Is it possible to be a Jewish intellectual?
How do concepts such as ‘ahavat Israel’ and ‘solidarity for the Jewish people’ square with the need for intellectuals to remain detached from their national or religious group to retain their moral integrity?
In a famous exchange between Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt, the scholar of Jewish mysticism accused the political theorist of not having enough “ahavat Israel” (love for the Jewish nation and people). What did Arendt do to deserve such a supreme insult? She had written a series of articles for The New Yorker on the Eichmann trial, published in 1963 as a short book called “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”
In what turned out to be one of the most famous reports of any trial, Arendt indicted the Jews who had aided the Nazis, the Judenräte, claiming there would have been fewer dead people had the Jewish leaders not been accomplices to the demands of the Nazis. She also indicted the State of Israel for turning the event into a show trial and missing the new legal category that Eichmann’s crime represented. Mostly, though, she seemed to let Eichmann off the hook of “radical evil” too easily, viewing his actions as the somewhat benign consequence of an inability to think for himself and understand the nature of his words and actions. (Her famous expression “the banality of evil” suggested that evil could be of an invisible and pervasive variety, coming not from diabolical psychological makeup, but from ordinary failures of thought, from the incapacity to think independently about what a moral action is, and from the habit of following orders.) In other words, instead of displaying what we would have expected from a Jew on such an occasion – undiluted horror at Eichmann’s deeds; unreserved compassion for the moral dilemmas of the Jewish leaders who dealt with the Nazis; solidarity with the State of Israel – Arendt analyzed each one with a cold sense of truth and justice, and blurred the moral terms in which these had been hitherto judged by the public.
This, Scholem claimed, in a letter he wrote to Arendt on June 23, 1963, made Arendt’s intellectual position point to a lack of love for Israel. “So why does your book then leave behind such a feeling of bitterness and shame, and not with respect to that which is reported, but with respect to the reporter?” he wrote. “Why does your report cover over to such a large extent that which is brought forward in that book, which you rightly wanted to recommend for reflection? The answer, insofar as I have one, and which I cannot suppress, precisely because I esteem you so highly … [is] what stands between us in this matter … is the heartless, the downright malicious tone you employ in dealing with the topic that so profoundly concerns the center of our life [the Holocaust]. There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete – what the Jews call ahavat Israel, love for the Jews. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it. I don’t have sympathy for the style of lightheartedness, I mean the English ‘flippancy,’ which you muster all too often … in your book. It is unimaginably unbefitting for the matter of which you speak … Was there really no place, at such an occasion, for what one might name with the modest German word Herzenstakt? [‘duty of the heart’].”
Scholem’s response goes to the heart of what we may call the problem of the Jewish critique today. Scholem, like Arendt, had supported the idea of a binational state, yet here he reacted like other Zionist Jews, with dismay and anger. Scholem interpreted Arendt’s indictment of the Judenräte and of Israel as the expression of inappropriate, infuriating distance, and even, in his own words, “malice” and “heartlessness” (he could hardly have found worse accusations). Tone, then, is not a matter of opinion (they shared the same opinions); rather, it is what we pay attention to in those from whom we expect love and commitment.
Arendt’s tone, Scholem suggested, lacked a priori closeness to the Jewish people, and such a tone is inappropriate in occasions in which the right thing is to refrain from telling all the truth, because there are moments when telling the truth should be subsumed under a duty of the heart. Scholem did not call for self-censorship, only for the same sense of appropriateness that makes us not talk about the defects of someone during his or her funeral. When so many are still mourning, stubborn truthfulness amounts to a sneer.
Arendt was not intimidated and did not spare him in her answer: “How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: First, I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective – not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I am Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know that belongs to the substance of my being … [T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God – that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself? In this sense I don’t love the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them.”
To Arendt’s ears, Scholem’s love of the Jewish people sounded like a call to collective narcissism. We now know she erred on many important facts central to her thesis; but facts would not have altered her basic and deep suspicion of “the nonreflexive, self-celebratory nature of group affiliations,” as historian Steven E. Aschheim put it. Thus, even if Scholem and Arendt had both supported Brit Shalom (a group which, in the 1920s and ’30s, favored Arab-Jewish coexistence in Palestine), here they parted company, precisely on the question of how close to the Jewish people Arendt’s tone of speech should be.
To better grasp what should strike us here, let me refer to another debate, one that had taken place just a few years earlier in France, where another intellectual’s position had also generated a storm. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm in 1957, Albert Camus was interviewed by an Arab student about his positions on the Algerian war. He famously answered, “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”
Camus’ statement provoked a ruckus in French intellectual circles. As Norman Podhoretz wrote, “When he declared that he chose his mother above justice, he was, as [Conor Cruise] O’Brien puts it, choosing ‘his own tribe’ against an abstract ideal of universal justice. A greater heresy against the dogmas of the left is hard to imagine.”
Indeed, since the Dreyfus affair, at the end of the 19th century, intellectuals’ intervention in the public sphere had been defined by their claim to universality, a position that remained unchanged throughout the 20th century. Another commentator, Andrew Hussey, emphasized the point in a Literary Review article: “[Camus’] impassioned statement [about choosing his mother over justice] has been held up by generations of anti-colonialists and academic post-colonialist theorists – including the likes of Edward Said – as proof of Camus’s weak-mindedness and vacillating nature and, by extension, colonial arrogance toward Algeria.”
I evoke here Camus’ example only to better highlight how the position of the contemporary Jewish intellectual differs from what we may call the position of the intellectual in Europe. What was anathema to the European intellectual – to defend one’s group and family against competing universal claims – is, in fact, what is routinely expected from the Jewish intellectual – by which I mean not only the intellectual of Jewish origins, but the one who engages in a dialogue with his/her community.
I am, of course, perfectly aware there is a wide range of positions in the Jewish intellectual world – from the Zionist to the anti-Zionist via the religious Zionist and the liberal-secular. And yet within this diversity, there are structural constraints, push-and-pull forces that make the position of the Jewish intellectual somewhat unique. In trying to reflect on this position and its constraints, I will adopt Julien Benda’s definition of an intellectual. His 1927 treatise “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals” argued that intellectuals ought to remain above the fray of ordinary politics, and that detachment from one’s national, religious or ethnic group was the condition for the intellectual’s capacity to keep his moral integrity. That is because moral integrity, for Benda, is defined by universal values, which one can represent only by detachment from a particularist, national membership to a group.
Arendt’s dismissal of ahavat Israel runs even deeper than her distaste for collective narcissism. It threatened what Arendt, and many other thinkers before her, defined as the very essence of thinking: namely, independence of mind. In the same letter to Scholem, without even trying to hide her sense of superiority, she averred: “What confuses you is that my arguments and my approach are different from what you are used to; in other words, the trouble is that I am independent. By this I mean, on the one hand, that I do not belong to any organization and always speak only for myself. And on the other hand, that I have great confidence in [Gotthold] Lessing’s selbstdenken [thinking for oneself] for which, I think, no ideology, no public opinion, and no ‘convictions’ can ever be a substitute. Whatever objections you may have to the results, you won’t understand them unless you realize that they are really my own and nobody else’s.”
For Arendt, as for many other Enlightenment thinkers, the possibility of knowing the truth depended on the possibility of thinking on one’s own, unimpeded by prejudices and traditions. This independence gave her a crucial right: not to address the special historical situation of the Jewish people. If true thinking is defined by its independence, it must disregard the needs of her audience or group of reference. That is because remaining within the compass of a group’s own preoccupations would threaten the thinker’s capacity to withdraw from the world in a disinterested way. Arendt coined a striking expression to speak about such activity of thinking: “disinterested intelligence” – the capacity to detach oneself from one’s self-determinations and identity, to understand and judge the world from numerous perspectives, from outside oneself.
Scholem was right: Arendt adopted the position that was most familiar to European Jewish intellectuals who had been, by and large, opposed to nationalism and for whom universalism and Lessing’s selbstdenken were almost synonymous: to think for oneself was to be a universalist, because it presupposed the capacity to see and understand humanity at large rather than to espouse the point of view of a specific group. Groups had narrow interests, and could only blunt the sharpness of disinterested intelligence.
Even more than non-Jews, Jews had a fraught relationship with patriotism and nationalism, whose histories had run on parallel tracks to the history of racism. Moreover, the extension of universal rights had been the quickest road for the Jews to achieve equality in their national contexts. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote, “Universality is the war-cry of the underprivileged … [and] Jews were underprivileged.”
But as Arendt would experience firsthand, the question of group solidarity came to haunt the Jewish intellectual with a new insistence, because of the two most important events of Jewish history of the last millennium: the Holocaust and the creation of the Jewish state. As an imagined community, the Jews reorganized themselves around a new geographical and political center – Israel – and around a new temporal axis – the memory of the Shoah – making the universalist position that the Jewish intellectual had hitherto taken far more difficult to hold.
Even if some Jews remained universalists, from the 1960s onward, that universalism faced the two highly particularist demands of the State of Israel and the memorialization of the Shoah, and both renewed and even intensified the claims of ahavat Israel. As historian Pierre Birnbaum wrote, “[A] long history is probably coming to an end: that of the encounter of the Jews and the Enlightenment, conceived strictly on the universalist mode.”
Arendt’s refusal to respond to the needs of her group and the fury her positions generated is only one of the many occurrences in a long list of hostile reactions by the organized Jewish community to critique, defined here as a sustained questioning of a group’s beliefs and practices. (For a superb discussion of these issues, see Idith Zertal’s 2005 book “Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.”) In fact, over the last 30 years, one of the favorite exercises of various representatives of Jewish and Israeli communities has been to unmask the hidden anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish tenets of critique. I am not saying some of the critiques of Israel may not be motivated by anti-Semitism.I simply note that the suspicion of critique has become an elaborate cultural and intellectual genre in the Jewish world.
Given that many of the members of that Jewish community do not profess strict religious dogma (and are thus dissimilar from the Muslims who issue fatwas against their intellectuals), this raises a puzzle. Why have moderately religious Jewish communities become so reluctant to perform what has characterized the ordinary task of intellectuals since Socrates: namely, to criticize and question the assumptions of their group in the name of universals? Why has it become so palpably difficult to criticize Israel or Jewish communities, even when Israel engages in blatant “marches of folly”? Scholem’s anger offers a hint: To be admissible, critique (of the Jewish people) must produce a code of love and solidarity.
The politics of solidarity
For sociologists, solidarity is an ordinary feature of any group, it is situated in the many rituals through which people act as members of a group, be it a tribe, a large country, or a university (public holidays, anthems, distinctive food or clothing style all mark group membership and solidarity). Ahavat Israel is a form of solidarity, but slightly differs from it. For one, it is an explicitly formulated injunction to love one’s group, whereas ordinary solidarity is invisibly embedded in social relations. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva made the injunction of loving one’s neighbor into a rule, and his interpreters (Hazal, the sages) interpreted that rule as a commandment to love the close neighbor, the Jew. That interpretation became institutionalized in the 12th century by Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.
There is another difference between solidarity and ahavat Israel: the historical context of Rabbi Akiva’s injunction was the destruction of the Temple and the growing conflict between different Jewish sects, the persecution of Jews, the Second Diaspora, and the rise of Christianity. In that sense, ahavat Israel was more than solidarity. It was a self-conscious attempt to overcome divisiveness through the imperative of loving a threatened metaphysical, transhistorical and trans-geographical entity called the Jewish people. I would call ahavat Israel a form of hyper-solidarity, an imperative that was all the more moral in that it invited one to consciously, actively love one’s group and to protect it from self-destructive divisiveness and the threats of others.
Cultural values can perpetuate themselves when they are institutionalized and reproduced in organizations. In becoming institutionalized, values become also ways of generating feelings (think, for example, of the “love of one’s country,” which remains abstract until it is institutionalized in concrete practices). Counterintuitively, I would argue that the imperative of ahavat Israel intensified in the period after World War II by way of three major institutions: the structure of American politics; the memorialization of the Holocaust; and Zionism.
What is conventionally called the Israel Lobby – arguably the strongest one in American politics, along with the National Rifle Association – was the result of the encounter of the powerful cultural value of ahavat Israel with two key institutional features of American society: the fact that American politics is organized into interest groups; and the fact that immigrant minorities could legitimately hyphenate their citizenship (these two conditions are, for example, absent in France).
The Israel Lobby started exercising its power on American politics with the Truman administration (see Jerome Slater’s blog for an in-depth discussion of John Judis’ book “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict”), and basically went from strength to strength with the following administrations, enforcing everywhere the idea that American Jews had a natural bond of solidarity with Israel, and creating a powerful politics of solidarity through organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and myriad other networks, both philanthropic and Zionist (e.g., one-year study programs at Israeli universities, Taglit-Birthright trips, the Hadassah organization, the Hillel organization on American campuses, and many others). John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s widely derided book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” (2007) has exposed what it views as the detrimental effects of such lobbying on American foreign interests.
But my point here is different: The Israel lobby institutionalized ahavat Israel in the space of American politics. Once it became institutionalized, it became a powerful, invisible, unspoken assumption of organized American-Jewish politics. In Mearsheimer and Walt’s original essay, published in the London Review of Books in March 2006, they quote an activist from a major Jewish organization: “It is routine for us [Jews] to say, ‘This is our policy on a certain issue, but we must check what the Israelis think.’ We as a community do it all the time.” Mearsheimer and Walt reported that when Edgar Bronfman – then president of the World Jewish Congress – wrote a letter to President George W. Bush in mid-2003, urging him to intervenewith Israel’s project to build a “security fence,” his move was deemed “obscene” by members of the Jewish community. In the eyes of many, the only function that the president of the World Jewish Congress should have is to lobby the president of the United States to support policies of the Israeli government.
Clearly, then, the organized American-Jewish community translated ahavat Israel into the prime form of political expression. Such imperative of solidarity brings with it the injunction to not oppose or express publicly disagreement with official Jewish bodies. Rabbi Dr. David Luchins – who had been a Senate staff member for three decades – said it was “devastating” for American Jews to criticize Israeli policies “in front of U.S. politicians” or in ads in The New York Times. (Haaretz, August 2, 2004). The expression “in front of” reveals an unconscious and deep division between an in-group back stage, and a front-stage of non-Jews, a high “in-group” awareness, an inner injunction that the inside should be protected from the outside, an imperative of solidarity, and a belief that public critique fissures the strength of a vulnerable group. This basic in-group/out-group division in turn creates transnational bonds of solidarity and extends to world Jewry at large.
The second element that played an enormous role in the consolidation of Jewish solidarity in conditions of modernity was the institutionalization of the memory of the Holocaust. Sometime during the 1970s and ’80s, liberal societies became increasingly uncomfortable with their colonial past and of the pan-European persecution of the Jews. They engaged in a politics of memorialization, recognizing through public apologies and rituals of memory the suffering that European powers had inflicted on their colonial minorities and on the Jews. Such political recognition of liberal societies resonated with changes within Jewish communities after World War II, who reorganized their identity around non-religious values.
The memory of the Shoah became a source of secular identity for Jews, and was accentuated by the universalization of the Holocaust by liberal societies (non-Jews started appropriating the memory of the Shoah to promote their own universal values). The centrality of the Shoah for Jewish identity is largely confirmed by an October 2013 Pew Research Center survey, which asked young American Jews to define their Jewish identity. A staggering 73 percent answered that remembering the Holocaust was an essential part of their Jewish identity. Thus, the collective memory of the Shoah generated solidarity by becoming a form of, or a part of, Jewish identity.
More than that, memory quickly became a devoir de memoire – a moral duty to remember, commemorate, identify with Jewish history. This memory in turn connected Jews to a central element of the moral vocabulary of modern societies: the victim.
Victims (of political regimes, massacres, traumas, disasters) have become the central and uncontested moral figure of the post-1960s political culture, ironically helping Jews find the moral status they had lacked in a European culture that had, for centuries, demonized them. The exercise of memory had further and more subtle implications on Jewish solidarity. Through a displacement that is frequent in the collective unconscious of peoples and nations, Arab countries – which did not initially recognize the State of Israel and launched their own aggressive wars against it – would slowly replace the Germans’ threat to annihilate the Jews.
Germany had become one of the most liberal countries in the world, had done a considerable amount of symbolic memorialization of the genocide they undertook, as well as taking financial responsibility for it, and was thus no longer a target of Jewish fear and mistrust. Arabs, however – who cultivated their own brand of anti-Semitism inside and outside Arab nations (see, for example, the virulent species of Muslim anti-Semitism currently in vogue in France) – could become the New Germans: the entity that for Jews now threatened to annihilate them. Drawing a straight historical line between the Nazis and the Arabs, fear constituted a strong axis of solidarity for Jews around the world.
The third and final element that turned solidarity into the prime emotional and political motif of world Jewish communities was Zionism itself. As a nationalist ideology, Zionism became somewhat anomalous: Instead of ending with the creation of the state, it only gained in strength and scope. In fact, it became an ongoing project of identification, membership and belonging for Jews around the world, both inside and outside Israel. Through the wide-ranging and far-reaching activities of the Jewish Agency and myriad youth movements deployed in the Diaspora, Zionism extended its activities far beyond the borders of Israel, long after the creation of the state in 1948.
Zionism became a permanent and transnational nationalist practice, creating and incessantly activating the conditions for identification with Israel among Jews. In that sense, it made belonging into a permanent condition of being Jewish, produced and reproduced by a large amount of Jewish institutions, events and organizations (the Jewish Agency, gala events, support for the Israel Defense Forces, philanthropic events, the very concept of aliyah and “return,” etc.). As Faisal Devji argues in “Muslim Zion,” his 2013 book about the making of Pakistan, “Zion is a political form rather than a holy land, one that rejects hereditary linkages between ethnicity and soil in favor of membership based on nothing but an idea of belonging.”
My point is this: Beyond the real plurality of positions and interests that make up the Jewish community, the imperative of hyper-solidarity has been the dominant political ethos and pathos of contemporary organized Jewry. To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz’s famous words, for the Jews, hyper-solidarity has been politics by other means.
This is in sharp contrast to traditional forms of politics, which preoccupy themselves with questions of representation, limitations of power, the relationship between rulers and ruled, etc. The politics of hyper-solidarity, and hyper-solidarity as politics, are so deeply entrenched in Jewish liturgy, in philanthropic networks, in collective memory, in institutions linking Israel and the Diaspora communities, it has come to define and even overwhelm the moral, existential and epistemic reality of Jews, the filter through which questions of morality and truth are thought of and decided.
What obstructs the realization that solidarity and belonging have been political strategies and a source of political strength is that solidarity is always a work of love, a moral enterprise and, by and large, we do not have a political vocabulary to criticize love. This double characteristic of solidarity – it is a source of both power and moral identity – explains why it is more difficult for the Jewish critic to find an institutional niche inside organized Jewish communities, why critique cannot be proffered. Rather, what is audible inside the organized Jewish community is only a critique that affirms its basic identification with, and love of, the Jews and Israel.
A few examples come to mind. Ari Shavit’s recent book, evocatively titled “My Promised Land,” discusses the Nakba (“catastrophe” – what the Palestinians call their expulsion by the Jews when Israel was created), but still vehemently affirms and reaffirms throughout its unwavering commitment and love for the State of Israel. Or think of the efforts by American-Jewish liberals to show that their liberalism is an emanation of (presumably universalist) Jewish values rooted in the Bible, as if humanist and liberal values unconnected to Jewishness would disqualify their legitimacy. Or J Street, a liberal organization that defines itself as a political alternative to AIPAC. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and chair of J Street, declared on the inauguration of the organization: “The party and the viewpoint that we’re closest to in Israeli politics is actually Kadima.”
In other words, if an organization calling itself an alternative to the mainstream Jewish networks of solidarity defines its views on foreign policy as being closest to a party founded by members of Likud, such an organization clearly aims to consciously remain within the orbit and compass of Israeli conventional politics.
These examples help us ask the following question: Why is it so difficult to criticize Israel from a greater distance? Why is critical detachment so difficult?
Solidarity vs. Truth
In his 1983 lectures on “Discourse and Truth,” French philosopher Michel Foucault became interested in an astonishing form of speech, which he called “parrhetic.” Parrhesia is that quality of speech whose impulse is to say the truth (and not, for example, to conceal, or to persuade or to want power). How do we know its impulse is to say the truth? Because telling the truth endangers the speaker, puts him/her at risk of being banished by his/her community or the sovereign. Parrhesia is the fearless speech one utters to someone who in turn has the possibility of punishing him/her for telling the truth (punishment can be real or symbolic).
Because of this danger, Foucault argues that between the sovereign and the truth-speaker, a “parrhesiastic contract” is forged. This contract, he explained, “became relatively important in the political life of rulers in the Greco-Roman world” and consisted of the following: “The sovereign, the one who has power but lacks the truth, addresses himself to the one who has the truth but lacks power, and tells him: ‘If you tell me the truth, no matter what this truth turns out to be, you won’t be punished; and those who are responsible for any injustices will be punished, but not those who speak the truth about such injustices.’”
Parrhetic speech appeared to be an important element of Athenian democracy, both for the rulers and citizens. It later became the mark of the wise sovereign, the one who was able to listen to the hard truths told by his adviser (as opposed to the foolish rulers who do not listen to difficult truths).
Let me offer what can be nothing more than a speculation here: For most of their long history, Jews have not enjoyed political sovereignty, and thus did not develop cultural and political models for parrhetic contracts – by which the sovereign forgoes his power and listens to the truth (in other words, hears the critique of his power). While the image of the biblical prophet could have provided a model of parrhetic speech, its possible legacy was never exploited in the context of a politics of critique.
On the contrary: Because exclusion and the halakha (Jewish religious law) forced on Jews a communal life contained within well-drawn ethnic and religious boundaries, preoccupied with the purity of Jewish blood, manifestations of solidarity were of paramount importance and substituted for politics. Moreover, after the 17th century fiasco of the false messianism of Shabbetai Zvi, Jewish communities became far more preoccupied with the false speech that pretends to say the truth, rather than with the question of the conditions for true speech. Let me offer the hypothesis that these two elements made cultural models of parrhetic contracts far less dominant in Jewish culture than in the non-Jewish one.
Parrhesia is a speech that claims to say the truth, but changes its object according to the domain in which it is exercised. Sometimes it can be opposed to, say, Apollo’s silence; sometimes to the will of the people itself (as when one opposes demagoguery, or the flattery of the majority); and sometimes, as with Socrates, parrhesia is, as Foucault explains, “opposed to self-ignorance and the false teachings of the sophists.” Parrhetic speech does not always speak the same truth, but it speaks the truth that a specific community or sovereign does not want to hear.
Following Foucault’s concepts, we may say then that the parrhetic speech of the Jewish intellectual is directed not to self-ignorance (as in Socrates) or to silence (Apollo), but to group solidarity, because, as Arendt rightly claimed, parrhetic speech is independent. If an intellectual is the one “who has the right, the duty and the courage to speak the truth,” then he is the one who takes the risk to breach solidarity with the group.
The Jewish intellectual‘s dilemma is even more acute than that of the non-Jewish intellectual, because s/he is divided between two equally powerful and explicit moral imperatives: truth and solidarity. To put oneself in the position of speaking the truth is to undermine the solidarity of the group, found not only in the affirmation of love to the group, but also in the participation of its collective myths and stories.
Finally, by definition, parrhetic contracts – those which legitimize critique – enable the critic to remain within the group. But in conditions of hyper-solidarity, to criticize is to forgo that solidarity, because critique always assumes a position of exteriority. When Arendt wrote to Scholem, “The injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by others,” she only defined the normal situation of parrhetic speech. But she was not granted the right to occupy the parrhetic position – that is, remaining inside the group while critiquing it. Indeed, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was virtually banned in Israel until 2000, when it was finally translated into Hebrew.
Critique in the Jewish world must either constantly provide proofs of love or must face accusations of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, various forms of ostracism, black lists, media watch agencies, organizations such as Im Tirtzu monitoring course curricula and universities, philanthropic blackmail, etc.
One could retort that critique of Israel is far more present in Israel than among Jewish communities in the Diaspora. This is correct. Here, too, Foucault is enlightening. In his analysis of Euripides’ “The Phoenician Women,” Jocasta – Oedipus’ mother – asks her son Polyneices what it feels like to be exiled.
Jocasta: This above all I long to know: What is an exile’s life? Is it great misery?
Polyneices: The greatest; worse in reality than in report.
Jocasta: Worse in what way? What chiefly galls an exile’s heart?
Polyneices: The worst is this: right of free speech does not exist.
Jocasta: That’s a slave’s life – to be forbidden to speak one’s mind.
Polyneices: One has to endure the idiocy of those who rule.
Jocasta: To join fools in their foolishness – that makes one sick.
Polyneices: One finds it pays to deny nature and be a slave.
Exile, says Polyneices, prevents you from speaking the truth fearlessly. Only being at home provides the conditions for fearless speech, perhaps precisely because only political homes and sovereigns create parrhetic contracts and enable critics to remain inside the group while looking at it from the outside. We are then compelled to conclude that while most of the liberal nations in which Jews live are far more liberal than Israel, their Jewish communities are far less liberal in their toleration of dissent than Israel.
Some, like U.S. philosopher Michael Walzer, would argue that it is the responsibility of the critic to be heard in such a way as to remain inside the group. The best critics, Walzer claims, are those who speak in a tone that feels close and familiar to the group he criticizes; the best critics rebuke their fellows in the name of the values their group holds dear, and does not speak from radical detachment (like Arendt, for example). But Walzer does not ask if some communities make it easier to remain inside their compass while critiquing them. He does not ask which contracts must exist for a critic’s voice to feel close and familiar to the members of the community s/he addresses. He does not ask if some communities do not make more demands of closeness than others. Surely, not only critics but also their communities must be scrutinized for the extent to which they enable or deny the right to criticize them.
Before I conclude, let me confess this: I am moved by Scholem’s anguish. Like him, I believe there are such things as duties of the heart (herzenstakt). These duties are the informal codes that regulate our sense of appropriateness, how we mark our respect and care in delicate and painful circumstances.
Should the intellectual care about tact and taste? As Scholem suggested, the Jewish people aches and we request from you that you suspend your cold examination and participate with us in this pain. One does not criticize a person at their funeral. Scholem invokes a tacit code of honor in which one should not attack someone who is weak or add pain to a long-standing history of suffering.
A striking example of such tact can be found in Raymond Aron, the great Jewish-French intellectual. A few years after Arendt wrote with restrained passion about Israel, on June 7, 1967 – after the onset of the Six-Day War – Aron wrote in Le Figaro: “Statecide, of course, is not genocide. The French Jews who gave their soul to all the black, brown or yellow Revolutionaries now feel great pain when their friends scream their fear of death. I suffer like them not because we have become Zionists or Israelis, but because an irresistible movement of solidarity rises in us. And it does not matter where such movement comes from [emphasis added]. If the great powers, according to their own cold and interested calculations, let that small state that is not mine get destroyed, this crime, which will be small in regard to the world, would take away from me any desire to live and I believe that millions and millions of men would be ashamed of their humanity.”
Aron makes clear that Israel is not his country; he remains French. And yet he says in heartrending terms that if Israel ceased to exist, he would not have the strength to keep living. Solidarity here is not a principled or systematic position, but an instinct activated by a unique historical event. It is not politics, not an institution, but a movement of the heart, the trace of a noninstitutional memory, a supreme form of tact, knowing what to do and say in the right circumstances – not because of an a priori ideological position, but because in extreme circumstances, one simply knows for whom one’s heart beats faster.
In the public sphere, herzenstakt is that ineffable capacity to balance the urge to speak the truth with the recognition of someone else’s actual or potential distress. In that sense, Arendt lacked tact, and infuriatingly so. But she and Scholem’s exchange opened a much-needed debate on the brutal demands of love that the politics of solidarity makes. Jewish intellectuals must resist these demands. When distress becomes institutionalized and memory routinized, the duties of the heart become the handmaidens of ordinary politics. When solidarity becomes a form of politics, it should be treated as politics: we should look for its interests and strategies, for the myths it builds, for the people it excludes and for the injustices it creates. Solidarity can never be demanded a priori by institutions, nations or communities; it should never be the default mode of a group. It can be only the end point of citizens’ relations to just nations and just institutions.
If the contemporary Jewish intellectual has an urgent task, then, it is to unveil the conditions under which Jewish solidarity should or should not be accepted, debunked or embraced. In the face of the ongoing, unrelenting injustices toward Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel, his/her moral duty is to let go, achingly, of that solidarity.
This essay was originally a 2014 Andrea and Charles Bronfman Lecture in Israeli Studies, at the University of Toronto.