Their Tragic Land

Two acclaimed new books about Israel betray a disquieting lack of moral confidence in their subject and its story
The covers of <em>Like Dreamers</em> by Yossi Klein Halevi and <em>My Promised Land</em> by Ari Shavit.
The covers of Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi and My Promised Land by Ari Shavit.
Dec. 18 2013 8:36PM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).

The story of the Jews was told so effectively in the Hebrew Bible that it shaped and sustained them as a people from that time to this. But what happens now?

We live in an era in which the Jewish people, having suffered a catastrophic national defeat greater even than the one recorded in the book of Lamentations, went on to write a chapter of its history at least as remarkable as any in its sacred canon. In a single decade, bereft of one third of their number, and without the obvious aid of divine intervention, Jews redefined “miracle” as something that could be enacted through human effort. Over the past six decades, the vitality and civilizing restraint of the Jewish way of life, honed in almost 2,000 years of exile, have been made manifest in the regained conditions of a thriving Jewish polity—one that simultaneously has been under relentless and, lately, spiraling pressure from all sides.

Will authors rise to this occasion as ably as the biblical authors did to theirs? Two recent and well-timed accounts of modern Israel offer a useful framework for examining how the challenge is being met. At over 450 pages apiece, each book required years of research and gestation: ten in the case of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, five in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. So there is no question about the gravity of these authors’ intentions, or the definitiveness of their aims and ambitions. Those ambitions, moreover, have already been rewarded in the form of unfailingly warm, respectful, and serious attention in the American press—and in Shavit’s case by a place on the bestseller lists.

What, then, have they wrought?


Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation traces the intertwined lives of seven men of the 55th Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, which won back the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. A brief introduction situates the author himself circa 1967 as a fourteen-year-old boy in Brooklyn. His father, a Holocaust survivor, is so shaken by the terrifying lead-up to war—many in those months feared a devastating cataclysm—but then so relieved by its outcome that he takes his son to see Jerusalem at first hand. Fifteen years later, the son, already a journalist, immigrates to Israel. One day, he is inspired by an article on a reunion of the 55th Brigade to look up the paratroopers, hoping to write about them on his own. As his project expands into a book, he is struck by a fascinating division among the men that suggests the main arc of tension in his burgeoning story: the split in outlook between secular Zionists hailing from the world of the kibbutz and religious Zionists hailing from the world of the yeshiva.

Except for continuing to treat his subjects as a unit, Halevi tries to stay out of their way and let them speak for themselves. The book is arranged chronologically, from 1967 to 2004, beginning with a detailed reconstruction of the battle for Jerusalem and then following the seven men at key intervals as they move into civilian life while also being drawn back repeatedly into their unit as reservists. A complicated grid, mainly unseen by the reader, weaves in and out of their intersecting lives, telling their back stories and highlighting their individual idiosyncrasies even as it connects them as a group to major historical developments over almost four tumultuous decades in their country’s life. In this way, above and beyond what we come to learn about each man, his family, his personal achievements and failures, we are shown the interdependency that persists among them as their attitudes, thoughts, and convictions play out in the context of an open society debating its future while under unremitting threat from without.

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is one man’s personal account, almost confessional in its intensity, of the history of his country from the arrival of a great-grandparent in 1897 to the writing of this book in 2013. It, too, is arranged chronologically. Its seventeen chapters trace the history of early Jewish settlement of the land, the growth of collective settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim), the advance of agriculture, housing, and scientific research, the early absorption of Holocaust survivors and expellees from Arab countries, and so on into the present. Each of these developments is situated in the geographical locations within Israel with which they are historically associated.

A fourth-generation Israeli, an influential columnist for the daily Ha’aretz since 1995 and a sought-after political commentator, Shavit writes with an insider’s familiarity, interviewing leading cultural and political figures as old friends who share a lifetime of assumptions and sometimes quoting his own previously published words as pithy statements on Israeli events and personalities.

In their contrasting approaches, the two books thus somewhat resemble the reportorial versus the editorial sections of a newspaper. That being so, it makes sense to begin with the one that reads like reportage, if of an extremely high literary order.


The photograph on the dust jacket of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers is of young, battle-exhausted paratroopers looking up at the newly won Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the center, the youngest of them, helmet in hand, will become an iconic image, epitomizing the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise: v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “Your children shall return to their borders” (Jeremiah 31:16). Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, the culminating event in several months of apocalyptic tension and six days of ferocious fighting, released a sense of relief and joy unparalleled in the country before or since. It was something like this same sense of relief that Halevi was reaching for in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, when he began seeking out the veterans of that earlier battle to see what had become of them.

In 1967, about half of the soldiers and 70 percent of the officers of the 55th Brigade were the products of kibbutzim; a much smaller proportion was made up of religious Zionists. The two groups disagreed about such things as the place of religion in Israeli and Jewish identity, but Halevi finds an essential commonality in their animating idealism. “[For] all their differences,” he writes,” religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movement agreed that the goal of Jewish statehood must be more than the mere creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people.” Each side saw itself as laying the foundation of an ideal society—egalitarian in the one case, religious in the other, with the dominant form of utopianism being that of the secularists. In deference to their common zeal, he draws the title of his book from a passage in Psalm 126:

When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion,

We were like dreamers.

Then our mouths filled with laughter,

And our tongues with songs of joy.

Then they said among the nations:

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us.

Like Dreamers then follows these men from their dream state into daily life—much as paratroopers drop from the skies to land on unyielding earth.

Halevi relishes the evolving diversity of his cast of characters. Among those from the kibbutzim there will emerge a managerial genius who helps move the Israeli economy from statism toward capitalism; a songwriter who strikes out from the farm to the city; a sculptor whose large-scale installations harness the physical resources of his kibbutz; and an anti-Israel spy who joins a terrorist network and gives his handlers in Damascus whatever they want to know about his military training. (You read that right.) The distance each of these individuals seeks from the collectivist esprit of his upbringing helps to explain why the kibbutz as an institution had to give way to a society of greater freedom—and perhaps even why one individual would use that freedom to betray it.

Among the religiously devout, temperamental and intellectual differences also disturb the initial unity of purpose. Several after 1967 become leaders of the settlers’ movement, which for a time enjoyed the support of the Labor government and continues to be supported by much of the country at large. Here Halevi may be simplifying his story-line when he writes that “the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz movement became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” For the religious men in the unit, as his narrative shows, it is less a case of symbolism than of adjusting, like their secular counterparts but in different terms, to the non-ideological opportunities and obligations of a dynamic society under siege; when it comes to the settlements, the same can be said for Israelis in general.

No surprise to those familiar with Israel’s history, soldiering occupies a prominent place in this book, sobering in the degree to which it holds these particular men in its grip. In America, only professional soldiers are called up for successive tours of duty. But, scant years after the battle for Jerusalem, the reservists of the IDF’s 55th Brigade were fighting again, in even more traumatic conditions, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Then came 1982, when Israel undertook, in concert with Lebanese Christians, to drive the PLO out of Lebanon; during their second tour of duty that year, the battalion members could sense the eroding support of a country beginning to tire of ceaseless combat. Around the campfire there is talk of a colonel who has refused an order. Some of the men call him courageous, but a religious reservist invokes his eight-year-old son, according to whom it is permitted to speak against the government and forbidden to speak against soldiers—but also forbidden for soldiers to disobey an order.

“‘Why, Odi?’ I asked him. ‘Explain it to me.’”

“‘What will happen,’ said Odi, . . . ‘if there is a war and someone will say I don’t want to fight?’”

The reservist concludes, embellishing a rabbinic aphorism, “After the destruction of the Temple, prophecy wasn’t given only to fools but also to children.” A future generation of Israeli soldiers was beginning, at an early age, to balance civic and personal responsibilities in a democracy where the word of security officials was being subjected to doubt. In the decades after 1982, as Halevi demonstrates in his remaining chapters, the coils become only tighter, the conundrums more agonizing, opinion more polarized.


A reader whose taste I normally share told me this book left him dissatisfied. He kept losing track of the characters and had to keep thumbing back to the orienting “Who’s Who” at the front. I see his point, but nothing conveys the experience of daily life in Israel—where the boundaries between war and peace can be as permeable as those between Manhattan and the Bronx—better than Halevi’s back-and-forth between the contrasting yet contiguous spheres of battlefront and home front, secular and religious camps, collective and individual experience. By letting the men speak for themselves through interviews and memoirs, he also projects a feeling of unedited frankness and spontaneity.

The method works especially well in the case of the poet-singer Meir Ariel. In May 1967, just weeks before the outbreak of war, the popular Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer had composed “Jerusalem of Gold,” expressing a longing for the Western Wall and the still-lost parts of the nation’s capital. Weeks later, King Hussein’s unanticipated attack on the Jordanian front, followed by victory in the resulting battle for Jerusalem, the song, with updated lyrics, turned into an anthem of reunification. Its patriotic fervor disturbed some on the Left. Drawing on his experiences in the city’s liberation, Ariel wrote an alternative version that he titled “Jerusalem of Iron,” registering the cost in the number of Israeli casualties (swollen by inadequate intelligence) and the lead needed to win that city of gold. Yet he insisted that his darker lyrics not replace but remain a commentary on the original song, and he declined to be lionized as a political protester.

Restive in the disciplining embrace of family and kibbutz, Ariel eventually drifted into religious life—not as a captive of any movement or party but on his own, looking for what he needed. Were Halevi a tendentious writer, he might have cast Ariel as the paradigmatic baal teshuva who “returns” to God and religion. Instead, we follow the unsteady path and tortured consciousness of a young man in an open society whose freedoms he has helped to secure.

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.


To pass from Yossi Klein Halevi to Ari Shavit and My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is like moving from the admittedly buffeting winds of freedom into a long-term care facility. Shavit sets out, as he says, “to tell the Israel story” through family sources, personal history, and interviews. He begins his guided tour with the arrival of Herbert Bentwich, his great-grandfather, on an exploratory visit to the land of Israel in 1897, the same year Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Basle. In then guiding us through the country’s geography and history, Shavit selects places where members of his family settled. Thus, Ein Harod, founded in the valley of Jezreel in 1921, is the book’s emblematic kibbutz, while the city of Rehovot, where Shavit spent part of his own youth, forms the background of otherwise disparate narratives about Israel’s citrus industry and its atomic project.

This recruitment of his family is not intended as family history, however. Shavit scarcely mentions, for example, Herbert Bentwich’s eldest son, Norman, a British Zionist activist and author of Israel Resurgent (1952) who was the more commanding historical figure of the two. From his family, as from the country, Shavit chooses only what he wishes to show.

Which is fair enough. But what does he wish to show?

“For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” These sentences introduce us to the awakening consciousness, at the start of the Six-Day War, of the nine-year-old who in later passages will go on to experience the terrors of the Yom Kippur War, the Iraqi SCUD missiles falling on Israel’s civilian population in the first Gulf War, and the shooting, rock throwing, and suicide bombings of two Palestinian intifadas. In sum, according to Shavit, Israel’s victories, like Israel’s vitality, serve merely to camouflage “how exposed we are, how constantly intimidated.” Projecting his fear onto the national psyche, he foresees the day when the life of his “promised land” will “freeze like Pompeii’s” as Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses.

By age nine, any child with a passable Jewish education will have learned that the scouts sent by Moses to report on the promised land of Canaan committed a lethal sin when they instilled panic in the Israelites with accounts of the giants they had allegedly encountered there. (“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”) The forty years of wandering through a desert that could have been traversed in a matter of weeks were divine punishment for the cowering faithlessness of these former slaves and their spineless guides.

Shavit is either unaware of the relevant Jewish lore or indifferent to its message. To be sure, fear is a rational response in a minority population living among hostile neighbors—but that is precisely why Jewish leaders have so often invoked this biblical episode to warn against undermining public morale. In my mother’s arsenal of daily proverbs, the only non-Yiddish saying she regularly incorporated was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Although it tells a story of impressive national achievement, everywhere in My Promised Land the techniques of literary foreshadowing are deployed to telegraph impending doom. In 1926, the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz performs for thousands in a makeshift theater at Ein Harod. Here is Shavit’s take on what can only have been a thrilling occasion:

I think of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the state of the Jews could not have been founded. But I know the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself, too. Its smoldering remains will eventually turn Ein Harod’s exclamation point into a question mark.

Several pages later, he comments on the spring of 1935, when the citrus harvest has enriched the villages surrounding Rehovot and “Jewish medicine” has brought progress to “desperate Palestinian communities.” Somehow, he writes, the “Zionists of Rehovot” have convinced themselves that, thanks to their altruism, “the clash between the two peoples is avoidable.” But this is delusion. “They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable tragedy.”

So acute is Shavit’s anxiety that even the prospect of urban development suffices to darken an upbeat report on the integration of European and Arab Jewish refugees:

In 1957 [the moshav] Bitzaron is still encircled by breathtaking fields of wildflowers: autumn crocuses, asphodels, bellflowers, and anemones. But they are about to disappear. A wave of development is replacing them with more and more housing estates populated by more and more new immigrants who are rapidly become new Israelis.

Israel’s triumph—its valor, its initiative, its natural beauty—is real only as a foil for Israel’s tragedy, which is where the real emphasis falls in Shavit’s deceptively balanced subtitle. There is no humor or lightness in his telling—this, in a country that in 2013 ranks 11th in the world on the happiness index. Even his exuberant report on the sex, drugs, and gay scene of contemporary Tel Aviv serves as prelude to a lament on the widening gulf between secure and exposed sectors of the country—a gulf judged by him to position Israel, in its seventh decade, as “much less of a solid nation-state than it was when it was ten years old” (and the wildflowers were disappearing from Bitzaron).


What is all this about? One can see why it might be hard to tell the story of European Jewry in the 1930s without a sense of foreboding, given what we know of its fate. But why would a successful Israeli in a successful (if threatened) Israel unspool a narrative thread of decline and disaster reaching back into the 1890s, weaving a shroud in which to wrap his country’s irrefutable triumphs?

One obvious answer lies in the ceaseless Arab war against Israel, which began long before the emergence of the state and came to play an expanding role in the domestic politics of Arab and Muslim countries, in the rabble-rousing of their religious leaders, in the ideology of their terrorists, and increasingly, in our own day, in the mental formation of leftists and internationalists everywhere. In this reading, the drumbeat of aggression that frightened Shavit as a child would appear to have kept him traumatized ever after.

Yet the obvious does not apply here. For, according to Shavit himself, his fears arise less from what Arab and Muslim leaders intend to do to Israel than from what Israel has done to them. The fear of attack with which the book opens yields immediately to its anxious echo—“For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation”—and the second anxiety supersedes the first. The obsessive foreshadowing is all about the wrongs that Jews have done or are about to do the Arabs, from the great-grandfather who fails to “see” their villages on his first journey through the land of Israel, to the kibbutzniks of Ein Harod who “burn the valley’s Palestinians,” to the 1948 war, and onward till today.

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

Nothing that happens to the Jews concerns them alone, so it is worth pausing here to consider what it means to substitute the Palestinian term naqba for Israel’s war of independence. In her recent one-volume Israel: A History, the historian Anita Shapira describes the special strains on the Jewish fighters of battles like Lydda’s that involved the highly trained Jordanian troops. As compared with Shapira’s meticulous account of what she rightly dubs an “Arab invasion,” Shavit’s Arabs and Muslims are deprived of agency, morality, and will. They are never seen to be plotting or planting, they never consider strategy or its consequences, they never indulge in moral reflection or compunction. “They suspect nothing,” “they cannot imagine what was about to happen,” and so forth. This combination of solipsism and unintended racism reduces Arabs to bit players in a drama of Jewish guilt.

Shavit’s precursors, who settled Israel, saw very well the Arabs and their villages; their failure lay in imagining people, like themselves, who had been living among and at the sufferance of others (in the Arabs’ case, mainly the Turks) and who would willingly have let others live among them. Some, indeed, did. But this is what Shavit cannot “see.” He will not apply to Arabs and Muslims the standards of decency he expects of the Jews, so he must decline to hold them responsible at all for their decisions, their politics, their behavior. In reporting on his meetings with Jewish religious figures or others of whom he disapproves, Shavit makes a point of telling us how he stands up to them in argument. Not so in his chapter “Up in the Galilee,” where his Arab friends assure him that Israel is doomed, and in response he merely reaffirms his love for them, asking, plaintively, “What will become of us, Mohammed?” No wonder they respond with contempt.


A further casualty of this book is journalism’s commitment to truth. Forecasts of doom are glaringly absent just where they are needed—and nowhere more so than in the section where Shavit describes how in the early 1990s he and his leftist political camp decided to bring “Peace, Now” by obscuring the declared intentions of Israel’s enemies.

In 1992, Israel elected a government headed by Yitzhak Rabin on a platform of no negotiations with Yasir Arafat’s terrorist organization, routed ten years earlier from Lebanon and now relocated to Tunisia. Subverting the democratic process, a few Israeli leftists, backed by an American millionaire, secretly plotted with Arafat to install him as head of a “Palestinian Authority” in return for nothing more than his word that he would keep the peace. Again with American help, they persuaded Rabin to accept this contract, very much against his better judgment. Israel thereby put the world’s leading terrorist in charge of protecting his prime target, and then proceeded to support and arm him.

Yossi Beilin, one of those who organized the meeting with Arafat in Norway, now admits they never considered the risks of PLO non-compliance. So when Shavit writes, “Peace was our religion,” he means, we acted idiotically through self-deception. In recounting this episode, he fails to look for where the dog lies buried (to adopt the Yiddish and Hebrew phrase). It does not help that, by now, Shavit recognizes the failure of the Oslo “peace accords” of 1993. In this respect, indeed, he early on distinguished himself from his colleagues at Ha’aretz. Nevertheless, he is still convinced that “[we] were right to try peace.” Instead of applying his professional acumen to investigating his and his friends’ part in the ensuing disaster, with its staggering loss of Israeli life, he limply seeks exculpation in his motives.

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves.

Yossi Klein Halevi immigrated to Israel as a Jew. So did Shavit’s ancestors. But one can’t help wondering whether Shavit feels himself less elevated by Judaism than condemned to it. Missing from his description of Israel’s “Hebrew identity,” as he calls it, is any evidence of the powerful sense of identity that has enabled Jews through the ages to withstand the aggression of others. Of the superabundance of contemporary Israel’s Jewish culture—the poetry and song, the popular revival of piyyut (liturgical poetry set to music), the theatrical productions, the ferment of academic and intellectual life, not to speak of Jewish religious life tout court—vanishingly little appears in his book. Missing, too, are the finds of the City of David and the Second Temple, or the attachment to native soil that makes amateur archeologists out of so many Israelis; the ruins of Masada make an appearance as a contrived means of boosting military recruits’ feelings of obligation and allegiance. Yet why else except through the unbroken connection of Jews with their homeland would Israelis today be speaking Hebrew in the first place?

Cut off from its Jewish rootedness, Shavit’s Israel finds its main justification in the suffering and supposedly nightmarish fears of its Jews. But suffering is not a Jewish virtue, only the sometimes necessary price to be paid for the privilege of living as a Jew. Moreover, in a face-off between competing fears and miseries, how can the prospering Jews of a “start-up nation” ever rival the perpetually deprived Palestinian Arabs? In his book, they don’t.


Doing justice to the story of modern Israel requires the moral confidence to distinguish between a civilization dedicated to building and one dedicated to destroying what others build. Is it really necessary to reaffirm that the Jewish state rests on a foundation of moral and political legitimacy stronger than that of any other modern nation, or that Jews maintained their indigenous rights to the land of Israel both when they resided in Zion and whenever and wherever they lived outside it? In modern times, and in modern terms, those rights were affirmed repeatedly, both in international law and through the gigantic efforts of Jews themselves, who purchased great tracts of the land, won back expanses of swamp and desert, built industries and cities, and repopulated the country in an unparalleled process of ingathering and resettlement of refugees.

Since war remains, alas, the universal means of securing land when a claim is challenged, the Jews of Israel have had to defend their land more often than any other contemporary people. In peace and in war, Jewish sovereignty has required and still requires of them greater qualities of mind and spirit than those that maintained their ancestors for centuries in other people’s lands. If it took tremendous courage to reclaim the Jewish homeland, at least equal courage is required to sustain and protect it among people who are currently less politically mature than they. One can only hope that, in that monumental task, Israelis will manifest in their written and spoken words the same moral confidence that as soldiers they have shown in battle—and that those writing specifically in English will remember that, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, prominent among their present-day assailants are Western liberal elites.


Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

More about: Foreign Policy, Israel, Jerusalem, Jewish State, Kibbutz movement, Six-Day War, Yeshiva, Zionism


Anti-Semitism and the New Russian Idea

There’s a new national ideology forming in Russia—and “the Jews” play a big part in it.

<em>Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks at the "Business Russia" forum in Moscow on May 26, 2015.</em> Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks at the "Business Russia" forum in Moscow on May 26, 2015. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP.
June 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, WeimarA History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, has just been released by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

Vladimir Putin’s steely nationalist rule has raised fears in the West of a return to Soviet-style dictatorship in Russia. But what many outsiders fail to understand is that the country is still in a period of ideological transition, with a new national idea gradually emerging from the Marxism-Leninism of old. Among the more noteworthy aspects of this new “Russian idea” is the explanation it provides for the upheavals of the 20th century and the country’s perceived current decline. Unfortunately, as is often the case with such overarching narratives, Jews play a disproportionately significant role.

Home to a prominent anti-Semitic tradition under the tsars, and again under the Communist regime that replaced them, Russia has long been seized by the “Jewish question.” During the Soviet Union’s first two decades, many among its key leaders were themselves Jewish—and Marx himself, of course, was of Jewish origin—but within the party apparatus, though less strong at the top than in the middle and lower echelons, there was a great deal of animosity toward Jews.

Today, thanks in part to still-lingering consciousness of the Holocaust, open anti-Semitism is démodé. It is unthinkable, for example, to regret publicly that Hitler killed too few Jews, or to deny that he killed any at all. But underlying anti-Jewish sentiments persist and have found alternate means of expression, notably through the simple replacement of “Jews” and “Judaism” with “Zionists” and “Zionism.” Yesterday’s accusations of bloodthirstiness, perfidy, and licentiousness have, for the most part, given way to revisionist accounts of the satanic “Zionist” influence on Russia’s historical path.

The content of these works ranges from the relatively sane to the utterly bizarre and lunatic. Their quantity, however, has lately reached an all-time high, even as the number of actual Jews living in Russia is at a historic low. (Émigré Jewish speakers of Russian in greater New York may now equal or outnumber Jews currently living in Russia itself.) What explains this recent surge?

One partial answer lies in the enduring Russian fascination with para- and metapolitics, especially conspiracy theories, the appetite for which has never been met by any homegrown tradition of detective fiction; there is no Russian Sherlock Holmes or Jules Maigret, for instance. Another answer lies in the more or less complicit attitude of Russia’s current political and intellectual elites, some of whom support the anti-Semitic campaign and would even see it intensified (though others caution against overdoing it). But really to understand the phenomenon’s sources and aims, one has to delve into its inner logic. That anti-Semitic paranoia should flourish under today’s circumstances speaks volumes about the contemporary Russian mindset, and demands attention.


To survey the vast recent output of “anti-Zionist” propaganda by Moscow publishing houses would be a heroic undertaking. Fortunately, given how repetitive such works have become, focusing briefly on just one work by one author will do the job before we move on to more formidable figures.

Vladimir Bolshakov is the author of Blue Star against Red Star: How the Zionists Became the Gravediggers of Communism (2014). This is the final installment of a trilogy, the first two volumes of which, With the Talmud and the Red Star and Khazaria and Hitler, were published in 2013. The latter titles alone are weird: the Talmud was never seen together with the Bolshevik red star, and what possible connection could link the medieval kingdom of Khazaria, which briefly adopted Judaism, and Adolf Hitler who in all probability never heard of it?

The trilogy’s third volume only deepens the mystery. Its back cover announces that, in the early 1970s, international Zionism, operating through the offices of Golda Meir—then Israel’s prime minister but originally, Bolshakov claims, an ally of Communism—launched a subversive campaign against the Soviet Union and eventually became its “gravedigger.” These are indeed sensational allegations, and one wonders how such remarkable facts and world-shaking events could have escaped notice by contemporaries and historians alike. Why on earth would Golda—around the time of the Yom Kippur war and at a time of terrible danger to the young state of Israel—have taken the reckless and politically suicidal step of declaring war on a superpower?

In support of such disclosures, Bolshakov cites “Iron Felix” Dzherzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, as Soviet intelligence was called in the regime’s early days, to the effect that on certain issues Zionists and Communists could perhaps find common ground. He does not reveal when or where Dzherzhinsky said this, let alone that Dzherzhinsky was never in a position to influence basic issues in Soviet or Communist policy; in his day, the political police and espionage apparatus were not remotely so powerful as they later became. Nor is Bolshakov himself, who once labored at the lower levels of the Soviet propaganda apparatus, and virtually all of whose “quotations” are of a similar cast, in a position to tell us how important decisions were made in the Kremlin.

Still, his account is valuable in conveying the mood within the Soviet elite in the decades after the death of Stalin in 1953. He is deeply convinced that the Zionists—of whom, he says, there were a great many in Moscow—played a sinister role throughout this period and even into the post-Soviet age in the 1990s and afterward. Consider Vladimir Zhirinovsky, now the head of Russia’s third-largest political party and one who enjoys the reputation of being staunchly and reliably anti-Zionist. Zhirinovsky’s mother was Russian; but, asked on one occasion about the nationality of his father Wolf, he replied, suspiciously, only that Zhirinovsky père had been a lawyer from Lviv (Lvov). Bolshakov assures us that the son is not to be trusted.

Bolshakov also tries to lay to rest any impression that Jews ever faced discrimination behind the Iron Curtain. Far from it, he claims: they were—and remain—all-powerful. In fact, so pervasive has their influence been that anyone critical of it has found himself subject to persecution. Conscientious journalists who warned against Jewish conspiracies were exiled to faraway countries like Australia and New Zealand. True, Bolshakov admits, a few Russian patriots were sometimes able to publish books and articles exposing the Jewish cabal, and lower-echelon “anti-Zionists” were occasionally protected by those higher up in the hierarchy, including editors of leading newspapers like Pravda and some in the party propaganda machine. But on the whole, he insists, anti-Zionists had to be extremely cautious not to exceed certain limits lest they face professional discrimination or banishment to the Gulag.

Bolshakov bitterly accuses many highly placed party leaders of dereliction in their duty to guard Russia against the Zionist threat. In his account, even those not directly in the thrall of the Zionists are depicted as turning a blind eye to the danger; one such was Leonid Brezhnev, the hardline General Secretary of the Communist party who led the USSR from 1964 to 1982—but who allegedly (according to Bolshakov) had a Jewish wife. We also hear frequently about the iniquities of the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev (General Secretary 1985-1991), along with those of his adviser and evil genius Alexander Yakovlev. As for today, although Bolshakov and those who think like him would not dare attack Vladimir Putin for such sins, they show no similar forbearance when it comes to other members of the ruling group.


If Bolshakov’s paranoid anti-Semitism can be described as merely a symptom of the new Russian idea, the roots of the phenomenon go back farther and deeper—and its branches now extend to the highest echelons of Moscow’s current post-Communist elite. Perhaps the most interesting and influential star in the firmament is Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), who in the new ideology of the Putin regime may be thought of as the equivalent of Marx and Lenin rolled into one.

The son of a Russian father and a German mother, Ilyin was born in Moscow, studied philosophy and theology, and in 1922 was expelled following Lenin’s orders on board the famous “philosophers’ ship” of suspect intellectuals. Settling first in Germany, he welcomed the advent of Nazism, regarding it as a counterforce to liberalism and Jewish influence. He even worked for a certain period in the Nazi propaganda ministry under Joseph Goebbels; although losing his job in the wake of a personal intrigue among Russian émigrés, he continued to believe sincerely in Hitler as a bulwark to the spread of Communist infiltration in Europe. Warning constantly of the Jews’ control of the media in the Weimar republic, and of their overwhelmingly harmful influence, he was hardly troubled by their subsequent fate under the Nazis. Nor did he grasp the other consequences of the radical cause he supported, including the murder in its name of millions of “subhuman” Russians.

Even after the war, Ilyin regarded fascism as a positive force, criticizing it only for being insufficiently religious in inspiration, a fault that in his view eventually caused its downfall. Indeed, he had preferred Mussolini to Hitler because of the former’s more positive attitude to the church, and, on the same grounds, Franco and Salazar to other dictators. (If Russian religious thinkers, for their part, tended to doubt the depth and sincerity of Ilyin’s religious attachments, it was because they found in his works more of German philosophy than of orthodox belief and dogma.)

Having lost his job in Germany, Ilyin moved to Switzerland with the help of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. He remained a fascist sympathizer until his death in 1954, though, when it came to Russia, he favored monarchy over fascist dictatorship.

The 21st-century rediscovery of Ilyin by Putin and his friends was a momentous event. Putin took a personal hand in arranging the philosopher’s 2005 reburial in Russia, and has sent his works as Christmas presents—and mandatory reading—to all of Russia’s regional governors. As one of his ministers put it, “God gave Ilyin the gift of prophecy.” He is virtually the only thinker cited in Putin’s own speeches and articles, and the same goes for the public utterances of the regime’s other leading figures. He is regarded, in short, as the most farsighted Russian political theorist of modern times, particularly when it comes to his strongly voiced nationalism and unwillingness to acknowledge the presence in Russia of other nationalities and minorities and their rights. (Less attention is paid to Ilyin’s economic and social views, which broadly speaking were those of the “Solidarist” movement, a kind of Christian alternative to Communist-style collectivism, quite out of fashion in contemporary Russia.)

To be sure, the enthusiasm has by no means been universal, even on the right. To one political writer, for example, Ilyin is not just a suspect figure but an outright enemy. After all, had he been a true Russian patriot, the Bolsheviks would surely have not just exiled but killed him. And is it not indicative that, during his Berlin exile, meetings of the Russian émigré intellectuals took place in a building placed at their disposal by B’nai B’rith, the Jewish “Masonic” lodge? On this view, what is needed for the new Russia is not the wishy-washy and half-hearted anti-democratic ideology of someone like Ilyin, but something far more robust.


And this brings us back to Vladimir Bolshakov and Blue Star against Red Star. In the last third of that book, Bolshakov suddenly swerves to focus on masonstvo—the Masons. This in itself is no great surprise: as students of the subject know well, zhido-masonstvo, the alleged Jewish-Masonic conspiracy, has long been a main obsession of Russian anti-Semites. From here on in the “Zionists” in Blue Star against Red Star become amalgamated with or even subordinate to the Masons and their lodges: the true engineers, along with the people who were their tools, of all of the major and most of the minor political developments in modern history. In Russia, their nefarious activities are said to have included both revolutions of 1917: the non-Communist February one, marking the end of the Russian empire and the creation of the Russian republic, and the October one, marking the Bolshevik takeover.

But if Lenin was a Mason, along with Trotsky and the other members of the Communist leadership, in what way were the “Zionists” responsible for their crimes? The answer, it seems, is that for Bolshakov and his comrades, “Zionism” and the battle against it have always been the core issue, and all other political controversies—including the relative merits of Communism versus tsarist autocracy—are secondary. Indeed, educated Russians who continue to believe in the old party-line version of Communist and Soviet history are now in a minority, and even those who like Bolshakov himself pretend to be guardians of the Communist flame have adjusted themselves to the new line. They may still accept a small part of Marx’s teachings, and preeminently his virulent essay on the Jewish question, but they pointedly distance themselves from his Russophobia as well as from the internationalist thrust of his doctrine, not to mention his economic prescriptions. The new Russian idea, after all, is not socialist, and not even national-socialist, but state-capitalist.

All of this is bound to cause major attacks of dizziness. Bolshakov at one point fingers the late Meir Kahane as the principal cause of Communism’s demise, but a few pages later his villain is the playwright Arthur Miller, and just a few pages after that the Russian politician Gennady Burbulis, an associate of Boris Yeltsin in the first post-Communist government who is now best known as president of the association of Russian short-track speed-skaters. Can such a farrago of nonsense possibly gain credence among a significant number of people in positions of responsibility in a major country?

One would like to doubt it, but in fact there is no clear answer. Putin himself does not believe in “anti-Zionism” or in the Judeo-Masonic fantasy; even the nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, probably the most prominent contemporary peddler of more sophisticated conspiracy theories, has declared that those who disseminate primitive “anti-Zionist” idiocy are doing more harm than good. Yet Putin still professes to be guided by Ivan Ilyin.

And herein lies the significance of the Bolshakov trilogy: not that it is exceptionally extreme or foolish but, to the contrary, that it is representative, and that there is a flood of others just like it. There is still no generally agreed-upon party line in the new Russia; some of the power elite, including apparently the army general staff, seem to go well beyond Ilyin—who was no believer in conspiracy theories, and, as a Christian, would hardly share the Asian (or Eurasian) fantasies of some ambitious present-day Russians.

Just who will come out on top in the struggle for power under and after Putin, and what kind of new ideology will eventually prevail, is still anyone’s guess. But whatever the outcome, it would be a serious mistake to ignore the grimly prominent role played by anti-Semitism in this unfolding drama.

More about: Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Vladimir Putin


Mutiny in the Bible

What happens when the people rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron?

<em>From</em> Punishment of the Rebels<em>, 1482, by Botticelli.</em>
From Punishment of the Rebels, 1482, by Botticelli.
Atar Hadari
June 19 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.

For this week’s reading about the mutiny of Koraḥ (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32), we take you first not to Judea or the Sinai desert but to medieval England and the opening of Shakespeare’s Richard II. There the divinely anointed ruler of the land is accosted by two quarrelling noblemen, one of whom is his cousin Bolingbroke. Richard reassuringly addresses the other, Mowbray, who is threatening the kingdom through this dispute:

Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears:
Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir,
As he is but my father’s brother’s son,
Now, by my sceptre’s awe, I make a vow,
Such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him, nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.

That phrase “my father’s brother’s son” came back to me when viewing an illustration that accompanies this week’s reading in the Daat Mikra edition of Yeḥiel Moskovitz. It is a family tree. On it, you can see that the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi had three sons and eight grandsons; one of the grandsons begat Aaron and Moses, another begat Koraḥ. And that leads us to the questions that stand at the crux of this reading: does greatness depend on blood line, or is it innate to the individual person and his particular qualities? How should the Jews be ruled, and what on earth does the Lord want?

Back in medieval England, when Richard’s naïveté and greed have allowed Bolingbroke to grow more powerful and demonstrate a just grievance against him, Richard comforts himself with the backing of heaven:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for His Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

Yet this reliance on heaven does not quite obscure from even Richard’s eyes the fact that his right is entirely dependent on his might. When his arrival on the field of battle is delayed by a day and he loses vital support, there is less talk of angels:

But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And, till so much blood thither come again,
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?
All souls that will be safe fly from my side,
For time hath set a blot upon my pride.

It doesn’t go quite like that for Moses and for the successive waves of rebels he and the Lord face in this week’s reading:

But Koraḥ son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, took himself
With Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav and On son of Pelet the sons of Reuben
And they rose before Moses
With men from among the children of Israel
Two hundred fifty leaders of the community
Who’d be consulted as the need arose, reputable men
And they assembled against Moses and Aaron
And said to them, You’ve more than enough.
The whole community is sacred, and the Lord is within them.
So why do you raise yourselves over the Lord’s assembly?
But Moses heard and fell on his face
And spoke to Koraḥ and all his community saying,
Come morning and God will know who’s His and who’s sanctified and who’ll sacrifice to Him
And whoever He chooses shall sacrifice to him.

Just as Richard II’s story revolves around inheritance and what piece of earth, what ceremonial duties, and what filial duties belong inalienably to a particular cousin, this story, too, revolves around what rightfully belongs to whom, what is given and what is taken, and what, finally, the Lord wants. The story starts with Koraḥ taking himself and all the people he leads away from the general community. It continues with Moses directing them to the censers or fire pans—tools of the priestly office they are coveting—and pointing out that in addition to taking you have to give, and you start by setting the censers alight. Nor will that be the end of what burns in this story.

 Do this: take yourselves censers, Koraḥ and all his community,
And give them to the flame and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow
And let the man whom the Lord chooses for Himself be the sacred one.
You’ve more than enough, sons of Levi.

Moses signs off his instructions with a tart echo of Koraḥ’s opening sally: whoever is High Priest is not in office for just one sect, he is in office for the whole house of Levi and the whole community. And as the story keeps reiterating that Koraḥ is not alone, that he is indeed leading a community, it also keeps emphasizing that with every question he asks, Koraḥ is actually breaking down the greater community into a smaller interest group. He is doing the opposite of what a leader is meant to do.

But Moses said to Koraḥ, Pray listen, sons of Levi,
Is it too little for you that the God of Israel separated you from the community of Israel
To draw you to Him to worship the worship of the Lord’s abode
And stand before the community to serve them?
And He drew you near and your brethren sons of Levi with you
But you ask the priesthood, too?
That’s why you and all your community are set against the Lord.
But Aaron—what’s he that you should rail against him?
And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav
But they said, “We won’t come up.
Is it too little for you that you took us up from a land running with milk and honey
To put us to death in the desert
But you must also lord it and lord it over us?
You didn’t even bring us to a land running with milk and honey
Or give us an estate of field and vineyard.
Do you want to put out the eyes of all those men? We will not go up.”
And it stung Moses greatly and he said to God,
“Do not attend to their offering,
I’ve borne with more than one of those jackasses
And never done wrong to one of them.”
But Moses said to Koraḥ, “You and all your community
Be sure you are before the Lord,
You and they and Aaron tomorrow
And take each man his censer and put incense on them
And sacrifice before the Lord each man his censer,
Two hundred fifty censers,
And you and Aaron, each man his censer.
And each man took his censer and gave them to flame and put incense on them
And stood at the meeting tent door with Moses and Aaron
And Koraḥ assembled all the community against them at the tent door
And the Lord’s glory appeared before the whole community

Here we have the key element that’s missing in Richard II’s story. There, the concept of divine anointment is a relic of biblical social organization; here, you still have the source of that organization: the essentially mysterious, essentially unpredictable force that will appear as and when He pleases and speak through exactly whom He pleases. But when He speaks, the text notes pointedly, He speaks to the whole community. He’s not interested in splinter groups:

But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,
“Separate from within this community
And I’ll finish them this instant.”
But they fell on their faces and said,
“God, God of the spirits in all flesh,
Shall one man sin and you erupt at the whole community?”
But the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the community to say:
Be risen from around the abode of Koraḥ, Datan, and Aviram.”

Somewhere in his letters Raymond Chandler cites an example of gangster argot, “Be missing,” whose threat impresses him because of its restraint. The same sense of imminent violence is in the Lord’s terse suggestion to the Israelites that, since Moses and Aaron have persuaded Him not to wipe out the lot of them, they should be what Koraḥ & Co. have accused Moses and Aaron of being, namely, raised above their particular element of the community.

And Moses got up and went to Datan and Aviram
And the elders of Israel followed him
And he spoke to the community, saying:
“Please turn from the tents of these wicked men
And don’t touch anything of theirs
Lest you perish in all their sins.”
And they rose up from the abode of Koraḥ, Datan, and Aviram all around.
And Datan and Aviram came out petrified to the openings of their tents
With their wives, sons, and babies
And Moses said, “By this you’ll know
I was sent by the Lord to do these deeds
And not by my own heart.
If these should die as any man dies
And the appointed lot of any man be their lot,
Then it was not the Lord Who sent me.
But if the Lord create a creation
And the earth gape its mouth
And swallow them and all that’s theirs
And they go down alive into the underworld,
Then you’ll know these men provoked the Lord.”

This is the first in a series of miracles in this saga. In marked contrast to the ten plagues that smote the Egyptians, we’re not presented with a mounting sequence of severity. On the contrary, the Lord seems to toss off His biggest miracle first. Moreover, in a story that revolves around gifts given and taken, not only are these people not the Lord’s, but He also has no desire for anything belonging to them, nor does He want people touching anything belonging to them. So superfluous are they to His requirements that the earth opens up to swallow any trace that they ever existed. Except, of course, for the censers:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
“Tell Elazar son of Aaron the Priest to pick the censers from among the burnings
And scatter the fire away.
But since they sanctified these sinful censers with their lives,
Make them into a plating for the altar
For they sacrificed them before the Lord
And they were sanctified and shall be a sign to the children of Israel
That no strange man who is not a descendant of Aaron
Draw near to offer incense before the Lord
And be like Koraḥ and his community”—
As the Lord said by the hand of Moses.

You’d think that would be the end of it, with the Lord having gone ballistic, so to speak, at first strike. But the true consequences of Koraḥ’s rebellion are only beginning; the cracks he was exploiting in the social order are only just starting to come apart, and the same can be said for that little earthquake that swallowed him and 250 of the best and brightest. Amazingly enough, it turns out they had opened the door for thousands of others to keep arguing.

But the whole community of Israel railed the next day at Moses and Aaron, saying:
“You have put to death the people of the Lord.”
And it was as the community assembled against Moses and against Aaron
And turned to the meeting tent
And here it was engulfed in the cloud.
That the glory of the Lord appeared.
And Moses and Aaron came before the meeting tent
and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
“Rise from within this community
and I’ll finish them this instant.”
And they fell on their faces
But Moses told Aaron, “Take the censer and give it light from the altar
And put incense on it and go quickly to the community
And atone for them
For the eruption has gone out from before the Lord, the plague has started.”
And Aaron took what Moses said and ran into the assembly
And here the plague had started among the people
And he gave the incense and atoned for the people
And he stood between the living and the dead
And the plague halted.
And there were fourteen thousand seven hundred dead
From the plague, aside from those dead over Koraḥ’s words.

There’s another miracle still to come, but for me this is the dramatic climax of the story. You could not have a more marked contrast between the calculated self-seeking of Koraḥ’s party, signaled in the censers they brought to lobby selfishly for office, and the spectacle of Aaron simply “taking what Moses said” and leaping into the multitude who were dropping like flies, waving the incense around and stopping the plague bodily: surely a first case of the Torah not being in heaven but on earth and of the tools the Lord had given being used, despite Him, as a bulwark against social disruption.

Yet, astonishingly, even this plague is not enough. The Jews are still complaining!

But the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
“Speak to the children of Israel and take from them
Staff by staff one for each father’s house, from all the leaders of their fathers’ houses,
Twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff,
and Aaron’s name you’ll write on Levi’s staff
for there’s one staff for their father’s house.”

If you’re still wondering whom the Lord wants to be offering His sacrifices, you have a little hint here of how the next act is going to play out. Aaron’s is the name to be written on the staff that represents the entire house of Levi, including Koraḥ’s party had they still been alive, and including all of his various cousins. At the end of the next miracle sequence, the question of whom the spoils and duties of office belong to will finally be settled.

And lay them in the meeting tent
Before the testimony that I will testify to you there
And it shall be that the man I choose, his staff shall bloom
And I will calm away from me the children of Israel’s complaints that they rail against you.

When—surprise!—Aaron’s staff proceeds to flower and brings forth fruit, the reinforced social order that results from all this rebellion is spelled out in meticulous detail:

And the Lord said to Moses, Return Aaron’s staff
To before the testimony as a preserved sign
To sons of strife so their complaints at Me shall end and they won’t die.
But the children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying:
“Look we’re expiring, we’re lost, all of us lost,
Everyone who creeps close to the Lord’s abode dies. Are we done expiring?”
And the Lord said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your father’s house with you
Shall bear the sin of your priesthood
And your brothers too in Levi’s staff, you father’s tribe you’ll bring close with you
And they’ll attend you and serve you, and you and your sons with you
Before the meeting tent
And they’ll keep your watch and the watch of all the tent.
But to the holy vessels and the altar they won’t come close
And they won’t die, neither they, nor you.
And I here take your brothers the Levites from among the children of Israel
To you as a gift they’re given
To the Lord
To worship the worship of the meeting tent.
But you and your sons with you
Shall keep your priesthood
Over every aspect of the altar
And from the temple to the holy of holies
And you’ll worship the worship as a gift I’ll give your priesthood
And the stranger who comes close will be put to death.”

Here then is the resolution of the story’s complex weave of giving, taking, filial inheritance, and personal worth. The priesthood is a gift the Lord gives to Aaron and to Himself. The service of the Levites is a gift the Levites must give and the Lord likewise gives to Himself—they hold the office to serve, not to gain. And in each case the office is equally deadly. Not only is Aaron’s cousin as much a stranger who can’t touch the altar as the member of any other tribe, but even Aaron’s sons themselves can die if they don’t offer the offerings appropriately. Fighting plagues is not glamorous work.

Still, as late as the Middle Ages, you can hear among Jewish commentators an echo of Koraḥ’s anguished, jealous cry. Here is Moses Naḥmanides (also known as Ramban):

This is the point of the flowering of Aaron’s staff for the house of Levi, for it flowered for the whole house of Levi and in their due. And it’s possible that since it was known by [means of] the staff that the Lord does not desire firstborns but desires the tribe of Levi, so the priesthood shall belong to Aaron without rancor, for he was the most honored of the tribe and the leader among them with the staff and the dignity of that tribe was fitting to him. But it’s not right in my view, because Gershon [and not Aaron’s grandfather Kehat] was the first-born son of Levi.

Isn’t what Naḥmanides insists on seeing as an injustice exactly the claim of all the brothers, from Cain to Ishmael to Esau and Joseph’s eleven siblings, who demand to know why the eldest did not get his due? But that’s precisely the point: it isn’t about being the eldest, and it isn’t finally even about being born to the right father.

Going back to Shakespeare, after defeating Richard II in battle and becoming Henry IV, Bolingbroke gets his own play (two plays, in fact) and in due course has to explain to his own wayward son Harry why he made a better office-holder than the man he deposed:

The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative,
Grew a companion to the common streets. . . .

So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes. . . .

And in that very line, Harry, standest thou;
For thou has lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation: not an eye
But is a-weary of thy common sight,
Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more.

The figure conjured up by this picture of Richard II is Koraḥ, the cajoler and inviter of idle discontent, not Aaron the silent instrument of Moses’ bidding, the man who does not utter a word when the Lord strikes down his sons for bringing strange fire. It is restraint, finally, that this story is all about. Restraint by Moses of his own anger and the Lord’s anger, restraint of competitive urges within the community because the entire community is threatened by them. At the end of the story, instead of gaining high office, the Levites are cemented into their subsidiary role, and what Koraḥ’s rebellion has elicited is a chapter-and-verse detailing of exactly how that subordinate status is going to be preserved in perpetuity. It’s not about the glory of office, it’s about the glory that’s revealed quite unpredictably. And the person fit for office is not the one who wants a priestly robe; it’s the one who’s ready to dive into the dying mob.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Moses, Religion & Holidays, The Monthly Portion


In What Way Is This Music Jewish?

Charles Krauthammer and Edward Rothstein exchange views.

<em>From </em>Music<em> by Marc Chagall, 1920.
From Music by Marc Chagall, 1920.
June 18 2015 12:01AM
About the authors

Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author of Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics, is the chairman of Pro Musica Hebraica.

Edward Rothstein, critic at large for the Wall Street Journal, was chief music critic for the New York Times from 1991 to 1995. Follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.

Charles Krauthammer writes:


Edward Rothstein’s review of “Before the Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe,” Pro Musica Hebraica’s recent Kennedy Center concert of interwar classical Jewish music, was thoughtful, discerning, and very much appreciated. Permit me, however, to address one observation that seems to me profoundly wrong.

Regarding the works that we presented of Erich Korngold, Jerzy Fitelberg, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, major Jewish composers later forced into exile by the Nazis, Rothstein asks:

[A]side from their creators’ shared background, in what way were these works “Jewish”? That is a question, indeed, that one might ask of almost any of the offerings of Pro Musica Hebraica (PMH), whose concert series is now in its eighth season.

The latter is a very odd question. This is the seventeenth concert presented by Pro Musica Hebraica. We have presented music ranging from the baroque Jewish music of 17th-century Italy and Amsterdam to Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 The Dreams & Prayers of Isaac the Blind. These compositions are imbued with themes—liturgical, folkloric, biblical, historical—that make them Jewish not in the ghettoized sense of appealing only to one ethnicity or history, but Jewish in the same way that Béla Bartók’s music is Hungarian: universal, but with a sensibility and rootedness that give it a distinctive identity.

The question about Jewish music is not much different from the question: “Is there a Jewish novel?” Of course there is, although we can differ over precise definitions. As for us at Pro Musica Hebraica, we do not define Jewish music by genetics or even by religious affiliation. We have featured, for example, Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes and Shostakovich’s Fourth String Quartet, both explicitly inspired by Jewish music. Indeed, in our first baroque concert we presented a rendition of the Psalms written by a Catholic composer so taken with Hebrew Scripture that he wrote the music right to left.

The concert that Rothstein attended and wrote about did push the question to the edges, since it contained few overtly Jewish themes. One of the points of that concert was to demonstrate how, in the 1920s, Jewish composers were running away from the tropes of the East European shtetl to explore new kinds of modern music. Accordingly, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, for example, is classified by the august Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as an Italian composer. His Jewishness, when mentioned at all, typically consists only in his being branded as such by Mussolini in the late 1930s. We find this a poor assessment of a composer whose works take obvious inspiration from the Hebrew Bible and whose compositions, like the Piano Quintet we presented, are shot through with melodic patterns derived from traditional Jewish music.

What is Jewish classical music? Our very first concert featured music of the St. Petersburg school of early 20th-century Russian-Jewish composers who came together to create distinctively Jewish art music. They went so far as to send anthropological expeditions into shtetls and towns to study, transcribe, and, indeed, record (on wax cylinders) the music of their people, from which they drew inspiration for the creation of a new body of self-consciously Jewish classical music.

As I noted in my introduction to that first concert, the creation of Pro Musica Hebraica was intended to recover this legacy, so much of which had been nearly lost to history. Our modest goal was to add both a small room to the great mansion of Western music and another room to the great mansion of Jewish culture.

We believe that if you look at the full body of our work—all seventeen concerts presented over seven years, extensively documented and annotated at our website—what emerges is a body of work of unmistakably Jewish character, of high musical achievement, and deserving of study and recognition.


Edward Rothstein replies:


In my essay in Mosaic, I referred to Pro Musica Hebraica as “a marvelous brainchild of Charles and Robyn Krauthammer.” Surely I would not have done so had I been as “profoundly wrong” about Pro Musica Hebraica as Charles Krauthammer believes. In replying to him now, I don’t want to add further compliments to perceived injuries; but I insist that I’ve been misunderstood.

The question I posed in my essay about the pieces by Erich Korngold, Jerzy Fitelberg, and Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco—“in what way were these works ‘Jewish’?”—was a rhetorical one, to which the answer was neither “in no way” nor “only because of the religious origins of the composers.” Having asked it, I then went on to suggest that even though the pieces by the three composers offered no overt citations of Jewish melodies or ritual, and even though no specifically Jewish program could be detected behind the music’s drama, and even though the concert’s organizers explicitly asked us not to hear these interwar compositions as premonitions of or preludes to the Holocaust, nevertheless it was worth thinking about the music as being in some way Jewish. In my essay, I may have even treated the pieces as more Jewish than did the presenters, who, as I pointed out, wanted them to be heard as neglected expressions of secular modernism.

At the very least, this music was Jewish in a biographical way—and not just because of the composers’ birth but because of how their lives followed similar trajectories. For the purposes of my brief essay, I thought it sufficient to suggest that the works heard at the concert reflected a moment in the 20th-century history of a class of assimilated professional Jews who aspired to the highest levels of achievement in their respective national cultures—just before they were exiled from those cultures at the point of the sword. Being more precise about them than this would require deeper study, but some quality of these composers’ parallel lives and fates must be expressed in their music.

As it happens, moreover, two of the three exiled composers featured at the May concert, all of whom found refuge in the United States, then proceeded to reinvent our own culture, which itself has long been a culture of reinvention. Could that additional similarity in their experience be discernible through subtle similarities in their music? It strikes me as possible, perhaps probable.


As Charles Krauthammer notes, I also proposed that the question I asked about the pieces by Korngold, Fitelberg, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco—“in what way were these works ‘Jewish’?”—could be asked about almost any of the offerings of Pro Musica Hebraica over its eight seasons. Although he appears convinced I meant the question literally, and that my answer was “in no way,” I trust I’ve now made clear that this is not the case. Perhaps I should have followed with a clarifying phrase: “in many different ways.” And I might also have addressed other individual concerts. (I did include a link to recordings of them.) But that was not my primary purpose, which was to suggest that the question itself is both legitimate and very complicated.

And that brings me to another reason why I applaud the Pro Musica Hebraica series. Over the last decades, identity politics has transformed American institutions, to the point where ethnic or racial or sexual identity has become a separate and often all-dominating focus of attention in university courses, in museum exhibitions, and of course in political life. Aspects of this transformation have been baleful, reducing the variousness and diversity of human experience to a monochrome template of victimization and claims for recompense. Still, when it comes to works of art, there are indeed times and contexts in which a measured and appropriate attention to identity can reveal aspects that we may not have registered before, help bring to light hitherto unnoticed lines of influence, and compel us to see or hear things from a different perspective.

About twenty years ago, musicologists began to suggest that works by homosexual composers might directly express the condition of the musical artist in societies hostile to homosexuals. This approach, if applied obsessively, can become almost comical (I have given examples here). And yet since it is indisputably true that any musical work does in some way reflect the personality and experience of the composer, why not other aspects of identity as well?

The challenge lies in the details, and in our ability to make matters more rather than less precise: to avoid caricature. Pro Music Hebraica’s programs, with their varied groupings of composers and their works, challenge us to examine Jewish aspects of musical experience. To me, posing the question of what those aspects might be and how to define them, even if answers are not immediately forthcoming, is not “profoundly wrong” but profoundly right.

More about: Arts & Culture, Jewish music, Pro Musica Hebraica


Did Israel's President Really Refer to Reform Judaism as "Idol Worship"?

Or was he mistranslated?

From </em>The Death of Nadav and Avihu<em> by James Tissot</em>.
From The Death of Nadav and Avihu by James Tissot.
June 17 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

Though not himself an Orthodox Jew, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin has “failed miserably when it comes to having good relations with practicing Jews who are not Orthodox.” So writes the Israeli political commentator Shmuel Rosner in a June 10 New York Times op-ed. As an example of Rivlin’s “troubling track record” in this area, Rosner cites his having once referred, long before becoming president, to Reform Judaism as “idol worship.”

Did Rivlin really say such a thing? It would have been stupid of him to have done so, since whatever sins Reform Judaism can be accused of, worshiping idols in its temples is not one of them. And yet that he said it would seem to be a matter of record. In 1989, according to a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatch, Rivlin, then a Knesset member from the Likud party, commented after attending his first Reform service in a New Jersey synagogue:

As a Jew who does not observe [the] 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked. . . . I felt as if I were in a church. I was completely stunned. This is idol worship and not Judaism.

Guilty as charged? Not exactly. These remarks were not made in English. They were made in Hebrew after Rivlin’s return to Israel from the United States—and a quick check reveals that, as any knowledgeable Hebrew speaker might have guessed, the seemingly outrageous words in question were the Hebrew term avodah zarah. Although this does mean idol worship, it can also mean other things, and it was clearly intended by Rivlin to mean them.

Literally, avodah zarah translates as “foreign worship.” While a rabbinic rather than a biblical expression, it has biblical roots in the story in Leviticus about Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron who are consumed by flames when they enter the Holy of Holies without permission to make an offering of incense that the Bible calls “foreign fire” (esh zarah). Taking the biblical adjective, the early rabbis gave the name of Avodah Zarah to a tractate in the Mishnah dealing with the worship of idols and the restrictions imposed on all assistance to its practitioners.

Inasmuch as, prior to the rise of Christianity and Islam, ancient Judaism’s main rivals were pagan religions that venerated physical representations of their gods, whether man-made or natural, avodah zarah originally designated all non-Jewish faiths. Indeed, even Christianity, because of its widespread use of icons, fell under its rubric. Maimonides (1138-1204), the most authoritative of all medieval halakhic commentators, ruled that Christians, too, were idol worshipers and that the rabbinic regulations in Avodah Zarah applied to them as well.

Islam, however, was a different case. A religion at least as iconoclastic as Judaism, if not more so, it could hardly be considered idol worship in the traditional sense, and Maimonides ruled that it was not and that Jews’ relations with Muslims need not be subject to the fear of abetting avodah zarah. For the same reason, he was of the opinion that a Jew may permissibly save his life by converting under compulsion to Islam but not to Christianity.

But although the majority of medieval rabbinic jurists agreed with Maimonides, not all did. The prominent Spanish rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili (1250-1330), to take one, maintained that conversion to Islam was also “foreign worship,” since the term avodah zarah covered not just the worship of idols but all denial of the God-given truth of the Torah. Similarly, the great Spanish talmudist Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi (1310-1375) wrote that even though Muslims did not pray to idols, their bowing in prayer to the God of the Quran was akin to idol worship and should be classed with it “in every respect.” This position had not a few supporters.

Thus, already in pre-modern times avodah zarah came to mean for some commentators any form of false religion, whether literally idol worship or not. Such a usage has become even more prevalent in modern times. Here, for instance, is the Israeli theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) writing about the biblical account of Moses’ smashing of the Tablets of the Law upon descending from Mount Sinai and seeing the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf:

To smash [the practice of] avodah zarah is to refuse to sanctify anything that is not directed toward the worship of God—anything involving values arising from [purely] human needs and interests. . . . The essence of belief in God is to believe in nothing that is not divine.

Writing in French, Leibowitz’s equally prominent Orthodox contemporary Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) even extended the concept of avodah zarah to a blindly literalist reading of the Torah itself:

A Jew . . . identifies as a student of the Torah by being a commentator on it and is thus protected from the idolatry [avodah zarah] of learning. In this manner, the text [of the Bible] defends itself from becoming an object of avodah zarah.

There is indeed a parallel between this extension of the meaning of avodah zarah and the development of the word “idolatry” in English: a word that, starting with the philosopher Francis Bacon’s “four idols of the mind” in his Novum Organum (1620), has increasingly been applied to any religious-like devotion to an essentially non-religious cause or pursuit. Thus, we speak today of “the idolatry of sex,” “the idolatry of money,” and so forth.

There can be no doubt that it was in this sense that Reuven Rivlin referred to Reform Judaism as avodah zarah. One may, needless to say, challenge his judgment, but to imply, as does Shmuel Rosner, that he was classing Reform practice with the pagan religions of antiquity, or with the iconology of the Catholic church, is unfair and misleading. Israel’s president is not a stupid man.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: History & Ideas, Iconoclasm, Philologos, Reform Judaism, Reuven Rivlin