George Steiner's Zionist Heresies

It is the Jews' otherness, their alienation and the absence of a territorial patrimony that explains, in George Steiner's view, their contribution to civilization. The homeland of the Jews is the book, not the soil.

Amnon Rubinstein
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Amnon Rubinstein

The latest edition (no. 6) of "Keshet Hahadasha" (an arts journal) carries the Hebrew translation of a speech delivered in Frankfurt by literary critic George Steiner on the occasion of his being awarded the Ludwig Boerne Prize for outstanding essay writing. For anyone who is familiar with Steiner's doctrine concerning Israel, the text of the speech will come as a spectacular surprise.

Steiner, like Boerne (1786-1837), is a Jew who grew up in the fold of German culture and became a leading European intellectual. Boerne, like Heinrich Heine and Gustav Mahler, converted to Christianity in the 19th century, with the aspiration of integrating into the European cultural elite. Steiner has no need to take that step. His international success has not alienated him from his Judaism. On the contrary: Steiner, a professor of literature at Cambridge University, is proud of belonging to the people who gave the world a number of the prophets of humanistic culture. He views thinkers and creative artists such as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Elias Canetti, Karl Marx, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Franz Rosenzweig as exemplary figures of the Jewish people and indeed of all humanity.

It is the Jews' otherness, their alienation and the absence of a territorial patrimony that explains, in Steiner's view, their contribution to civilization. The homeland of the Jews is the book, not the soil. This is the reason for Steiner's objection to Zionism, which exchanged the book as homeland with "the Golan Heights and Gaza." He considers the state of wandering, in the absence of roots, the telltale mark of high culture. In his words, "Trees have roots, people have legs;" and "People should collect passports like stamps."

The visa in his passport contains only one sentence: "Nothing human is alien to me."

One can take issue with Steiner. Asag Sagiv does so with great skill in the journal "Azure" (issue no. 15, Summer 2003), published by the Shalem Center, in an article entitled "George Steiner's Jewish Problem." (In the Hebrew version of Azure, called "Tchelet," Sagiv's article appeared in issue No. 12, and Steiner thanked him for it and replied in issue No. 15.) However, it is impossible to ignore the force of Steiner's arguments or his deep inner conviction concerning the sources and influence of the Jewish genius.

Steiner reiterated this belief in his speech at the Boerne Prize award ceremony, which was held in Frankfurt last May; but he also added some remarks that are no less than astonishing to anyone who is acquainted with his worldview. He speaks about Israel with pain, noting that during more than 2,000 years of persecution, the Jews did not have the power to humiliate or torture any other human creature; whereas Israel, in order to survive in an environment that is fanatic in its enmity and permeated with hatred, is now obliged to torture and humiliate neighbors.

"Is it obliged to do this?" Steiner asks without replying. "Is this too high a price?" he adds in continued puzzlement. In contrast to the prevailing trend, he does not pillory the Jewish state: "I know that adducing this question here, and in Germany, of all places, is manifestly tragic chutzpah. If only Spinoza would give me his support."

And then he makes the blunt statement: "Israel is an absolute miracle, a dream out of the inferno that was realized as though with a magic wand. Now it is the safe haven for Jews. Should trouble arise again - and it will arise - one day maybe Israel will give shelter to my son and to my son's sons."

That is an astonishing comment. Steiner, the Jewish genius who reached the zenith of international academia, who has been regaled with honors and prizes, is fearful of "a new trouble," and now conceives the possibility that his children and his grandchildren will find shelter in a terror-ridden country that exchanged the book for occupied territories? What objective reason is there for any such apprehension? Is it possible to imagine that Britain, the United States or Switzerland - Steiner's realms of "wandering" - will be the scenes of persecutions that will compel Steiner's children to find a haven in the Law of Return?

Is it possible that along with the genius, Jews also have a kind of hidden Jewish "gene," not amenable to scientific examination, that is transmitted by heredity and reacts with deep anxiety to every renewal of anti-Semitism? Is it not the case that this gene infects its carrier with fear that the stable ground on which he wanders is no more than a thin coating that is about to crack open and expose the terrible fire that consumed his forefathers? Is this the gene that prompted Ignatz Bubis (1927-1999), the leader of German Jewry, to order that he be buried in Israel, and the gene that is now so dramatically affecting the outlook of George Steiner?