In order to understand the genius of a contemporary Hebrew writer such as S. Y. Agnon it is necessary first…
In order to understand the genius of a contemporary Hebrew writer such as S. Y. Agnon it is necessary first to consider the nature of the Hebrew language before it became, once again, a normal means of communication, a language of children playing in the street. Before the present generation, Hebrew was nourished from a different source entirely; it was the language of a great religious tradition, and almost everything written in it made sense in the context of that tradition. This is not to say that the language was peripheral to the Jewish community as a whole. Even after Hebrew (or for that matter Aramaic, which was so closely related to Hebrew that in the Jewish mind it became almost a kind of younger sibling) was no longer in use as a spoken language, it continued to hold its own as a written language, occupying over the centuries a central place in education and in the study of the Bible, the Talmud, and all writings connected with them. Nor did Hebrew remain the province of a numerically small elite, as was the case with Latin. Everyone was expected to have a working knowledge of Hebrew; the study of the Bible and the Talmud was by no means limited to those who intended to become rabbis or judges. In countries where Jewish intellectual and religious life was particularly vigorous—such as Poland, Italy, and Turkey—Hebrew represented the principal means for expressing the spiritual life of an important segment of the male community. It is true that the spark of vitality, which comes to language when it is used and spoken by women, was lacking, and this lack is indeed significant. What remained, however, was of overwhelming richness. Aside from those books intended for womenfolk that were composed in the vernacular, almost all literary works—chronicles, poetry, and even parody—were written in Hebrew. In these works, biblical and talmudic associations were employed to the hilt; the works abounded in witty and surprising uses of old phrases or in playful variations upon them. Quite often the measure of a Jew’s education was not only his command of Bible and Talmud, but his ingenious ability to use the language of these source materials for secular purposes as well.
Modern Hebrew literature, especially in the 19th and in the early part of the 20th centuries, was from the start built on a paradox: it fed on a language of predominantly religious tradition but strove for avowedly secular goals. Writers of considerable talent and some, indeed, of genius, worked mightily to achieve the metamorphosis of Hebrew into a language of secular literature. In its earlier stages this new literature was directed mainly toward criticizing the petrified state of Jewish tradition and the many shortcomings and basic faults of East European Jewish society. Later, however, with the emergence of the Zionist movement, the renascence of Hebrew gravitated toward a more positive goal. A new life was springing up in the old land of Israel and Hebrew literature was to serve as the connecting link between this new society and the disintegrating communities of the Diaspora. Still, even such outstanding representatives of this literary renascence as Bialik, Tchernichowsky, and Shneur, were limited in the means of expression at their disposal. Hebrew had remained a language of literary tradition; despite the fact that these three writers spent their later years in Israel, the spoken Hebrew of the new generation had no formative influence on their work.
Agnon stands at a crossroads in the development of modern Hebrew. Heir to the totality of Jewish tradition, he has given the highest artistic expression to the life of the Jewish people both in the setting of tradition and under the impact of the historic forces which led to the disintegration of that setting. As an artist, Agnon is unequaled, a classical master; but, because of the circumstances of his time and his position, he is also the last of his line. Having spent most of his creative years in the land of Israel, Agnon has witnessed the development of Hebrew as a “natural” language, spoken at first in consequence of a moral decision made by a small number of utopians, and later by youngsters who grew up in Israel and knew no other language. He has been fully conscious of this process, and he knows that the metamorphosis which Hebrew has undergone has involved a decisive loss of form. When language is no longer forged, first and foremost, by the study of texts and through conscious reflection, but rather by unconscious processes in which the power of tradition is a minor factor at best, that language becomes by nature chaotic. Indeed, the chaotic quality of present-day Hebrew was already apparent forty years ago, when Agnon returned from Europe to settle permanently in Israel; one day it may become the vehicle of expression of a new literary genius, but by then it will be essentially different, in its means and potentialities, from the Hebrew language whose forms and cadences are immortalized in the prose of Agnon.
For the most obvious result of the regeneration of Hebrew as a natural language has been the sloughing off of its heavy load of historical overtones, accumulated through three thousand years of sacred literature. Hebrew words have acquired a new virginity; they are ready now to be molded into new contexts, from which the old and sometimes oppressive odor of sanctity has evaporated. This is precisely what Hebrew writers of the last two generations have tried to do. Yet the burdens of history, which these writers feel in their bones, have asserted themselves even in revolt. In this respect today’s writers, for whom the Bible is no longer a holy book but a national saga, and to whom rabbinical and medieval literature is virtually unknown, are in a happier situation than Agnon and his contemporaries. They are free to wrestle with the words in a completely new emotional setting and on a level of freedom previously unattainable. They are, it is true, confronted with dangers of rebirth that are no less awesome than those of birth. Nobody can foretell what will come of this sweep and whirl in terms of literature. For the time being, at least, nothing is audible but stammering. Much of Agnon’s work is contemporary with these first stammerings, and there is even a secret mutuality between the two camps, the one of a writer who defends the most advanced outpost of the Hebrew language in its old forms, and the other manned by pioneers of the unbroken land that stretches beyond. The anarchic vitality, the lawlessness and roughness of the new language, has alarmed and frightened Agnon and appears as an object of scorn and irony in quite a few of his stories. But the reader of Agnon cannot help feeling that a good deal of the master’s work was produced as a kind of desperate incantation, an appeal to those who would come after him. It is as though he were saying: “Since you do not accept the continuity of tradition and its language in their true context, take them in the transformation which they have undergone in my work, take them from someone who stands at the crossroads and can see in both directions.”
I have tried to examine the condition of Hebrew and Hebrew literature so far as it is germane to the task of placing Agnon’s work in our time. But to understand the work we must also take a look at its author. For both, to say the least, are enigmatic. It is small wonder that over the last forty years a considerable literature of interpretation on the meaning of Agnon’s writings has sprung up in which widely differing and even contradictory points of view have been argued. The commentators have indulged in much overinterpretation, some of it invited by the seeming contradictions in Agnon’s writings. These commentators concentrate upon one point: Agnon’s attitude toward the historical, or better, religious, tradition of Judaism. Is he to be considered a spokesman for this tradition, a herald delivering its message in highly articulate form, or should we regard him rather as an accomplished artist who uses tradition to express all the intricacies of the life of a Jew in our time, proffering no easy answer to the old question: where are we going? Is he a great defender of the faith, as the Orthodox have acclaimed him? Is he some kind of existentialist genius, showing the emptiness of all fullness and the fullness of emptiness? Is he like the king of the Moors who filled his palace with portraits of white men, setting up an ideal which he is fully conscious can never be attained in our times? Agnon himself, for all his great conversational gifts, has been very reticent when it comes to these questions. He is not a man to commit himself. He has delivered his work and left his readers the task of coming to terms with it, his commentators the task of fighting it out among themselves; and, I should say, he rather enjoys the spectacle. As a matter of fact, having known Agnon for fifty years, I can testify that his own outlook has undergone great changes over the years, and I doubt whether any single harmonizing view would do him justice. He was not what could be called an observant Jew when I knew him first, but even then he gave the impression of being a bearer of spiritual tradition. Now, in his later years, when he has become an observant Jew, he still gives the impression of being a man of complete intellectual freedom and of utterly unorthodox mind.
This is confirmed by the story of his life. He began writing as a youth, more than sixty years ago. He grew up in Buczacz in Eastern Galicia (now Western Ukraine), an old and settled community of no more than eight thousand Jews and a center of rabbinic scholarship. He came from a family of scholars some of whom strictly opposed Hasidism and all it represented, but some of whom embraced it. His childhood reflected both these worlds, which made up the combined physiognomy of Jewish piety in 19th-century Galicia. He had hardly any schooling outside traditional talmudic education; his father was his main teacher in the study of the Talmud. He spent the years of adolescence in the local study house, which boasted a tremendous Hebrew library. He became an ardent and omnivorous reader of old talmudic tomes, to which he began writing notes and glosses. But at the same time he started producing stories and poems in the style of the writers of the Haskala, the rationalist movement which was attempting to introduce enlightenment and European culture into Hebrew. Galicia was then one of the centers of neo-Hebrew literature, and its writers enjoyed a great reputation as masters of Hebrew style. Still a lad, Agnon joined the ranks of the Zionists, beginning his literary career in local Hebrew and Yiddish journals which have long since disappeared. An older friend, Eliezer Meir Lipschuetz, to whom he remained attached to the end, used to say to him: “Make up your mind what you propose to be, a writer of talmudic notes, hiddushim and pilpulim, or a writer of stories and a poet.” Agnon made his choice early. But Yiddish soon lost its hold on him, and after going to Palestine in 1907 (not in 1909, as is often erroneously stated), he never again resorted to it as a vehicle of literary expression.
His lifelong struggle with Hebrew as both the matter and the form of his inspiration took shape in those first supreme efforts of his literary genius which were published in Palestine in the years preceding World War I. Their impact was instantaneous. The first story by him to be printed in Palestine, a lyrical and melancholy tale called Agunot (“Deserted Souls”), remains a classical piece of imaginative Hebrew writing to this day. Those with an ear for Hebrew prose—and there were quite a few of them in Palestine in those days—realized immediately the unique brilliance of the young writer. Shalom Streit, in 1913, said of Agunot: “An electric current ran through our community at its reading.” No Hebrew writer before had dared begin a short story with a lengthy quotation from what purported to be one of the old forgotten books, or to use that citation as a leitmotif running through the entire story. Even more paradoxical was Agnon’s publishing history in those years. The weekly newspaper of the socialist Hapo’el Hatza’ir, a group strongly influenced by Tolstoyan and narodniki ideas, published Agnon’s first book, Vehaya he’akov lemishor (“And the Crooked shall be made Straight”) in a series of installments. The story develops an Enoch Arden theme in a strictly traditional hasidic framework; it is written not so much in the actual style of the old devotional literature as in the style its authors would have used had they been great artists. Joseph Haim Brenner, a convinced atheist who was the first to recognize Agnon’s literary genius, scraped together his last shillings to publish the story in book form (1912); the man who set it in type was an ardent follower of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, one of the great saints of Hasidism. It is on record that both these men took the greatest delight in the work, thereby anticipating, so to speak, the contradictory attitudes taken by Agnon’s admirers in later years. For Brenner, “And the Crooked shall be made Straight” was the first work of secular Hebrew literature in which tradition had become the medium of pure art, untouched by extraneous factors such as criticism of, or apologetics for, Jewish society. For the typesetter, whom I have known for many years, it was a true embodiment of hasidic lore and spirit.
In the formative years of his first stay in Palestine, Agnon indeed felt at home in both these camps. He lived with ease among the pioneers of the Second aliya who wished to revitalize the Jewish people through the Tolstoyan religion of work and humanistic renewal, rather than through social revolution. He accepted their vision of Zionism as the only hope for a Jewish future. But at the same time he could establish close relations with the representatives of traditional piety. There was, no doubt, a difference of nuance in his attitude toward the two camps. He had consciously left the world of tradition as he had known it in his youth, but he was saturated with the spirit of this world. From the vantage-point of Zionism, a movement which endeavored to transform its essential ethos, this life, and the men and women who represented it, seemed to clamor for someone to give it shape. The charmed world of the old yishuv, the pre-Zionist settlers, in those years certainly held no message for the young Agnon so far as his own vision of the renascence of the Jewish people was concerned, but it provided him with a great store of characters and with an atmosphere of strange excitement. The life of centuries seemed to have been arrested here in a curious mixture of immortality and decay. And the encounter challenged the young artist, who recognized a submerged part of himself in this world.
Having absorbed what Jewish Palestine could offer him at that stage of his development, and longing to dissociate himself as well from the other center of his experience, Galicia, Agnon in 1913 went to Germany. He had meant to stay for a few years at most, but the war overtook him and it was not until 1924 that he returned to settle in Jerusalem. Agnon’s years in Germany were of the greatest importance to his work. German Jews left him baffled. Curious as he was about them, he could not become involved with them in any deep sense, as he had been involved, say, with Galicia. He was an exile who at the same time felt the exhilaration of a man who knows where he belongs. He was still an inveterate reader, and when I first saw him, it was in the excellent library of the Jewish Community in Berlin where, as he told me, he was looking for books he had not yet read. At this time, too, he made his principal contact with European literature. His natural inclination to perfectionism became quite pronounced in this period; he wrote and rewrote his stories six or seven times, a trait which was to become the bane of his publisher. He published very little during those years, but he worked indefatigably both at revising his older stories and at writing new ones. He also wrote a great amount of poetry and a long autobiographical novel in which he took critical stock of his earlier years and the ideas and movements which had shaped them. The only chapter of this work which has been preserved and published contains one of the most bitter and devastating pictures we have of Galician Zionism in the period of Agnon’s youth.
In June 1924, all of Agnon’s manuscripts and papers, together with his wonderful Hebrew library, were completely destroyed by a fire which broke out in his house in Homburg (near Frankfurt). Agnon was never the same after this cataclysmic event; indeed, who can fathom the impact of such a blow on the personality of a great artist? Starting from scratch again, he gave up writing poetry and never tried to reconstruct his lost novel. He simply surrendered what was lost, prepared a semi-final version of his published writings, and turned to new beginnings out of the depths of his creative imagination.
Upon his return to Palestine, Agnon developed a deep allegiance to Jerusalem and an appropriately conservative way of life. In the ensuing quarter-century he returned to the Diaspora only once, after his house in a suburb of Jerusalem had been pillaged by Arabs during the riots of 1929. This time, he went for a short visit to his home town in Galicia, and for a longer stay of nearly a year in Germany to see through the press the first four volumes of his collected works, which had taken five years to prepare. This was his last encounter with Europe and European Jews, and it left a sharp imprint on his mind. In fact, there was no further need for him to travel to the Diaspora—the Diaspora was coming to Palestine, in ever larger waves of aliya. His work now took on wider dimensions.
It is relevant in this connection to mention Agnon’s peculiar gifts as an anthologist. This activity has been much more than a mere sideline in his creative work as a writer. Agnon was never a scholar in the sense of a person dedicated to historical and critical analysis and to the study of phenomena within a conceptual framework. Nevertheless, he has always had a penchant for scholarship, enamored as he is of the study of primary sources. He has a wonderful feel for the significant and the curious in the vast realm of Hebrew literature, and a talent for synthesis. During his years in Germany he edited, in German, two anthologies, The Book of the Polish Jew and The Book of Hanukkah. In Jerusalem, he devoted a considerable amount of work and time to three anthologies which represent a perfect intermingling of his propensities for scholarship and connoisseurship with his ambitions as a writer and a master of form. In their way, these anthologies are also outstanding examples of creative work. The first of them is Days of Awe, “Being a treasury of traditions, legends, and learned commentaries concerning Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between, culled from three hundred volumes ancient and new”; an abridged edition of this work exists in English. With his caustic sense of humor Agnon included in Days of Awe a number of highly imaginative (and imaginary) passages culled from his own vineyard, a non-existent book, Kol Dodi (“The Voice of my Beloved”), innocently mentioned in the bibliography as a “Manuscript, in possession of the author.” The second anthology is comprised of stories and anecdotes about books and their authors—a compendium that reflects Agnon’s unquenchable thirst for the anecdotal side of Jewish bibliography. For some unfathomable reason, the book has never been published except in a private edition. The last of these anthologies is a collection of sayings about the Ten Commandments. Agnon has given years of his life to the preparation of these works; in them, the pure voice of tradition speaks in tones of laconic refinement.
Many years ago Agnon also planned a thesaurus of hasidic stories on which he had agreed to cooperate with Martin Buber. He commenced the work in Homburg, but the first batches of the manuscript fell victim to the flames, and he never returned to it. Yet his forays into scholarship continued unabated. It is noteworthy that the only great Hebrew writer with whom Agnon felt perfectly at ease was the poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, who shared with Agnon a propensity for creative anthologizing. As a matter of fact, Agnon never felt as comfortable in the company of writers as he did in that of scholars who, surprisingly enough, appear as central figures in some of his strangest stories. The calling of the writer seems to have held no mysteries, whereas the utter and largely hopeless devotion of the scholar obviously filled him with sinister fascination.
Many critics have rightly observed the obvious tension between the artist and the traditionalist in Agnon. It is of his essence. When he began writing he himself was far from a traditional Jew, but he deliberately set out to use Jewish tradition as the material of his fiction. This he did in two ways: on the one hand he penetrated ever deeper into the intricacies of this tradition, its grandeur and its ambivalences; and on the other hand he sought to begin, as it were, from the insecurity, the Verlorenheit and alienation of the modern Jew who attempts to come to terms with himself without the guidance of a tradition that has anyway ceased to be meaningful. The ellipse of Agnon’s work moves between two poles, the world of Buczacz and Polish Jewry, and the world of the new settlements in the land of Israel. Both of these worlds are portrayed in Agnon’s work on the two levels I have mentioned above—a circumstance which has proved rather confusing to many of his readers. The world of established Jewish values and the world of utter confusion, which on occasion seem to be separated by two or three generations, in reality partake of many similar characteristics. For all its apparent simplicity, there are great tensions even within the world of tradition; and although disintegration and contusion seem to be the predominant feature of the writer’s own times, here too a delicate equilibrium may be found. A forlorn little town like Buczacz could still contain an entire universe of human passion and ambition, of infinite richness and abysmal tragedy, just as the struggle for a new life in the old land could include all the infinite ambiguities of Zionism.
Agnon began by writing short stories, and it is in this mode that he has achieved a perfection which leaves the reader breathless. More than twenty years of intense productivity passed before he published his first long book, a chronicle of Jewish life in hasidic Galicia nearly a hundred and fifty years ago which in many ways stands on the borderline between a story and a novel, being itself comprised of what the author calls “stories within a story.” Many of these first stories, which gained Agnon a wide reputation and which must be considered classics of their kind, are legends of the Jewish past. The secret of their perfection lies in Agnon’s compression of an infinite wealth of detail into infinitesimal space. Unsurpassed in this respect are his masterpieces of fiction in the third volume of his collected writings; many of these tales are suffused with an atmosphere of immense sadness, while at the same time they hold out a promise of consolation. There is, for example, the story of Azriel Moshe the Porter, an ignoramus who grows enamored of the books in the great library of the Beth Hamidrash and teaches himself the titles of all the books whose contents he will never be able to grasp; this Azriel Moshe becomes the keeper of the library, dying a martyr’s death while shielding the books with his body in the hour of persecution. Another story concerns an impoverished vinegar maker, all alone in the world, who saves up diligently in order to make his way to the Holy Land; uncertain as to where he should hide his money for safekeeping, he places it in an almsbox under a crucifix on the road. Upon coming finally to fetch his cache, the vinegar maker is arrested for robbing sacred funds. He is imprisoned and condemned to die, but is visited in his cell by “that man,” as Jesus is called in Hebrew, who takes him to Jerusalem, where he is found dead by his compatriots.
Through the years Agnon has produced a great number of these stories of short or medium length. Some focus on a single episode, while in others an entire drama is condensed into a dense narrative. I have mentioned some examples of the former. Among the dramatic kind, it is difficult to say which deserves the greatest praise. In my opinion, three such stories by Agnon are of the highest possible merit. They are “The Legend of the Scribe,” “The Doctor’s Divorce,” and “Two Scholars who Lived in our Town.” The first tells of a Torah scribe whose wife yearns for a child and asks her husband to intercede with Heaven in her behalf. But she dies before her hope is granted. The scribe, whose craft is described with much hasidic and kabbalistic detail, writes a Torah scroll in her memory and, having finished it, dies on the night of Simhat Tora in an ecstatic-erotic vision of his wife. The story is told without any psychological overtones but with a full account of the dramatic tension in the life of Raphael the Scribe. It is one of Agnon’s few stories done in a solemn style—as if it were itself a ceremonial narrative written on a sacred scroll. I vividly recall the evening at the Hebrew Club of Berlin, in the spring of 1917, when Agnon read this story in manuscript. I can still hear the mournful and monotonous intonation of his recitation—a tone of voice reminiscent of that used in the synagogue by the reader who recites the weekly prophetic lesson.
The other two stories are quite different. In the one, a Viennese doctor marries a nurse who has told him that before meeting him she has had an affair with another man. He cannot live with this knowledge, and his deep and genuine love for the woman is gradually eroded from within. “Two Scholars who Lived in our Town” follows the lives of two friends who labor under an ever darkening shadow—caused by a slight, unkind remark made quite inadvertently by one of them in the course of a casual conversation. One of the friends, Rabbi Shlomo, tries in vain to placate the silent but inexorable enmity of his friend Rabbi Moshe Pinhas, whose heart has been hurt beyond repair, and whose bitterness grows with every new step taken by his friend toward reconciliation. Both are first-rank talmudists, but the two of them cannot live together in one place, neither in this world nor in the next. The story is told with uncanny logic and psychological insight. Its message—that the light of the Torah is not enough to warm a frozen heart—is brought home not with the scornful bitterness that any earlier Hebrew writer would have injected into the tale, but with a depth of understanding and objectivity which make it one of the greatest monuments of modern Hebrew literature.
Human passions are of central importance in Agnon’s work. Yet, with some rare and remarkable exceptions, Agnon’s writing is distinguished by a singular stillness, by the absence of pathos or exaltation. His narrators hardly ever raise their voice, nor is there the slightest hint in his work of expressionistic hysteria. Not infrequently he describes situations which appear to cry out for such treatment, but he never relinquishes the still, small voice which has become the hallmark of his prose. The overriding sobriety of rabbinic style, as it is evinced in the midrash and the mishna, has of course had a decisive influence upon Agnon’s writing, and the absence of exuberance or emotionalism in his work may in good measure be traced to that influence. This is particularly true of his hasidic stories. The task of describing the impact of mysticism on Jewish life led almost every Hebrew writer before Agnon to indulge in highly charged emotional language; Agnon himself, however, deeply steeped as he is in the unemotional prose of kabbalistic literature, has been able to respond to this challenge in a different way. The highstrung sentimentality that characterizes the hasidic tales of I. L. Peretz, for example, is nowhere to be found in Agnon, who treats the world of the hasidim with a kind of perfect bonhomie and urbanity. In his hasidic stories the realm of the miraculous is closely interwoven with stark reality. Moreover, it is not the saints and their ecstatic raptures who are the authentic objects of Agnon’s interest, but the little man, the faithful member of the hasidic community for whom all aspects of life are at the same time real and full of mystery.
Withal, the ground on which the pious Jew treads is thin enough. Dark powers lurk everywhere, and the magic of the Law scarcely suffices to keep them at bay. Once the ground of belief cracks, any man, be he within the domain of the Law or outside it, becomes prey to the demons which may or may not be extensions of his own uncertainties and confusions. Agnon, who has given great attention to this side of human experience, takes no stand as to the precise nature of the arena in which these strange happenings occur. His stories about such uncanny experiences, told with utmost lucidity and realistic simplicity, are gathered in his Book of Deeds or Book of Happenings, a collection which has aroused much controversy because of its obvious affinities to the tales of Kafka.1 Some see these stories as a direct opposition to those other works of Agnon in which the world of tradition, even in its most ambiguous form, is depicted in sharp relief. Others maintain that they form a complement to his earlier oeuvre, while still others prefer to take no notice at all of this disturbing book. But that it is meant to express something of the greatest relevance to Agnon’s purpose is clear. The paradox which inheres in every step that a man tries to take is symbolized in the utter incongruity of the title itself, for what the book stresses is precisely the impossibility of performing even the smallest deed without becoming enmeshed in an inexorable jumble and confusion from which there is no logical escape; only a deus ex machina, or the act of waking up as from an oppressive dream, can bring the experience described in this work to some sort of resolution. In fact, some of these stories seem to me to be simply that: descriptions of dreams. But the dreamlike quality which they evoke applies to the most elementary happenings in life. The storyteller wishes to mail a letter, for instance, or goes to meet a friend, but these prove to be hopeless undertakings. What impedes him cannot be defined: it may be the simplest obstructions of everyday life, or it may be a nightmare of surrealistic proportions. We can be sure of nothing, neither in real life nor in the spheres of transcendence. That all this should be said by a writer who is in full command of a heritage whose absence or inaccessibility has frequently been noted as the determining characteristic of Kafka’s universe, should certainly set us thinking. But Agnon was not the first to recognize, or to be shocked by, the permeability of tradition. He could, and possibly did, learn much about this notion from the teachings and the famous tales of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav. The “Story of the Seven Beggars,” one of Rabbi Nahman’s greatest tales, could easily have been the work of Agnon; in such a case it would have seemed to the modern eye to exhibit a perfectly Kafkaesque quality.
After his return to Jerusalem, Agnon produced a number of full-length novels. The most outstanding of them might perhaps more aptly be described as chronicles of Jewish life in the one hundred years between 1830 and 1930; in a way they form a trilogy which, for all the diversity of its parts, is bound together by the unity of historical dynamics. I refer to his three novels, The Bridal Canopy (1931), Wayfarer Stopped for the Night (1940), and Not Long Ago (1946). It is a pity that as of now only the first is available in English translation.
The Bridal Canopy describes the adventures of Rabbi Judel Hasid, who wanders throughout Eastern Galicia to collect a dowry for his daughters. Rabbi Judel is the perfect embodiment of hasidism in its prime. He is at home in the Holy Books and in the sayings of the great Zaddikim, and these constitute for him the true face of reality; whatever happens to him on his travels serves to confirm his belief in their truth. (Agnon being a craftsman who takes his details seriously, each and every ceremony or superstition recorded in The Bridal Canopy is in strict conformity with the literary sources. The rabbis who are quoted by Judel are flesh and blood, and their books exist.) Rabbi Judel’s is a serenity of mind which can never be perturbed, despite the most extraordinary events which befall him and his coachman, who plays Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. The assurances of the holy Rabbi of Apta (who has sent him on his way) mean more to him than all the vicissitudes and adversities of life. I noted before that Agnon’s stories, especially those of his early years, are suffused with an atmosphere of great sadness. In The Bridal Canopy, Agnon’s delicate humor comes to the fore. He never offers the slightest criticism of his hero’s conduct, which involves him in an unending chain of absurdities. Dialogue and situation speak for themselves. It is significant that the first stories of Agnon’s Book of Deeds were composed at about the same time as The Bridal Canopy. They are, as it were, two sides of the same coin. Much of the naked absurdity of the Book of Deeds is already present in The Bridal Canopy where, however, the absurdity is redeemed by humor and, finally, by a miracle at which Kafka himself would have been the last to be surprised.
The Bridal Canopy is a rich canvas of Jewish life before the impact of modern times, a canvas painted in precise and colorful detail. But that life was not destined to last. Eighty years later, the scene had changed radically. Yitzhak Kummer, the hero of Not Long Ago, is the grandson of Rabbi Judel. Hasidism, and Jewish tradition for that matter, have now broken up. The magnificent impulse has been exhausted and a new ideal, the reconstruction of the Jewish people in its old land, now arouses the enthusiasm of the young. It is a revolutionary beginning, although it purports to be, at the same time, a continuation of the past. No one knows what the place of religious tradition will be in the new order. Religion, too, is manifestly in a state of crisis. Where it still lingers on—and it certainly does in no small measure—it keeps within closed boundaries and has little or no attraction for the outsider. Hasidism was the last great social reality, the last example of a Judaism powered from within by the living force of a great idea. At the beginning of the 20th century, Zionism was to be the new driving ideology, born out of the crisis of Jewish life in the Diaspora. But the birth-pangs of the new Jewish society were to be cruel indeed.
This is the atmosphere which is brought to life in Agnon’s masterpiece. Everything is in transition and flux. Yitzhak Kummer, the hero, cannot find his place, even though he is prepared to take upon himself any chore required of him in the life of the new yishuv in Palestine. He moves between two societies, the old one in Jerusalem and the new one in Tel Aviv and in the agricultural settlements. The positive aspects of the new society are visible more or less only as background. Agnon in fact planned to make the life of those young pioneers in the new settlements the center of another novel, as promised at the end of Not Long Ago. But the work has not yet appeared. Thus we are left only with the tribulations of a lost soul in a new society, described by Agnon with a keen sense of the melancholy emptiness that lurked behind the busy bustle of life in Jewish Palestine. Kummer is forever seeking some fulfillment whose substance he cannot define. He comes to Jerusalem and is strangely attracted by its haunting atmosphere. His adventures there—adventures of a restless seeker after redemption in a stagnant environment—are the core of the book. He strives to reestablish a genuine relation to the world of tradition, which appears to hold out to him some great promise of comfort. But it is all in vain. The effort is plagued from the start, as is made symbolically clear in the surrealistic goings-on between Kummer and a stray dog, in which an incidental joke ends in tragedy. Kummer is utterly unaware of what he has done to the dog on whose back he jokingly wrote, with the remaining paint in his brush, the words “kelev meshugga,” “mad dog.” This inscription, unknown to the dog, becomes the instrument by which the hero’s life, as well as that of the dog, is destroyed. Yitzhak Kummer’s quest ends in failure and tragedy. A new life had been proclaimed by Zionism, but it would be too much to say that anywhere in Agnon’s work has it been seen to be attained. In fact, Zionism in Agnon’s writings is basically a noble failure, whereas everything else in Jewish life is a sham. As for the old life, with all its past glory, there is, in our own time, no way back. Agnon’s stories and novels move between these two unattainable poles. Nostalgia is no solution. To be conscious of the greatness of our past does not help us unlock our own problems. A key may indeed exist, but the locksmith who could forge it has yet to be found.
Nowhere is this tension between past and future depicted with greater precision than in the last volume of Agnon’s trilogy, the novel Wayfarer Stopped for the Night. Whereas Not Long Ago is placed in the years before World War I, this book chronicles a visit which the narrator, after twenty years of absence, pays to his home town ten years after the close of hostilities. It is the most melancholy book in Agnon’s oeuvre. The Hebrew original appeared in 1939, two years before the community portrayed in the book was physically destroyed by the Germans. But what we see here is the death of a Jewish town before it has drowned in actual blood. The narrator comes for a visit from the land of Israel. That he had once followed the message of Zionism and left his home town was in its time itself a sign of Jewish life in its more positive aspects, for the struggle and polemics of those days had a direction and a meaning. But now, life in Szybuscz—a name which is but a thin disguise for Buczacz—has become empty, idle, and miserable; the town is perishing in resignation and resentment, and even the promises of Zionism have become questionable. It is the year 1930, and the narrator himself has suffered during the Arab riots of 1929 in Jerusalem. There is no ultimate purpose to his visit, and his coming is but that of a wayfarer stopped for the night. Clearly the attraction of his native town, where so much of himself is rooted, has never left him, but he does not find what he has come for. He encounters instead the horror of decline and decay, a horror no less sinister for its ignorance of the murder yet to come.
The narrator arrives full of vivid memories of his town as it was in his youth. It is the utter incongruity of the old and the new which is at the center of his narrative. At every step, remembrance of things past intertwines with the present experience of the visitor. Confronted with the sad reality of decline, he tries to establish a continuity with a past that has gone forever. If, as I have said, Rummer’s efforts in Jerusalem failed, all the more so are the narrator’s attempts in Szybuscz doomed to failure. The illusionary character of his life becomes ironically visible in the course of the narrative. His nostalgia focuses upon the old house of study, whose key is delivered to him with a disdainful shrug by its last keepers just as they set out to emigrate into the wide world. The only people he can attract to fill it again are those who are too poor to heat their own homes during the long winter, and who come to warm themselves in the old place where the heating is paid for by the narrator. Finally, the key will pass from the narrator to a Communist who had gone to Palestine ten years before as an ardent Zionist but after enduring much suffering and disappointment had returned to his old town. The debit side of Zionism—the reign of empty phrases and high-sounding oratory from which no action follows—finds its spokesman in him. The narrator leaves this Zionist-turned-Communist with a new key—the old one having mysteriously disappeared—and sets out on his return trip to Palestine. Upon his arrival in Jersualem the old key turns up rather surprisingly, but perhaps not quite so surprisingly, in the narrator’s bag. In contradistinction to Not Long Ago, then, this novel suggests that there is indeed a key, even though it fits nowhere in the new country. But there is a secret hint, however slight, of messianic restoration and integration, as is indicated in the old talmudic saying: “Even the houses of study and the synagogues in exile are destined to be transplanted to the land of Israel.”
As I have noted, the efforts of the narrator to establish a genuine and living relationship to the people of his town, especially those he has known in his youth or their relatives, are in the main unsuccessful. The reason may be that there is no longer any true reality in Sczybucz and that life there has a somewhat ghostlike quality. But another factor may also be involved: most surprisingly, the narrator’s mind is set on the restoration of the past. He comes as a visitor from the new world but he brings with him no message to lend his visit meaning or effect. It is not only the people he encounters who are slow and inflexible; he himself succumbs to this atmosphere and becomes a part of it. Although he befriends a group of halutzim who are preparing themselves for their aliya to Palestine, his visit to them remains a romantic interlude. The silence and unresponsiveness of most of the other people he meets exercise a much greater attraction for him. His heart goes out to them in love and sincere affection. Somewhere in his tale the narrator says: “When I was young I could see in my mind all I wished to see; nowadays, I do not see either what I wish to see or even what I am shown.” What, then, does he see? That is what the book is about.
I have dealt with some highlights of Agnon’s work before he fully realized the impact and significance of the destruction of European Jewry. The main body of his later work has not yet been collected, but is scattered through various journals and daily newspapers. Moreover, much of what he has written is apparently still unpublished. I should like to stress two tendencies which stand out in many of these later writings. There is first of all the predominant wish to emphasize the ritualistic aspects of Jewish life. Formerly, Agnon took this largely for granted. Now, however, there is an almost morbid effort on his part to preserve each and every detail of ritual in his narrative, an effort which rarely is germane to the progress of the particular story being told. For all their breathtaking perfection of language, these details seem to be of greater relevance to students of folklore and Hebrew style than to readers of literature. We observe here a frenzied endeavor to save for posterity the forms of a life doomed to extinction. It is a sad spectacle.
The second tendency has to do with a curious widening of Agnon’s historical perspective. He no longer is content to tell the story of the last four or five generations, but goes back much further, pretending, for instance, to be editing the family papers of his ancestors and thereby covering important episodes in Jewish history over the last four hundred years; or he may relate, as it were, the autobiography of his own soul through its transmigrations since the days of Creation. He sees himself as being present at all stages of biblical and post-biblical history, and gives us eyewitness accounts of the most arresting events over thousands of years, out of a deep sense of identification with the Jewish people. This meta-historical autobiography is contained in a book, Hadom ve-kissei (“Stool and Throne”), of which large fragments have been published during recent years. Whereas it may be said with regard to all his preceding work that there was never a total identification of the author with the narrator, this tension is now gone. Gone too is the novelistic element of his prose; narrative has been transformed into a forthright journal of the author’s own self. Rather than an unfolding story, we now see events juxtaposed one after the other in separate paragraphs, each under its own heading. It seems to me a most peculiar work, but I would not venture to judge its literary merits before it is published as a whole. One thing, however, is clear. The author’s dialectical attitude to his experience and to his tradition, which was so predominant in his earlier work, has been abandoned, and this is a pity. For, if I were to reduce to one formula what I think is the core of Agnon’s genius, I would call it the dialectic of simplicity.
1 There are no doubt certain traits which Kafka and Agnon hold in common. Max Brod has said of Kafka: “It was almost impossible to talk to Kafka about abstractions. He thought in images, and spoke in images. He tried to express what he felt simply and in the most direct manner possible, but nevertheless the result was usually very complicated and led to endless speculation without any real decision.” This is precisely true of Agnon, as I have had occasion to note over and over again in our fifty years of acquaintance.
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Reflections on S. Y. Agnon
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Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time donald trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
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Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
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The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
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The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandchildren play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.