The Return of the Prodigal Son
A reluctant Jew finally sees the light.
September 25, 2011 - 12:19 am
It is not that different today and perhaps even worse. When not slamming capitalism, the free market, corporations, and the economic infrastructure that pays their salary, they are busy meddling in Israeli affairs. Even as I write, the members of the left-oriented faculty association of my former college, executing a hypothetical mandate for which they have neither expertise nor authority and utterly oblivious to the historical record as well as the decrees of international law, are indefatigably circulating anti-Israel propaganda and joining with those who seek to ostracize the Jewish state. The job for which they were elected is to represent a group of teachers in issues relating to working conditions and contractual negotiations with the local administration, not to involve themselves in affairs for which they are not qualified and which remain completely outside their proper purview. It is rather curious that, even as they insist on abusing their remit, there are several ongoing incendiary crises in the Islamic world they studiously ignore: the upsurge of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the implementation of Sharia in Gaza, the slaughter of Syrian citizens in the thousands by Bashar Assad, the uncountable dead and displaced in Sudan, the vicious tyranny in Iran, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the massacres in Libya, and the famine in Somalia exacerbated by the al-Shabaab terror group. But on such matters, a preternatural silence reigns. The quackery and bad faith, indeed, the unctuous stupidity, is almost beyond moral and rational conceiving.
All this was already prefigured in the political climate of ten and twenty years ago. For a considerable while I was a peripheral part of such benighted and hypocritical symposia. As I reflected on the nature of my previous affiliations, I recognized that we were, quite simply, credulous fools. And the anti-Zionist Jews were the worst fools of all. For no matter what lengths of disavowal they might go to, no matter how earnest or cunning or unscrupulous they might be in their collaboration with the enemies of the Jewish state, they were also in the firing line and would not be spared should worse come to worst. As Israel comes increasingly under attack, so does every Jew in the diaspora, where, as history instructs, there is no perduring guarantee of security.
Perhaps George Steiner said it best in Language and Silence: “If Israel were to be destroyed, no Jew would escape unscathed. The shock of failure, the need and harrying of those seeking refuge, would reach out to implicate even the most indifferent, the most anti-Zionist.” Israel’s fate is, in the last analysis, the fate of every Jew. Rabbi Berel Wein, director of the Destiny Foundation, is also right when he reminds us that the conflict in the Holy Land is not “a nice modern day dispute that lends itself to creative diplomacy” but is “in reality a biblical epic” that has “hardened over centuries.” A biblical epic is not a political soap opera. Rabbi Wein has expressed a harsh but necessary certitude, and concludes by citing the Talmud which teaches the restorative obligation of “seeing a problem realistically and without wishful thinking and false assessments.”
A fresh point of view was plainly necessary. I would have to give myself over to genuine study and to check my susceptibility to the infectious notions that percolated in the atmosphere of the times. I would have to remember anew that as a Jew I was and always would be at risk; as Anglican minister and scholar William Nicholls wrote in Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, “The forces that led to the Holocaust are still active. Until they are identified and eliminated from society, there is no enduring safety for Jews.” It thus behooved me not only to acquire a deeper familiarity with my own tradition, but with the subtle and not-so-subtle maneuverings of the antisemitic Left, if I was not to fall terminally prey to the imbecility and subliminal bloodthirstiness of my presumptive friends. I could no longer consort with a sodality of self-infatuated intellectuals so naively and fecklessly allied with the terrorists, so prone to appeasing evil.
Even more surprising, I came to realize that I was a Jew even as I learned to disown my heritage during the years when I found the question entirely irrelevant to my existence. I see now that this is a deep and self-conflicted aversion the Jew must labor to surmount if he is ever to become whole. What one dislikes in the Jew is only what one dislikes in other people but makes the Jew the repository of, especially if the caviler is a Jew in revolt from his suspected “essence” and who thus expels himself from his own community. Clearly, this auto-expulsion can take many forms. It can lead to assimilation or conversion, as with the celebrated Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who derided almost everything Jewish, fled from the perceived stigma of lower-class Ashkenazi life, and converted from Judaism to Christianity, as we learn from his quasi-autobiography, The Noise of Time. It may express itself as a braying renunciation of Zionism and the Jewish state. It can manifest as a process of psychological antisepsis in which the “self-loathing” Jew tries to expunge the effigy with which he has come to be identified.
Such memes and tropes are amply documented in what Sander Gilman in Jewish Self-Hatred (titled after Theodor Lessing’s seminal 1933 book) calls the “historiography of self-hatred,” a lengthy chronicle of Jews committed to “altering their sense of self,” to neutralizing the power of the demeaning cultural stereotype of the Jew “as if it were a valid set of descriptive categories,” and to becoming “what they wish themselves to be.” Of course, many observers have claimed that the term “Jewish self-hatred” is misleading and platitudinous — the serpentine Anthony Lerman writing in the Jewish Quarterly (Number 210) regards it as “bankrupt” and a form of “demonising rhetoric.” Others with a taste for satire say that those to whom it has been applied are actually “Jewish self-lovers,” that is, people who love themselves, their appetites and conceits, more than they cherish the virtues of honor or dignity or loyalty or truth. Perhaps, but the term seems to me accurate enough for, as Gilman points out, such people are in reaction against the social perception of what counts as “typically Jewish,” an image with which they have inwardly identified and are determined to annul. They will do everything possible to expunge the twilit awareness of their inner Jew.
Speaking of leftist Jews in particular, Israeli novelist Benjamin Kerstein, who at one time belonged to this perverse school of thought and behavior, confides that “we were taught to be essentially self-hating. If we didn’t hate ourselves and hate Israel, we were told that we were racist.” Young people indoctrinated in this way are the victims of “psychological abuse” and their preceptors subject to a kind of “auto-totalitarianism.” For Kerstein, such reflexive loathing is nothing short of a “psychosis.” And there can be no doubt that this is a specifically Jewish phenomenon. Who ever heard of a self-hating Muslim?
True, nonviolent activist Murad Bustami ironically titles an article for Common Ground News Service “A ‘Self-Hating’ Palestinian?”, which is not intended seriously. Bustami believes that “resistance” should be conducted peacefully, which puts him at odds with his fellows. In a rather different vein, Chronikler journalist Khaled Diab facetiously refers to himself as a self-hating Arab, but he doesn’t mean it for a second. In a rather silly and self-serving article on the subject, Diab gets the concept of self-hatred totally upside-down, asserting that “many of the people who fire off accusations of self-loathing are usually self-righteous” and that “the only thing these alleged self-loathers hate is injustice…and…should, instead, be called justice lovers.” I can think of no better way to justify cowardice and betrayal than to mount an argument like Diab’s or Lerman’s mentioned above.
Most deceptively, this spiritual deformation can manifest as a presumed endorsement of the “universal values” of the Jewish faith at the expense of the particular value of staying alive — a peculiar form of transference. Naturally, such recreants and especially Jewish critics of Israel will cover their tracks by arguing, as Canadian columnist Robert Fulford puts it, “that they are [Israel’s] best friends, urging it toward a higher moral position,” as if a country that tolerates Arab anti-Zionists in the Knesset, treats its enemies in its hospitals (180,000 in the last year alone), sacrifices its soldiers to avoid civilian casualties in anti-terror operations (as in Jenin), and leaflets potential targets (as in Gaza) did not already stake out a “higher moral position.”
Further, such preachments may lead to self-immolation and the embrace of killer ideologies. Thus we may be reminded by our ostensible betters of the exhortation from Deuteronomy 10:19, “Love ye therefore the stranger” — even if that stranger has his sights set on your life and the obliteration of your family. But we are supposed to show sympathy and understanding for his difficult circumstances as he schemes our destruction. We are urged to engage in “dialogue,” to make concessions, to acknowledge the misery of those who desire one’s extinction, to provide an example of disinterested righteousness for the rest of humanity. One recalls the great Jewish patriot Ze’ev Jabotinsky writing about the deluded Jews in Old Russia who, during the disturbances of the time, “considered it their duty to support the autonomist efforts of their enemy, on the ground that autonomy is a sacred cause.” The upshot? “Jewish heads are smashed.” “This sort of thing,” he continues, “is not morality, it is twaddle.”
Today, such twaddle will often come from Golus Jews who live in comfort and enjoy the luxury of exalted rumination, or as we have noted, even from Israelis, almost universally of the Left, who linger in an alternate reality. “There are those,” writes Deputy News Editor of the Jerusalem Post Israel Kasnett, “who claim they must save Israel from itself…if only Israelis would see through the Left’s prism.” What is the ultimate difference, after all, between the ferocious Canadian-Jewish critic of Israel Naomi Klein and the leader of the Kadima party Tzipi Livni, both of whom pursue lucrative careers while sanctimoniously working against the survival of the Jewish state? At the same time, they like to see themselves as laboring virtuously for the benefit of the poor, the downtrodden, the deprived and the excluded, chiefly among their enemies. But this species of moral commutation is only a slippery evasion of conscience, one of the most effective pretexts to be found in the vast App Store of Jewish alibis, subterfuges, and extenuations.
Was Arthur Koestler right when he remarked that, for the Jew, treason is the highest form of patriotism? He was surely being ironic — though articulating a bitter, antiphrastic truth. Such tergiversators were and are guilty of what in Hebrew is called Chilul HaShem, defined as a violation of the Lord’s command by abandoning or betraying Judaism to enhance one’s social status. This was not for me, or at least not any longer. My emotional and intellectual axis had shifted decisively. Although I once shared Mandelstam’s asperities, I have come to realize that I was still a Jew when I fatuously disparaged Yiddish as a plebian excuse for a language, refused to observe our defining holidays, and took up the Palestinian cause as a sign of my supposed even-handedness — before I gave myself the trouble to study the issue more closely and arrive at conclusions more in agreement with reality. I was a Jew when I inveighed against the hardening of the arteries associated with shtetl piety or excessive halachic orthodoxy and felt a vicarious shame and embarrassment for the sallow and asthenic physical specimens of the Hasidic communities with whom I had nothing in common. I was still a Jew when for a time I rashly accepted the arguments of our intellectual clerisy which in the name of the “community of mankind” sold out its cultural dower to the enemies of civilization — who, it turns out, were and are resolutely anti-Jewish.
And I remain a Jew though unable to say with assurance whether Jewishness can be reduced to a matter of belief, ethnicity, genetics, illusion, duty, allegiance, or cultural attitude. After all, what does an Ethiopian Falasha have to do with a Russian émigré or a Chinese votary or an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Galicia or the Bnei Menashe in India and Burma or facile entertainers like Jon Stewart (né Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) or assimilated bigots like Richard Falk and Richard Goldstone or a sodden philosopher like Martin Buber with mulch for a mind or true heroes like Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky? It has been said, I believe correctly, that Jews do not share a religion so much as a history, even if that history has been repudiated. In the same way, Jews are always in danger of sharing a particular kind of future — one which those on the Left, and those who have gambled on the shelter of assimilation, censure from recognition.
Moreover, I am a Jew, as I now realize, because the world will never let me conclude otherwise. Traitors, assimilationists, court Jews, sycophants, basement cowerers, prodigal sons and daughters, Sabbath Jews, men and women of faith, the noble and the contemptible — they may all find themselves at some fateful moment in time splayed in the crosshairs. Ultimately, the dubious among them cannot quibble their way past endemic hostility or fall back on convenient sophistries. My uncle Snetzi was surely on to something. Paranoia may well be the Jew’s only sane response to the world’s perennial enmity. In the long run, strenuous attempts at forgetting or denial or glossing over are a losing proposition.
Today, in the midst of the renewed outbreak of antisemitism around the globe, as the “Norway syndrome” goes viral, I have come to accept Freud’s affirmation in a speech delivered on the occasion of his seventieth birthday to the B’nai B’rith Lodge in Vienna: “I myself was a Jew, and it always seemed to me not only shameful but downright senseless to deny it.” I have come consciously to incorporate Emil Fackenheim’s “614th Commandment,” which in his major work, To Mend the World, he added to the 613 mitzvot or commandments contained in the Pentateuch, namely, of not giving Hitler a posthumous victory. As I wrote in Hear, O Israel!, this injunction has become my Shamash candle, the “helper candle” used to light the Hanukkah menorah in memory of the miracle of endurance. And even the way I hear spoken Yiddish has changed, so that it now seems to me unaffected, dulcet, and heimische.
According to Jewish tradition, since I never solemnized a Bar Mitzvah, I am not yet a man. But I hope that I have become a mensch.