A long, enthralling, shocking dialogue between two Israelis, one who holds fast to Israel and one who used to, but is now turning back to his father's German Jewish universalism. (H/T: T.A.) It has the quality of a nasty and revealing family quarrel in which unspeakable things are said. Avrum Burg, the reborn anti-Zionist, compares Israel to Nazi Germany. Ari Shavit, his one-time friend and now interrogator, accuses him of a combination of arrogant, naïve idealism and stereotypical money-grubbing. It will take your breath away. I find Avrum Burg a decidedly unpleasant character, yet I resonate powerfully with a couple of things he's saying:
I have already declared: I am a citizen of the world. This is my hierarchy of identities: citizen of the world, afterward Jew and only after that Israeli. [...]
It is completely Jewish. I am moving forward to the Jewish condition. [...]
It's only when I hear things like that -- George Steiner is another one who says them -- that I recognize myself as Jewish. I had to subscribe to Harper's Magazine to get my hands on these lines of Steiner's again, from an October 1988 piece called "A Jew's Grief":
My definition of a Jew had always been that of a man incapable of burying any other human being alive, whatever the provocation, whatever the cost. I had taken this specific incapacity -- yes, it has behind it 2,000 years of political impotence and a catastrophic conclusion to those years -- to be at the enigmatic roots of the long mystery of Jewish survival. That mystery is ethical, or it is nothing. Other men torture and burn and bury alive. Not Jews. Not the tribe of the Prophets, of the Suffering Servant, of Spinoza. If this be racial arrogance, I plead guilty.
Secondly, my definition of a Jew had always been that of a man incapable of censoring, of pulping books. The homeland of the Jew is the text. If there is a citizenship for him to strive toward, it is that of truth, wherever it may lead, whatever danger it entails. The Jew moves, not like night, but like day, from land to land, because he is the courier of thought, of speculative inquiry, because God has made and preserved him in order that he may pose questions and tell stories. In no other cultural tradition is there a formal blessing spoken on scholars and scholarship.
Israel has made these definitions no longer concretely tenable [...]
"We have become normal men and women," proclaims Israel; "we fight for our lives as all other human beings and communities do. We have sadists and swindlers as you do, and you. We are no longer dreamers waiting to be butchered." I understand. How could one be so frivolous as not to? And yet.
The price seems to me, finally, too high. Has Judaism known the dark wonder of preservation only to become a nation-state, living by the gun? Trees have roots; men and women legs. The possibilities that this opens seem to me peculiarly pertinent to the Jewish condition, which is to learn new tongues, to cross frontiers, to contribute, wherever he is given breathing space -- to the life of the mind, to that of moral argument. All of us are now imperiled guests on this scarred, exploited planet.
Nationalism, the tribalism of rabid ideologies, will do us to collective death if we do not learn to live as one another's guests. The learning process is arduous; within it, the harried but immensely creative intellect and spirit of the Jew has its privileged function.
The messianic vision was, precisely, that which strove to overcome the homicidal tribalism that inhabits man. Having to be peregrine on this earth, the Jew developed that inward restlessness, those antennae for danger to which he owes his survival. For the Jew, the nation-state is not a fulfillment but a death trap. [...]
It is so easy to be the idiot-questioner, lodged in (temporary) safety. Only one thing seems to me absolutely certain. Jews cannot be at home in a land where children have to be beaten and imprisoned as a matter of routine; where enemies, albeit deadly, must be buried alive; where books must be shredded.
Jews who inure themselves to these modes of survival will simply give to those who have, so long, sought to demean and destroy them, their victory. The world at large may, indeed, have no right whatever to apply a double standard of ethical, political exaction to the Jew. The Jew must apply it to himself.
Was it for ordinariness, for the commonplace of human stupidity and savagery that he was chosen? Or that to his every birthday one must add 5,000 years?'
The recognition of how fused are antizionism and antisemitism has made me much more attached to Israel than I used to be (in the abstract: I've never been there). I am extremely attached to the United States of America. And I see the snobbish disdain for reality in Steiner's idealism. Yet these are words I helplessly recognize as the cry of my kind.
UPDATE: Frequent commenter Dan sent me the following from "If Israel Ceased to Exist," by Hillel Hankin, from the June 2007 issue of Commentary. (BRILLIANT article, please read!) It nails that sense I had of the impossible haughtiness of the ideal Steiner articulated, one that Jews could only approximate by being powerless but superior martyrs (sure enough, Avrum Burg is a Gandhian pacifist who says "In my eyes, Gandhi is as Jewish as there is"):
Clearly, we have deceived ourselves, our belief in Jewish superiority having been possible only so long as others were in charge. While we thought of exile as a misfortune, it alone enabled us to nurture grandiose notions about ourselves that had no basis in reality.
It can be cogently argued, I believe, that on both a conscious and an unconscious level, the fear of losing the sense of Jewish specialness explains a great deal of Jewish anti-Zionism, that of the 'progressive' Jewish Left no less than that of the 'reactionary' ultra-Orthodox Jewish Right. Behind their principled affirmation of the Diaspora, whether as a human opportunity to interact with the world and improve it or as a God-imposed chastisement that must be borne patiently, has lain the understanding that Jews in a Jewish state must of necessity become many things that in the Diaspora were left to the Gentile: strutting generals, crooked politicians, mindless bureaucrats, hypocritical diplomats, flag-waving jingoists, provincial intellectuals, parasitic clergymen, bribable policemen, brawling football fans, and above all, millions of ordinary people who stopped dreaming Jewish dreams because they were living the plebeian fulfillment of one of the greatest of them. [...]
It is possible to think of Israel as the psychiatrist’s couch on which the Jewish people has lain down after long centuries of Diaspora life. Israel forces Jews to surrender fantasies and illusions about themselves that have long been part of their character. It has, literally and figuratively, brought the Jewish people down to earth. As is always the case with punctured ego ideals, this is painful. Still, it is liberating to know who you are, however belatedly, even if it is not who you thought you were.
LOL! There ya go! But of course it's the crossing-borders part, more than the above-it-all nonviolence, of Steiner's vision of Jewishness that appeals to me. I'm not a pacifist, or a passivist. The equation of powerlessness with virtue was a mistake my generation's New Left made, and, no longer new, still makes -- it's the reason leftists hate the U.S. and Israel: they have power, and inevitably, they use it in the worst way except, as the saying goes, for all the rest. When it comes to the inevitable corruptions of power, Jews are only human like anybody else, no better, no worse (or rather, some better, some worse), and that's no excuse for not seizing the nettle of power, because if you don't, of course, somebody else will -- maybe somebody even worse than you.
Probably Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism presents a more worldly, wised-up view of what I would like to extract from Steiner's quote above. What I love about the U.S. is that people come here from everywhere and live more or less together in this new, contradicting and cross-pollinating way -- a model of a possible world in which tribe has kept some of its vitality but lost much of its virulence.