forty years, I can say that the only reason Israel has not lived up to my expectations is that it has exceeded them.
The establishment of the state of Israel certainly failed to solve the Jewish problem, but that should have come as a disappointment only to those so imprisoned by the idea of progress that they mistook Zionism for magic. More importantly, Israel’s continuing vulnerability has much to do with the amazingly shallow understanding of anti-Semitism found in early Zionist theory. It is true that Jew-hatred, so very much alive and well, would thrive even if profoundly understood, but a good deal hinges on confronting it soberly and intelligently. To grapple with its demonic depths requires leaving the political realm in which Zionism is most at home and nurturing a philosophical or theological perspective.
But Israel’s accomplishments are nevertheless manifold and complex. Jews all over the world walk with greater pride upon the face of the earth because of the state of Israel, and this rivals in significance the haven Israel has offered, and continues to offer, to Jews fleeing oppression in other countries. Beyond that one can point to a vigorous Israeli literature that I, at least, would never have expected. Above all, most of us Zionists, Labor Zionists in particular, underestimated what Israel would accomplish for Judaism. I think of the flowering of Jewish scholarship in Israel, the revitalization of talmudic studies, the flourishing of yeshivas, the aura of a living faith that even agnostic Jews experience in Jerusalem, and not only in Jerusalem. Year by year, day by day, it becomes more hollow to say that one is pro-Jewish but anti-Israeli.
The upsurge of criticism is sometimes healthy, much more often dangerous, and above all inevitable. Indifference to Israel becomes increasingly difficult to sustain, yielding to love or hate, both of which are voluble (we are a voluble people). Israel’s proud independence necessarily means that it does what it thinks best without asking us. Moreover, the problem of dual loyalty, slighted by your questionnaire, seems real enough to me. Those of us who love both the United States and Israel love two nations with different national interests, and if that isn’t a problem I don’t know what is. Our agony over the Pollard case did not dishonor us, Shlomo Avineri’s obtuse remarks to American Jews notwithstanding. We worry and at times we are called upon to speak up, to speak out.
But when we speak, what platforms and forums should we use? I believe in the rule: “Tell it not in Gath and publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon.” But rules have exceptions, especially when applied to exceptional countries like Israel, and reticence in public speech has seen better days. I have but one suggestion in regard to our dilemma. As the saying goes, it is the tone that makes the music, and what accounts for the tone of our criticism of Israel depends on our fundamental stance toward the Jewish state. Genuine love of Israel—which means that one thinks of Israel as one’s own—confers a right, and even a duty, to criticize. But when one’s own child, say, or spouse, does wrong, one becomes sorrowful, protective; one tries to see the offense in the best possible light. One need not blind oneself to blemishes, but one remains bonded to one’s own, attaching no strings to one’s willingness to help and no conditions to one’s love.
Frankly, Jews who see Israel in what many consider a dispassionate light and what I consider the disingenuousness of feigned neutrality—such Jews appall me. They refuse to grant Israel the sympathy so many other causes call forth in them. And I consider beyond the pale most Jews—too many of them, alas—who harbor ill will toward Israel, the intellectuals who can’t forgive the country for failing to heed their advice, the moralizers who are lenient with themselves and strict with others, the high priests of the politics of resentment, the wicked sons of the seder Haggadah who say “you” and not “we” when it comes to Jews.
Criticism of Israel can be legitimate. The possibility that Israel may soon have to choose between remaining democratic and remaining secure can cause heartbreak. In any event, it precludes our silence. Ample opportunity exists for benevolent and heated controversy. The legitimate participants in that discussion will be those who think in terms of our Israel and who know that the children of Israel can no longer survive as a people without the state of Israel.
Without my being aware that it was happening, my feelings about Israel over the years came to be radically altered. You might say that they turned from hot to cold—or more precisely, from a molten mass to a block of granite. You see, I was a young Zionist, born and bred in Zionist theory and Zionist sentiment. And as is the case with all theoretical and sentimental Zionists, most especially young ones, my passion about the necessity for a Jewish homeland was entirely instrumental: the more I loved my commitment to Zion the more I demanded of it. (Purely instrumental passions, calculations of so much moral profit received for so much loyalty given, nowadays travel under the name of “ideals.”) Israel, then, was in my emotional and intellectual economy destined to be a kind of miraculous place. Created out of an act of long overdue international justice, the country was, at once and at last, to be a safe haven for Jews, a model of social existence, and a rich ground for the efflorescence of a new and lovely Jewish culture. Because it needed to be all these in order to satisfy my aspirations, I in turn needed to believe that these aspirations were in fact being realized.
Forty short years later the state of Israel is something far more—or if you insist, far less—than a foolish young woman’s pieties allowed for. What it is is an extremely messy (though considering the mess, an astonishingly stable) Western democratic society under constant threat. To say that the Jews are hardly any safer than before is an understatement, though for the first time in millennia they do have weapons in their hands and great skill in using them. As for Jewish culture, Israel has turned out to be a community of 20th-century Jews more or less like any other.
How could it be otherwise? People who live in a real country—never mind that it is still visibly and palpably the Holy Land and, as ever throughout history, a place of holy turmoil—lead real, which is to say ordinary, lives. It is the sin of Zionism to aspire to, not the sin of Israel to fail to achieve, the New Jerusalem.
But of course, the matter does not rest there, not for me and not for any other Jew. Jewish history and the God Who presides over it always seem to have an ace up their sleeve. Because giving up one’s youthful Zionism does not free one from anxiety about the condition or the future of Israel. Quite the contrary. It would be so much easier to be the kind of Zionist or anti-Zionist—there are many of both around, and it is no longer so easy to tell them apart—who continues to strike the idealists’ bargain: you be good according to my lights, and I will love you.
For those of us whose hearts have turned to stone, love is utterly beside the point. We know ourselves to be bound by ties so deep, so essential, so unconditional, that they are beyond daylight examination. We were spoken for before ever we were born, and before Israel was born. Why? To what end? By whom? I have answers to these questions, or think I do, but neither the questions nor the answers interest me very much. To be a Jew is not an act, it is a fate. The existence of Israel is absolutely central to that fate. The rest is mere details—knowable, unknowable, it makes no difference.
Which brings me to the problem of whether one may or may not “criticize” the Israelis. The answer is, of course, one may. Who can stop one? Nothing has been so dishonest as the complaint, on the part of Jews and non-Jews alike, that they are somehow being deprived of their right openly to speak their condemnations of Israel. Indeed, it has usually been in the very course of condemning that Israel’s critics have complained of being silenced. They do not actually mean that they are being silenced. The true source of their complaint is that they find themselves in turn being criticized by others. They seem to imagine that where it concerns them, the First Amendment guarantees not only free speech but universal moral approval.
The problem is not whether one has the right to attack Israeli policy or conduct but whether one is in the right in doing so. This is complicated, for it depends where and when, by whom, on what issue, for what reason, with what degree of truthfulness, with what intended consequence, and perhaps above all, in what tone of voice. An easy case, however, are those American Jews, self-professed lovers of Zion, who wring their hands in public at the failure of the Israelis to take this or that action, almost always a self-destructive one, which would make Israel and its supporters so much more attractive. These are today’s believers in romantic love: they want Israel not only to be good but to look good, at whatever cost. They are exactly like those Americans—are in fact in large part also numbered among them—whose so-called attachment to the ideals of their country impels them to advocate positions inimical to its safety and well-being. With such affectionate critics a country is hardly in need of enemies.
In the end, more than anything else, it is the hypocrisy of all this hot concern that overwhelms one. If these people really knew what Israel should do for itself—or even felt they did—they would be as gods. Israel is for the foreseeable future a country with no safe or satisfactory choices. Simply to name a policy, or its opposite, is to uncover one or another grave peril. Assuming they are not merely disguised enemies looking forward to its destruction, Israel’s critics in their self-assurance can know only one thing with certainty: and that is, what Israel is supposed to do to make them feel more comfortable in remaining committed to it. That, plain and simple, is what they advocate. And that is why in my new-found cold-heartedness I feel nothing but contempt for them.
For my part, I am bound by the modern Jewish imperative: Israel must live. Since I do not daily share its danger, it is not for me to reason how.
First, some (no doubt stock) personal observations, prompted by this symposium: I find myself, almost forty years after the creation of the state of Israel—and a lifelong Zionist—an anomaly and anachronism (what does it mean still to be a Zionist today?). The reborn Jewish commonwealth, to which I devoted my youthful ardor and my more mature support, has been awaiting me, so to speak, for four decades now; and yet, even believing as I do—that only by casting one’s personal lot with Israel can one realize an authentic Jewish existence—here I remain in exile, doing whatever it is I do and, from time to time, taking up the polemical cudgels on Israel’s behalf (an increasingly necessary activity, alas). Not a unique situation, to be sure, and one that has even produced a modest literature.
Well, over the course of time one comes to terms with the paradoxes of one’s fate. At least, I solace myself, I have not notably contributed to the overwhelming statistics of American Jewish attrition and corrosion. In my professional life, at any rate, as part of my (let us say) Jewish communal and cultural work, I have always sought to maintain some kind of coterminous association with the Israeli evolution—and Israel, to my mind, with all due respect for the not inconsiderable American Jewish achievement, is where the true Jewish action resides. Israel—that is, Jewish national life redivivus—is for me an absolute article of Jewish faith and fate; the state’s actuality, remembering a time (not all that long ago) when there was no Israel, remains an undiminished matter of amazement, as well as sustenance. In short, Jewish life without Israel, wherever that life may be, both in terms of immediate imperatives and longer historical perspectives, is simply unthinkable.
These are hardly exceptional sentiments and yet, in a time of unease and confusion—I agree with the framers of this symposium that the cause of Israel has suffered a certain erosion in the minds and cares of a growing number of American Jews—they seem to warrant restating, to wave the Zionist flag, if you will.
How to account for the shift in attitude? The litany of cause and effect, in no particular order, is quite familiar: the passage of time, for one thing (how long can unalloyed passion for Israel, from our comfortable distance, be sustained?); the weariness and impatience that come from having to deal with Israel almost exclusively in terms of recurrent crisis (and that often translates into “disappointment” with the Israeli performance); the flexing of muscle on the part of the organized American Jewish community, which strives to establish an independent identity and to define its agenda and raison d’être in terms of particularistic necessities (and which, on occasion, will even include “criticism” of Israeli policies); other vested interests—religious, academic, cultural—whose primacy is often asserted by the downplaying, if not outright denigration, of Israeli significance; the rise of the Herut movement as a permanent political force in Israel, which, though a legitimate and democratic development, is viewed as anathema by many liberal American Jews, affording an excuse for withdrawal of support from Israel; the seepage of left-wing Israel-bashing into the mainstream; the reemergence of the “traditions of opposition to Zionism” (what a witty friend calls the “return of the repressed”), which seem to fill the spiritual vacuum for some American Jews; the coming of age and to leadership of an American Jewish generation raised on the self-assertions and narcissisms of the 60’s. The list could surely be extended.
Israel, of course, is not entirely “innocent” in this development, feeding, as it inevitably must (what polity is perfect?), the fires of the faultfinders. Its politics are messy; its society contentious; its scandals proliferate; its social and economic—and not least of all, security—problems many and difficult of solution. Nor can Israel boast all the niceties of the democratic West. To that extent, if one is so inclined, one can say that Israel has “disappointed . . . the hopes vested in it.” But that is surely vacuous and self-serving. One does not even have to be a Zionist of my stripe to give the Israeli successes their full due—and for which we should all be thankful.
As to how I regard the “upsurge of Jewish criticism of Israel,” I view it darkly. If it continues unchecked—and these things have a way of snowballing—there is a real danger that the criticism will become so institutionalized, so internalized, so pervasive, so “respectable” as to endanger the fragile Jewish unity that—the critics notwithstanding—depends on a strong Israel-consciousness.
Some of this criticism, to be sure, is well-meaning and seen by its proponents as “constructive.” That may very well be, and to that extent, I suppose, it is “healthy.” But much of the criticism is also misguided and tendentious, and in its extreme expression pernicious, giving license to Israel’s ill-wishers. Indeed, this latter variety of criticism, in evidence since 1967 and now more flagrant than ever, has become indistinguishable from hostility to all Jewish national aspirations; it goes beyond criticism of specific Israeli policies such as the invasion of Lebanon and the occupation of the West Bank to an antipathy to the very idea of a Jewish state. As Nathan Glazer has written in this regard: “There seems such a strong element of ignorance, of malevolence, of sheer malice in the attack on Zionism that it is hard to see in it any part of legitimate political opposition to a political movement.”
Nevertheless, I suspect that the vast majority of American Jews—neither as vociferous nor as accessible to the public media as the critics—persist in their traditional views; they continue to believe in Israel as a life-giving source, as a center of national feeling and an abode for the collective memory of Jewish national consciousness, and they express their support accordingly. For such Jews, myself included, Israel, for better or for worse, is the bottom Jewish line. Ein breira, as we Zionists used to say. What alternative is there?
I am not aware that “criticism of the state of Israel by American Jews” is either “open” or “widespread” or “bitter,” or that such criticism as does take place is rooted in “traditions of opposition to Zionism.” The suggestion that it is confuses criticism of Israeli government policies, which has plainly increased since the Lebanon war, with criticism of the state itself—obviously, a very different matter. That is a dangerous confusion.
One explanation for the rise in criticism of Israeli government policies is that those policies deserve to be criticized. The historical reluctance of American Jewry openly to voice criticism has finally been breached by the general deterioration of Israeli politics and, more specifically, by the dismal performance of the incumbent government of national unity. I say “dismal performance” knowing that while very many (most?) Israelis would share that view, it will shock very many (most?) American Jews, who have traditionally imputed heroic qualities to Israel’s people and to its governors.
This is not the place to argue the government’s record; the question here is the American Jewish tradition. Given the venomous glee with which Israel is attacked by its enemies, one understands the disposition of Israel’s friends to refrain from all criticism. But the price of that abstention is grievously high: in time, we ourselves lose the ability to know whether our restraint is substantive or tactical. Though we may begin by seeking to insulate Israel from criticism, we end by viewing Israel as beyond criticism. But if Israel is beyond criticism, those who pose as its critics are in truth its enemies. Does Israel have so many friends that we can lightly afford to mislabel them?
A second explanation: one of my daughters tells me that among her fellow graduate students (mostly not Jews), there is some surprise when they learn of her devotion to Israel. Increasingly, it seems, they have bought into the sleazy anti-Israel propaganda that infects the ongoing debate over these matters. If my daughter’s task as a lover of Zion is to try to persuade her colleagues that there is another view, is she best-advised to pretend to blindness, to depict “her” Israel as flawless, or is it wiser for her to acknowledge that she, too, sees flaws, but that those flaws are not the whole of Israel’s story? Shall Israel’s legitimacy be made contingent on the unfailing wisdom of its policies (what state would pass that test?) or shall we insist on a distinction between legitimacy and perfection?
This does not mean that Jewish criticism of Israel is risk-free. On balance, it has seemed to me over the years that the arguments for open discussion and debate are weightier than the arguments against. I have believed that it is important to insist that there is a place to stand with Israel that is not at the right hand of its governors, whatever their party and their policies. For if there is no such place, I fear that significant numbers of American Jews will abandon the fight for Israel’s safety and welfare.
If our choice as a community is to stonewall, to pretend that all’s well, then we leave the field of criticism to the enemy. That seems to me an exceedingly dangerous abdication. The attentive audience will then be forced to choose between the strident and slashing critique and a defense that lacks all plausibility. And if the audience overhears our intracommunal argument, in which cheap and even evil motives are casually imputed to those who speak critically, it will come to believe precisely that which we seek to deny—that those Jews who criticize Israel do not support it.
So, for example, when a mainstream American Jewish organization (the American Jewish Congress) finally has the temerity to endorse the position of the foreign minister of Israel as against the position of Israel’s prime minister with regard to the merits of an international peace conference, its “break” with tradition is deemed worthy of front-page coverage in the American press and is taken as a symptom of disunity among Israel’s principal supporters. Such absurd interpretations, which (I imagine) do indeed give aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies, are the unavoidable consequence of the childish doctrine that American Jews ought to be cheerleaders for whatever the policies that Israel’s government of the day adopts.
There are other and more pressing questions regarding the relationship between the two great centers of contemporary Jewish life, and discussion of these has been too long deferred. There is these days a widespread and growing disappointment, both in Israel and among American Jews, with the way things are unfolding in Israel. Lovers of Zion in both places wander aimlessly about, moaning, “Woe unto us, what has happened to the dream?” What has happened, or what is happening, or what ought, at any rate, to be happening, is that we are learning, not without pain and dislocation, that the dream was a response to our own needs rather than to any plausible reality. For diverse reasons, we came to view Israel as more a faith than a place. Now, at last, its placeness is catching up with us. Israel is a place, and because it is, it is flawed, as all places are. It is no great achievement that we have been able to defend the mythic Israel; our new challenge is to learn how to defend, with equal skill and energy, the flawed Israel.
Along the way to that learning, some people have moved beyond disappointment toward bitterness. In their view, Israel has betrayed them, made a nightmare of their dream. But the challenge before Israel’s wakeful friends is to shape a second-generation response to Israel, one that stakes out a ground somewhere between the mindless claque and the equally mindless lynch mob.
A serious American Jewish community must also reassess the classic Zionist position that assigned to all Diaspora communities a peripheral role in Jewish history. American Jews are only now developing a sense of self-worth as Jews, only now coming to appreciate the range of American Jewish possibility. That bumps squarely into the classic Zionist perception, and leads to misunderstandings and distortions that may, if unattended, poison the relationship between the two centers. There is no developed theory that can accommodate both classic Zionism and the new self-respect of American Jewry, and the development of such a theory seems to me a more urgent requirement of our time than the futile effort to insist that we not break ranks.
Because Israel’s domestic and foreign policies remain, essentially, unchanged, I have found no reason in recent years to change my attitudes toward Israel. Such, at least, is my impression based on considerable reading and almost annual visits to that country. Israel continues as a haven for persecuted Jews of the world, from the Europeans (and some Asians) of the Soviet Union to the black Jews of Ethiopia. At war with all its neighbors except for Egypt (and the peace there remains frigid indeed), and exposed also to ongoing Arab terrorist activity, Israel retains all of the attributes of a truly democratic state. Deputies to the Knesset include pro-Moscow Communists, ultra-Orthodox rabbis, admirers of Yasir Arafat, and Meir Kahane. Demonstrations protesting a dizzying variety of causes—from alleged government expropriation of Arab lands to violations of the Sabbath and possible desecration of ancient graves—all enjoy police protection and are subject also to police supervision. Commissions of inquiry into such sensitive problems as the war in Lebanon and treatment of terrorist prisoners—a rarity in other democracies in peacetime—have become almost routine. And in spite of the constraints that the democratic system imposes on the promulgation of unpopular reforms, Israel has—through a series of stringent austerity measures—recently succeeded in bringing to a virtual halt a galloping inflation that threatened to destroy the country’s economy. With all that, Israel remains a steadfast member of the small community of genuinely free nations that stand ready to defend that freedom.
A great many people have pinned on Israel all sorts of hopes, not a few of them mutually exclusive. Some saw it as an embodiment of millenarian socialist dreams—resolutely secular, it goes without saying. Others, just as fervently, prayed for Israel to become the incarnation of strict religious observance that was formerly enforceable, at best, only within the confines of individual households. There were many who hoped that Israel would truly become a “light unto the nations,” where disbelief would disappear and error be no more, whence corruption and greed would be banished forever and ever. Needless to say, such unrealistic expectations were bound to be disappointed. Israel, like it or not, is a country inhabited by ordinary mortals who are, moreover, suffering from battle fatigue and the array of traits it engenders—impatience, intolerance, a thirst for comforts taken for granted elsewhere but unaffordable in a state of siege. Moreover, a democratic system makes compromises inevitable and these, in turn, create a sense of betrayal and capitulation among all the parties to the social contract. Hence, Israel is a disappointment to “idealistic” socialists as much as it is to the ultra-Orthodox haredim from Mea Shearim or from Brooklyn. I still recall, many years ago, a Neturei Karta advertisement protesting autopsies in Israel in terms so vicious that I wondered whether it might not be an Arab forgery.
The upsurge of Jewish criticism of Israel is decidedly not healthy and is potentially quite dangerous. Much of it is ill-informed and irresponsible, not very constructive, and, on occasion, unseemly as well. In the final analysis, there is something immoral about people living in the safety of America telling the Israelis what they must do in policy choices that are literally matters of life and death. Paradoxically, such criticism serves to create the impression that, instead of acting here as friends of Israel, American Jews may be used to exert pressure on Israel. Indeed, there are some disquieting signs that the American Jewish community is already being manipulated in this manner. The paradox is compounded of late by attempts on the part of certain Israeli political groupings to enlist the help of American Jews for their parochial causes, thus corrupting the democratic character of Israel’s political life.
Finally, a few words about the specter of dual loyalty. I submit that in a complex society an individual has not one and not two, but literally scores of loyalties. As a consumer, I may favor lower tariffs on imported Japanese cars—even though automobile workers in Detroit may brand my preference un-American (my colleagues at the University of Michigan may or may not share their opinions). Because my own salary is paid from appropriations by the legislature of a large agricultural state, I suppose that I am more sympathetic to the plight of the farmer than most New Yorkers who, as every Midwesterner knows, are not “really” American. And so on and so forth. Sympathy for the “old country” (and activity in its behalf, including lobbying in Washington) is taken for granted by Greek Americans or Polish Americans, even though neither country is currently run—in contrast to Israel—by a pro-American government.
While one can differ at certain points with specific policy decisions or actions taken by its government, Israel is a tiny nation surrounded by enemies supported by the Soviet Union who would destroy it if they could. As such it has to make hard decisions involving the safety and security of its people—decisions that may incur the wrath of many as being militarily aggressive. But the exercise of power, built into the role of a state, is a far better thing than Jewish powerlessness and dependency. One remembers the days when non-Jewish friends would wring their hands about “the poor Jews” but could not or would not do much to help; I would rather that Jews have the strength to defend themselves, with all the problems this sometimes entails, than enjoy the pity of others.
I believe that Judaism, or at least Jewishness, requires Jews to adhere to broader, civilizing goals than pure self-interest. But I have come to resent in recent years the view, maintained by many, that Israel must be held not only to higher values than other nations but often to unrealizable objectives. It bothers me deeply, for example, that groups like the American Friends Service Committee, the New Jewish Agenda, and the Left generally focus so heavily on Israel’s small amount of trade with South Africa. Why is there so little condemnation of African and Arab as well as Western nations that engage in far greater amounts of trade? There is involved here not only a large dose of hypocrisy but a more fundamental animus that has to be watched in the light of Jewish historical experience. In the circumstances in which Israel finds itself today, and as nations go, I believe it has done comparatively well in living up to its democratic traditions.
As to whether it is healthy to criticize Israel publicly, I must respond with an unequivocal yes and no. It really does depend. This is not ambivalence or cowardice. Should Israeli authorities be openly criticized by American Jews for the constraints placed on Reform and Conservative Judaism by a politically well-placed Orthodoxy? Of course. On the other hand, I believe American Jews should exercise restraint when Israel crosses into Lebanon to destroy the bases used by terrorists there. The rule to guide us generally, it seems to me, is whether the issue involves the safety and security of the state; Israelis who have to live with the day-to-day results of actions taken by their government to protect them must be left free to make their decisions without public pressure from their brethren abroad. On this basis, the American Jewish Congress was acting irresponsibly when it called publicly for an international conference of nations, including the Soviet Union and other countries frequently hostile to Israel, to meet with and help work out the arrangements for a peace settlement between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. There may be an occasional exception to the rule, such as in the Pollard case; using Jonathan Pollard as a spy was presumably in line with Israel’s security, but it violated the security of Israel’s greatest friend and benefactor. And of course there is no question but that American Jewish bodies have a right and a responsibility to engage in private discussions with Israeli authorities on any and all subjects.
Since Israel is, in fact, now a part of American Jewish identity, the response of American Jews to what is happening there can hardly be limited to sending money, lobbying in the halls of Congress, or visiting as tourists. Security matters aside, the time has come to normalize the debate and discussion between the two Jewries. These should be conducted without the rancor of a Shlomo Avineri, who charged in his well-publicized “Letter to an American Friend” that the response of the American Jewish community to the Pollard case reflected “nervousness, insecurity, and even cringing,” or of a Jacob Neusner, who has claimed that Israel’s culture is limiting and parochial in comparison with that of the United States.
As the discussion proceeds, however, we have to be conscious of a problem: the inroads recently being made by the Left into American and Jewish political affairs. This has been highlighted in the presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson, who has manifested his hostility to Jews and Israel by identifying with Israel’s enemies abroad (even as he has attempted to spruce up his image) and by his attack on a strong American defense, so vital to Israel’s and America’s security.
What is most disturbing in the Jackson candidacy is the degree of respectability being given to him and, at least inferentially, to his ideas by major American political leaders and, regrettably, many Jews. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, for example, has enthused, “To the ‘passion’ and ‘poetry’ of his 1984 campaign he has added a depth and width and a point of view.” One national Jewish religious leader has noted, “Times have changed and Jesse Jackson has had the wisdom to change with the times,” while the head of a major Jewish civic agency has welcomed “that certain sensitivity he is now showing.” Following a recent interview with Jackson published in the leftist magazine Tikkun, a number of these Jewish leaders have backed off somewhat; but the utopian impulse is ever renewable. It seems we need to remind ourselves and our friends that even as the Jewish and Israeli situation has improved in important ways, it is not paranoid to recognize that we continue to have enemies.
I wonder how useful it is to rehearse the various grounds that once existed for opposition to either Zionism or what became the dominant strand within Zionism. I doubt that many of those participating in this symposium will take the positions dubbed Orthodox, Reform/humanist, socialist, or assimilationist in the symposium statement, or that any of these plays much role among Jewish intellectuals today. They almost without exception are committed to the security and prosperity of the state of Israel, the Jewish state, whose existence and strength have relegated all the positions listed as possible sources of criticism of Israel to obscurity. Indeed, the only pre-state tradition challenging the central Zionist vision with growing strength in Israel today is Revisionism and its present-day descendants. Of all the anti-Zionist or dissident Zionist positions and traditions this is the one whose heirs have led the state in the past and are likely to lead it again in the future. And it is the issues raised by a nationalism or chauvinism that breaks with the historically central line of Zionist thought and action that evoke the most troublesome questions today.
My own attitudes to Israel have not changed in recent years: it is a state like other states, better than most, unique in the Middle East in maintaining a strong democracy, still offering examples of ingenuity and commitment in maintaining its viability and security that are a source of pride to all Jews, and not doing badly in maintaining a vigorous and pluralistic Jewish culture that is a resource to Jews everywhere. The state has had one great problem since its creation, one exacerbated by its conquest of Arab-settled territories in 1967. Security seems to require the holding and settlement of Arab-settled areas; but if Israel is to remain a Jewish and democratic state these areas cannot be part of Israel. Divisions within the state, as well as the attraction of easy temporary arrangements, make it very difficult to adopt the solution I would prefer: disengagement from the conquered territories, and avoidance of the dangers of becoming either a state with a master race ruling over inferiors or a binational state. The process of settlement in these territories, advocated by the Likud and right-wing groups but acquiesced in by Labor governments, has now gone so far that this possible solution recedes ever farther.
Israel is far gone along the road of helotizing the conquered Arab population. And for the first time official voices call for forcing out the Arabs to ensure a Jewish majority state. This is to me a monstrous solution, but I can well see its attractiveness to those who have been embattled for forty years and see no respite.
I do not believe that Israel has disappointed the hopes vested in it. It had to respond and adapt to the situation in which it was placed. Zionism never looked realistically at the Arab problem. Even those who were most cognizant of it divided into those who would expel the Arabs by main force and those who would create a binational state. It seems the former were more realistic than the latter: we have had many more examples of successful expulsions in the past seventy years than of successful binational states. But I do not think it can be a successful solution for Israel, surrounded by Arab countries. A very large body of opinion in Israel is fortunately reluctant to adopt this solution. It still believes an arrangement with the Arabs is possible that does not threaten the security of Israel, that brings a measure of peace, and permits the maintenance of the state as a Jewish state.
Many American Jews support this position. But I do not see their support as criticism of Israel:
Shimon Peres is as much a part of the government of Israel as is Yitzhak Shamir. I see, rather, a taking of sides on what are fateful decisions for Israel, whether to try further along the path of peace or to maintain an obdurate stand that any possible movement toward extending peace with the Arabs endangers the security of Israel, and thus all that is possible is to continue along the present line, to “create facts.” The ultimate conclusion of this fact-creation will be expulsion.
Should American Jews remain silent in this debate? One path guarantees unending hostilities, the maintenance of watchful vigilance, and enormously expensive military forces as far into the future as one can see. The other course offers a slim hope that some peaceful arrangement with Israel’s Arab neighbors is possible—autonomy for the Palestinian Arabs in the conquered territories or their return to Jordan. In such a settlement the Jewishness of the Jewish state is demographically ensured, and its democratic processes can be maintained. I and other Diaspora Jews feel the discomfort in participating in this debate, when we do not have to risk the awful dangers that the people of Israel live with. But all elements in Israel in this debate reach out to the Diaspora for support, not only monetary but political. They always have. One must respect the distinction between Israel and the Diaspora, between those who risk the consequences of their choices and those who do not and whose involvement may offer support to the enemies of Israel. But there are costs to all political choices, all political action. A debate is going on within Israel. When have Diaspora Jews not been involved in such debates? And why should such involvement, in which inevitably one party, one body of opinion, is going to be supported against another, be called criticism of Israel?
We are living through the birth pangs of a true partnership between American Jewry and Israel, built on the sense of common fate which continues to link the communities indissolubly. The generation that lived through the Holocaust and the birth of Israel is passing from the scene. The experience of Jewish history shows that those who live through great traumatic events tend to be fixed—sometimes, even paralyzed—by the experience. Later generations which encounter the event through ritual, memory, and learning are freer to apply its implications creatively.
The next generation does not have the initial leaders’ gut identification with Israel or their conception of themselves and their communities as “enablers” of Israelis; still, it is deepening the relationship. Initially, American Jews lived vicariously through the Israeli assumption of military and political power, but they took on none of the commitments or the risks of political action. In the last fifteen years, there has been explosive growth of political action and AIPAC. To fight arms sales, American Jews confronted two Presidents, rejecting intimidation by dual-loyalty charges. There has been a steady broadening of Jewish political alliances, including the rise of the neoconservatives, which reflects a maturation of political responsibility.
In the first stage, philanthropy was the primary relationship to Israel. In the second stage, Diaspora Jews stress greater independence for Israel through investments, opening up of free-trade zones, purchase of Israeli goods, etc. Philanthropy moves toward mutual responsibility through heightened accountability. Diaspora philanthropists fight to choose leadership and articulate policy in the Jewish Agency. Project Renewal creates relationships between American Jews and Israelis based on shared experiences of Israeli realities. Israel has begun to send money back to the Diaspora for Jewish education—out of the recognition that Israel must be concerned for the future of American Jewry. These trends have moved Israelis away from the “negation of Diaspora” ideology.
True, the shift has led to freer criticism of Israel. But the ability to give and take criticism is a sign of strength in a relationship. Moreover, as American Jews put themselves on the line for Israel politically, there is a greater moral legitimacy in judging Israeli policy. The key is the tone and nature of the criticism. Morally realistic critiques that grow out of fundamentally committed relationships strengthen the parties’ commitment to each other. Delegitimating criticism, based on unreal standards that no living state can meet, will alienate the two Jewries and could endanger Israel’s very existence. Therefore, those who care for the renewal of Jewish life and the creation of a model people must challenge critics—well-meaning or evil-intentioned—who undermine Israel.
We should draw confidence from the incredible accomplishments of the past forty years. Israel is stronger than ever: its population is at a peak; its Jewish social gap is being closed; its Arab minority is blossoming (in spite of some radicalization). The Gaza riots notwithstanding, Israel will trade territory and allow Palestinian self-determination for a real peace. Then Arabs and Jews will adapt to live with each other. Despite a forty-year siege, Israel has maintained a humane attitude toward Arabs; its self-corrective mechanisms continue to operate. Israel is not as fragile as its enemies hope or as its friends fear.
Having experienced the Holocaust, the triumph of death over life and the systematic degradation of all its values, the Jewish people responded with an unprecedented outburst of life-affirmation. Jews recognized that powerlessness was no longer compatible with upholding life or fundamental values. Therefore, they committed themselves to create the state of Israel. But Jews determined simultaneously to uphold the Jewish covenantal ethic and use their power non-idolatrously. Choosing life and power together constituted nothing less than a renewal of the Jewish covenant of life. In addition, most Zionists believed that this new society could become a model of democracy and of self-government for ex-colonies. Religious Zionists hoped that religious values would flower and be applied to all aspects of life.
The above hopes constitute open-ended goals; in pursuing them one does not arrive at a final point. Still, Israel is in the process of fulfilling the hopes that were vested in it. Israel has to struggle to maintain its decency toward Arabs in the face of repeated wars and brutal terrorism—as well as in the face of the exhilaration of unexpected victories and additional territory. It has created a democratic society, integrating East European Jews with no previous experience of democratic government and Oriental Jews who came mostly from medieval, hierarchical cultures. Israel has given dignity to women and freedom to religious minorities and all Arabs under its rule beyond anything ever experienced in that part of the Middle East. Its social and military policies have restored the value of Jewish life and, by extension, of all life. Israel has created the infrastructure for a tremendous flowering of traditional religious life and learning (which has created frictions as yet unresolved).
Israel’s ethic has to be an ethic of power—inescapably flawed, using force and approximate means to achieve absolute ends. By this standard, its overall ethical performance has been exemplary. By the standards of powerlessness, i.e., perfection, its behavior is less than ideal. A judgment of fundamental disappointment (as against particular disappointments) shows an immaturity of ethical understanding—or betrays the presence of an illegitimate double standard in judging Israel. Where it leads to delegitimation, it constitutes anti-Semitism and collaboration with attempted genocide—for no other state’s right to exist is made dependent on an ideal standard of behavior. For me personally, there is much room for improvement in Israel’s performance, but this is true by the standard of tikkun olam—perfecting the world. In its human, all too human, way, Israel is in the vanguard of that very process.
My attitudes toward Israel have matured; the feeling of covenantal commitment to Israel has deepened. The most intense moments of Israel’s life—1948, May-June 1967, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon invasion—have deepened the attachment. Some of the greatest religious experiences of my life were furnished by Israel’s history: the exhilaration of a unified Jerusalem, the ingathering of Russian Jews, Entebbe, the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. As the realization of the difficulties has grown, the willingness to get involved has also grown. My family and I are closer to aliyah than ever before because we see how much help Israel needs to accomplish its unfinished goals.
My understanding of Israel has become more realistic and more confident in recent years. The Kahan Commission set up after the Sabra-Shatila massacres made me realize how much I was prone to doubts about Israel’s solidity and how wrong I was. I have come to feel that Israel needs an infusion of privatization, voluntary activity, and free enterprise whereas in the past I romanticized the kibbutz and socialism. But these changes are a natural part of an ever-growing relationship and ever-changing reality.
Overall, my conviction that this is nothing less than the Exodus of our time has grown. Whether it takes forty years or four hundred years to establish Israel, the record of the dignity and the decency, of the limitations and the failures but overall accomplishment, will some day make up a second Jewish Bible for the world. This Bible too will be studied and will shape humanity’s values. Its primary message will be the same classic Jewish teaching: the triumph of love over hatred, of life over death.
My answers to your first two questions are obvious, but they may serve to signify the perspective or bias that shapes my responses.
As a lifelong Zionist, my attitudes toward Israel changed at the point of its creation, but not essentially since then. Before 1948 a Zionist could consider himself free to vote on all critical issues affecting the unborn Jewish state. Afterward, voting on critical issues—especially issues of security—was a right entailing duties and responsibilities that a Diaspora Zionist did not bear and could not perform.
As for hopes of mine that were not fulfilled in Israel—perhaps it would be more correct to say possibilities not realized—these were decisions for which I, and not Israel, was responsible. My commitment to Israel, before and after its creation, was never conditional on its assuming the particular color and shape that I desired for a Jewish state.
As an active Zionist, and one identified with a Zionist party, I have of course allowed myself to comment and complain fairly freely about Israeli actions or policies, both while my own party comrades and while their opponents were in power. Sometimes this was done personally, in print or in meetings, and sometimes through voting in Zionist elections. I have always felt that the institutional frame provided not only the moral license but the necessary bounds for my kibitzing about Israeli affairs.
The recent groundswell of carping at Israel comes from a number of sources which should be clearly distinguished. There are those who opposed the creation of a Jewish state ab initio. Once Israel arose and gained a certain degree of international acceptance, such opposition had to be redefined in terms of a changing situation. Moreover, the Holocaust background out of which the Jewish state emerged stilled a number of such voices or compelled them to speak in a different tongue. But this was an inhibiting factor that lost force slowly over time, and that from the start affected mainly the Western members of the post-Hitler family of nations who founded the UN. Others, the Soviets and their entourage, the Arabs, and the Asian and African nations for whom the Jews and their martyrdom were morally irrelevant, were free to deal with Israeli matters strictly in accordance with a cost-benefit analysis that was virtually devoid of cost. There has consequently been a continuous tide of opposition to Israel’s vital interests from such sources. I am not sure whether it has gained strength recently; it may, in fact, be ebbing. On the other hand, those inhibited by Holocaust-related moral concerns may be sensing a release from this inhibition.
However, your questions are concerned with Jewish rather than non-Jewish assailants of Israel and its policies. It does appear that the volume of such vocal assaults by Jewish critics has mounted, partly because of the passage of time, the fading of memories, and the combination of Israel’s victories and its virtual defeats. Another reason is equally obvious, but suggests rather different conclusions from those you imply. Criticism of Israeli policies by Diaspora Jews (whether committed or opposed to the state in principle) has been constant from the beginning. The greater volume—though hardly a higher decibel level—is caused by the fact that the current Israeli power structure and policies, or lack of policies, run counter to the views of a larger and more influential segment of the American Jewish community than was true in earlier years.
There are those, of course, who without being hostile to the very existence of the Jewish state are aroused to speak about it, or even to notice its existence, only when it gives them cause for complaint. Nowadays not only Israel but any other significant country may be held to account by foreigners because of its foreign policy, its social or political structure, or certainly its record on human rights. Such comment, which can hardly be objected to in this contracting globe, is often combined with pressures of a much less acceptable sort. The feeble instrument of international law may give some protection to states against pressures from other states; such pressures from outsiders by private organizations, whether permanent or ad hoc, can be legitimate only within a moral community.
Israel invites comment from Diaspora Jews on more specific grounds than the general concern of men everywhere with the behavior of any state. Who is entitled to be a Jew is a matter strongly affected by Israeli law and politics, and so are many other aspects of Diaspora Jewish life. The title this gives Jews outside to concern themselves with Israeli affairs—not only in words but in action—is recognized, and also regulated, by the complex network of Jewish communal institutions. The most effective and to my mind the most legitimate connection of this sort is that provided by Zionist parties, organized in both Israel and the Diaspora. Belonging to such a party, if one takes it seriously, involves one in relations with Israelis and their concerns on matters that affect both Israel and the Diaspora. How much one may legitimately press on one or another issue is a question that constantly arises and must be dealt with by an interchange of views and on common grounds rather than by blind pressure. Zionist organizations without Israeli counterparts—including, lately, American Jewish denominational groups—must operate more or less in the same way. That such Zionists allow themselves to attack particular Israeli actions or policies is a necessary part of the responsibilities they share in a wide range of common concerns.
It will be clear that I am less pleased with those who organize pressure against Israel or its policies without such continuous involvement or commitment. This applies, in a sense, to the fundraising bureaus that constitute half of the Jewish Agency. Unlike other critics, they rarely raise political or ideological objections; their concern is a narrower one. I am not charmed by the demands to cut the pattern of social policies in Israel according to the needs and customs of American benefactors, overriding those of the Israelis themselves. But this is a minor matter. The main issue is the pressure of various American Jewish activists who concern themselves with Israel on particular questions—relations with South Africa, with the PLO, or others—but otherwise ignore both Israel and the broader Jewish community. Even when I may agree with its purpose, I find such pressure offensive if those who apply it claim a right to speak as Jews without any other history of Jewish concern.
I do not regard such expressions as dangerous, though clearly Israel, and the Jews, face special perils. Other peoples are threatened in different ways; Israel is under the pressure of a widely supported effort to deny it legitimacy and annul its existence, and Jews the world over would take such a possibility as a new Holocaust. Jewish critics of Israel who ignore this context have no right to speak as Jews. But I doubt if they are much more than a nuisance to Israel or to the Jewish community.
For more than half a century, the Jews of Palestine and, then, Israel have struggled in sequence and sometimes simultaneously against the local population, the British, organized Arab armies, arms and trade sanctions, Arab military establishments equipped by the Soviet Union, terrorism, and, when the state refused to die, the condemnation, sometimes polite and sometimes barbaric, of much of the world. While attending to the preceding list, these same Jews managed to absorb the greater part of refugees from the Holocaust and the Arab world, contribute a Jewish Brigade to the British army, and build a country.
It has been nothing short of miraculous. The miracle, however, has not extended so far as to allow the Jews who accomplished it to escape without a price, which has been exhaustion, a certain moral hardening, and the abandonment of many principles that enabled the country to be established and to grow. Fifteen years ago, as a young airman in the Israeli air force, I was in a concrete bunker when a Libyan civil airliner was shot down in the Sinai. Although the Libyans had threatened to crash a jet into an Israeli city, the plane was on its way back to the Egyptian airport that it had overshot when the Israeli air force brought it down. As I remember, about a hundred civilians died. At the instant, in the bunker, wild cheering. Who was cheering? People my age who had fought in 1967, and in the War of Attrition, who would soon fight again in Sinai in the Yom Kippur War, who had recently received the PLO’s message from Munich and from like massacres in a dozen other places.
Some American Jews have heard the echoes of that cheer. Knowing what is right and what is wrong, they justifiably condemn it, though, as often as not, they are ignorant of its origins, or choose to overlook them, or do not care. Others have been deaf to it, or would like to pretend that it doesn’t exist. In seeking to promote Israel’s chances of survival, they choose to overlook the imperfections that trouble some Jews the most.
Jews who labor within the great luxury of American political conditions, where it appears, at least, that destructive discord is often a step toward healthy reconstruction, place their frequently mistaken assumptions regarding the American case into the Israeli vessel, which is far too fragile to support them. The result is a threat of no small consequence. Half in response, and half to freeze time, others deny or suppress criticism, and thus we have the worst of both worlds—critical dissent untempered by historical understanding or, sometimes, even good will, and slavish loyalty to a mythical, impossible state. Though some are guilty of following an illusion, others are guilty of having thrown down one enchantment and immediately entering upon another.
American Jewish organizational leaders are partly responsible for this unfortunate dichotomy, for they have persistently failed to recognize that were they receptive to constructive dissent it would take the high ground and hold all the attention otherwise afforded to bilious attacks. Some years ago, after the Sabra and Shatila massacres, I wrote in the New York Times condemning, without reservation, Israel’s role in them, and affirming, without reservation, Israel’s right to a strong self-defense (including its unassailable right to hot pursuit in Lebanon). Israel’s habitually militant critics had seized upon the first to undermine the second, while some of its defenders, also mistakenly linking the two, were put in the embarrassing position of attempting to excuse the inexcusable. The dominant impulse of the American Jewish leadership was to evade rather than to confront facts. I was portrayed by enemies of Israel as a Zionist apologist and by Zionist apologists as an enemy of Israel. Had the Jewish leadership done in the first instance what it had left for me to attempt virtually alone, then right and deserved criticism would have been directed at right and deserved targets, and pathological criticism, at least among Jews, might have withered. But it did not. All the wrong causes were addressed.
Perhaps because they deal less with Israel itself than with images and dreams, American Jews have lagged behind the Israelis in political maturation. I cannot imagine that this country’s Jewish leadership, were it entrusted with governing Israel, would be sufficiently agile or sober to empower, for example, something like the Agranat Commission, which investigated the lack of preparedness in the Yom Kippur War, or to deal firmly with the excesses of the prison system or the Shin Bet. It takes a kind of fundamental courage not to skate sideways from the truth, the kind that you can develop, for example, in pushing armored columns across inhospitable desert at great risk. This the Israelis have done. In contrast, the American Jewish leadership is top-heavy with résumé-builders and apple-polishers. They are the source of much embarrassing silence. The embarrassing chatter, on the other hand, comes from a faction which, though apparently immune to credentialism, is no less caught up in dreams.
Whereas American Jews are, in the main, liberal, the government of Israel has been either “conservative” or a coalition given its direction and limitations by conservatives. Liberals tend to look upon external threats with unusual equanimity, and have little reservation about entering internal quarrels. Indeed, they tend to believe that the synthesis of such dialectics is always benevolent, that greater benefit follows greater trauma as the day follows the night. For them, it is more important to go on record against the principles of “reaction” than it is to look to the practical effects their assertions have upon the strength of a nation. Although in the case of Israel their obliviousness of the external danger comes not from sympathy with the Aral) position, in the American case it comes from sympathy with the tenets of world socialism, and these habits are hard to break.
Thus, for a liberal American Jew, criticizing Israel affords both the satisfaction of conforming to liberal credos by denouncing what he may believe are the fruits of reaction, and the illusion that by doing so he is actually strengthening Israel. Faith in criticism itself, like faith in “change,” or faith in any abstract principle, unadjusted, leads the believer in such things to attack himself, his country, or his people, for he knows them best, and he knows that none is as perfect as a principle.
My analysis and, therefore, my conclusions are simple. One must, without flinching or fear of the truth, put one’s house in order. At the same time, that house must be braced to stand against its enemies. Neither can be done well without the other. In the polarized debate upon this question, neither side is entirely right and neither is entirely wrong, though by mutual opposition each steadily becomes wronger and wronger. One must put one’s house in order not merely for the moral frisson, but also as a means of strengthening its defenses. This ensures that self-criticism does not become self-wounding. And strengthening one’s defenses is not merely an exercise in caution and compulsiveness, but a means to ensure that one is not forced by weakness and expediency to abandon one’s moral principles. For every new tank brigade, an Agranat Commission; for every Agranat Commission, a new tank brigade.
I have believed in the necessity of a Jewish state since the Holocaust. That belief has not changed. Even if anti-Semitism were not as far-flung, and often deep-rooted, as it is, the very least that can be done in the memory of the millions killed because they were Jews is to assure the survival of a land of return for those who are still in peril or in internal exile where they now are.
It is because the future of Israel as a Jewish state is increasingly endangered from within, as well as from outside, that over the years I have become more and more critical of the leadership, Likud and Labor, in Israel.
Apart from ideology and polemics, the objective facts—“facts on the ground,” as Ariel Sharon might say—are quite clear as to the choices ahead for Israel. If the occupied territories remain occupied, at some point early in the next century there will be as many Arabs in Israel and in the occupied territories as Jews. It’s a matter of the birth rate. And while many of the settlers in particular are nurturing large families, the numbers just aren’t there to equal the Arab rate. Aliyah is not, to say the least, a significant factor in these demographics.
Accordingly, Israel—if it keeps the territories—will have several choices. If it annexes the territories and then permits the Palestinians to vote, Israel will have become a binational state.
Or, Israel can deny the vote to most of the burgeoning Arab population. It will then no longer be rhetorical to equate Israel, in some dismaying ways—dismaying to Jews inside as well as outside the country—with South Africa. Or, Israel can keep things as they are, and that is like making two scorpions in a bottle a national emblem.
Or, Israel can decide to leave the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It will hardly be a simple withdrawal, both in terms of the settlers and of large, furious sections of Israeli public opinion. Even more Israelis will be concerned about the dangers of having a Palestinian state so close—whether or not the state is confederated with Jordan.
But the closeness is also an advantage with regard to defense. Given the skills, let alone the seasoned skepticism, of Israeli security forces, it will be exceedingly difficult to conceal weaponry of any consequence in this new state. I am taking it for granted that a condition for the creation of such an entity will be its guarantee that it will be without arms. I am also taking for granted that such a pledge cannot at all be depended on. But Israel’s security can be safeguarded even if—especially if—the Palestinian state is right next to it.
There is no movement, however, toward this way of assuring that Israel will keep on being a Jewish state. To be sure, isolated Israelis (including a few from the Likud) and isolated Palestinians draw up scenarios of separation, but the Likud is adamantly opposed and Shimon Peres expects that King Hussein will be the messiah—the most false of all.
The way things are not going, the way young Israelis appear to be becoming even more implacable about not giving up territory than many of their elders, further puts the Jewish nature of a future Israel in question.
On matters other than its very survival as a Jewish land, Israel has fulfilled many of my hopes for it. For instance, I have seldom found more vigorous, ceaseless, and challenging exchanges of ideas than in Israel. Certainly there is much more of this in Jerusalem than, in my experience, in New York City.
I also had hoped that Israel could have evolved, in its attitude toward the Arabs, more along the lines of Martin Buber and the earliest pioneers and, for that matter, Moshe Dayan on some days. On the other hand, the PLO has hardly made that approach persuasive. Yet while the fears that generate the racism in the schools, for instance, are clear, there is another fear of what kinds of citizens of Israel these new Jews will grow up to be. There has been some effort to go into the schools and remind the students of what stereotyping can lead to, but unless such efforts become more successful, there may well be race wars in the Jewish state. And no matter what happens to the territories, what kind of Jewish state will that be?
Given the all too obvious fact that not all criticism is useful, or intended as such, the upsurge of American Jewish criticism of Israel has been largely to the good. And therefore, largely healthy.
The invasion of Lebanon, for instance, was a disaster—for Israel: the number of dead; the weakening of morale—for the first time—in the armed forces; and the bitterness of the division within the country. Yet during that invasion, nearly all American Jewish organizations, and their leaders, either supported what was going on or were silent, despite grave misgivings by some. That is not likely to happen again if and when Israel manufactures that kind of war. And indeed, the growing degree of American Jewish criticism of Israel is quite probably going to be a deterrent to such self-destructive recklessness.
Nor do I believe the rising criticism is dangerous, even when that criticism may be plain dumb. Lord knows, there is no political monolith there, and all criticism from all sources is weighed, and sometimes assaulted, from many different perspectives.
What does this increasing criticism portend? If it begins to focus on how to keep Israel a Jewish state, it may portend a Jewish Israel, against present odds.
“The normalization of the Jews”—what pleasing images that phrase once evoked: Jews at ease with themselves, not fearful or defensive or self-denying; Jews engaged in all those activities (chicken-raising or land-tilling or country-clubbing) which, for one reason or another, had been alien to them; Jews regarded as individuals rather than as stereotypes. The state of Israel was to have brought about that agreeable condition, for Jews in and out of Israel. Don’t wish too hard for anything lest it come true. Today “normalization” has come to mean prostitutes in Tel Aviv and sabra gangsters in Los Angeles, corrupt Israeli officials and self-seeking politicians, an economy in crisis and a foreign policy in disarray.
It has also come to mean a recrudescence of that exacerbated self-consciousness and guilt-ridden conscience that have plagued the Jews of the Diaspora since the Enlightenment, when we discovered that if we could not be indistinguishable from everyone else, we should at least be better than everyone else. How often have we heard it said—by Jews, rarely by non-Jews—that we must hold ourselves to a “higher standard,” that we must not be parochial, that we must cherish the rights of other minorities as much as, indeed more than, our own rights? Others may properly invoke the principle of self-interest; we can invoke nothing less than the universal interest of mankind. “Is it good for the Jews?”—with what contempt that simple (innocent, some might say) question is greeted by sophisticated, high-minded Jews.
Americans in general, especially sophisticated and high-minded Americans, have a tendency to be moralistic about matters (such as foreign policy) that do not fall comfortably within the domain of morality. And American Jews have that characteristic in double measure. We are quick to criticize the American government when it deviates from the straight and narrow, and quicker still to criticize the Israeli government. Israel, even more than America, must be a “light unto the nations.” And American Jews see it as their painful task to make sure that Israel fulfills that high purpose.
Moreover, that mission, it is assumed, can only be discharged openly and candidly. It is not enough to chastise the Israeli government privately, within the Jewish community or in confidential discourse with Israelis. That would be the easy way, the coward’s way. Morality must not only be served; it must be seen to be served. Anything less would be an abnegation of responsibility—of responsibility to ourselves as well as to the world. Our moral character, it appears, as much as Israel’s, is at stake.
Moralists suffer from a kind of professional deformation: they tend to judge moral issues in terms of their own moral reputation—to be more solicitous of their own integrity, and even more of their respectability, than of the cause they are advocating. Much of the criticism of Israel is of this self-regarding nature, serving no useful purpose except to establish the moral credentials of the critics.
This is of no great consequence when the criticism concerns the internal affairs of Israel: the state of the economy, or the role of religion, or the conflict of parties. But it becomes serious when it impinges on issues that affect the very existence of Israel: military operations, diplomatic negotiations, relations with Arab states, the treatment of terrorists, the status of the West Bank. These are grave and complicated matters to which Israelis, whose lives are at stake, have given much thought and debated at great length, American Jews can pretend to no more understanding, experience, or insight than they. Nor can it be argued that Israelis are inhibited in speaking on such matters; no one has ever accused them of lacking the talent or will for controversy. Everything we have said or can say they have said better, with more knowledge and far more authority.
What American Jews can speak about with knowledge and authority are American national interests, and it is entirely proper for us to criticize Israel from this point of view. What is presumptuous is criticism that professes to address Israeli interests, and that, moreover, claims to do so with some special moral authority—as if contributing to the UJA, or belonging to Hadassah, or simply identifying oneself as a Jew, gives one the right, indeed the duty, to speak out on the most sensitive and difficult issues. It seems to me that the paramount right and duty of the American Jews is precisely not to speak out on such issues, to exercise a discretion and reserve proper to our position. The Law of Return guarantees to every Jew a place in Israel; as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out, if we choose not to avail ourselves of that opportunity, we forfeit the moral right to pass public judgment on matters which for Israelis—but not for us—are questions of life and death.
There are more practical, perhaps more urgent, reasons for reticence: the familiar plea, for example, about not giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Like “Is it good for the Jews?,” this argument is regarded as vulgar and paranoid—as if there were not real enemies out there who are only too willing to exploit disaffection within the American Jewish community. But even if this were not so, even if there were no real and present danger, the moral case for prudence is still compelling.
Am I the only one who is offended by the sight of American professors spending a few weeks (or in rare cases the whole) of their hard-earned four-month vacation in Israel, generally at the expense of the Israeli government (or an Israeli university, which comes to the same thing), and returning to America to denounce as immoral Israeli policies in Lebanon or the West Bank—and to do so with all the confidence of first-hand experience and from the comfortable retreat of their studies? Am I wrong to see this as an egregious case of moral arrogance and obtuseness?
Have my attitudes changed?
As I have grown older I have grown more thankful: for my wife and children, for health, for Jacob’s “bread to eat and clothing to wear,” for America, for Israel.
My gratitude for Israel stops short of a piety that allows even some members of the Israeli parliament itself to keep their sons—no need to mention daughters—sheltered from military service, and a secularism that, nearly 120 years after Baudelaire, allows a poet-professor who has translated Greek tragedy into Hebrew to show the superiority of Hellenism over Hebraism and to continue èpater-ing le bourgeois by writing: “No reason why a restaurant’s menu shouldn’t offer fried baby” and “So I muffed the chance to put my father into the pot of Sabbath stew.”
Let an outsider explain what Jews owe Israel. Toward the end of Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews (1987) he writes:
The building of Israel was the 20th-century equivalent of rebuilding the Temple. Like the Temple under Herod the Great, it had unsatisfactory aspects. But it was there. The very fact that it existed, and could be visited and shared, gave new dimensions to the Diaspora. It was a constant source of concern, sometimes of anxiety, often of pride. Once Israel had been established and proved it could defend and justify itself, no member of the Diaspora ever had to feel ashamed of being a Jew again.
The last clause refers to Jewish self-hate, as in Johnson’s sketch of Walter Lippmann.
Israel is making Jewish self-hate obsolete, everywhere, in the most varied circumstances. In the United States, France, Italy, the Soviet Union—the Soviet Union!—Jews display a self-acceptance unprecedented since we first began to look at ourselves through the eyes of the Other, say two centuries ago. What these diverse and dispersed communities have in common is not American pluralism, it is Israel.
Has Israel fulfilled or disappointed hopes?
If we cannot sustain our exaltation at Jerusalem reunited in 1967 and the Entebbe rescue on the Fourth of July, 1976, neither need we act the ingrate, who asks, “What have you done for me lately?”
The “Jewish problem” that an independent state in the land of Israel was supposed to solve was of two kinds, the problem of the Jews and the problem of Judaism/Jewishness. As to the first, at the very least there now is a country that will take in Jews who have to go there. If only it had existed in the days of the Third Reich!
The problem of Judaism/Jewishness was the one that troubled Ahad Ha’am. He thought the problem would be solved by substituting for the old, moribund Jewish religion a new, vital Hebrew culture. It has not worked out that way. Jewish religion is more alive than all the secularist Jewish ideologies, including Ahad Ha’am’s. The poetry of that patricidal cannibal manqué is not going to replace the prayer book. Israeli secularists are likelier than the more traditionalist to abandon not only Judaism but also Israel.
Hebrew Union College’s school in Jerusalem has provided American Reform with rabbis more learned than most of their predecessors two and three generations ago, when it was said, unkindly, that Reform had social-justice rabbis, and then there were the rabbis who knew Hebrew. (Israel also helps to educate our Orthodox and Conservative rabbinical students.) More generally, Israel has let many modern Jews feel religious emotion again.
The upsurge of criticism?
Let us not be mealy-mouthed. What is at issue is disaffection.
Or call it distance. It goes with the succession of the generations. Though American Jews on average are older than other Americans, by now most of us cannot remember a time when there was no state of Israel. Only today’s gray heads were present at the creation, and only for them can it still partake of the miraculous. Besides, Israelis and American Jews are ancestrally less alike than they used to be. In the past, both mostly had grandparents who spoke Yiddish. The grandparents of most Israelis today spoke Arabic.
There is more, and worse. I was once invited to speak at a synagogue that is near a major university and prides itself on the professors and graduate students it attracts. Among the subjects proposed was “Israel as Task.” Task? They knew that the word connotes difficult or arduous work. Afterward I heard about another congregation, near another major university. Looking for a new rabbi, they turned down one candidate because he had worked for what Washington calls the Israel lobby.
To such people what is wrong with Israel is not that it is too unlike America but that it is too like. America strong-arms the weak and downtrodden, they say, and so does Israel. America elects conservative presidents, and in the past decade Israel has presumed to elect conservative prime ministers. In a graduate school of journalism, the students—not all Jewish, of course—have given Castro a higher popularity rating than Reagan. How would the Jews among them rate Arafat and Shamir?
Gratitude is ruled out. In 1964 Jews voted against Goldwater 9 to 1. Not very conservative, one would think, but before the election a social scientist had become alarmed by what was revealed to him as conservative trends in the Jewish community. Shrewdly putting the blame for such wickedness on our yielding to the temptation of thankfulness, he lectured us on resisting that temptation: “No one should feel the need to be thankful for having available to him whatever one may reasonably expect as a normal right in a decent society.” Anne Frank would then have been all of thirty-five, if she had survived.
As a good radical this man had opposed American entry into World War II, which is to say that he had opposed a necessary condition for the defeat of Hitler. America saved him in spite of himself and made available to him opportunities he could not have reasonably expected, having always denied that America was a decent society. He was and is a professor in yet a third major university. On occasion he still lectures us.
He taught ingratitude to America. If he had turned his attention to Israel, he would correspondingly have had to say something like this: since in a decent society there would have been neither anti-Semitism nor Jewish self-hate, which is merely the anti-Semitism of Jews, no Jew should feel the need to thank Israel for having lifted that curse from us.
The Passover Haggadah tells us that in every generation our enemies attack us in order to put an end to us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from them. May He also save us from ourselves.
If Israel has failed to fulfill the hopes of a vocal segment of American (and other Western) Jewries, it is because these hopes derived from ideals and values detached not merely from Middle Eastern realities, but also from traditional Jewish perspectives.
Many of these Jews envisioned Israel as a secular Western Utopia. It was to be a state in which high culture flourished, one whose glorious literary, scientific, and technological achievements were universally admired. Its social institutions would be of such inventiveness and perfection as to serve as touchstones for the civilized world. Interestingly, even Jewish businessmen with no sympathy for socialism as applied to the U.S. economy felt that justice and equity were bound up with socialist solutions in Israel, the Israeli kibbutz arousing virtually universal pride among American Jews. Needless to say, Israel’s international relations would be marked by a universal amity. The spiritual life of its citizens (religion, of course, being separated from the state) would provide a vague if important underpinning for the society’s lofty ethical culture.
For some Jews, Israel possesses legitimacy only to the extent that it approximates their secularized messianic vision for it. But Middle Eastern realities force Israel into the dirty business of war, counterterrorism, and rule over hostile minorities, make it arms-maker and arms-seller, often to countries which are the target of liberal opprobrium. Increasingly, liberal Jews, i.e., the majority of Jewish leadership, have felt aggrieved by an Israel that, as they see it, has let them down badly. For in the liberal, or, in some cases, “progressive” circles in which they move, Israel, instead of serving as a glamorous and noble extension of the Jewish image they wish to project, has become an embarrassment.
That Israel should let them down has been all the more upsetting because the state once possessed progressive cachet. In 1947 and 1948, the military exploits of the fledgling Jewish state were much admired. After all, even the Soviet Union approved and Czechoslovakia provided critical supplies during the Western arms embargo.
The very fact that Israel, against all expectations, did so well on the battlefield may have reinforced the feeling of Israel’s Diaspora supporters that the state could also readily accomplish the social, cultural, and political goals they had set for it. When inevitably Israel could not do so, and when the tide of opinion within liberal non-Jewish reference groups (in churches, the academy, the media) shifted against Israel, with the PLO now defined not merely as the underdog but progressive, many of Israel’s erstwhile Jewish supporters felt they had been left out on a limb. They saw no way to defend what their allies in their various other progressive causes condemned. Arms to Somoza, for heaven’s sake! Trade with South Africa! It almost seemed as if Israel were engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to discomfit them. For the most left-wing among them, Israel’s flaws loomed large indeed: the state was imperialist and colonialist, nay, racist and fascist.
All this leads to a not uncommon pattern of rationalization. It is not they, say Israel’s one-time supporters, but Israel that has changed, “lost its soul.” Yet most of them still see themselves as committed to Israel’s survival. However, since Israel has fallen short of its stipulated utopian performance, their commitment has become not merely “critical” but conditional, that is, conditional on their playing a decisive role in Israel’s domestic and foreign policy, i.e., what is called “a true partnership.” Thus we find the intrusion of American Jewish interests into Israeli decision-making processes, with the American Jewish Congress’s call for an international peace conference promptly being echoed by other influential Jewish organizations.
In holding Israel to perfectionist standards, secularized Jews come into conflict with what is fundamental to Judaism—its national-religious attachment to the land of Israel. The vision of a perfect society (leaving aside for the moment its historical roots in Jewish messianic conceptions) is universal. But the requirements of statehood inevitably interfere with the abstract model-building such visions encourage. Thus it is not surprising that among an important segment of the leadership of organized Jewry there is a new emphasis on the role of the Diaspora as co-equal with, if not superior to, Israel as a Jewish option. It is precisely the Diaspora’s lack of power that makes it seem morally attractive to many Jews. As the Israeli philosopher Jochanan Bloch has put it: “What [the Jews] always wanted for themselves was to avoid the rough and tumble, the wretchedness and glory, of political life, and to reject sovereignty with its inextricable component of awfulness. . . . [I]n their hearts is the burning belief, which is also the arrogant presumption, that they are entitled to a morally better existence. . . .”
Ironically, to the extent that Jewish values are superficially invoked, it is to use them against Israel. A sizable contingent of Reform and Conservative rabbis develops its moral muscle by flagellating Israel. These rabbis cast themselves as modern exemplars of Judaism’s prophetic tradition, ignoring, even as they exemplify, the talmudic dictum that after the destruction of the Second Temple prophecy ceased, and the empty pretense is continued only by fools and children.
Biblical prophecy, which was rooted in the love of the Jewish people, its law and land, is denatured by these rabbis, and indeed becomes almost indistinguishable from the “prophetic morality” purveyed in the resolutions of organizations like the National Council of Churches. The leaders of the denominational bureaucracies composing that organization also regularly invoke so-called prophetic values in condemning American “imperialism.”
A critical stance shades into an openly adversarial one and erstwhile Jewish supporters internalize large portions of the anti-Israel case. They are particularly vulnerable to those who speak the language of problem-solving and conflict resolution, and come forward with comprehensive strategies for peace. To Jews these possess a seductive magic and their allure becomes well-nigh irresistible when agendas of social and global transformation are presented as Jewish imperatives.
What we have here is a Jewish messianism which does not recognize itself. These are the Jews who are accustomed to using messianism as a scornful epithet for those who invoke historical and religious claims to settle in places like Shiloh, Beth El, and Hebron. But while many settlers in Judea and Samaria believe their return to these areas sets the stage for an eventual messianic era, they are no less driven by a tough-minded appreciation of their country’s geostrategic vulnerability and the nature of the enemies they confront. The secularized utopians here are captives of illusions of perfectibility that have veiled, even as they have produced, some of the great killing grounds of the 20th century.
Rael Jean Isaac:
To me, the changed attitude toward Israel is typified by the Jewish community’s very different response, ten years apart, to two Jewish organizations that publicly attack Israel: Breira in 1977 and New Jewish Agenda today. New Jewish Agenda has gone much farther than Breira, cooperating in activities with the American pro-PLO network. Since I wrote pamphlets (in each case published by Americans for a Safe Israel) on both organizations, I am perhaps specially situated to comment on this phenomenon.
When my pamphlet on Breira was published in 1977 it was only one of a series of “exposes” being published in places as diverse as the Hadassah newsletter, the New York Jewish Week, and COMMENTARY. In the wake of the storm of criticism from the mainstream of the Jewish community, Breira folded. No similar outcry has attended New Jewish Agenda.
To be sure, it has been easier for Jewish organizations to look the other way in the case of Agenda than it was with Breira. Unlike Breira, Agenda in its first years maintained a low profile. Also it concentrated initially on building bridges to the pro-Arab network rather than on establishing itself within the Jewish community. For these reasons Agenda did not attract the attention Breira had drawn in places like the New York Times, making it relatively easy for mainstream Jewish organizations to avoid taking a stand on it.
But by 1987, Agenda had shifted its focus to the Jewish community and was thus harder to ignore. It had been accepted as a member of Jewish community-relations councils in a number of cities; persuaded a wide range of national and local Jewish organizations to join it in sponsoring lectures, conferences, and assorted events; taken the lead in promoting the sanctuary movement within the Jewish community; and, by sending a hand-picked delegation to Nicaragua, whose findings were widely publicized in major newspapers, had defused the charge of Sandinista anti-Semitism (the validity of the charge has been documented in “Sandinista Anti-Semitism and Its Apologists,” by Joshua Muravchik, Susan Alberts, and Antony Korenstein, COMMENTARY, September 1986). It had even moved into Zionist politics, aligning itself with Americans for a Progressive Israel to participate in the World Zionist Congress elections of 1987.
Nonetheless, when my pamphlet exposing New Jewish Agenda’s activities was published in the spring of 1987, to my knowledge, with the single exception of the California Jewish paper Heritage, the Jewish press was as critical of the attack on Agenda as it was of the activities that provoked it. The Washington D.C. Jewish Week published an upbeat five-page spread on the organization (there was even information on how to join the local chapter). The New York Jewish Week, which had been in the forefront in assailing Breira, now openly regretted the role it had taken under its former owner and editor Philip Hochstein. Its article on New Jewish Agenda focused on the organization’s serving as a “bridge” between the Jewish community and the Left.
The reaction of Jewish organizations was equally instructive. While several had helped to distribute the pamphlet on Breira, none was interested in the pamphlet on Agenda. The writer of the article on Agenda in New York’s Jewish Week reported that he asked Jewish organizational officials “in the center” to give their views on New Jewish Agenda. Although this was at a time (September 1987) when many Jewish organizations were rushing to denounce Judge Bork’s Supreme Court candidacy, on a subject appropriate to their ostensible concerns they had nothing to say. The Jewish Week’s writer reported his surprise that the only official from whom he could elicit any comment was from the Anti-Defamation League (the ADL did not think Agenda “speaks for the entire American Jewish community”).
What had happened in the space of ten years? For one thing, Breira had left a legacy. Its very existence dissipated the sense of shock within the Jewish community that previously attended the appearance of an organization of Jews engaged in public attacks upon Israel. Also, Breira had attracted a substantial group of young rabbinically trained Jews who sought positions in Jewish communal organizations partly because they were scornful of the congregational rabbinate and partly because they saw these organizations as having become centers of greater power and influence in Jewish life. Their views were the clichés of the 1960’s, with America seen as imperialist oppressor and Israel as its handmaiden in the Middle East. Ensconced in Jewish organizations and federations, they were prepared to accept Israel—if it transformed its society and policies to accord with their “values.”
The failure to challenge New Jewish Agenda, then, is partly explained by the influence of strategically placed elites in substantial sympathy with its perspective on Israel, But equally important is the transvaluation of liberalism in the larger society, and the apparent determination of the majority of the Jewish community to remain in the liberal camp even if the policies pursued are antithetical to traditional liberalism. To take only the most obvious example, Jewish organizations, in the name of liberal values, once uniformly and vigorously fought quota systems. Today, in the name of liberal values, a number of Jewish organizations endorse them. This is a perverse tribute to the success of the original struggle, which has produced a generation of Jews so secure that they do not even recognize the dangers to their community, and indeed to the larger society, in such a system.
For much of that powerful segment of the Jewish community that identifies itself as liberal, priorities have changed. Israel’s fortunes have taken second place to what have become for many American Jews more burning issues of the day, like abortion rights, school prayer, disarmament, and U.S. disengagement from Central America. It is significant that the articles in the Jewish press on New Jewish Agenda did not exonerate the organization of the charges of anti-Israel activity. Their import was rather that such actions had to be balanced against Agenda’s professed noble mission of “tikkun olam,” perfecting the world. The anti-Israel activism of Agenda members weighs lightly in an evaluation that sees it as just another manifestation of high-mindedness. Indeed there is a tendency for Jewish community leaders to congratulate themselves on having brought forth “such fine and socially committed young people.”
Support within the Jewish community for the policies pressed by New Jewish Agenda and a host of “progressive” organizations has been tempered by concern for their impact upon Israel. Perhaps the major danger Agenda presents is in encouraging Jews to believe that the preservation of an imperfect state of Israel is not an end for which it is worth sacrificing the pursuit of millennial dreams.
H. J. Kaplan:
The premises you set forth are grim, to say the least, and so much at variance with my own sense of the situation that I must wonder whether you are not projecting the views of a small number of professional activists, which normally means a disproportionately large number of utopians, prigs, and nudniks, onto the American Jewish community as a whole. The latter, in my admittedly limited experience of it, strikes me as more complacent than critical at this moment, and too easily inclined to assume that the safety of Israel is henceforth, or at least for the foreseeable future, assured. Such an attitude would in fact account in some measure for the willingness of an increasing number of Jews who have repeatedly demonstrated their loyalty in the past “to criticize Israel’s policies and even Israel itself,” as the symposium statement puts it, but it also suggests (to me) that this would change if the existence of the Jewish state were again perceived, as in 1967 and 1973, to be seriously endangered.
At which time, I can hear you saying, a great deal of damage may have been done. Agreed. Criticism can also be helpful, as COMMENTARY often attests, but your concern presumably goes to something deeper than our approval or disapproval of this or that Israeli policy or party; and with this in mind I propose to answer your questions as directly and personally as they are put.
I feel closer to Israel, naturally enough, for having spent some time and acquired some friends there, but my own attitudes have not essentially changed. And, since these are in no sense remarkable or different from those of the majority of American Jews, we now have a common enterprise, a project, to bind us together; which is what we needed, precisely, if the Diaspora itself were not to disappear.
For the rest, we need agree on little else at the outset. It pleases me, for example, to think that providence had a hand in the creation of Israel and what happened thereafter; but if some of my children, friends, and relatives believe otherwise, that is all right with me. Obviously, we have all reacted and will continue to react in various ways to Israeli institutions and policies, but the enterprise or project to which I refer remains. We call it solidarity—a blanket word. It covers a spectrum of feelings and ideas. But we all know what it means.
Our commitment to Israel is rooted not in our opinions and perceptions, which have changed over the years, but rather in our situation as Jews; and this is true, it seems to me, whether the latter is understood to derive from modern history or from the covenant or both; or even, for that matter, if it is not understood at all but merely felt and asserted: we are a people, this special people, and we intend to survive.
So it’s kinship I’m talking about—our peculiar kind. In my youth, as we emerged from the warm but confining atmosphere of our immigrant families, this was not a respectable idea. Indeed, it was rejected by most of my contemporaries, including myself, as tribal and crude. I embraced it gratefully when Israel was born, and it has informed my attitudes—and not only toward Israel—ever since. This, after all, is what matters most to us when we are young: to learn how to become what we are; and then, later, when we are older, not to forget.
In 1948 I was in Beirut, as it happens, on a diplomatic mission, lunching with Takhieddine, a Druse, the minister of war. Relaxed and merry, since the Lebanese were uninvolved in the unpleasantness south of their border, he got a little drunk and proposed that we take the car and drive over the mountain. Filons sur Damas! I thanked him and told him that I had too much to do that afternoon. But what I had in mind, of course, was that a member of Ben-Gurion’s cabinet bore my surname, and that the Syrians were likely to shoot me or throw me in jail.
Recounting this story to my children, which I probably do too often, I bid them welcome to the contradictions of the Diaspora. We like to think we are free, and we are. But we are also chosen.
So we do not give our support to Israel as a reward for its good behavior, but simply because we are Jews, and all answerable to God together. Happily, the Israelis have built a civil society; they have been decent and effective in the ingathering of the exiles, valorous and skillful in war; and no more incoherent in their economic and social policies than democracies usually are. But what if all this were not the case? Then we would still support them, however critically, because our fate as a people is bound up with theirs.
None of this is meant to deny the importance of the issues that agitate the Israelis and sometimes embitter their dialogue with us. Certain of these, the problem of the territories, for example, or the role of the rabbis, raise the most fateful questions. The fact remains that we must begin by distinguishing between the critics who share our tribal feelings, or at least wish us well, and those who do not. A priori, this settles nothing, since the road to hell is still paved with good intentions, but in politics as in war it is necessary to know where people are coming from and what weapons they have in their hands.
Having grown up without a Jewish education, untouched by Zionism, and (even before World War II) too disillusioned with socialism to share the nascent kibbutz-chic, I saw Israel as a sanctuary for the survivors, essentially, and little more. What actually happened was a divine surprise—not only for me but for the Zionists, the utopians, the religious, and everyone else. To be sure, the messiah has not come, Israel is beset with grave and intractable problems, but to speak of disappointment under the circumstances strikes me as malevolent or impious or both.
The upsurge of criticism is largely related, in my opinion, to the deplorable confusion and self-hatred that have, for reasons too complicated to analyze here, so sickened the American body politic since the Vietnam war. We Jews of the Diaspora tend, notoriously, to be “like other people, only more so,” here as elsewhere. We live, moreover, in close symbiosis with Israel. So the extraordinary mindlessness and moral idiocy that have overcome the American Left do indeed pose a serious threat—to the Jewish state by a sort of contagion and, more importantly, by weakening America’s defenses and its position in the world.
But where is it written that American Jews must always, whatever the consequences, be “like other people, only more so”? Our most obvious interest this time is to be “less so,” before it is too late.
I’d have to say my views on Israel haven’t much changed since 1967 when I volunteered (unsuccessfully) to be of use to the Jewish state. Before then I had a somewhat fuzzy Exodus idea of Israel; afterward I became more serious: destruction is possible, sentimental gestures alone won’t prevent it, we have to be prepared to contribute what we can. What did change was my idea of the enemy.
It took me some time to think this through, but my instincts in the aftermath of the Six-Day War were sure enough. What’s happened, though, is that little by little the attitude of Israel’s enemies has become the conventional wisdom of individuals who do not think of themselves as enemies.
Nowadays Israel, not only the only democracy in the Middle East, as is often said, but the only social democracy, is attacked and reviled as if it had faults more virulent and repugnant than the cruel, vicious tyrannies that surround it.
But it so happens that Israel is the consequence of the only successful national-liberation movement in the 20th century. I mean, it is the only national-liberation movement that did not end up in variations on the experience of Uganda or Indochina. National liberation is the cover for mass murder in Cambodia, for human-wave warfare in Iran, for totalitarian gangsterism in our own hemisphere.
Why, after all this, they blame the Jews, you tell me. Note, however, that with bad ideas as with bad manners, usually one thing leads to another. So you get it on the brain that Israel is supporting racist Dutchmen in South Africa and the next thing you know it follows that Israel must be the cat’s-paw of imperialism in the Middle East. When the Israel Defense Forces arrive at the outskirts of Beirut in pursuit of the PLO which had been terrorizing that city’s citizens, it comes out in the translation that we’re seeing the Warsaw Ghetto uprising all over again, but with the PLO as the Jews.
I’ve noticed that there’s not much you can do about this kind of thinking. So if you ask me whether it’s gotten worse and do I worry about it, I say of course it’s unhealthy and of course it’s bloody dangerous, but looking at it with the long view it isn’t necessarily any worse than it has ever been. Our civilization produces this sort of attitude, along with much else. We’ve been this way a long time, we’ve partaken of our liberal civilization’s insanely tolerant attitude toward the evil that lurks in the other—the regime that does not belong to the liberal democracies’ club, the individual who has not accepted our morality. And I think we are going to stay this way for a while; it’s the way things have been set up.
Israel and the Israelis have gotten more admirable the more I’ve gotten to know their history. To the Exodus type of romance—and by the way, in its essentials the novel was no exaggeration—and to what small measure of religious motivation I may have, I added in years of polemics a deep intellectual respect for a nation and a society able to stand up militarily and politically against aggression. When you think about it, this was one of the main hopes vested in Zionism, the ability to resist. Israel must live because the Jewish people must live and I think most Jews, even those who hold their noses when speaking of the Likud, agree with Raymond Aron’s remark that if Israel were destroyed he would lose his will to live. But this hope for life did not and does not imply that Israel should be solely a refuge for battered Jews; it has also had to be a place that would resist battering. The destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor was as necessary as the hunting down of the Munich killers and the rescue at Entebbe. Israel is a success: by any comparative yardstick a prosperous democracy. I don’t see how you can speak of disappointment, though of course there are those who do.
To the degree that conventional wisdom among our elites remains obsessed with the idea that it’s not okay for liberal democracies to fight and fight and fight in their own defense, Israel will to some extent be isolated and persecuted politically. Israel doesn’t have the luxury of being able to do things by halves. So opinion, whether orchestrated by the barbarian states (it’s worth recalling that the Zionism-is-racism resolution was masterminded by the Soviets), or generated within the liberal democracies, comes down hard. News coverage often will be unfair, but in free societies you can’t hold on to your market, political or economic, by being wrong all the time. So, although the news often sounds awful, you can to some degree count on self-correcting pressures.
I could go on, but I’ll close with this observation on the false issue of dual loyalty. What we are in is the war of liberal civilization against barbarism. Whether I want to be an Israeli or an American is my business, but we are all in the battle against barbarism together. I think that, with due respect to correct etiquette, we all have a duty to criticize one another transnationally when any of us lets down our side in this battle. You would think a civilized community made up of Americans and Britons and Israelis and Frenchmen and Italians would know by definition what those rules of etiquette are, but that it does not is a symptom of what we are talking about here. Taking a look at this problem might be a good way to educate ourselves anew on first principles.
Toward Israel my attitudes cannot be said to have changed much over the course of the last forty years. At times my fears for its future have been greater than at other times, and there have certainly been periods of irritation with one or another of its political leaders. But in no fundamental sense have my attitudes been changed by the history of the state. There was never a time when I believed that Israel was destined to achieve a perfect society or an ideal political order. I have therefore suffered no disappointments on that score. The most I ever hoped for—given the way the world was going, it seemed to me a good deal—was that Israel, while providing a homeland and a haven for those Jews who wished or needed to live out their lives there, would at the same time establish and maintain a system of government that met the highest standards of Western democracy. In both of these respects—as a homeland for the Jews and as a Western democracy—Israel has, in my view, amply and honorably fulfilled its mission in the world. It has done so, moreover, in the face of the gravest and most unremitting threats to its very existence—threats in every case posed by the enemies of democracy. We, as Jews, know the blessings that democracy has brought us, and it has been immensely gratifying to see those blessings firmly established in the political life of Israel. Global history since the end of World War II has seen nothing to parallel this remarkable triumph of a fledgling democracy under siege. It is an extraordinary achievement, and one doesn’t have to be Jewish, I think, to feel a deep sense of identification and pride with it. But, alas, one does have to be a true believer in democracy.
That there has been an “upsurge of Jewish criticism of Israel” is unquestionably true. A part of this criticism—a very small part, I am afraid—may actually be taken to be a tribute to what is perceived to be the vitality of Israel’s democratic institutions. It is criticism made in the belief that Israel is now a society so deeply rooted in its democratic traditions that it is capable of profiting from the kind of debate that it is perfectly proper for a democracy and its friends to carry on about its policies. But as friends of this particular democracy, we know that much of the new-style criticism now directed at Israel does not answer to this description—that it derives, in fact, from a certain kind of hostility to democracy itself.
It is my impression, anyway, that this criticism derives—directly or indirectly—from the political culture of the international Left. It is based on, among other things, that lethal combination of guilt, fear, cynicism, and sentimentality toward the Third World that is now one of the most destructive and disabling forces in world affairs—destructive and disabling, that is, to the democracies. (It is a boon, of course, to totalitarianism.) As a model of post-colonial democratic government, Israel is a standing reproach to the ongoing political debacle of the Third World. That isn’t the only reason Israel has become a target of the international Left, but it is one of the primary reasons.
Can the recent upsurge in Jewish criticism of Israel really be separated from this Left-inspired campaign to discredit the state and question its very right to exist? I am not sure that it can. No doubt other factors are involved, but this seems to me the principal one. In the United States, the collapse of the liberal Center in American political life—and most especially, the virtual disappearance of liberal anti-Communism as an article of mainstream political belief—has had disastrous consequences for Israel. But then, it has had disastrous consequences for the United States and its role in world affairs, and there is an obvious connection between these two developments.
For the eruption of criticism that began to be directed against Israel in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon was a virtual replica of the kind of criticism that erupted in this country—against this country—during the war in Vietnam. In both cases it was criticism based on a desire to see the forces representing democracy go down to defeat. It was criticism designed to deny the democracies their political and moral legitimacy. That Jews now play a prominent role in this criticism of Israel should therefore come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the role of American liberals in leading the anti-American campaign that came out of the war in Vietnam.
This suggests to me that it may be fruitless to attempt to conduct an inquiry into the criticism of Israel by American Jews in isolation from an inquiry into the relation that now obtains between American Jews and the political culture of the international Left. Difficult and painful as it is for a Jew to have to raise such a question, the question must nonetheless be asked: why is it that so many American Jews in the media, in the academy, in the social agencies, and in the literary and cultural world have committed themselves to supporting an ideological objective that, if it were ever to be realized on their own home ground, would almost certainly bring about their destruction? If we were in possession of an answer to that question, we would be a lot closer to explaining why so many Jews have joined in the criticism of Israel with so much enthusiasm.
I am pro-Israel not only because it is a decent, civilized country that is a fine addition to our Western civilization—there have not been many such additions since World War II—but because it is today, after the Holocaust, the sheet anchor of the Jewish people. Except among the very Orthodox, it is the existence of the nation and the state of Israel, more than anything else, that today connects young Jews all over the world with one another, with their common past, and with a sense of a common future. Under modern circumstances, a self-sustaining Jewish Diaspora is a highly problematic prospect.
But what does it mean to be “pro-Israel”? It certainly does not mean being uncritical of the Israeli government’s policies in the areas of economics, religion, or foreign affairs. Just as being “pro-American” is consistent with explicit discontent over American policies, or even over many aspects of American life, so being “pro-Israel” is consistent with a similar discontent. Essential to any such distinction between “pro” and “anti” is not one’s critical posture but the point of departure for such criticism. I am “pro-American” because I like this country just as it is, because I think this is a good country just as it is, a good society just as it is—even though I can think of all sorts of ways by which it could become better. I am “pro-Israel” for exactly the same reasons. The fact that one can so easily imagine a better nation is, in either case, irrelevant. People who permit such imaginings to dominate their thinking are in the grip of a political delusion. Similarly, Americans or Israelis who are hypercritical of their countries while pompously proclaiming their loyalty to an ideal version are in fact “anti.” Authentic loyalty is to one’s incarnate country—as to one’s incarnate husband or wife—not to some ideal version.
The most viciously anti-Israel Jews I know are all Israelis (just as the most bitterly anti-Americans I know are Americans). They are, as it happens, left-wing Israelis and this is no accident. Political utopianism used to be as characteristic of the Right as of the Left, but ever since World War II it is overwhelmingly a left-wing phenomenon. To be left-wing these days means to be contemptuous of Western societies, with their emphasis on individual liberty and material prosperity—“consumerism,” as it is called—and of Western civilization itself. Left-wing “idealism” is, as it always has been, collectivist and egalitarian. It therefore is sympathetic to, or at the very least indulgent of, collectivist regimes that are ideologically hostile to free-market economies and are also ideologically egalitarian (though in actuality nothing of the sort). True, the type of left-wing regime epitomized by the Soviet Union is by now so discredited that many on the Left feel free to call themselves “anti-Communist.” But they keep hoping against hope that newer, “socialist” models of their ideal will be more acceptable. At the very least, they insist on being anti-capitalist, and are therefore hostile to the liberal societies which always are, to a substantial degree, based on a market economy.
In Israel, as in the United States, it is among the Jewish “intellectuals” that one finds the most vociferous and unrestrained “anti” sentiments. Some of the Israelis are disillusioned and embittered Zionists cherishing the original socialist-Zionist vision of a nation that would also be an egalitarian community. Enchanted by such a fantasy, they are repelled by the reality of modern, urban Israeli society and of an Israeli government whose foreign policy is shaped by the necessities of realpolitik. But most are simply modishly left-wing, which is also the case with so many Jewish intellectuals in the United States. Among these American Jewish (along with many non-Jewish) intellectuals, the fact that Israel is a loyal ally of the United States is, by itself, sufficient grounds for disaffection.
Within American Jewry as a whole, however, the situation is more complex. Most American Jews are pro-Israel without qualification, letting their instinctive wisdom guide them. But then there is what is called “the American Jewish community,” i.e., the 10 percent or so who are active in Jewish organizations of one kind or another, and who feel compelled to temper their natural pro-Israel sympathies with a more “sophisticated” critical stance. The compulsion flows from the professionals who staff these Jewish organizations. They are overwhelmingly liberal—which means they are hypersensitive to criticism from the Left. They are identical, in their basic political attitude, with their confreres who staff the American Civil Liberties Union, the United Nations Association, various “public-interest” law firms, and who are consumer activists, environmentalists, feminist activists, etc.
All the major Jewish organizations are effectively controlled by these “new-class” types. The businessmen and lawyers who supposedly “govern” these organizations may be conservative or far more moderate in their liberalism, but they are nonideological men and women who are quite impotent when confronted with the ideological professionals they theoretically supervise. Ronald Reagan received approximately one-third of the Jewish vote in 1984, but no major Jewish organization makes a serious effort to reflect this portion of the Jewish political spectrum.
In short and in sum, the emergence of anti-Israel sentiment within the “American Jewish community” has nothing whatsoever to do with what is happening in Israel. It is part and parcel of the same phenomenon which has produced anti-Israel sentiments in all the socialist parties of Western Europe, once a bastion of pro-Israel feeling. Forced to choose between an actual Israel, a Western democracy populated by real (and hence imperfect) Jews, on the one hand, and utopian hopes (mainly focused today on the Third World) for “social justice” and a “new social order” on the other, the Left in all countries (including Israel itself!) has opted for the latter. American liberalism, which has been moving steadily Left over the last fifteen years—Senator McGovern’s capture of the Democratic party in 1972 was the watershed—mainly reflects this new ideological orientation. So, to a significant degree, does the “Jewish community.”
I start with the Holocaust as the shattering event of the century—and not only of Jewish history within it. It didn’t in itself create the state of Israel, which has its own immediate historical context. But in the longer perspective of history Israel as a lively, functioning entity is the great responsive event to that shattering one. That was why I joined with Hillel Kook (then Peter Bergson) and his unlikely band of Palestinian Jews in their desperate effort, from late 1941 on, to enlist world opinion for the rescue of the Jews of Europe.
Some of my friends were shocked at my consorting with a maverick huddle of Jabotinsky adherents whom they saw as “right-wing nationalists,” even “fascists.” I gave no heed to them. This was the only fighting show in town in that bleak time, and we were battering ourselves against the cold indifference of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the State Department. Later, when the new state of Israel was fighting for recognition, I felt I belonged with the Labor Zionists who were doing much of the hard work of settlement.
In both cases the fate of my people was too overwhelming a stake to allow the luxury of factional loyalties. It was a time to go with the organism—and the organism was the assertion of life welling up responsively in the form of a new state constructed as an answer to death. It was a case of survival straining to create the conditions of flourishing.
If the first twenty years were a Golden Age, the second were an Iron Age—which is still continuing. I don’t share the feeling of some American intellectuals that it is a deterioration story, the result of some mysterious “inner corruption” of the Israeli leaders and people. This has been one of the traps of history and its contradictions; exactly because Israel was hailed as a symbol of deliverance, it has been weighted down with a double standard which denies it the right we accord to other nations, to cope with old and new injustices and with multiple enemies in a harsh age. We must scorn this corrosive wreath of guilt which some commentators have lifted from their own conscience and placed around the heads of the Israelis.
The late 1960’s, the flowering of the antiwar culture in America, were also the time of Israel’s resounding triumph in the 1967 war. That proved the dividing line for Israel’s political culture and its belief system. When the letdown came in the 1970’s, and especially with the blunder of the 1982 war in Lebanon, the young Israeli intellectuals developed, out of their own crisis of conscience, some of the same alienations that they had observed in their American models earlier. The scarring fact was the political and moral confusion left by the war in Lebanon, and the need to police a hostile Palestinian population who are today in Israel but not of it. It has left the Israelis with a less confident assurance than earlier of the essential rightness of their cause.
Yet this doesn’t shake me as it does some others. It isn’t that the Israelis as a besieged nation—one I feel close to—are beyond my judgment. All of us have learned to be critical of the America we are part of. Yet in both instances I don’t embrace a double standard on the theory that we must be more exacting toward a nation we invest with a superior moral mission. That way lies a confusion of both language and thought.
Israel is a developing nation, with a tiny population to draw upon for its necessary elites of leadership. Yet it doesn’t enclose itself in the isolation of a Masada fortress. It is at the vortex of life, “normalizing” itself by sharing with others the turmoil of nationhood in a polarized great-powers world, striving to stay abreast of high technology without losing wholly the animating force of a land of pioneers.
It also shares the fate of others in its shifting demographics which strain its continuing sense of identity. The demographic shift toward the Sephardis, mainly from the Orient, has ended the sway of secular socialism and replaced it with religion and traditional values. This change has been met with dismay by some Israeli writers who regard it as ushering in an era of distorted purposes and diminished values. They miss the complexity of the swirling currents of change. David Ben-Gurion noted long ago that Israel is a state but not yet fully a nation in its consciousness. From my conversations over the years with him, however, I suspect he would not cast a cold eye on the energies of the newcomers, and would see their fruitfulness for the future.
In my own intellectual journey the two paths—of my American and my Jewish consciousness—have converged on a tangled thicket of traditions, myths, and contradictions which enclose both America and Israel. The dangers in America lie in losing a true Jewish identity without discovering a true American one, and wandering between two fragmented selfhoods. I have come to understand that all along they have not been separate paths for me but polar aspects of a single journey—and that the polarities have been within myself. Israel, with its existence and survival, has made it more possible for me to fuse them.
Life is harder and more dangerous in Israel than in America. But in Israel, given the historic entanglement of the Jews in the world’s moral and creative life, the danger and hardship have meaning as a response to both nihilism and annihilation.
We sometimes ignore the fact that Israel is not only the first Jewish state of our modern times but—if it fails or is driven into the sea—it will also be the last. It carries a weighty, even a sacred, freightage that will always contain me within it.
Edward N. Luttwak:
My response is in answer to your third question only. At a time of worldwide disenchantment with would-be rational public systems (states, institutions, corporations), when Americans are skeptical of the future of the United States, Frenchmen are rueful about France, Germans are famously pessimistic about Germany, hitherto self-celebrating Soviet and Chinese regimes catalog their inadequacies, Arabs despair about Arabdom, and more of the same is heard from Argentina to Zambia, it is not surprising that Israel too is in a season of internal and external criticism.
But because ignorance plays such a large role in American Jewish conceptions of Israel, the worldwide mood has a particularly strong effect. In the past, ignorance gave much scope for benevolent myths, à la Leon Uris. At present, ignorance gives as much scope for malevolent myths.
To begin with the seemingly trivial: Jews known to me who travel widely overseas do not travel to Israel because they imagine that it is vulgar in the familiar lower-middle-class style, “like Miami Beach.” Some who do eventually get there report with every evidence of surprise that “Jerusalem is really beautiful,” or that the country is actually Mediterranean in character, not at all like the Catskills or Dade County. Thus even the simplest kind of tourist information that is commonplace among non-Jewish Europeans (Israel is expensive, it attracts the St. Moritz-Cannes crowd, not package tourists) has not reached seemingly well-informed American Jews. Only about a third of all American Jews have ever been there, of course.
But it is political provincialism that Americans are famous for. Jews known to me who are active in Washington foreign-policy circles speak of Meir Kahane (the “Kahane phenomenon” they would say) in a manner that can be explained only by their ignorance of the implications of a proportional-representation system. They have obviously never reflected on who might sit in the U.S. Congress if an Israeli-type electoral system were instituted over here—say, 100-150 white supremacists, black separatists, radical environmentalists, Communists, Puerto Rican separatists, etc. What would that tell us about the United States? Only that it had adopted a proportional-representation system.
What is true is that Israel participates in the worldwide disenchantment with would-be rational public systems, which induces many to retreat into private life, or more noticeably to embrace integral religiosity (“fundamentalism” in American terms). At a time when Protestants (not only here), many Catholics, more Muslims, and even some of the tranquil Buddhists are deserting urbane and ceremonial religion for fervent, absolutist affirmations of one sort or another, the Jews too are part of the herd—with today’s Orthodox slipping into yesterday’s ultra-Orthodox forms, while the latter in turn slide into extremist militancy. As often before, the Jews are much less different than their enemies imagine, or they themselves believe.
American political provincialism is accentuated when it comes to political violence. Americans are the most blasé of peoples about criminal violence, and perhaps the most naive about political violence overseas, forever confusing bloodthirsty revolutionaries with reformers-in-arms, professionalized gunmen with believers-in-arms, and so on. Thus Jews known to me who claim political sophistication nevertheless accept at face value newspaper headlines of the “Palestinian-schoolgirl-shot-by-Israeli-settler” type. They do not imagine that in a struggle against inhibited occupiers young girls are the specifically chosen victims, just as they do not comprehend what is meant by the words “rock-throwing” and “barricade” in the text. The notion that the recent Gaza Strip shootings, for example, resulted from prepared ambushes, where cars are first blocked and then attacked in deadly fashion by dozens or hundreds of (female) stone-throwers, has apparently never occurred to them. They are shocked by the suggestion that they too might shoot in similar circumstances.
But American Jews do not shoot, of course. Retaining attitudes toward arms and the armed forces of all nations that miraculously preserve intact the fears evoked in their great-grandparents by czarist conscription and czarist Cossacks, they detest all that is military. Intellectually, so to speak, American Jews realize that the Jews of Israel have been engaged in an armed struggle for survival. Emotionally, they continue to resist its implications. Hence the widespread banal confusion between the Israeli reality of a heavily militarized garrison state and the fantasy of a “militaristic” Israel. That the adjective defines nonfunctional intrusions of military values into civilian society, whereas the distinguishing characteristic of Israeli militarization is its strictly functional character, are facts that may be understood intellectually but are not absorbed emotionally.
Finally, there is the effect of discordant Israeli voices in influencing American Jewish attitudes. The Jews are an ancient people but their state-political (i.e., responsible-for-consequences) culture is very immature. Not surprisingly, the response of many Israelis to many contingencies is hysterical. Such chronic exaggeration is often accepted at face value over here, so that negative caricatures of Israeli reality are often imported from Israel itself.
Michael A. Meyer:
It has always seemed to me that the attitude of “critic,” when assumed by American Jews toward the state of Israel, is fundamentally wrong. For critics, whether of politics or the arts, necessarily assume an unengaged posture that makes possible the degree of objectivity their task requires. The motion-picture critic has no role or stake in the film he is watching. His task is to pass judgment. Only a Jew utterly lacking in Jewish commitment can be a critic of Israel in that sense.
But other stances are problematic as well. One that troubles me as much as that of the uncommitted critic is the wholly apathetic attitude taken from outside the circle of debate. If the Lebanon war increased the ranks of critics, perhaps even more it multiplied the number of Jews who ceased to care about Israel because they could not identify with the values of its current leadership. Critics at least studied the issues; these others simply withdrew.
On the opposite side, of course, there remain the unquestioning supporters of Israel who will defend the state’s policies whatever they may be, who bridle at any questioning of Israeli conduct. They hasten to expose such questioning on the part of Christians as veiled anti-Semitism, on the part of Jews as masked self-hatred. In their eyes it is the role of American Jews to support, not to propose; to follow plans laid down in Jerusalem, not to help shape them.
For the past thirty years, since I first studied in Israel as an undergraduate in 1957, I have tried to avoid falling into the ranks of the critics, the disenchanted, or the knee-jerk yea-sayers. I grew up in a Reform congregation whose rabbi was a leading American Zionist. From him I received an idealized picture of the Return to Zion, the fructification of the land, the building of a Jewish state and society. After a year in the country, I returned both disabused of my naiveté and with much closer emotional ties to Israel than I had believed possible. After that, sitting on the sidelines was no longer an option. So seriously did I now take Zionism that, paradoxically, I was for a long time unable to call myself a Zionist. I accepted David Ben-Gurion’s assertion that the term applied only to those who had gone on aliyah or were about to pack their bags. Only in 1975, when the United Nations General Assembly alleged that Zionism was a form of racism, did I decide that even though in all likelihood I would make my life in America, it was now imperative for Jews to display their Zionism defiantly. I have not ceased to do so, but it is a Zionism with its own liberal program within the larger organizational Zionist framework.
In the early 70’s I joined an organization called Breira (“choice”), which argued for alternatives to Israeli political and military policies following the Six-Day War. In retrospect, its platform, adopted in the winter of 1977, was not at all extreme. Its most controversial point called for Israeli recognition of the Palestinians’ right to national self-determination, but it also called for Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within secure borders. Although similar positions were adopted then and later by Israeli doves both outside and within the Israeli establishment, a hail of criticism rained down on Breira. It had dared to challenge the consensus of unquestioning support for Israeli policy. It was viewed as dangerous to the state, and its members were sometimes prevented from publicly presenting their positions to fellow Jews.
I am still persuaded that most of those who joined Breira were neither wrongheaded nor naive. They possessed a commitment to Israel as strong as—and sometimes stronger than—that of their traducers. If they erred, it was in failing to point out strongly and frequently enough their affirmations about Israel along with their proposals for change. That made them sometimes seem (and a few indeed were) unappreciative and detached critics. Yet fears they would do damage to the image of Israel among non-Jews and weaken Israel’s political position proved greatly exaggerated. By the end of the 70’s the organization had died, having neither achieved the goals of its leaders nor realized the fears of its opponents.
In the last decade American Jewish leadership has taken more independent stances on Israeli policy and been more ready to use its influence. It has not hesitated to espouse the views of individuals and factions in Israel other than those currently in power. Within the American Jewish community there has been more freedom of debate. And Israel’s position in the centers of American power has not suffered.
What has been a bit worrisome is the appearance of op-ed articles in the general press loudly proclaiming Jewish loyalty to America while denigrating Israeli achievements—as if American Jewry and American Jewish creativity required parading Americanism and demeaning Israeli academic and cultural institutions. Yet from my vantage point the fearful and defensive voices appear isolated. The recent large vote for delegates to the World Zionist Congress is surely a sign that Zionist commitment and appreciation of Israel’s importance remain vibrant.
I must admit that I have been pained by a number of Israeli actions and inactions during the last decade. I still believe that the right stance for American Jews is to speak their minds freely on Israel, to one another and to the Israelis. I am also convinced that it must be done not as armchair critics but as fellow performers on the stage of contemporary Jewish history, where Israel is central but American Jewry plays a significant and integrated role. Danger arises for Israel when too many American Jews just sit in the audience.
Of course Israel has disappointed a lot of hopes. But it has fulfilled others. Our son has served his term in the Israeli army and settled on the second Reform kibbutz, Lotan, in the Negev desert. For him Israel represents a personal fulfillment impossible elsewhere. For myself, I shall continue to have my own hopes for Israel: for a secure state that combines values drawn from Jewish tradition with the democratic heritage of the West. And from my corner of the stage I shall press for their realization.
As the fortieth anniversary of Israeli independence approaches, Zionism itself remains unfulfilled. Its hopes, no less than its security, must not be endangered.
Canadian and American Jews remain Zionists in affirming that the Jews are a people, one people; that the Jews constitute a political, not solely a religious, entity; and that the state of Israel forms not merely another nation but the Jewish state. The prevailing consensus leaves slight space for the anti-Zionist positions that a secular state violates Judaism or that statehood betrays Jews’ universalist mission, and in an age of many commitments in the global village, no one is afraid of the charge of dual loyalty any more. The state of Israel, the centerpiece of Zionism, moreover, defines one important concern for American and Canadian Jewry.
We do, however, sense a sea change nowadays. Relationships between American Jewry and the state of Israel, once marked by our submission to their dictates, have so changed that, in not a few aspects of shared discourse, we take the unfamiliar role of the self-confident party and they the equally strange role of the uncomfortable one. We are telling them precisely what we think, even when they do not want to hear it, and, after decades of manipulating us, they do not like the worm’s turning, not one bit. That represents a change in our sense of ourselves, and therein lies a shift, also, now clearly perceived in our attitudes toward the state of Israel. We remain Zionists, but we also affirm who we are, which is Jews of a different kind from those who correctly see “being Jewish” as being state-builders and Jewish citizens of a Jewish state. We remain Zionists, but we continue to affirm where we are, which is in the diverse societies of America and Canada. And we recognize a new age in the history of the Jewish people, Israel, but we affirm when we are, which is in the age at hand, long prior to the coming of the messiah, and not in a messianic age in which the eschatological ingathering of the exiles will take place and a totally-other, new epoch in the history of holy Israel, the Jewish people, will begin.
So we say yes to being Jewish and in political loyalty something more, which is American or Canadian. We say yes to living here, and not in the state of Israel. And we say, even, yes to the age of history in which we find ourselves, the continuing age of exile from redemption, which has not yet happened. These represent considerable differences in perception, and if our vision of the realities of the hour for Israelis causes vertigo, well, their vision makes us dizzy too.
But insofar as the state of Israel made promises to the Jewish people, I think it has more than kept the promises that ordinary people, in an unredeemed world, doing only what a person can do, can keep. The Jewish problem of homelessness has been solved. The Jewish problem of political impotence has been solved. We Jews can now act together and with effect, through powerful institutions, the single most effective organized ethnic-religious community in this country, and the state of Israel has taught lessons to Jews throughout the world on how to become a political entity of power and effect. The Jewish problem of cultural confusion has been solved, for a centerpiece of common concern shared by nearly all Jews throughout the world focuses discourse on common questions of meaning and purpose. We may not find compelling what happens to Jews in Sydney or Cape Town, and they may not care what is going on in Providence. But all of us share concern for Jerusalem, and, through Jerusalem, for one another too.
In the context of complete success in achieving precisely the goals that Zionism set forth to accomplish and did gain in the creation of the state of Israel, Jews rightly define for themselves new goals, and that accounts for criticism of the state of Israel, its policies in particular, but also its character as a country and a society. That criticism forms a healthy response not to Israeli failure but success. What people set out to do they have now done. But life goes on, and people now discover the one enormous flaw inherent in success: there really is a tomorrow. The state of Israel solved the Jewish problems that Zionism identified. But the Zionist theory of Israel, both the world-people and also the particular state, has not kept pace. While American Jews can explain to themselves who they are, where they are, and when they are, their counterparts in the state of Israel find considerable difficulty in framing an equivalent account of themselves—or of us.
They said they would build a home and a refuge and they have. But they also claimed it would form the spiritual center of world Jewry, and it does not cannot, and will not. The issues of its national life realized in education and culture and scholarship prove remote from the issues of our national life, as these come to concrete expression in our education, culture, and scholarship. What about the spiritual center in Jewish scholarship? Alas, in Jewish learning, to us they appear mere collectors and arrangers of facts, asking no important questions, proposing no interesting hypotheses, with nothing much at stake in whether or not they are right. Dull-witted, narrow-minded, uneducated, and therefore also brutish, they can learn nothing from us, and we, little from them beyond the facts they witlessly celebrate. Above all, they had in mind a “normal” state, only to find that no state is “normal,” and all nations have problems. So Zionism through the state of Israel was going to mark the end of history as Jews had known it and the beginning of a new age in history. But it is only a fresh chapter in a story that has no end in sight. What criticism on the part of Jews in the Golah represents therefore is three things:
First, our affirmation that we count too.
Second, our contention that we are not second-class citizens in a world in which to be Israeli is the normal way to be a Jew but to be a Jewish American/American Jew is the abnormal way.
And third, our quite reasonable expectation that our opinions will register too.
That is not to say we who do not pay taxes, serve in the army, make our careers, and live out our lives in the state of Israel should stand in judgment of those who do. It is only to say that, if we are a people, one people, and if the state of Israel is the Jewish state, and we are and it is, then we too expect a hearing for our views. And we are not going to apologize for being who we are, living when we do, and also taking pride in our own country. Nor would Israelis want otherwise for us but what they have for themselves, with their well-justified pride in being who they are, where they are, and when they are. For we share, with them and because of their achievements as much as ours, one of the great ages of the life of Israel, the Jewish people.
Though I never have been a Zionist, I feel even more strongly today than in the past few decades about the need to support Israel—because of the mounting criticism by people who obviously know better than any Israeli government what is best for Israel, for its relation to America, and its relation to the entire Middle East. By support I do not mean blind support; obviously, enlightened Jews and non-Jews are bound to be aware that Israel’s beleaguered state raises many difficult—some seemingly insoluble—questions about its relation to the Arabs, to other countries, and to its very survival.
Still, I do not recall any other instance of political chutzpah in giving lessons to another country on how to conduct its affairs. Israeli citizens who criticize the policies of their government are at least part of its fate—and committed to its defense. But some of the American critics, to borrow a figure of speech from James Joyce, act as though they are forging the uncreated conscience of the Israeli.
Within the realm of the possible—to use Aristotle’s criterion—I believe Israel has done as well as it could, against almost insuperable odds, in satisfying the expectations of those who feel the Jews should have a homeland. After the Holocaust, this vision of their own nation gained considerable moral force. But if we are to judge Israel by utopian standards—that is, by impossible ones, as much of the current criticism does—then, of course, Israel will be found to fall short of ideal behavior. Common sense alone, however, without being obscured by high-minded political theory, should tell us that a tiny country, besieged by its Arab neighbors and by hostile world opinion, cannot outdo every other country in the world in moral impeccability. You cannot build an ideal democracy, with an unassailable foreign policy, in one country, and a small and militarily vulnerable one to boot. Nor am I impressed by the stand of those Jews who argue that Israel has to be better than any other country. This opens the back door to hostile criticism, if not to inverted anti-Semitism. Have not the Jews earned the right to be like anyone else?
There is too little recognition by the growing criticism of Israel of the terrible, almost insoluble, dilemmas Israel is trapped in. Some of the criticism, however, does point to a few of the moral and political predicaments that are now the subject of internal debate in Israel. No doubt, the rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank clouds the future of Israel. But it is not clear whether Israel simply can leave the West Bank without sacrificing its security, if not its very existence. Israel is also accused, with some justice, of dealing in trade and weapons with right-wing governments—something other countries do regularly. But what choice does Israel have in the face of sanctions against it by so many other nations? In general, there is a double standard in judging the behavior of Israel. Sometimes, it appears as though democratic Israel is being treated as if it were a right-wing dictatorship.
One has to ask why Israel is subjected to this one-sided and widespread criticism by Jews, although some of it is well-intentioned, as well as by anti-Semites and political extremists of all kinds. In my opinion, the reasons are embedded in the larger political history of our time. Clearly it is more than a Jewish question. However mistaken Israeli policies might be, they are not the cause. Often they are used as pretexts or justifications. When Menachem Begin was prime minister, Israel was said to be under the evil spell of “Beginism,” though this sloganized disapproval has disappeared now that Shimon Peres is seen to have not very different views on many major issues.
The persistent faulting of Israel comes from the Right and the Left. There is the traditional anti-Semitism of the Right, which after the Holocaust had to mute its feelings, but now that liberals and leftists have joined the critical chorus, it is emboldened again to make public its true feelings. And there is a disillusionment with Israel now to be found on the Left. Some of it also reflects a sympathy for the Arabs, who appear to have taken the place of the proletariat in the Middle East. Much of it also seems to be a hangover from the earlier internationalist spirit of socialism, that was opposed to nationalist concerns. (I myself remember that when I was a Marxist briefly in the 30’s, I believed the Jewish question was just part of the larger human question and could not be solved on its own.) But then why is Israel singled out?
My own sense of the situation is that the critical tide is part of a large political movement of ideas that prescribes certain attitudes on a variety of questions, including the existence and the policies of the state of Israel. But why this is so is an even more complex question—too complex to discuss here.
Whatever else he did, Menachem Begin caused widespread emotional turbulence during his years of leadership, 1977-83. American politicians, media, and opinion polls vacillated wildly on the subject of Israel. Along with everyone else, I felt exhilarated when Sadat traveled to Jerusalem, dismayed at the drawn-out negotiations that followed, pleased when the peace treaty was signed, and troubled by the 1982 war. And there were dozens of other issues too, from the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor to the West Bank settlements policy to the high inflation to the treatment of religious matters.
Even though most issues confronting Israel today remain quite unchanged, the Israeli roller coaster has, mercifully, been more level since 1983. Shamir is not Begin, Pollard is not Sabra and Shatila, and the much-discussed peace conference is not Camp David. Too, external factors have changed: Lebanon no longer excites opinion and the Iraq-Iran war now overshadows Israel’s conflict with the Arabs. The calming of Israeli politics permits one to view the country with more equanimity and more distance. It’s a well-deserved rest.
When considering Israel’s achievements, one has to begin by recalling that its heroic era is over. Making the desert bloom, building a state, and achieving military miracles all belong to the past. And so too national consensus: unity of spirit and purpose was easy when the threat was immediate. But now the external threat is less deadly, or at least less palpable; it has come to resemble the distant and complex sort of danger that the USSR poses to the United States. As the threat becomes less immediate, the divisions in Israeli society emerge and are vented. Accordingly, Israel offers a far less inspiring picture than it did in the past.
The end of the heroic age in fact marks a great achievement; the country no longer lives at danger’s edge. Even more than the whores and pickpockets hoped for by Ben-Gurion, the fractious quality of Israel’s life symbolizes its transition to a normal society. Superficially, Israel disappoints; a more profound interpretation reveals that it has traversed much of the ground to maturity.
Likewise, the upsurge in criticism by American Jews of Israel reflects this maturation. In the old days, the Diaspora had to provide steady and almost unquestioning support for Israel, otherwise the whole enterprise was imperiled. Today, Israel’s need for help has diminished. American Jews matter less, so they stray. Again, if not inspiring, this change reflects healthy developments.
This said, there is something distasteful about American Jews publicly going after Israel. I suspect, perhaps unfairly, that they thrill to the man-bites-dog quality of their actions.
How should they act, then, when they object to Israeli state policies? To formulate a code of conduct, it helps to ponder the proper behavior of the democratic citizen abroad. What should an American who disagrees with his government do when traveling, broadcast all his criticisms or pull his punches? Usually, the latter, for there is something undignified and confusing about airing every difference of opinion before outsiders. Some issues, of course, transcend this rule and require open, even vociferous, dissent, but these occur rarely in a democracy.
Mutatis mutandis, the same applies to Israel and American Jews. The relationship calls for discretion and a clear appreciation of the ways in which one’s words can be misused. Different rules govern debate on the floor of the Knesset and in the American press. Even if this leads to the occasional charge of hypocrisy, the distinction is worth maintaining. This does not mean that American Jews should pretend to support what they do not agree with, but that their public criticism of Israel requires caution, tact, and thoughtfulness.
I recall the birth of the state of Israel and my first visit there in 1951. Unquestionably, I do not have quite the same emotions toward Israel that I felt then. For one, the miraculous emergence of a Jewish state very shortly after we had learned of the murder of six million Jews while the world stood by, indifferent, evoked a sense of joy which cannot be duplicated. Secondly, in the early years of its existence, Israel was a Spartan nation led by pioneers who set for themselves uniquely high moral standards.
Fortunately, anti-Semitism is no longer a mainstream phenomenon in the Western world, and Diaspora Jews no longer feel physically threatened. At the same time, Israel has become a “normal” society with its share of problems: its moral standards cannot be what they were when the country was populated by Zionist idealists. For all my sentimental and intellectual attachment to the Jewish state, therefore, I no longer feel quite the same concern and pride in it that I had felt thirty or forty years ago. This is natural: today we confront not a hope born of desperation, but a living reality.
Israel seems to me to have fulfilled the hopes placed in it in the following respects: (1) it has made good on the Zionist promise to provide a homeland for all Jews who desire to come; (2) it defends the interests of Jewish minorities in the Diaspora wherever they are threatened; (3) it has established a democratic regime in a region where such a phenomenon is all but unknown and provided its citizens with social services beyond anything seen in the Third World.
My personal disappointment with Israel has been due to the following: (1) Israel has acquired some of the uglier features of American materialism: at times I have the feeling that Israelis aspire to nothing loftier than creating a second California; (2) Israel’s youth has largely lost the intellectual curiosity and cosmopolitanism that distinguish Diaspora Jews: its mental horizons seem very circumscribed; and (3) I find that Israelis have inherited and even developed what is perhaps the least attractive feature of the Jewish national character, namely tactlessness, of which they give evidence in some of their political as well as personal behavior.
On balance, the positive achievements of Israel solidly outweigh its failings. For this reason, I have little patience with Jewish carping about Israel. It is not that I object to foreign Jews criticizing this or that policy of the Jewish state in the creation and development of which they have played and continue to play a crucial role. What annoys me is the tacit assumption that Israel must be flawless and judged by standards applied to no other society. During the past two millennia Jewish communities have, indeed, maintained exceptionally high moral standards. But the standards of a minority living in the midst and under the protection of non-Jews clearly cannot be applied to a Jewish majority running a sovereign state in a messy world of other sovereign states.
I may also add that I sometimes have the impression that some non-Israeli Jews fear that the actions of the Israeli government may embarrass them and stimulate anti-Semitism. This was the case during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon which aroused great antagonism in the world. Whatever the merits of this particular military operation, it is difficult to sympathize with those Diaspora Jews who condemned it or who criticize other actions of Israel out of concern for their own status.
I was born eleven weeks after Israel was born. We have grown up together, with Israel always central to my Jewish identity.
When Life magazine featured “Israel’s Bar Mitzvah” on its cover, I remember feeling as if Life were announcing my bar mitzvah, too.
During the Six-Day War, I walked to my college classes with a radio next to my ear. I took my first trip to Israel three weeks later—a trip that for a Hebrew-speaking, nineteen-year-old Jew with a Jewish day-school education and a Zionist camping background was overwhelming. I had always been in love with the fantasy of Israel. I then fell in love with Israel itself during those days of my own youthful romanticism and Israel’s own youthful and romantic days of 1967.
I just knew I would go on aliyah. But I never did. Instead, I visited Israel almost every other year.
Today, as Israel and I approach our fortieth birthdays, I am not the romantic I was, and Israel is not the romantic country that it was in July 1967. The romance ended abruptly on Yom Kippur 1973.
I have always believed in both Isaiah and the Israel Defense Forces. I feel estranged from Jews who constantly invoke Isaiah but who maintain that military might pollutes—even though military might liberated Auschwitz and preserves the Jewish state.
And I feel estranged from Jews who want Israel to be a nation like any other, rejecting any notion that Israel ought to be a “light unto the nations.”
I have never shared in the euphoria over Jewish possession of Judea and Samaria with their million non-Jewish inhabitants. Being able to settle in Jericho or visit Rachel’s Tomb have always excited me less than building a strong, moral, modern, Jewish (religious but not theocratic) state. My dream is still an Israel that waters deserts, uses Jewish minds to conquer diseases, brings Judaism to Jewish communities throughout the world, and attempts to apply Judaism to humanity generally. The last thing Israel has needed is having to serve as an occupying power over civilians or, even worse, having to choose between democracy and a Jewish state, a choice that, pace Meir Kahane, is not necessary—though it would become so if Judea, Samaria, and Gaza were annexed.
But since Israel is obsessed with occupation, demography, a secular-religious split, and of course with sheer physical survival, in one way my “attitudes toward Israel have changed in recent years.” I no longer realistically see Israel as embarking any time soon on a mission to realize Isaiah’s dream that “From Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem.” I now see Israel “merely” as a haven for oppressed Jews, the best guarantor of the Jewish people’s security, the primary source of world Jewry’s dignity and most Jews’ Jewish identity, and the restorer of most Jews’ faith after the Holocaust.
Moreover, it is foolish to hold Israel responsible for not being more preoccupied with prophetic concerns. The occupation, to cite one example, was forced upon Israel, not sought by it—a fact that Israel’s “prophetic” critics often ignore. Second, the change in my perception of Israel may simply be my own maturing about what a Jewish state can realistically achieve. Third, to the extent that prophetic dreams for Israel are valid, their non-realization is at least as much my responsibility for having not gone on aliyah as it is Israel’s. Finally, all Jews are responsible for “the word of God” not going forth from Jerusalem. Secular Jews do not believe in a word of God, and the religious are so preoccupied with either Judea and Samaria or with Halakhah that they say nothing to the world.
Therefore, when discussing Jewish criticisms of Israel, it is important to recognize the influence that Jews’ dreams for Israel have on their perceptions of Israel. Much Jewish criticism of Israel emanates not from real failings, but from Israel’s failure to live up to its idealized image in the Jewish mind. Critics on the religious Right compare Israel unfavorably to their dream of a halakhic state, and critics on the Left compare Israel unfavorably to their dream of a prophetic state.
As long as the critic is guided by common sense, a healthy awareness of Israel’s isolation, and a profound sense of humility as an outsider whose children do not have to pay the price of flawed advice, Jews should be able to speak as freely about Israel as they do about any other topic of Jewish concern.
But there need to be some guidelines.
- The critic must honestly ask himself why he is offering public criticism of Israel. Is it because there is no constructive alternative—such as through Jewish channels—or is it to garner attention for himself or his organization? It is, after all, very hard to deny oneself the opportunity to get published on the New York Times op-ed page.
- Can the criticism have an adverse effect on Israel? The overwhelming and united American Jewish support of Israel has been a major factor in the equally overwhelming support for Israel among American political leaders. If the former is perceived as weakening, the latter will inevitably weaken.
- Will it actually have any influence on Israeli policies—or is the organization playing to its own constituents? It is hard to believe that the Israeli government is more likely to welcome an international peace conference that includes the Soviet Union because an American Jewish organization has called upon it to do so. But the attention paid to the call may help that organization with its membership.
Israel does not usually benefit from public criticism by American Jews. First, Israel already receives an abundance of criticism from non-Jewish organizations—the New York Times, the news-weeklies, the networks, and the academic world. Second, Israel already hears any criticisms that we could make—from Israelis. It is not as if the American Jewish Congress is going to illuminate some area that somehow has eluded Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Israeli radio and television, not to mention the political opposition.
To my mind, there are far more important tasks for American Jewish organizations with regard to Israel.
There is a danger that Israel will loom less and less significant in the lives of American Jews. American Jewish organizations need first and foremost to work on American Jews. It is glamorous, and sometimes urgent, to work in international affairs and to be received at the White House. But fewer and fewer American Jews care about Israel or even about being Jewish. These facts are more important for Israel’s future welfare than any other single issue in American Jewish life.
The next time an American Jewish organization criticizes Israel, ask it how many members it has, how many of them are under forty (or even fifty), and if it does any work whatsoever in keeping American Jews Jewish. Such concerns, it seems to me, are more important to the raison d’être and credibility of American Jewish organizations—not to mention to Israel’s own security—than their stand on an international peace conference or on the rioting in Gaza.
It is often not a question of whether “Israel has fulfilled or disappointed the hopes vested in it,” but whether some of those hopes were unrealistic to begin with.
I am personally more comfortable than I was a quarter of a century ago when so many Israelis of my acquaintance were wearing their Isaiah on their sleeves. The burden of many Israeli parlor discussions was how to avoid becoming “just another Levantine nation”; how to meet David Ben-Gurion’s call for “the creation of a model society which could become a light unto the nations”; how to become a qualitative Jewish state.
Today there is a broader acceptance among Israelis that their political state primarily exists for the protection and satisfaction of its own citizens. This does not deny a certain special responsibility to Jews everywhere, or the need to be bound by those civilized values which Judaism seeded. But Israel is a Jewish state mainly because most of its citizens are Jews, and because it has created a home for homeless Jews. That is the major expectation, difficult enough, against which Israel is to be measured.
Many American Jews lag behind Israelis in understanding this limited mandate. There is an upsurge of American Jewish criticism of Israel, and some of it is couched as disappointment that Israel has not proved altogether virtuous.
That was, of course, a utopian expectation. It is enough that under the circumstances, in its treatment of Arabs, in its policies generally, the state of Israel has behaved overall in at least as enlightened a fashion as any other political state in history.
In some Israeli and American Jewish circles, there was also an extravagant hope that Israeli and American Jewry would become bonded as one in religious, cultural, and tribal affinity. That hope has been largely disappointed, even though the state of Israel and its culture have been a major source of some considerable American Jewish renascence.
Among younger American Jews, by and large, emotional ties to Israel are growing thinner for reasons which go much deeper than whether Israel’s “light unto the nations” may have seemed to dim on occasion.
Never traditional Zionists, most American Jews strongly supported the state of Israel as a response to the Holocaust. That was the foundation; pride in the Israeli miracle, and the panache it bestowed on American Jewry, were emotional superstructure. And many American Jews dreamily expected Israel to remain the culturally compatible homeland-away-from-home which they never had.
But Israel is its own land, and another land. There have necessarily emerged major ethnic and religious strains foreign to American Jews. And more basically, no way has been found to bridge the different life experiences of most Israeli and American Jewish youth.
The physical and social distance from Israel, and the distance from the experiences of the 1940’s, rather than specific criticism of Israeli “faults,” created that gap, which will not in the foreseeable future interfere with strong political support for Israel’s survival although it may have other negative implications for American Jewry. But as far as “disappointment” is concerned, the emotional and cultural “gap” might well have been expected at the outset.
My own chief disappointment is that the state of Israel has not presciently enough addressed one of its survival problems. I know that the core of that problem is Arab intransigence, and am under no illusion that the amelioration of the Palestinian Arab/West Bank/Gaza situation would soften the general Arab desire to wipe out Israel. But my hindsight perception, confirmed by recent events, is that Israeli politicians have not moved as boldly and inventively as they might have to divest themselves safely of that perilous land-and-population yoke.
Just as disturbing in itself is one root cause of that perceived delinquency. Most American Jews appreciate the religious cast of the Israeli culture, and do not expect church-state separation, but they are repelled by the narrow sectarian religious lock on Israeli politics.
The apparently increasing political influence of such sectarianism—of “religious extremism,” in the terms in which the sociologist Charles Liebman has defined it—is by all odds the major source of active disappointment about Israel among American Jews. Not only are they excluded by such religious extremism but, reared in American pragmatism, they see it as wantonly self-destructive. This development in Israel is understandably the major target of increasing American Jewish criticism.
In general, however, too much has been made of American Jewish criticism. Foolish or not so foolish, criticisms of internal Israeli life, or of perceived moral lapses by Israel, are not politically “dangerous” on the general American scene because they are usually matters of indifference to non-Jews. American Jewish criticism of Israeli foreign-policy strategy, no secret to American policy-makers, is not “dangerous” as long as those policy-makers are effectively reminded that such criticism is bounded by an unabated Jewish commitment to Israel’s survival and America’s support.
Much more dangerous to Israel is any political support some Jews may give to American isolationist or withdrawal tendencies, even if Israel is not mentioned. If clearly not on that track, American Jewish criticism is probably more often healthy than not.
Such criticism, if Israelis respond to it, could possibly help to create some real connections of the kind which are now missing. As least, that could be the case if American Jews would free themselves of the clutter of unrealistic and utopian expectations with which they have been burdened.
Eugene V. Rostow:
Are American Jews really disaffected with Israel? Surely many criticize Israeli policies with zest and sometimes with bitterness. But outspoken opinions, fair, unfair, and outrageous, have always been the intellectual fashion among the Jews. That individualism is sometimes expressed extravagantly is a small price to pay for a transcendent virtue.
For all their criticisms of Israel, however, American Jews, like other Americans, rally to Israel’s support with increasing solidarity. Despite a steady diet of alarums and excursions, the political, economic, and military policies of the American government, the import of American elections, and every American public-opinion poll show the same pattern of closer and more harmonious cooperation between Israel and the United States. Episodes like the Pollard case and the Iran-contra affair occur and generate anxiety and friction. Then they fade away.
I shall confine my comments here to the aspect of the outcry against Israel with which I am most familiar—the charge that Israeli “intransigence” has prevented peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. On the face of it, the accusation is absurd. But it is repeated daily in many forms and is therefore of genuine political importance. Since it is pressed most vehemently by people who sympathize with Third World “liberation” movements, it has special resonance among those in the West, including many American Jews, who consider themselves to belong to the “Left,” however that slippery word is defined.
The claim that Israel is responsible for the absence of peace in the area has hardly changed in substance since 1921, when the Mandate for Palestine was established on Turkish territory by the authority of the victorious allies, accepted by Turkey, and confirmed by the League of Nations. Under the Mandate, the Jewish people had the right to settle in the entire area of the Mandate: that is, in what is now Jordan, Israel, and the territories in dispute between them, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Over vehement protests, that right was suspended by the British for the area of Palestine east of the Jordan, but is otherwise intact, and is still formally guaranteed by Article 80 of the United Nations Charter.
From the beginning, except for the Hashemites, the Arabs rejected the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland in Palestine as beyond the powers of the allies and the League, and have waged war against the Mandate and later the state of Israel with varying degrees of intensity ever since. Since the early 50’s, the Soviet Union has exploited Arab hostility to the existence of Israel as an instrument for driving Britain, France, and the United States out of the Middle East and outflanking Western Europe from the south.
After each episode of open warfare in this prolonged struggle, the Security Council of the United Nations and the diplomacy of the Western powers have sought to persuade or cajole the Arab states to make peace with Israel. Egypt aside, these efforts have failed thus far.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which calls on the parties to make peace in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from some of the territories it occupied in the course of the Six-Day War to “secure and recognized boundaries,” which would be established by agreement and could be different from the demarcation lines of the armistice agreements of 1949. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the provisions of Resolution 242 were made legally binding and direct negotiations were required by Security Council Resolution 338. Since Israel has already returned the Sinai, which is over 90 percent of the territory it occupied in 1967, a settlement with Jordan could satisfy Resolution 242 legally if it transferred all or some or none of the West Bank to Jordanian sovereignty. The politics of the problem is a different matter, although Jordan’s attempt to annex the area in 1951 was not generally recognized.
Resolution 242 has not yet changed the pattern of diplomacy, save for Egypt. The Arabs endlessly demand that Israel retreat at least to the armistice lines without peace; Israel demands an agreement of peace before territorial questions can be settled. Thus one initiative after another is frustrated on the same issue.
The current round in this convoluted diplomacy concerns King Hussein’s initiative for making peace in the setting of an international conference convened to implement Resolutions 242 and 338. Published reports raise serious questions about whether Hussein’s effort is genuine.
The reports allege that in 1986 Jordan agreed with Syria and the Soviet Union that while Jordanian representatives could meet secretly with Israelis, as they always have done, there would be no Jordanian negotiations with Israel except in an international conference which included Syria and the Soviet Union; that Jordan would not agree to a territorial settlement based on any deviation from the 1967 armistice lines favorable to Israel; and in any event would not make peace at all unless a comparable agreement was made between Syria and Israel. Newspaper accounts of this agreement appeared in the Middle East press, but were not given much prominence. Jordan has never denied that the agreement was made.
It is easy to understand why King Hussein might well have made such an agreement, which would repudiate Resolution 242 root and branch. No party in Israel could accept an agreement based on such terms, which would divide Jerusalem, return the Golan Heights to Syria, and deny any territorial change in the West Bank. As a result, Jordan and Israel would be left with the status quo, which is moderately comfortable for both countries—decidedly more comfortable than any peace likely to emerge in the present atmosphere. The scenario would result, however, in Israel, or more particularly the Likud party, being blamed for refusing to make peace. Continuing what is in effect a Jordanian-Israeli condominium in the West Bank would reduce the risk of assassination for King Hussein and spare Israel a wrenching debate on territorial questions. While it is nearly inconceivable that Shimon Peres has in fact condoned the Jordanian move, he is being accused of having done so. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that King Hussein would have taken so momentous a step without Peres’s acquiescence.
Whether the story turns out to be literally true, the deal it contemplates is implicit in the situation, taking into account Syrian and Soviet policy and the vulnerability of Jordan. It would make a charade of the peace process, split Israeli politics disastrously, and constitute an important defeat for the United States.
There is only one crumb of consolation in the sad story of the Arab-Israeli peace process thus far. It should convince the most zealous and Left-leaning American Jews that the blame for the failure to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors, other than Egypt, rests exactly where it has been since the beginning: on the Arab rejection of the Jewish homeland and now the Jewish state in the Turkish territories which were made the Palestine Mandate after World War I.
When I was in Israel nearly five years ago, determined to assess the prophecies of apocalypse that had proliferated after the Lebanon war, nothing was more shocking than the clarity of certain facts. There were plenty of grand theories which imagined the entire conflict as an opposition of symmetrical vices and virtues. There were even fulsome metaphors of Belfast and South Africa and Nazi Germany drifting in the air like mist and clinging to every analysis. Meanwhile, though, the facts seemed unnoticed, sharply puncturing the ideological landscape.
What was one to make, for example, of the enormous television antennas that rose above the homes in Arab towns and villages in the West Bank shaped precisely like Eiffel Towers, each more ornate than the next? Or of the traffic congestion in these same small towns caused by groaning cranes and construction equipment—used not for the notorious settlements, but for Arab villas and buildings, arising with the confidence of continued prosperity?
Why, too, was there so much caution, fear, and anger in the eyes of some Arabs in East Jerusalem, Nablus, and Jericho as they spoke of their passionate rejection of the PLO, and so much relief as they mentioned the then-recent Lebanese war? And why did these voices never seem to find their way into the newspapers?
Finally, what was to be made of that awesomely saccharine poster hanging above a red velvet chair in the home of the deposed Arab mayor of Hebron, showing a barefoot young girl in a nightgown standing in a plastic meadow and gazing sweetly at a plastic moon? Did it have any relation to the sweet ingenuous history of the Hebron Arabs that the former mayor presented to his guests along with the plums and spiced coffee?
So great was the disparity between the received versions of West Bank political and cultural life and such piquant facts facing the observer, that it seemed as if some master illusionist had created a diversion, distracting attention from the material world as ideology was pulled out of a worn hat. It is common now in academic circles to speak about “discourse” and its hegemony, the way in which speech about an object defines it, limits it, and asserts power over it. The critical discourse about Israel—which has grown in expanse and confidence since I sojourned there—has actually come into such power. Try asserting in politically mixed company that the Palestinian Arabs are not a people in the same way the Jews are a people. The very sentence becomes a badge of crudity, a violation of manners rather than a historical appraisal worth discussion.
The critical discourse about Israel attains some of its power by asserting a sort of universal symmetry, thus simplifying analyses. There are two peoples, each of whom has erred, each of whom has equivalent claims and similar goals, now locked in a tragic embrace. These tendentious symmetries, curiously, patronize the Arabs by asserting that their culture is no different from ours; but in recompense, they become heirs to a mirror history of the Jews, proudly writing about their own Diaspora, establishing an Arab Anti-Defamation League and a United Palestinian Appeal. Particularity and detail are swallowed by the “hegemony” of this discourse, which aims, ultimately, to swallow the individuality of the Jewish state as well.
And, in fact, these models have even been adopted by large numbers of Israelis beset by anxiety and uncertainty. Only historical accident separates the occupied territories from the state on the other side of the “Green Line.” If the Jew is an oppressor in Hebron, why is he not an oppressor in Jaffa and Jerusalem? If the December riots in Gaza proved—as was asserted on the front pages of the New York Times—that Palestinian nationalism must be accommodated by Israel, then why should not any of the other intense and violent reactions against the state be taken as proof of Israel’s ignominy? What is at stake is not just contemporary behavior, but the history and foundation of Israel itself. In this view, Israel was born out of need, but also out of injustice, and original sin is bound to haunt it until expiated.
What makes this Israeli anxiety so haunting is that the legitimacy of Zionism itself is at issue. Once upon a time, Zionism dreamed not just of an ordinary state, but of a new world, inspired by socialist ideals and spiced with utopianism. But this mythic past and imagined future have been supplanted by the sorry present, and isn’t that proof enough of Zionism’s failure? A state exists, but it is no better than it is. So the partisan intellectual battles of fifty years ago, when the hopes first developed, return to plague the real problems of today with a vengeance. All hopes are dashed. Who hoped for automobile exhaust in Jerusalem, or for incessant military service, or inefficient government? Who hoped for battles over Hebron or conflicts over Jewish Orthodoxy? Who hoped, that is, for anything real?
And so we find the disillusion of the Jew, marked by remorse and ideology and apocalypse. Here, in the United States, he knows he bears an allegiance to Israel, but that allegiance is qualified by a multitude of dissatisfactions. The support the country once received was an easy one: it was grounded in the spotlessly superior record of a certified victim as well as in notions of regional strategic importance. But for the critics, the first is soiled and the second under attack, so what ground is there for support? The appeal can only be to the mere fact of Jewish identity, something that might even resemble nationalism. Nationalism, though, with its declaration of self-interest, leaves a bad taste. Israel fighting in self-defense is fine, but Israel fighting for a mode of existence, a type of government, even for a country that is no more than merely Jewish and somehow less than sublime? There are few American intellectuals who would be tempted to argue such a position for the United States, let alone for a country to which loyalties must be secondary.
Of course some American Jewish criticism is quite sincere: some would have to be, for there is no lack of problems in Israel for a concerned outsider to address in a spirit of understanding. But it is lost amid the swirl of self-righteousness, anger, ideology, resentment of things lost, and relief at the prospect, finally, of ceasing to struggle. This pose takes pride in going against the grain, as if such criticism were a burden to be borne like the words of the Prophets. But it is less a burden borne than a burden lifted. The masks of strenuous advocacy can be removed, those of virtue and pained wisdom taking their place. True criticism is far more difficult, and far less “virtuous.”
Jonathan D. Sarna:
The Israel of American Jews—the Israel that they imagined in their minds, dreamed about, and wrote about—was for well over a century a mythical Israel, an Israel that revealed more about American Jewish ideals than about Israeli realities. Contemporary criticisms of Israel, as I understand them, have far more to do with the shattering of these myths than with the “various traditions of opposition to Zionism” suggested in the symposium statement. A brief excursion back into history explains why.
In the early 19th century, American Jews depicted Israel as a “holy” land, a land where desperately poor and scrupulously faithful Jews engaged in prayer and study; a land, in short, where the material life, values, and practices of Jews were precisely the reverse of American Jews’ own. Later in the century, alongside this image, a new one arose: the image of the bold desert pioneer, the hard-working agricultural colonist, the brawny Jewish farmer—the answer, in other words, to those who claimed that Jews were merely parasites, racially incapable of “productive” labor. Finally, in the 20th century, Zionists like Louis D. Brandeis added a further twist to this image: Israel became for them an extension of the American dream, a Jewish refuge where freedom, liberty, and social justice would reign supreme, an “outpost of democracy” that American Jews could legitimately, proudly, and patriotically champion.
All of these images, whatever truth they may have contained, took on mythic proportions in America. They embodied American Jews’ hopes and fantasies, responded to their psychological and emotional needs, and helped them to counter the malicious slurs of their enemies. Many American Jews, especially after the creation of the state in 1948, began to look upon Israel as an embryonic heaven on earth. It became for them what the Soviet “socialist paradise” had been for some of their parents: a kind of Jewish Utopia, a place where their fondest hopes and dreams might be realized.
The wonder is not so much that these dreams were eventually punctured as that they lasted as long as they did. Why they lasted, even in the face of countervailing realities, cannot be explored here; the point is that they persisted until quite recently. Now events have jarred American Jews out of their dream world, puncturing the various myths that I have described. In response, some have exchanged their utopian myths for demonic ones, an immature but hardly unprecedented response to disappointment. But for the most part, American Jewish criticism of the state of Israel does not seem to me (in the editors’ words) to be “open,” “widespread,” and “bitter.” Steven M. Cohen’s 1986 Survey of American Jewish Attitudes Toward Israel and Israelis finds, to the contrary, that “most” American Jews continue to “proclaim a deep sentimental attachment to the country and a concern for its survival.” Still, I would concede that American Jews are now both more critical of Israel than before and more willing to legitimate criticism of it. It is against this background that I respond to COMMENTARY’s specific questions.\
My own attitudes toward Israel have indeed changed in recent years, for the very reasons that I have described. Having spent a recent sabbatical in Israel, and several summers there before that, I think I now have a far more realistic picture of the country and its problems than I once did. Rather than projecting my own hopes and fantasies onto Israel, I now see it as it is: a young, developing, and internally divided state beset by serious social, religious, political, and economic problems. Some of these problems are not being addressed at all; others, in my opinion, are being addressed poorly. I see Israel standing at a critical historical junction, and I am far from certain that it will follow what I consider to be the right path.
But whatever path Israel follows, I must emphasize that my attachments to it will remain unchanged, for they are basically familial ones. Israelis, indeed a whole range of Israelis, form part of my mishpoche, literally and figuratively. I may not always agree with them, but I do always love them.
As I indicated, many of the hopes and dreams of Israel’s supporters appear to me to have been unrealistic and utopian—no more realizable than the starry-eyed visions some Jewish immigrants brought with them when they sailed into Ellis Island. Such dreams, in the final analysis, tell us far more about those who do the dreaming than those who are dreamed-about. Disappointments could have been anticipated. Having said this, one should by no means overlook Israel’s astonishing accomplishments. Somehow, despite all the many problems that we may now acknowledge, its cities boom and its deserts bloom. One need only visit Israel’s neighbors, say Egypt or Lebanon, to realize how remarkable the Zionist achievement has been.
To my mind, the more important question is not whether Israel has fulfilled or disappointed our hopes, but whether it has fulfilled its own. The state of Israel, according to its 1948 Declaration of Independence, “. . . will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; [and] it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.” These goals, as anyone who has ever lived in Israel knows, have yet to be met. Some of Israel’s leaders seem quite determined to make sure that they never will be.
In trying to evaluate recent criticisms of Israel by American Jews, I have been greatly influenced by the words of Rabbi Jonathan in the talmudic tractate of Tamid (28a): “He who reproves his neighbor with pure intent [‘in the name of heaven’] is worthy of a portion from God.” Criticism, Rabbi Jonathan implies, must be carefully evaluated: much depends on the motives of the critic.
The unworthy critics today are easy to find: their shrill voices are neither moderated by love nor tinged with sadness. The worthy critics are more scarce. Alive to Israel as it really is, their words mingle praise and reproof. They speak softly, almost fearfully, and always in pain. In this, Israel’s fortieth year, I shall strain my ears to hear them better.
COMMENTARY’s first question prompts a recognition that I have experienced a diminution of dread over Israel’s survival, as well as a diminution of distress over developments that cause Israel adverse publicity. Israel’s military strength and favorable developments in the Arab world seem to point the way to survival. The Arab states seek unity to heal the rifts brought about by the Iran-Iraq war, but their restoration of relations with Egypt appears to signal not the old resolve to destroy Israel, but a promising acceptance of the one state among them to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. The recent demonstrations and riots in Gaza and the West Bank have brought the Palestinian question to the fore as Israel’s greatest problem. On the other hand, though it is said that the growing Israeli Arab population threatens the continuance of a Jewish state, the two populations have remained stable relative to one another and there is reason to believe that they will continue to do so.
Adverse publicity about Israel in America has been largely offset by a significant change in the terms of discussion. Thanks to an emphasis on the argument that Israel is America’s one dependable ally in the Middle East, Israel is no longer the ward whose protection was urged on Americans as a moral responsibility. From this point of view, Israel’s involvement in the Iran-contra arms deal showed it to be the one country America could turn to for guidance through the maze of Middle Eastern intrigue. And if Israel failed, it was because of a similar lack of affinity for the game. More than ever, therefore, American public opinion views Israel not only as an ally but as an outpost of its own civilization. In this light even the killings at Sabra and Shatila, misreported as they were so as to cast a portion of the guilt on Israel, may not have hurt it in the long run. For in the context of subsequent Arab terrorism in Lebanon, the worst accusations against Israel appeared as possible temporary exceptions on Israel’s part to the norms of Western behavior, in contrast to a rule of terroristic behavior on the part of the Arabs. Thus the American press, by worrying over Israeli morality while accepting Arab brutalities as givens, left a more favorable impression of Israel than many of its members intended.
From the millennialist point of view, Israel has undoubtedly disappointed the high hopes vested in it, not only in Lebanon but more recently in the Pollard spy affair. But here again the loss of high moral status attendant on taking a hard-headed military action, and being mistrustful and perhaps overly self-protective in spying on an ally, have also had beneficial as well as negative effects. Both incidents tended to transform the country from a morally wearying special case to an ordinary member of the comity of (imperfect) nations. In a similar way, the length of the dispute over Israeli territory has presented a parallel with challenges to their sovereignty sustained by other nations. It may be that every nation in the world contains territory once taken by force and still claimed by the defeated—as, for example, American Indian lands. At one or another level of consciousness, all the world knows that no nation can fully justify either its sovereignty or all of its past actions. Israel has been singular in having been founded in equity and the nearly universal will of all nations. But now, having shouldered the inevitable guilts of nationhood, it has in effect finally joined the club of nations.
Sigmund Freud thought that the source of anti-Semitism lay in the Jews’ refusal to acknowledge guilt as part of their religion. There lay a primal crime somewhere in man’s prehistory, he believed. Christianity had found a way of expiating this crime through the doctrine of original sin. Christianity’s charge that the Jews killed God was partly an expression of resentment at the absence of a similar confession of guilt in Judaism. Freud evidently aimed to help free the Jews from anti-Semitism by persuading them to accept a comparable original sin: the killing of Moses (which Freud conjectured). Israel may be said to have had a status among the nations similar to that of the Jews among the Christians: it could regard its founding as innocent where they could not so regard their own. Now events, combined with biased reporting, seem to have given Israel a perhaps necessary modicum of guilt as a nation.
The diminished regard for Israel on the part of American Jews who profess themselves dismayed by its human imperfections seems less a revival of the old traditions of opposition than part of a concurrent decline in regard for American and Western values. The canard that Israel acts as an outpost of Western imperialism actually touches on its genuine role as a transmitter of those values. Until there comes a frank renewal of regard for them, therefore, attitudes toward Israel will continue to be at best vitiated. It is in this sense that the fate of Israel is linked to America. For allegiance to America proves to be a prerequisite to support for Israel, a country that resembles it in fundamental ways—not the least of which is the shared experience of going from a millennial outlook while a young nation to a less fervent and self-congratulatory, albeit still idealistic, national maturity. Oddly enough, then, one feels about the growing criticism of Israel by American Jews that it represents more of a problem for them as Americans than it does a threat to Israel.
The variety and intensity of the criticisms of Israel suggest that they are of several types: one type, apparently motivated by geopolitical ambitions, is a calculated attempt to delegitimate Israel and erode its political support. Another, apparently motivated by moral expectations, is directed at improving the character of the Israeli state and society.
The geopolitical criticism dates from the Soviet Union’s decision in 1954 to shift its strategy of penetration in the Middle East away from support of Israel to political backing and arms supply for Israel’s adversaries, especially Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. As part of that shift, two themes emerged in Soviet propaganda.
The first was that Israel had been misperceived as vulnerable; it should truly be seen as a powerful instrumentality of an imperial Western outreach. The image, sketched in bold relief after the defeat of the Arab aggression of 1967, was of an aggressor Goliath against Third World victims.
The second theme of Soviet propaganda was that the view of Israel as a democratic, even pioneering, “socialist” country was outmoded. In corrected perspective, Israel was a neocolonial outpost, and hence a tool of repression against a Third World people. This portrait was accentuated in the 1960’s with the adoption of the new persona of “the Palestinians.”
Although at first these themes were confined to the Soviet press and forums of the far Left, they subsequently became the accepted truth of the United Nations. And after 1967, they gained currency in the media of Western Europe. More recently, they have become a focus for American discussions of Israel and have found a political base in the left wing of the Democratic party (at present, even in the spotlight of electoral politics, anti-Israel views can be expressed in the Democratic party political process, as long as they are joined by an explicit disavowal of anti-Semitism). These two themes have helped to define the vocabulary and to set the agenda of Western political discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The genesis and goals of the second species of criticism are very different. The genre of Diaspora criticism, developed from classic Zionist paradigms of almost a century ago, is directed toward improving the society of the land of Israel, and there is usually an objective basis and a measure of validity for each of the criticisms. Among most of these critics there is as well support for Israel’s security interests and an awareness of the Arab threat.
Some groups who appreciate Israel’s desire for peace have urged that unilateral Israeli initiatives toward one or another of the coalition of Arab belligerents could be a means of inducing negotiations. This shifts the focus of the agenda, however, away from the continuing Soviet escalation of the level of Arab arms supply or the persistent Arab refusal to recognize and negotiate with Israel toward a debate on Israel’s responsibility for new initiatives. One result of such a debate is to reinforce the image of Israel as a new Goliath.
Similarly, groups concerned about the future of Israeli democracy have argued that there is a negative impact on that democracy in the need for long-term administration of the Arab populations of the districts of Gaza, Judea, and Samaria. This concern has bred the hope that Israeli moves toward unilateral withdrawal could catalyze a negotiating process. Yet to focus the agenda of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations on an Israeli change of policy on withdrawal can also serve to project the image of Israel as repressive colonial power.
Thus, those who would pursue, in the name of peace and democracy, criticism of Israel’s security policies must bear responsibility for the way in which their views will be interpreted in the current climate of opinion that is prejudiced against Israel.
In a general inventory of Diaspora criticism of Israel two facts seem striking. One is the asymmetry of the criticism and the other is its incredibly high decibel count.
Virtually all of the advocacy for change in Israeli security policy is in the direction of greater concession. Yet there is a body of evidence that suggests that the Israeli leadership, in its desire for acceptance in the region, has not been sufficiently strong in its insistence that costly victories in the field of battle earn a diplomatic payoff in peace. The recurrent pattern has been for Israel to accept a cease-fire or truce at the point of Arab military defeat, which is then followed by an interim of “no war and no peace” in which the Arabs reserve the right to initiate the next round. For example, four Israeli victories against Egypt were stopped at predetermined lines, and were followed by Egyptian resumption of hostilities. Only the continued drive after the proposed ceasefire to a point just sixty miles from Cairo concentrated the minds of the Egyptian military sufficiently to move them beyond armistice to peace.
It is often stated that the volume of the criticism is justified by the great expectations legitimately demanded of Israel. Yet there is evidence of an escalation, if not inflation, of expectations. For example, I recall vividly the kind of expectations for the new state voiced in the visitors’ gallery at Lake Success where I sat during the roll-call vote for the partition plan on November 29, 1947. The expectations expressed, in a moment of great optimism, fell far short of the accomplishments of the ensuing forty years in most of the areas of demographic, political, economic, and social affairs.
My own attitudes to Israel have never been determined, however, by the ways in which it fulfilled any set of expectations, whether religious, ideological, or political, but derive from my sense of its people. The Jewish community of Israel is made up of persons who have endured many vicissitudes and retain great potential for individual expression. They have demonstrated their capacity and will to protect their society. They have also shown their hunger for peace, probably excessively, to the point of signaling vulnerability to a potential enemy. They have developed the juridical institutions that safeguard free expression and the democratic mechanisms for arriving at consent of the governed on the major issues of their polity.
So, as a society, they would appear to have at the least merited a right of democratic autonomy in their quest for security. Actually, my recent concern has not been about these contested issues of life and liberty, but about exploring some of the ways in which the focus might shift to the neglected issues of the individual pursuit of happiness.
The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was a transcendently great event in Jewish history, but held within it grave and serious problems. It is these problems which are coming to the fore as Israel reaches the end of its fourth decade.
The main problem revolves around the messianic (utopian) character of the state of Israel. Messianism has been a constant companion of Jewish thought at least since the appearance of the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi. False messianism portends a grave danger to the body politic of the Jewish people because it promises more than it can deliver—and convinces the people that fulfillment is at hand when it is out of reach. The establishment of the state of Israel is certainly part of the promised redemption but it is far away from the full redemption.
A premature messianism seems to be at the root of our problem with the state of Israel. It is true, of course, as Arthur Hertzberg and others have pointed out, that the impulse for Zionism came from the messianic fervor which had been pent up since the Sabbatean debacle. The yearning for redemption grows greater with the difficulties which the real world presents. Zionism saw itself first as secular messianism. It would bring about the redemption of the Jews by secular, political means. It would release the power accumulating within the Jewish soul by giving it a focus and a goal without having to wait for divine intervention. Zionism used the language of faith—but filled the old bottles with new wine. This had far-reaching and dramatic effects.
We can be thankful for the Zionist heresy. It saved the Jewish body and the Jewish soul. It made possible Jewish autonomy and Jewish creativity. But it did not bring redemption. It cannot bring full redemption through secular means. Israel can bring a yeshuah (a rescue and a victory) but not a geulah (a redemption). The state of Israel represents the reentry of the Jewish people into history. It is the expression of the secularization of Jewish interests. It represents a benign heresy. As such it should be welcomed. But it becomes dangerous when it assumes messianic pretensions. These pretensions are expressed in the idea that the Israeli state embodies the ideal state envisioned by the Prophets and sages. That is, of course, not true.
The Talmud explains that when the messiah comes there will be full and complete peace in the world, the nations will live in harmony. It is clear that we have not yet reached that end.
As a modern Orthodox Jew and a religious Zionist, I find myself in the happy position of experiencing undiminished enthusiasm for Israel. Still more: my appreciation of the Jewish state and what it represents has actually grown over time. For me, personally, Israel is, in the words of the prayer of the chief rabbinate, the “first flowering of the promised redemption”; for the Jewish people, generally, it is the great engine which powers contemporary Jewish life, giving it its dynamic quality. Make no mistake about it: even the critics of Israel—I refer to the respectable critics within the American Jewish community—have drawn upon Israel’s animating power.
I see myself as belonging to the luckiest generation in Jewish history. My father was born in interwar Poland and had his whole family destroyed by the Nazis. I, in contrast, grew up with Israel as a given—given, that is, after a hiatus of two millennia!—reality of Jewish life. All the longing for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty that fills the Jewish prayer book presents itself to me as an accomplished fact of everyday Jewish existence. What was once a vision accessible only through eyes of faith has now become the view from the window of an El Al plane. How Jews in the past found the courage to go on, I do not know, but they certainly would have envied me in being able to offer up, thrice daily, prayers that have already been answered—“Sound the great horn for our freedom”; “Return in memory to Your city Jerusalem . . . rebuild it soon in our days.”
Needless to say, I would be delighted if more Jews shared my religious appreciation of the reborn Jewish state. But even in its raw secular form Israel is something extraordinary, a Jewish and human achievement of the first order. Just ask the Ethiopian Jews, they will tell you. They will tell you what it means to have the elements of Jewish sovereignty: a Jewish land of refuge; a Jewish passport; Jewish pilots and planes; and—most importantly—a Jewish government that cares. Were it not for Israel—only Israel—the Ethiopian Jews would be long gone. It does not really matter—I am setting aside here the issue of aliyah—how many Jews actually come to Israel. What is important is that every Jew living today carries the awareness that if anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, Israel is always there—it exists and its doors are wide open. Israel, so to speak, is the ace-in-the-hole of contemporary Jews.
Israel has done more than add to the Jews’ sense of physical security. It has radically altered the Jewish psyche, giving Jews in the Diaspora a self-confidence and élan unknown, indeed inconceivable, in the past. Not only have Diaspora Jews taken pride in the gutsy determination of the Israelis, they have actually begun to show some of that determination themselves. In this sense, then, Zionist “normalization” has been a great triumph. Think of the aggressive way in which American Jews defend Israel’s interests in the political sphere; think of the assertiveness of American Jews vis-à-vis the Reagan administration in the Bitburg affair; think of the willingness of American Jews to take on the Pope over his meeting with Kurt Waldheim; think of the ease with which American Jews went into the streets to confront Gorbachev in Washington—all this has been made possible by the example of Israel. The new activist thrust of American Jewry offers eloquent testimony to what Israel has done for Jewish morale.
Which brings me to the Israel-bashing that is currently in vogue in American Jewish life. To the degree that it is rooted in the various anti-Zionist tendencies mentioned in the opening statement of the symposium, it deserves to be opposed in the strongest possible manner. But anti-Zionism, clearly, is not what motivates mainstream Jews, i.e., those who move in the orbit of established Jewish organizations, and it is their growing impatience with Israel that calls for an explanation. Of course, one can point to specific irritants such as the Pollard affair, the “Who is a Jew?” controversy, Israel-South Africa ties, etc. But all this, taken together, I would contend, cannot account for the relish with which some mainstream Jews go after Israel today, and why, moreover, they insist on doing so publicly. Let me offer a hypothesis: it is because they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge what Israel has meant in their lives. (The Israeli counterpart to this is the resentment felt at being financially dependent on the largesse of American Jews.) Having achieved an extraordinary degree of self-confidence precisely because of the impact of Israel, these mainstream types now wish to convince themselves that they are self-made Jews, fully capable of functioning without the continuing influence of the Jewish state. Hence the insistence that American Jewry has entered upon a golden age; hence the repeated assertion that American Jews can, if necessary, go it alone. What better way to declare one’s Jewish independence than by publicly putting down Israel?
One has to be patient in this situation, since it is not open to the quick fix. While gratitude is always in order, it is not really surprising that Israel-American Jewish relations have entered upon a troubled phase. All relationships have their ups and downs and require time to work themselves out in a satisfactory way. Israel, let us remember, is only just reaching its fortieth birthday. All I can say is this: happy is the generation—my generation—which has the problem of learning how to come to terms with the reality of Jewish statehood.
I have become increasingly committed to Israel in recent years, primarily because of personal reasons, but also because of my increasing appreciation of the extent to which Israel is being harmed and endangered by the same intellectual and political currents that are hurting and endangering the United States.
Israel cannot have failed to fulfill the hopes vested in it because Israel has just begun. There is no reason to deny Israel’s weaknesses and defects, but they are agenda items to work on, not evidence of Israel’s failure.
If the question is turned slightly to ask for a scorecard on progress to date, my summary would be: much has been accomplished in a short time; much more needs to be done; and we have to hurry. Israel’s future depends on its rabbis rising to Judaism’s needs with the brilliance and bravery that have been shown by Israeli generals. (Of course, rabbis, like generals, depend on the quality of the people they lead.)
There are a number of things that need to be said about the upsurge of Jewish criticism of Israel—some of which I believe is unhealthy, dangerous, and portends an increasing schism between a major sector of the Jewish elite and the main body of the Jewish community both in Israel and in the United States.
We must recognize that there is much in Israel that needs to be criticized, that criticism is necessary for improvement, and that criticism often comes from devotion. Unfortunately there are other kinds of criticism, too.
The disturbing part of the criticism of Israel is that much of it has become an attack on, or a rejection of, the moral foundation of the state. Three comments should be made about the increase in this kind of “criticism”—which I regard as completely unjustified and misguided.
The first is to suggest that the American Jewish community is divided into two groups which need to be considered separately because they are part of separate patterns of influence and thinking. In my recent book, Passage to a Human World, I put forward the hypothesis that to understand American opinion one must look at both ordinary Americans and at a distinct category of about 10 percent of the population which I called “university-oriented Americans.” Perhaps I am too enamored of my own hypothesis, but it seems to me that American Jews are probably divided in somewhat the same way that other Americans are—although presumably a much higher percentage of Jews are “university-oriented.”
In brief, I suspect that the sniping at Israel’s moral position comes primarily from a special minority, and that the majority of Jews continue to be overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and not significantly more critical than they were five or ten years ago. (The poll data reported several years ago in COMMENTARY showing continued broad Jewish support for Israel tend to support this suspicion.)
Saying that the increasing lack of respect for Israel comes from a minority does not at all imply that it is not important. Understanding the split in our community does not give us any basis for dismissing the importance of the criticism and of the bitter feelings that we hear expressed.
The second thing to note about the changing tone of some American Jewish discussion of Israel is that it is paralleled by a similar, more frightening, development in Israel. Much of mainstream intellectual opinion in Israel today expresses a revulsion against Israel, a rejection of its moral underpinnings, and more respect for its enemies than for its own people.
I am not talking about normal political debate or about artistic attacks on particular political ideas or policies. The Israeli literary community is producing bitter and nasty attacks on the society itself and on Israel’s fundamental moral character. For example, an article in a major Israeli newspaper compared Natan Shcharansky to Udi Adiv—an Israeli who had just been released from prison after serving a long term for participation in Syrian espionage against Israel—as if Israel’s criminal courts were like the Soviets’ and Adiv’s crime were like Shcharansky’s “crime.”
The writers who express such feelings are honored and rewarded by the literary community and by the broader elite that is the primary audience for new art and literature. Writers who speak against extreme or unfair criticism of Israel, or against uncritical adulation of the PLO, are attacked and repudiated by the community.
The third point is that much of the increased criticism of Israel reflects approaches and attitudes that are equally critical of the United States. Most importantly this is true of the basic view of international politics.
There is reason to doubt that Israel and the American Jewish community can long live with a division as deep as may now be developing between the moral and political sensibilities of a significant portion of their elites and those of their majorities. I believe that we will overcome this condition in one of two ways. It is more likely that the elites will look over the edge and pull back to a position that is at least reasonable and responsible enough to prevent them from becoming totally unacceptable to the larger community.
The alternative is that the minority will become increasingly bitter until it is rejected by the community and a new leadership develops, primarily at the political level, but also socially and artistically. I don’t believe that anything like this has ever happened before. But neither has there ever before been a society in which the great majority of the people are modern, literate, and wealthy by historic standards. Nobody can predict how such a change in the leadership class could work—-but it won’t be an easy or pleasant process, however necessary it might become.
Steven L. Spiegel:
It may be surprising but it is also understandable that criticism of Israel is increasing among American Jews. In the decade after the Six-Day War, the Jewish state was still basking in the halo of a victory perceived as miraculous. Even after 1973, when the energy crisis and intensified attention to the Palestinian issue created worldwide diplomatic and military pressures in which the U.S. government also participated, and indeed even after the Likud victory in 1977, most activist American Jews devoted their energies to fighting for aid for Israel and against harmful diplomatic initiatives and arms sales to the Arabs.
Today the political scene is transformed. A sympathetic President and Secretary of State have presided over a period of unprecedented official friendship toward Israel. There is not only an oil glut, but the Arabs appear weak and there is undisguised resentment in America over their past behavior, their failure to promote peace, and their sponsorship of terrorist activity. Most important, in the Middle East itself the Arab states are preoccupied with Iran.
In this altered environment, the costs of criticizing Israel have declined, but the incentives have increased. For some American Jewish leaders, the years they have spent dealing with the Israeli political system—its arcane bureaucratic structure and its convoluted nexus of personal fiefdoms and rewards—have gradually taken their toll.
In addition, for all Israel’s successes, there has been an escalating series of failures: Lebanon, the economy, emigration, inter-ethnic relations, religious-secular tensions, the Lavi fiasco—not to mention the ongoing drain of the occupation. The current Israeli government has faced a succession of crises, of which Israel’s role in Irangate and the Pollard affair are only the most visible.
The Pollard affair is especially important because it raises anew the question of the perspicacity of the current Israeli elite. Whereas other controversial Israeli actions in the last several years have largely taken place in the Middle East, an area where American Jewish leaders are properly accustomed to deferring to Israel, Pollard involved the United States; many American Jewish leaders were struck by the monumental stupidity of the initial action, as well as by the subsequent promotion to higher positions of those responsible for “running” Pollard.
All this helps explain why it is easier for Jews to criticize Israel today. But as one who also feels a certain disappointment over recent developments, I believe that the pendulum has already swung too far. Americans, Jews among them, are too prone to see issues in all-or-nothing form. After 1967, Israel could do no wrong; today, it sometimes seems, it can do no right. In focusing markedly on the failings, we forget that a vibrant democracy devoted to social justice has been created and sustained despite continual security threats and the influx of peoples from a variety of cultures. As Shlomo Avineri has recently pointed out, on the occasion of America’s fortieth anniversary in 1816, slavery still existed and the White House had been burned by the British only four years earlier. Israel’s troubles in Lebanon and the West Bank are minor by comparison.
To be sure, if the pendulum has swung too far, Israelis have had a part in swinging it. For several years now both the Right and the Left in Israel have sought to strengthen their cause at home by fundraising and recruiting among American Jews. With the advent of the national unity government, this process has been universalized. When both parties seek support from American Jews for their contrasting approaches, the monopoly that Israeli leaders once had on definitions of their own national security is automatically destroyed. American Jews have been asked to become mediators rather than mere supporters; they have in part been coopted into the Israeli political process. Increased criticism is the inevitable result.
The problem with this new vocal behavior on the part of American Jews is that the organized Jewish community is totally unprepared for the role it is being asked by some Israelis to assume or is now appointing itself to perform. (Indeed, there is no model in contemporary political theory for a community in one state to play an integral political function in another.) True, the focus of American Jewish life has been broadened in recent years: the communal organizations are no longer primarily devoted to charity; they now give unprecedented attention to American national politics and even to issues of national security. But this expanded function has not been matched by an adjustment to changed circumstances either in the form of engaged personnel or in new institutional arrangements.
American Jewish institutions thrive on a good fight—pressuring Congress, raising funds for a crisis, gaining support for a specific cause (e.g., Soviet Jewry). They are less effective, however, at devising long-range strategies that can be quickly adapted to meet new and unexpected crises or to counter unanticipated arguments. They are an even greater failure when it comes to developing detailed and sophisticated tactics for specific problems, or to dealing with issues that require specialized expert knowledge. Yet activism cannot replace substance; panaceas and slogans are not policies.
The tumult in the Jewish world may yet turn out well. The criticism of Israel could lead to greater engagement by American Jews in the economic, scientific, legal, medical, religious, educational, and business life of Israel. New contacts, new exchanges, new projects, new involvement by individuals could help Israel in the continual building of its society. Even without moving permanently to Israel, American Jews can reach a new level of involvement through joint ventures and sojourns in the Jewish state. The instrument of charity by which American Jews now largely relate to Israel could be converted into a healthier interaction based on mutual profit.
But no breakthroughs will be achieved if criticisms of Israel are not accompanied by an institututional and intellectual reform here in the United States. Such reform could stem the growing decline in Jewish communal leadership and organization. It could also lead to practical programs and to innovative mechanisms for turning current frustrations into productive channels of help. Otherwise, if criticism grows unchecked, it could begin to sap the faith of other Americans in a vibrant Israel. It is ironic that American Jewish criticism has prospered just as Americans in general have grown more appreciative of Israel’s accomplishments and of its strategic value to the United States. Ironic, but not yet tragic.
Of course, some of my attitudes toward Israel have changed over the years; so have my attitudes toward many other contemporary nations. What has not changed is my certainty that for world Jewry there was no acceptable alternative to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Holy Land in 1947 in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
The major change in my attitude toward Israel is the sense that the development of a Jewish state is a far more complex undertaking than I had understood. I do not refer to foreseen economic difficulties or the unremitting opposition of the Arabs. I had not imagined that the depth of the differences among Jews on religious, cultural, and ideological grounds could be as great as they are now revealed to be. Nor did I imagine that demographers in my own lifetime would be establishing with confidence a date on which the non-Jewish population of the Jewish state will be greater than the Jewish population.
One merely repeats the obvious when one points out that a state in which the majority is non-Jewish cannot be a Jewish state. The bitter fight waged by the Orthodox communities to make the present state’s secular laws conform to their interpretation of the religious law has been serious enough over the past forty years, a period during which their opponents acknowledged being, or (as the Orthodox might put it) claimed to be, Jewish. What then will be the nature of relations between the Orthodox community and the state when the majority is not Jewish at all? The best, it seems, that one can hope for is a democratic state with protection for its minorities, a state recognizing the group status of its ethnic communities. Will that make Israel a new Lebanon? What should be the relationship between American Jews and such a state, assuming that it does not meet Lebanon’s fate so quickly that the speculation becomes unnecessary?
To the extent that it is possible to conceive of the Jews becoming once again a minority even in a state that was established by their own effort and blood, the attitude of Jews toward it cannot avoid changing. The shadow of this possibility has deepened the conflict between those groups of Jews who cannot accept the loss of a Jewish state and who will do whatever has to be done to postpone that eventuality, and those groups that believe that by improving Jewish manners and learning to turn the other cheek a plateau of accommodation will open for them in what was once Israel.
My answer, then, to your first question, is that my attitude has changed to the extent that I acknowledge that the choice Israeli Jews now face may be simply between a state able to sustain its Jewish identity only by domestic policies I would consider unacceptable in the United States, and a status as one of several ethnic communities in a federated state whose stability is highly questionable. That is not a choice I expected to face in 1947; and it is a great change that makes me willing to say that I support the Israelis who opt for the first alternative.
Your second question asks to what extent Israel has fulfilled the hopes vested in it. The question is, of course, asked in reverse. The question should be to what extent the world confronting Israel has fulfilled the hopes vested in it. I would answer: scarcely at all. When the United Nations voted that the British Mandate in Palestine would be succeeded by a partition of sovereignty between Arabs and Jews, the nations that had participated in the decision raised neither a voice nor a finger to help the state they had implicitly brought into existence. As a combatant in World War II, I had, foolishly it now appears, more hope for the world. Naturally, a state of Israel that was forced to defend its borders from military attack and guerrilla incursions, from verbal assault in the United Nations and harsh criticism even from those that had voted in that body in favor of its sovereignty, is bound to be different from a state at peace with its neighbors.
To describe the present hostility as grounds for disappointment in Israel is to ascribe to the Jewish state magical qualities. What is remarkable, though hardly magical, is the extent to which Israel has been able to absorb Jewish refugees even while defending itself, to develop its technologies, to expand its educational facilities, and to offer help to other nations seeking to develop their own economies. I can only describe as a bitter joke the lament of American Jews that Israel’s trade with South Africa is a demonstration of the nation’s unfortunate and, of course, voluntary, turn to racism. Among other things, those critics overlook the trade between South Africa and newly independent nations on that continent.
With all due respect to the religious and intellectual traditions of the Jewish people, nothing in their political history justifies the belief that as diplomats and statesmen they should have been able to conciliate the Arab world, propitiate the Soviet Union, reduce international dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and remove the religious tensions and dynastic rivalries that have made the area a hotbed of unrest for centuries.
I think the upsurge of Jewish criticism of Israel is both healthy and unhealthy. It is healthy to discuss the alternate courses of action, their dangers and potentialities, that might ensure the survival of a Jewish sovereignty in what was Palestine. But much of the criticism reflects a growing fear in the Diaspora that it is dangerous to support a nation that has become something of an embarrassment to “decent” people everywhere. In Israel, it represents a revival of political differences between those who believe that only a socially “progressive” government can create an atmosphere in which peace between Israelis and Arabs can be achieved and those who believe such a hope is delusive, enervating, and economically self-destructive. The youth of the country, weary of being asked once again to risk their lives in what is beginning to seem like endless war with an outcome that is at best dubious, listen to the debate and can hardly be blamed for wanting to believe that peace now is possible. Those who, like me, consider that survival after the Holocaust is Israel’s sole moral obligation hope that the desire for peace will not overtake the long-range calculation of its durability, a calculation that seems as difficult for some Americans to make as it is for some Israelis.
I have been an avid supporter of Israel ever since my first visit there in 1970. Admittedly this was a little late. Up to that time I was largely indifferent to Zionism, while many of my friends on the New Left were becoming increasingly hostile to Israel.
I was not won over because I “rediscovered” Judaism. Nor was it because I accepted the Zionist view that Israel was the only legitimate center of Jewish life and that the Jews living outside Israel were in galut. Rather, what moved me so deeply were the open and essentially democratic attitudes I encountered there in the midst of an endless war. I couldn’t help comparing my experience of Israel with the revolutions my friends on the New Left and I had placed our hopes in—every one of which then turned into a bloody tyranny.
The Zionist revolution, it occurred to me, had resulted in one of this century’s rare decent outcomes. A formerly despised and oppressed people not only improved their material conditions but at the same time also preserved their political freedoms. And Israel continued to serve as a needed haven for the Jews of distress in the Soviet Union, the Arab countries, and elsewhere. It was not the millennium but it was good enough. Certainly what was happening in Israel was more constructive than developments in any of the other “new nations” formed out of the post-colonial period.
Yet I never vested any cosmic “hopes” in Israel of the sort implied in the symposium’s second question. For me Israel never had to achieve the promise of socialist Zionism or to resolve the Jewish problem. I merely accepted it as elemental that this decent society under siege merited the solidarity of Jews and democrats everywhere, that its defeat would be a moral and political catastrophe.
This came to me as an illumination of sorts during the Yom Kippur War, which I covered as a journalist. One day I stood on a balcony overlooking the Tel Aviv seashore and was able to see the giant military transport planes flying in the desperately needed equipment from America. I found myself cheering the U.S. military—an absolute first for me—and I have never since doubted the need for a strong U.S. defense policy.
I have not changed those fundamental beliefs in the years since the Yom Kippur War, though many recent trends in Israel have disturbed me. I have written elsewhere that Israel has been the victim of an unfair but pervasive double standard, particularly in the media. Whereas virtually no standards at all are applied to Israel’s enemies, much of the media has held Israel up to the standards of a democracy at peace. When Israel doesn’t exactly meet these false standards we are then told that Israel has “lost its soul.”
I don’t believe that Israel has “lost its soul” just because the West Bank occupation is becoming morally and politically untenable. Yet I do worry that Israel has lost a great deal in the quality of its political leadership.
Zionism achieved national sovereignty, statehood, and a working democracy—all this so that the Jewish people (or at least part of it) could be responsible for their own historical destiny. There was no guarantee that these instruments of statecraft would always be used wisely. The stirrings among American Jews cited by COMMENTARY are partly an expression of weariness and trendy disaffection from an Israel becoming more problematic. But a lot of criticism also has to do with the question of the quality of political leadership in Jerusalem.
Consider just some of the devastating revelations that Israel’s supporters in this country have had to deal with in recent years:
Israel’s intelligence service recruited an American Jew to steal secrets from the American government and the Israeli government then got caught in a clumsy coverup of the case.
The Israeli government sold arms to the government of Iran as part of the paying of ransom for hostages and then was less than forthcoming about its role in the affair.
Israel’s security services systematically tortured (and in two cases murdered) Palestinian detainees and then covered up this practice by offering perjured testimony in Israel’s courts.
During this period Israel’s government seemed beset by paralysis, headed by a prime minister and foreign minister who pursued two distinct foreign policies and hardly talked to each other. That government then alienated the largest branch of American Judaism by sponsoring legislation which would effectively have turned its adherents into second-class citizens in the Jewish state.
It seems to me that these specific actions taken in Jerusalem, not some generalized disaffection or the reemergence of old “anti-Zionist” ideologies, account for the anger and concern expressed by many American Jews. And who can fault them for that anger?
Indeed, had American Jews not spoken up about these political debacles it would have been confirmation of the canard propagated by Israel’s enemies that the American Jewish community marches in lock-step with the government of Israel and then uses its influence to prevent rational public discussion of Israel’s policies.
Israel continues to merit our solidarity, but it ought to be a thinking solidarity. Silence in the face of Israeli policies that are incomprehensible and self-destructive would not only be unseemly for American Jewry but very bad for Israel. Indeed, one of the reasons Israeli officials have done so many stupid things lately may be that they had begun to take America and American Jewry for granted.
So one can only hope that responsible Israeli leaders pay attention to some of the recent public criticism. Much of it, I believe, is legitimate and responsible, though inevitably it gets mixed up with the “Israel has lost its soul” variety. I certainly do not regard it as “dangerous,” nor do I see any evidence that it has led to slippage in political support for Israel in America generally. (Of the twelve presidential candidates only Jesse Jackson has even suggested support for a Palestinian state.)
Depending on the quality of the ongoing dialogue with Israel’s leaders, the more critical stance by American Jews could turn out to be very healthy indeed. Some good advice might be offered and heeded. In any event, it’s what democracy is all about, and it has served Israel and the Jewish people well.
Though I share the dismay of many American Jews in regard to current trends in Israel, my basic attitude is unchanged. I see no contradiction in this statement. I still believe in the absolute, not relative, justice of Zionism as a solution to a wrong suffered uniquely by the Jewish people. I still believe that the revival of national independence in a notch of the historic homeland has done no violence to Arab nationalism as argued in 1917 and 1948; and I still believe that Herzl’s naive vision of happy Arab-Jewish coexistence, as well as the theoretical socialist-Zionist program for Arab-Jewish cooperation in the reclamation of Palestine, affirmed a moral principle integral to a rational world order. That views such as I have just expressed sound like sentimental drooling indicts those who shattered generous hopes rather than those who held them.
The very question betrays the anomaly of the Jewish situation. No one assumes that Americans, Jewish or non-Jewish, will waver in their essential commitment to American democracy because of fallible government policies or external threats. Opinion polls question attitudes toward Reagan or Nicaragua, not the United States. That, save in periods of imminent catastrophe and despite the teachings of history and tradition, the instinct for the preservation of Jewish peoplehood has become fragile and volatile enough to warrant the query provides a partial explanation for any change in attitude toward Israel.
Israel has fulfilled the chief hope vested in it beyond all reasonable expectation—this despite relentless aggression and immense problems of immigrant absorption. Jews forget all too easily how fundamentally Israel and the 1948 Law of Return transformed the status of all Jews. For the first time in modern history Jews had the luxury of choice and an advocate when choice was denied: persecuted Jews had a haven; “rootless cosmopolitans” could assert their identity; contented Western Jews could ponder alternatives. Refugees, from the 40’s to present-day Ethiopians, attest to the change. The Jewish DP who told me with brutal simplicity, “They killed us because we had no land of our own,” emphasized the meaning of national sovereignty on its most elementary level. I shall not recite the familiar litany of Israel’s cultural and scientific achievements and its successful introduction of social forms like the kibbutz.
Israel’s existence is the great historic plus; the minuses, however, cannot be ignored. Despite its brave pioneer beginnings, the creation of an egalitarian, cooperative society has been derailed. Though I acknowledge the errors of the Labor party when in power, I am alarmed by the espousal of the Likud program by half of Israel. The vision of a pluralist, secular, democratic society now competes with extremist chauvinism and pseudo-messianic bigotry. I appreciate the degree to which these developments are inevitable reactions to Arab enmity, terrorism, and international isolation. I blame a cynical world that with few exceptions abandoned Israel in every crisis, and I blame Western Jews like myself who shirked the historic chance of helping to shape Israel through aliyah. But when some Israeli action is on trial, I resent the demand, concurred in by many Jews, that Israel be judged by criteria applied to no other people. This Pyrrhic compliment masks covert discrimination whose practical results can be as harmful as overt attack. While a sneeze in Israel promptly alerts the keepers of the world’s moral health, endemic plague throughout the Middle East or in Africa is complacently disregarded. At a time when the media were virulently excoriating Israel for a massacre perpetrated by Lebanese Christian Phalangists in Sabra and Shatila the press did not bother to note the massacre of over 20,000 Muslims by Syria in the town of Hama. Israel’s assumption of indirect responsibility for the Lebanese outrage and its prosecution of Israeli commanders were taken for granted.
In a climate uncritically receptive to every Third World slogan, uninformed American Jews, to affirm their liberal credentials, distance themselves from the “colonial oppressor” they see depicted, Jewish leftists indefatigably mouth the party line, and the uncommitted excuse their growing alienation by Israel’s supposed derelictions. But much of the upsurge in Jewish criticism comes from plain ignorance as well as the Jewish appetite for self-flagellation.
Having said this, I must stress that since Israel is today riven into two contending blocs, any American Jew concerned about the country’s fate cannot remain a passive observer of policies affecting peace, religious tolerance, and political liberty. I cannot be indifferent to Meir Kahane or the excesses of fanatics in Jerusalem. Furthermore, I believe that the allotment of scarce funds for bedroom communities on the West Bank while settlements in Galilee are neglected is suicidal madness, and that the retention of occupied territories spells disaster.
Since I hold these views I should be remiss in responsible commitment were I not to support the programs of those Israeli parties I consider most likely to safeguard the future of Israel and its democratic character. There is nothing novel in this position. During the regime of the Labor government, emissaries of opposing factions did their vocal best to enlist disciples in the United States, and they were not shy of publicity. In the elections for the last Zionist Congress, each party—religious, Labor, Likud, and others—advertised its virtues and the demerits of its adversaries as loudly and openly as its funds allowed. I therefore cannot understand the condemnation of the American Jewish Congress and other organizations for their espousal of the peace conference proposed by the foreign minister of Israel. Would such endorsement have been proper some months earlier when Shimon Peres was prime minister? The failure of American Jews to join in a debate about not only an Israeli but also an American proposal would be an abdication of responsibility. Problems of peace are global in their import. How can normally articulate American Jews be muzzled in regard to questions of major policy? American Jews have never been automatons in their relationship with Israel. Were they to become so, that would spell the end of their vital partnership with Israel.
Ruth R. Wisse:
Most Jewish criticism of the state of Israel is a reaction to anti-Zionism, the anti-Semitism of the late 20th century. As long as Arab states declared their opposition to Israel in belligerent terms, vowing to push the Jews into the sea, liberal sympathies were with the Jewish state. The extermination of the European Jews was still too fresh to admit another such proposal. But when the Arabs, following their unsuccessful war of 1967, accused the Jews of denying them their rightful place in the Middle East, they breathed new life into the still potent mythology of the immoral, conspiring Jew. The identification of Zionism as Jewish racism not only deflected criticism from Arab imperial ambitions, but defined the existence of Israel as a crime against the Palestinian Arabs. The prosecution of this charge over the past twenty years has attempted to invert the image of the Jew from European victim to Middle Eastern villain. Some Jews respond to this accusation of their villainy by blaming Israelis for having caused it.
Naturally, Jews who criticize the state of Israel do not feel that they are picking up the enemy’s cues. They express their criticism in high-minded concern for Israel’s moral health and physical safety. They congratulate themselves for the courage to “dissent” from the imagined unanimity of Jewish support for the Jewish state. But in fact, American Jews during the past twenty years have been unwilling to expose the Arab anti-Zionist campaign for what it is—the extension into the political sphere of the war against the Jewish state. They are reluctant to take the war of words into the Arab camp, challenging Arab rulers to resettle Arab refugees, to accept the idea of regional pluralism, to confront their own racial intolerance. Since the Jews want nothing—beyond acceptance—from the Arabs, they are afraid of adding to the cycle of aggression, and hope that the hostility toward them will disappear if ignored. Unfortunately, recent Jewish history offers the best evidence that anti-Jewish hatred feeds in part on Jewish unwillingness to acknowledge it.
The growing disaffection of American Jews from Israel follows a general law of modern Jewish politics: intra-Jewish argument rises in proportion to anti-Jewish aggressivity, particularly from sources deemed to be progressive. Anti-Zionism was loudest within the American Jewish community at the height of the Communist campaign against Jewish nationalism in the 1930’s. Jewish criticism of Israel has similarly increased at the same rate as left-wing anti-Zionist propaganda. The disinclination of Jews to counter the Arab denial of their national legitimacy means that they must move ever more to the defensive. Thus Tikkun, the first American Jewish magazine to revive the old Jewish agenda of the 1930’s (as the new Jewish agenda) and to argue the Palestinian case within the Jewish community, was founded, predictably, in California, where anti-Israel propaganda is most sustained.
My attitudes to Israel have indeed changed in recent years. I would not have believed that any people could maintain such civilized self-discipline in the face of continuing hostile provocation. I am grateful to an Israel which, by defeating Soviet client states in successive wars (though this was neither its purpose nor concern), did more to extend the hopes of democracy than countries many times its size and strength. I am moved by the reality of ingathered Jews—with all its predictable social unrest—more than by the rhetoric of the old songs of aliyah. My great disappointment is in the Arabs, among whom one would have expected more of Sadat’s caliber of statesmanship, more brotherly concern for at least their own people, if not for their fellow Semites.
This symposium is sponsored by the Harry Elson COMMENTARY Fund.
Lionel Abel is professor emeritus of English literature at SUNY-Buffalo. His latest collection of essays is Important Nonsense (Prometheus Press).
Edward Alexander, whose most recent book is The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies, is professor of English at Tel Aviv University and the University of Washington.
Robert Alter is professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley and co-editor, with Frank Kermode, of the recently published The Literary Guide to the Bible (Harvard University Press).
Jerold S. Auerbach, professor of history at Wellesley College, is writing a book about American law and Jewish acculturation.
Daniel Bell, Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard, is spending the academic year as the Pitt Professor at King’s College, Cambridge, England. His books include The Winding Passage, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and The End of Ideology.
Eric M. Breindel is the editorial-page editor of the New York Post and a syndicated columnist.
Joel Carmichael, the editor of Midstream, is the author of Karl Marx: The Passionate Logician and The Shaping of the Arabs, among other books.
Paul Cowan is a staff writer for the Village Voice and the author of An Orphan in History and (with Rachel Cowan) Mixed Blessings.
Werner J. Dannhauser is professor of government at Cornell University.
Midge Decter is executive director of the Committee for the Free World. Her books include The Liberated Woman & Other Americans, The New Chastity, and Liberal Parents, Radical Children.
Maier Deshell is the editor of Congress Monthly, published by the American Jewish Congress, and was formerly editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society.
Leonard Fein, founding editor of Moment magazine, is a writer and teacher who is, this year, visiting scholar at the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. His Where Are We? The Inner Life of America’s Jews will be published this spring by Harper & Row.
Maurice Friedberg is senior university scholar and professor of Russian literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Murray Friedman, author of The utopian Dilemma: American Judaism and Public Policy (Ethics and Public Policy Center), is Middle Atlantic States director of the American Jewish Committee.
Nathan Glazer is professor of education and sociology at Harvard and co-editor of the Public Interest. His books include American Judaism, Ethnic Dilemmas, and Remembering the Answers.
Irving Greenberg is president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning.
Ben Halpern, professor emeritus of Jewish history at Brandeis, is the author of The Idea of the Jewish State and A Clash of Heroes: Brandeis, Weizmann, and American Zionism (Oxford University Press), among other books.
Mark Helprin is the author of two short-story collections, A Dove of the East and Ellis Island, and two novels, Winter’s Tale and Refiner’s Fire. He served in the Israeli infantry and air force in 1972 and 1973.
Nat Hentoff is a columnist for the Village Voice and the Washington Post and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Gertrude Himmelfarb is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York and the author of a number of books, including Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians, The Idea of Poverty, and, most recently, The New History and the Old (Belknap/Harvard University Press).
Milton Himmelfarb, who was until recently an editor of the American Jewish Year Book, is the author of The Jews of Modernity.
Erich Isaac is professor of geography at City College of the City University of New York.
Rael Jean Isaac is the author of Israel Divided (Johns Hopkins) and Parties and Politics of Israel (Longman).
H. J. Kaplan spent twenty-five years in the Foreign Service. His most recent article in COMMENTARY, “Remembering Vietnam,” appeared in December 1987.
Roger Kaplan is an associate editor of the Reader’s Digest.
Hilton Kramer is the editor of the New Criterion, and of The New Criterion Reader: The First Five Years, just published by the Free Press.
Irving Kristol is professor of social thought at New York University’s Graduate School of Business Administration, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, co-editor of the Public Interest, and publisher of the National Interest. His books include Two Cheers for Capitalism and Reflections of a Neoconservative.
Max Lerner is a syndicated columnist and author whose books include The Age of Overkill and America as a Civilization, which has just been issued by Holt in an updated thirtieth-anniversary edition.
Edward N. Luttwak holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Strategy. The Logic of War and Peace (Harvard University Press).
Michael A. Meyer is professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and the author of the forthcoming Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (Oxford University Press).
Jacob Neusner is University Professor and Ungerleider Distinguished Scholar of Judaic Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Exile and Return in the History of Judaism (Beacon).
William Phillips is editor of Partisan Review, professor of English at Boston University, and author of, most recently, A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life (Stein and Day).
Daniel Pipes is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and editor of its quarterly journal, Orbis.
Richard Pipes is Baird Professor of History at Harvard and served in 1981-82 at the National Security Council as Director, East European and Soviet Affairs. His latest book is Survival Is Not Enough.
Dennis Prager writes and publishes Ultimate Issues, a quarterly journal on Judaism and world affairs. He is a commentator on KABC Radio and KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and co-author of The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism and Why The Jews? The Reason For Antisemitism.
Earl Raab is executive director emeritus of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco and the author (with Seymour Martin Lipset) of The Politics of Unreason.
Eugene V. Rostow, who served as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (1981-83) and as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1966-69), is currently visiting professor of law and diplomacy at the National Defense University.
Edward Rothstein is music critic for the New Republic and a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. His articles in COMMENTARY include “A Fateful Intellectual Friendship” (December 1987) and “Israel’s Alienated Intellectuals” (February 1987).
Jonathan D. Sarna is associate professor of American Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is director of its Center for the Study of the American Jewish Experience. His most recent book is The American Jewish Experience (Holmes & Meier).
Peter Shaw is the author of The Character of John Adams and American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution.
David Sidorsky is professor of philosophy at Columbia University. Among his recent writings are “Contextual-ism, Pluralism, and Distributive Justice” in Social Philosophy and Policy and “Modernism and the Emancipation of Literature from Morality” in New Literary History.
Seymour Siegel is Ralph Simon Professor of Ethics and Theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the editorial board of This World.
David Singer is director of Information and Research Services of the American Jewish Committee and editor of the American Jewish Year Book.
Max Singer is president of the Potomac Organization. His Passage to a Human World has just been published by the Hudson Institute.
Steven L. Spiegel is professor of political science at UCLA. His recent books include The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict and The Soviet-American Competition in the Middle East, of which he is a co-editor.
Roger Starr is a member of the editorial board of the New York Times and the author of The Rise and Fall of New York City, among other books.
Sol Stern, formerly an editor of Ramparts, has written about Israel for the Village Voice, the New Republic, and other periodicals. He is currently on the staff of the New York City Council President.
Marie Syrkin has written extensively on Zionism and Jewish affairs. Her most recent book is The State of the Jews (New Republic Books).
Ruth R. Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature at McGill University, is co-editor (with Irving Howe and Khone Shmeruk) of the recently published Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (Viking).
_____________Click to write a letter to the editor
American Jews and Israel – A Symposium
Must-Reads from Magazine
Can it be reversed?
Writing in these pages last year (“Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” July/August 2016), I described this surge of intemperate politics as a global phenomenon, a crisis of illiberalism stretching from France to the Philippines and from South Africa to Greece. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I argued, were articulating American versions of this growing challenge to liberalism. By “liberalism,” I was referring not to the left or center-left but to the philosophy of individual rights, free enterprise, checks and balances, and cultural pluralism that forms the common ground of politics across the West.
Less a systematic ideology than a posture or sensibility, the new illiberalism nevertheless has certain core planks. Chief among these are a conspiratorial account of world events; hostility to free trade and finance capital; opposition to immigration that goes beyond reasonable restrictions and bleeds into virulent nativism; impatience with norms and procedural niceties; a tendency toward populist leader-worship; and skepticism toward international treaties and institutions, such as NATO, that provide the scaffolding for the U.S.-led postwar order.
The new illiberals, I pointed out, all tend to admire established authoritarians to varying degrees. Trump, along with France’s Marine Le Pen and many others, looks to Vladimir Putin. For Sanders, it was Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where, the Vermont socialist said in 2011, “the American dream is more apt to be realized.” Even so, I argued, the crisis of illiberalism traces mainly to discontents internal to liberal democracies.
Trump’s election and his first eight months in office have confirmed the thrust of my predictions, if not all of the policy details. On the policy front, the new president has proved too undisciplined, his efforts too wild and haphazard, to reorient the U.S. government away from postwar liberal order.
The courts blunted the “Muslim ban.” The Trump administration has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend treaty partners in Europe and East Asia. Trumpian grumbling about allies not paying their fair share—a fair point in Europe’s case, by the way—has amounted to just that. The president did pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but even the ultra-establishmentarian Hillary Clinton went from supporting to opposing the pact once she figured out which way the Democratic winds were blowing. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into being nearly a quarter-century ago, does look shaky at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it won’t survive in some modified form.
Yet on the cultural front, the crisis of illiberalism continues to rage. If anything, it has intensified, as attested by the events surrounding the protest over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president refused to condemn unequivocally white nationalists who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Trump even suggested there were “very fine people” among them, thus winking at the so-called alt-right as he had during the campaign. In the days that followed, much of the left rallied behind so-called antifa (“anti-fascist”) militants who make no secret of their allegiance to violent totalitarian ideologies at the other end of the political spectrum.
Disorder is the new American normal, then. Questions that appeared to have been settled—about the connection between economic and political liberty, the perils of conspiracism and romantic politics, America’s unique role on the world stage, and so on—are unsettled once more. Serious people wonder out loud whether liberal democracy is worth maintaining at all, with many of them concluding that it is not. The return of ideas that for good reason were buried in the last century threatens the decent political order that has made the U.S. an exceptionally free and prosperous civilization.F or many leftists, America’s commitment to liberty and equality before the law has always masked despotism and exploitation. This view long predated Trump’s rise, and if they didn’t subscribe to it themselves, too often mainstream Democrats and progressives treated its proponents—the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn—as beloved and respectable, if slightly eccentric, relatives.
This cynical vision of the free society (as a conspiracy against the dispossessed) was a mainstay of Cold War–era debates about the relative merits of Western democracy and Communism. Soviet apologists insisted that Communist states couldn’t be expected to uphold “merely” formal rights when they had set out to shape a whole new kind of man. That required “breaking a few eggs,” in the words of the Stalinist interrogators in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Anyway, what good were free speech and due process to the coal miner, when under capitalism the whole social structure was rigged against him?
That line worked for a time, until the scale of Soviet tyranny became impossible to justify by anyone but its most abject apologists. It became obvious that “bourgeois justice,” however imperfect, was infinitely preferable to the Marxist alternative. With the Communist experiment discredited, and Western workers uninterested in staging world revolution, the illiberal left began shifting instead to questions of identity. In race-gender-sexuality theory and the identitarian “subaltern,” it found potent substitutes for dialectical materialism and the proletariat. We are still living with the consequences of this shift.
Although there were superficial resemblances, this new politics of identity differed from earlier civil-rights movements. Those earlier movements had sought a place at the American table for hitherto entirely or somewhat excluded groups: blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and so on. In doing so, they didn’t seek to overturn or radically reorganize the table. Instead, they reaffirmed the American Founding (think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s constant references to the Declaration of Independence). And these movements succeeded, owing to America’s tremendous capacity for absorbing social change.
Yet for the new identitarians, as for the Marxists before them, liberal-democratic order was systematically rigged against the downtrodden—now redefined along lines of race, gender, and sexuality, with social class quietly swept under the rug. America’s strides toward racial progress, not least the election and re-election of an African-American president, were dismissed. The U.S. still deserved condemnation because it fell short of perfect inclusion, limitless autonomy, and complete equality—conditions that no free society can achieve given the root fact of human nature. The accidentals had changed from the Marxist days, in other words, but the essentials remained the same.
In one sense, though, the identitarians went further. The old Marxists still claimed to stand on objectively accessible truth. Not so their successors. Following intellectual lodestars such as the gender theorist Judith Butler, the identity left came to reject objective truth—and with it, biological sex differences, aesthetic standards in art, the possibility of universal moral precepts, and much else of the kind. All of these things, the left identitarians said, were products of repressive institutions, hierarchies, and power.
Today’s “social-justice warriors” are heirs to this sordid intellectual legacy. They claim to seek justice. But, unmoored from any moral foundations, SJW justice operates like mob justice and revolutionary terror, usually carried out online. SJWs claim to protect individual autonomy, but the obsession with group identity and power dynamics means that SJW autonomy claims must destroy the autonomy of others. Self-righteousness married to total relativism is a terrifying thing.
It isn’t enough to have legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. via judicial fiat; the evangelical baker must be forced to bake cakes for gay weddings. It isn’t enough to have won legal protection and social acceptance for the transgendered; the Orthodox rabbi must use preferred trans pronouns on pain of criminal prosecution. Likewise, since there is no objective truth to be gained from the open exchange of ideas, any speech that causes subjective discomfort among members of marginalized groups must be suppressed, if necessary through physical violence. Campus censorship that began with speech codes and mobs that prevented conservative and pro-Israel figures from speaking has now evolved into a general right to beat anyone designated as a “fascist,” on- or off-campus.
For the illiberal left, the election of Donald Trump was indisputable proof that behind America’s liberal pieties lurks, forever, the beast of bigotry. Trump, in this view, wasn’t just an unqualified vulgarian who nevertheless won the decisive backing of voters dissatisfied with the alternative or alienated from mainstream politics. Rather, a vote for Trump constituted a declaration of war against women, immigrants, and other victims of American “structures of oppression.” There would be no attempt to persuade Trump supporters; war would be answered by war.
This isn’t liberalism. Since it can sometimes appear as an extension of traditional civil-rights activism, however, identity leftism has glommed itself onto liberalism. It is frequently impossible to tell where traditional autonomy- and equality-seeking liberalism ends and repressive identity leftism begins. Whether based on faulty thinking or out of a sense of weakness before an angry and energetic movement, liberals have too often embraced the identity left as their own. They haven’t noticed how the identitarians seek to undermine, not rectify, liberal order.
Some on the left, notably Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, are sounding the alarm and calling on Democrats to stress the common good over tribalism. Yet these are a few voices in the wilderness. Identitarians of various stripes still lord over the broad left, where it is fashionable to believe that the U.S. project is predatory and oppressive by design. If there is a viable left alternative to identity on the horizon, it is the one offered by Sanders and his “Bernie Bros”—which is to say, a reversion to the socialism and class struggle of the previous century.
Americans, it seems, will have to wait a while for reason and responsibility to return to the left.T
hen there is the illiberal fever gripping American conservatives. Liberal democracy has always had its critics on the right, particularly in Continental Europe, where statist, authoritarian, and blood-and-soil accounts of conservatism predominate. Mainstream Anglo-American conservatism took a different course. It has championed individual rights, free enterprise, and pluralism while insisting that liberty depends on public virtue and moral order, and that sometimes the claims of liberty and autonomy must give way to those of tradition, state authority, and the common good.
The whole beauty of American order lies in keeping in tension these rival forces that are nevertheless fundamentally at peace. The Founders didn’t adopt wholesale Enlightenment liberalism; rather, they tempered its precepts about universal rights with the teachings of biblical religion as well as Roman political theory. The Constitution drew from all three wellsprings. The product was a whole, and it is a pointless and ahistorical exercise to elevate any one source above the others.
American conservatism and liberalism, then, are in fact branches of each other, the one (conservatism) invoking tradition and virtue to defend and, when necessary, discipline the regime of liberty; the other (liberalism) guaranteeing the open space in which churches, volunteer organizations, philanthropic activity, and other sources of tradition and civic virtue flourish, in freedom, rather than through state establishment or patronage.
One result has been long-term political stability, a blessing that Americans take for granted. Another has been the transformation of liberalism into the lingua franca of all politics, not just at home but across a world that, since 1945, has increasingly reflected U.S. preferences. The great French classical liberal Raymond Aron noted in 1955 that the “essentials of liberalism—the respect for individual liberty and moderate government—are no longer the property of a single party: they have become the property of all.” As Aron archly pointed out, even liberalism’s enemies tend to frame their objections using the rights-based talk associated with liberalism.
Under Trump, however, some in the party of the right have abdicated their responsibility to liberal democracy as a whole. They have reduced themselves to the lowest sophistry in defense of the New Yorker’s inanities and daily assaults on presidential norms. Beginning when Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year, a great deal of conservative “thinking” has amounted to: You did X to us, now enjoy it as we dish it back to you and then some. Entire websites and some of the biggest stars in right-wing punditry are singularly devoted to making this rather base point. If Trump is undermining this or that aspect of liberal order that was once cherished by conservatives, so be it; that 63 million Americans supported him and that the president “drives the left crazy”—these are good enough reasons to go along.
Some of this is partisan jousting that occurs with every administration. But when it comes to Trump’s most egregious statements and conduct—such as his repeated assertions that the U.S. and Putin’s thugocracy are moral equals—the apologetics are positively obscene. Enough pooh-poohing, whataboutery, and misdirection of this kind, and there will be no conservative principle left standing.
More perniciously, as once-defeated illiberal philosophies have returned with a vengeance to the left, so have their reactionary analogues to the right. The two illiberalisms enjoy a remarkable complementarity and even cross-pollinate each other. This has developed to the point where it is sometimes hard to distinguish Tucker Carlson from Chomsky, Laura Ingraham from Julian Assange, the Claremont Review from New Left Review, and so on.
Two slanders against liberalism in particular seem to be gathering strength on the thinking right. The first is the tendency to frame elements of liberal democracy, especially free trade, as a conspiracy hatched by capitalists, the managerial class, and others with soft hands against American workers. One needn’t renounce liberal democracy as a whole to believe this, though believers often go the whole hog. The second idea is that liberalism itself was another form of totalitarianism all along and, therefore, that no amount of conservative course correction can set right what is wrong with the system.
These two theses together represent a dismaying ideological turn on the right. The first—the account of global capitalism as an imposition of power over the powerless—has gained currency in the pages of American Affairs, the new journal of Trumpian thought, where class struggle is a constant theme. Other conservatives, who were always skeptical of free enterprise and U.S.-led world order, such as the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell, are also publishing similar ideas to a wider reception than perhaps greeted them in the past.
In a March 2017 essay in the Claremont Review of Books, for example, Caldwell flatly described globalization as a “con game.” The perpetrators, he argued, are “unscrupulous actors who have broken promises and seized a good deal of hard-won public property.” These included administrations of both parties that pursued trade liberalization over decades, people who live in cities and therefore benefit from the knowledge-based economy, American firms, and really anyone who has ever thought to capitalize on global supply chains to boost competitiveness—globalists, in a word.
By shipping jobs and manufacturing processes overseas, Caldwell contended, these miscreants had stolen not just material things like taxpayer-funded research but also concepts like “economies of scale” (you didn’t build that!). Thus, globalization in the West differed “in degree but not in kind from the contemporaneous Eastern Bloc looting of state assets.”
That comparison with predatory post-Communist privatization is a sure sign of ideological overheating. It is somewhat like saying that a consumer bank’s lending to home buyers differs in degree but not in kind from a loan shark’s racket in a housing project. Well, yes, in the sense that the underlying activity—moneylending, the purchase of assets—is the same in both cases. But the context makes all the difference: The globalization that began after World War II and accelerated in the ’90s took place within a rules-based system, which duly elected or appointed policymakers in Western democracies designed in good faith and for a whole host of legitimate strategic and economic reasons.
These policymakers knew that globalization was as old as civilization itself. It would take place anyway, and the only question was whether it would be rules-based and efficient or the kind of globalization that would be driven by great-power rivalry and therefore prone to protectionist trade wars. And they were right. What today’s anti-trade types won’t admit is that defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a proposed U.S.-European trade pact known as TTIP won’t end globalization as such; instead, it will cede the game to other powers that are less concerned about rules and fair play.
The postwar globalizers may have gone too far (or not far enough!). They certainly didn’t give sufficient thought to the losers in the system, or how to deal with the de-industrialization that would follow when information became supremely mobile and wages in the West remained too high relative to skills and productivity gains in the developing world. They muddled and compromised their way through these questions, as all policymakers in the real world do.
The point is that these leaders—the likes of FDR, Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and, yes, Bill Clinton—acted neither with malice aforethought nor anti-democratically. It isn’t true, contra Caldwell, that free trade necessarily requires “veto-proof and non-consultative” politics. The U.S., Britain, and other members of what used to be called the Free World have respected popular sovereignty (as understood at the time) for as long as they have been trading nations. Put another way, you were far more likely to enjoy political freedom if you were a citizen of one of these states than of countries that opposed economic liberalism in the 20th century. That remains true today. These distinctions matter.
Caldwell and like-minded writers of the right, who tend to dwell on liberal democracies’ crimes, are prepared to tolerate far worse if it is committed in the name of defeating “globalism.” Hence the speech on Putin that Caldwell delivered this spring at a Hillsdale College gathering in Phoenix. Promising not to “talk about what to think about Putin,” he proceeded to praise the Russian strongman as the “preeminent statesman of our time” (alongside Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan). Putin, Caldwell said, “has become a symbol of national self-determination.”
Then Caldwell made a remark that illuminates the link between the illiberalisms of yesterday and today. Putin is to “populist conservatives,” he declared, what Castro once was to progressives. “You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.”
Whatever his excesses, indeed.T
he other big idea is that today’s liberal crises aren’t a bug but a core feature of liberalism. This line of thinking is particularly prevalent among some Catholic traditionalists and other orthodox Christians (both small- and capital-“o”). The common denominator, it seems to me, is having grown up as a serious believer at a time when many liberals—to their shame—have declared war on faith generally and social conservatism in particular.
The argument essentially is this:
We (social conservatives, traditionalists) saw the threat from liberalism coming. With its claims about abstract rights and universal reason, classical liberalism had always posed a danger to the Church and to people of God. We remembered what those fired up by the new ideas did to our nuns and altars in France. Still we made peace with American liberal order, because we were told that the Founders had “built on low but solid ground,” to borrow Leo Strauss’s famous formulation, or that they had “built better than they knew,” as American Catholic hierarchs in the 19th century put it.
Maybe these promises held good for a couple of centuries, the argument continues, but they no longer do. Witness the second sexual revolution under way today. The revolutionaries are plainly telling us that we must either conform our beliefs to Herod’s ways or be driven from the democratic public square. Can it still be said that the Founding rested on solid ground? Did the Founders really build better than they knew? Or is what is passing now precisely what they intended, the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment universalism that they planted in the Constitution? We don’t love Trump (or Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, etc.), but perhaps he can counter the pincer movement of sexual and economic liberalism, and restore a measure of solidarity and commitment to the Western project.
The most pessimistic of these illiberal critics go so far as to argue that liberalism isn’t all that different from Communism, that both are totalitarian children of the Enlightenment. One such critic, Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, summed up this position in a January essay in First Things magazine:
The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped [under liberalism] without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.1
I share Vermeule’s despair and that of many other conservative-Christian friends, because there have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.
Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives. Are coercion and conformity targeting people of faith under liberalism? To be sure. But these don’t take the form of the gulag or the concentration camp or the soccer stadium–cum-killing field. Catholic political practice knows well how to draw such moral distinctions between regimes: Pope John Paul II befriended Reagan. If liberal democracy and Communism were indeed “twins” whose distinctions are “glib,” why did he do so?
And as Pascal Bruckner wrote in his essay “The Tyranny of Guilt,” if liberal democracy does trap or jail you (politically speaking), it also invariably slips the key under your cell door. The Swedish midwives driven out of the profession over their pro-life views can take their story to the media. The Down syndrome advocacy outfit whose anti-eugenic advertising was censored in France can sue in national and then international courts. The Little Sisters of the Poor can appeal to the Supreme Court for a conscience exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. And so on.
Conversely, once you go illiberal, you don’t just rid yourself of the NGOs and doctrinaire bureaucrats bent on forcing priests to perform gay marriages; you also lose the legal guarantees that protect the Church, however imperfectly, against capricious rulers and popular majorities. And if public opinion in the West is turning increasingly secular, indeed anti-Christian, as social conservatives complain and surveys seem to confirm, is it really a good idea to militate in favor of a more illiberal order rather than defend tooth and nail liberal principles of freedom of conscience? For tomorrow, the state might fall into Elizabeth Warren’s hands.
Nor, finally, is political liberalism alone to blame for the Church’s retreating on various fronts. There have been plenty of wounds inflicted by churchmen and laypeople, who believed that they could best serve the faith by conforming its liturgy, moral teaching, and public presence to liberal order. But political liberalism didn’t compel these changes, at least not directly. In the space opened up by liberalism, and amid the kaleidoscopic lifestyles that left millions of people feeling empty and confused, it was perfectly possible to propose tradition as an alternative. It is still possible to do so.N one of this is to excuse the failures of liberals. Liberals and mainstream conservatives must go back to the drawing board, to figure out why it is that thoughtful people have come to conclude that their system is incompatible with democracy, nationalism, and religious faith. Traditionalists and others who see Russia’s mafia state as a defender of Christian civilization and national sovereignty have been duped, but liberals bear some blame for driving large numbers of people in the West to that conclusion.
This is a generational challenge for the liberal project. So be it. Liberal societies like America’s by nature invite such questioning. But before we abandon the 200-and-some-year-old liberal adventure, it is worth examining the ways in which today’s left-wing and right-wing critiques of it mirror bad ideas that were overcome in the previous century. The ideological ferment of the moment, after all, doesn’t relieve the illiberals of the responsibility to reckon with the lessons of the past.
1 Vermeule was reviewing The Demon in Democracy, a 2015 book by the Polish political theorist and parliamentarian Ryszard Legutko that makes the same case. Fred Siegel’s review of the English edition appeared in our June 2016 issue.
How the courts are intervening to block some of the most unjust punishments of our time
Barrett’s decision marked the 59th judicial setback for a college or university since 2013 in a due-process lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault. (In four additional cases, the school settled a lawsuit before any judicial decision occurred.) This body of law serves as a towering rebuke to the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
Beginning in 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a series of “guidance” documents pressuring colleges and universities to change how they adjudicated sexual-assault cases in ways that increased the likelihood of guilty findings. Amid pressure from student and faculty activists, virtually all elite colleges and universities have gone far beyond federal mandates and have even further weakened the rights of students accused of sexual assault.
Like all extreme victims’-rights approaches, the new policies had the greatest impact on the wrongly accused. A 2016 study from UCLA public-policy professor John Villasenor used just one of the changes—schools employing the lowest standard of proof, a preponderance of the evidence—to predict that as often as 33 percent of the time, campus Title IX tribunals would return guilty findings in cases involving innocent students. Villasenor’s study could not measure the impact of other Obama-era policy demands—such as allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, discouraging cross-examination of accusers, and urging schools to adjudicate claims even when a criminal inquiry found no wrongdoing.
In a September 7 address at George Mason University, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated that “no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.” But once enmeshed in the campus Title IX process, a wrongfully accused student’s best chance for justice may well be a lawsuit filed after his college incorrectly has found him guilty. (According to data from United Educators, a higher-education insurance firm, 99 percent of students accused of campus sexual assault are male.) The Foundation for Individual Rights has identified more than 180 such lawsuits filed since the 2011 policy changes. That figure, obviously, excludes students with equally strong claims whose families cannot afford to go to court. These students face life-altering consequences. As Judge T.S. Ellis III noted in a 2016 decision, it is “so clear as to be almost a truism” that a student will lose future educational and employment opportunities if his college wrongly brands him a rapist.
“It is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking in wisdom or compassion.” So wrote the Supreme Court in a 1975 case, Wood v. Strickland. While the Supreme Court has made clear that colleges must provide accused students with some rights, especially when dealing with nonacademic disciplinary questions, courts generally have not been eager to intervene in such matters.
This is what makes the developments of the last four years all the more remarkable. The process began in May 2013, in a ruling against St. Joseph’s University, and has lately accelerated (15 rulings in 2016 and 21 thus far in 2017). Of the 40 setbacks for colleges in federal court, 14 came from judges nominated by Barack Obama, 11 from Clinton nominees, and nine from selections of George W. Bush. Brown University has been on the losing side of three decisions; Duke, Cornell, and Penn State, two each.
Court decisions since the expansion of Title IX activism have not all gone in one direction. In 36 of the due-process lawsuits, courts have permitted the university to maintain its guilty finding. (In four other cases, the university settled despite prevailing at a preliminary stage.) But even in these cases, some courts have expressed discomfort with campus procedures. One federal judge was “greatly troubled” that Georgia Tech veered “very far from an ideal representation of due process” when its investigator “did not pursue any line of investigation that may have cast doubt on [the accuser’s] account of the incident.” Another went out of his way to say that he considered it plausible that a former Case Western Reserve University student was actually “innocent of the charges levied against him.” And one state appellate judge opened oral argument by bluntly informing the University of California’s lawyer, “When I . . . finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was, ‘Where’s the kangaroo?’”
Judges have, obviously, raised more questions in cases where the college has found itself on the losing side. Those lawsuits have featured three common areas of concern: bias in the investigation, resulting in a college decision based on incomplete evidence; procedures that prevented the accused student from challenging his accuser’s credibility, chiefly through cross-examination; and schools utilizing a process that seemed designed to produce a predetermined result, in response to real or perceived pressure from the federal government.C olleges and universities have proven remarkably willing to act on incomplete information when adjudicating sexual-assault cases. In December 2013, for example, Amherst College expelled a student for sexual assault despite text messages (which the college investigator failed to discover) indicating that the accuser had consented to sexual contact. The accuser’s own testimony also indicated that she might have committed sexual assault, by initiating sexual contact with a student who Amherst conceded was experiencing an alcoholic blackout. When the accused student sued Amherst, the college said its failure to uncover the text messages had been irrelevant because its investigator had only sought texts that portrayed the incident as nonconsensual. In February, Judge Mark Mastroianni allowed the accused student’s lawsuit to proceed, commenting that the texts could raise “additional questions about the credibility of the version of events [the accuser] gave during the disciplinary proceeding.” The two sides settled in late July.
Amherst was hardly alone in its eagerness to avoid evidence that might undermine the accuser’s version of events; the same happened at Penn State, St. Joseph’s, Duke, Ohio State, Occidental, Lynn, Marlboro, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
Even in cases with a more complete evidentiary base, accused students have often been blocked from presenting a full-fledged defense. As part of its reinterpretation of Title IX, the Obama administration sought to shield campus accusers from cross-examination. OCR’s 2011 guidance “strongly” discouraged direct cross-examination of accusers by the accused student—a critical restriction, since most university procedures require the accused student, rather than his lawyer, to defend himself in the hearing. OCR’s 2014 guidance suggested that this type of cross-examination in and of itself could create a hostile environment. The Obama administration even spoke favorably about the growing trend among schools to abolish hearings altogether and allow a single official to serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in sexual-assault cases.
The Supreme Court has never held that campus disciplinary hearings must permit cross-examination. Nonetheless, the recent attack on the practice has left schools struggling to explain why they would not want to utilize what the Court has described as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” In June 2016, the University of Cincinnati found a student guilty of sexual assault after a hearing at which neither his accuser nor the university’s Title IX investigator appeared. In an unintentionally comical line, the hearing chair noted the absent witnesses before asking the accused student if he had “any questions of the Title IX report.” The student, befuddled, replied, “Well, since she’s not here, I can’t really ask anything of the report.” (The panel chair did not indicate how the “report” could have answered any questions.) Cincinnati found the student guilty anyway.1
Limitations on full cross-examination also played a role in judicial setbacks for Middlebury, George Mason, James Madison, Ohio State, Occidental, Penn State, Brandeis, Amherst, Notre Dame, and Skidmore.
Finally, since 2011, more than 300 students have filed Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging mishandling of their sexual-assault allegation by their college. OCR’s leadership seemed to welcome the complaints, which allowed Obama officials not only to inspect the individual case but all sexual-assault claims at the school in question over a three-year period. Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has estimated that during the Obama years, colleges spent between $60 million and $100 million on these investigations. If OCR finds a Title IX violation, that might lead to a loss of federal funding. This has led Harvard Law professors Jeannie Suk Gersen, Janet Halley, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Nancy Gertner to observe in a white paper submitted to OCR that universities have “strong incentives to ensure the school stays in OCR’s good graces.”
One of the earliest lawsuits after the Obama administration’s policy shift, involving former Xavier University basketball player Dez Wells, demonstrated how an OCR investigation can affect the fairness of a university inquiry. The accuser’s complaint had been referred both to Xavier’s Title IX office and the Cincinnati police. The police concluded that the allegation was meritless; Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters later said he considered charging the accuser with filing a false police report.
Deters asked Xavier to delay its proceedings until his office completed its investigation. School officials refused. Instead, three weeks after the initial allegation, the university expelled Wells. He sued and speculated that Xavier’s haste came not from a quest for justice but instead from a desire to avoid difficulties in finalizing an agreement with OCR to resolve an unrelated complaint filed by two female Xavier students. (In recent years, OCR has entered into dozens of similar resolution agreements, which bind universities to policy changes in exchange for removing the threat of losing federal funds.) In a July 2014 ruling, Judge Arthur Spiegel observed that Xavier’s disciplinary tribunal, however “well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault.” Soon thereafter, the two sides settled; Wells transferred to the University of Maryland.
Ohio State, Occidental, Cornell, Middlebury, Appalachian State, USC, and Columbia have all found themselves on the losing side of court decisions arising from cases that originated during a time in which OCR was investigating or threatening to investigate the school. (In the Ohio State case, one university staffer testified that she didn’t know whether she had an obligation to correct a false statement by an accuser to a disciplinary panel.) Pressure from OCR can be indirect, as well. The Obama administration interpreted federal law as requiring all universities to have at least one Title IX coordinator; larger universities now employ dozens of Title IX personnel who, as the Harvard Law professors explained, “have reason to fear for their jobs if they hold a student not responsible or if they assign a rehabilitative or restorative rather than a harshly punitive sanction.”A mid the wave of judicial setbacks for universities, two decisions in particular stand out. Easily the most powerful opinion in a campus due-process case came in March 2016 from Judge F. Dennis Saylor. While the stereotypical campus sexual-assault allegation results from an alcohol-filled, one-night encounter between a male and a female student, a case at Brandeis University involved a long-term monogamous relationship between two male students. A bad breakup led to the accusing student’s filing the following complaint, against which his former boyfriend was expected to provide a defense: “Starting in the month of September, 2011, the Alleged violator of Policy had numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual interactions with me. These interactions continued to occur until around May 2013.”
To adjudicate, Brandeis hired a former OCR staffer, who interviewed the two students and a few of their friends. Since the university did not hold a hearing, the investigator decided guilt or innocence on her own. She treated each incident as if the two men were strangers to each other, which allowed her to determine that sexual “violence” had occurred in the relationship. The accused student, she found, sometimes looked at his boyfriend in the nude without permission and sometimes awakened his boyfriend with kisses when the boyfriend wanted to stay asleep. The university’s procedures prevented the student from seeing the investigator’s report, with its absurdly broad definition of sexual misconduct, in preparing his appeal. “In the context of American legal culture,” Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos later argued, denying this type of information “is crazy.” “Standard rules of evidence and other protections for the accused keep things like false accusations or mistakes by authorities from hurting innocent people.” When the university appeal was denied, the student sued.
At an October 2015 hearing to consider the university’s motion to dismiss, Saylor seemed flabbergasted at the unfairness of the school’s approach. “I don’t understand,” he observed, “how a university, much less one named after Louis Brandeis, could possibly think that that was a fair procedure to not allow the accused to see the accusation.” Brandeis’s lawyer cited pressure to conform to OCR guidance, but the judge deemed the university’s procedures “closer to Salem 1692 than Boston, 2015.”
The following March, Saylor issued an 89-page opinion that has been cited in virtually every lawsuit subsequently filed by an accused student. “Whether someone is a ‘victim’ is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning,” Saylor wrote. “If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.” Saylor concluded that Brandeis forced the accused student “to defend himself in what was essentially an inquisitorial proceeding that plausibly failed to provide him with a fair and reasonable opportunity to be informed of the charges and to present an adequate defense.”
The student, vindicated by the ruling’s sweeping nature, then withdrew his lawsuit. He currently is pursuing a Title IX complaint against Brandeis with OCR.
Four months later, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals produced an opinion that lacked Saylor’s rhetorical flourish or his understanding of the basic unfairness of the campus Title IX process. But by creating a more relaxed standard for accused students to make federal Title IX claims, the Second Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Columbia carried considerable weight.
Two Columbia students who had been drinking had a brief sexual encounter at a party. More than four months later, the accuser claimed she was too intoxicated to have consented. Her allegation came in an atmosphere of campus outrage about the university’s allegedly insufficient toughness on sexual assault. In this setting, the accused student found Columbia’s Title IX investigator uninterested in hearing his side of the story. He cited witnesses who would corroborate his belief that the accuser wasn’t intoxicated; the investigator declined to speak with them. The student was found guilty, although for reasons differing from the initial claim; the Columbia panel ruled that he had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward the [accuser] over a period of weeks,” leaving her unable to consent on the night in question. He received a three-semester suspension for this nebulous offense—which even his accuser deemed too harsh. He sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Jesse Furman.
Furman’s opinion provided a ringing victory for Columbia and the Obama-backed policies it used. As Title IX litigator Patricia Hamill later observed, Furman’s “almost impossible standard” required accused students to have inside information about the institution’s handling of other sexual-assault claims—information they could plausibly obtain only through the legal process known as discovery, which happens at a later stage of litigation—in order to survive a university’s initial motion to dismiss. Furman suggested that, to prevail, an accused student would need to show that his school treated a female student accused of sexual assault more favorably, or at least provide details about how cases against other accused students showed a pattern of bias. But federal privacy law keeps campus disciplinary hearings private, leaving most accused students with little opportunity to uncover the information before their case is dismissed.
At the same time, the opinion excused virtually any degree of unfairness by the institution. Furman reasoned that taking “allegations of rape on campus seriously and . . . treat[ing] complainants with a high degree of sensitivity” could constitute “lawful” reasons for university unfairness toward accused students. Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education detected the decision’s “immediate and nationwide impact” in several rulings against accused students. It also played the same role in university briefs that Saylor’s Brandeis opinion did in filings by accused students.
The Columbia student’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, appealed Furman’s ruling to the Second Circuit. The stakes were high, since a ruling affirming the lower court’s reasoning would have all but foreclosed Title IX lawsuits by accused students in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. But a panel of three judges, all nominated by Democratic presidents, overturned Furman’s decision. In the opinion’s crucial passage, Judge Pierre Leval held that a university “is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.” Before the Columbia decision, courts almost always had rebuffed Title IX pleadings from accused students. More recently, judges have allowed Title IX claims to proceed against Amherst, Cornell, California–Santa Barbara, Drake, and Rollins.
After the Second Circuit’s decision, Columbia settled with the accused student, sparing its Title IX decision-makers from having to testify at a trial. James Madison was one of the few universities to take a different course, with disastrous results. A lawsuit from an accused student survived a motion to dismiss, but the university refused to settle, allowing the student’s lawyer to depose the three school employees who had decided his client’s fate. One unintentionally revealed that he had misapplied the university’s own definition of consent. Another cited the importance of the accuser’s slurring words on a voicemail, thus proving her extreme intoxication on the night of the alleged assault. It was left to the accused student’s lawyer, at a deposition months after the decision had been made, to note that the voicemail in question actually was received on a different night. In December 2016, Judge Elizabeth Dillon, an Obama nominee, granted summary judgment to the accused student, concluding that “significant anomalies in the appeal process” violated his due-process rights under the Constitution.niversities were on the losing side of 36 due-process rulings when Obama appointee Catherine Lhamon was presiding over the Office for Civil Rights between 2013 and 2016; no record exists of her publicly acknowledging any of them. In June 2017, however, Lhamon suddenly rejoiced that “yet another federal court” had found that students disciplined for sexual misconduct “were not denied due process.” That Fifth Circuit decision, involving two former students at the University of Houston, was an odd case for her to celebrate. The majority cabined its findings to the “unique facts” of the case—that the accused students likely would have been found guilty even under the fairest possible process. And the dissent, from Judge Edith Jones, denounced the procedures championed by Lhamon and other Obama officials as “heavily weighted in favor of finding guilt,” predicting “worse to come if appellate courts do not step in to protect students’ procedural due process right where allegations of quasi-criminal sexual misconduct arise.”
At this stage, Lhamon, who now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, cannot be taken seriously when it comes to questions of campus due process. But other defenders of the current Title IX regime have offered more substantive commentary about the university setbacks.
Legal scholar Michelle Anderson was one of the few to even discuss the due-process decisions. “Colleges and universities do not always adjudicate allegations of sexual assault well,” she noted in a 2016 law review article defending the Obama-era policies. Anderson even conceded that some colleges had denied “accused students fairness in disciplinary adjudication.” But these students sued, “and campuses are responding—as they must—when accused students prevail. So campuses face powerful legal incentives on both sides to address campus sexual assault, and to do so fairly and impartially.”
This may be true, but Anderson does not explain why wrongly accused students should bear the financial and emotional burden of inducing their colleges to implement fair procedures. More important, scant evidence exists that colleges have responded to the court victories of wrongly accused students by creating fairer procedures. Some have even made it more difficult for wrongly accused students to sue. After losing a lawsuit in December 2014, Brown eliminated the right of students accused of sexual assault to have “every opportunity” to present evidence. That same year, an accused student showed how Swarthmore had deviated from its own procedures in his case. The college quickly settled the lawsuit—and then added a clause to its procedures immunizing it from similar claims in the future. Swarthmore currently informs accused students that “rules of evidence ordinarily found in legal proceedings shall not be applied, nor shall any deviations from any of these prescribed procedures alone invalidate a decision.”
Many lawsuits are still working their way through the judicial system; three cases are pending at federal appellate courts. Of the two that address substantive matters, oral arguments seemed to reveal skepticism of the university’s position. On July 26, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit considered a case at Boston College, where the accused student plausibly argued that someone else had committed the sexual assault (which occurred on a poorly lit dance floor). Judges Bruce Selya and William Kayatta seemed troubled that a Boston College dean had improperly intruded on the hearing board’s deliberations. At the Sixth Circuit a few days later, Judges Richard Griffin and Amul Thapar both expressed concerns about the University of Cincinnati’s downplaying the importance of cross-examination in campus-sex adjudications. Judge Eric Clay was quieter, but he wondered about the tension between the university’s Title IX and truth-seeking obligations.
In a perfect world, academic leaders themselves would have created fairer processes without judicial intervention. But in the current campus environment, such an approach is impossible. So, at least for the short term, the courts remain the best, albeit imperfect, option for students wrongly accused of sexual assault. Meanwhile, every year, young men entrust themselves and their family’s money to institutions of higher learning that are indifferent to their rights and unconcerned with the injustices to which these students might be subjected.
1 After a district court placed that finding on hold, the university appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
Review of 'Terror in France' By Gilles Kepel
Kepel is particularly knowledgeable about the history and process of radicalization that takes place in his nation’s heavily Muslim banlieues (the depressed housing projects ringing Paris and other major cities), and Terror in France is informed by decades of fieldwork in these volatile locales. What we have been witnessing for more than a decade, Kepel argues, is the “third wave” of global jihadism, which is not so much a top-down doctrinally inspired campaign (as were the 9/11 attacks, directed from afar by the oracular figure of Osama bin Laden) but a bottom-up insurgency with an “enclave-based ethnic-racial logic of violence” to it. Kepel traces the phenomenon back to 2005, a convulsive year that saw the second-generation descendants of France’s postcolonial Muslim immigrants confront a changing socio-political landscape.
That was the year of the greatest riots in modern French history, involving mostly young Muslim men. It was also the year that Abu Musab al-Suri, the Syrian-born Islamist then serving as al-Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe, published The Global Islamic Resistance Call. This 1,600-page manifesto combined pious imprecations against the West with do-it-yourself ingenuity, an Anarchist’s Cookbook for the Islamist set. In Kepel’s words, the manifesto preached a “jihadism of proximity,” the brand of civil war later adopted by the Islamic State. It called for ceaseless, mass-casualty attacks in Western cities—attacks which increase suspicion and regulation of Muslims and, in turn, drive those Muslims into the arms of violent extremists.
The third-generation jihad has been assisted by two phenomena: social-networking sites that easily and widely disseminate Islamist propaganda (thus increasing the rate of self-radicalization) and the so-called Arab Spring, which led to state collapse in Syria and Libya, providing “an exceptional site for military training and propaganda only a few hours’ flight from Europe, and at a very low cost.”
Kepel’s book is not just a study of the ideology and tactics of Islamists but a sociopolitical overview of how this disturbing phenomenon fits within a country on the brink. For example, Kepel finds that jihadism is emerging in conjunction with developments such as the “end of industrial society.” A downturn in work has led to an ominous situation in which a “right-wing ethnic nationalism” preying on the economically anxious has risen alongside Islamism as “parallel conduits for expressing grievances.” Filling a space left by the French Communist Party (which once brought the ethnic French working class and Arab immigrants together), these two extremes leer at each other from opposite sides of a societal chasm, signaling the potentially cataclysmic future that awaits France if both mass unemployment and Islamist terror continue undiminished.
The French economy has also had a more direct inciting effect on jihadism. Overregulated labor markets make it difficult for young Muslims to get jobs, thus exacerbating the conditions of social deprivation and exclusion that make individuals susceptible to radicalization. The inability to tackle chronic unemployment has led to widespread Muslim disillusionment with the left (a disillusionment aggravated by another, often glossed over, factor: widespread Muslim opposition to the Socialist Party’s championing of same-sex marriage). Essentially, one left-wing constituency (unions) has made the unemployment of another constituency (Muslim youth) the mechanism for maintaining its privileges.
Kepel does not, however, cite deprivation as the sole or even main contributing factor to Islamist radicalization. One Parisian banlieue that has sent more than 80 residents to fight in Syria, he notes, has “attractive new apartment buildings” built by the state and features a mosque “constructed with the backing of the Socialist mayor.” It is also the birthplace of well-known French movie stars of Arab descent, and thus hardly a place where ambition goes to die. “The Islamophobia mantra and the victim mentality it reinforces makes it possible to rationalize a total rejection of France and a commitment to jihad by making a connection between unemployment, discrimination, and French republican values,” Kepel writes. Indeed, Kepel is refreshingly derisive of the term “Islamophobia” throughout the book, excoriating Islamists and their fellow travelers for “substituting it for anti-Semitism as the West’s cardinal sin.” These are meaningful words coming from Kepel, a deeply learned scholar of Islam who harbors great respect for the faith and its adherents.
Kepel also weaves the saga of jihadism into the ongoing “kulturkampf within the French left.” Arguments about Islamist terrorism demonstrate a “divorce between a secular progressive tradition” and the children of the Muslim immigrants this tradition fought to defend. The most ironically perverse manifestation of this divorce was ISIS’s kidnapping of Didier François, co-founder of the civil-rights organization SOS Racisme. Kepel recognizes the origins of this divorce in the “red-green” alliance formed decades ago between Islamists and elements of the French intellectual left, such as Michel Foucault, a cheerleader of the Iranian revolution.
Though he offers a rigorous history and analysis of the jihadist problem, Kepel is generally at a loss for solutions. He decries a complacent French elite, with its disregard for genuine expertise (evidenced by the decline in institutional academic support for Islamicists and Arabists) and the narrow, relatively impenetrable way in which it perpetuates itself, chiefly with a single school (the École normale supérieure) that practically every French politician must attend. Despite France’s admirable republican values, this has made the process of assimilation rather difficult. But other than wishing that the public education system become more effective and inclusive at instilling republican values, Kepel provides little in the way of suggestions as to how France emerges from this mess. That a scholar of such erudition and humanity can do little but throw up his hands and issue a sigh of despair cannot bode well. The third-generation jihad owes as much to the political breakdown in France as it does to the meltdown in the Middle East. Defeating this two-headed beast requires a new and comprehensive playbook: the West’s answer to The Global Islamic Resistance Call. That book has yet to be written.
resident Trump, in case you haven’t noticed, has a tendency to exaggerate. Nothing is “just right” or “meh” for him. Buildings, crowds, election results, and military campaigns are always outsized, gargantuan, larger, and more significant than you might otherwise assume. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote 30 years ago in The Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
So effective, in fact, that the press has picked up the habit. Reporters and editors agree with the president that nothing he does is ordinary. After covering Trump for more than two years, they still can’t accept him as a run-of-the-mill politician. And while there are aspects of Donald Trump and his presidency that are, to say the least, unusual, the media seem unable to distinguish between the abnormal and significant—firing the FBI director in the midst of an investigation into one’s presidential campaign, for example—and the commonplace.
Consider the fiscal deal President Trump struck with Democratic leaders in early September.
On September 6, the president held an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Pence, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, and congressional leaders of both parties. He had to find a way to (a) raise the debt ceiling, (b) fund the federal government, and (c) spend money on hurricane relief. The problem is that a bloc of House Republicans won’t vote for (a) unless the increase is accompanied by significant budget cuts, which interferes with (b) and (c). To raise the debt ceiling, then, requires Democratic votes. And the debt ceiling must be raised. “There is zero chance—no chance—we will not raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in August.
The meeting went like this. First House Speaker Paul Ryan asked for an 18-month increase in the debt ceiling so Republicans wouldn’t have to vote again on the matter until after the midterm elections. Democrats refused. The bargaining continued until Ryan asked for a six-month increase. The Democrats remained stubborn. So Trump, always willing to kick a can down the road, interrupted Mnuchin to offer a three-month increase, a continuing resolution that will keep the government open through December, and about $8 billion in hurricane money. The Democrats said yes.
That, anyway, is what happened. But the media are not satisfied to report what happened. They want—they need—to tell you what it means. And what does it mean? Well, they aren’t really sure. But it’s something big. It’s something spectacular. For example:
1. “Trump Bypasses Republicans to Strike Deal on Debt Limit and Harvey Aid” was the headline of a story for the New York Times by Peter Baker, Thomas Kaplan, and Michael D. Shear. “The deal to keep the government open and paying its debts until Dec. 15 represented an extraordinary public turn for the president, who has for much of his term set himself up on the right flank of the Republican Party,” their article began. Fair enough. But look at how they import speculation and opinion into the following sentence: “But it remained unclear whether Mr. Trump’s collaboration with Democrats foreshadowed a more sustained shift in strategy by a president who has presented himself as a master dealmaker or amounted to just a one-time instinctual reaction of a mercurial leader momentarily eager to poke his estranged allies.”
2. “The decision was one of the most fascinating and mysterious moves he’s made with Congress during eight months in office,” reported Jeff Zeleny, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, and Jeremy Diamond for CNN. Thanks for sharing!
3. “Trump budget deal gives GOP full-blown Stockholm Syndrome,” read the headline of Tina Nguyen’s piece for Vanity Fair. “Donald Trump’s unexpected capitulation to new best buds ‘Chuck and Nancy’ has thrown the Grand Old Party into a frenzy as Republicans search for explanations—and scapegoats.”
4. “For Conservatives, Trump’s Deal with Democrats Is Nightmare Come True,” read the headline for a New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman. “It is the scenario that President Trump’s most conservative followers considered their worst nightmare, and on Wednesday it seemed to come true: The deal-making political novice, whose ideology and loyalty were always fungible, cut a deal with Democrats.”
5. “Trump sides with Democrats on fiscal issues, throwing Republican plans into chaos,” read the Washington Post headline the day after the deal was announced. “The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.” Yes, the negotiations were upended. Then they made a deal.
6. “Although elected as a Republican last year,” wrote Peter Baker of the Times, “Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” The title of Baker’s news analysis: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.” One hundred and fifty years? Why not 200?
The journalistic rule of thumb used to be that an article describing a political, social, or cultural trend requires at least three examples. Not while covering Trump. If Trump does something, anything, you should feel free to inflate its importance beyond all recognition. And stuff your “reporting” with all sorts of dramatic adjectives and frightening nouns: fascinating, mysterious, unexpected, extraordinary, nightmare, chaos, frenzy, and scapegoats. It’s like a Vince Flynn thriller come to life.
The case for the significance of the budget deal would be stronger if there were a consensus about whom it helped. There isn’t one. At first the press assumed Democrats had won. “Republicans left the Oval Office Wednesday stunned,” reported Rachael Bade, Burgess Everett, and Josh Dawsey of Politico. Another trio of Politico reporters wrote, “In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal.” Republicans were “stunned,” reported Kristina Peterson, Siobhan Hughes, and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal. “Meet the swamp: Donald Trump punts September agenda to December after meeting with Congress,” read the headline of Charlie Spiering’s Breitbart story.
By the following week, though, these very outlets had decided the GOP was looking pretty good. “Trump’s deal with Democrats bolsters Ryan—for now,” read the Politico headline on September 11. “McConnell: No New Debt Ceiling Vote until ‘Well into 2018,’” reported the Washington Post. “At this point…picking a fight with Republican leaders will only help him,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal. “Trump has long warned that he would work with Democrats, if necessary, to fulfill his campaign promises. And Wednesday’s deal is a sign that he intends to follow through on that threat,” wrote Breitbart’s Joel Pollak.
The sensationalism, the conflicting interpretations, the visceral language is dizzying. We have so many reporters chasing the same story that each feels compelled to gussy up a quotidian budget negotiation until it resembles the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, and none feel it necessary to apply to their own reporting the scrutiny and incredulity they apply to Trump. The truth is that no one knows what this agreement portends. Nor is it the job of a reporter to divine the meaning of current events like an augur of Rome. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a deal is just a deal.
Remembering something wonderful
Not surprisingly, many well-established performers were left in the lurch by the rise of the new media. Moreover, some vaudevillians who, like Fred Allen, had successfully reinvented themselves for radio were unable to make the transition to TV. But a handful of exceptionally talented performers managed to move from vaudeville to radio to TV, and none did it with more success than Jack Benny, whose feigned stinginess, scratchy violin playing, slightly effeminate demeanor, and preternaturally exact comic timing made him one of the world’s most beloved performers. After establishing himself in vaudeville, he became the star of a comedy series, The Jack Benny Program, that aired continuously, first on radio and then TV, from 1932 until 1965. Save for Bob Hope, no other comedian of his time was so popular.
With the demise of nighttime network radio as an entertainment medium, the 931 weekly episodes of The Jack Benny Program became the province of comedy obsessives—and because Benny’s TV series was filmed in black-and-white, it is no longer shown in syndication with any regularity. And while he also made Hollywood films, some of which were box-office hits, only one, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), is today seen on TV other than sporadically.
Nevertheless, connoisseurs of comedy still regard Benny, who died in 1974, as a giant, and numerous books, memoirs, and articles have been published about his life and art. Most recently, Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has brought out Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, the first book-length primary-source academic study of The Jack Benny Program and its star.* Fuller-Seeley’s genuine appreciation for Benny’s work redeems her anachronistic insistence on viewing it through the fashionable prism of gender- and race-based theory, and her book, though sober-sided to the point of occasional starchiness, is often quite illuminating.
Most important of all, off-the-air recordings of 749 episodes of the radio version of The Jack Benny Program survive in whole or part and can easily be downloaded from the Web. As a result, it is possible for people not yet born when Benny was alive to hear for themselves why he is still remembered with admiration and affection—and why one specific aspect of his performing persona continues to fascinate close observers of the American scene.B orn Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894, Benny was the son of Eastern European émigrés (his father was from Poland, his mother from Lithuania). He started studying violin at six and had enough talent to pursue a career in music, but his interests lay elsewhere, and by the time he was a teenager, he was working in vaudeville as a comedian who played the violin as part of his act. Over time he developed into a “monologist,” the period term for what we now call a stand-up comedian, and he began appearing in films in 1929 and on network radio three years after that.
Radio comedy, like silent film, is now an obsolete art form, but the program formats that it fostered in the ’20s and ’30s all survived into the era of TV, and some of them flourish to this day. One, episodic situation comedy, was developed in large part by Jack Benny and his collaborators. Benny and Harry Conn, his first full-time writer, turned his weekly series, which started out as a variety show, into a weekly half-hour playlet featuring a regular cast of characters augmented by guest stars. Such playlets, relying as they did on a setting that was repeated from week to week, were easier to write than the free-standing sketches favored by Allen, Hope, and other ex-vaudevillians, and by the late ’30s, the sitcom had become a staple of radio comedy.
The process, as documented by Fuller-Seeley, was a gradual one. The Jack Benny Program never broke entirely with the variety format, continuing to feature both guest stars (some of whom, like Ronald Colman, ultimately became semi-regular members of the show’s rotating ensemble of players) and songs sung by Dennis Day, a tenor who joined the cast in 1939. Nor was it the first radio situation comedy: Amos & Andy, launched in 1928, was a soap-opera-style daily serial that also featured regular characters. Nevertheless, it was Benny who perfected the form, and his own character would become the prototype for countless later sitcom stars.
The show’s pivotal innovation was to turn Benny and the other cast members into fictionalized versions of themselves—they were the stars of a radio show called “The Jack Benny Program.” Sadye Marks, Benny’s wife, played Mary Livingstone, his sharp-tongued secretary, with three other characters added as the self-reflexive concept took shape. Don Wilson, the stout, genial announcer, came on board in 1934. He was followed in 1936 by Phil Harris, Benny’s roguish bandleader, and, in 1939, by Day, Harris’s simple-minded vocalist. To this team was added a completely fictional character, Rochester Van Jones, Benny’s raspy-voiced, outrageously impertinent black valet, played by Eddie Anderson, who joined the cast in 1938.
As these five talented performers coalesced into a tight-knit ensemble, the jokey, vaudeville-style sketch comedy of the early episodes metamorphosed into sitcom-style scripts that portrayed their offstage lives, as well as the making of the show itself. Scarcely any conventional jokes were told, nor did Benny’s writers employ the topical and political references in which Allen and Hope specialized. Instead, the show’s humor arose almost entirely from the close interplay of character and situation.
Benny was not solely responsible for the creation of this format, which was forged by Conn and perfected by his successors. Instead, he doubled as the star and producer—or, to use the modern term, show runner—closely supervising the writing of the scripts and directing the performances of the other cast members. In addition, he and Conn turned the character of Jack Benny from a sophisticated vaudeville monologist into the hapless butt of the show’s humor, a vain, sexually inept skinflint whose character flaws were ceaselessly twitted by his colleagues, who in turn were given most of the biggest laugh lines.
This latter innovation was a direct reflection of Benny’s real-life personality. Legendary for his voluble appreciation of other comedians, he was content to respond to the wisecracking of his fellow cast members with exquisitely well-timed interjections like “Well!” and “Now, cut that out,” knowing that the comic spotlight would remain focused on the man of whom they were making fun and secure in the knowledge that his own comic personality was strong enough to let them shine without eclipsing him in the process.
And with each passing season, the fictional personalities of Benny and his colleagues became ever more firmly implanted in the minds of their listeners, thus allowing the writers to get laughs merely by alluding to their now-familiar traits. At the same time, Benny and his writers never stooped to coasting on their familiarity. Even the funniest of the “cheap jokes” that were their stock-in-trade were invariably embedded in carefully honed dramatic situations that heightened their effectiveness.
A celebrated case in point is the best-remembered laugh line in the history of The Jack Benny Program, heard in a 1948 episode in which a burglar holds Benny up on the street. “Your money or your life,” the burglar says—to which Jack replies, after a very long pause, “I’m thinking it over!” What makes this line so funny is, of course, our awareness of Benny’s stinginess, reinforced by a decade and a half of constant yet subtly varied repetition. What is not so well remembered is that the line is heard toward the end of an episode that aired shortly after Ronald Colman won an Oscar for his performance in A Double Life. Inspired by this real-life event, the writers concocted an elaborately plotted script in which Benny talks Colman (who played his next-door neighbor on the show) into letting him borrow the Oscar to show to Rochester. It is on his way home from this errand that Benny is held up, and the burglar not only robs him of his money but also steals the statuette, a situation that was resolved to equally explosive comic effect in the course of two subsequent episodes.
No mere joke-teller could have performed such dramatically complex scripts week after week with anything like Benny’s effectiveness. The secret of The Jack Benny Program was that its star, fully aware that he was not “being himself” but playing a part, did so with an actor’s skill. This was what led Ernst Lubitsch to cast him in To Be or Not to Be, in which he plays a mediocre Shakespearean tragedian, a character broadly related to but still quite different from the one who appeared on his own radio show. As Lubitsch explained to Benny, who was skeptical about his ability to carry off the part:
A clown—he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian—he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.
To Be or Not to Be also stands out from the rest of Benny’s work because he plays an identifiably Jewish character. The Jack Benny character that he played on radio and TV, by contrast, was never referred to or explicitly portrayed as Jewish. To be sure, most listeners were in no doubt of his Jewishness, and not merely because Benny made no attempt in real life to conceal his ethnicity, of which he was by all accounts proud. The Jack Benny Program was written by Jews, and the ego-puncturing insults with which their scripts were packed, as well as the schlemiel-like aspect of Benny’s “fall guy” character, were quintessentially Jewish in style.
As Benny explained in a 1948 interview cited by Fuller-Seeley:
The humor of my program is this: I’m a big shot, see? I’m fast-talking. I’m a smart guy. I’m boasting about how marvelous I am. I’m a marvelous lover. I’m a marvelous fiddle player. Then, five minutes after I start shooting off my mouth, my cast makes a shmo out of me.
Even so, his avoidance of specific Jewish identification on the air is noteworthy precisely because his character was a miser. At a time when overt anti-Semitism was still common in America, it is remarkable that Benny’s comic persona was based in large part on an anti-Semitic stereotype—yet one that seems not to have inspired any anti-Semitic attacks on Benny himself. When, in 1945, his writers came up with the idea of an “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because . . . ” write-in campaign, they received 270,000 entries. Only three made mention of his Jewishness.
As for the winning entry, submitted by a California lawyer, it says much about what insulated Benny from such attacks: “He fills the air with boasts and brags / And obsolete, obnoxious gags / The way he plays his violin / Is music’s most obnoxious sin / His cowardice alone, indeed, / Is matched by his obnoxious greed / And all the things that he portrays / Show up MY OWN obnoxious ways.” It is clear that Benny’s foibles were seen by his listeners not as particular but universal, just as there was no harshness in the razzing of his fellow cast members, who very clearly loved the Benny character in spite of his myriad flaws. So, too, did the American people. Several years after his TV series was cancelled, a corporation that was considering using him as a spokesman commissioned a national poll to find out how popular he was. It learned that only 3 percent of the respondents disliked him.
Therein lay Benny’s triumph: He won total acceptance from the American public and did so by embodying a Jewish stereotype from which the sting of prejudice had been leached. Far from being a self-hating whipping boy for anti-Semites, he turned himself into WASP America’s Jewish uncle, preposterous yet lovable.W hen the bottom fell out of network radio, Benny negotiated the move to TV without a hitch, debuting on the small screen in 1950 and bringing the radio version of The Jack Benny Program to a close five years later, making it one of the very last radio comedy series to shut up shop. Even after his weekly TV series was finally canceled by CBS in 1965, he continued to star in well-received one-shot specials on NBC.
But Benny’s TV appearances, for all their charm, were never quite equal in quality to his radio work, which is why he clung to the radio version of The Jack Benny Program until network radio itself went under: Better than anyone else, he knew how good the show had been. For the rest of his life, he lived off the accumulated comic capital built up by 21 years of weekly radio broadcasts.
Now, at long last, he belongs to the ages, and The Jack Benny Program is a museum piece. Yet it remains hugely influential, albeit at one or more removes from the original. From The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Danny Thomas Show to Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Larry Sanders Show, every ensemble-cast sitcom whose central character is a fictionalized version of its star is based on Benny’s example. And now that the ubiquity of the Web has made the radio version of his series readily accessible for the first time, anyone willing to make the modest effort necessary to seek it out is in a position to discover that The Jack Benny Program, six decades after it left the air, is still as wonderfully, benignly funny as it ever was, a monument to the talent of the man who, more than anyone else, made it so.
Review of 'The Transferred Life of George Eliot' By Philip Davis
Not that there’s any danger these theoretically protesting students would have read George Eliot’s works—not even the short one, Silas Marner (1861), which in an earlier day was assigned to high schoolers. I must admit I didn’t find my high-school reading of Silas Marner a pleasant experience—sports novels for boys like John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Tomkinsville were inadequate preparation. I must confess, too, that when I was in graduate school, determined to study 17th-century English verse, my reaction to the suggestion that I should also read Middlemarch (1871–72) was “What?! An 800-page novel by the guy who wrote Silas Marner?” A friend patiently explained that “the guy” was actually Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819, died in 1880. Partly because she was living in sin with the literary jack-of-all-trades George Henry Lewes (legally and irrevocably bound to his estranged wife), she adopted “George Eliot” as a protective pseudonym when, in her 1857 debut, she published Scenes from Clerical Life.
I did, many times over and with awe and delight, go on to read Middlemarch and the seven other novels, often in order to teach them to college students. Students have become less and less receptive over the years. Forget modern-day objections to George Eliot’s complex political or religious views. Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) were too hefty, and the triple-decked Middlemarch and Deronda, even if I set aside three weeks for them, rarely got finished.
The middle 20th century was perhaps a more a propitious time for appreciating George Eliot, Henry James, and other 19th-century English and American novelists. Influential teachers like F.R. Leavis at Cambridge and Lionel Trilling at Columbia were then working hard to persuade students that the study of literature, not just poetry and drama but also fiction, matters both to their personal lives—the development of their sensibility or character—and to their wider society. The “moral imagination” that created Middlemarch enriches our minds by dramatizing the complications—the frequent blurring of good and evil—in our lives. Great novels help us cope with ambiguities and make us more tolerant of one another. Many of Leavis’s and Trilling’s students became teachers themselves, and for several decades the feeling of cultural urgency was sustained. In the 1970s, though, between the leftist emphasis on literature as “politics by other means” and the deconstructionist denial of the possibility of any knowledge, literary or otherwise, independent of political power, the high seriousness of Leavis and Trilling began to fade.
The study of George Eliot and her life has gone through many stages. Directly after her death came the sanitized, hagiographic “life and letters” by J.W. Cross, the much younger man she married after Lewes’s death. Gladstone called it “a Reticence in three volumes.” The three volumes helped spark, if they didn’t cause, the long reaction against the Victorian sages generally that culminated in the dismissively satirical work of the Bloomsbury biographer and critic Lytton Strachey in his immensely influential Eminent Victorians (1916). Strachey’s mistreatment of his forbears was, with regard to George Eliot at least, tempered almost immediately by Virginia Woolf. It was Woolf who in 1919 provocatively said that Middlemarch had been “the first English novel for adults.” Eventually, the critical tide against George Eliot was decisively reversed in the ’40s by Joan Bennett and Leavis, who made the inarguable case for her genuine and lasting achievement. That period of correction culminated in the 1960s with Gordon S. Haight’s biography and with interpretive studies by Barbara Hardy and W.J. Harvey. Books on George Eliot over the last four decades have largely been written by specialists for specialists—on her manuscripts or working notes, and on her affiliations with the scientists, social historians, and competing novelists of her day.
The same is true, only more so, of the books written, with George Eliot as the ostensible subject, to promote deconstructionist or feminist agendas. Biographies have done a better job appealing to the common reader, not least because the woman’s own story is inherently compelling. The question right now is whether a book combining biographical and interpretive insight—one “pitched,” as publishers like to say, not just at experts but at the common reader—is past praying for.
Philip Davis, a Victorian scholar and an editor at Oxford University Press, hopes not. His The Transferred Life of George Eliot—transferred, that is, from her own experience into her letters, journals, essays, and novels, and beyond them into us—deserves serious attention. Davis is conscious that George Eliot called biographies of writers “a disease of English literature,” both overeager to discover scandals and too inclined to substitute day-to-day travels, relationships, dealings with publishers and so on, for critical attention to the books those writers wrote. Davis therefore devotes himself to George Eliot’s writing. Alas, he presumes rather too much knowledge on the reader’s part of the day-to-day as charted in Haight’s marvelous life. (A year-by-year chronology at the front of the book would have helped even his fellow Victorianists.)
As for George Eliot’s writing, Davis is determined to refute “what has been more or less said . . . in the schools of theory for the last 40 years—that 19th-century realism is conservatively bland and unimaginative, bourgeois and parochial, not truly art at all.” His argument for the richness, breadth, and art of George Eliot’s realism—her factual and sympathetic depiction of poor and middling people, without omitting a candid representation of the rich—is most convincing. What looms largest, though, is the realist, the woman herself—the Mary Ann Evans who, from the letters to the novels, became first Marian Evans the translator and essayist and then later “her own greatest character”: George Eliot the novelist. Davis insists that “the meaning of that person”—not merely the voice of her omniscient narrators but the omnipresent imagination that created the whole show—“has not yet exhausted its influence nor the larger future life she should have had, and may still have, in the world.”
The transference of George Eliot’s experience into her fiction is unquestionable: In The Mill on the Floss, for example, Mary Ann is Maggie, and her brother Isaac is Tom Tulliver. Davis knows that a better word might be transmutation, as George Eliot had, in Henry James’s words, “a mind possessed,” for “the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.” No data-accumulating biographer, even the most exhaustive, can account for that “incalculable . . . mystery.”
Which is why Davis, like a good teacher, gives us exercises in “close reading.” He pauses to consider how a George Eliot sentence balances or turns on an easy-to-skip-over word or phrase—the balance or turn often representing a moment when the novelist looks at what’s on the underside of the cards.
George Eliot’s style is subtle because her theme is subtle. Take D.H. Lawrence’s favorite heroine, the adolescent Maggie Tulliver. The external event in The Mill on the Floss may be the girl’s impulsive cutting off her unruly hair to spite her nagging aunts, or the young woman’s drifting down the river with a superficially attractive but truly impossible boyfriend. But the real “action” is Maggie’s internal self-blame and self-assertion. No Victorian novelist was better than George Eliot at tracing the psychological development of, say, a husband and wife who realize they married each other for shallow reasons, are unhappy, and now must deal with the ordinary necessities of balancing the domestic budget—Lydgate and Rosamund in Middlemarch—or, in the same novel, the religiously inclined Dorothea’s mistaken marriage to the old scholar Casaubon. That mistake precipitates not merely disenchantment and an unconscious longing for love with someone else, but (very finely) a quest for a religious explanation of and guide through her quandary.
It’s the religio-philosophical side of George Eliot about which Davis is strongest—and weakest. Her central theological idea, if one may simplify, was that the God of the Bible didn’t exist “out there” but was a projection of the imagination of the people who wrote it. Jesus wasn’t, in Davis’s characterization of her view, “the impervious divine, but [a man who] shed tears and suffered,” and died feeling forsaken. “This deep acceptance of so-called weakness was what most moved Marian Evans in her Christian inheritance. It was what God was for.” That is, the character of Jesus, and the dramatic play between him and his Father, expressed the human emotions we and George Eliot are all too familiar with. The story helps reconcile us to what is, finally, inescapable suffering.
George Eliot came to this demythologized understanding not only of Judaism and Christianity but of all religions through her contact first with a group of intellectuals who lived near Coventry, then with two Germans she translated: David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1,500-page Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835–36) was for her a slog, and Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity (1841) was for her a joy. Also, in the search for the universal morality that Strauss and Feuerbach believed Judaism and Christianity expressed mythically, there was Spinoza’s utterly non-mythical Ethics (1677). It was seminal for her—offering, as Davis says, “the intellectual origin for freethinking criticism of the Bible and for the replacement of religious superstition and dogmatic theology by pure philosophic reason.” She translated it into English, though her version did not appear until 1981.
I wish Davis had left it there, but he takes it too far. He devotes more than 40 pages—a tenth of the whole book—to her three translations, taking them as a mother lode of ideational gold whose tailings glitter throughout her fiction. These 40 pages are followed by 21 devoted to Herbert Spencer, the Victorian hawker of theories-of-everything (his 10-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy addresses biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics). She threw herself at the feet of this intellectual huckster, and though he rebuffed her painfully amorous entreaties, she never ceased revering him. Alas, Spencer was a stick—the kind of philosopher who was incapable of emotion. And she was his intellectual superior in every way. The chapter is largely unnecessary.
The book comes back to life when Davis turns to George Henry Lewes, the man who gave Mary Ann Evans the confidence to become George Eliot—perhaps the greatest act of loving mentorship in all of literature. Like many prominent Victorians, Lewes dabbled in all the arts and sciences, publishing highly readable accounts of them for a general audience. His range was as wide as Spencer’s, but his personality and writing had an irrepressible verve that Spencer could only have envied. Lewes was a sort Stephen Jay Gould yoked to Daniel Boorstin, popularizing other people’s findings and concepts, and coming up with a few of his own. He regarded his Sea-Side Studies (1860) as “the book . . . which was to me the most unalloyed delight,” not least because Marian, whom he called Polly, had helped gather the data. She told a friend “There is so much happiness condensed in it! Such scrambles over rocks, and peeping into clear pool [sic], and strolls along the pure sands, and fresh air mingling with fresh thoughts.” In his remarkably intelligent 1864 biography of Goethe, Lewes remarks that the poet “knew little of the companionship of two souls striving in emulous spirit of loving rivalry to become better, to become wiser, teaching each other to soar.” Such a companionship Lewes and George Eliot had in spades, and some of Davis’s best passages describe it.
Regrettably, Davis also offers many passages well below the standard of his best—needlessly repeating an already established point or obfuscating the obvious. Still, The Transferred Lives is the most formidably instructive, and certainly complete, life-and-works treatment of George Eliot we have.