Koestler’s Fellow-Travelers and their Politics
If some of my best friends are right, and the big thing right now is to show that the Jew is as common a common man as the next, Arthur Koestler’s Thieves in the Night is the finest thing that has happened to the Jews since Benny Leonard. First of all, like all good public relations, it graciously meets its audience halfway. Jewish traits, Koestler admits, are as unpleasant as they are said to be: Western Jews—that is, the Jews all around us—are greasy and pushy and noisy and argumentative and just too clever, and when there’s a crowd of them, it’s about all you can do to stand them. But—wait until they get back to their own country! There they work on the land, they get calloused and dumb, they stop talking so much-, they hate the Arabs’ guts, and if need be they can rough a few of them up to keep them quiet. (Of course, there are some incorrigibles—pacifist Jews—but they disappear after the first generation.) This presumably convinces Gentiles that Jews are basically just like other people, and if it weren’t for an unhappy historical circumstance, they would never have developed those objectionable traits.
But for the Jews themselves, this book can be as harmful as it is frivolous—if they take it seriously. Koestler would have us believe that the British in 1939 decided to let no more Jews into Palestine because the colonial officials in Palestine liked the Arabs’ picturesqueness, and the government in London feared their strength; that there is no chance of Jews and Arabs working together because all the Arabs are medieval, hate the Jews, and are incapable of seeing their own interests; and that British imperial interests, if the British were only smart enough to see them, would best be served by a Jewish state in Palestine. So, he says, let’s blow up some Arabs to show how strong and tough we are, let’s blow up some English to show we can fight them too, and maybe then England will take us instead of the Arabs as their Near East protégés.
This is the program of Bauman, his terrorist leader, and Koestler undertakes to show why you, the modern, liberal American Jew, should support it. Many of my best friends—men who under normal circumstances are intelligent, tough-minded people—are happy as larks over Bauman’s point of view, so perhaps we should look at his argument.
First, he tells us, these terrorists are really nice fellows. Fascist? That’s just propaganda. Why, they are all Social-Democrats and members of collective colonies (the only exception is a comic yeshiva bocher). Also (this is a more subtle argument), they have names like Joseph and Simeon; and since the first of these (Koestler’s hero) is only half-Jewish, we are allowed to presume that they hardly look Jewish at all, or, at worst, like Maccabean warriors. And in case we don’t get the point, the most vocal opponents of terrorism and exponents of Arab-Jewish cooperation are called Max and Sarah—and you can imagine what they look like.
Second, the terrorists are the only ones who do anything practical. The oily Glicksteins just make speeches, but the terrorists scare the British out of giving Palestine to the Arabs and bring in illegal immigrants in violation of the White Paper. All this is documented, not only by fiction (Koestler says of his book in the dedication: “The characters in this chronicle are fictional, the happenings are not”), but in a series of news items interspersed through the fictional account.
But the documentation, both “news” and fiction, is really a fraud. The terrorist organizations—extremist offshoots of those Revisionists who admired Mussolini, fought the labor organization, and assassinated labor leaders before turning on the Arabs and British (Palestine labor calls them “fascists”)—are not made up of Social-Democrats and members of collective colonies. Though one would hardly guess it from Koestler’s book, they are made up of the chauvinistic and religious youth of Eastern Europe, and Palestine’s unhappy Yemenite Jews who, treated everywhere as a lower caste, have turned to the terrorist organizations in their search for equality. Terrorist action on February 27, 1939 did not scare Britain out of giving Palestine to the Arabs; Koestler’s news account on pages 244-248, which purports to prove so, is an artful fabrication. And the work of the terrorist organization in bringing in illegal immigrants, conducted in the white limelight of publicity so as to get funds from America, was puny (many reputable authorities say non-existent) compared to the work along the same lines of the Hagana and the labor organization.
Today, this work is still carried on by the Hagana and the Jewish Agency (see I. F. Stone’s Underground to Palestine) . But Koestler ascribes all the achievements of the Hagana—some of which required military action, but not terror—to the terrorists. Under the impression that the terrorists are responsible for every act of force in Palestine, and convinced that some were necessary, as indeed they were, the unwary reader is tricked into supporting the terrorists.
And what extraordinary fictional sleight-of-hand! One is asked to believe that a proper young Englishman, who never completely realized he was half-Jewish, could discover his identity in the bed of a fascistic Englishwoman and be shocked into becoming a halutz, a member of a collective, giving up his privacy and freedom—for what? “It had been a curious journey,” says Koestler, “from Lily’s bed to Ezra’s Tower in Galilee”: the word “curious” here is a classic understatement. With the reasons why this young man becomes a halutz and a socialist so unconvincing, we are equally unconvinced (and unmoved) by his jump to the terrorists (when the girl he loves is raped and killed by Arabs); and not knowing what he believes, we don’t know what he has to give up to become a terrorist. From Koestler’s account, it requires little change and no sacrifice—as little, in fact, as is required of the American reader, won over by Koestler’s argument to the terrorist position, when he demands unflinchingly from the safety of his parlor, “Let’s you and him fight.”
This, indeed, is the result intended by Koestler’s book. He portrays an intolerable situation. Something must be done. “I will either get an ulcer or join the terrorists,” says his hero. How easy for comfortable middle-class people safe on Central Park West or Shaker Heights to succumb to Koestler’s up-to-date, “disabused” plea for the support of unrestricted and irresponsible terror—today against the British, tomorrow against the Arabs, and next day against the Jewish “moderates.” (And on a slightly lower level, we have the heroic pageantries of Ben Hecht’s play, frantically applauded by New Yorkers.)
But what if the terrorist policy advocated reduces still further the slim hopes for legal Jewish immigration, makes harder the work of illegal immigration, endangers the fifty years of labor that went into the building of Jewish Palestine? Such practical matters are unimportant to Koestler. True, he tries to make a realistic case for the benefits of terrorism, but his argument is inconsistent and weak. The real attraction of the terrorist policy, for him, is that it prevents ulcers—kills Jews, perhaps, but prevents ulcers.
But ulcers may yet be necessary a while to keep the Jews alive. The alternative (so uncomfortable for so many people) to emotional orgies and sloganized “action” is the struggle with the political realities of the situation, the hard, grim business of thinking in a disciplined way to analyze the present Palestine dilemma, and find intelligent means of meeting it. People will apparently try anything but that. Yet face it we must. The notions that practical politics may be relevant to the Jewish condition, and that reason may be relevant to politics, seem foreign to Koestler, and to his Broadway-Hollywood prototypes, Mr. Hecht and the rest. Which is also true of their fellow-travelers, most of them novitiates, many of them “radicals” suddenly awakened to the existence of specific Jewish problems alongside the Negro, Indian, and other problems that used to hold the foreground of their attention.
Perhaps we cannot expect of the average man-in-the-street too rational a response to the frustration of seeing the Jewish remnant hungering for emigration, a Jewish land burning to receive them—and the British standing between. But the irrationality of Jewish intellectuals and Jewish community leaders is something else again. They should be warned that their frivolousness can hurt.
For while parlor adventurism may be indulged in without any danger of affecting the actions, say, of the Big Four, it is—for good or ill—quite a different matter in Jewish politics and Jewish policies. The Jewish people is small; its tasks must be small; and what tasks it sets itself, it may well achieve or fail to achieve through its own efforts. So that while we cannot make socialism in America, for example, it is perfectly conceivable to make it in Jewish Palestine—or at least to the extent that anything can be made socialist in a non-socialist world.
And while individual Jews or the Jewish community as a whole cannot determine the military policy of the American government, or of the Russian government, whatever be the force of our praise or denunciation, we can affect the policies of the Jewish people. How American Jews think decided what policies were voted in Basel, and these policies may well affect the fate of the 600,000 Jews in Palestine, the hundreds of thousands who desire to go there, the further numbers who may some day be impelled to go there. Accordingly, our attitudes on Jewish politics are objectively responsible; everything we do matters—for the Jews. The error of so many Jews is to carry into the limited Jewish realm the irresponsible attitudes in which we can safely (though without credit) indulge ourselves with respect to world politics.
In the present case, our personal tastes as to the Arabs, or our angry feelings against the British, while legitimate emotions, must not be allowed to confuse our thinking. If friendly relations between the Arab and Jewish masses are essential to safeguard the Palestine Jewish community and enable immigration to continue, or if the continuance of the tie with Britain is still necessary for Jewish hopes, then the search for some way to effect such policies must be paramount, ulcers or no.
But, abstaining from thought, American Jews continue intransigently to demand an independent democratic Jewish state in Palestine—without bothering to explain how in the world an independent democratic state in Palestine could remain Jewish. And this impossibility has become the Zionist program. And, in turn, this irresponsibility has been a major influence in dissipating what little store of good will Jews had accumulated among the Arabs in Palestine.
Has Koestler, in his advocacy of terrorism, backtracked from his position in The Yogi and the Commissar? I think not. In both cases we have not reasoned positions, but symptoms. Koestler, as much as the Jews whom he so labels, is “the extreme condition of mankind”—or at least that portion thereof made up of the intellectuals. There is a crisis in radical thought, and, as has been often said, Koestler expresses this crisis rather than does anything about it. Jumping from one extreme position to another, he is, it is true, always relevant—but always wrong, and the consistency in his thought is an external consistency to be found only in his personality.
We must learn to recognize Koestler’s call for the abdication of intelligence in favor of the primacy of the sympathetic nervous system for what it is, a vulgar invitation to intellectual—and not only intellectual—suicide.
Philip Rahv is wrong when he writes (in his review published in the December 1946 COMMENTARY), “The real issue is a political one, and that is the way Koestler approaches it.” This indeed is just what Koestler does not do; for him, terror plays the classic role of drama: emotional catharsis. One feels good after firing a gun, after knowing it has hit a human form; but where is politics in that?
But in saying .this, we must go further and divest this question of all hypocrisy, and admit frankly that, of course, almost every Jew felt good when he read that Jews were “fighting back.” (Even the Palestinians, who knew they and their achievements would be destroyed if the terrorists were to get the upper hand in Jewish policy, could not help being thrilled by the shots, feeling that “our boys” were out there fighting for them—see Shlomo Katz, December 1946 COMMENTARY). And how could we fail to be thrilled? Haven’t we all been taught to cheer when David turns on Goliath, when the victim turns on the bully—and we half expect David to win. We Jews, besides, were forced to suffer for five years the thought that our people in Europe were being led passively to slaughter, with only a few crumbs of resistance to feed our desire to fight back. In the Warsaw ghetto, every Jew felt that it was worth a hundred Jewish lives to take one Nazi life; but the same philosophy carried to Palestine, with the British cast in the role of Nazis, throws away the chance of hundreds of thousands of Jews for secure and decent lives.
We cannot deny the emotional response, but we cannot then say that the vicarious pleasures of long-distance violence are a true guide to political action. Koestler has proposed an apolitical, we might say an aesthetic, criterion for politics, and in our present situation this is more attractive to many American Jews than merely utilitarian criteria. (I forego discussing, as a well-enough understood phenomenon, the escapism, the Jewish self-hatred, and the overseas Utopianism obvious in Koestler, and in so many other new Zionist extremists.)
Mr. Rahv says (though in another context) “Consciousness . . .is not enough” beyond consciousness one seeks for “feeling,” “action,” even “existence.” But in politics these are traps, and consciousness is quite enough. The intellectuals are still too close to the rational heritage to say openly “terror for terror’s sake and to hell with the consequences,” and Mr. Rahv feels impelled—like Koestler—to cite the Irish case to show that terror can work. The poverty of the example informs us of the flabbiness of the motivation, for the Jewish position in Palestine is more akin to that of the Irish Protestants, and the demand for a Jewish state in all Palestine as illogical as would have been the demand for a Protestant state in all Ireland.
As we go further in time from a horror that was beyond us either to prevent or to understand, one hopes that the desire to repeat Masada and go down in a glorious mass-suicide will also fade. The Jews of Palestine, living in the midst of realities, have already spurned those who would commit them to such a path. Let us leave Goetterdaemmerung for Goering et al.
The only way to the solution of Palestine’s problems is the sober, unglamorous way of disciplined intelligence guiding responsible action. Perhaps that way will not work either. But nothing else will.