The Jewish answer?

January 1, 2000
Richard Kuper


Geoffrey Wheatcroft,The SpectatorDecember 16, 2002

Found on the Free Republic website and reprinted from there

At a time of mounting conflict in Israel, Geoffrey Wheatcroft examines Zionism and explains why many Jews were hostile to it.  Over the years, The Spectator has quite often found itself caught up in ‘the controversy of Zion’, to borrow a phrase from Isaiah. There have long been vigorous disputes here over what used to be called the Jewish Question: the place of the Jewish people in Western society; emancipation and assimilation; anti-Semitism, anti-anti-Semitism and even anti-anti-anti-Semitism; Zionism, its causes and consequences; the harsh and intractable conflict between Jew and Arab in the Holy Land, and its repercussions for the Jewish people everywhere; not least the seemingly embattled position of British Jews, and the belief held by many of them that criticism of Israel is unfair and may even properly be called a form of anti-Semitism. The Spectator’s own controversies might sometimes have been parochial, but they illuminate what has become one of the most bitter debates of modern times.

‘Didn’t feel a thing!’

Under the ownership — from 1954 to 1959 the editorship as well — of Ian Gilmour, this magazine preached justice for the Palestinians at a time when very few did so, attracting some obloquy as a result. At that time also, The Spectator discussed whether there was any sign of renewed anti-Semitism in England, another topic which has returned lately and more bitterly. About 25 years ago, when Alexander Chancellor was editor, the magazine was sometimes more or less directly accused of anti-Semitism. There were several rebukes, as well as the occasional visit, from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the venerable 240-year-old voice of Anglo-Jewry.

In the spring of last year there was another angry remonstrance, this time from The Spectator’s proprietor, Conrad Black (now Lord Black of Crossharbour). He denounced a column by Taki that had described the Israelis as ‘those nice guys who attack rock-throwing youth with armour-piercing missiles’, and the United States as ‘Israel-occupied territory’. These words, Lord Black said, were ‘irrational and an offence to civilised taste’, and ‘a blood libel on the Jewish people wherever they may be’.

So far from abating, these thorny questions — especially the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism — have continued to produce angry advocacy, and have been given a theological twist. Douglas Davis, the London correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, has accused the BBC of becoming ‘the principal agent for reinfecting British society with the virus of anti-Semitism’. And Melanie Phillips has written here not only about ‘the double standards, twisted history and hate-imbued moral blindness’ which she discerns in the way the conflict in the Holy Land is reported in the British media, but also about what she sees as the anti-Semitism of some Christians in the guise of religious dogma. She is particularly dismayed that ‘a doctrine going back to the Early Church Fathers, suppressed after the Holocaust, had been revived under the influence of the Middle East conflict. This doctrine is called replacement theology. In essence, it says that the Jews have been replaced by the Christians in God’s favour, and so all God’s promises to the Jews, including the land of Israel, have been inherited by Christianity’; and it leads, she thinks, to the belief that Zionism is racist and the Jewish state is illegitimate.

She is not the only one to make this charge, which has a whiff of fashion about it. In A Moral Reckoning, his highly controversial new book on the Roman Catholic Church and the Final Solution, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen denounces ‘the Church’s anti-Jewish supersessionist creed’, his term for ‘replacement theology’. Like others who have replied to Miss Phillips, I must admit that I had never heard of ‘replacement theology’, except that it, or ‘supersessionism’, looks, on closer examination, very much like the doctrine of vicarious redemption through the life and death of Jesus, the New Covenant, which is — as it happens and whether one likes it or not or agrees with it or not — the basis of the Christian religion.

An endemic tradition of Jew-hatred existed in Christendom despite — or perhaps, in some ways, because of — the fact that ‘Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew’, as Luther wrote in an unusually eirenic moment. Christianity is a Jewish religion in origin — a Jewish heresy, Voltaire would have said — and to this day it bears many marks of that origin. Hence the problem, though it is not problematic in the sense of obscure. Christian teaching might be false, but it isn’t hard to understand. Promises were first made to the Jews in the expectation of a Redeemer who would come ‘to be a light unto the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel’. As Christians are told the story, He came unto His own, and His own received him not. Decent Christians may abhor the way that this has been used immemorially to justify the persecution of the Jews as ‘Christ-killers’ who had spurned their Messiah, but it is another thing to ignore the fact that this is the difference dividing the two religions.

Unlike Judaism, Christianity is a proselytising faith which offers a universal gospel of salvation to all, not least to the ‘Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks’ for whom Christians pray (or used to pray) on Good Friday. If salvation is offered to all, how can that exclude any? Some sincere Christians have given their lives to converting the Jews — there was at one time a Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews* with offices near New Oxford Street, and I dare say that it’s still there — and they might seem odd, but they were plainly not fascistic Jew-haters. At the same time, as a legacy of history, conversion, whether forced or even voluntary, touches a very raw Jewish nerve. I have heard a rabbi describe Edith Stein, the saintly convert nun who was murdered in a death camp, as ‘a turncoat Jewess’; and Christian proselytism is greatly resented in Israel.

But here comes a much wryer twist. Today, some of the most ardent American supporters of Israel are Protestant fundamentalists, not so much out of liberal philo-Semitism — very much not so, in some cases — as on theological grounds of their own that are at least as arcane or alarming as any idea of ‘replacement’. Many of those zealots believe that the Jews, once they are all gathered again in the Holy Land, will recognise the true faith and thus pave the way for the Second Coming or, in some versions, for Armageddon and general destruction. The American evangelist Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network passionately support the Sharon government, and the network’s website recently prophesied, ‘Indeed, there will finally be such a fullness of Israel when their hardness and blindness to the Gospel is overcome as to vastly enrich the whole world. For the almost unbelievable truth is that all Israel will be saved. The fullness of Gentiles will climax with the fullness of Israel.’ This is not quite what most Israelis have in mind.

The terrible recrudescence of violence in the Holy Land has unmistakably led to a new hostility towards Israel in Europe — and to a corresponding sense of anger and bitterness within Diaspora Jewry. In America, this hostility has been observed with alarm, and denounced in alarmist terms. The head of one national Jewish organisation there said recently, ‘We are facing a threat as great, if not greater, to the safety and security of the Jewish people than we faced in the 1930s’, and American Jews have been told to boycott France. Even in this country there’s said to be a new mood. ‘One is very aware,’ says Jo Wagerman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, ‘that, recently, Britain isn’t the same.’ Several Anglo-Jewish journalists have expressed the same feeling: Miss Phillips along with Barbara Amiel, Alex Brummer and Stephen Pollard. The reaction here to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians ‘has left me with a deep personal sense of betrayal,’ Mr Brummer writes. Mr Pollard put it more strongly: ‘Whatever I know about my loyalty to this country, others have a different view. They think of me as Jew first, and then a Brit. Whatever I do, whatever I contribute, I will always be an outsider.’

All those writers have made the same complaints: Israel is being treated with gross unfairness; she is judged by a double standard; this has allowed a sanitised form of bigotry, even in ostensibly respectable circles; the very right of Israel to exist has been challenged; and this challenge constitutes in itself a new form of anti-Semitism. It used rather often to be said that criticism of Israel based on a double standard deserved to be called anti-Semitic; now a new variation on that theme is heard, and sung in close harmony. Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, says, ‘When you challenge Israel’s very right to exist, then you are calling into question the Jewish people’s right to exist.’ Dr Anthony Julius says, ‘To seek to deny Jews their right to a state, while recognising national self-determination as a principle for comparable communities, is to discriminate against Jews and thus to be anti-Semitic.’ Miss Phillips distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate anti-Zionist arguments, but includes among the latter the claim that ‘Israel has no right to exist, which means that uniquely among the peoples of the world the Jews are on this account not allowed a right of self-determination.’ Mr Goldhagen says, ‘Anyone who would deny this right [of nation-statehood] to Jews today without similarly denying it to all other peoples — which is the typical prejudiced view of those who hide behind the smokescreen of anti-Zionism — is an anti-Semite.’

Now all of this combines — to a remarkable degree — illogic, historical ignorance and petitio principii or question-begging. First of all, there is a crucial distinction which was deftly made by W.H. Auden. He was writing about G.K. Chesterton, whom he admired but whose anti-Semitism he deplored, and thought the worse because of his specious attempts to justify it. ‘Criticism of any other nation on the planet’ was considered legitimate, Chesterton wrote, and should not be stifled in the case of ‘members of a race persecuted for other reasons’. The sleight of hand there, as Auden said, was the ‘quiet shift from the term nation to the term race. It is always permissible to criticise a nation (including Israel), a religion (including Judaism), or a culture, because these are the creations of human thought and will…. A man’s ethnic heritage, on the other hand, is not in his power to alter.’ That was well said — and it cuts both ways: if it’s always impermissible to criticise any race or people, it should always be permissible to criticise any nation state. What’s truly comical is that it is now the defenders of Israel who make exactly the same Chestertonian shift from nation to race so as to conflate political anti-Zionism with racial anti-Semitism.

In any case, there can be no sense in saying that any identifiable people or nation —terms themselves fraught with difficulty — has a right to become an independent state, or that to oppose such statehood for any people is to deny its very right to exist. For most of the period between Antiquity and the 20th century, the Welsh would pass the test of national identity — territory, language, cultural homogeneity, even ‘race’ — much more easily than the Jews. Ardent Welsh nationalists think that Wales should be an independent nation-state. I don’t, and neither do most people in Wales, but that doesn’t make me an anti-Welsh bigot who denies the right of the Welsh to exist, or make them ‘self-hating Welshmen’. There were and are honourable arguments against turning the Jews into a nation-state. Arthur Ruppin was a Zionist who went to live in Palestine, who was gradually disenchanted by the violence on both sides, and who, by the 1930s, had concluded that a Jewish state ‘will be nothing but a new Montenegro or Lithuania. There are enough states in the world.’ He didn’t know the half of it; if there were enough states 80 years ago, what are there now, with the roster of member states of the United Nations approaching 200?

As to Dr Julius’s phrase about the Jews having the same right of national self-determination and statehood as ‘comparable communities’, this begs a huge question. Political Zionism, or modern Jewish nationalism, was turned into a serious movement by Theodor Herzl when he published his little book Der Judenstaat in 1896, and organised a Zionist Congress in Basle the following year. For many years afterwards, an impassioned Jewish debate over Zionism, for and against, turned largely on this very question: whether the Jews were a community comparable with, say, the Dutch or the Czechs — something that many Jews denied.

One early Jewish opponent of Zionism, the ardently assimilationist Austrian writer Karl Kraus, thought the notion nonsensical: it was absurd to imagine that German, French, Slavonic and Turkish Jews had a common bond, or that any interest united the caftan-wearing tradesman of the Galician shtetl with the literary poseur of the Viennese cafés. And Kraus was possibly the first to call Zionism a new kind of anti-Semitism, drily pointing out that the ‘remedy’ of removing the Jews from Europe to Palestine had been warmly welcomed by authentic Jew-haters such as the Viennese demagogues Ernest Schneider and Ernst Vergani, and the Hungarian nationalist Gyozo von Istocky (who convened an anti-Semitic congress in Dresden in 1882, and advocated the resolution of the ‘Jewish Question’ by restoring the Jews to the land ‘from which they have been expelled for 1,800 years’).

If not expressed so vituperatively, Kraus’s reservations were widely shared. When Herzl visited London, he was taken aback by the hostile reaction of prosperous emancipated Jews, who interposed ‘English patriotism’ as their basic objection to Zionism. His scheme was fiercely opposed by men such as Hermann Adler, sometimes known as King Edward VII’s court rabbi, and Claude Montefiore, president of the Anglo–Jewish Association. Adler insisted that the Jews had long ago abandoned any claim to separate nationhood; and Montefiore dismissed the Zionist idea, since ‘it assumes that the Jewish race constitutes a “nation”, or might profitably become a nation, both of which propositions I deny’.

Even more intransigent were specific religious objections. In Herzl’s time, rabbis everywhere implacably rejected political Zionism. They did not deny the continuous, if often very small, Jewish presence in the Holy Land since antiquity, or that it was a mitzvah, or good deed, for individual Jews to settle there, as a very few, very devout men had done over the centuries. What they abhorred was Herzl’s plan of creating a large settlement where many or even most Jews could live, and which would become a nation-state on the European model.

Rabbinical opposition was on principled grounds, though it took different forms. On the one hand were the Reform or Progressive branches of Judaism (something like Jewish Protestantism, though the comparison is inexact). Numerically insignificant, Reform nevertheless counted for something as the official religion of the emancipated Jewish haute-bourgeoisie of Vienna and Berlin, London and New York. Reform rabbis disliked Zionism because it offended against Weltbürgertum, the Jewish mission of world-citizenship, which they took very seriously. They also disliked Zionism, not quite contradictorily, as a threat to the position of their congregants as loyal Englishmen and Americans, Austrians and Germans.

A hundred years ago, most Jews were still nominally Orthodox, and the Orthodox rabbis’ hostility to Zionism was more fundamental and dogmatic, in the correct sense of that word. It half embarrasses and half amuses me, as something of an honorary Jew who is also a member of the Church of England (of somewhat sceptical and anti-clerical temper), to be lecturing Jewish colleagues and friends about their ancestral religion. But since Miss Phillips has instructed us in varieties of Christian theology, I’ll try to return the compliment.

To begin with, rabbis abhorred any definition of Jewishness that excluded religious faith and practice; and such a definition was central to Zionism. Whether for good or ill, Zionism is a very pure example of an ‘invented tradition’, which had almost no roots in existing Jewish tradition, of which it was, on the contrary, a drastic rejection. Few Zionists were believers, many became atheists, and plenty were aggressively irreligious; not surprisingly, the feeling was mutual on the part of frum or pious Jews. That might be seen as a kind of demarcation dispute or jalousie du métier, but there was an even more intractable theological ground for orthodox hostility, and one which contrasts ironically with ‘replacement theology’ and ‘supersessionism’.

All faithful Jews believed that the Lord would indeed restore His people to the promised land of Israel, but they believed that He would do this in His own good time — which was to say in consequence of the coming of the Messiah. That was itself a profoundly mysterious event which no human being could ever foretell, which no human endeavour could possibly retard or impel, and any human anticipation of which was well-nigh blasphemous. One rabbi in 1900 summed up his colleagues’ feelings: ‘Strangers have risen among us who say that the people of Israel should be clothed in secular nationalism, a nation like other nations …while the observance of the Torah and the Commandments is a private matter depending on the inclination of each individual. May the Lord rebuke these evil men and may He who chooseth Jerusalem seal their mouths.’

Religious hostility to Zionism was matched by political hostility on the Left, among the many Jews who professed one variety of socialism or another. But perhaps the most eloquent opponents of all were emancipated and assimilated Jews. This could be seen early in the last century in Jewish-owned newspapers, like the enormously influential Neue Freie Presse of Vienna, which was unremittingly hostile to the project dreamed up by its correspondent Herzl, or the New York Times, which wasn’t much more enthusiastic at that time.

And so it went in England, from the time of Herzl’s first visit, and for decades afterwards. In November 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, viewing ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. The declaration represented a triumph of backstairs diplomacy for the Zionists, notably Chaim Weizmann; and it had been fought to the last ditch by many leading figures in Anglo-Jewry. The only Jew in the Cabinet that passed the declaration was Edwin Montagu, who loathed Zionism and sourly asked his colleagues why they despised him so much that they wanted to pack him off to some oriental ghetto. As to Mrs Wagerman, her predecessor as president of the Board of Deputies 85 years ago was David Alexander. Shortly before the declaration, he joined Claude Montefiore to publish a statement in the Times, seconded a few days later by several other Jewish notables.

They deplored any suggestion that Jewish settlers in Palestine should be invested ‘with certain rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population’. This could only ‘prove a veritable calamity for the Jewish people’, for whom, wherever they lived, the principle of equal rights was vital. ‘The establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine, founded in this theory of Jewish homelessness, must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands, and of undermining their hard-won position as citizens and nationals of those lands.’

From Herzl onwards, Zionists have portrayed Jewish critics of Zionism or of Israel as cringing or ‘self-hating’. This label is dubious, in any case; it would have been quite absurd for Alexander and Montefiore, who were exceptionally conscious and pious Jews. No recusant Catholic was ever prouder of the ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ than they of theirs. But that was what they believed it to be: they were ‘Englishmen of Hebrew faith’. Unlike the Zionists, they wanted to remain true to that religion; unlike them, they did not want to leave their native country. There was a recent demonstration in London in support of Israel, where one of the demonstrators was poignantly quoted as saying, ‘This is a peaceful rally to show that Jewish people throughout Britain are only decent, clean people who want a homeland.’ Alexander and Montefiore believed that they already had a homeland. They did indeed ‘deny Jews their right to a state’; but do Dr Julius or Mr Goldhagen really want to call them anti-Semites?

No profound knowledge of Judaic doctrine or Jewish history is needed to see what has happened since that time. It is sometimes tritely said that Hitler created Israel, which is untrue as well as trite. But there was one thing that Hitler unquestionably did: he silenced Jewish anti-Zionism. Given the circumstances in which the Jewish state was born — in the shadow of the most horrible catastrophe in Jewish history — it became difficult if not morally impossible for Jews anywhere to turn their backs on it, and none in fact did so apart from those at the extreme fringes, Hasidic or Trotskyist. What made this easier was that period of grace when Israel basked in the approval of bien-pensant opinion, when progressive young English boys and girls would spend their summers on a kibbutz, when Israel was widely regarded as a model socialist society, and when the harsher means by which the state had been created and guarded were not much discussed, or even recognised.

And today? Anyone can understand the anguish of Western Jews, dismayed by the horrible conflict in the Holy Land and torn agonisingly between their sense of solidarity with their fellow Jews there and their loyalty to their native countries. But that’s precisely the point. Whatever view is taken of Zionism, it is unarguable that the existence of a Jewish state has affected the position, if not prejudiced the rights, of Western Jews. The conflict has indeed sometimes seemed to undermine the hard-won position of Western Jews as citizens of their countries. It’s not just a matter of ‘divided loyalties’ in a reductive sense, although that charge never quite went away. It was, in fact, more likely to be discussed in these pages once than now. More than 50 years ago, when Harold Laski demanded more sympathetic treatment for newborn Israel, The Spectator wondered editorially whether he spoke as ‘a Jew or an Englishman’. If, as it appeared, ‘Mr Laski is a Jew first and an Englishman second’, he was perfectly entitled to feel that identity. ‘But, if that is the case, his right place would seem to be Palestine, not England.’ Despite the mounting accusations of anti-Semitism against media critics of Israel, and although Will Self not long ago baited Melanie Phillips on television by asking her what she would do if England went to war with Israel, it’s hard to imagine this or any other respectable British paper putting it like that nowadays.

There is one final point, never mentioned but central. I quite agree — how can one not, as it’s a matter of common observation? — that fashionable opinion has turned against Israel, and that some of the charges made are partisan or tendentious in a way that must seem particularly cruel, adding insult to injury while terrorists are killing Jewish children. And yet, if criticism of Israel — however stringent, however vehement, however unfair even — is construed as anti-Semitism, then this must represent a huge failure on the part of Zionism. One could, and indeed one does, criticise the governments of other countries in the harshest terms without being accused of racial prejudice. I have criticised Irish republicanism, Irish nationalists and the Irish government, and I do not expect to be called ‘anti-Irish’. I could perfectly well question whether an independent Irish state had really been a good idea, or a success. I might even sarcastically call Ireland a ‘shitty little country’ and still not suffer any terrible retribution. After all, David Trimble recently called it ‘a pathetic, sectarian country’ (he was wrong with the former epithet, right with the latter) and he lived to tell the tale.

Underlying Zionism was the belief that, if brought about, a Jewish state would honourably remove the Jewish people from the pages of history, would ‘normalise’ them, would make them — as the founders of Israel proclaimed in 1948 — ‘a nation like all others’. You can feel any amount of sympathy with the Jewish plight today; you can list any number of Israeli achievements; and yet, listening to these very debates with all their bitter recriminations, can anyone deny that Zionism has failed in that one central purpose? In his exaltation, Herzl claimed, ‘I have found the answer to the Jewish Question.’ More than 100 years later, every single dispute involving Israel demonstrates that, whatever else it may be, it is not a nation like all others, and maybe never can be. Was Zionism really the answer to the ‘Jewish Question’ — or was it a further complication?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s book, The Controversy of Zion, won an American National Jewish Book Award.

* The British Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Jews 3xwfounded London 1842, was the Presbyterian and dissenting churches’ counterpart to the Anglican London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (founded 1809, today CMJ). The two societies were in large part identical, but representing high-church and low-church traditions in British Christianity.from Wikipedia

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