A year ago, my mother, then nearly 98, went into an old folks’ home in England. One of the last things she told me was that she believed her family background was partly Jewish. Her grandmother’s maiden name was Dow, and the Dows earlier married into a Brazilian family of Jews named Da Costa. Not that I think of myself as Jewish. I was brought up as a Catholic and I try to practice that faith. But my mother’s comment about her family background stimulated many thoughts—about Israel.
In fact, I had been pondering them here, years earlier. See, for example, “The Blindfolded Synagogue” (TAS, February 1988). In response to this piece I received a letter from Michael Kinsley, saying, in a friendly way, that I was guilty of philo-Semitism and that was almost as bad as anti-Semitism. I still have his letter somewhere.
I was invited to Israel twice and I now have enough thoughts to fill a book. Maybe I should write it. My most fundamental thought is this: The rebirth of Israel, almost 2,000 years after the Jews were driven out by the Romans, has to be seen as a miraculous event. It gives a shape and meaning to history that it would otherwise lack. History is shown to be not so much a process as an unfolding drama, revealing the intervention of God.
This is clearer to us now than it was, say, in the Middle Ages, or at the time of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). In his Pensées, Pascal wrote that the Jews are eminent “not solely by their antiquity,” but also by their duration. “For whereas the nations of Greece and of Italy, and others who came long after have long since perished, these ever remain; and in spite of the endeavors of many powerful kings who have a hundred times tried to destroy them.”
What would he have said if he had known that 300 years later, the Jews would return to Holy Land, where the attempts to destroy them continue?
Isaac Bashevis Singer told an interviewer that “It has never before happened that a nation has been exiled and then come back and formed a country. And this, with the return of Hebrew, the rebirth of the language, proves that the Almighty still has a purpose for the Jewish people.”
The Catholic inclination has been to believe that the Jews, although chosen by God, were superseded when they rejected Christ. But the restoration of Israel in 1948 suggests a more complex picture. Saint Paul reflects on these matters in his Epistle to the Romans. The Jews had stumbled at the stumbling block, and by their fall “salvation is come unto the Gentiles.” But a remnant remains, “according to the election of grace.” Many Jews had been “blinded,” but God had not “cast away his people.”
“Blindfolded, the Synagogue still moves forward in the universe of God’s plans,” wrote Jacques Maritain in The Mystery of Israel (1937). “It is itself only gropingly aware of its path in history.” A Catholic (whose wife was Jewish), Maritain said that Israel—meaning the Jewish diaspora—has a “historic mission,” which he contrasted with the mission of Christianity.
“Whereas the Church is assigned the task of the supernatural and supra-temporal saving of the world, to Israel is assigned… the work of the earthly leavening of the world.” He compared Israel to “a living yeast mixed into the main body,” which “gives the world no quiet.” Isaac Singer compared the Jews to salt, which gives flavor but can also cause “high blood pressure.” Perhaps that is why the Lord “has set you apart from the nations,” as the book of Leviticus relates.
The Jews “stimulate the movement of history,” Maritain said, boldly adding that they are charged with “activating the history of the world.”
IN HIS BOOK The Israel Test, George Gilder disagrees with Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. They attribute it to Jewish chosenness, and surely that is right. Gilder says more narrowly that anti-Semitism reflects the hatred toward middlemen, “entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, lenders, bankers, financiers and other capitalists.” He also attributes it to “Jewish superiority and excellence.” If the Jews really are the chosen race, then we might expect them to be on the whole excellent. So maybe Gilder’s disagreement with Prager and Telushkin is a distinction without a difference.
Gilder applauds the good sense of Benjamin Netanyahu and the (surprisingly recent) rise of capitalism in Israel. I agree, but for a different reason. He thinks that Israel and the U.S. need to be joined at the hip. My own belief is that Israel needs to be friends with but not dependent on the U.S. government, which takes the State Department view that a lack of Middle East peace is mostly Israel’s fault. A capitalist and therefore prosperous Israel will be less dependent on the U.S. and more likely to remain unmoved by American pressure. Arguably, Israel should politely refuse all U.S. aid.
Secular Jews are understandably discomfited by the idea of a “chosen race.” There could hardly be anything more at odds with the modern egalitarian ideal professed by so many intellectuals.
Hostility to Israel is widespread and rising, and it comes increasingly from Islam, and from the worldwide secular intelligentsia. Jewish intellectuals are among Israel’s foremost critics. Avraham Burg’s book The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes might be considered anti-Semitic if it were not written by a former speaker of the Knesset. Noam Chomsky has compared Israel’s government to the Nazis and, lest there be any doubt, he sometimes wears a Hezbollah cap. Criticism of Israel “is one of the most popular issues on campus now,” he reports. New Yorker editor David Remnick shows increasing hostility to the Jewish state.
The problem may be this: Modern Israel started life as a socialist enterprise. Ben-Gurion tolerated orthodox Jews, but it was assumed that they would die out. Today, the influence of the Haredim, or ultra-orthodox Jews, is growing. One-third of Jewish babies are now born to them, while the secular Israelis have far fewer children; the older, socialistic Jews are fading away.
The fantasy of “land for peace” will still be urged by New York Times columnists but it is likely to have dwindling appeal in Israel. The ultra-orthodox understand, even if the seculars don’t, that the Arabs want to see Israel destroyed.
What did Jesus say? He foresaw a time when “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the time of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” (Luke 21:24) In Jerusalem today they will show you late 19th-century photographs of the city in its “trodden down” state. Mark Twain, on an early guided tour in 1867, wrote that “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.…Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur and is become a pauper village.” Today it has been rebuilt—the Arab Quarter less so.
Hebron Jews, by Jerold S. Auerbach, a professor of history at Wellesley College, is an inspiring book:
No Jews are as relentlessly reviled as the Jews of Hebron. Vilified as the pariahs of the Jewish people—“zealots,” “fanatics” and “fundamentalists” who illegally occupy someone else’s land and incessantly provoke conflict with local Arabs and their own government—they are the militant Jewish settlers whom legions of critics in Israel, in the United States and throughout the world love to hate. It is seldom noticed that their most serious transgression, settlement in the heart of the biblical land of Israel, defines Zionism: the return of Jews to their historic homeland.
Israel might end up with the whole world against it. The country needs faith above all—but not in the American Golden Calf. Saint Paul again: “If God be for us, who can be against us?”