“How long halt ye between two opinions?” – 1 Kings 18:21
American Jewry is often said to be divided between those who judge Judaism by the principles of the New York Times and those who judge the New York Times by the principles of Judaism. The former group was elated by Professor Joseph Levine’s recent clarion call “Questioning the Jewish State” (NY Times of March 9), which advocated the expulsion of Israel from the family of nations. The latter group was dismayed and nauseated, and confirmed in its view that expecting ordinary decency from “progressive” Jewish professors is like trying to warm yourself by the light of the moon. The former, composed in large part of what Gershom Scholem called “clever Jews” who fear nothing in this world (and maybe the next as well) so much as being called “reactionary,” agreed with Levine’s insistence that he not be labelled antisemitic just because he singled out Israel, among all the nations of the world, as deserving of dissolution; the latter thought the real question is whether Levine should be called a moral nonentity because he has made himself an accessory before the fact to the genocide dreamt of (and already inspiring murderous action) by Ahmadinejad, Hizbullah, Erdogan, Hamas, and numerous other “Islamist” eschatologists. (I’ve heard some ill-tempered members of this second group say that they looked forward to a Times discussion of whether Levine himself has an inalienable “right to exist.”)
Those Jews who judge the New York Times by the standards of Judaism believe that the creation of the state of Israel was one of the few redeeming events in a century of blood and shame, one of the greatest affirmations of the will to live ever made by a martyred people, and the most hopeful sign for humanity since the dove returned with the olive branch to Noah. They tend also to cling to Orwell’s view that some ideas–like the virtue of Jewish powerlessness–are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them.
Those who judge Judaism by the standards of the New York Times boast of not having “danced in the streets when Ben-Gurion declared that the Jews, like other peoples, had a state of their own.” They believe (as does a majority of today’s Germans too) that Israel is the chief obstacle to world peace, a diversion from such compelling goals as gay marriage and unlimited access to abortion, and indeed the principal cause of most of the world’s evils with the (possible) exception of global warming.
Professor Levine’s polemic draws on sources both ancient and modern. It harkens back–albeit in the clumsy and verbose manner of somebody who “unpacks” rather than articulates ideas–to the earliest known ancient, non-Jewish document that mentions Israel by name. It is found on a monument from 1215 BCE (possessed by the British Museum) in which King Merneptah, the Egyptian forerunner of Chmielnicki, Hitler, Nasser, and Ahmadinejad, declares that “Israel is extinguished, its seed is no more.”
Levine, to be sure, is a philosopher, and not–on the surface, at least–a political agitator and propagandist, although he identifies himself (who could have guessed?) as a man of the left. Up to a point, Levine has some respectable predecessors among fellow-philosophers. In 1932, for example, Julien Benda, French philosopher (and novelist) addressed the “European nation” as follows: “Intellectuals of all countries, you must be the ones to tell your nations that they are always in the wrong by the single fact that they are nations…Plotinus blushed at having a body. You should blush at having a nation.” But whereas Benda called for philosophers of ALL nations to blush, Levine believes in blushing only by Jews for the Jewish nation. Although the imperfections he imputes to Israel because it calls itself “Jewish” manifest themselves–a hundred fold–in scores of members of the United Nations, he demands the dissolution only of the Jewish nation–not the 22 Arab nations or the numerous Christian ones or the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Like all Israel dissolutionists–one-state solution advocates, no-state solution advocates, and (this from the tone-deaf George Steiner) “final solution” advocates–he insists that Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic. Perhaps the Times will soon invite him to cast his philosophic eye over a country called the United Kingdom, widely reputed to be democratic, and yet possessed of an official Protestant church, a Protestant monarch, a Protestant educational system (and all this in a once-Catholic country).
Levine has also attached himself, not unwittingly, to what Raul Hilberg called the last version of that ever-shortening sentence which expressed Europe’s anti-Jewish policies over the centuries. “The missionaries of Christianity,” wrote Hilberg, “had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The German Nazis at last decreed: you have no right to live.” Levine admits to a slight uneasiness about the resemblance between his challenging Israel’s “right to exist” and the Nazis’ disputing the Jews’ “right to live.” But confidence in his own infallibility carries him quickly over this abyss, as if it were just an unfortunate coincidence of diction and phrasing. In fact, of course, it makes him complicit in what Hannah Arendt famously defined as the crime against humanity, “an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the ‘human status’ without which the very words ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.”
Hannah Arendt’s colleague (and critic) Saul Bellow put the matter more tersely in “To Jerusalem and Back” (1976): “The subject of all this talk is, ultimately, survival–the survival of the decent society, created in Israel within a few decades….The Jews, because they are Jews, have never been able to take the right to live as a natural right.”