srael is facing a legitimacy crisis, and not for the first time in its existence. Unlike previous crises, the current one is not geopolitical—not the result of a united Arab rejectionist front or of hostile diplomatic actions like the infamous United Nations resolution of 1975 that declared Zionism a form of racism. Rather, it emerges from tendencies and currents within the West itself. The Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement has taken the war on Israel to college campuses, first in Europe but increasingly in the United States. BDS derives its intellectual ballast from the academic field known as post-colonial studies, a creature of the postmodern fragmentation of the disciplines at universities; the field’s inception came with the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978. It takes as a given that Israel was not the first success of the anti-colonial movement, as it was once viewed, but rather is itself an outpost of European colonialism in the Middle East. Zionism, in this view, is not an expression of a legitimate aspiration of Jewish self-determination (achieved in part by fighting the British Empire) but a new tool of Western domination and empire. Doubtless some in the BDS movement are motivated by sincere concern with acts of injustice committed against Palestinians in the “occupied territories,” but its leadership and its intellectual drivers clearly are seeking the international delegitimization of the Israeli state as a whole.
There is nothing new under the sun, of course, and in the 1950s, the German emigré political philosopher Leo Strauss, then a professor at the University of Chicago, confronted a similar phenomenon. The difference is that in Strauss’s day, the attack on Israeli legitimacy came from the political right, whereas today it comes mainly from the left. In 1957, Strauss took on the American conservative magazine National Review, now a stalwart defender of Israel and its right to exist and protect itself, for being a source of much of the early anti-Israel agitation in the United States. Strauss never wrote an article for National Review, but he did write one letter to the editor. It appeared in the issue of January 5, 1957, and he took the magazine to task for what he called the “anti-Jewish animus” of its treatment of Israel.
Strauss was a man who chose his words carefully. The fact that he used the term “anti-Jewish” suggests he believed the magazine was not simply opposed to this or that policy of the Israeli state but to its Jewish character, that is, to its very reason for being.
Strauss’s pique seems to have been touched off by an article titled “The Myth We Call Abroad,” by Guy Ponce de Leon, which had appeared the previous November. De Leon took exception to the view that racial segregation was hurting the American image abroad. He argued that in fact America was more advanced than most countries in its attempt to combat racial injustice. He then added the following sentence: “Even the Jews, themselves the victims of the most notorious racial discrimination of modern times, did not hesitate to create the first racist state in history” (emphasis added). Sound familiar?
Strauss’s letter was designed to convince the readers of National Review that as “conservatives,” they should be sympathetic to the Israeli national project. Despite his present reputation, Strauss was not himself a conservative if that word is used to describe a person who identifies the good with the ancestral or the traditional. But he was a believer in conducting arguments in the terms best understood by his interlocutors, and so his National Review letter was deliberately crafted to cast light on the traditionalist conservative foundations of the Israeli state. The letter is an exercise in persuasion; whether the opinions he expressed were his real thoughts or deepest thoughts remains to be established.
The first point Strauss makes is that Israel is a Western country, one that educates its citizens in the ways of the West. There is “a single book” that “absolutely predominates” in Israeli education. That book is the Hebrew Bible. “The spirit of the country,” he notes in a striking formulation, can be described as “heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity.” It is this combination of Sparta (“heroic austerity”) and Jerusalem (“biblical antiquity”) that defines the character of the new country. Nowhere on earth, Strauss alleges, is this respect for antiquity “stronger and less lethargic than in Israel.”
Strauss next turns to issues of realpolitik. It was the view of many anti-Israel voices at the time that it made no sense to champion the fragile new state because the experiment was doomed to failure. Strauss acknowledges the problem. The country he describes is small. It is surrounded by numerically larger and (at the time) more powerful enemies. It stands “within easy range of Jordanian guns.” It lacks oil and other natural resources. Is not the very existence of an Israeli state a quixotic adventure? Under such unfavorable geopolitical circumstances, isn’t its ultimate failure not only possible but even likely? Strauss replies that the question of whether the country will end up a success should not blind us to “the nobility of the effort.” Strauss taunts the NR reader: “A conservative,” he writes, “is a man who despises vulgarity,” and a person concerned only with success is a vulgarian. The very existence of Israel is testimony to the human capacity to dream and imagine, something that cannot be accounted for by the vulgar calculation of interests.
Strauss then moves on to the conservative objection that Israel is a socialist state. It was, it is true, run by labor unions, the Histadrut, and a Labor Party government. Strauss, who was deeply opposed to socialism, goes on to offer an extraordinary defense of labor Zionism. The governing party of Israel, he writes, came largely from Russia and Eastern Europe in the earlier part of the century, and the political experiences of its leaders were not shaped by life under a constitutional democracy or adorned by an “exemplary judiciary.” Besides which, different arrangements may be necessary under different circumstances, like the creation of a new nation. In government, there is no one size that fits all. The recognition of diverse moral and political traditions is also a conservative principle.
Strauss never invokes the Holocaust as the reason for Israel’s existence. He refuses to treat causes that either highlight Jewish weakness or appeal to European guilt. If Israel is to stand, it must stand on its own two feet, that is, from sources within its own tradition.
The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was guided by a fundamentally “conservative” goal, he says. It was to preserve “the moral spine” of Judaism at a time when Jews were increasingly becoming alienated from their heritage. The Jews of Europe—like Esau, who exchanged his birthright for “a mess of pottage”—were trading a moral heritage for the promise of formal, legal equality. Strauss makes reference to a famous article by the Zionist leader Lev Pinsker arguing that this pursuit was a condition of “internal servitude.” Political Zionism, by contrast, was the attempt to restore that “simple dignity” of which “only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable.”
Strauss concludes his letter on a slightly chastened note. “Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons,” he writes. He does not state what those reasons are. I suspect his concern was that political Zionism focused entirely on issues of land and security while neglecting the specifically Jewish or spiritual core of the Israeli state. A Jewish state that neglected a Jewish way of life would not be sustainable. Nonetheless, Strauss says that he “can never forget” what old-fashioned political Zionism achieved as a “moral force” in the face of the levelling of “venerable, ancestral” traditions.
What are we to make of this letter today?
Many of Strauss’s arguments seem beside the point now. Israel’s physical existence is no longer in danger of literally being overrun by its neighbors, as it was in 1957. And the description of the country as poor and as run by labor unionists is certainly no longer applicable. The Spartan quality of “heroic austerity” has been replaced by the new image of Israel as the “startup nation,” and this is something Strauss would not have considered an “unmitigated blessing.” Israeli life today is far from the armed camp Strauss felt it was on his visit, despite the fact that nearly all Israelis still serve in the army.
The most obvious omission of Strauss’s letter from the present-day perspective is any reference to the Palestinians, those who had been dispossessed by the new state. This was not as pressing a subject then, while the Palestinian issue is at the core of BDS and other anti-Israel movements today. But one must not forget that even in the absence of this issue, critics like De Leon had no compunction in the 1950s about referring to Israel as a “racist state.” Strauss refers to this statement directly: “The author does not say what he understands by a ‘racist state,’ nor does he offer any proof for the assertion that Israel is a racist state.” Strauss wonders if this could allude to the fact that there are no civil marriages in Israel, that there is, strictly speaking, no intermarriage, or that there are only Jewish, Christian, and Muslim weddings. Does this a “racist state” make? Certainly not by the standards of a “conservative” publication.
Revealingly, Strauss never invokes the Holocaust as the reason for Israel’s existence. He refuses to treat causes that either highlight Jewish weakness or appeal to European guilt. If Israel is to stand, it must stand on its own two feet, that is, from sources within its own tradition.
The best reply to the deniers and delegitimizers is a serious engagement with the founding texts of Zionism—Herzl, Nordau, Ahad Ha-am, Jabotinsky. These are to Israel’s lifeblood what the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers are to American self-understanding. Strauss points to the conditions of human dignity that can be attained only by a self-governing people capable of determining their fate while remaining loyal to their heritage. Israelis and, just as important, Americans trying to defend Israel must never shrink from this task.
Much to his credit, William F. Buckley Jr., founder and editor of National Review, would later go on to purge the magazine’s staff of its anti-Semites. The magazine today is a strong supporter of Israel, just as American conservatives are Israel’s strongest allies in the United States. Leo Strauss’s letter was a harbinger of that change, though it would take two generations for it to come to fruition.