ISRAELI INTELLECTUALS AND ISRAELI POLITICS

By Edward Alexander

(Prepared for delivery at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, The San Francisco Hilton and Towers, August 29-September 1, 1996. (C) American Political Science Association.)

In his essay of 1838 on Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill wrote 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, and in the long run overbears every other influence save those which it must itself obey." Of course Mill was not always willing to wait for the long run and was often tempted by shortcuts whereby speculative philosophers and other intellectuals could make their influence felt upon government. Frightened by Tocqueville's observations of American democracy, Mill sought to prevent the "tyranny of the majority" by an elaborate scheme of plural voting which would give everybody one vote but intellectuals a larger number; when he awoke to the folly and danger of such a scheme he switched his allegiance to proportional representation as a means of allowing what he calls in On Liberty the wise and noble few to exercise their due influence over the mindless majority.

By now we have had enough experience of the influence of intellectuals in politics to be skeptical of Mill's schemes. To look back over the major intellectual journals of this country in the years prior to and during the second World War--not only Trotskyist publications like New International or Dwight Macdonald's Politics , but the highbrow modernist and Marxist Partisan Review --is to be appalled by the spectacle of the finest minds of America vociferous in opposition to prosecuting the war against Hitler, which in their view was just a parochial struggle between two dying capitalist forces. The pacifism of English intellectuals in the thirties led Orwell to declare that there are some ideas so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them.

If we look at the influence of Israeli intellectuals upon Israeli policy during recent years, and up until the demise of the Rabin-Peres government, we may conclude that Mill and Orwell were both right, Mill in stressing the remarkable power of ideas, Orwell in insisting that such power often works evil, not good.

Among the numerous misfortunes that have beset the Zionist enterprise from its inception--the unyielding hardness of the land allegedly flowing with milk and honey, the failure of the Jews of the Diaspora to move to Zion except under duress, the constant burden of peril arising from Arab racism and imperialism--was the premature birth of an intellectual class, especially a literary intelligentsia. The quality of Israel's intelligentsia may be a matter of dispute. Gershom Scholem once remarked, mischievously, that talent goes where it is needed, and in Israel it was needed far more urgently in the military than in the universities, the literary community, the arts, and journalism. But the influence of this intelligentsia is less open to dispute than its quality. When Shimon Peres (who fancies himself an intellectual) launched his ill-fated election campaign of spring 1996 he surrounded himself with artists and intellectuals on the stage of Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium. 1

Three months earlier, he had listed as one of the three future stars of the Labor Party the internationally famous novelist Amos Oz, the same Amos Oz who had recently referred to traditional Jews as "filth."

Intellectuals in many countries have adopted the motto: "the other country, right or wrong," and worked mightily to undermine national confidence in their country's heritage, founding principles, raison d'etre . But such intellectuals do not usually arise within fifty years of their country's founding, and in no case except Israel have intellectuals cultivated their "alienation" in a country whose "right to exist" is considered an acceptable subject of discussion among otherwise respectable people and nations. As Midge Decter shrewdly put it in May of this year, "A country only half a century old is not supposed to have a full fledged accomplished literary intelligentsia../..../..This is an extravagance only an old and stable country should be allowed to indulge in." 2

The seeds of trouble amongst intellectuals in Zion antedated the state itself. On May Day 1936 the Labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson asked, angrily, "Is there another people on earth whose sons are so emotionally and mentally twisted that they consider everything their nation does despicable and hateful, while every murder, rape and robbery committed by their enemies fills their hearts with admiration and awe? As long as a Jewish child../...can come to the Land of Israel, and here catch the virus of self-hate../...let not our conscience be still." 3

But what for Katznelson was a sick aberration would later become the normal condition among a very large segment of Israeli intellectuals. A major turning point came in 1967, when the doctors of Israel's soul, a numerous fraternity, concluded that in winning a defensive war which, if lost, would have brought its destruction, Israel had bartered its soul for a piece of land. The Arab nations, shrewdly sensing that Jews were far less capable of waging the war of ideas than the war of planes and tanks, quickly transformed the rhetoric of their opposition to Israel's existence from the Right to the Left, from the aspiration to "turn the Mediterranean red with Jewish blood" (the battle cry of the months preceding the Six-Day War) to the pretended search for a haven for the homeless. This calculated appeal to liberals, not least to Jewish and Israeli liberals, created legions of critics of the Jewish state, especially among believers in the progressive improvement and increasing enlightenment of the human race. Israeli intellectuals who were willing to express, especially in dramatic hyperbole, criticism of their own country's alleged racism, imperialism, and religious fanaticism quickly became celebrities in the American press. They were exalted by people like Anthony Lewis as "courageous voices of dissent," even though what they had joined was, of course, a community of con sent.

But it was not until 1977 that the Israeli intelligentsia turned massively against the state, against Zionism, against Judaism itself. For in 1977 the Labor Party lost its 29 year old ownership of government to people it considered its cultural inferiors, people Meron Benvenisti described as follows: "I remember traveling on a Haifa bus and looking around at my fellow passengers with contempt and indifference--almost as lower forms of human life." Such hysteria (which burst forth again three months ago when Mr. Netanyahu won the election) now became the standard pose of the alienated Israeli intellectual, and it was aggressively disseminated by American publications such as the New York Times , ever eager for Israeli-accented confirmation of its own hatreds. Amos Oz, for example, took to the pages of the New York Times Magazine during the Lebanon war to deplore the imminent demise of Israel's "soul": "Israel could have become an exemplary state../...a small-scale laboratory for democratic socialism." But that great hope, Oz lamented, was dashed by the arrival of Holocaust refugees, various "anti-socialist" Zionists, "chauvinistic, militaristic, and xenophobic" North African Jews, and so forth. 4

(These are essentially the reasons why it was not until Menachem Begin became prime minister that the Ethiopian Jews could come to Israel.) In 1989 Oz described members of the religious settlement movement Gush Emunim in the following language: "A small sect, a messianic sect, obtuse and cruel, emerged a few years ago from a dark corner of Judaism, and it is threatening to destroy all that is dear and sacred to us, to impose on us a wild and insane blood ritual../...They are guilty of crimes against humanity." In April 1995 Oz was telling New York Times readers that supporters of the Likud party were accomplices of Hamas. 5

People like Benvenisti--sociologist, deputy mayor of Jerusalem until fired by Teddy Kollek, and favorite authority on Israel for many years of the New York Times and New York Review of Books --foreshadowed the boasting of the intellectual spokesmen of the recently deposed Labor government that they were not only post-Zionist but also post-Jewish in their thinking. Benvenisti, writing in 1987, recalled proudly how "We would observe Yom Kippur by loading quantities of food onto a raft and swimming out with it to an offshore islet in the Mediterranean, and there we would while away the whole day feasting. It was a flagrant demonstration of our rejection of religious and Diaspora values." 6

Anecdotal evidence of the increasingly shrill anti-Israelism (or worse) of Israeli intellectuals is only too easy to amass. Some years ago the sculptor Yigal Tumarkin stated that "When I see the black-coated haredim with the children they spawn, I can understand the Holocaust." 7

Ze'ev Sternhell, Hebrew University expert on fascism, proposed destroying the Jewish settlements with IDF tanks as a means of boosting national morale. (Ibid) In 1969 the guru of Labor Party intellectuals, the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, began to talk of the inevitable "Nazification" of the Israeli nation and society. By the time of the Lebanon War he had become an international celebrity because of his use of the epithet "Judeo-Nazi" to describe the Israeli army. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he outdid even himself by declaring (in words redolent of what Katznelson had deplored in 1936): "Everything Israel has done, and I emphasize everything , in the past 23 years is either evil stupidity or stupidly evil." 8

And in 1993 Leibowitz would be honored by the government of Yitzhak Rabin with the Israel Prize. In third place after Oz and Benvenisti among the resources of intellectual insight into Israel's soul frequently mined by Anthony Lewis, Thomas Friedman, and the rest is David Grossman, the novelist. Grossman established his credentials as an alienated intellectual commentator on the state of his country's mind in a book of 1988 called The Yellow Wind , an account of his seven-week journey through the "West Bank," a journey undertaken in order to understand "how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched." 9

This is a complicated book, not without occasional patches of honesty. But its true flavor can be suggested by two successive chapters dealing with culture and books, especially religious ones. Grossman first visits the Jewish settlement of Ofra, at which he arrives fully armed with suspicion, hostility, and partisanship, a "wary stranger" among people who remind him, he says, of nothing human, especially when they are "in the season of their messianic heat." (52) In Ofra, Grossman does not want "to let down his guard" and be "seduced" by the Sabbath "warmth" and "festivity" of these wily Jews. (34) Although most of his remarks to Arabs in conversation recounted in The Yellow Wind are the perfunctory gestures of a straight man to whom his interlocutors pay no serious attention, he angrily complains that the Jewish settlers don't listen to or "display a real interest" in him. He asks them to "imagine themselves in their Arab neighbors' places" (37) and is very much the angry schoolmaster when they don't dance to his tune or accept his pretense that this act of sympathetic imagination is devoid of political meaning. Neither are the settlers nimble enough to make the appropriate reply to Grossman: "My dear fellow, we will imagine ourselves as Arabs if you will imagine yourself as a Jew." But Grossman has no intention of suspending his own rhythms of existence long enough to penetrate the inner life of these alien people: "What have I to do with them?" (48) His resentment is as much cultural as political. He complains that the settlers have "little use for culture," speak bad Hebrew, indulge in "Old Diaspora type" humor, and own no books, "with the exception of religious texts" (46). And these, far from mitigating the barbarity of their owners, aggravate it. The final image of the Jews in this long chapter is of "potential [!] terrorists now rocking over their books." (51) For people like Grossman, the conjectural terrorism of Jews is always a far more grievous matter than the actual terrorism of Arabs.

The following chapter also treats of culture and books, including religious ones. Grossman has come to Bethlehem University, one of several universities in the territories that have been punningly described as branches of PLO State. Here Grossman, though he admits the school to be "a stronghold of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine," sees no terrorists rocking over books, but rather idyllic scenes that remind him of "the pictures of Plato's school in Athens" (57). Bubbling with affection, eager to ascribe only the highest motives, Grossman is now willing to forgive even readers of religious books. He has not so much as a snort or a sneer for the Bethlehem English professor who ascribes Arabs' supreme sensitivity to lyric rhythm in English poetry to the "rhythm of the Koran flow[ing] through their blood" (59). The author's ability to spot racism at a distance of twenty miles when he is among Jews slackens when timeless racial categories are invoked in Bethlehem.

When the Labor Party returned to power in 1992, so too did the Israeli intellectuals and their disciples. People we once (rather naively) casually referred to as extremists moved to the centers of power in Israeli government and policy formation. Dedi Zucker, who used to accuse Jewish "settlers" of drinking blood on Passover, and Yossi Sarid, who once shocked Israelis by declaring that Holocaust Memorial Day meant nothing to him, and Shulamit Aloni, whose statements about religious Jews would probably have landed her in jail in European countries that have laws against antisemitic provocation, all became cabinet ministers or prominent spokesmen in the government of Rabin. Two previously obscure professors laid the foundations for the embrace of Yasser Arafat, one of the major war criminals of the twentieth century, responsible for the murder of more Jews than anyone since Hitler and Stalin. The Oslo process put the PLO well on the way to an independent Palestinian state (a state, it should be added, that commands the allegiance of far more Israeli intellectuals than does the idea of a Jewish one). Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman were delighted, with the last of this trio assuring Anthony Lewis (17 May 1996, New York Times) that Israel had finally given up its "instinctive suspicion," and that although "we have the worst terrorism," "we are making peace." Benvenisti proved harder to satisfy: in 1995, he published a book called Intimate Enemies , the ads for which carried glowing endorsements from Thomas Friedman and Professor Ian Lustick, in which he proposed dissolution of the state of Israel.

Only a few figures within Israel's cultural establishment expressed dismay at what was happening. The philosopher Eliezer Schweid warned that a nation which starts by abandoning its cultural memories ends by abandoning its physical existence. 10 Amos Perlmutter analyzed the "post-Zionism" of Israeli academics as an all-out attack on the validity of the state. 11

A still more notable exception to the general euphoria of this class was Aharon Megged. In June of 1994 this well-known writer and longtime supporter of the Labor Party wrote an explosive article in Ha'aretz on "The Israeli Suicide Drive" in which he connected the Rabin government's record of endless unreciprocated concessions to a PLO that had not even cancelled its Charter calling for Israel's destruction, to the self-destructiveness that had long before infected Israel's intellectual classes. "Since the Six Day War," Megged wrote, "and at an increasing pace, we have witnessed a phenomenon which probably has no parallel in history: an emotional and moral identification by the majority of Israel's intelligentsia with people openly committed to our annihilation." Megged argued that since 1967 the Israeli intelligentsia had more and more come "to regard religious, cultural, and emotional affinity to the land../...with sheer contempt"; and he observed that the equation of Israelis with Nazis had become an article of faith and the central idea of " thousands [emphasis added] of articles and reports in the press, hundreds of poems, ../...dozens of documentary and feature films, exhibitions and paintings and photos." He also shrewdly remarked on the methods by which anti-Zionist Israeli intellectuals disseminated their message and reputations. Writers like Benny Morris, Ilan Pepe, and Baruch Kimmerling "mostly publish first in English to gain the praise of the West's 'justice seekers.' Their works are then quickly translated into Arabic and displayed in Damascus, Cairo and Tunis. Their conclusion is almost uniform: that in practice Zionism amounts to an evil, colonialist conspiracy../..../.." 12

The minds of the majority of those who carried on the Oslo Process of the Israel government from 1993 to 1996 were formed by the writers, artists, and publicists whom Megged excoriated. Although Shimon Peres' utterances about the forty-eight year war for independence which his country has been forced to wage often seemed to come from a man who had taken leave of both his senses and the actual world, they were rooted in the "post-Zionist," post-Jewish, and universalist assumptions of the Israeli intelligentsia. Just as they were contemptuous of any tie with the land of Israel, so he repeatedly alleged that land plays no part in Judaism or even in the Jewish political philosophy that names itself after a specific mountain called Zion. Like the Israeli intelligentsia, he accused Israel's religious Jews of an atavistic attachment to territory over "spirit," claiming that Judaism is "ethical/moral and spiritual, and not an idolatry of soil-worship." 13

Just as Israeli intellectuals nimbly pursued and imitated the latest cultural fads of America and Europe, hoping to be assimilated by the great world outside Israel, so did Peres hope that Israel would be admitted into the Arab League! 14

Despite the enlistment of President Clinton as his campaign manager, and the nearly unanimous support he received from the Israeli and world news media, to say nothing of the herd of independent thinkers from the universities, and the rented academics of the think tanks, Shimon Peres and his Oslo process were decisively rejected by the Jewish voters of Israel. Predictably, the Israeli intellectuals reacted with melodramatic hysteria. David Grossman, in the New York Times of 31 May, wailed sanctimoniously that "Israel has moved toward the extreme right../...more militant, more religious, more fundamentalist, more tribal and more racist." 15

Among the American liberal supporters of Israel's intellectual elite, only the New Republic appeared somewhat chastened by the election result. Having for years, perhaps decades, celebrated the ineffable genius of Shimon Peres and his coterie, the magazine turned angrily upon the Israeli intellectuals for failing to grasp that "their association with Peres was one of the causes of his defeat." "Disdainful of [Jews] from traditional communities, they thought of and called such people 'stupid Sephardim.' This contempt for Arab Jews expresses itself in a cruel paradox, for it coexists with a credulity about, and esteem for, the Middle East's Christians and Muslims--Arab Arabs. Such esteem, coupled with a derisive attitude toward Jewish symbols and texts, rituals, remembrances and anxieties, sent tens of thousands to Netanyahu." 16

Having begun this talk with statements by J. S. Mill and George Orwell about the role of intellectuals and their ideas in politics, I shall conclude in the same way. The first statement, by Mill, is recommended as an aid to reflection by the intellectuals of Israel: "The collective mind," wrote Mill in 1838, "does not penetrate below the surface, but it sees all the surface; which profound thinkers, even by reason of their profundity, often fail to do../..../.." The second statement, by Orwell, obliquely comments on the defeat of Mr. Peres and his avid intellectual supporters: "if the radical intellectuals in England had had their way in the 20's and 30's," said Orwell,"the Gestapo would have been walking the streets of London in 1940."

NOTES

1. Jerusalem Post , 6 April 1996.

2. Midge Decter, "The Treason of the Intellectuals," Outpost , May 1996, 7.

3. Kitvei B. Katznelson (Tel Aviv: Workers' Party of Israel, 1961), VIII, 18.

4. Quoted in Edward Rothstein, "Israel's Alienated Intellectuals,"Commentary, 83 (February 1987), 54.

5. Jerusalem Post , 29 April 1995.

6. Conflicts and Contradictions (New York: Villard, 1987).

7. Jerusalem Post , 1 December 1990.

8. Jerusalem Post , 16 January 1993.

9. The Yellow Wind , trans. Haim Watzman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,

1988), 212. Subsequent references to this work will be cited in text.

10. Jerusalem Post International Edition , 15 April 1995.

11. "Egalitarians Gone Mad," Jerusalem Post International Edition , 28 October 1995.

12. Aharon Megged, "The Israeli Suicide Drive," Jerusalem Post International Edition , 2 July 1994.

13. Quoted in Moshe Kohn,"Check Your Quotes," Jerusalem Post International Edition , 16 October 1993.

14. The Arab League contemptuously replied that Israel could become a member only "after the complete collapse of the Zionist national myth, and the complete conversion of historical Palestine into one democratic state to which all the Palestinians will return."

15. "The Fortress Within," New York Times , 31 May 1996.

16. "Revolt of the Masses," New Republic , 24 June 1996.

================

Edward Alexander is professor of English at University of Washington. His most recent book is The Jewish Wars: Reflections By One of the Belligerents (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996). [Available from the Freeman Center]


 HOME  Maccabean  comments