The Paradox at the Heart of Hebrew Literature’s Most Famous Rejection of the Diaspora

June 7 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Published in the annus horribilis of 1942, Haim Hazaz’s short story “The Sermon” is one of the seminal works of Zionist literature, even if it is little-read today. Its title refers to a fictional speech before a Haganah committee given by the normally taciturn Yudka, in which he denounces Jewish history as such. In Hillel Halkin’s translation its climactic passage reads:

Jewish history is simply boring. . . . It has no adventures, no conquering heroes, no great rulers or potentates. All it has is a mob of beaten, groaning, weeping, begging Jews. And you’ll agree with me that there’s nothing interesting about that . . .  nothing! If it were up to me, I wouldn’t allow our children to be taught Jewish history at all. Why on earth should we teach them about the shameful life led by their ancestors? I would simply say to them: “Look, boys and girls, we don’t have any history. We haven’t had one since the day we were driven into exile. Class dismissed. You can go outside now and play . . .  ”

Yet, as Ruth R. Wisse explains in her weekly podcast, The Stories Jews Tell, there is much more to Hazaz’s work than this summation of what was, at the time, a popular strain of Zionist thought. She writes:

At the mention of Jewish culture, the kibbutzniks [who make up his audience] break the tension to poke fun at the German-Jewish professors they (and author Haim Hazaz) disdained—members of Brit Shalom such as Ernst Simon and Martin Buber, who were dedicated to the cause of Arab-Jewish reconciliation and promoted a binational rather than a national state. The contempt of these practical kibbutz and Haganah members for the European intelligentsia was another kind of protest against the unwelcome carryover from the Diaspora. While Yudka denounces the messianism of the ultra-Orthodox, the kibbutzniks mock the political messianism of those who think they can have a country without fighting for it.

But because Hazaz has not given us a Churchillian orator or a sermonic pronouncement, the story can hold together what is in danger of being torn apart. Yudka is indeed the “new Jew” of the Yishuv, the builder-defender of the old-new Land of Israel, yet he is still enough of the Diaspora “Yid-ke” [in Yiddish, “little Jew”], to worry about rejecting the Judaism that brought them there. The actuality belies the theoretical dichotomy, and the altered names and pronunciation do not change the fact that they are all functioning in the language of the Bible.

Yudka embodies the age-old Jewish civilization that part of him wants to reject. Hazaz exposes the paradox.

Read more at Stories Jews Tell

More about: Haganah, Hayim Hazaz, Hebrew literature, Jewish history, Kibbutz movement, Zionism

Why Egypt Fears an Israeli Victory in Gaza

While the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never been friendly to Hamas, his government has objected strenuously to the Israeli campaign in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Haisam Hassanein explains why:

Cairo has long been playing a double game, holding Hamas terrorists near while simultaneously trying to appear helpful to the United States and Israel. Israel taking control of Rafah threatens Egypt’s ability to exploit the chaos in Gaza, both to generate profits for regime insiders and so Cairo can pose as an indispensable mediator and preserve access to U.S. money and arms.

Egyptian security officials have looked the other way while Hamas and other Palestinian militants dug tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. That gave Cairo the ability to use the situation in Gaza as a tool for regional influence and to ensure Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be eclipsed by regional competitors such as Qatar and Turkey.

Some elements close to the Sisi regime have benefited from Hamas control over Gaza and the Rafah crossing. Media reports indicate an Egyptian company run by one of Sisi’s close allies is making hundreds of millions of dollars by taxing Gazans fleeing the current conflict.

Moreover, writes Judith Miller, the Gaza war has been a godsend to the entire Egyptian economy, which was in dire straits last fall. Since October 7, the International Monetary Fund has given the country a much-needed injection of cash, since the U.S. and other Western countries believe it is a necessary intermediary and stabilizing force. Cairo therefore sees the continuation of the war, rather than an Israeli victory, as most desirable. Hassanein concludes:

Adding to its financial incentive, the Sisi regime views the Rafah crossing as a crucial card in preserving Cairo’s regional standing. Holding it increases Egypt’s relevance to countries that want to send aid to the Palestinians and ensures Washington stays quiet about Egypt’s gross human-rights violations so it can maintain a stable flow of U.S. assistance and weaponry. . . . No serious effort to turn the page on Hamas will yield the desired results without cutting this umbilical cord between the Sisi regime and Hamas.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: Egypt, Gaza War 2023, U.S. Foreign policy