The essayist, editor, and public intellectual Midge Decter died yesterday at the age of ninety-four. Among the founders and leading lights of what would come to be called neoconservatism, Decter was best known as a trenchant critic of the sexual revolution; she was also a stalwart opponent of Soviet Communism and defender of Israel. Her “Looting and Liberal Racism” rings in many ways as true today as it did when it was published in 1977. While she is less known for her writings on Jewish topics, her very first essay for Commentary, written in 1954, constituted a perceptive critique of Fiddler on the Roof—a decade before it was ever performed. A brief summary of her six decades of work for that magazine, by Abe Greenwald, can be found here, complete with links to a selection of her articles.
In this 1971 essay, also for Commentary, she reports on her first visit to the Jewish state, which did not conform perfectly to the expectations of someone raised in the American Zionist circles of the 1930s and 40s:
It is impossible, of course, to experience Israel as one might, or even might not, experience any other place on earth. For one thing, the country’s peculiar history, ancient as well as modern, seems to press upon the visitor some unspoken but inescapable demand that he arrive at a judgment which will in the end be either a simple affirmation or denial. The very surroundings contrive to suggest that what he sees does not necessarily exist outside the eye of the beholder: he finds himself like a member of the audience at Peter Pan being requested to applaud in order that Tinker Bell need not disappear from the stage. This demand is certainly exacerbated by—though not, I suspect, initially created by—the fact that the country, and a large number of its inhabitants before they settled there, have for 35 years been thrown into a continuing series of contentions for their literal survival. One does not forget for a single day that this is a community which has been and continues to be in great danger, a state of mind tending to coat even trivial things with a certain fine dust of the ultimate.
The real experience of Israel is a reminder—stark and unavoidable—that it is better to live than to die. The Six-Day War, no matter the outcome of a peace settlement, or even of the failure to reach one, was a watershed in 20th-century Jewish history. For the meaning of that war turns out to have been an unequivocal statement by the Jews—the first, if need be, of a long series—that they are alive, like any other men, because they are alive, and, perhaps in this case like only some other men, that they intend in the most basic and primitive way to continue to be so.
Zionism’s mistake, an understandable one, lay in its felt need to justify Jewish aspirations for a national home in terms more high-flown, more “dignified,” possibly, than the issue of mere survival. But for mortal men—and for Jews particularly—there can be no more dignified, no more enlarging or enriching, an issue. The state of Israel is finally justified by nothing more, and requires nothing more, than its own existence.