Tuesday, May 21, 2002
Leon Wieseltier once again gets so much wrong in trying to be right, in his latest article in The New Republic Online: Hitler Is Dead. Wieseltier is understandably upset that people are comparing the current situation with the 1930s, and are worried that we are headed to a second Holocaust. Hence his title. He's right that the situation today is profoundly different, and that simplistic comparisons betray a lack of imagination and, possibly, a lack of historical thinking altogether. But he pushes his case entirely too far, so far that he winds up being profoundly wrong about Jewish understanding of history, about the 1930s, and about the situation today. Let's take apart his argument piece by piece.
(1) He writes: "Only a fool could believe that the Passover massacre was a prelude to the extermination of the Jews of Israel; a fool, or a person with a particular point of view about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you think that the Passover massacre was like Kristallnacht, then you must also think that there cannot be a political solution to the conflict, and that the Palestinians have no legitimate rights or legitimate claims upon any part of the land, and that there must never be a Palestinian state, and that force is all that will ever avail Israel."
Only a fool? The former President of Iran said that Iran needs the atom bomb so that they can wipe out all the Jews - and he was not worried about retaliation because one bomb would be sufficient to annihilate the Jewish State, while even a few bombs would be insufficient to annihilate Iran.
And what is this with the opposition of force and political solutions? Why does the belief that Israel is at war with an exterminationist enemy mean that the enemy must be exterminated to the last man? Germany was ruled by an exterminationist maniac. When he was killed, and his army destroyed, there was no need to annihilate the people of Germany. There was indeed a political solution. But that political solution was predicated on a military victory.
(2) He writes: "a number of things need to be said about Amalek, and about the Amalekization of the present enemy. For a start, the prescription of an eternal war with Amalek was a prescription for the Jews to be cruel. . . . So if Amalek is waging a war of extermination against the Jews, the Jews are waging a war of extermination against Amalek."
I've aired my own thoughts about Amalek in this space before. First, it is very clear from the use of the term Amalek in Jewish religious literature that it is not a people in any genetic sense. Haman, Hitler and Chmelnitsky share no common cultural or biological heritage. Amalek, then, is an ideological term. Amalek is that body of people dedicated to the murder of the Jews. Such people have existed throughout history, sometimes in great numbers. The injunction in the bible is to wipe them out.
Are the Palestinians Amalek? Of course not. To say so is a category mistake - the same mistake that Saul made when he thought that the war against Amalek was an ordinary war in which men are killed, women and children are enslaved, property expropriated and the king ransomed. If Amalek is not a nation, then you cannot commit genocide against it.
(3) Continuing on Amalek, he writes: "I wish also to record an extraordinary comment by Isaac Abarbanel, the thinker and statesman who failed to persuade the king and the queen of Spain to revoke the edict of expulsion in 1492 and promptly fled to Naples. The sin of the Amalekites, he explained, was that their aggression against the Israelites was groundless: "Amalek attacked them without reason.... For the Israelites possessed no land that the Amalekites coveted." It would appear that there is no place for Abarbanel in the Likud. For his implication is decidedly a moderate one. If the Israelites had possessed land that the Amalekites coveted, then this would not have been a war to the end of time. It would have been an ordinary war, a war that can be terminated in a peace."
Wieseltier here presumes his conclusion. There are indeed enemies whose hatred of Israel is irrational and unappeaseable. Hitler was one. There is a credible argument to be made that Arafat is another. Indeed, he does not covet land, has shown himself impervious to offers of compromise. Arab eliminationism is focused on the Jewish State rather than the Jewish people per se, but at this late date it is all one. Arafat has made it clear both by his actions and by his inaction - specifically, his refusal to accept any position that would make him accountable for his deeds, that would give him territory and a state to govern - that he is not fighting for any concrete end. He is fighting because killing Jews is what he does for a living. He is precisely the kind of evil man that Abarbanel is talking about: he is not an appeaseable enemy but one motivated by a desire to do evil. He must be destroyed.
(4) He writes: "But the real problem with typological thinking about history is that it is not historical thinking at all. It is ahistorical thinking. . . . For this reason, such thinking was overthrown in the modern period by Jews who decided that their myths would not ameliorate their misery . . . that historical agency required historical thinking, that is, concrete thinking, empirical thinking, practical thinking, secular thinking. All these notions amounted to a revolution in the Jewish spirit, without which the Jewish national movement and the Jewish state could not have been brought into being. A historiosophy is not a strategy. The Jews taught themselves to attend not only to their fates, but also to their interests. That is to say, they taught themselves no longer to regard themselves as the last Jews. The lesson was called Zionism."
Here I can agree with him in part, but must dissent from him in part. To a great extent, Zionism was a rejection of Judaism. In this, it has failed, because Judaism has deep roots and Zionism shallow. To a far greater extent, Zionism was the fulfillment of Judaism. The Israeli national anthem speaks of a hope (or expectation) of a thousand years. Is that the voice of interest or of fate? The Israeli national symbol is the menorah, the light of God's presence in the world. Is that a secular symbol? Indeed, what movement of any kind was driven only by interests? The early Zionists thought they were bringing forth a new Jew, a new man and a new world. That's not a particularly mundane project.
Wiesletier is right that Zionism is incompatible with traditional eschatology. But he would relegate Amalek precisely to that eschatology. Wieseltier wants to have it both ways. He wants to relegate anything he doesn't like to the end of time, and therefore to preserve the traditional Jewish messianic expectation. But he wants to bring anything he does like into the here-and-now. He can't have love of Zion in this life and hatred of Amalek in the world to come. Either Judaism operates in history or it doesn't. The latter leads to anti-Zionism. The former leads not to secular Zionism but to some version of religious Zionism; secular Zionism, after all, is premised on the death of Judaism, and that's not the ground on which Leon Wieseltier wishes to stand.
And another, crucial point. Wieseltier often forgets that Kristallnacht, too, happened in historical time. Hitler and Himmler were men. The Nazi party campaigned in free elections, seized power after doing particularly well in one of them, and led a nation of millions into the commission of horrible crimes. All in historical time. But he waves Kristallnacht as if it were a symbol, something that cannot be invoked but at eschatological peril. But why is this? Why cannot someone make the straightforward argument that the Arab world, saturated in eliminationist anti-Jewish propaganda, is fully primed to exterminate the Jews of Israel, man, woman and child, that many thousands have shown an eager desire to do just this, and made a start with brigades of suicide bombers, and that tens of millions more cheer them on, so that Israel is not mad to think that if it gives them the opportunity a second Holocaust will indeed occur. Why is this not historical thinking?
There is a crucial difference, of course, between then and now. But it is not a difference in our enemies; it is a difference in us. Israel has a powerful military, including a nuclear deterrent. It has a powerful ally in the United States. Jews have a settled and firm place in America, and are in no danger here from eliminationist violence. Even in Europe, Jews are vulnerable because of imported violence from the Middle East and the European governments' congenitable inability to either care about Jews or do anything about civic violence. They are not in danger of wholesale extermination. But again: these differences are not in our enemies but in us. Our enemies are animated by the same hatred that animated Hitler, and with the means they would execute the same solution. That is the fact to which attention must be drawn, and which Wieseltier wishes to avoid.
And he wishes, further, to avoid the vexing question of why, as he correctly asserts, things are so good for Jews today in America. The answer has to do both with Jews and with America. America admires the Jews for their achievements, in Israel and in the Diaspora, because, as pragmatists, Americans admire achievement. And that's all to the good. But America also thinks of itself as Zion - not in replacement of the historic Israel but in imitation thereof. There is, therefore, a natural affinity between Israel and America, one that has enormous benefits for both peoples. These are historical reasons. But they are also transcendent reasons, because they point to truths - about America and Israel - that lie outside of history.