Isaac Deutscher 1954
Source: The Reporter, 27 April and 11 May 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
What is an Israeli and what is a Jew? This question is much discussed in Israel, because the relationship between Israel and the Jews of the world is of obvious importance to the young state. Many Zionists believe in Kibbutz Galuyoth, the return of Jewry from all the countries of Diaspora. In their eyes every Jew outside Israel is virtually an exile; he has his duties towards Israel, the ultimate duty being to become an Israeli citizen. Young Israelis, on the other hand, especially the sabras, born and brought up in the country, have no sense of ‘belonging to world Jewry'; consequently, they do not see ‘world Jewry’ as belonging to Israel. Some of them go so far as to say that they are Israelis, not Jews.
The distinction is perhaps not quite unreal. There is a touch of un-Jewishness about Israel: about the farmers struggling with the desert and making patches of it into vineyards and olive groves, about the soldiers cold-bloodedly watching the Arabs across the frontiers, about the popular consciousness of statehood and the toughness with which the people are willing to defend their nation against the outside world.
‘Don’t you feel that we Jews have our roots here?’ the visitor is asked. The words ‘roots’ and ‘rootlessness’ occur very often in conversation. The ex-inmate of Nazi concentration camps, the sufferer from the old Polish anti-Semitism, and the victim of the Romanian Iron Guard at last have the feeling of being at home and secure. They express their satisfaction, relief and pride.
All too often, however, a shrill overtone of nationalist mysticism jars on the ears, a mysticism not free of the old Chosen People racialism that always accords badly with the element of cool rationalism in the Jewish mind. But, after all, Israel is in legend the country of the Zohar, that second Bible of the world’s mystics, and the homeland of the cabalists who spun their visions on the colourful rocks of nearby Safad. All the same, there is something disquieting in the intensity of the nationalist emotion that creeps into talks with Israelis, from the Prime Minister down to the road-mender.
David Ben Gurion, still Prime Minister at the time of my visit, spoke to me bitterly about non-Zionist Jews: ‘They have no roots, they are rootless cosmopolitans – there can be nothing worse than that.’ I remarked that he spoke as Stalin’s propagandists spoke until recently about Jews at large. He waved his hands in protest:
No, no. As Prime Minister of this country I have always maintained that in order to be of full value to their own state, Israelis must feel that they are citizens of the world – I am not inveighing against ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ in the way they did it in Moscow.
This is, of course, Ben Gurion’s second thought. Instinctively he condemns and denounces all those non-Zionist Jews in whom ‘belonging to Jewry’ is not a central idea or a dominant emotion. But when attention is drawn to some coincidence between his words and recent Stalinist propaganda (of the era of ‘the doctors’ plot’), he blushes with embarrassment and corrects himself.
The Linguistic Patch: In Israel the oldest people of the world has formed the youngest nation-state, and it is emotionally anxious to make good the time lost. To nearly all the Jews here the ideal of individual and collective happiness is to protect the prize with a solid shell. This implies shedding the Diaspora – the memories, the habits, the tastes and the smells of thousands of years of exile. It implies forgetting the climates, the landscapes, the melodies and the languages of many countries: Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Austria, Morocco, Turkey, Iraq. What a complex and many-sided process of psychological self-uprooting following upon tragic processes of physical displacement! In fact the overwhelming majority of this generation of Israelis has struck no roots in Israel and cannot strike any. Israel is the state of the displaced person; and that is why the Israelis talk so much about ‘striking roots’.
They crave to get away from their past and to put out of their mind all the marks of indignity, all the stigmata of shame, all the yellow patches that the hatred of Jews has ever devised. They even crave to put out of their mind part of their own mind. Some Israelis, for instance, feel almost neurotically ashamed of Yiddish, the language of their first nursery rhymes and first Bible stories, the ‘jargon’ in which an amazingly rich literature grew up in Eastern Europe before Jewry’s catastrophe. When, aboard Israeli ships or in Tel Aviv, I approached strangers and asked in what language they should be addressed, often the answer was ‘German'; only very rarely was it ‘Yiddish’. The moment my new acquaintances opened their mouths, it became obvious that they were much less at home in German than they would have been in Yiddish. But they would not admit it. Yiddish was the linguistic ‘yellow patch’ they were determined to discard.
This attitude towards Yiddish was, however, characteristic of Zionism long before Hitler. From its beginning Zionism has aimed at the revival of Hebrew. There is a certain snobbery about it as there would be in an attempt by Greeks or Italians to abandon their modern languages and to revert to classical Greek or Latin. Zionism has always seen Jewry as the fairy-tale prince who has been condemned to live in pauperism for many years, but then returns to his royal palace, discards the grey and dirty rags of the painful masquerade, and puts on his royal gold and purple. At the threshold of Israel Jewry thus abandons the rags of Yiddish for the gold and purple of Hebrew.
‘When are you starting to write your books in Hebrew instead of English?’ Ben Gurion asked me in a tone of suggestive self-confidence. He took it for granted that any Jewish-born writer was under a moral obligation toward Israel’s Hebrew literature.
Israeli-Hebrew self-assertiveness is calculated to weld all the disparate elements of Israel into a single nation and to give that nation a spiritual and cultural unity. However, behind this self-assertiveness there is also the Jews’ natural nostalgia for the countries and cultures of their childhood and youth, a nostalgia that sometimes expresses itself in forms of the utmost nobility.
‘People of the Book’: Almost every window of an Israeli bookshop tells you the tale of that nostalgia – almost every such window is a Jewish intellectual elegy. The bookshop is an extremely important element in Israeli life, for the Jews here have remained the Am Hassefer – the ‘People of the Book’. The book is a first necessity here; and in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem there seem to be as many bookshops and lending libraries as there are groceries. In the farming settlements there are rich libraries that would do credit to a large city.
It is not the cheap best-sellers that fill the shelves, but the great and serious books of the poets and thinkers and social visionaries of all nations. You find them here in Hebrew translations and in their original languages. In one window, for instance, of a smallish back-street bookshop I found an elaborate edition of Goethe in German, a new Hebrew translation of Heine’s Buch der Lieder, new Israeli editions of Gogol and Pushkin next to Hebrew translations of Freud’s works, a selection of Walt Whitman’s poems and a new Hebrew rendering of Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, Poland’s national epic, and some Hungarian and Romanian novels. Every group of immigrants seems anxious to convey the artistic thrills and literary excitements of its own childhood and youth to children brought up in Israel. A former Leipzig lawyer would like his son to taste with him the richness of Nietzsche’s style; a Polish Jewess cannot imagine her daughter growing up without reading the social-patriotic novels of Zeromski; and an old Jew of Odessa argues with his grandson over the profundity of The Brothers Karamazov.
Heinrich Heine once wrote that when the Jews were driven from their land, they left behind them all their riches and took into exile only one possession – the Book. Then over the centuries that ‘phantom of a people’ stood guard over the Book, the Bible, preserving it for the rest of mankind. Now the ‘phantom’ again materialises into a nation; and as it returns to its country it brings home to the banks of the Jordan and the hills of Judaea all the great books of the nations of the world.
Russia’s Echo in Israel: The state of Israel has been the work primarily of the Jews of Eastern Europe, especially of Russia, Poland and Lithuania. From their ranks came nearly all the visionaries of Zionism except Herzl and Nordau, nearly all the early leaders, spokesmen, statesmen and pioneers. In 1948, when the Jewish state was proclaimed, Jews of Russian and Polish stock formed about one-half of its population.
It was in the Eastern European ghettoes that the ancient current of Jewish life ran strongest and that Jews dreamt the dreams of Zion most intensely. When on Passover they greeted each other with the traditional Leshanah habbaah be-Yerushalayim – ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ – the greeting sounded very different there than in Jewish homes in Western Europe or America. The processes by which, before the rise of Nazism, French, British, Italian and German Jews were being ‘assimilated’ never went far in Russia and Poland. The Jews there lived in large and compact masses; they had their own homogeneous way of life; and the absorptive powers of the Slavonic cultures were too weak in any case to draw them in and assimilate them. Eastern Europe was therefore the land of Jewry par excellence. (Not for nothing was Vilna called ‘the Jerusalem of Lithuania’.) Is it to be wondered at that Israel is, as one Jew of Western European origin puts it, a ‘spiritual colony of the East European ghettoes'?
Yet the East European ghetto had been deeply divided against itself; it had been in revolt against itself, against its own orthodoxy and tradition and against the outside world. That revolt took the two rival forms of Zionism and revolutionary Marxist socialism.
While in the West socialism, liberalism and Zionism were benevolently related to one another, in Eastern Europe they competed bitterly for the loyalty of the Jewish masses. A deep cleavage always existed there between the Zionist and the anti-Zionist Jew. The anti-Zionist urged the Jews to trust their gentile environment, to help the ‘progressive forces’ in that environment to come to the top, and to hope that those forces would effectively defend the Jews against anti-Semitism. ‘Social revolution will give the Jews equality and freedom; they have therefore no need for a Zionist Messiah’ – this was the stock argument of generations of Jewish left-wingers. The Zionists, on the other hand, dwelt on ‘the deep-seated hatred of non-Jews towards Jews’ and urged the Jews to trust their future to nobody except their own state. In this controversy Zionism scored a dreadful victory, one which it could neither wish nor expect: six million Jews had to perish in Hitler’s concentration camps in order that Israel should come to life. It would have been better that Israel should remain unborn and the six million Jews should stay alive – but who can blame Zionism and Israel for the different outcome? Israel is more than a spiritual colony of the Eastern European ghettoes. It is their great, tragic posthumous offspring fighting for survival with breath-taking vitality.
Eastern European Zionism was implicitly anti-revolutionary. Nevertheless it breathed the air of the Russian Revolution – the air not of Stalinism, of course, but of that vast movement of revolutionary ideas that preceded the Bolshevik Revolution and reached its culmination with that revolution. On Zionism that movement of ideas left an indelible mark.
The young Jew who in Kiev, Odessa or Warsaw distrusted the Russo-Polish revolutionary ideologies and longed to pioneer for the Jewish state in Palestine was as a rule hypnotised by the ideologies from which he fled, and he found this out after he had landed in Palestine. He came to Palestine with the crumbs from the table of the Russian Revolution, and he used those crumbs as the seed with which to sow the sacred desert of Galilee, Samaria and Judaea.
At the new imposing Tel Aviv headquarters of the Histadruth some of the leaders are more at ease when they speak Russian than when they speak any other language, although they emigrated from Russia more than thirty years ago. Ben Gurion had no sooner welcomed me than he launched out on a lecture on the Russian Revolution – the topic obviously fascinated him.
‘One man’, he said, ‘could have saved the world, but, unfortunately, he missed his opportunity. That man was Lenin.’
Ben Gurion is Polish rather than Russian, but this naive dictum is his unwitting tribute to the Russian Revolution.
Mordehai Namir, the Secretary General of Histadruth, when asked about the guiding principle of the big labour federation, answers with unshakable confidence: ‘The governing principle here is democratic centralism – don’t you know it?’
Democratic centralism, in the strict sense, is of course not a Russian or Bolshevik invention – it came to Russia and the Bolsheviks from Western Europe. But it has come to Israel and Histadruth from Russia.
Egalitarianism: There are in Israel some striking contrasts of wealth and poverty. The distance between the hovels of the Maabara (transit) camps for money-less immigrants and the hotels and villas on Mount Carmel is very great indeed. But there is also a widespread and acute sense of shame for these contrasts, a sense of shame such as existed in the Russia of Tolstoy and Chekhov. There is an egalitarian spirit alive in the working class such as flourished in Russia before it was eradicated by Stalinism. The trade unions stick to a quasi-egalitarian wage policy. The pay envelopes of the skilled and unskilled workers, the office employee, the professional man and the civil servant differ relatively little in size, and people grumble that lack of incentive payment is retarding Israel’s economic progress.
The kibbutz, the rural commune, is the epitome of Israeli egalitarianism. It is also the most important feature of Israeli’s moral and intellectual landscape. The kibbutz is an indirect descendant of an idea of the Russian Narodniks or Populists; and it is a Narodnik vision of rural socialism that seems to have materialised in the Jewish oases scattered over the former Arabian desert.
The Narodniks preached their agrarian socialism in the second half of the last century, when Russia did not yet possess any modern industry; and the ‘Lovers of Zion’, the forerunners of modern Zionism, came from Russia to Palestine before the Narodnik Utopia had faded completely. The next immigration wave came after the defeat of the Russian Revolution of 1905-06; and the men of that wave founded some of the greatest and most beautiful kibbutzim in Galilee, near Tiberias, and in the hills of Judaea, on the approaches to Jerusalem. The next phalanx of immigrants arrived after the Bolshevik Revolution. The rich Russian émigré Jews who managed to save some of their wealth settled in Berlin, Paris or London. Those who came to Palestine strove to save only their dream of the Jewish state.
In Russia, under the New Economic Policy, Lenin’s government encouraged a handful of idealistic peasants and party intellectuals to form voluntary experimental rural communes which were cherished as ‘laboratories of the future’ and which should not be confused with the collective farms of the Stalin era. The new kibbutzim in Israel were modelled on those early Russian communes. They were built by boys and girls who left their parental homes and enlisted in Zionist-socialist organisations like Hashomer Hatzair, not in order to fight class struggles but in order to drain the marshes of the Emek and of Hulch and to cover the slopes of Carmel and Samaria with the green of vineyards and orchards.
Sociologically, the kibbutz is a unique institution. Its antecedents go back even further than the old Russian Populism. They may be found in Fourier’s blueprints of the phalansteries, in Robert Owen’s cooperative experiments, and in other brilliantly erratic schemes of the classical age of Utopian socialism. Like the Utopian socialists, the founders of the kibbutz hoped to achieve socialism by personal example rather than by any systematic revolutionary overthrow of established society – and, incidentally, no established society existed in the Palestine desert. The castles in the air built by Utopian socialism usually collapsed as soon as they were erected. The kibbutz is built literally on sand, but it has shown much more solidity. The oldest of the kibbutzim will soon celebrate their half-century jubilee, and there are many that are twenty or thirty years old and have grown in prosperity and achievement.
Life in a Kibbutz: He who has not seen the kibbutz can hardly imagine the boldness and originality of the idea and of its execution. A kibbutz usually has several hundred members, living in small flats which are sometimes very aesthetically built and furnished. Opposite rows of white bungalows surrounded by flower beds are the common dining rooms, libraries, schools, the medical centres, and other public buildings, with workshops and farm-sheds on the fringes of the settlement. The division of labour among kibbutz members is voluntary; it grows more and more elaborate with progress in agricultural technology. In some kibbutzim there are auxiliary factories of considerable size. Working hours are nine for members under fifty, four for older ones. If a member shows artistic or scientific inclinations, the board of the commune may shorten his working hours on the farm or give him a sabbatical year.
Rewards in kind are the same for all. Food, clothing, furniture, medical supplies, cigarettes, books (even paintings or artistic reproductions) are all distributed from a common pool – ‘to each according to his needs’. Every member gets a small amount of pocket money. The standard of living of a kibbutz depends on the size of the common pool, that is, on wealth accumulated over the years, on productivity of current work, and on the profit made by the marketing organisation that sells the surpluses of production to outsiders.
The Communist principle has been boldly extended to the education of children, who are brought up within the kibbutz but live in their own quarters and spend only a couple of leisure hours in the evening with their parents. I have noticed that members of the kibbutz are so used to the communal upbringing of the children that in quite a natural, unaffected manner they speak of all the children in their kibbutz as of their own children.
‘No Prison Here’: The kibbutz is in some ways a combination of the scout camp and the Benedictine monastery, brightened by the lack of coercive discipline and by the ease and purposefulness of human relations. The members of the kibbutz have every reason to be proud of their morale, and they are quite conscious of it. They tell you the story that during the war the Soviet diplomatic envoy in Israel and his staff visited many kibbutzim trying to see how they compared with Soviet collective farms. Not unnaturally the comparison worked against the Soviet kolkhozy, which depend on a backward, sluggish and intimidated peasant, whereas the kibbutzim had been built by the self-sacrifice and courage of idealistic intellectuals and workers.
In one kibbutz, having inspected the modern dairy, the school, the farm library (composed of what used to be the libraries of twenty German university professors), the dramatic circle, and so on, the Soviet envoy asked to be shown the kibbutz prison.
‘We have no prison here’, was the reply.
‘Impossible!’ the diplomat exclaimed. ‘How on earth do you deal with criminals or offenders?’
The kibbutz members tried to explain that so far they had not had to deal with any offence grave enough to call for such punishment, and that this was only natural: members were selected with the utmost care; the discontented were free to leave; and in extreme cases the kibbutz could expel unsuitable members. That particular kibbutz was dominated by the pro-Stalinist Mapam Party, but the Soviet envoy refused to believe what he was told.
‘Surely’, said he, ‘a community of several hundred people cannot do without a jail!’
The Russian did not hide his incredulity; and he intimated that he thought it a good joke that for once Jews should show their own Potemkin village – to a Russian.
However, only about seventy thousand people, not more than five per cent of Israel’s population, live in kibbutzim. They are Israel’s Pilgrim Fathers. Their influence is much greater than their numbers. In the towns you meet many people who have belonged to a kibbutz at one time or another and who still respond to its idealistic appeal, and many town dwellers are anxious to send their children to kibbutz schools famous for ultra-modern educational methods.
Under the British Mandate the weight of the kibbutz in Palestine’s life was much greater than it is now. The Jewish population was much smaller then. No machinery of Jewish government, no Jewish army, police or judiciary existed; and the kibbutz, with its solid organisation and high morale and discipline, formed a kind of a Jewish shadow state. Many present civil servants and officers have come from the kibbutz and have as a rule remained members of their rural communes.
Some try to combine service to the state with work for the kibbutz. This is possible only because of the smallness of the state and of the somewhat tribal character of Israeli society. In one kibbutz, for example, I discovered that the tractor driver was formerly Israel’s ambassador in Prague and Budapest. In another I was shown a tall, sunburnt barefoot shepherd with almost a family likeness to Michelangelo’s David driving sheep from the fields in a golden sunset; the shepherd was one of the commanders of the Israeli army during the ‘war of emancipation’ in 1948.
The Newest Wave: The kibbutz is still Israel’s moral power station, but for some time now it has been in the throes of a crisis. It has been overshadowed by the newly-fledged state and swamped by the influx of new immigrants. The pioneers of Zionism share the sad lot of so many other pioneers: they are defeated by their very success.
Since 1948 the population of Israel has more than doubled. The newcomers are not like the idealists of the previous immigrations; they are the wrecks of concentration camps, the flotsam and jetsam of European Jewry, and the masses of Oriental Jews, refugees from Arab hatred and revenge.
To many new immigrants the ideals of the Zionist Pilgrim Fathers are alien and incomprehensible. A little rickety junk-shop or a tobacconist’s stand somewhere in town seems to them a thousand times more desirable and respectable than all the collectivist wonders of the kibbutz, than even its relatively high standard of living. Tens of thousands of these new immigrants still live on the dole in the slums of the transit camps. Some of them even refuse to move into new blocks of flats built for them by the government. They prefer to go on living on the dole in their old hovels than to pay rent in the new houses. A few re-emigrate to Tunis or Romania. The country’s economy can absorb them only slowly and painfully, if at all. In vain does the kibbutz invite them to join its ranks as equal members.
‘We are townspeople; we are not going to become country bumpkins!’ answer former tailors of Bucharest and peddlers of Vilna.
‘We wish to earn our own money, to put aside some savings. We believe in property – not for us your common ownership!’ say some.
‘We do not want’, say others, ‘to eat in public dining rooms all our lives and to have our children separated from us.’
‘Employ us as your workers and wage earners’, ask still others, ‘but pay us cash and do not demand of us to become members of your commune!’
This is worse than an insult to kibbutz faith – it also creates (or perhaps only brings to light) a new moral dilemma. The kibbutz finds itself confronted by a demand that it should become a ‘capitalist employer'; and strangely, it is from would-be workers and employees that the demand comes. For the kibbutz to hire labour would be to abandon and betray its first principle. So, at any rate, feel the mass of members even in those kibbutzim which adhere to the moderate socialism of Mapai. On the other hand, the government headed by the Mapai leaders is anxious to settle the new immigrants and urges the kibbutz to give up ‘ideological purism’ and hire idle labour from the transit camps.
Voices asking for the same come also from inside the kibbutz. The economy of the farming communes has expanded strongly in recent years, but their membership has tended to remain stationary. Outside labour has to be hired in order to sustain expansion and prevent stagnation. ‘To hire or not to hire?’ is the issue now passionately debated. Some breaches have already been made in the fortresses of common ownership. You run into groups of hired labourers within the boundaries of many a kibbutz. The theoreticians work hard to devise new formulas designed to limit the amount of hired labour; and all kibbutzim from Dan to Beersheba take a solemn oath never to become capitalist businesses no matter how high the flood of capitalism outside their walls.
Thus the story of the phalansteries may, after all, be repeating itself in Israel. All the business experiments of Utopian socialism either collapsed or transformed themselves into efficient capitalist enterprises. This may be the ultimate lot of the kibbutz as well, unless some social upheaval in the Middle East changes its broader environment.
For the time being the kibbutz struggles to hold its ground, and it is helped in this by the fact that it serves an important national interest. It is still the chief bulwark of Israel’s defence. It bore the brunt of the war of independence. The structure of its organisation makes the kibbutz an ideal military colony and militia. In every kibbutz they lead you to the local cemetery, showing the graves of husbands and brothers killed in action against the Arabs and the stirring monuments to the fallen erected by local (sometimes world-famous) sculptors. If you happen to arrive at a kibbutz after dusk, the sentry who stops you, Sten gun in hand, at the kibbutz gate is likely to be a girl of eighteen. Most of the kibbutzim are close to the frontier, and on them the Israeli government bases, militarily as well as morally, all its plans of defence.
The bastions of Israel’s Utopian socialism bristle with Sten guns.
The cultural outlook of Israel is being strongly affected by changes in the composition of the people. Under the British mandate Jews of European origin formed the overwhelming majority, but more than fifty per cent of the immigrants who have landed in Israel since 1948 have come from Asia and Africa.
Jews from French North Africa, half Arab and half French in outlook, vociferous and turbulent, sit with their families in front of huts and shops taken over from Arabs. The parents talk business and argue over the pros and cons of a return journey to Morocco or Tunisia, while their children read and discuss the latest issue of Nouvelles Littéraires of Paris. Then there are the Jews of Iran, in black lambskin hats; and those of Iraq and of Turkey, some westernised, others Oriental; and the Bukhara Jews, in white, flowing, silken Sabbath dress and with soft Biblical beards. Finally, there are the Yemenites, with black glowing eyes and long black curled sidelocks dangling from shaven heads. Their girls crowd the open-air labour markets seeking work as domestic servants.
This is a story about how the Royal Air Force brought to Israel 45,000 Yemenites, men, women and children. They gaily boarded the planes, which they had never seen before; they believed that these were the ‘wings of the White Eagle’ on which, according to an old prophecy, they were destined to return to the Holy Land when the Messiah came. But on landing they were frightened to death when they were told to board buses that were to take them from the Israeli airport to the transit camps; there was nothing in the Messianic prophecy about buses.
East-West Tensions: How will this meeting of Orient and Occident affect Israel’s cultural outlook? In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv one hears all sorts of profound theories and prognostications. Some point to the very high birth rate of the Oriental Jews and predict the eventual Orientalisation of Israel. Others foresee a synthesis and a new Israeli culture. I suppose that the European Jews will eventually assimilate the Oriental ones. They represent the higher civilisation that usually absorbs the lower; and they are already conquering it through school and army, both of decisive importance for the unification of Israel’s culture.
In the meantime a certain antagonism between the Oriental and the Western Jew is inevitable. The Western Jews hold all the positions of influence in civil service, army, education, industry, commerce and finance. The Eastern Jew feels himself a second-class citizen, a victim of discrimination and European arrogance. (In some cases he even complains of a colour bar.) Grievances so long voiced by Jew against Gentile are voiced here by Jew against Jew. Some of the Oriental Jews find that their social status is lower than in their old country. For instance, in French North Africa the Jewish trader stood halfway between the colon and the backward Arab – he was somewhere in the middle of the social ladder. In Israel he is down at the bottom.
The European Jew is aware of the Orientals’ jealousy and resentment and is sometimes afraid of them. You can even hear doubts expressed about the loyalty of Oriental Jews: ‘Goodness knows, in case of trouble they might even join the Arabs.’
This is probably not a seriously held view, but it does indicate tension. Some think that one day the animosity of the Oriental Jews may be whipped up and exploited, for instance, by the Revisionists, the potential fascist party, whose strength for the time being is negligible. In the meantime all parties and leaders make their moves with one eye on the Oriental half of the nation. When high officials argue that a tough policy has to be adopted towards the Arabs because Oriental people are likely to take any other policy as a sign of weakness, they are as anxious to keep up the spirits of the Oriental Israelis as they are to intimidate the Arabs.
Orthodoxy: Most of the Oriental Jews are orthodox in religious matters and sometimes follow the lead of fanatical East European rabbis. This was the case in last year’s riotous demonstrations against the introduction of auxiliary military service for women. Yet the orthodoxy of the African and Asian Jews is inspired more by social conservatism than by religious bigotry; it is at any rate milder and more tolerant than the orthodoxy of the European Jews. The Polish, Russian and Lithuanian rabbis and their adherents are among the world’s wildest religious fanatics; and their haunts in Mea Shaarim – the Hundred Gates – form a genuine reservation of the Jewish Middle Ages.
Despite the name, suggesting romantic Oriental antiquity, the Hundred Gates date back only to the last century. It was in that quarter of Jerusalem that old and pious Jews settled when they came to die in the Holy Land. At every time of the day, the slummy, overcrowded rows of tenement houses resound with the chant of prayer and Talmud reading. There are as many synagogues, Talmud schools and shops with liturgical articles at Mea Shaarim as there are dwelling houses. The long-bearded, dark-eyed, pale-faced inhabitants dress in long black robes even in the worst heat and so do the little boys who enjoy the blessing of studying the commentators of the Talmud within a stone’s throw of Mount Zion. Here the terrible maxim of the Mishna is still in full force, the maxim according to which it is a grave sin for a Jew to interrupt his pious thoughts in order to say: ‘Look, how lovely is that tree yonder!’ – the Lord alone should be admired. The men and even the little boys of Mea Shaarim have their gaze turned inwards upon themselves or downward, and they avoid casting the sinful glance on the tree or the passing woman. Here the heretic may still be excommunicated at the synagogue to the sound of the ram’s horn and in the light of wax candles, for where if not near the Biblical Gay Hinom should rabbinical law be enforced in all its strictness?
Every Friday before dusk the zealots of Mea Shaarim occupy the thoroughfare leading from the centre of the town to their quarters. With frantic dancing they welcome the Sabbath and stop all street traffic until the following night. Woe to the passer-by who on a Sabbath ventures into the crooked streets of Mea Shaarim with a pipe in his mouth or with a girl on his arm. A hail of stones will come down upon him, for Mea Shaarim believes in the Biblical stoning of the sinner. And if a doctor in his car or ambulance ventures into these crooked streets on a Sabbath, the hail of stones will come down upon him too.
Mea Shaarim is important not because of its exotic ‘local colour’ but because of its influence upon Israel’s cultural climate. That influence should not be underrated: the kibbutz and Mea Shaarim are the two opposite poles of Israel’s spiritual life. Jewish ‘freethinkers’ and ‘militant progressives’ become very meek when they are left alone with Jewish orthodoxy. And so in Israel the Talmudic law still governs all marriage and family relations, to mention only some of the areas of Jewish life under its domination. Until quite recently an old-fashioned orthodox rabbi with no education in secular law was the Dean of the Law Faculty of the University of Jerusalem.
I discussed this with Y – , the editor of a highbrow leftish periodical. He protested with some heat against a remark that Israel was under the spiritual sway of Mea Shaarim. But subjected to questioning, he admitted that the Israelis paid considerable tribute to religious orthodoxy. To take one tragicomic example, they may not breed pigs, although pig breeding could help to solve Israel’s food problem rapidly and ease the balance of payments. Keren Kayemeth, the National Fund that owns most of the land, leases it out on the express condition that the tenant will breed no pigs. Thus even the atheistic kibbutzim of the extreme left are made to conform to the will of the rabbis. Y – at first tried to find all sorts of ‘progressive’ excuses, but then he got red in the face and lost his temper. ‘Do you really suggest’, he shouted, ‘that in order to ease our economic plight, we should allow pigs to be bred in this Holy Land? Never, never!’
Jews and the Nation-State: Israelis who have known me as an anti-Zionist of long standing were curious to hear what I was thinking about Zionism now. I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, a confidence in European society and civilisation which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were to be extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.
For the remnants of European Jewry (is it only for them?) the Jewish state has become an historic necessity. It is also a living reality. Whatever their cleavages, grievances and frustrations, the Jews of Israel are animated by a fresh and strong sense of nationhood and by a dogged determination to consolidate and strengthen their state by every means. They also have the feeling that the ‘civilised world’, which in one way or another has the fate of European Jewry on its conscience, has no moral ground to stand on when it tries to sermonise the government of Israel for any real or imaginary breaches of international commitments.
Even now, however, I am not a Zionist, and I have repeatedly said so in public and in private. The Israelis accept this with quite unexpected tolerance, but seem bewildered. ‘How is it possible not to embrace Zionism’, they ask, ‘if one recognises the state of Israel as an historic necessity?’ What a difficult and painful question to answer!
From a burning or sinking ship people jump no matter where – onto a lifeboat, a raft or a float. The jumping is for them an ‘historic necessity’, and the raft is in a sense the basis of their whole existence. But does it follow that the jumping should be made into a programme, or that one should take a raft state as the basis of a political orientation? (I hope that Israelis or Zionists who happen to read this will not misunderstand the expression ‘raft state’. It describes the precariousness of Israel, but is not meant to belittle its constructive achievement.)
To my mind it is just another Jewish tragedy that the world has driven the Jew to seek safety in a nation-state in the middle of this century when the nation-state is falling into decay.
Melancholy Anachronism: Through several centuries every progressive development in the life of Western nations was bound up with the formation and growth of the nation-state or with the movement for the nation-state. The Jew was not connected with that movement and did not benefit from it. He remained shut up in his synagogue and in his religious loyalties while Western man subordinated religious loyalties to national ones and found his stature within his nation rather than within his church. Only now, when man no longer grows in stature within the nation and when he can find himself anew only within some supranational community, has the Jew found his nation and his state. What a melancholy anachronism!
‘Ah, but show us the nation that has abandoned its statehood’, say my Israeli friends.
None has done so, of course, and it has not occurred to me to urge Israelis to do so. The point is that the nation-state decays and disintegrates no matter whether people are aware of it or not, no matter what their efforts to preserve it. The process is world-wide, however varied its local manifestations. Much of the strength of the Soviet bloc consists in its work towards unifying economically the area stretching from central Europe to the China Sea, and the productive force of the area’s 750 million inhabitants. To achieve this, Stalinism has reduced national sovereignty to a sham, although it has left its outward symbols intact. The nation-states of the West have so far preserved more than symbolic façades, but they too have left their golden age behind; and their clinging to sovereignty is more often than not a source of their weakness. Like any organism that has outlived its day, the nation-state can prolong its existence only by intensifying all the processes that lead to its own degeneration. In the Third Reich the nation-state found both its zenith and its nadir, its apotheosis and its Black Mass. Joining now the rank of the nation-states, Israel cannot but share in their decadence.
If anybody had been anxious to devise a textbook parody on the nation-state he could produce nothing better than the state of Israel, with all its grotesque corridors, bulges, necks and triangles, carved out by the master carvers of the United Nations.
Usually the irrationality of the nation-state is concentrated on its frontiers and customs walls, where nation is separated from nation. Inside a frontier, on hundreds of thousands of square miles, millions of people may build their homes and more or less normal existences. Only beyond those spaces, at the next frontier, does the stark madness of the nation-state once again stare you in the face. In Israel you can never escape its mad gaze. Wherever you go you are always at some frontier or other:
Look, on that hill over there are the Syrians!
The Jordan Arabs infiltrate this valley night after night.
Over there paces the Egyptian sentry.
Mind this path here – it takes you straight to the Lebanon, thirty yards from here.
We have built this power station underground – otherwise it would be destroyed in the first day’s fighting.
Here our railway runs three times into foreign territory.
Along this road we do not travel after dusk; it is too close to the frontier.
In Jerusalem Mr Moshe Sharett, the new Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, took me to the window of his office and showed me the sand dune outside and across it a belt of barbed wire. The Jordan-Israeli frontier, or demarcation line, ran within less than a stone’s throw. The Minister of Foreign Affairs had only to lift his head from his desk to face the ‘enemy’. If posterity ever erects a Museum of the Absurdities of the Nation-State, it should exhibit a picture showing this view from Mr Sharett’s office. It should also exhibit the barbed wire that now cuts across the grounds of the French Hospital in Jerusalem, the sentry boxes on the Old Wall opposite Mount Zion, and the photographs of children shot dead while they were playing outside their homes amid barbed-wire entanglements. The lunacy of the nation-state has cut in two the cradle of the world’s religions.
Explosives in the Foundations: By any normal standard Israel’s economy is bankrupt. Israel’s exports cover the cost of only a small fraction of the imports. Most of the deficit is paid out of the large pocket of American Jewry and by US government aid. Israel buys expensive foods and raw materials for pounds sterling and dollars and works hard to find remote markets for its own produce. In the old days the roads from Palestine to its Arab neighbours were crowded with trucks carrying food from the Arab countries to Israel and industrial goods towards them. Now trade is at a standstill because the Arab governments persist in boycotting Israel.
The state of Israel has had explosives – the grievances of hundreds of thousands of displaced Arabs – built into its very foundations. One cannot in fairness blame the Jews for this. People pursued by a monster and running to save their lives cannot help injuring those who are in their way and cannot help trampling over their property. The Jews feel that the injury they have done the Arabs is child’s play compared with their own tragedy. This is true enough, but it does not prevent the Arabs from smarting under their grievance and craving revenge. To the Israelis Palestine is and has never ceased to be Jewish. To the Arabs the Jews are, and will for long remain, invaders and intruders.
As long as a solution to the problem is sought in nationalist terms, both Arab and Jew are condemned to move within a vicious circle of hatred and revenge. Arabs murder Jewish mothers and children. Jews stage the Kibiya massacre. The Arabs only wait for a turn in Middle East affairs that will allow them to crush Israel; in the meantime they watch intently for any false step Israel might make. Israel’s hope is that the Arab states will forever remain as backward, indolent, corrupt and friendless as they were during the Arab-Jewish war, for otherwise the Israelis, even if their numbers were trebled, could not hold their ground against forty million Arabs. Each side sees its own security and prosperity in the insecurity, destitution and distress of the other.
There seems no immediate way out of this predicament. In the long run a way out may be found beyond the nation-state, perhaps within the broader framework of a Middle East federation. Israel might then play a role among the Arab states as modest as its numbers and as great as its intellectual and spiritual resources. This idea, I am told, is beginning to gain ground among younger politicians and political thinkers on both sides, but it is not likely to gain much ground in the near future. The Jews are still too deeply intoxicated with their newly-acquired nation-state, and the Arabs are too fully obsessed with their grievance to look very far ahead. Any supranational organisation like a Middle East federation is sheer Zukunftsmusik to both. But sometimes the music of the future is the only music worth listening to.