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

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times