Joseph Roth’s Lost Empire and Its Jews

Jan. 10 2018

Born in 1894 to a Jewish family in the Galician town of Brody—once famous for training kabbalists—Joseph Roth moved to Vienna as a young man, where he launched his prodigious literary career. He went on to write fifteen novels, along with numerous short stories and hundreds of essays. Right up until his untimely death in 1939, he remained committed to the Austro-Hungarian empire, defunct since 1918, which is the setting of most of his fiction. Joseph Epstein, in a survey of Roth’s career, writerly abilities, and literary output, addresses Roth’s attitudes toward the Jews, exposed in a “strange little book,” published in 1927, called The Wandering Jews:

What Roth valued in the Austro-Hungarian empire was the fluidity it allowed its subjects, who could travel [among its many lands] without the aid of passports or papers, and its discouragement of nationalism, [a force that] worked against the Jewish people. . . .

Never other than unpredictable, Roth, that most cosmopolitan of Jews, valued the shtetl Jews of Eastern Europe above all. He valued their Jewish authenticity and felt that those Jews who had taken up the assimilated life in Germany and elsewhere and pretended to a patriotism that ultimately was [turned against them], “those rich Jews,” as he wrote in [his 1927 novel] Right and Left, “the ones who want more than anything else to be native Berliners” and who “go on celebrating their holiest festivals in shamefaced secrecy, but Christmas publicly and for all to see,” these were the Jews most deceived and hence most to be pitied.

The real subject at the heart of The Wandering Jews is the distinctiveness of the Jews. “Of all the world’s poor, the poor Jew,” Roth writes, “is surely the most conservative . . . he refuses to be a proletarian.” The difference between the Russian and the Jewish peasant is that “the Russian is a peasant first and a Russian second; the Jew is Jew first and then peasant.” Roth underscores the intellectual cast of the Jews. “They are a people that has had no illiterates for thousands of years now.” Not wishing to fight other people’s wars, “the Eastern Jews were the most heroic of pacifists. They were martyrs for pacifism.” . . .

Zionism was the best answer to the Jewish question for Roth, “for it is surely better to be a nation than to be mistreated by one.” The Jews “are forced to be a ‘nation’ by the nationalism of others,” and “if one must be patriotic, then at least let it be for a country of one’s own.”

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Arts & Culture, Austria-Hungary, Austrian Jewry, Joseph Roth, Zionism

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem