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Begin and the Jews: An Exchange

In response to:

Begin and the Jews from the February 18, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

As a representative of one of the “national organizations in New York,” I must take issue with the statements made by Arthur Hertzberg in his article, “Begin and the Jews” [NYR, February 18].

Mr. Hertzberg contends that the decrease in the percentage of the allocations to the UJA, as Israel’s representative, by local federations reflects a “perceptible weakening of support within the world Jewish community for Begin’s Israel.”

The truth of the matter is that there are several factors contributing to the decrease in the Israel allocation. These include: 1) cut-backs in federal funding for programs sponsored by local Jewish federations, which have forced federations to accept increased operating costs to maintain existing services; 2) inflation in the United States which, in the past five years, has increased the local overhead of Jewish federations significantly; 3) a population shift of Jewish families into areas where the growth of the Jewish population has generated increased demands for services on the local level; 4) a general decline in the ability of the American Jewish community to raise funds at a pace exceeding the rate of inflation.

I believe that Mr. Hertzberg may be correct in his belief that support for Israel has fallen off among American Jews. I will go him one step further and assert that the softening support for Israel is most pronounced among Jews of my own generation who have never lived in a world without an Israel. Nevertheless, these are opinions, not facts, nor are vague references to unspecified polls sufficient evidence to support a contention that the majority of the American Jewish community opposes Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.

Lastly, I must ask Mr. Hertzberg if he does not believe that Israel is the target of a massive public relations campaign that is utilizing the American mass media to convince the American public that Israel is, in fact, the pariah nation unworthy of the support of the United States, and if this propaganda is not affecting the American Jewish community more so than the actions of the Israeli government?

Alan M. Milner

Watertown, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

In “Begin and the Jews,” Arthur Hertzberg asserts that American Jewry’s disenchantment with Israel primarily results from Begin’s aggressive rigidity in the Middle East and his explosive outbursts against Washington. But Rabbi Hertzberg conspicuously ignores Israel’s exporting of arms to repressive governments, and makes no mention of Israel’s long military supply relationship with the late Anastasio Somoza, or its current weapons sales to countries such as Guatemala, Argentina, South Africa, and Iran. Indeed, Israeli ambassador to Guatemala Moshe Dayan (no relation to the late general), recently told the Washington Post that “we need military sales” and will sell arms to anybody, even Nicaragua and Cuba, if they want to buy (January 23, 1982, page A-1).

Presumably this policy does offend a significant segment of Americans, both Jews and non-Jews, at least one would hope, notwithstanding our country’s own record. After all, from Israel, which Rabbi Hertzberg notes was billed as “a light unto the nations,” one expected better.

Robert Fink

Washington, DC

To the Editors:

It has been said that “anti-Zionism” is in reality the anti-Semitism of certain “progressives.” If that is true, then I believe it can be asserted with equal justification that “anti-Beginism” is the anti-Zionism of certain American Jewish intellectuals, particularly those within the liberal Rabbinate, who have yet to make their peace with Zionism’s essential secularity and power orientation.

The article, “Begin and the Jews” by Arthur Hertzberg is a case in point. While ostensibly an attack upon the Begin administration, it is in reality a leap for Zionism’s jugular vein; namely, its insistence that the collective survival of the Jewish People is conditioned by its ability to exercise some minimal amount of political, military, and diplomatic power. Instead of a critique of the specific policies of the Begin administration, Hertzberg tries to identify what has been Zionism’s central thrust with the Begin regime alone.

Fundamentally, Begin has been attempting to enforce within World Jewry the revisionist Zionism to which he is the heir. The great mission of a Jewish State for him—as for Revisionism’s founder, Vladmir Jabotinsky—is to bring the Jews into the world of great power, thus denying the Gentiles the historic pleasures of mistreating them.

However it is precisely on this point where Revisionist Zionism and mainstream Zionism did not fundamentally disagree. Outside of a small group of “cultural” Zionists congregated, first around A’had Ha’Am and later Martin Buber, most Zionists were in basic agreement that the goal of Zionism was to transform the Jews from a pariah powerless people to one that would be able to control its own destiny. Even the gentle Chaim Weitzman had no quarrel with that. By the mid 1940s there was in fact virtually no difference between the goals of Ben-Gurion and those of the Revisionists.

Revisionists and mainstream Zionists did disagree upon tactics, about the timetable upon which Jewish sovereignty was to be achieved, upon the relative merits of certain economic and social goals, but never about the need for the assumption of Jewish power.

By seeking to identify the quest for political power solely with Begin and Revisionism, Hertzberg attempts to create a myth of an “original” pristine and “pure” Zionism (i.e., apolitical), which Begin has perverted. In essence Hertzberg is proclaiming: “Look, I’m not anti-Zionist; I’m only anti-Begin!” But the lie simply will not stand up to any kind of historical scrutiny. From Pinsker to Ben-Gurion, every major Zionist leader and thinker has articulated and emphasized the Jewish People’s need for sovereignty and power.

Not content to distort the nature and purpose of Zionism, Hertzberg launches into what by now has become a canard of the American Jewish left; namely, that there is a growing alienation between the Israeli regime and American Jewry. No data, no surveys, no polls are brought to substantiate this claim except a statistic of rather dubious credibility showing that “only” 50 percent of the Jewish fundraising now goes to Israel rather than the usual 60 percent. That this may be due to extraneous factors, such as the growth of Jewish day schools or inflationary pressures, never seems to occur to Hertzberg. The 10 percent drop in Israel-bound money is proof positive of a deterioration of American Jewish support for Israel. For Hertzberg to come to this conclusion is an ideological necessity. His vision of American Jewry in the vanguard of liberalism, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism, cannot in any way be squared with the fact that many American Jews actually admire the tough-talking Jew from Poland who looks like a tailor and who happens to be prime minister of the Jewish State.

Most polls of American Jewry demonstrate that while American Jewry feels free to debate the wisdom of certain Begin policies, American Jewish support of Israel remains stable and consistent. Although Hertzberg claims that American Jewish support of Israel slips “…the more one moves from the offices of national organizations in New York,” one suspects that the opposite is true. The establishment organizations are still manned by old Jewish New Dealers and socialists and are probably to the left of most American Jews. Hertzberg’s analysis of the history of American Jewry’s support of Zionism is equally distorted and erroneous. He makes the following statements: “The American Jewish Community was led to Zionism primarily through the progressivism of Louis Brandeis and Henrietta Szold.”

I suspect Hertzberg chose those two names with great care. Brandeis was the Jewish liberal par excellence and Henrietta Szold was identified with a miniscule group headed by Buber and Judah Magnes who advocated a binational state. Hertzberg would, of course, like to see the American Jewish Community identified with such “progressive” personages as Brandeis and Szold. The facts, however, belie his wishful thinking. Most American Jews began to identify with Zionism in the early 1940s by the time Brandeis had retired from an active Zionist role. The leader of American Zionism in that period was Abba Hillel Silver, a Republican (a “shanda” for a Rabbi!), and as militant and power oriented a Jew as anyone in Begin’s cabinet.

Hertzberg’s identification of current Israeli policy-makers who seek a strategic relationship with the United States against Soviet imperialism with “Zealotism” is equally fallacious. The Zealots were messianists who expected a miraculous Divine intervention in their hopeless struggle against the Roman Empire. Their attitude partook of the same apolitical posture of which Hertzberg is an advocate.

Hertzberg the historian must know all this. Hertzberg the liberal American Rabbi cannot stomach it. He is simply more a Rabbi than a historian. He is an advocate of the old Jewish mysticism that elevates powerlessness into an ideology of martyrdom. That ideology went up in smoke in the Chimneys of Auschwitz. Thankfully most American Jews reject it.

Rabbi Ephraim Rubinger

Temple B’nai Abraham

Meriden, Connecticut

Arthur Hertzberg replies:

In his letter, Mr. Milner argues that the steady decline in the allocation to Israel from communal Jewish funds is due to causes other than disenchantment with Israel’s present government. Certainly other factors have contributed, but Begin’s policies are the central issue. To cite one example: the Begin government majority depends upon a coalition with two religious parties, both of which are dedicated to denying conservative and reform Jews equality in Israel. This last winter, at its annual meeting, the Conference of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, the coordinating body of Jewish voluntary fund-raising for Israel and local community needs all over the country, said quite flatly, in a public resolution, that policies which disenfranchise the rabbis of the nonorthodox majority of American Jewry are hurting the fundraising for Israel.

The fundraisers with whom I speak, both the lay leadership and the professionals, say as a matter of course that their task is more difficult these days, for political reasons. As for the growing percentages allocated for local needs, contrary to Mr. Milner, this pressure is not new at all. Golda Meir withstood it, successfully. Begin has not.

Mr. Milner’s second contention is to question the hard evidence for my assertion that the majority of American Jews are unhappy with Begin. I will not quote in rebuttal a number of not well-publicized polls which are unanimous on this point. These include one unpublished study of American Jewish leadership, which was commissioned by forces very close to the present Israeli government. It is enough to refer Mr. Milner to the issue of Newsweek dated September 14, 1981. A Gallup sampling of American Jewry included a question on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The answers were as follows: nearly one in three (29 percent) were for Israeli sovereignty with military and civil control by Israel: that is, they voted for the option closest to the policy now being executed in the West Bank. The rest of the respondents scattered as follows: approximately one in three (32 percent) were for Israel’s military control, with return of civilian control to the Palestinians themselves; 23 percent were for either returning the West Bank to Jordan or making it an independent Palestinian state; 17 percent had no opinion. There is no way of reading these figures without coming to the conclusion that the majority of American Jewry is not entranced by toughness on the West Bank. More important still, this poll of last September showed that American Jews regarded Sadat as doing a better job of fostering peace in the Middle East than Begin (71 percent to 56 percent) and assented (53 percent to 34 percent) to the proposition that “Begin’s policies are hurting support for Israel in the United States.”

Mr. Milner is of course correct in asserting that there is nowadays extensive propaganda against Israel in America and in the world. Why should Israel make it easier for its enemies to defame it?

Mr. Fink is unhappy with Israel because it is an arms salesman, and its customers include some very unlovely regimes. Unfortunately in the arms-selling business there are no clean hands, as Mr. Fink manages to say in passing. The list of sinners includes not only the United States but also the Soviet Union, which helps supply Qadaffi, among others; England, France, and Italy, which are the major suppliers of armaments to South Africa; and Sweden and Switzerland, which are never attacked at all for such misdeeds. The great military trauma of Israel has been that it was long dependent on outside suppliers for most of its armaments. A series of disappointments, culminating in the breakdown of the close relationship with France in 1967, caused Israel’s policymakers to opt for the maximum amount of arms independence. It was impossible to construct an industry adequate to its own needs, especially in emergencies, without having assembly lines so large that they produced for export. The lack of peace has caused hard necessities. Major sections of Israel and of world Jewish opinion, therefore, have added reason to press for political moderation leading to peace. Having said all this, with considerable pain at the sight of Israel as arms salesman to anyone, I must nonetheless remind Mr. Fink that none of the powers which insist in parading their virtue and condemning Israel has the moral right to such posturing.

Rabbi Rubinger seems to have worked very hard to misunderstand at least half of what I was saying. Of course, Zionism is about powerlessness and the need of the Jews for power. Even Ahad Ha’Am and Martin Buber, whom he exempts from such views, both knew that without some forms of Jewish self-government, on at least a binational basis, even a Jewish cultural center could not exist. The issue is thus not the discomfort which Rabbi Rubinger wants to attribute to his bête noire: liberal, universalist rabbis, who are supposedly made uncomfortable by Jewish particularism and Jewish power. Surely there is a difference between power used with restraint, with continuing moral discomfort as to its possible consequences, and tough-mindedness. How much power does the Jewish people need, in Israel, to be secure? Does it require control over a million Arabs on the West Bank; or would the Jewish people be more powerful, and more secure, if it did not have to expend its resources, its moral credit, and its reputation on such a venture?

Rabbi Rubinger is quite right: the notion that Jews can depend entirely upon the good will of others went up in the smoke of Auschwitz. He is quite wrong in trying to argue that the alternative is therefore Jewish autarchy. On the contrary, Israel, even like the United States, depends for its existence in the world on some mixture of power available to it and the respect and friendship of others. When the respect and friendship are diminished by the abuse of power, the result is self-defeating.

Because the Holocaust is almost invariably invoked, and now again by Rabbi Rubinger, as a kind of ultimate red shirt to be waved in the face of Jewish pleas for moderation, I save this issue for last. Auschwitz is not an abstract issue for me, because one branch of my family, including my grandfather and all of my mother’s siblings and their families, were killed, without exception, in Poland. Yes, six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and the allied governments, led by the United States, did very little to help save them. Nonetheless there were in Europe a million or more survivors. Many of them are alive because, in the midst of the most intense horror, some non-Jews risked their lives. In Jerusalem at Yad Va-Shem, the major memorial for the victims of Nazism, there is an alley of trees that has been planted in honor of the “righteous Gentiles.”

The lesson of the Holocaust is not that there is an eternal “we” and “they” in the world, which leads to the nightmare of some Jews imagining that Gentiles wake up in the morning saying to themselves, “When can we start building another Auschwitz?” If that is what contemporary Jewish existence is about then Hitler has indeed taught the Jews to think of themselves in terms laid down by the Nazis: Jews are outside humanity, the only difference being that they now know that they ought not be disarmed or passive. If such is the shape of the world, then the count is against the Jews, for there are more of “them” than there are of “us.” The only way the count can be made more even is through alliance with those who belong to the very liberal tradition which rabbi Rubinger treats so cavalierly. It is said in the Talmud that “every problem that is a problem to Jews alone is not a problem; every problem that is one for Jews and the world is a problem.”

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