Arts & Culture

Israel Is The Largest Jewish Ghetto In History

To: Shmuel Rosner From: David Samuels Dear Shmuel, You are right to say that we do different kinds of work. You are a reporter with a gift for simplifying Israeli politics and Jewish institutional wrangling in a way that makes … Read More

By / May 15, 2008

To: Shmuel Rosner From: David Samuels

Dear Shmuel,

You are right to say that we do different kinds of work. You are a reporter with a gift for simplifying Israeli politics and Jewish institutional wrangling in a way that makes outsiders like me feel like we are informed about an exotic world that we actually know very little about. My purpose is to captivate readers into leaving the orderly and reasonable-seeming place that you inhabit when you sit down at your keyboard for the wilder pastures of reality. I take the same facts you have available to you, filter them through my subjective consciousness, and create a universe whose particular combination of familiarity and strangeness causes readers to get The New York Times and Shmuel Rosner out of their heads and see the world with fresh eyes.

So yes, when you seem unsettled by the idea that life is full of paradox and contradiction, I feel like I am doing my job — though I also wonder why you have chosen to devote your particular gifts to thinking about literature. The demand that people "mean what they say and say what they mean" is futile in everyday life, and simply nonsensical when applied to literary work. If you think my mildly personal and contradictory brand of journalism is troubling and frustrating, just wait till you clap eyes on Kafka and Babel, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, or any of the other major or minor literary masters whose habit of forceful contradiction defines 20th century Jewish writing everywhere except perhaps in the Hebrew language — and even there.

Now that I've complemented your very real talents while mocking your naïve and uneducated approach to literature, let's get down to the thread of my response that worries you the most, namely the idea that American Jews may not be exactly like other Americans.

I am sure that you have met plenty of patriotic, God-fearing Jews in Potomac, Maryland who say hamotzi every Shabbat under a Norman Rockwell portrait of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. But please believe me when I tell you that these people are freaks even by their own standards. If these people are really so uber-American, why do they pray every Sabbath for the welfare of a foreign government and its leaders, and the soldiers who defend its borders? Why do they celebrate the Independence Day of a small country in the Middle East? Why do they celebrate the new year in September instead of in January? Why do they insist on converting their goyish wives or children's children to their religion instead of simply letting them chose to be whoever they want to be? I'm telling you, Shmuel: by American standards, American Jews are pretty weird people.

But a more germane question may be why even such a mild assertion of the fact that American Jews are not exactly like all other Americans makes you so nutty. You say that my rather benign allusion to the double-ness of American Jewish identity is "a serious charge, with potentially grave consequences." I assure you that the Cheka or the FBI will not come knocking on my door — even in this age of AIPAC prosecutions, and with Jonathan Pollard still behind bars.

I believe that American Jews are different, in the same way that blacks are different. Jews and blacks are both guilty of embracing an alternative historical narrative that at times trumps the mainstream narratives commonly accepted by our fellow citizens. I am not "ruining" anything for my fellow Jews in America by speaking the truth about the fact that we live as Americans even as we also live sometimes contradictory lives as Jews. Telling the truth is part of how I see my job as a writer, even if I choose to speak in opposites and misdirection some of the time.

One reason you may be such a timid mouse when it comes to discussing these subjects is that the word "double" suggests "double agents." To clarify this point, I want to state clearly that I do see American Jews as double agents in American society. I think both Judaism and America have been greatly enriched by the creative tension produced by trying to live two very different narratives at the same time.

Look at the history of progressive political movements in America in the 20th century, and lo and behold, you find Jews. Look at the history of anti-Communism in America, and lo and behold, you find Jews. You find Jews on the front lines of aesthetics and commerce, and for the same reasons, namely, that we don't see things exactly the same way that lots of our fellow citizens do. The struggle of American Jews to be both American and Jewish, and to bring two sometimes conflicting kinds of narrative consciousness to bear on the society in which they live, has had such an outsized effect on American life over the past century in part because many of the best minds of the Jewish people emigrated here. There is also the fact that the country was founded by a group of uniquely philo-semitic Protestant dissenters for whom "Jewish" ways of thinking and acting were more congenial than they were to the Catholic regents of France or Spain. The other reason this conversation scares you is that you are an Israeli, meaning that you are a product of a 19th century ideology that believes that blood, soil and language must be united in order to form a healthy, unified self. It is no secret that Theodore Herzl and his fellow Zionist ideologues were heirs to many of the antisemitic stereotypes of the 19th century European nationalists they sought to imitate.

Israelis can't help but believe that the doubleness of the Jew in exile is a diseased condition that needs to be healed, and that the mark of being a healthy Jew is to be a member of a free nation living in its own land. That's why Israelis have such trouble understanding what it has historically meant to be a Jew in all other times and places — and what it means to be Jew today for those of us who are not Israelis. The irony of course is that the Jews of Israel are in many ways the ones who are stuck in the past: You live in the largest Jewish ghetto in history, under threat of nuclear catastrophe, and under the thumb of a corrupt ultra-orthodox religious establishment whose definition of Judaism is quite literally medieval.

While I am a strong political supporter of the State of Israel, I don't see Israel as the necessary solution to the historical condition of the Jewish people, just as I do not necessarily believe that American Jews will always be at home in America. Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that I believe that the Jewish condition is, in its essence, contradictory. I am Jewish, not because I think things are rosy, but because I chose to be Jewish, because I feel lucky to carry the historical weight of 3500 years of contradiction and argument and exile, and because there is something irreducibly slippery and human and contemporary about having to be two or more things at the same time.

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