Isaac Babel Explores How a Jew Can Sacrifice His Morals, but Not His Conscience

Nov. 3 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.

In his novel Red Cavalry, the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel tells the story of the bookish Jewish political officer Lyutov—a stand-in for the author—who finds himself assigned to a unit of Bolshevik Cossacks during the nascent USSR’s 1919-20 war with Poland. Ruth R. Wisse examines the chapter “My First Goose,” in which Lyutov tries to win the respect of his new comrades by killing a civilian woman’s goose and ordering her at sword-point to cook it:

[O]nly a decade earlier, thousands of young Jews like Babel had left Russia to avoid compulsory service in its armies. Yet here a young Jewish writer volunteers for the Russian front, admiring in the commander the very qualities that his Jewishness disallows. The new Soviet society, whose writer he aspires to be, espouses a set of values opposite to his own: Cossacks are valuable for how well they can fight wars, and Jews for whether they can reeducate the society as Leninists. The traditional Jewish emphasis on literacy that formed him is now to be exploited in the service of propaganda.

This would appear to be a proper Soviet story. The squeamish Jew does what he must do to win the trust of these men, and, for all their profound differences, Jew and Cossack independently recognize the truth of the new regime. Babel was writing this under Lenin’s rule in the early 1920s, before Stalin imposed political correctness as a required rather than preferred literary standard. Yet in his writing, as opposed to his actions, Lyutov remains quite independent of the political program he endorses. “Hidden” behind his narrator Lyutov, Babel the writer knows that his changed behavior cannot change what he is made of. As he sleeps among the men, their legs now intermingled, his dreams reclaim him, “I dreamed and saw women in my dreams—and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.”

The sacrifice of Jewish (and Christian!) conscience was a requirement of the new regime, which had seized power by killing the tsar’s entire family, shutting down democracy, and ruling by dictatorial decree. The extreme conditions of war had imposed still harsher demands. But Babel, who became an agent of this government, does not ascribe Lyutov’s actions to necessity. In this story as in all of Red Cavalry, the narrator claims full responsibility for everything he does and declares through the story’s title that this was only his first goose, his first such transgression against the old values and his commitment to the new.

Read more at Sapir

More about: Isaac Babel, Jewish literature, Soviet Jewry


Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship