Times Columnist Cohen Writes About Jews and ‘Their Formless, Faceless God’
Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a review by columnist Roger Cohen of Simon Schama’s book Belonging: 1492-1900, which is the second volume in Schama’s The Story of the Jews.
Leave aside that this book actually was released back in October, and the Times somehow decided to hold off on a Sunday review of it until it could be lumped into a Christmas Eve issue devoted to religious books.
The Cohen review concludes:
Not even Herzl, however, could have foreseen the industrialized mass murder of the Holocaust, the unspoken shadow that hovers over these pages. Nor could he have imagined the fulfillment in 1948, with the foundation of the modern state of Israel, of his dream. Nor how the Zionism he described in Basel as a “moral, humanitarian movement” would be prodded over time toward messianic nationalism by the violent, still unresolved confrontation with the Arabs of Palestine; nor how the Jewish exercise of power, rather than Jewish subjection to its cruel whim, would test the very ethics that bound Jews to their formless, faceless God during the millenniums of tribulation in the diaspora.
In the end the price of Jewish statehood has been heavy: the exile of another people, the Palestinians. More than a half-century of occupation of the West Bank has corroded Israeli democracy. This was not inevitable and is still not irreparable. No doubt, these themes will be prominent in Schama’s next volume. At a time of facile anti-Zionism spilling sometimes into outright anti-Semitism, Schama has made an eloquent and a far-reaching case for why Jews needed a small piece of earth they could call home.
There’s a lot to unpack there. The idea of the Jewish state as a refuge from antisemitism is certainly a powerful reason for Zionism, but it’s hardly the only reason. Even without antisemitic persecution, there are still plenty of other good reasons a Jewish state is a good idea. Herzl probably had more imagination than Cohen gives him credit for, and Israeli democracy may be less corroded than Cohen claims. But leave aside that, too.
To me the most interesting words in those two dense and intense paragraphs were the pronouns — “their” and “they.”
Cohen writes “ethics that bound Jews to their formless, faceless God.” He could have simply written “bound Jews to God.” The word “their” has a kind of distancing effect.
If Cohen were feeling daring, he might have used the formulation “our God,” which is a different thing from saying “their God.” Jews, after all, believe (or some profess not to believe) in one God. We’ve been “bound” to that God not merely by ethics, though ethics are certainly important, but by a covenant. Whether this God is “faceless” is a complex theological question that may involve matters of Maimonides and metaphors. But it’s worth mentioning that these same diaspora Jews had, and Jews today have, prayers that include the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers, asking God to shine his countenance, or face, on you and turn it to you.
Cohen writes of the case “for why Jews needed a small piece of earth they could call home.” Again, the “they” has a distancing effect. Cohen could have simply written, “a small piece of earth to call home.” Had he been feeling daring, he might have used the formulation, “why Jews needed a small piece of earth we could call home.” Maybe Cohen doesn’t feel himself part of the “they” because he’s writing about Jews from a while back, at the moment of Israel’s founding or before then. But the need is still there, isn’t it? Why, then, does Cohen write “needed,” in the past tense, and not “need”? Schama is a historian, not a polemicist, and Cohen is book reviewing, not column writing.
It may seem odd to carp here about a review that is also being criticized elsewhere by anti-Zionists for being too sympathetic to Israel. But even so, the passage is a telling one for what it suggests about the limits of even an ostensibly Zionist book review in The New York Times. It’s enough to make a reader wonder about the newspaper’s management, and if they only let writers go so far in their newspaper.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.