In Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Old-New Land, the successful pioneer Joe Levy recollects the visit to Palestine’s shores of a vessel named Futuro, packed with outstanding luminaries who sized up the new society in the making. He also expresses the hope that another ship will show up twenty-five years down the line, similarly stocked with members of “the intellectual aristocracy of the whole civilized world” before whose judgment the country’s Jews would be prepared to bow. That ship never came in, but representatives of the aristocracy of the mind have for a long time been showing up on their own to take the moral temperature of the Jewish state. Of those who have visited Israel recently, Diana Pinto, an intellectual historian and policy analyst based in Paris, is among the better disposed. Unlike many of her peers, she views the country with genuine benevolence, rooted in a deep sense of affiliation. “I could not conceive of a world without Israel,” she writes. But she worries in her new book, Israel Has Moved, that Israel is heading in the wrong direction—toward the East. The orientation of the Jewish state was always one of its founders’ concerns. Theodor Herzl wasn’t dead-set on establishing it in Palestine, but he did argue that there would be certain advantages in doing so, and not only for the Jews. “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia,” he wrote, “an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Twenty years later, Chaim Weizmann spoke in a more multicultural voice. England, he said, “would have in the Jews,” among other things, “the best possible friends, who would be the best national interpreters of ideas in the eastern countries and would serve as a bridge between the two civilizations.” Martin Buber, for his part, visualized Zionism not as a barrier against the East or as a bridge to it but as a vehicle for restoring the Jews—who were true Orientals—to their spiritual home. Diana Pinto, too, has mused about the location of Israel between West and East and the implications of its borderline existence. From her description of the country’s internal culture wars, it is clear that she, like Herzl, belongs to the camp that upholds Western values, even if she refrains from labeling its adversaries barbaric. But this does not prevent her from fearing that the wrong side is winning. It is a worrisome sign to her that in today’s Israel, “Visiting Chinese plenipotentiaries are applauded and looked up to with respect while messengers bearing President Obama’s good tidings are greeted with icy silence.” Israel is drawing closer, she says, “to those great Asian countries that also oscillate between pragmatic technological progress and metahistorical ancestral readings of their own identity.” It is moving further and further away from “the old universal values of the Enlightenment” and seeking its place in “an expanding world where Western democracy risks becoming just one political option among others.”
Pinto doesn’t live in Francis Fukuyama’s post-historical world, but in one in which there are still viable alternatives to liberal democracy, and she sees many indications that Israel is tending toward the adoption of one of them. Foremost among them, it seems, is the resurgence of religion within the country. On this subject, however, she has not done her homework or, rather, has done it badly. She is troubled by both what she calls ultranationalist religious and ultraorthodox Jews but can’t quite distinguish between them, not even with the help of the distinguished Israeli scholar upon whose work she sloppily relies. One sentence begins: “Rav Kook’s followers, namely the Hazon Ish, according to Ravitsky…” This startling misidentification of the ardently anti-Zionist Rabbi Avraham Karelitz (known as the Hazon Ish) as a disciple of the very differently minded Kook is embedded in a thumbnail account of the history of Israel’s theological-political problem that culminates in even more startling questions. After taking note of the recent (and in fact rather slight) increase in the numbers of haredim in the military, she asks:
Will these ultraorthodox artillery soldiers and officers . . . who wear their Tallit prayer shawls over their uniforms . . . and who live in their all-male units, use a closed Internet, and fervently believe in the religious sanctity of their greater Israel, still be Western? Or will they increasingly resemble Chinese troops?
Developments on the political plane also concern her, although she does not dwell on them at length. On one occasion she refers to the “authoritarian currents” represented by the man who was foreign minister during her last visit to Israel, Avigdor Lieberman. She devotes more attention to an “idiotically obscurantist” speech by the Shas leader Eli Yshai, who was the interior minister at the same time. All in all, however, she doesn’t make anything like a serious case that Israel’s “full-fledged proportionally representative system” of government, which she knowingly but unwarrantedly describes as “a last poisoned gift of Poland’s interwar heritage,” is in danger of being undermined by undemocratic forces. Stuart Eizenstat is someone whom one could almost as easily imagine as part of the Futuro’s welcoming party as one of its passengers. Once Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser, he has held a number of other high posts in the American government, but he also serves as co-chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, has long been involved in Jewish public affairs, and is deeply familiar with Israel. His recent book The Future of the Jews is not an impressionistic and ruminative travelogue and does not beg to be compared with Israel Has Moved, but it does resemble it insofar as it considers the place of Israel in a world changing all around it, one in which the nations of the Far East, particularly China, loom larger and larger. The very first chapter of Eizenstat’s book, “The Historic Shift of Power from the West to the Emerging Nations of the East and the South: A New Multipolar World,” devotes as much attention to China as to the rest of these nations combined. But even after he has underscored the rapid rise of China as “the most important story of the early years of the twenty-first century,” and focused directly on the great significance of this story for Israel, Eizenstat sees no need for any reorientation. “When all is said and done,” he writes at the end of the chapter, “it is to the United States that Israel and the Jewish people worldwide must continue to look for support in creating a world order based on the rule of law, tolerance, democracy and global prosperity.” Eizenstat sees threats arising within Israel to these universal values of the Enlightenment, but unlike Pinto, he sees them in realistic proportion. He doesn’t like Avigdor Lieberman any more than she does, but he doubts that he is a representative figure and is in any case confident that the latest wave of Russian immigrants will eventually “adopt Israel’s democratic norms,” just as the other immigrant groups who came before them from countries with no democratic tradition did. Eizenstat does in the end acknowledge that Israel has moved over the years, for better or for worse, from a center-left country to a center-right one, but he understands the place far too well to fancy that it is on its way from the West to the East. If the Futuro sets sail again soon, he would be a very useful man to have on board.
Francesca Segal's prize-winning The Innocents: A generous, garrulous, and utterly genuine group portrait of Anglo-Jewry.
“I was a year old,” Rivka Miriam says, “and my father would hold me in his arms and throw me up and down and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Each time he threw me up he’d yell in Yiddish ‘Rivkela Rivkela where’s Savta?’ ‘Killed.’ ‘Rivkela Rivkela where’s Miriam?’ ‘Killed.’ ‘Rivkela Rivkela where’s Chaim?’ ‘Killed.’ He’d say all the names…
Upmanship & Downmanship
Sefer Yeṣirah is the most influential Jewish book you never heard of. Indeed, it has been argued that early commentaries written on the book tilled the gnostic soil out of which sprouted the tree of Kabbalah.