Body and Soul: The State of the Jewish Nation (REVIEW)
At the present historical juncture, when millions of Arabs and hundreds of millions of Muslims awaken each morning thinking of ways to destroy Israel and murder its Jewish inhabitants; when John Kerry doggedly unfurls his best Chamberlain umbrella at the latest charade of nuclear negotiations with Iran’s mullahs; when a White House spokesman declares the president’s “eagerness to restore Iran to the family of nations;” when The New York Times finds ever more ingenious ways to “explain” the Islamist murder of Israelis in Jerusalem (or Jewish schoolchildren and their teacher in Toulouse), and columnists declare in that paper’s magazine that “The Palestinian cause has become the universal litmus of liberal credentials,” or call for “a third intifada,” a documentary film that reminds us of how and why the Jews’ first and second temples were destroyed may provide some assistance in throwing back the concerted attempt to expel Israel from the aforementioned “family of nations” and so destroy the third temple—and almost certainly the last.
Gloria Greenfield’s lavishly illustrated and lucidly narrated account of the relation between the Jewish people and the land of Israel both opens and concludes with the compelling voice and warm presence of Ruth Wisse, who is worth several battalions in the unending war of ideas over the Jewish state. She begins by pointing out that the Jews of the ancient Near East took the view that they were responsible for their fate, were “sent into exile,” ostensibly by the Babylonians but really because of their sins by the Almighty, and would eventually return—as indeed they did. They were unlike Jebusites, Hittites, Girgashites, and Hivites, conquered ancient nations who gave up on their ineffectual national gods.
In this documentary, Wisse sets the stage for what is to come by declaring that, as she wrote in Commentary in March 2009: “the Jewish people had a connection to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean that was greater and of longer duration than the nomadic peoples who came to be called Palestinians, and … the central place of Palestinians in world politics is due to an imbalance of power between the small Jewish state and the petroleum-drenched Arab states with which it must contend.” She also recognized and expressed, more powerfully than anyone since the late Emil Fackenheim, the Biblical resonance of the founding of Israel just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry as “the most hopeful sign for humanity since the dove came back to Noah with an olive leaf after the primeval flood.”
Among the other distinguished commentators whom we hear and see most frequently in this one-hour film (a sequel to Greenfield’s earlier production Unmasked, about Judeophobia) are historian Robert Wistrich and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who reflect on relevant documents of ancient and modern history tying Jews to Zion and to Zionism. One key ancient document that I missed seeing is the monument (now at the British Museum) on which Mer-Neptah, the 13th Century BCE ruler of Egypt, boasted of his great deeds and triumphs. He stated succinctly: “Israel is desolated; its seed is no more.” That boast was made over 3,200 years ago but it still demands our attention, partly with satisfaction that we are still here but partly with apprehension that we may not be forever.
Although Body and Soul does not dwell on the Holocaust, Israeli historian Anita Shapira makes a large contribution to historical clarity by rebutting the foolish notion, endlessly repeated by Israel’s detractors, that the state of Israel came into existence because of Western bad conscience over the Holocaust. In its most egregious form it was expressed by the late Edward Said who wrote (in The Question of Palestine) that the Holocaust served to “protect” Palestinian Jews “with the world’s compassion.” In fact, as Shapira tersely remarks, Israel came into existence not because but in spite of the Holocaust, which destroyed in Eastern Europe millions of the most Zionist Jews in the world. They would have done far more to establish the state as live immigrants to Palestine than as dead martyrs pricking the feeble conscience of the West. At the present moment, any remaining European qualms of conscience about the Holocaust—as several of the film’s commentators (Yossi Halevi, Manfred Gerstenfeld, and Emanuele Ottolenghi) observe—seem to consist mainly of the feeling that it gave antisemitism a bad name. Today the Dark Continent that is Europe cannot cope with the Israelophobia and generalized Jew-hatred of its rapidly multiplying and increasingly violent Muslim minority except by blaming its woes on its (peaceful) Jewish minority, especially those Jews who assert Israel’s “right to exist” and do so in countries that not so long ago questioned Jews’ “right to live.”
Not all of the film’s testimonials to the “state” (in both senses of that term) of the Jewish nation are made by the historians, archaeologists and journalists. One of the most moving and also most politically potent of them all comes from a black Methodist minister, Reverend D. D. Coleman. She expressed her joy at seeing Israel’s Ethiopian Jews (Beta-Yisrael) become part of Israeli society since they were brought there in the mid-eighties in Operation Moses. Although she says not a word about politics, her recognition of the fact that tens of thousands of black Africans were brought to Israel, not as slaves but as full citizens of a democratic state, confutes with a single stroke all the BDS babble about Israel as an “apartheid” state. The claim is all the more egregious when it is virtually the only state in the Middle East that does not institutionalize and rigorously enforce religious, sexual and racial discrimination, as scholars like Efraim Karsh have pointed out. There have, of course, never been apartheid laws in Israel. Jews and Arabs use the same buses, clinics, government offices, universities, theatres, restaurants, soccer fields and beaches. All citizens of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, are equal before the law.
The particular significance of other great aliyahs is also explored in the film. The Jews of Arab countries and Iran, who were usually forced out by pogroms and expropriation, moved from one part of the Middle East to another, an expedient never made available by Arab countries to Palestinian refugees. The Soviet Jewry movement transformed both the country which the “refuseniks” defied and the land to which they came.
Greenfield showed good judgment in giving more attention to the importance of ideas than to settlements in the part of Body and Soul that presents Zionism and the history of modern Israel. Rabbi Sacks speaks of Zionism’s rabbinic roots in Yehuda Alkalai and Zvi Kalischer, Yoram Hazony discusses Theodor Herzl and Hillel Halkin reflects on Vladimir Jabotinsky. Few Israelis have shown better understanding than these three men of J. S. Mill’s precept that “speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them.”
We come away from this film feeling that Israel, despite its many miraculous successes, still lives with a constant burden of peril as did the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Jews of Poland and Russia, about whom I.L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem and I. B. Singer wrote, constituted prior to their destruction by the Germans and their allies the biological and cultural center of world Jewry. About half of world Jewry today resides in Israel. That fact, regardless of any other considerations, renders laughable the claim that the unceasing worldwide campaign to portray Israel as uniquely and absolutely evil, alone among all the nations on the globe in deserving abolition, has nothing antisemitic about it. It is a campaign to turn the pariah people into the pariah state.
In the penultimate segment of Body and Soul, Bret Stephens asserts that the depictions of Israel as the devil’s laboratory pose at least as great a danger of a second Holocaust as does an Iranian nuclear bomb. He cited the propagation — in universities, in progressive circles (including, if not especially, Jewish ones), in the BDS brigades, in the UN, in European parliaments, and in countless mosques and churches — of the view, to which millions are daily exposed, that “for the sake of world peace Israel must be destroyed.” Those who participate in this defamation run the risk of being found guilty not merely of stupidity or cowardice, but of becoming accessories before the fact to mass murder. We should not be meek and gentle with them.
Edward Alexander’s book Jews Against Themselves will be published by Transaction Publishers in spring of 2015.