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An Exchange on Zionism

To the Editors:

Bernard Avishai and I obviously disagree about too many fundamental things for these to be usefully discussed in a letter such as this. At least twice, however, in his review of my Letters to an American Jewish Friend (NYR, November 10) disagreement turns into unconscionable distortion of my views. I would like to call attention to both instances:

1)Mr. Avishai seems to believe that “ethics” in its prescriptive philosophical sense of an attempt to determine universal imperatives of behavior that are incumbent upon all men is a figment of my imagination, and that the word is better used descriptively and anthropologically to denote various systems of differing social mores, among them those that have historically characterized Jews. He is entitled to his opinion. He is also entitled to his opinion that it “is not only wrong but dangerous” of me to assert “that loyalty to one’s people or ‘tribe’ is [on occasion] bound to contradict one’s ethical obligations.” (Is Mr. Avishai then saying that loyalty to one’s people or tribe can never contradict one’s ethical obligations? Well, he appears to be, and I am afraid that one must take him at his word.) He is not entitled, however, to imply that I am therefore “a man who thinks he must defend his society without regard to his own sense of ethics,” because I explicitly state in my book that to the extent that one’s loyalties as a Jew or Israeli—or for that matter, as a member of any other human community—conflict with one’s ethical obligations (see, for example, my discussion of Israeli reprisals against Palestinian refugee camps on pp. 94-95), one’s ethical obligations come first, which is precisely what ethics is all about. In this light, for Mr. Avishai to infer that my opinions on ethical questions are those of “potentially another Eichmann” is simply malicious slander.

2) In the course of totally misunderstanding my position as an essentially secular Jew toward Jewish religious tradition, which is evidently something he knows little about, Mr. Avishai associates me with the “messianic and righteously chauvinist ‘Zionism’ of Gush Emunim.” The fact is, however, that I openly disassociate myself in my book from Gush Emunim—specifically, on p.216, where I write that “All talk a la the PLO or Gush Emunim of a single undivided Palestine in which Jews and Arabs will enjoy equal rights is either utopian prattle or a deliberate hoax.” In proof of my “chauvinism” Mr. Avishai cites an article I published in Commentary in January 1975, where I defend the rights of Jews to live in those areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank that are replete with Jewish historical associations and memories; what he conveniently neglects to inform the reader is that in the same article I call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and the establishment there of a Palestinian state, administered by the PLO if this is the Palestinians’ wish, provided that Jews and Israelis are granted the right to live in it. Is this the position of Gush Emunim? Mr. Avishai knows perfectly well that it is not.

In each of the above cases Mr. Avishai owes himself a retraction and myself an apology.

Hillel Halkin

Motsa Illit, Israel

To the Editors:

Bernard Avishai’s reservations about Jewish life in America have their grounds; particularly in matters of cultural quality Jews here could use a few articulate snobs. Avishai may also choose to ignore for its flaws the social organization, institutional sophistication, and philanthropic largesse of American Jewry, though it is surprising to see him trot out the crass and unworthy notion that that largesse is conceived in expiation of some subliminal guilt. With the complex emotional and ideological rhythms of American-Jewish life, however, Avishai appears hopelessly, patronizingly out of touch. If Jews in this century, even in these “golden” United States, are haunted by a dread of victimization, they have good reason to be. Auschwitz did, after all, really transpire, and the Exodus did, after all, really sail—the wholesale exploitation of both episodes notwithstanding.

Those are not “daydreams” which are “still [sic] crowded with images of the Final Solution”: they are memories, dark contemporary ratifications of a time-honored Jewish self-image. That such genuine apprehensions exist and will only be warily disavowed, that they will contribute to Jewish political perception, that they will be called out in particular force as Israel appears put to the test, is surely no wonder. Of course the constitutional insecurities and temperamental excesses of American Jews must not govern their politics; the fears must be modified by sound and sober political reasoning. But any self-appointed critic of America’s Jews must at least understand, if not respect, what drives them. It is not of novelists or professors that we are demanding flexibility.

Not only is American Jewry bankrupt, however; so too, according to Avishai, is Zionism. Political Zionism, presumably, because it went out in a blaze of glory in 1948. And cultural Zionism because of the achieved “pluralism” and “urbane eclecticism” of present-day Israeli culture; Bellow-reading, Dylan-humming, falafel-eating, world-hopping Israelis now ask “radical questions in Hebrew.” But here, again, Avishai displays a startling indifference or condescension toward issues and forms of life which he (like I) may find “stifling”; an inability—remarkable in so devoted a student of Ahad Ha’am—to consider the political and cultural destiny of Israel from what I can only call a Jewish point of view.

If political Zionism has no place in America that may be because, at least so far, Jews here have no need of it. In Israel it must surely be pertinent to those who oppose settlement in the occupied territories; the argument (as yet unrefuted) that these lands must in large part be eventually returned because Israel cannot absorb their sizable Arab populations relies, however tacitly, upon the first axiom of political Zionism, that there must exist a state in which the Jewish population remains a majority. But what of other Jewries? What, for example, of the French, who now provide the largest number of Western immigrants to Israel? Can there be any doubt that there is something classically Zionist about this dramatically increased aliyah: that it is motivated by the growing discomfort of Jews in France, and as a response to the foreign policy of the French government? And what of more unfortunate Jews in the Soviet Union, in Syria, in Argentina? Would concepts of Jewish self-defense and self-determination—Zionism’s staples—not speak to them?

Consider, next, culture in Zion. Avishai’s descriptions of the vital, even wild, cultural energies of Israel are entirely apposite, as are his misgivings about “chasing the past.” But if the past need not be chased, that is not least because it is right behind. The eclecticism Avishai celebrates is no effortless or reassuring embarras de richesse; it is, rather, a tense, troubling, fitful attempt to link unreasonable premises of tradition with unreasonable pressures of everyday life. The question of continuity, of the Jewish content of Israeli culture, has by no means been settled or shelved. Halkin is, to his credit, at least exercised by it. But of such uncertainties Avishai writes entirely—perhaps enviably—free. Glibly he invokes “secular Judaism,” that crucial but elusive solution over which Jews have been breaking their teeth for centuries; Israel’s “peculiar cultural anarchy,” he announces, “is what secular Judaism is all about.” Maybe he really believes it is just that simple; a cogent demonstration to that effect would ease life considerably for many. I suspect, however, that Ahad Ha’am would be disappointed.

Yet Avishai’s serene, unalloyed secularism appears by the end of his crisp discussion to be politically motivated—he will not traffic in the potent symbols and categories of Jewish tradition because they are currently the stock-in-trade of the Israeli right. Now one may be as opposed to Begin’s annexation of some of the territories as to his annexation of Judaism, but I see no reason to surrender either of these objections just yet. To cede all of Zionism and Jewish tradition to religious obscurantism and political folly seems too high a price to pay for Asher Yadlin’s swindles and Leah Rabin’s bank account. What has, of course, expired—and this has been the real subject of Avishai’s recent essays—is Labor Zionism; and its demise was in part because it disdained to grapple with religious and historical self-perceptions which continue to animate—and sufficed to unify for one election, which was enough—large numbers of Jews. Naturally one hopes for an Israeli leadership that can distinguish between the fire in its blood and the actual needs and interests of the state. It is not, however, inconceivable that a sane politics be joined to an enlightened commitment to some form of cultural or symbolic continuity. Nor is Gush Emunim the entire religion. Again, it might be nicer not to have to bother about all these values and traumas, but I don’t see that the course of Jewish history leaves very much choice.

Leon Wieseltier

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Bernard Avishai replies:

I did not write in my review of Hillel Halkin’s book that a man will never have to choose between actions in aid of his distressed nation (or state), and actions which otherwise serve a competing and worthwhile goal. I disputed Halkin’s assertions that a man’s loyalty to his nation or people should seem to him, and to us, like that of a primitive man to his “tribe”; that this allegiance presupposes bonds which themselves transcend conscious ethical judgments. I argued that, on the contrary, one must consciously attempt to justify national bonds themselves as ethically defensible; that loyalty to one’s nation should be predicated on some coherent and universal claim. If that claim is to linguistic-cultural survival, its importance should be established with respect to other values (e.g., the value of individual human life, of material and scientific advance, etc.).

I am not nit-picking. Jews should know that a man who believes he may be required—to the extent that he acts for his “tribe”—to put himself in a realm removed from “ethics” can commit horrors. Halkin’s new disclaimer—i.e., that “ethics” come first—sounds commendable. But why, in view of his advocacy of primitive loyalties, should they come first? Eichmann seemed to believe that the “tribe” came first, and Halkin would have no cogent way to contradict him. I am sorry that Halkin believes he is being slandered when he is asked to confront the practical dangers of his philosophic blunders.

One would, for example, in no way conclude from his discussion of Israeli bombing of Palestinian camps that “ethics” come first. Although he posits the “inadmissabiliproximity to guilty ones,” he finally justifies these bombings precisely because he despairs of any “moral calculus” to guide one in these cases. He goes on to suggest, by the way, that if it were “un-Jewish” to bomb the camps, then it was also “un-Jewish” of Joshua to massacre the Canaanites.

Halkin’s real problem with all such ethical considerations is that his notion of what is and what is not “un-Jewish” is murky and confounded by his reliance on those Orthodox religious categories which presuppose a collective covenant with Jehovah. In spite of his claim to be a modern and secular Jew—one who celebrates the “language and the land” of Israel—he shrinks from viewing the Jews’ religious past in the convincing manner of most secular Jews and Zionists: i.e., as an admirable ethical and literary source that should now be reconciled to the image of men implicit in the practice of modern science. In fact, Halkin’s book discounts Marx, Freud, Einstein, Heine, Babel, Bellow, Mandelstam, Lévi-Strauss, Chomsky, and others, as Jews who contributed nothing to “our consciousness as Jews” (pp. 103-104). The “Jews” he would want to preserve in Israel, we may surmise, will regard Einstein’s view of the cosmos, his humanism, and his cosmopolitanism, as the Amish view electricity.

Halkin’s Jews are, moreover, the same Jews who discover that, even without Jehovah, they are living out a “divine trust” in a “holy land”; who cannot imagine a Jewish state “from which the heartland [i.e., the West Bank] of Jewish historical experience [i.e., the scriptures] has been excluded.” Even Halkin’s indignant claim to have rejected the current political strategy of Gush Emunim (about which he equivocates) is not reassuring in the light of his acquiescence in their galvanizing ideas.

Besides, the question of military withdrawal from the West Bank will not be the only one on Israel’s political agenda in the coming years, especially if peace is established. How are Israeli Jews, as Halkin conceives of them, to deal with the separation of religion and state (about which he is also, to say the least, equivocal), civil rights, and the social integration of Arab and Druze minorities if they are supposed to suspect as “un-Jewish” the views of everyone from Spinoza to Sigmund Freud?

Leon Wieseltier accuses me of lacking what he can only call a “Jewish” point of view—both in my proposal that Israelis and American Jews now move beyond the anachronistic categories, rhetoric, and symbols of the Zionist movement, and also in my apparent failure to be exercised by the problem of Jewish continuity in Israel.

I argued that Israel’s Hebraic and eclectic culture is as workable and promising as anyone committed to the development of secular Judaism can now expect; and that if we are looking for “Jewish content” in a living culture we will find it in Israel’s. By contrast, secular Jewish life in America is collapsing,* not for want of “a few articulate snobs,” but for want of the common language, cultural institutions, and social-territorial interdependence which Jewish immigrants from the Pale have lost in America, and which the Zionists determined not to lose in Palestine. I also argued that, as a result, American Jewish “Zionism”—not its “largesse”—often seems a retreat into spite and guilt, into a vicarious celebration of Jewish power and solidarity, and not at all a vehicle for answering the hard questions about secular Judaism which American Jews have understandably been reluctant to ask.

Wieseltier does not really dispute any of these assertions, yet he seems curiously anxious to dissociate himself from them. They “patronize,” he suggests, the real rhythms of American Jews, “their time-honored self-images,” not to mention the peculiarly Jewish anxieties and content which exercise Halkin, many Israelis, and, presumably, himself. But Wieseltier’s own version of “Jewish content” seems rather flabby for all this exercise.

I think his objections derive from two unacceptable premises. First, he seems to assume with Halkin that high-minded secular thodox religious life. He accuses me of flippantly foreswearing the “potent symbols and categories of Jewish tradition.” I can assure Wieseltier that I do foreswear them, not in order to spite Begin or the Gush Emunim but because they seem to me far less potent than the “symbols and categories” of Galileo or Planck, Hobbes or Marx. If Wieseltier cannot immediately recognize my dilemma I do not see how he can have much to say about “the course of Jewish history” which has, after all, been “exercised” by similar dilemmas for the last two hundred years. It is one thing to study the historical meaning of Jewish religious “symbols and categories” and to find them illuminating. It is quite another to reconsecrate them now. This would be too high a price to pay in order to secure “a Jewish point of view.” And the use of such “potent symbols” in the Gush Emunim’s politics should be cautionary to those who loosely advocate piety toward them.

According to Wieseltier’s second premise, Israelis could also use some articulate snobs. In his view, Israeli culture, to the extent that it is Jewish, is something of a sham for all of its obvious energy; so Israelis—impoverished and fitful—may be reduced to “Dylan-humming, Bellow-reading” facsimiles of American Jews. This seems to me nonsense. Israeli culture is bristling with varieties of drama, music, literature, plastic art, morality, scholarship, and memory—all expressed in Hebrew and generally within an unmistakable Jewish vernacular. Israelis hum the music of Naomi Shemer and read A.B. Yehoshua. True, the problem of determining the official status of religious law has not yet been shelved. Orthodox Jews resist the extension of a secular state while secular Jews will not impose it during a time of war. But this does not mean that Israelis have also been “breaking their teeth” on secular Judaism. Wieseltier might find this new, Jewish life without Jehovah pedestrian and uninspiring. But then he has a bone to pick with the uncertainties of modern life, not with Israel.

Some subsidiary points:

American Jews are, for the most part, sons and daughters of Eastern European immigrants who arrived before World War I. Just what Wieseltier hopes to accomplish by insisting that their powerful images of Auschwitz and Exodus are in fact “memories” escapes me.

Wieseltier implies that American Jews may someday need “political Zionism,” that America may prove to be fools’ gold. The obvious resilience of American democracy aside, if America does go sour for the Jews, I am not sure I would feel very safe in Israel either. Anyway, my point was merely that one does not need “political Zionism,” or any other movement, to get to Israel in a pinch; only a plane ticket and an A-1 visa from the Israeli consulate.

Wieseltier repeatedly tries to reduce Zionism from a real historic movement to a set of still-neat propositions. Nevertheless, it is just wrong to suppose that we need “Zionism,” in order to bring about withdrawal from the West Bank. It is primarily those who have nervously wanted the old Zionist élan—particularly its promise of new immigrants—to endure beyond its time who have hitherto made the prospect of withdrawal from the West Bank so difficult to discuss. Sadat’s visit should have mollified some of the fears which produced this rigidity. But one does not have to be a Zionist to believe in national self-determination and majority rule, any more than one has to be a Jacobin to believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Wieseltier is right that I associate the end of Zionism with the end of Labor Zionism; the latter did, after all, create the historical facts with which we are all trying to grapple. But Labor Zionism did not collapse in May of 1977. Its decline was precipitated by Ben-Gurion’s huge success in organizing a state in 1948. The more recent collapse of Israel’s Labor Party is another matter. And this had nothing to do with Labor’s alleged unwillingness to deal with the “historical and religious self-perceptions” which preoccupy Wieseltier. Labor lost because its constituency had shrunk, and because it tried to peddle the Likud’s “historic and religious self-perceptions” as a cover for its own widely recognized corruption.

Finally, the idea of Jewish self-defense will appeal, no doubt, to Jews from the Soviet Union, Argentina, and perhaps even France; and of course Israel must remain a possible refuge for them. Most who leave the first two countries, however, concretely defend themselves by moving to Canada and the United States. Nor is the question of Jewish “self-determination” simple for them. As Wieseltier has not told us what he thinks a modern Jew can and ought to be, still less do we know what kind of “self-determination” he has in mind for these embattled people. From what I know of them, few see themselves as distinctly Jewish in their cultural interests or private ambitions, however much they have been made to suffer for their Jewish origins. Their moving to Israel may be an act of self-denial, not self-determination; and they should not be counted on to shoulder new political challenges—“Jewish” or otherwise.

  1. *

    See Joann S. Lublin’s report in the Wall Street Journal, November 4, 1977.

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