The Return of the Prodigal Son
A reluctant Jew finally sees the light.
September 25, 2011 - 12:19 am
I grew up in a Jewish anti-Jewish household dominated by my father who never once attended synagogue and refused to associate with any of the Jewish inhabitants of the town we lived in. My father hated Jews with a passion — although I should mention that he hated just about everybody with a passion. Jews, however, for reasons I could never fathom, received an extra share of his animadversion. Perhaps this was because, despite his overweening selfishness and high self-esteem, he also detested himself and simply acted out the venerable cliché, going through the motions of classic psychological projection. He was not a lovable man. But whatever the deep interior motive at work in his lava-spewing psyche, I was taught to regard my fellow Jews with unwavering suspicion. My father was not a leftist, so there was nothing “red diaperish” about my early education. I learned only that Jews of any stripe — left or right, observant or secular — were to be avoided.
But even without such indoctrination, I was ripe for apostasy. I naturally disliked Jewish cooking. The sound of Yiddish was like gristle in my ears. The complacent and self-important worshippers I mingled with during my occasional visits to the synagogue left me cold. With only a few exceptions, I could not tolerate my Jewish relatives. I lived in fear of my uncle Snetzi, who would suddenly rush into the house and fling himself under a bed, whimpering, “They’re after me, they’re after me.” My uncle Aby was a good-natured philanderer who never had a serious thought in his life. Eventually he suffered an aneurism and spent his days shambling aimlessly about the streets, grinning inanely. My auntie Rosie, during her occasional descents upon our hospitality, would install herself in the bathroom and spend long, devoted hours rinsing out her lingerie, over and over again, like a working-class Lady Macbeth fascinated by invisible spots. My auntie Ida was partial to oily slabs of carp wrapped in greasy newspapers, which she would serve up at indigestible dinners. What had I to do with these people, I used to wonder. I was a Jew and yet I wasn’t.
The circumcision rite had to be performed on the sly, thanks to the fortunate collusion between my mother and the mohel conspiring behind my father’s back. I was given Hebrew lessons as a child during one of those rare periods when my father accommodated my mother’s wishes. Regrettably, this interval lasted only a short while — though long enough for me to pick up the rudiments. But I never had a Bar Mitzvah. Instead of attending Hebrew School to simulate what passed for correct pronunciation and learn my prayers (for the most part, phonetically), a chore my mother insisted upon despite my father’s glowering disapproval — this was the only other concession he ever made to her — I would stop off to play hockey with my schoolmates on my way to the synagogue. After several months of such enjoyable truancy, the rabbi belatedly telephoned my mother to inquire as to my whereabouts, but by then it was far too late to catch up. My mother was mortified and my father was euphoric. I continued to play hockey and though I’d devolved into a bad Jew, I evolved into a pretty good goaltender.
Later on during my university days and for many years thereafter, I grew somewhat more sophisticated in my anti-Jewishness, adopting the political positions favored by the anti-Zionists. I was perfectly aware that for many of the people I knew, anti-Zionism was merely an expedient substitution for antisemitism, but I persisted nevertheless. My father had died but I carried on the family tradition, or at least his side of it.
I was in sync with Hannah Arendt’s supercilious disdain of the Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) whom she regarded as lower-class banausics. Had the BDS scandal, or the Apartheid Week orgies, or the “peace” NGOs existed then, I would probably have participated in their malignant festivities. I was so fervently pro-Palestinian that my mother disinherited me. I would not have thought to question the pseudo-history of an indigenous Palestinian people who formed a long-established nation, a microbial fable and, in the words of Middle East scholar David Meir-Levi, a “pernicious tradition to which more and more of our mainstream media and academia fall prey.” And I would have approved Benny Morris’ revisionist libel of Zionism in Righteous Victims as a “colonizing and expansionist ideology,” rather than affirmed it for what it really was and is, a legitimate, historical movement to reclaim, re-establish, and perpetuate the allodial legacy of the Jewish people in the land of their fathers, as I do now. I might even have worn a keffiyeh rather than a kippa. It would have been “the thing to do” and would have confirmed me in my recidivism, aside from allowing me to remain in good standing with the antisemitic aristocracy of the like-minded. I was certainly no paragon of sechel, the partly untranslatable Yiddish word — Saul Bellow’s favorite — usually rendered as “smarts.”
The shock to my system and to my congenial beliefs came with 9/11, which represented my personal crossing of the Red Sea from the captivity of unreflected notions and crude prejudice to the freedom of real, independent thinking and impartial research. I was at that historic moment trapped on a small Greek island with no way of leaving since all maritime transportation had been suspended. I gradually understood this situation as an allegory of my own prior state of mind, snared in an insular delusion without the intellectual means of deliverance or extrication.
For the next several weeks, stunned by the images I had seen on the television screen in the village café, I submitted myself to a relentless analysis of the values and convictions I had accepted as gospel. How solidly grounded in authentic knowledge were the political convictions I habitually expressed? What were the sources of my attitudes, ideas, and judgments? Why was I almost instinctively anti-Israeli in my sentiments? Why did I wish to reject my kinship with Jewish thought, Jewish communion, Jewish antiquity? Why did I march in my thoughts with the Palestinians, the anti-globalists, the welfare socialists, the Peace Now movement? Was I somehow complicit with the demonic forces that wished to bring down America and destroy Israel, that worked against my own survival and the survival of those I loved? Did I really want to become like my father? Could I be so easily brainwashed? What the hell was wrong with me?
They were not Jews who brought down the Twin Towers, but the very people I and my cohort had empathized with. These were the people responsible for the Munich massacre, for myriad airplane hijackings, for suicide bombings, for random acts of terrorism, for the slaughter of innocents, which we had risibly explained away as legitimate acts of “resistance” against the “Zionist entity” and the American hegemon, as expressions of the quest for freedom and justice. In the wake of the 9/11 cataclysm, such frivolous justifications would no longer hold up to scrutiny. New York had been the current target. The next might be Montreal where I lived, or London, or Paris, or Tel Aviv.
I came to the conclusion that I had felt and acted out of mere rote behavior and fortuitous conjecture, out of an unexamined desire to think in accordance with the inferences and presuppositions of my friends and colleagues, my intellectual contemporaries, who were all either members of the international Left or, at any rate, exhibited leftist inclinations. We had embraced the multicultural pieties of the era, were duly anti-colonialist, anti-corporatist, anti-American, and obviously anti-Zionist.
Many of these social paladins and millennial protagonists bivouac’d comfortably in university departments, upscale condos, and tony suburban neighborhoods. Their Molotov cocktails were the proverbial lattes over which they would discuss their resonating ideals, plan politically biased academic courses, deplore Islamophobia (even before the factoid), raise consciousness of the plight of the Palestinians and the machinations of the Israelis, and in effect conspire against the very democratic institutions and cultural norms that provided them with the sinecures they blithely took for granted. To my everlasting shame, though I did not go to the same lengths, I hobnobbed with professors in the English Department who would teach their courses from the standpoint of an irreal utopianism, believing in the freedom and autonomy of the aesthetic as a prototype of human possibility in a harmonious and compassionate world. This meant a collectivist future without America and certainly without Israel. They had no difficulty surrendering their intellects to such puerile and noxious fantasies. And they had no idea that they were eventually in for a very bumpy ride that would send their double-doubles all over the upholstery.
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.