Jews Behaving Badly

Despite the depressing campaign of the suicide bombers, many Jews are recalling the birth of the return to Zion by commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. Its publication proved to be the catalyst which launched the Zionist Congresses and changed a small number of disparate groups into an international movement which eventually established the modern State of Israel. Yet an accurate translation of Der Judenstaat would render ‘The Jews’ State’ — and as Ahad Ha’am, Herzl’s great critic, pointed out there is a world of difference between a Jewish State and a State of Jews, like any other. This subtlety underlined Herzl’s private struggle with his Jewish identity.

Unlike the East European Zionists, Herzl’s Jewish background was sparse — it is not certain that he even had a barmitzvah. At university, he attempted to shed both his Jewish and Hungarian affiliations by joining the German nationalist fraternity, Albia, to show his adulation for all things Prussian. His fraternity name was ‘Tancred’ — the Christian conqueror of Jerusalem of the First Crusade, a religious war machine which greeted Jewish communities with murder and mutilation. Like his Viennese contemporaries, Freud and Mahler, he hoped to transcend and indeed escape Jewish identification. In his plays in the 1880s, Herzl’s depiction of Jews — and the Jewish bourgeousie in particular — was, to put it mildly, both unflattering and unsympathetic. He fervently embraced assimilation and outmarriage. ‘Crossbreeding of the Western races with the so-called oriental one [the Jews] on the basis of a common state religion — that is the desirable great solution’. Indeed in 1893, he proposed that if the Pope moved against antisemitism, then he would initiate ‘a great movement for the free and honourable conversion of Jews to Christianity’.

Herzl’s gradual awakening to the idea of a Jewish State was a response to an antisemitism which had blocked his own progression in Viennese society. In Herzl’s eyes, the State of Israel would be ‘assimilation under Jewish self-rule’. Judaism would only be utilised to promote ‘social cohesion’. Herzl thus reinvented himself as a Zionist to solve his own personal Jewish problem. His charisma and mastery of public relations entranced the Jewish masses with the possibility of liberation. Zionism was the solution to Jewish continuity in 1896— a different type of Jewish continuity as an answer to Jewish ambiguity.

The early Zionists — many of whom had climbed over the ghetto walls — viewed the movement as a means of avoiding the conflict between modernity and Judaism. Socialist-Zionists such as Syrkin, Borochov and of course, David Ben-Gurion advocated the complete transformation of the Jews. Even Herzl, in his Zionist phase, had no wish to repeat the perceived mistakes of the Diaspora. ‘In [his novel] “Old New Land”, portraying the Jewish nouveau riche of Vienna, Herzl had one character declare: “What care we for convictions? I know only two: Business and Pleasure!” In Herzl’s depiction such Jews displayed cynicism, ascribing base motives to the noblest actions. The women were loudmouths, overweight, gaudily dressed and dripping with jewels, “riff-raff’ he called them.’ [from ‘Theodor Herzl: from Assimilation to Zionism’, Jacques Kornberg, 1993]. Zionism, therefore, was a means not of escaping from Jewishness per se but from a blanket type

of social Jewishness which earned no respect and no acclaim. But does any of this have any relevance to today’s problems? Can reclaiming the past help us to understand the present?

After many years of indifference and inactivity, Jewish leaders in this country finally copied the American Jewish Committee’s annual survey of U.S. Jewry. The results of the recent IJPR survey of British Jewry were dire in the extreme, but provided the hard evidence for hitherto outlandish suggestions that all was not well. This survey suggests that modernity’s fatal attraction for Jews has led to outmarriage, assimilation and a diluted Jewishness. It can be argued that since Biblical times, most Jews have always lived with the contradiction of interacting with the outside world, being both within and without. But what is fundamentally different in 1996 is that there is no bar against the threat of assimilation, save that of rebuilding the ghetto walls and never wandering forth. Yet this too would go against Jewish tradition.

Antisemitism today is at a low ebb — there is happily no sign of a rabble rouser who would force the Jews together behind the barricades. There is also a distinct lack of interest in ideological magnets such as Zionism or Socialism. Today, it is the lack of such ideals which has caused much of the communal slippage. Less than 30 % of young Jews agreed with the statement that ‘the only long term future for Jews is in Israel’. Historically, then the Zionist revolution has come to an end, but for those who did not choose the road to Jerusalem, the same problems remain that faced Herzl one hundred years ago.

It is argued that only a return to a Judaic culture will stem the tide — and large sums have been gathered to act as financial sandbags. What is on offer is the prospect of return through a multitude of seductions. Emphasis has been placed on the novelty of the attraction to entice the young in the hope that this will automatically lead to an identification with communal values. It is seen as a bulwark against history’s inevitable surge forward which threatens to sweep away large numbers of young Jews.

The desire for a sense of belonging which pervades this report has been interpreted by Jewish leadership as a longing for ethnic respectability in a multi-cultural society and a safety net against the perils of the tabloid society. This may be true, but the flaw in the argument is that Jews should be ordinary and conformist— safe Jews in a safe society. The image of the Jews as the people of the prophets, as a group willing to dissent, to question, to rebel, to stand alone is of little importance —an unthinking Judaism without its radical edge. The readings from the Prophets, the Haftorah, is meant for transient musings on Saturday mornings, but not as a measure for a lifestyle in the wider world. The early Zionists’ burning desire to radically transform the Jews seems to have turned full circle. It seems that 1996 is uncannily similar to 1896, but in the absence of both antisemitism and Zionism, it is in some ways far worse. Part of the problem is that those who courageously have attempted to stem and perhaps reverse history have opted for the upstanding conformist instead of the questioning dissident as the role model for the returnee, the בעלי תשובה . Rather than be confronted by the zeal of the newly awakened, tomorrow’s Jews are expected to be today’s clones. The journey from assimilated Jew to Jewish Briton is to essentially exchange one form of anglicisation for another. The transformation into British Jews rather than Jewish Britons should be a process which defines ‘otherness’ by proclaiming a radicalism through an awkward defiant questioning Judaism. Jews should consider themselves to be outsiders in British society in that they wish to challenge accepted norms andלתקן העולם — to repair the world. ‘Jews behaving badly’ — Jews who have the courage of their spiritual convictions — is something we should seek to encourage. It will not win applause from Jewish leadership in Britain or from the British establishment, but it may be that very defining quality which will help to save Jewry and transform Britain.

Judaism Today Spring 1996


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