What was it about European Jewry that made possible its extermination? Historians, psychologists, theologians, thoughtful people everywhere will continue to ask this question and to grope for partial answers. For no less troubling than the barbarism of the Germans and other Europeans who assisted in the destruction was their prior success in selecting the Jews as the target of their murderous enmity. How did it come about that the Jews, who were neither bellicose nor numerous, and who had contributed not a little to European well-being, were transformed into the very essence of satanic evil—the image which the Nazis projected onto them and which so much of Europe seemed to accept as true?
The history of European anti-Semitism is not a study in mere opposition to Jews. Religions and nations have opposed one another since the record of mankind began. We take it for granted that religions stand in competition with each other, and that nations vie for territory and influence. Opposition to the Jews was something else; from the beginning of the Christian era, it took the special form of delegitimation.
“Since the days of the Church Fathers,” the late historian H.H. Ben-Sasson has written, “the Church had claimed that the true image befitting Israel, which had refused to recognize Jesus and had slain him, was that of Cain who had murdered his brother.” Ben-Sasson traces the evolution of this idea in the theory of Jewish “servitude” in the Middle, Ages, which justified the humiliation of the Jews on theological grounds and made them, in practice, increasingly prey to the whim of political authority. Protected by charters with limited rights of residence and economic activity, they were granted only temporary exemption from the punishment that was considered deservedly theirs.
One might have thought the negative definition of the Jew would have disappeared with the Enlightenment challenge to Christianity, or with the Emancipation; but it merely assumed a more elegant, rationalist form. It was now considered reasonable for the Jew to be granted equal status as a citizen; in return, it was considered reasonable to expect him to forfeit his special status as a Jew. When Jews, “intransigent” and “ungrateful,” persisted in their distinctiveness, anti-Semitism was the logical reaction. Modern anti-Semitism, writes the historian Arthur Hertzberg, is “chastisement for the sin of imperfect assimilation and the goad toward the messianic day when the Jews, by completely refashioning themselves in the image of proper Westerners, would have won the acceptance that they then would merit.”
By the end of the 19th century it was obvious to Jews and non-Jews of both Western and Eastern Europe that the “Jewish question” was not about to evaporate. The delegitimation of the Jew had become one of Christianity’s most lasting legacies to the modern world, infecting the political Left and Right alike. For socialists, the Jew became the symbol of evil capitalism; for nationalists, of racial defilement. By the time Adolf Hitler isolated the Jew as the corrupting feature of European civilization, he was able to draw on a considerable body of both Christian and post-Christian mythology, which he then translated into a positive ideal—extermination. In Hitler’s formulation, if the Jews were illegitimate and evil, destroying them was not murder but a benefaction to the continent and the world.
Long before the emergence of the Third Reich, European Jews had recognized their vulnerability in secularized Christian societies, where distrust of them was no longer tempered by the religious inhibitions that had characterized the Church at its best, or by the economic requirements of feudalism which had preserved for them a designated place in the hierarchy. Whether out of positive attraction or an instinct for collective survival, modern Jews tried to adapt the emerging ideologies of socialism and nationalism to their own situation.
There were many creative thinkers among the Jews in these years, and almost as many proffered solutions to the “Jewish question.” Common to all was the desire for a normalization of status among the peoples of the world, so that Jews should no longer be held subject to a double standard of judgment. Zionists of ail factions placed the main emphasis on normalization through territory: a people with its own land would be guaranteed equal status among nations. The socialists aimed at normalization through socioeconomic transformation: Jews would be at home in the world once divisiveness gave way to class solidarity. Though many Jewish socialists tried to reconcile their particularist and universalist loyalties, they were never rewarded with the harmony they sought.
The pressure of anti-Semitism was not only greater in modern times, it also put a greater internal pressure on Jews. The traditional Jew derived his sense of legitimacy from his religion, which provided its own deep and serene justification. But when a modern, secular Jew, having jettisoned the armor of his faith, was attacked as illegitimate, he felt obligated to prove his worthiness. How could this be done? The contest was hardly equal. The Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, among others, were seeking to eliminate a minority from within their midst, while the Jews wanted simply to be allowed to live as that minority. Perhaps it was only natural that the aggression of anti-Semitism from without should have generated habits of defensiveness and apology within.
By the 1930’s, before the combined onslaught of fascist anti-Semitism and, in the East, Communist efforts at deracination, Jews found themselves at a loss to refute charges that were becoming ever more twisted and venal. Since the disseminators of the hatred remained beyond their reach, Jews redirected the better part of their efforts at self-justification, which also meant, in practice, denouncing those of their fellow Jews whom they considered politically misguided, a provocation to their enemies, chauvinists, fascists, traitors, collaborators, and all the rest. There is a demonstrable correspondence between the pitch of the propaganda directed against them and the factional fury among Jews themelves.
This progressive demoralization is not difficult to explain in its historical context, but it is not a noble story. If, after the war, the heroic struggle of the Warsaw Ghetto was taken by survivors as the symbol by which the destruction of the Jews should be remembered, the impulse derived at least in part from a desire to erase the memory of the years of internecine conflict that preceded it. As for the record of American Jews during this period, it can be found in the pages of the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press until 1943. No one will ever boast of it.
The war against the Jews, as Lucy S. Dawidowicz has called what others enshroud in the term “Holocaust,” was from the point of view of its perpetrators and collaborators successful beyond belief. In the aftermath of the war, during a period of international realignment, when the dead still seemed to haunt the conscience, the Zionist goal of Jewish normalization through territorial stability was realized. The state of Israel was declared and, though left to fend for itself, was welcomed by most of the community of nations.
In theory, that should have been the end of anti-Semitism, and the Jews may in any case be pardoned for feeling that they had earned a moment of rest in history. But the Arab states did not acknowledge the existence of the Jewish state. They refused to accept partition and they refused to accept its consequence. In the intervening decades they have launched repeated wars against Israel and ignored repeated opportunities for peace. Even the peace treaty of unprecedented generosity which Israel has struck with Egypt has failed to move the other rejectionist states from their insistence on Arab hegemony and Arab hegemony alone in the Middle East.
In addition to resorting to force of arms, the Arabs and their abettors on the international scene have tried to delegitimate the Jewish state in other ways—to accomplish in the political arena what Christianity did on the theological plane. UN Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism, passed by the General Assembly in 1975 to its eternal disgrace, institutionalized anti-Semitism in international politics. Allegations of Israel’s racism, and blatant anti-Semitic slander, are by now so common at the United Nations and other international gatherings as to attract little notice. As Michael Novak, the United States Representative to the Commission on Human Rights, recently observed, they are a form of Orwellian speech, which “uses words to mean their opposite, and then repeats such words over and over, in the hope that truth can be manufactured from untruth solely by repetition.” The clear purpose of this doublespeak, Novak went on, “is to undermine the legitimacy and the existence of the state of Israel.”
Sober people think they can guard against such distortions, but the success of the Arabs in their campaign of doublespeak is everywhere visible. They have transformed their obdurate refusal to accept Israel into an alleged Israeli war of aggression against them. They have won from Western governments a policy of evenhandedness—which dictates that as much weight be given to the war against the existence of Israel as to the struggle to maintain it. Normally, when countries go to war—Britain and Argentina, for example—each acknowledges the legitimacy of the other’s existence even as they both try to change the balance of power between them. The Arab rejectionists have yet to acknowledge Israel’s existence; a policy of evenhandedness applied to the conflict between them amounts to a license to pursue Israel’s destruction.
The cynicism of Arab policy would provoke indignation except that a further achievement of Orwellian speech, when it is used long enough, is that it withers the habit of indignation, and even turns it against the victim. Thus, Saudi Crown Prince Fahd could speak last August of a “just and comprehensive settlement” in the Middle East and not raise an eyebrow when he later denied that he had ever intended to recognize Israel. A London-based Arab newspaper financed by Saudi Arabia, Al Shark el-Assouti, was more honest in saying that “one should recognize the Israelis, but only in their tomb.” Thirty-four years after its establishment, and with the exception of Egypt, Israel has yet to be dignified by its neighbors with the simple fact of recognition. Its neighbors feel free to call for the destruction of Israel without concern for political repercussions or even moral censure. And the same Western calculations of expediency that grant the Arab oil-producing countries a near-immunity from criticism also allow them to spread their lies as truth.
Arab progress in delegitimating Israel is not limited to the United Nations. American public opinion is still very much in support of Israel, and will continue to be, so long as both countries remain proud and independent democracies. But Arab propaganda has made great inroads on this continent, with an inevitably damaging consequence to Israel.
A recent report on centers for Middle East studies at American universities, deliberately moderate in its tone, exposes a sharp trend toward the delegitimation of Israel at the very heart of academic study of the area. The report, prepared for the American Jewish Committee, deals with seven of the largest centers, all supported by heavy federal funding and some by gifts from Arab governments or pro-Arab corporations. As the obvious training ground of teachers, government workers, and businessmen, these graduate programs shape the knowledge and views of future experts and decision-makers.
The report finds that there is a general absence of courses on Israel or Zionism in the curricula of the Middle East centers and that Israel is omitted from or minimized in the literature put out by some of the centers. The numbers of Jewish graduate students in general Middle East programs are dwindling; to avoid the often inimical atmosphere of the Middle East centers, such graduate students tend to cluster instead in Jewish studies programs, “primarily in cultural or in purely linguistic areas.” The centers themselves increasingly manifest the subliminal if not the overt influence of their sources of income.1
Part of the imbalance can be traced to the decision of the federal government to exclude Hebrew from those languages designated as essential to the national defense and security, and thus deserving of federal aid. The original argument was that sufficient numbers of students, mainly Jewish, would take Hebrew anyway. In fact, however, this denial of federal funding in an otherwise very heavily subsidized area has meant a near-exclusion of Hebrew-language students from Middle East programs. At the University of Michigan, for example, where one of the largest of these programs is located, there were 336 undergraduate enrollments in Hebrew in 1980, mostly at the introductory level, but only 4 graduate enrollments. By contrast, the number of undergraduates and graduates studying Arabic was almost equal, 124 and 109; of the twenty National Defense Education Act fellowships, the bulk were for graduate students of Arabic.
The lack of graduate students specializing in Israel and Zionism, or incorporating such study as part of their curriculum, is only the smaller part of the problem. More serious by far is the redefinition of the Middle East as an area in which Israel does not necessarily figure. What does it mean for a Middle East program to be “pro-Israel,” as Berkeley’s was reputed to be before its radical reorganization in 1976? It means that Israel is considered part of the Middle East and is reflected in the academic study of the center. What does it mean for such a program to be “evenhanded”? It means the virtual elimination of Israel from the curriculum—just as being “evenhanded” in international politics means, as we have seen, giving serious regard to the aim of eliminating Israel physically. Thus, when Berkeley’s Middle East program was “pro-Israel” it produced, between 1974 and 1976, a total of six dissertations on Israeli history, anthropology, and political science. Since it turned “even-handed” in 1976 there has been no sign of a single social-science dissertation on contemporary Israel.
The attitude of faculty to this corruption of the academic enterprise reflects the difficulty of countering a campaign of delegitimation. Liberal professors, with their laudable commitment to intellectual freedom, see no reason why the “Arab cause” should not receive as much play as the Israeli cause. Perhaps within the category of normal intellectual and territorial conflict they would be correct; indeed, one of the great gains of Arab propaganda has been to define the Middle East conflict as “normal” in this sense. But as long as the Arab cause remains the destruction of the state of Israel, the elimination of a neighbor state, the academy that bends to this bias gives license to intentions of genocide. The ideal of the university is based on mutual respect for ideas and persons, and true liberals are those with the courage to uphold that ideal.
The discrediting of Israel proceeds through isolation and omission, as in the case of the Middle East centers; contrariwise, it also proceeds through an unceasing barrage of attention, mostly from the media. There are many reasons for the volume of attention, not least among them the availability of information on Israel as compared with the general dearth of information about all other countries in the area. But there are other, less neutral reasons. The difficulty encountered in filming and then showing Death of a Princess, a rather mild documentary on the rough justice of Saudi Arabia, is not likely to encourage others to expose that country’s weaknesses.
Media pressure on Israel no doubt attests to the press freedoms guaranteed there, as opposed to the absolute censorship practiced by its neighbors, but the result has been a double standard of judgment which soon becomes an instrument of incrimination. This takes its most egregious form among liberal editorial writers and columnists supposedly concerned with helping Israel live up to its moral promise and with protecting it from its own “suicidal folly.” A longstanding practitioner of this art of solicitous incrimination is Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who plays the good cop to the Arab states’ bad cop by helpfully exposing alleged Israeli malfeasance with an air of charitable concern.
On a recent trip to the Middle East Lewis sought out local critics of the Israeli government so that he could bare before his readers all the unpleasant facts that Israel (like any open society) can yield. A victim of Lewis’s strictures later described this method of “investigative reporting” as a simple pattern of prejudice: “If they look at our water problems, then we are stealing the Arab wells. If they look at our hospitals, then we are letting Arab babies die while saving ours in the Hadassah respirators.” Reading Lewis lately, one wonders how long it will be before he will be accusing the Israelis of poisoning the wells.
Lewis’s most recent effort at improving Israel’s wayward conduct concerned the subject of alleged book-banning by Israeli occupation authorities in Gaza and what was, between 1922 and King Hussein’s greedy invasion of Jerusalem in 1967, the West Bank of Jordan. Quoting Justice Brandeis, “the great American Zionist of his day,” Lewis accused the Israeli authorities of various acts of censorship, including the banning of Palestinian poetry because it contains nationalist images. All this, he wrote, is part of Israel’s attempt to suppress political feeling among the Palestinians, part of the “apparatus of repression in the occupied territories.” Lewis concluded with the twisted logic that has become his trademark:
In this country too there are those who would silence the truth about the occupation. Things as bad or worse happen in other countries, they say. To criticize any Israeli policy is to weaken that harassed state; people should stop finding fault with Israel.
How Justice Brandeis would have scorned such arguments. He did not work for a Jewish state so it could be compared with the tyrannies of the earth; he expected it to be a beacon of freedom. He knew that wise government does not flourish in silence; it needs truth, however painful. And he would see now, in the West Bank and Gaza, proof that repression breeds hate (emphasis added).
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, taking the defensive—unfortunately either its fated or its adopted role—issued a point-by-point refutation of Lewis’s charges, which were based on sources he did not check in the first place but simply lifted from the writing of a local opposition critic. Melvin Lasky, editor of the British journal, Encounter, who was alerted to Lewis’s article because of the mischief it had done in Egyptian intellectual circles, determined to get to the root of the matter. He found the entire charge to be based on misinformation and error which had been rectified years earlier, as Lewis could easily have determined had he not been intent on believing, and repeating, the worst.
Actually, it is not Israel’s but Lewis’s abuse of freedom which should be at issue here. By what moral right does an American journalist exploit a country’s democratic guarantees of free speech to smear it with allegations he has made no effort to check? And if freedom of political expression among the Arabs is in question, there is only one point to be made: the great irony of the Middle East, if this new disciple of Justice Brandeis has ever noticed, is that Arabs throughout Israel, emphatically including the occupied territories, enjoy greater freedom of expression and access to information than in any Arab country in the world.
Why, if Lewis is so concerned, for the Palestinian poets, did he not investigate their political rights when he was in Jordan? Hath not an Arab eyes? Shall the students and writers of Arab countries, where there are no Jews to “oppress” them with the rights of free speech, and no Jewish critics to needle the government on their behalf, be doomed to a lifetime of self-censorship and silence? It is the peculiar evil of this double standard of judgment not merely to apply an absolute moral criterion to the Jews alone, and use it as a bludgeon against the Jewish state, but to discard moral standards altogether when it comes to other nations in the region.
When Mobil and Aramco try to pretty up the Arab position, at least one knows their objectives and their justification. Their business is oil. Their suppliers must be wooed. Their economic interests in the Arab states outweigh any consideration they may have for the state of Israel. Business sometimes makes such shabby compromises in the name of business.
Lewis’s voluntary enlistment in the war of delegitimation against Israel has no such obvious basis, but his capitulation to the Arabs is no less obsequious. The sign of it is that he twists historical facts into the shape of the big lie, for the Israeli presence in the West Bank is not the cause of Arab hatred, as in Lewis’s corrupted formula, but its result. The policies of Begin, indeed the fact that Begin was elected to head the government of Israel, are the consequence of Arab intentions, not the cause of them. But in deference to the greater strength and obduracy of the Arab rejectionists in the region, Lewis’s political pleasure, immoral though it be, is to urge concessions on Israel. The political claims of the Arabs he accepts at face value, while of the Israelis he demands that they prove their moral right to exist, “as a beacon of freedom”—or else.
Just as the cycle of hatred and rejection began with the Arabs, so it will have to be resolved by the Arabs. The American “liberal” press would do well, in one respect, to pay heed to Edward Said’s chidings on the folly of thinking others too exotic to be held accountable. The Arabs deserve to be judged by no less stringent a set of expectations than the Israelis. They deserve to be bound by the same ideals, the same standard of morality. Far from resenting the moral scrutiny of such as Anthony Lewis, the friends of Israel are unwilling to be its sole beneficiaries. Since the conflict in the Middle East will be ended when the Arabs decide to end it, it is time they be credited where credit is, undeniably, due.
Unhappily, the greatest gains in the Arab war of delegitimation are in evidence among American Jews, some of whom have begun to see themselves through the eyes of their accusers, and to bow to the accusation. The rapid demoralization of Jews in the face of anti-Zionism attests to the dangerous level the abuse has reached. It also shows the depth of the influence of the past, for many have yet to achieve the simple self-respect that has been eluding the Jews collectively since the dawn of modernity.
To be sure, when the vulnerability of Israel is directly involved, as in the case of the sale of sophisticated weaponry to Saudi Arabia, American Jews act persuasively and effectively, even if they are not always successful against competing lobbies and far greater resources of influence than they can muster.2 But against the campaign to delegitimate Israel, American Jews have been impotent and silent.
On college campuses,’ even those with large and vocal Jewish populations, there are more and more unopposed attacks on Israel. PLO pamphlets flood the dormitories. Exhibits of Israeli “aggression” are presented under the guise of Arab culture. In the classroom itself there is systematic dissemination of libelous falsehood, which has been noted and documented by dozens of witnesses who say they do not consider it important enough to publicize and expose, but who, one suspects, are actually afraid to commit themselves to the process of sustained prosecution. At international and academic conferences, the terms “Zionist-racist” and “Zionist-fascist” are shrugged off as unexceptional by Jewish participants who pretend the slurs do not warrant public objection, but who are more likely embarrassed to stand up and defend their people’s dignity.
Of the United Nations resolution on Zionism/racism, which forces Jews into the position of Cain not in the eyes of Christianity alone but within the entire community of nations, many American Jews pretend to take no note. “Only Jews pay attention to the United Nations,” a Jewish intellectual answered when asked why he did not take a stand against the defamation. Yet the UN is not a parochial playpen, and real enemies do not evaporate when ignored. Instead of tirelessly challenging defamatory libels whenever they occur, so that none can hurl them with impunity, Jews have too often adopted the simpler tactic of silence—with the consequence that they have forfeited much ground in the propaganda battle to discredit Zionism.
Some, however, have felt the edge of assault so keenly they have begun to speak after all—in the language of their debasers. Organized opposition to Israel government policy on the part of American Jews began, in fact, about the same time as the UN resolution defining Zionism as a form of racism. Ironically, this opposition has always lauded itself for daring to break a community-wide “silence” concerning Israel’s misdeeds. When Breira, a college-based group of American Jews, began advocating Jewish criticism of Israel five years ago, it claimed heroically to be “breaking a taboo.” This formulation has been adopted by each successor to Breira, which disbanded as an organization but bequeathed its program to a much broader constituency.
A World Jewish Congress report on the Implications of Israel-Arab Peace (sic!), conceived in 1979 and issued in the winter of 1981, echoes much of the Breira platform, incorporating too the notion of its own courageousness. The report compliments itself on relieving the pent-up pressures of self-restraint—restraint not from criticism of the Arabs (which would have been courageous indeed) but from criticism of Israel. According to the report the most important trend in recent years has been the increasing strain in the relation of American Jews with Israel. No connection is made, however, between the oil crisis and rising Arab influence in America, between rising Arab influence in America and consequent pressure on Israel, between pressure on Israel and the strain on those who feel obliged to defend an increasingly unpopular cause. Instead, the analysis treats the struggle for Israel and Zionism as though the faults of the Jews were the reason for the enmity being directed against them. In this way certain American Jews manage to evade the unpleasant and difficult task of upholding Israel’s right to self-determination, and to call themselves heroes in the process.
At first, Jewish groups were still hesitant about embarking upon this program, although from the outset the American press loved the idea of man bites dog—Jews versus Israel. At the 1979 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, the largest working gathering of Jews in America, among hundreds of workshops and sessions reflecting every cultural, religious, organizational, and political concern, the New York Times featured only an impromptu briefing called by Peace Now representatives, the successors of Breira in America, to encourage open criticism of Israel. That pattern of “coverage” has never changed. American Jewish critics of Israel, emboldened by media acclaim, now regularly call into question the morality of the rest of the Jewish community, which is “silent” in the face of Israeli miscreancy. This has had its inevitable effect. “When I’m accused of standing up for Israel,” a professor said at a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East, “I no longer know what to say in my defense.”
American Jewish attempts to discredit the policies of the Begin government obviously take pains to disavow any hostility to Israel as a whole, but they cannot help serving the purposes of such hostility. In the first place, since Begin heads a democratic state, he cannot be discredited without calling into question the country that has elected him. The critics, unable to deal effectively with this knot, end by falsifying the facts and impugning Israeli democracy; they ignore the wide base of support that Likud enjoys on university campuses and in the army, and they assert that Begin was put into power by North African immigrants, Soviet émigrés, and religious Jews, as if these voters, on account of their ethnic origins and beliefs, were untrustworthy at the polls. The implications of this line of argument should be obvious to democracy’s proponents and opponents alike.
More disturbing still are the terms of the American Jewish attack upon Begin, which simply echo the Arab language of delegitimation. The critics do not merely contrast the political aims of Likud with those of the Labor party—which, as it happens, initiated the policy of West Bank settlements—but raise the specter of satanic evil. Thus, no less a Zionist than Arthur Hertzberg, writing in the pages of the New York Review of Books, concludes a piece on the threat posed by Menachem Begin with the incredible exhortation, “The Jews of the world can no longer choose to be silent.” This puts Begin in the gallery of all those—may their names be blotted out—against whose murderous intentions Jews should have been expected to raise their voices in the past and should be raising their voices now.
Hertzberg uses the standard formula of inversion to transform the global reality of which Israel is a part into a hand-to-hand Jewish combat. American Jews “fear” Begin, he says, because he is destroying the glorious vision of Israel created by David Ben-Gurion. The American Jewish community “was persuaded to support Zionism after 1945 by the vision of a Jewish state that would redeem the victims of Hitler and build a benign society that could be a light unto the nations” (emphasis added). Now Begin, heir to a counter-tradition of Jewish zealotry that wants to bring Jews into the world of “real power,” perverts the moral cause of the state. He is “frightening” and “dangerous,” and the claims he is advancing to the land of Israel threaten to bring about a “confrontation between Jews and Gentiles.”
Hertzberg, who (as we have seen) is a perceptive historian of the process of Jewish delegitimation since the Enlightenment, thus falls neatly into its trap. He pleads for the higher Israel as if Israel’s moral behavior, and not its existence, were the source of the difficulty it faces in the Middle East, and as if it has taken Begin and the Likud to bring about the threat of “a confrontation between Jews and Gentiles.”
It is far too convenient, as well as demonstrably deceptive, to pretend that Begin is the cause of the fears that are experienced by American Jews. They are frightened because of the tremendous rise of Arab “real power” and prestige since the establishment of the state of Israel; because of the unanticipated return of anti-Semitism in the mask of anti-Zionism; because of the hammering to which Israel is subjected, even by countries it has benefited at considerable cost of effort to itself. This frightens American Jews, as indeed it should, because it puts them into a position of responsibility for a vulnerable and unpopular brother.3
As for the West Bank, it is simple historical fact that the Arabs who fled Palestine in 1948-49 were left by their brothers to rot in refugee camps, a superior breeding ground for terrorism. (At the same time, Jews fleeing from Arab countries, in equal numbers, were absorbed by Israel imperfectly but with genuine and often self-sacrificing initiative.) The use to which the Arab refugees of 1948 have been put by their respective host countries has created a terrible force in the Middle East, and it is no comfort to Israel or to the Jews that the Arab countries are themselves, to some extent, reaping the harvest of hatred. What frightens Jews is that decades of callous Arab neglect should now be laid to their conscience, and history rewritten at Arab will. It also begins to be frightening that a Jewish historian of Hertzberg’s caliber lends his hand to the process.
Contrary to Hertzberg’s claim, and that of Anthony Lewis as well, American Jews after 1945 were “persuaded to accept” no glorious dream of Israel as a light unto the nations, or even the promise of a Labor Zionist homeland. With the same guilt and relief that prompted America itself to consent to the birth of a Jewish state (one that would, among other things, absorb the burden of hundreds of thousands of broken refugees who might otherwise have applied here), American Jews accepted and then came to support Israel as an assurance of the normalization of Jewish existence—which meant that their own place would be more comfortable as a result.
Nor was that “acceptance” quite as wholehearted as Hertzberg pretends. The left-wing intellectuals, the assimilationists, some of the Bundists and Communists and their children, never altogether made peace with a national Jewish presence in the world, certainly not one to which they might be expected to owe moral or spiritual allegiance. They accepted Israel with the proviso that it remain true to their own prior political orientation, their secular outlook, and their preference for Western culture. Indeed, the more honest among them have expressed over the years the conditional nature of that acceptance, as if one gives birth to a country, as to a child, on condition that it vote socialist and stay out of the synagogue. Now that attacks on Israel are becoming de rigueur among the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, many old-time opponents of Jewish “chauvinism” are resurfacing to add their outcry to the general din.
Hertzberg would have been on more solid ground had he pointed out that most American Jews would not have voted for Begin and are not in favor of either his domestic or his foreign policies. But this in itself is hardly surprising. In the absence of a strong, autonomous Jewish press in America, there is relatively little day-to-day neutral information on Israel, and even the Jewish press has been anti-Begin from the start, that is, since the 1940’s, and more and more so since his election in 1977. The putative “silence” of the Jews has been mostly found among those who support Begin, not those who oppose him.
If the views of Israelis and American Jews did coincide for several decades, it was because they were both so close to the same source, both largely products of a common East European experience of modernization, discrimination, and emigration. Yet the historical and geographic pressures on the two communities are so different that the cultural gap between them cannot help but widen with the years, and just as the attitudes of American Jews reflect what they think is good for them, so the attitudes of Israelis, freely expressed in frequent elections and public-opinion polls, declare what they think is good for them. Jews in both America and Israel may be equally afraid of the debilitating consequence of Arab rejectionism and the attempt at delegitimation; Israeli voters happen to think for the moment that the Likud coalition is a better instrument for dealing with the problem, even if American Jews, from their privileged distance, think otherwise. In any case, it ill becomes individuals who oppose Begin’s religious rhetoric to employ, as Hertzberg does, the messianic language of redemption in making known their own political preferences.
Jews who advocate attacking the government of Israel rather than the Arab rejectionists ask us to believe in the anguish of their concern. Only Israel’s great moral danger and suicidal folly, they say, prompt them to switch from defense to offense. Yet one may question the sincerity of these self-justifications, for morality is measured by the demands one places upon oneself, not on others. American Jews who want an Israel shaped in their image know that the Law of Return enables them to act upon their desire, and to vote in the next Israeli election. What critics call the “cosmopolitan minority” in Israel is shrinking because cosmopolitans who could form the majority do not immigrate to Israel with the same staying power or in the same numbers as do the Orthodox, the supporters of Gush Emunim, and Soviet émigré anti-socialists. Yet it is fully within the power of American Jews, the most numerous Jewish community in the world, to reclaim the land for whatever social or political purpose they have the dedication to shape. The new American Jewish ‘“idealists” who fear so greatly for the future of the state might demand of themselves no less than they credit to the Zionists whom they cite as their heroes.
In the meantime, the withdrawal of support from Israel becomes ever more selfish and debased. Leonard Fein, editor of Moment magazine, has vowed (from the banks of the Charles) to topple the Begin government. In the most recent issue of his magazine, to the accompaniment of the usual expressions of pain and anguish, he suggests that American Jews boycott travel to Judea and Samaria—the West Bank—to show their opposition to Israeli policy in that area. It does not appear to have occurred to Fein that Jews attempting to influence Israeli policy in this manner are no different from President Hosni Mubarak who refuses to come to Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem—for does not he object to Israeli “occupation” with the same righteous vehemence as they? Belligerents boycott one another. American Jews, who until recently tried to prevent the penetration of the Arab boycott to these shores, are now invited instead to declare themselves a new category of belligerent, and to initiate a boycott of their own. Not only are Jews taking over from the Arabs their arguments, Fein wants to adopt their tactics as well.
The Arab campaign to discredit Zionism caught the Jews before they had altogether regained their self-respect in the context of the modern age. There are many who do not know how to resist that campaign, others who lack the power and the will, still others who have moved preemptively to join the attack, renaming their fear as fear of their fellow Jews, and their anger as a righteous anger with their fellow Jews. Thus a rabbi recently announced to his congregation from the pulpit as a fact that the Israeli army had dressed an insane man in uniform and sent him armed into the Al Aksa mosque during prayer time to shoot innocent Arabs. No one rose to “silence” this rabbi, certainly not his numb congregation. The result of all this is to magnify internal conflict, and leave the campaign of delegitimation untouched at its source.
The Jews of Israel—doves and hawks, religious and secular alike—have learned that whether or not a people can be purer than others, “a light unto the nations,” it must first be considered as good as others, unexceptional by the standards of the international community, normally designated on the map of enemies, neutrals, and friends. The state of Israel has shown itself capable of defending its borders, and also of readjusting them in exchange for political security. The American Jewish community, beneficiary of the process of Jewish normalization in the world, has been proud to assist it in a minor way. Now that Arab influence spreads to this continent, and concentrates the campaign of discreditation in the United States, American Jews are being asked to bear the brunt of resistance.
Indeed, they may now have come once again to a severe time of testing. As this article goes to press, Israeli forces have entered Lebanon to secure the northern sector of their country from continual harassment. In the past, such actions by Israel, though successful from a military point of view, have invariably unleashed waves of hypocritical diplomatic reproach, and the early responses at the UN and elsewhere this time show every sign of conforming to the usual pattern. It remains to be seen how the American Jewish community will stand up to a renewed and potentially even more virulent attack on the legitimacy of Israel.
1 “Middle East Centers at Selected American Universities,” by Gary S. Schiff. In a recent development, Harvard University accepted $1 million from a Saudi businessman for a professorship in Arab studies even though the gift was linked by the donor to the appointment of a known PLO sympathizer to a research position at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (New York Times, June 6, 1982).
2 See Murray Friedman, “AWACS and the Jewish Community,” COMMENTARY, April 1982, and the articles by Steven Emerson in the New Republic, “The Petrodollar Connection” (February 17, 1982) and “The Aramco Connection” (May 19, 1982).
3 In an article in COMMENTARY, “The Exposed American Jew,” Nathan Glazer wrote of these fears with a keen grasp of their true source—and that was in June 1975, two years before Begin's election. See also my “The Anxious American Jew,” COMMENTARY, September 1978.