Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Trip to Israel

July 12 2018

In 1955, the Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer traveled for the first time to the Land of Israel, sending a series of dispatches back to New York for publication in the Yiddish Forward. In them, Singer, although never a Zionist, displays a great deal of passion for the Holy Land and sympathy for the fledgling state. David Stromberg comments:

Singer’s peculiar perspective . . . gives his writing from Israel its unique tone. It is always concerned with the big picture yet remains focused on the small picture. This is evident from the first moments of his trip, even while he was still on the ship. “I think about [the medieval philosopher-poet] Rabbi Judah Halevi and the sacrifices he made to set his eyes on the Holy Land,” he writes while the ship sails from France to Italy. “I think about the first pioneers, the first builders of the new yishuv. . . . How is it that there’s no trace of any of this on this ship? Are Jews no longer devoted with heart and soul to the idea of the Land of Israel?”

Singer is looking for proof of the spiritual greatness that the Land of Israel represents, and he wants to see it in the people on board with him—but he soon comes to understand that Israel is not a place of imagination, it’s a place that actually exists. “No, things are not all that bad,” he writes. “The fire is there, but is hidden. . . . The Land of Israel has become a reality, part of everyday life.” . . .

In his writing on Israel, Singer also constantly contemplates religious history and personal experience. In this spirit, he writes: “Ahavat Yisrael, loving fellow Jews . . . has a mystical significance.” Singer cannot avoid associating the place with his own religious education as a child—being a Jew in Israel also means, for him, being constantly in touch with the myriad of Jewish texts he has internalized. . . . Looking out from the balcony of a hotel in Safed a few days later, likely at Mount Meron, he writes: “This is not a mountain for tourists, or runaway fugitives, but for kabbalists, who made their accounting with our little world. There, through those mountains, one can cross from this world into the world to come.” . . .

The land as a whole has a strong effect on Singer, but his trip to Safed, as someone raised on the Kabbalah, made an especially strong impression. “I can say that here, for the first time, I gave myself over to the sense that I was in the Land of Israel.” These are moments when Singer’s sense of criticism, doubt, heresy, intellectuality, and all the other complex impulses that find their way into his fiction takes second place to a deep sense of piety and faith. This is no less powerful in his [fiction], where his characters achieve it rarely or partially, and, even when they do, with great difficulty.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Israel & Zionism, Safed, Yiddish literature


A University of Michigan Professor Exposes the Full Implications of Academic Boycotts of Israel

Sept. 26 2018

A few weeks ago, Professor John Cheney-Lippold of the University of Michigan told an undergraduate student he would write a letter of recommendation for her to participate in a study-abroad program. But upon examining her application more carefully and realizing that she wished to spend a semester in Israel, he sent her a polite email declining to follow through. His explanation: “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” and “for reasons of these politics” he would no longer write the letter. Jonathan Marks comments:

We are routinely told . . . that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study-abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. . . .

Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the [Michigan] student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights [and] freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”

Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney-Lippold could have found out by using Google. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent “resistance” but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.

That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an international day of solidarity with the “new generation of Palestinians” who were then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis—all civilians—dead.

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More about: Academia, Academic Boycotts, BDS, Israel & Zionism, Knife intifada