Monday, September 24, 2012

Eliyho Matz: The Cat and The Rooster--An Answer to Isaiah Berlin

(Meow) A cat has a thousand dreams, all about mice.

(A Palestinian Arab proverb, first heard in Jerusalem at a conversation with Abram Sorramello, 1970)*

THE CAT (Meow) AND THE ROOSTER (Cock-a-doode-doo): 

         In New York City many years ago, I used to visit Hillel Kook and Samuel Merlin at their east-side office, sometimes several times a week.  It was the end of the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  I was a student, and my studies on America and the Holocaust were near their end.  Our topic of conversation focused on the future of the Israelis, as a modern people who achieved sovereignty in 1948.  As a result of these conversations, I became aware of the fundamental issues relating to Israeli political identity that plagued these two elderly individuals, who mainly spoke of the process of statehood as having been a grand missed opportunity for the Israelis to become a modern people and a new nation with a written constitution, i.e., a constitution for all Israelis within its territorial sovereignty (not a constitution for New York Jews).  They spoke about an Israeli Republic, or, as they called it in the 1940’s, a Hebrew Republic.  Critical for them was the issue of an Israeli political identity, as opposed to the old issues of “Jewishness.”  They were brilliant thinkers.  Talking to them, I first grasped the beginning of what was to become my own intellectual approach to a different way of looking into Israeli society, and at Jews wherever they reside.  Their main argument was, since Israel never wrote a constitution defining itself, the political identity of the Israelis is totally unclear, and thus for a nation this omission causes a variety of political as well as personal crises of identity. 

This array of anomalies, internally or externally, very few Israeli historians till today understand.  In his second book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, Shlomo Sand most profoundly attempts to explain to the Israelis and to the world the complexities of Jewish/Israeli ideas, as well as critical Israeli and Jews’ history.  He does not immerse himself in issues of Israeli political identity, although his themes touch upon them.  His writing style tilts between Tolstoyean narrative to Isaiah Berlin’s literary and historical criticism, and to great effect Professor Sand is profound in his approach to straightening out the outline of Israeli and Jew’s history.

         I met with Professor Shlomo Sand (Zand, in Hebrew) twice, both times on the campus of Tel Aviv University.  We had punctuated exchanges, primarily about his thoughts on the subject matter of his research, as well as some exchange of ideas on the history of Jews.  He is an original: a leftist Israeli sort of a thinker who has presented a Classical interpretation of history from the point of view of neither left nor right, thus avoiding a history that is twisted, inaccurate and misleading.  For a Classical historian’s task is to present facts, and the interpretation of facts, which might lead to “History” or “Philosophy.”  In my view, Professor Sand (Zand) is thus as an historian not to be defined as a Leftist; rather, he can better be defined as a very concerned Israeli, an Israeli patriot, as well as a thoughtful historian who has researched the history of nations.  His expertise lies in his attempt to explain to the Israelis as well as to the worlds’ readers the misconception surrounding the generic term “nationality,” any nationality.  To me, his uncompromising attempt to explore Jews’ history dating back to ancient times is not only absolutely courageous, but also essential for the enduring future of the Israeli nation, as well as for lives of Jews wherever they reside. 

In order to explain a bit of Professor Sand’s (Zand’s) book on Jews’ history as a cultural religious phenomenon, I have to take a turn first to relate or explain some other issues I have encountered over the past forty years dealing with Jews’ history.  My attempt to understand myself as a Jew and an Israeli, as well as Israeli history and the history of Jews, began at an early age, and it was not until I completed my MA at Yeshiva University in New York City that I gained a bit of a better understanding of Jews’ history.  Looking carefully at Jews’ recorded history, we have been around for at least 2½ thousand years, if not more.  My first encounters with the difficulty of explaining the history of Jews came when I was writing my Master’s thesis at Yeshiva University. The subject of my research was an analysis of the initial response of the American Jewish leadership to the massacre of European Jewry between November 1942 and April 1943.  The idea to work on this project was conceived at the University of Massachusetts.  My professor there, Dr. David S. Wyman, who taught modern American history, was at that time involved in an attempt to unravel the FDR Administration’s response to the Holocaust.  My research for him was eventually incorporated into his book The Abandonment of the Jews, published in 1984.  From the beginning his book was, and will continue to be, a profound contribution to Holocaust studies.  To me personally he was helpful, although perhaps not respectful enough academically.  In the course of our work together, Dr. Wyman introduced me to Hillel Kook (a.k.a. Peter Bergson) and Samuel Merlin.  In America during the Holocaust, Kook and Merlin carried on their shoulders the burden of responsibility to stand for the rescue of the dying Jews of Europe during the Holocaust years.  Various books and movies have been made about them; their activities during the Holocaust demand a good history.  Politically, they belonged to the right wing of Zionism, Jabotinsky’s political camp.  In reality, they were members of the proto-Israeli group called the “Irgun” (an explanation of this term will follow).   As a young Israeli, born on September 15, 1948, growing up I had absolutely no inkling about them, I had neither heard nor learned about their activities, because the history of their activities during WWII was not taught in any public schools or universities in Israel.  But to my great benefit, I ended up working at their office in New York City while finishing up my MA, as well as while attempting to write my PhD at the Graduate Center of City University.

         Here I am going to step back a bit again to introduce another individual who made an impact on my life.  He, too, was connected to research on the Holocaust.  While I was doing my graduate work, I became acquainted with S. Beit-Zvi.  “S” stood for “Shabtai,” and “Zvi” was the name of his son who had been killed while fighting in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.  We first met at his home in Tzahala, a suburb of Tel Aviv, where he lived with his wife.  He was in his 70’s at that time, a former teacher, and the author of a book on the Zionist leadership during the Holocaust, titled Post-Ugandian Zionism in the Crucible of the Holocaust.  Remarkably, he was not a trained historian, but he had the mind of an historian, and as a matter of fact, his book, which criticizes the Palestinian/Zionist leadership during the Holocaust years, has today become a mainstream Israeli history book.  But that was not so in 1976 when the book was published, and it took years to sink into the Israeli historical mind. Self-published after years of research, Beit-Zvi’s book initially was a total failure.  The universities, as well as Yad Vashem, banned him.  Finally in recent years his book has emerged as a contender to Yad Vashem’s official Holocaust history.  From the first, Beit-Zvi always had one strong supporter –me -- and we understood each other very well.  My MA confirms what he wrote.  Beit-Zvi and I met many times in Tel Aviv and in New York, sharing conversations as well as letters, and we developed an excellent relationship that lasted for many years until he died.  The main argument of his book is: the Zionist movement was not really focused on saving European Jewry.  Politically speaking, Shabtai’s work should have shaken up the Israeli political leadership, but that did not happen.  As a matter of fact, it is still not happening.  The fact that Ben Gurion and his cronies did not do much to save European Jews during the Holocaust is still an issue that haunts Yad Vashem as well as every Israeli government until today. 

         While in New York, Hillel Kook introduced me to an Israeli philosopher, Gershon Weiler, who then in the 1970’s was a visiting professor at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.  He was a very interesting person, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who after WWII came to Israel as a Zionist.  But as his life developed, he became influenced by the Canaanite movement.  Intellectually, the Canaanites advocated the interaction of Israelis into the region, that is the Middle East.  He was a learned man in philosophy, as well as in Jewish studies, and had written a book which was published in 1976, the same year that Beit-Zvi published his book.  However, unlike Beit-Zvi, Weiler had the backing of a very respected publisher, Am Oved.  In his book, titled Jewish Theocracy, Weiler’s basic and most fundamental argument was that Jewish theology (halakhah) inherently stands against the establishment of a modern Israeli nation.  The book is a scholarly attempt to explain that concept.  Weiler was brokenhearted: his book, which contradicted Zionist political theories and challenged Israeli political theory vis-à-vis religion and nation, was ostracized and criticized and basically led to the end of his career as a lecturer.  I met him a few times in New York, in Tel Aviv, and at his home in Rechovot.  He was a broken man.  Israelis could not understand what he had written, and besides, Israeli society was moving swiftly into the realm of political fantasy and deep religious swings, so nobody paid any attention to him or his book.  His book was later translated into English, but his message was never understood either by intellectuals or the wider public.

         I was born in Tel Aviv on September 15, 1948, and grew up in Rishon LeZion.  As a curious kid, I read profusely.  I am not suggesting by any means that I understood better than others what I read, but I read a lot, and as a matter of fact, I aspired to become a writer of some sort, but I was not sure exactly how to achieve that goal; at the ripe age of 64, I am still not sure how to make that work.  But what is significant here is that Rishon LeZion is the birthplace of modern Hebrew.  It is the place where, for the first time in 3000 years of Jews’ history, the “Rishonim” opened up a kindergarten and primary school where Hebrew was taught in Hebrew (rather than as a translation from some other language) as early as the 1890’s.  Of course, Hebrew used as textual material existed for thousands of years, but, as a spoken everyday language it was only first practiced in Rishon LeZion.  And the process was complicated.  For, fifty years after the beginning of modern Hebrew in Rishon, when a million and a half Jews arrived in Israel, and thousands of them came to Rishon, among them my parents, when Israeli independence started, those immigrants arrived speaking Yiddish or other languages, and the newly developing Hebrew became even more complex.  My teachers, with all best intentions, did not speak proper Hebrew.  So I, the Israeli-born Sabra, whose parents’ Hebrew was only mediocre, whose teachers’ Hebrew likewise was difficult to grasp…, no wonder I had difficulties learning and understanding via the broken Hebrew that I was surrounded by.  Math and Physics were difficult enough for me, but to try to study them in Hebrew with teachers who did not speak proper Hebrew – I was lost.  This school system simply did not fit my needs.  Consequently, I left high school.  After completing my high school degree on my own, it was only after three years of military service that I returned to school, enrolling at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  What a thrill it was for me when I took a course in Israeli Hebrew Literature with Professor Gershon Shaked!  Many years later I became familiar with the work of Professor Paul Wexler and his student Ghil’ad Zukermann and their analysis of our current status of Israeli Hebrew.  According to them, the DNA of modern Hebrew is recycled Yiddish. So much then for my struggles, and for the difficulties Israelis have until today in expressing themselves in recycled Yiddish.  I am reminded of the Israeli joke about a man who has just gotten married and immediately afterwards takes his wife to the Western Wall.  When his friends ask him why, he replies, “I want her to learn how to talk to the wall” -- in Hebrew, ledaber eim hakeer, which is a direct translation utilizing the well known Yiddish expression, red tzu de vant.  In another example, when a clerk at a local store in Queens that sells Israeli products asks his customer how much cheese to cut her, the Israeli-American woman answers, “I vont a little bit….”  In Hebrew, ani rotza k’tzat…; in Yiddish ich vil abis’lNu?  Let us imagine Ludwig Wittgenstein visiting Rishon LeZion in the 1930’s, trying to confirm his theories on language and uncertainty.  I cannot imagine a more thrilling situation for Wittgenstein – he probably would have written a thousand-page book on the invention of the new Hebrew (Yiddish) language.  Next, imagine one coming from Morocco or Iraq, trying to express himself in Hebrew (i.e., Yiddish Hebrew) -- it is almost a farce.

 Solving the problem of Israeli self-expression will take a long time.  The repercussions of this unresolved process are not just inconvenient, but impact Israel’s way of conducting itself as a nation.  A cardinal issue relating to understanding the Hebrew language in modern times is demonstrated in the use of the term “leumi.”  For example, the organization “Irgun Tzvai Leumi” was established during the end of the 1920’s into the early 1930’s in Jerusalem and disbanded in 1948.  Irgun means “organization,” Tzvai means “military,” and Leumi means “nationality.”  The question is, what “nationality” were they referring to?  Most Israelis would say, “Jewish.”  But, that cannot be, because Jewish nationality as a political concept has never been politically defined, and to me the political definition of Israeli nationality represents the quintessential issue of Israeli survival; otherwise, we cannot hope to endure in the modern world.  The Israeli Declaration of Independence (or the Declaration of Non-Independence) carries within it the duality of “Israeli” and “Jewish.”  Today’s Prime Minister, B. Netanyahu, with his coalition members, wants Israel to be a “Jewish” state.  But politically one cannot define Jewishness; religiously, one can.  So, does Netanyahu mean that Israel will transform itself into a religious “Jewish” state, thus being one that can be neither democratic nor Jewish, and definitely not Israeli?  Or, to make things more interesting, the human race of homosapiens in Israel will become “homozionists” or “homojewish” – of course, this is absurd.  The political goal of Zionism that was achieved in 1948 was meant to integrate “Jews” of the world community into a new nation that was called the Israeli nation, but still the essence of the concept of  “nation” or “leom” in Hebrew remains fuzzy and undefined. 

         For many who are not aware of it, linguistic inefficiencies in modern Hebrew have created major obstacles in issues of self- and critical-expression as well as in thinking for the Israelis.  Perhaps then it is no wonder that Israel has produced great scientists, great doctors, great generals, great felafel-makers and great Israeli-salad makers, but not a single great intellectual.  To understand the depth of the meaning of “the Intellectual,” it is important to look at a book by Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994).  It is sort of ironical, but not unusual, that an American professor of Palestinian descent who taught at Columbia University wrote a classic piece on the Intellectual; Said was definitely an example of an intellectual.

         Moving on from this odyssey that I have taken to explain Eliyho Matz’ trip to Ithaca ( cf “Ithaca,” a poem by C.P. Cavafy), I would now like to describe what I see as the most important event in Israeli history in recent years.

         Throughout his life, Professor Shlomo Sand (Zand) has been, it can be said, sort of a radical person.  For awhile a leftist and Communist, he later became associated with Palestinian rights and is now standing on the frontline of their fight, presumably appreciated by some of those whose cause he is trying to support.  As for his education, he had a difficult path to higher education, but he made it.  Professor Sand is a concerned Israeli patriot with his eyes on the future of the Israeli nation.  Over the past few years, through teaching and studying the broad aspects of nationality, he has done what no other scholar in Israel has done.  His study of Jews’ history, as reflected in his first book, The Invention of the Jewish People, is a testimony to his unique efforts to explain to Jews their history.  What he reveals is a different type of history – though the entire academic world is not ready for it.  His general theory that he demonstrates unequivocally is that Jewish survival is due to conversion, whether Jews like to hear it or not; that conversion is the pivotal source of success in Judaism throughout the ages, which is the main point of his book.  In his second book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, Sand goes on to deal with the overriding attitude of Judaism, which is how Halakhic Judaism views the Land of Israel.  In this book he makes a very interesting point: he demonstrates that historically as Jews became scattered throughout the world, the Land of Israel came to represent two distinct and separate entities, that although they supposedly seemed connected, they were not really connected.  That is because on one side throughout the centuries, the core rabbinical (Halakhic) thought stood against settling the Land of Israel: praying for the land was the acceptable norm, but to settle there was totally forbidden.  On the other side, it was only the Zionist ideology in modern times that began mixing and connecting the concept of a modern nation with an ancient land, and the consequences have been brutal.  Sand’s book is a scholarly attempt to explain this concept of bringing together the people and the land, and its ramifications. 

         The final chapter of Professor Sand’s (Zand’s) book is a reflection on Israeli military, political and religious extremism.  Tel Aviv University where he teaches stands on the ruins of a Palestinian village.  Sand’s historical narrative includes a mild suggestion for a way for Israelis or Tel Aviv University to display a sign to memorialize the Arab village of Sheik Mounes, but only time will tell if anything will be done to rectify what he points to.  The title of this chapter is “The Scorpion and the Frog,” which reminds me of another professor, Isaiah Berlin of Oxford University, who wrote an important and elegant essay many years ago titled, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which was Berlin’s attempt to explain Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace to the English-speaking world.  He was one of the brightest intellectuals of the Twentieth Century.  Apropos to the subject of Holocaust and rescue, during WWII Berlin aided the British government in New York and Washington by providing secret reports on America and its Jews.  How many Jews in Occupied Europe died as a result of his work one can never know (Britain was happy for any excuse not to save Jews), but too much concern for the exterminated European Jews he did not have.  He is not the only Jewish intellectual residing in New York or other areas of the United States who did not pay attention to the events of the Holocaust; many other intellectuals felt no urgency in this regard.  As a general theory on intellectuals of that period, Jewish intellectuals were not in the business of saving Jews.  As a footnote to this, here I would like to insert some radical ideas of my own on the subject of the Holocaust.  Aside from the fact that most Jewish intellectuals did not deal with the Holocaust while it was occurring, one should mention that the entire rabbinical establishment as well as the organized Jewish lay leadership also failed in their response to the Holocaust.  Shouldn’t that teach us something?  Shouldn’t we modern Jews look back at our two-millennium span of rabbinical Jewish authority and conclude that something with Judaism went wrong?  But of course, Jewish life continues without looking back, until the next disaster will arrive.

         Most of my university studies centered around American Jews, American Jewish leaders and the Holocaust, but eventually it became obvious to me that I had to turn my focus to the Holocaust and its aftermath.  What I mean by “aftermath” is explained in my book Who is an Israeli?, which has been published as an Amazon Kindle e-Book.  The Israeli nation, that was born in 1948, has been my concern ever since I became aware of all sorts of issues connected to its establishment.  Many years ago, when I visited Abram Sorramello, I heard from him the famous Palestinian-Arabic saying, “The rooster is dead, but his eye is still looking at the garbage pail.”  Thus, all the historians and philosophers I have mentioned in this essay have been like the cat or the rooster: very, very focused. 

To add to Professor Sand’s (Zand’s) dreams, I would like to suggest a performance by Simon and Garfunkel on the bridge over the Yarkon, which is very close to Tel Aviv University, singing their song “A Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  And since I live in the Berkshires of Massachusetts in the vicinity of Arlo Guthrie’s shrine to his father Woody Guthrie, the great American balladeer, I have suggested to him in a letter that he join with Simon and Garfunkel to perform Woody’s popular American folk song “This Land is Your Land” with a choir of Chassids and Palestinians singing a cappella.

         Benedict Baruch (in Yiddish, Borech or Berel) Spinoza, in his famous Theological Political Tract in which he analyzes the fall of the Second Temple, concluded that a nation cannot exist unless there is a separation between church and state.  This tenet of Spinoza entered into our modern world, though with difficulties, but is normally accepted in the Western tradition of government.  Spinoza, hopeful about the Jewish experience in the future, saw no problem in the future creation of a new Jewish political entity that would adhere to his recommendation.  It is very unfortunate that today’s modern Israeli nation has not followed his line of thinking.

         Good luck Shlomo Sand (Zand).  I hope they follow your advice.

[The famous Italian actor Marcello Mastroiani, the quintessential Don Juan who knew his way around women, once said, “Not a single woman has ever applauded me while we were having sex.”  I think Marlon Brando would probably concur.  STELLA, STELLA!  (For Marlon Brando’s contribution to the creation of the Israeli nation, see my essay on the Altalena.)

Shlomo, don’t wait for the applause….]

*Dedicated to Dianne (DD) and her cats, which
     had difficulties catching mice.