A week back, Roger Cohen wrote a New York Times column about the “Pride and Shame” of Israel, in which he meditated on the price to Palestinians of Israel’s establishment.
[W]hat of the price paid? Put a gun to my head, or rather my heart, and I will say as a Jew that, yes, Israel was worth the price.
The Jews needed a homeland. History proves that. Assimilation never worked; the Holocaust was no more than a culmination. The United Nations, in 1947, backed such a homeland. And if I, as a Jew, have lived a privileged life in the diaspora, it is in part because of the pride and strength that the new Jew of Israel forged. “Never Again” became more than mere words through Israel’s might.
This sincere liberal Zionist raises an important belief: American Jews would not be safe if it weren’t for Israel. Rightwing Zionists say this all the time.
This is a statement about Jewish identity, and “the new Jew.” There is something inherently effete about western Jewish identity, but that effeteness is now balanced in the world’s view by Israel’s toughness. So the anti-Semites don’t pick on us anymore.
The belief is linked to the idea that American Jews shouldn’t criticize Israeli decisions because the Israelis are on the front lines while we are sitting in armchairs here working on our screenplays. I’ve heard neoconservatives Bill Kristol and Michael Makovsky express this view. And liberal Zionist Jeremy Ben-Ami has expressed it too.
It is related to the old Zionist claim that Jews went to the slaughter in Europe because they couldn’t defend themselves. We needed to make a New Jew who was tough. The Zionist Arthur Koestler moved to Palestine — and learned to swordfight — because he thought Jews in Europe were a “sick race.”
So Zionists reversed the Jewish paradigm. And we are the beneficiaries: Cohen is saying that American Jews get to continue to lead lives of relative luxury — among the wealthiest groups by religion in the U.S., if not the wealthiest; all over the media, and all over the financial and the political establishment — because we have the Israeli army to balance out our effeteness with its toughness. As Tzipi Hotovely said recently, and accurately, American Jews don’t send their children to the army. So don’t tell us how to treat Palestinians…. Roger Cohen is echoing Hotovely’s proscription, but more questioningly.
Is what Cohen says true? Are American Jews safer here because Israel has nukes and has conquered another society militarily?
I say No, for two reasons. First, whatever Israel’s might did for Jewish prestige in the past — the cover of Life Magazine featured sunburned gladiators on Israeli tanks in the Sinai in 1967 after they’d massacred Egyptians, and a Protestant friend tells me she was blown away by it — today its conduct, in the name of “the Jewish people”, is endangering Jews around the world. Israel is contributing to a rise in anti-Semitism. Tony Klug issued a dire warning at J Street last year:
Israel’s neverending occupation of the land and lives of another people is not just seriously endangering Israel, not to mention deepening the despair of the Palestinians. But it is also making the situation of the Jews around the world increasingly precarious.
Second, as Scott Roth pointed out to me, Cohen’s “principle can’t be applied universally.” I.e., if every group of people chose to make itself safe by ethnically cleansing another group and getting nukes, the world would go to hell in ten seconds.
The exception to a universal principle is at the heart of Cohen’s assertion. He is saying what I grew up believing, that Jews are special. We are essential to western civilization. We deserve our prominence and achievements and wealth because we helped lift western society in the industrial age through our international magic of capital and texts and film. Slezkine’s Jewish Century, which transformed “peasants and princes into merchants and priests, replacing inherited privilege with acquired prestige.” All those Nobel Prizes…
But Jews were resented for their status. It fed classic anti-Semitism: the Nazi poster in Yad Vashem of the Jew as a global worm, with spectacles, feasting on Europe’s leaves. And we were vulnerable: The Holocaust killed half of European Jewry.
That can’t happen now because of Israel’s might, Cohen is saying. Never again, Dimona.
I’ll leave my own reformations in Jewish identity for another post. (I agree with the Zionists inasmuch as I found that what I was told that Jews do and don’t do established an urban field for me, and I wanted a physical life.) But Cohen’s column is a throwback to an earlier era; and whatever the role of Jewish exceptionalism in the late 19th century, today that idea is untenable. Textual and financial literacy are too broadly distributed for one group to claim them as its own; human intelligence is large and supple, and lots of people are developing the gifts I was brought up to believe were Jewish. Culture is fungible. My wife says Sigmund Freud saved her life. American Jews have lost their outsider edge. They look more and more like just another privileged caste. (Consider the slackness of the Jewish novel.)
The spirit of our time does not support the idea that racial differences such as they are can justify the vast differences in status that our society has produced. Inequality is a big problem, one we all need to try to fix.
And meantime– back to point 1– Jewish vulnerability is back. Jews are nowhere more unsafe than in Israel and Palestine; and increasingly, American Jews are identified with the Israel lobby that bribes politicians to support Israeli violations of human rights, political conditions that others have a right to despise.
The best thing that could happen to Jewish identity is a new ethos of equality and humility. It will make a lot of people safer too, first of all, Palestinians.
H/t James North.