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How the dream died

Liberal American Jews are falling out of love with Israel.

The Crisis of Zionism
Peter Beinart
Times Books, 304pp, £18.99

Knowing Too Much
Norman G Finkelstein
OR Books, 466pp, £12

In July 1965, the late Bernard Levin published an essay in the New Statesman entitled “Am I a Jew?” He knew the answer perfectly well. What he was trying to examine was what “being a Jew” meant to him: an assimilated, educated bourgeois living in England in the second half of the 20th century, with no religious faith and no particular interest in Jewish tradition or culture. Nor was he an ardent Zionist: “My attitude to Israel – admiration for the incredible achievements, hope that it will continue, combined with the strongest condemnation of her crime against her original Arab inhabitants and the campaign of lies she has waged ever since on the subject – does not seem to mark me off in any way from a Gentile of similar political outlook”. The use of the words “crime” and “lies” was, in fact, then quite rare.

Quite apart from the history of Zionismas a political movement, or the tragic andintractable conflict in the Holy Land, there is a fascinating subject here for what Keynes called “the historian of Opinion”. That is what two new books by Jewish American writers address. The “crisis of Zionism” of Peter Beinart’s title refers not to the Arab-Israeli conflict as such, but to its effect on American Jews, increasingly disenchanted with Israel. Norman Finkelstein’s book looks at the same question.

Of the two, Beinart’s is the more interesting because it’s the more surprising. Anything but a “non-Jewish Jew”, he sends his children to an Orthodox school, remains a Zionist who believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land” and, as a youthful editor of the strongly Zionist New Republic, supported the Iraq war and the “war on terror”. All of that makes him an unlikely dissident, although he joins an increasingly large group.

More and more Jewish Americans – although in truth they may be less and less “Jewish”, in everything from religion to cultural identity to undiluted descent – are repelled and embarrassed by Israel, its politicians, its army and its settlers. The rate of intermarriage increases all the time (complicating the question “Who is a Jew?”), younger Jews are likely to befriend Muslims at college, while well-publicised Israeli deeds in Gaza and the West Bank become ever harder to defend. Young people educated in a secular mode of self-questioning are insulted to be told, as Beinart puts it, that “they should start with the assumption that Israeli policy is justified and then work backwards to figure out why”.

A gulf has opened, and is widening all the time, between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official “Jewish establishment” (the Anti-Defamation League, Aipac and others), elderly, rich and right-wing, though also self-perpetuating and unrepresentative. Beinart has a not entirely convincing chapter on Obama “The Jewish President”, who supposedly imbibed many of his values from rabbis and other Jewish savants in Chicago, and is closer, we are told, to true Jewish values than that establishment or the zealots governing Israel.

However that may be, it’s a striking fact that four years ago 78 per cent of Jewish Americans voted for Barack Obama. Although the figure will be lower this November, Jews as a whole are measurably more liberal than the national mean. They have watched with perplexity as Obama was both insulted and outplayed by Binyamin Netanyahu. But in any case the essential story here concerns not the White House or liberal Jews but Capitol Hill. Congress now gives “unwavering support” to any action Israel takes or might conceivably take, even in direct defiance of the president and ina manner obviously contrary to the national strategic interest.

For American Jews, Finkelstein writes, the problem is that they “can no longer reconcile their liberalism with what they have come to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict”. He is a vexing writer, who treats fraught or delicate topics such as Zionism or what he calls the “Holocaust industry” in a sarcastic and rebarbative tone. This may have gained him a certain succès d’animosité but is bound to repel some readers. His lengthy diatribes against such American oracles as Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist at the Atlantic magazine, or the myths surrounding the Six-Day War, or the authors of various pseudo-historical “frauds”, may have some justification, but they become wearisome when related in harsh tones.

This is a pity, as Finkelstein has something to say that deserves to be heard beyond a congregation of the converted. He describes how “Israel came to incarnate for American Jewish intellectuals the high cause of Truth, Justice and the American Way”. As others have said before, the triumph of Israel was once not only a source of healing pride for American Jews but paradoxically made it easier for them to remain American. Gradually, from being a boon, Israel has become a burden for many Jews. It is not true that, as an endlessly popular Israeli song says, “The whole world is against us”, but it is true that at the United Nations, anodyne resolutions on the need for a “peaceful settlement” will pass on votes like 167-7, with Israel supported by only the US, Australia and four sun-kissed Pacific islands with which we need not concern ourselves. 

And yet, what’s so curious is that we are coming full circle. A hundred years ago Zionism was an esoteric doctrine, little understood by most Gentiles and of little appeal to most Jews. Beinart says that many American Jews are now not so much hostile as indifferent towards Zionism, but that was true in the time of Theodor Herzl, one of the movement’s founders. The Jewish nationalism and the “Jewish State” proclaimed in his 1896 book of that name had no roots at all in existing Jewish tradition, of which Zionism was a drastic rejection, and it was anathematised by most rabbis on theological grounds. Millions of downtrodden and hungry Jews in eastern Europe were eager to depart, especially from Russia after the recrudescence of anti-Semitic persecution from 1881 onward. But the destination longed for by almost all of them was the west and not the Levant, above all the  wonderful golden land of the United States rather than “Eretz Yisrael”.

Even after the catastrophe in Europe and the creation of Israel in 1948, few American Jews made aliyah or migrated to the new state, and when they did visit it they tended to find “Israeli society, on the whole, quite exasperating”, as Irving Kristol reported home. He was seconded in 1951 by a student named Norman Podhoretz, writing to his teacher at Columbia, the famous critic Lionel Trilling, that after his first first visit to Israel, “I felt more at home in Athens! They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis. They’re gratuitously surly and boorish.” Kristol and Podhoretz would one day become synonymous with neoconservatism and intransigent commitment to Israel.

If anything, Zionism and Israel were then more popular in Europe, with the left more than the right and in papers such as the Manchester Guardian, Observer and New Statesman, although you now need to be bus pass-worthy to remember just what popularity Israel once enjoyed among liberals and social democrats. The reversal began on both sides of the Atlantic. After the election of John F Kennedy as president in 1960, American foreign policy became much more pro-Israeli, and the six-day war in 1967 saw for the first time an intense surge of support from Jewish America for Israel. Alas, the war also began the gradual disenchantment with Israel of the left and of European opinion generally; disenchantment that was bound to increase as successive Israeli governments connived at and then encouraged the settlements.

These are now liberally sprinkled across the West Bank, increasing in numbers all the time and impossible for any Israeli government to remove even if it wanted to. The settler and Palestinian populations are now so mixed up that a rational or fair partition is practically impossible, with the consequence that a “two-state solution” is now a chimera and the “peace process” a farce.

Although Beinart is sincere and even brave, he is really voicing two received opinions that  have become standard on the soft liberal-left but that deserve much closer scrutiny. One is that Israel and Zionism are now vicious, having once been virtuous. The other is that there are two Zionisms, one good and one bad. The good guys are the Labour Zionists, progressive social democrats led by heroes from David Ben-Gurion to the martyred Yitzhak Rabin; while the villains are the Revisionists, the tradition of rightist, militaristic Zionism founded by the astonishing figure of Vladimir Jabotinsky. In the early 1920s, “Jabo” broke with the mainstream Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann, and placed himself in opposition to the Labour Zionists in Palestine led by Ben-Gurion.

Jabo’s New Zionist Organisation begat the uniformed youth movement Betar and then the Irgun militia, and descends to Likud, with a direct personal connection: shortly before Jabo died in 1940, he had hired as his private secretary the current prime minister’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, who died recently aged 102. Revisionism was militaristic and hostile to socialism, and in 1935 Rabbi Stephen Wise was not alone in calling Jabotinsky’s group “a species of fascism”. But Jabo’s real challenge was one of intellectual honesty, his insistence that the Arabs would never hand over their land voluntarily – why should they? – and that a Jewish state could be only created and guarded by force, inside an “Iron Wall”. Ever since, Jabotinsky and his heirs have been a convenient foil for those, of whom Beinart is only the latest, who believe that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour.

A case can at least be made that all this is the wrong way round, and that Israel has been criticised too severely in recent decades, having been criticised not severely enough in its early years. After the 1967 war, Israel clung on to and began to colonise the West Bank but there was no ethnic cleansing to compare with the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs in 1948 – in which “good” as well as “bad” Zionists participated. Both Beinart and Finkelstein mention Deir Yassin, the village near Jerusalem where the Irgun, under Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky’s heir and a future prime minister, massacred more than a hundred villagers in 1948. Deir Yassin became a byword – but Lydda should be also. At that same time, almost all the town’s Palestinians, nearly 50,000 in the vicinity altogether, were expelled by troops commanded by Rabin, acting on the orders of Ben-Gurion. In 1979, Rabin’s account in his memoirs of this “essential” expulsion and how Ben-Gurion had told him, “Drive them out!”, was censored by the Israeli cabinet (illustrating what Levin meant by both “crime” and “lies”).

All that casts an ironical light on the idea of “good and bad Zionism”, the purity of Labour, and Beinart’s touching conviction that early American Zionists “genuinely believed that democracy lay at the heart of the Zionist idea”. The late Conor Cruise O’Brien became a committed Zionist and supporter of Israel, but he remained an honest historian. Writing in 1985 (and in the New Republic), he said that “the main difference between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, in relation to the Palestinian Arabs, seems to have been that Jabotinsky seems to have been a lot more candid on the subject than Ben-Gurion (or Weizmann) judged it expedient to be”. Events in 1948, and since, have confirmed that. “Liberal Zionism is not a fantasy within Israel’s 1967 lines,” Beinart says. But it would be if the balance of population had not been so drastically changed in the first place, or if those driven out had been allowed back since.

Underneath the anguish of well-meaning Jewish liberals such as Beinart may lie a haunting fear: what if Jabotinsky was right? Beinart quotes a diary entry of Herzl’s: “We don’t want a Boer state, but a Venice.” But maybe a Boer state, an armed garrison surrounded by a hostile indigenous populace, was always the fate of the Zionist project, just as Jabo said. Much is said today by high-minded Jewish Americans about the necessity of preserving an Israel both Jewish and democratic. But mightn’t that have been a beguiling, impossible dream all along?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include "The Controversy of Zion”, which won an American National Jewish Book Award


This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis