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Israel: What’s Jewish Got To Do With It?

George Salamon
January 13, 2017

by George Salamon

"THIS EARTH MEANS something different to us than Croatia means to the Croats or America to the Americans. They are married to their countries; we are searching for a lost bride.”

Those are the words of a character in a 1946 novel about Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 1930s. The book is Arthur Koestler’s Thieves in the Night. His words conjure up the romance of Zionism, the Jews’ two-thousand year pursuit of a lost home. The search ended in 1948, with the establishment of Israel. The bride has not turned out the ideal wife. Whose fault is that and what’s Jewishness got to do with it?

It’s almost everybody’s fault, sealing the marriage between an ancient bride and a modern bridegroom. The Jews who settled in Palestine before Hitler, and those who came after the Holocaust, were rejected suitors. Europe was the soulmate of choice, Palestine a marriage of necessity. Now, even the “some of my best friends are Jews but I hate those Zionazis” brigade understands that the Jews had good reasons for wanting to leave Europe. But that was only after Europe turned on them, again and again. Yet they brought Europe with them. In the hospitable melting pot of America, Jews have gotten over Europe. Have Israel’s Jews? Here’s what an Israeli told playwright David Hare: “You might say we have imported from the Diaspora the Jewish disease –- a sense of rootlessness, an ability to adapt and make do, but not to settle. After sixty years, Israel is not yet a home.”

In all the shouting about the Middle East, the politics, the geography, the rights to land, the return to borders or the return of the dispossessed, that old “Jewish disease” gets little mention. To get it, try this: Jews were expelled from European countries, or slaughtered in them, at regular intervals, and after centuries of forced migrations and resettlement, they were labeled “rootless.” Clever, isn’t it? Call it the Kosher Catch-22. It can drive you crazy.

What does it say, if anything, about Israel? The same Israeli who talked to Hare tried to explain: “We look so strong from the outside; we have such a large army, so many nuclear weapons, we’re so certain in our expansion, and yet from the inside it doesn’t feel like that. We feel our being is not guaranteed.” Is this the old Jewish disease or disingenuous Zionist whining? Maybe it’s some of each. But I bet the Jewish radiologist in Sacramento feels his being more guaranteed than the Israeli cardiologist in Tel Aviv. American Jews, by now, have a history. Israeli Jews have conflict and conflicting views of rights and roots in their own country. “Next Year in Jerusalem” was a rousing battle cry of Zionism. Now that Jerusalem is theirs, Zionists can’t be sure whose it’ll be twenty years from now. How did things turn out this way?

JEWS FELL IN LOVE with Western Europe in the 19th century. Those who escaped the pogroms and poverty of East European shtetls took to the culture and traditions they discovered the cities of Germany or France. They adopted the best and worst habits of the European mind. They also shared European sentiments about others, about non-Europeans, about the swarthy folks in Asia and Africa -- as we say now, about people of color. But notwithstanding the Nobel prizes in physics that Jews earned for Germany and the many readers Jewish novelists enthralled all over Europe, Jewish love for Europe remained unrequited. They remained swarthy strangers themselves. Those who claim that Jews want to impose “their own culture” over that of Christian Europe or America are crazy. They studied, nourished, challenged and occasionally changed the Western tradition. Never did they want to walk the dirt streets of a Polish village again. Their dreams sought concert halls in Berlin, banks in Hamburg, theaters in Vienna or studios in Paris. And, many got there. Zionism only arrived when those dreams were dashed. And to most Jews in Europe, assimilation was still the answer, not emigration.

Emigrate or die turned out to be the right answer. Not all West European Jews who were able to get out before 1939 wanted to get to Palestine. The Zionist vision held little appeal for them. Once they’ve enjoyed coffee on the Kurfuerstendamm in Berlin, how you gonna get them to love orange juice on the Kibbutz in the desert? Most of them didn’t bother with the details the first Zionists had spelled out. Palestine just wasn’t part of the civilized world.

To the Jews on farms in the Ukraine or in Russia, Palestine seemed much more promising, offering hard labor with dignity.

The German and Austrian Jews, initially, planned to establish a European utopia. As one scholar of Judaism put it, they hoped to create a “miniature Europe,” where race and religion don’t matter, where religion is excluded from all public affairs. As Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founding father, wrote, people may “seek the eternal verities in a temple, a church or mosque, in an art museum or at a philharmonic concert.” Is this a Jewish state or a European cultural capital? It was a democratic socialist pipedream, smoked in the cafes of Vienna where Herzl was a journalist. It found few customers in Palestine. The bridegroom didn’t know the bride he had lost so long ago.

But after World War II, what was to be done with all those Jews, a quarter of a million of them, languishing in displaced person camps in Germany? And what about that British promise to the Jews for a piece of their ancient homeland, a stepfather’s promise for a daughter whose consent was not sought? In a brief and temporary moment of remorse, the wise old white men of Europe and America agreed: the Jews must be put somewhere. Their own backyards were not available. What happened then was described in November of 1947, six months before the establishment of Israel, by King Abdullah of Jordan: “We have hurt these people terribly,” cries the West to the East. “Won’t you please take care of them for us?”

The East tried to "take care of them" -- but the Jews resisted being pushed into the sea. The boys of Exodus prevailed. Nobody could ever have imagined it. There’s the joke about Hitler, who in 1955 gets a week-long pass to visit earth for good behavior in Hell. It’s the time of Germany’s “economic miracle” as the fatherland is rebuilt, thriving and waistlines are expanding. The former Fuehrer returns to Hell after only three days. “What’s the matter,” the Devil asks, “didn’t you like it up there?” And Hitler replied: “What a revolting development it is, when in the world today Germans are the businessmen and Jews the warriors.” But how else could this bloody saga have turned out?
LET'S BE UNCHARITABLE for a moment. We could say that Zionism was from the beginning nothing but a version of European colonialism, oppression, land-grabbing and racism. Many on the left say just that. It’s not true, but pieces of it have become true. Let’s remain uncharitable. In the same year King Abdullah spoke, President Harry Truman wrote: “I fear very much that the Jews are like all underdogs. When they get on top they are just as intolerant and cruel as the people were to them when they were underneath.” Some of that holds in the case of Israel, sure. Welcome to the human race, or disgrace.

But is there more to it than that? How does all of it relate to the lives of Jews in America and other countries, and to whatever their Jewishness means to them?

Until Israel flexed its military muscle, to Europeans the Jews seemed as meek as Moses. That was so in America too, except Jews here were verbally or intellectually aggressive and active in political or social causes. Just look at the names of leaders or spokespersons for civil rights, anti-war movements, women’s liberation. But until the Six-Day War in 1967, few thought of Jews as championing American-style guns, guts and glory. That’s changed now, but all Jews and gentiles aren’t happy about it, and many of those who were unhappy chose to see the Palestinians as Israel’s Indians.

What kind of sanctuary does a garrison state offer those Jews who seek it? And yet what else are the Israelis supposed to do? This question has generated decades’ worth of heat but little light. And that is so odd. Some might call it ironic. The Jews’ very own nation is as normal as nation states were made to be. They fight for mom, matzo balls and the Star of David. Not so different, after all, from what normal American boys are supposed to fight for: mom, apple pie and the Stars and Stripes. Over here, Jews are as normal as everybody else in the mall. Many of them attend to serious business here as well as over there: running a country, overseeing a military-industrial complex, keeping ahead in the rat race of the global marketplace. So, let it be. Leave them alone. They’ve made it in America. They are safe here. If they make it in Israel, we’ll celebrate next year.

But you see, that’s why American and European Jews can’t let go of Israel. The Jewish disease has not gone away completely. There’s always a “what if,” a “could it happen here,” dormant in Jewish minds. Traces of the 2,000-year-old virus reside in the marrow of Jewish bones. Why? After 2,000 years, five million Jews live in their own country and an equal number in an American Diaspora that’s been like a big brother to the homeland. The Wandering Jew has found not only a home, but two homes. Jews wanted normalcy more than anything else. Who cannot understand that?

For centuries Jews used to say about themselves: “We’re all a little bit crazy, you know.” What they were saying was “Who wants to be a part of this world, anyhow?” Can you blame them? They wanted a piece of the world, but they thought they’d never get it. Now that they’ve got it, they’re not sure who they are anymore. Well, yes, they are Israelis and they are Americans. What happened to the Jew? The one who was a little crazy, made that way by the way the world treated him and by the way he saw the world.

The German writer Brecht said that “those in the light don’t see those in the dark, but that those in the dark see those in the light.” The Jews lived in that kind of darkness. Not always and not everywhere, but much of the time and in much of the world. The Jewish peddler pushing his cart through a Russian village saw the people in front of their houses, he read their faces and movements and voices. They saw him only if they needed shoelaces or a pot. He was the Jew, a Jew, just a Jew. He saw people, they saw Jews. It’s a hell of good way to learn to see. Others see what they think is normal or proper or orderly, and you think it’s absurd, unjust or cruel.

It doesn’t require a Jew to look at the world through the eyes of the peddler. Writers do it, Irish servant girls did it, and anyone is capable of getting there. It’s just that the Jews were forced into that darkness and into looking at the world out of it. The more they lived that way, the more they sought normalcy and light. In America they found both. But have they, by now, unlearned and abandoned that old Jewish way of looking at things? In America and in Israel, I think to an alarming extent.

Israel has been hurt by the collective loss of the old Jewish vision. American Jewry, in its assimilated self-satisfaction, wants to forget it. But Israel needs the craziness that infused this vision to live, to survive and to adjust. The voices that sound like Henry Kissinger have been heard and listened to in Israel. Now the country needs to pay attention to voices that are a mix of Old Testament prophet and joke writer. The ones that would say that Israel’s situation is hopeless but not serious. Then real work could begin.

George Salamon taught German at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth and Smith colleges. After leaving academe he worked as a business reporter, as editor of a defense journal, in corporate public affairs and organizational consulting. For the past five years he has contributed to the Gateway Journalism Review, the New Verse News and Jewish Currents. He lives in St. Lois, MO.