“All the World Wants the Jews Dead: An Overwrought View from the Peak at the Bottom”—a 7,200-word essay by Cynthia Ozick published in Esquire magazine in November 1974—is still as powerful and urgent as on the day it appeared. Now that Dara Horn and Bari Weiss, two of America’s most dynamic young writers, have given us their own updated versions of this theme—Weiss in How to Fight Anti-Semitism and her recent Substack entry, “Everybody Hates the Jews,” and Horn in her compelling book People Love Dead Jews—it is worth returning to see whether anything has changed since Ozick’s blast.
The October 1973 war, initiated in a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, was the fourth and most traumatic of the wars Israel had fought in the quarter-century since its creation. The heavy early losses made it the most devastating to Jewish morale. In its aftermath, Ozick traveled to Israel, “not in the hours when the mourning over the fallen was fresh, but soon enough,” as amputees were being fitted for limbs and the Syrians were still refusing to name the Israeli prisoners they held. Visiting Israel then was like entering a house of shiva. Ozick, however, was not there to mourn, but rather to indict both the aggressors and the “world” that was colluding with them.
Even at this remove of a half-century it is hard to fathom the sheer hatefulness of that combined Arab attack in celebration of Ramadan—for it was during the Muslim sacred season that the leaders of Egypt and Syria attacked the Jews on the holiest day of the Jewish year. Set against regional coexistence, unsatisfied with their preposterous advantages of land and resources that were compounded by all they had seized from the centuries-old Jewish communities they had recently expelled, averse to internal reforms that would make their countries competitive with the West, and smarting from their rout in the June 1967 war that they had launched a mere six years earlier, the Arab leaders, inspired by Hitler’s example, thought to recover Arab pride by erasing the Jewish state from the map. A more cowardly and villainous war had never been conceived by invaders who may have felt they had nothing to lose: their hundreds of thousands of restive young men were dispensable cannon fodder, and their vast economic and political superiority would keep the international community quiet, if not on their side.
By the time Cynthia Ozick issued her cri de coeur—more precisely, a cri de courage—she was already a tested combatant in the cultural wars. Primarily a writer of fiction in a literary community that was only slightly less aggressively progressive than it is today, she did double duty as a literary critic. In that role she would not hesitate to mock her near-contemporary Philip Roth for trying to shuck off the label of Jewish writer, or to skewer the narcissistic early fiction of Truman Capote, or to expose the underside of John Updike’s ostensibly sympathetic portrayal of the fictional Jewish writer Henry Bech. But the Esquire article, directly or indirectly implicating influential members of her literary community, took risks that almost kept it from being published.
Ozick’s essay is less a report on what transpired in Israel before and during her visit than an agitated response to what this episode signified in the history of the Jews and in her own little corner of America. She opens on a visit to the original memorial for dead Jews in Jerusalem:
Though Yad Vashem is in Israel and documents the destruction of the European Jews, it is not properly a Jewish museum. Yad Vashem means “Hand and Name”; it is a German museum: all the photographs were taken by German hands holding German cameras for German archives. Whose hand, in whose name? What was the German purpose of these records? Emotion recollected in tranquillity? [sic]
That last question was a body blow—to her readers, not just the Germans. “Emotion recollected in tranquillity” is a famous phrase from William Wordsworth’s 1802 Preface to his and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads; both the Preface and the poems collected in that volume were once prescribed texts for every student of literature, part of the Romantic movement’s noble attempt to define high democratic culture. Though the poets proposed to choose “incidents and situations from common life,” and to relate them “in a selection of language really used by men,” Wordsworth was also trying to define for his readers the experience of transposing life into verse:
I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
I refer readers back to that essay in the same spirit that Ozick quotes from it: to remind us of the civilized world we had once been raised to believe in. But the relation of Europe’s cultural patina to its treatment of the Jews was a warning never again to entertain such illusions. Her anger was thus directed not only against self-declared enemies past and present, but against those among us who ignored and have continued to ignore their evil.
To ensure that her readers would confront all that was at stake in the Yom Kippur War, Ozick attempted a history lesson for the uninitiated:
How many Arab-Israeli wars have there been?
Answer: Four—1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. Independence, Suez, Six-Day, Yom Kippur. Alternate Answer: Five, counting 1967-1970, Attrition.
Fundamental Question: What has been the point of all these wars?
Definitive Answer: To get the Jews out of the Middle East.
Voice: No euphemisms, please!
Don’t interrupt the lesson. Now, pretend you are an Arab. Name two causes of the Yom Kippur War.
Answer: One, Palestinian Arabs, legitimate rights of. Two, occupied territories, intent to regain.
Pretend you are Israeli. What caused the Yom Kippur War?
Reply by chorus of thousands. Sample answers: Jews, attempted annihilation of. Vigilance, absence of. Prime minister, mentality of. Defense minister, cockiness of. Party in power, incompetence of. Territories, growing inflexibility toward. Population, selfishness of.
Some examples of the latter, please?
Idealism, weakening of. Consumerism, rampant. People thinking only of cars, children, groceries, home furnishings, similar criminal preoccupations. (Several hundred thousand further accusations lost in litany of self-criticism, every man his own Isaiah.)
What this tutorial demonstrated was the radical asymmetry between the two sides in the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict. Societies nurturing grievance and blame assaulted a society of self-blame that could not respond in kind because all it wanted was the right to coexist, a hope conducive to appeasement rather than battle. This was not, as was and still is mistakenly claimed, a struggle of two peoples over one land but a unilateral attempt by multiple Arab countries to destroy the single Jewish state.
The preposterousness of these inversions called for a Martian interlocutor to answer the questions in Ozick’s stead:
Martian, are Arab refugees the issue?
Martian: Arab refugees cannot be the issue.
Martian: Because in 1948, when the state of Israel was established, . . . there was not one single Arab refugee. And still there was war. That war was not caused by refugees who did not yet exist.
Then what was the cause of the 1948 war?
Martian: The Arabs wanted to destroy the Jewish state before it was born. Israel was invaded by the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.
Not so much detail, please. What about the right of Palestinians to their own national identity? What about their right to have a state of their own?
Martian: There is only one nation in the Middle East that has ever acknowledged that right.
Which nation is that?
How’s that again?
Martian: In 1947 the United Nations voted to split in two the territory known as Palestine under the British Mandate. There were supposed to be two countries in the one territory, one for the Jews, one for the Arabs. It seemed only fair to divide it like that. The Jewish part was 6,200 square miles, most of it desert. Israel immediately recognized the Arab part as the Palestinian Arab state. Nobody else ever has.
And the Arab state? Did it recognize anything?
Martian: Not even itself.
Well, all that’s blood under the bridge, you know. Please move on, we’re running out of time. What about the issue of “occupied territories” as one of the underlying causes of all these wars?
Martian: Occupied territories cannot be an underlying cause.
Martian: Because until 1967 the issue didn’t exist. There were no “occupied territories,” except for Old Jerusalem and the West Bank.
That sounds like a riddle. What do you mean?
Martian: Jordan occupied Old Jerusalem in the 1948 war, even though the United Nations said it had to be an internationalized city. From then on, for nineteen years, Jews were locked out of their religious places, and nobody seemed to mind. Jordan also occupied the West Bank, which was supposed to be part of the new Palestinian state.
You know perfectly well I’m talking about Israeli-occupied territories.
Martian: Until 1967 there were none; so they can’t count as an “underlying cause.” Before 1967, Sinai, Sharm el-Sheikh, and the Gaza Strip were all still under Egyptian control. The Syrians still held the Golan Heights and kept shooting down from them. The West Bank was governed by [Jordan’s King] Hussein. Israel didn’t have a single crumb of any of these places and still [Egypt’s Gamal Abdel] Nasser saw reason enough to want war.
What was his reason?
Martian: To crush the Jewish state.
What was [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat’s reason in 1973?
Martian: To crush the Jewish state.
Then nothing has ever changed?
Martian: This is getting boring. And, besides, it makes me nervous. If I think like a Martian, people will say I’m a Jewish sympathizer.
If I quote any more, I will exceed the fair-use provisions of copyright law. In any case, this should be enough to demonstrate how difficult it had become to “explain” the war against Israel and the use of Palestine as its excuse. The mind-numbing boredom of having to rehearse the plain facts had Ozick looking for livelier ways of doing it. But so successful had anti-Semitism become in holding Jews responsible for the war against them that even her Martian knew he would be accused of partiality for setting the record straight.
In this, the most scattershot essay that she ever published, Ozick made no attempt to disguise her exasperation. Although she was a sought-after author, she had pitched the idea for the story on post-war Israel to a succession of editors, all of whom turned her down. One of them explained that as far as Israel was concerned, “right now it’s the peak of the bottom.”
The peak of the bottom! Though he was intending to describe sound magazine practice—not to take up a subject when it is too stale for news and not stale enough for history—he was nevertheless putting a finger on something more terrible than he knew: the refusal to take seriously the precariousness of Jewish survival.
That refusal became her real subject. By “scattershot” I refer only to her method, as though she were trying out anything that would help make her case. But her focus was unerring, targeted exactly on the war’s Western enablers who refused to take seriously the precariousness of Jewish survival. From their beginnings as a people, the security of the Jews most frequently depended on the readiness of others to accept their presence. All that anti-Jewish aggression needed to achieve its goals was the spineless indifference that in 1974 Ozick was still encountering in pitching her story—and that is still very much with us today.
That dead Jews are once again on the minds of serious Jewish writers who are approaching Cynthia Ozick’s age at the time she wrote her piece is all the evidence one needs that the rebirth of Israel—a resurrection unmatched in the history of nations—has by no means undone the resolve of some to prosecute war against the Jews, by military or other means, including in the United States of America. Nor, alas, has it roused the legions of comfortable others from their indifference to that vicious resolve, or deterred still others, some of the Jews, from giving it their support—all ostensibly in the name of justice and peace.
In my next column I hope to return to the writings of Dara Horn and Bari Weiss on this subject. In the process, and to be scrupulously fair, I will also tweak the theme to suggest that all the world demonstrably does not hate the Jews, wish them dead, or even refuse to take seriously the precariousness of Jewish survival. Only the bad and the weak.