Weizmann, Bialik and Goldberg. Yael Bogen

A Secular, Democratic Haven for Jews? What Early Zionist Figures Would Think of Israel Today

Has Israel become what Zionist thinkers Chaim Weizmann, Haim Nahman Bialik and Lea Goldberg envisioned?

I

Each person forms his worldview on the basis of his education and his life circumstances. So it’s difficult, perhaps even wrong, to conjecture what Chaim Weizmann, Haim Nahman Bialik and Lea Goldberg would have to say about present-day Israel if they were alive today. Nevertheless, I intend to do just that and draw on these towering figures, whose shadows will make it easier for me to say what’s in my heart.

“Synthetic Zionism” – as Chaim Weizmann, the chemist who became Israel’s first president, called his Zionist path and belief – was a way to combine political-diplomatic activity with agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel. Weizmann (1874-1952) would not be happy with today’s Israeli diplomacy, still less with the state of the country’s agriculture. Nor would he be pleased with the condition of either Lake Kinneret or the Dead Sea, though he would be happy to know that Israelis invented drip irrigation, cherry tomatoes and the Waze app, and that the lifespan here – despite the wars, the terrorism and the road accidents – is among the highest in the world.

He would consider all those things less important than the fact that the Jews at long last have a land free of Jew-hatred and that in this state they are the majority. In 1929, he wrote to the general and politician Jan Smuts of South Africa: “Had there been 300,000 or even 250,000 Jews in Palestine, instead of 160,000, the pogrom [the anti-Jewish violence of 1929] would probably never have occurred.”

Weizmann was the practical, operative type of Zionist, whose goal was to establish a haven for persecuted Jews everywhere. In 1945, he wrote to U.S. President Harry Truman that America was obliged to support an increase in immigration to Palestine, because there was a rising tide of anti-Semitism not only in Europe but also in Tripoli, in Egypt, in Iraq and in Yemen, whose Jewish communities were suffering from surging violence on the part of the Arabs.

A month before Israel declared its independence, he wrote again to Truman: “The choice for our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermination.” That may sound overwrought to our ears, but we might do well to remind ourselves that the Jews living in Israel today are for the most part actually refugees, children of refugees and grandchildren of refugees, who reached this country in the wake of persecution and economic and professional discrimination. They preferred to call themselves olim (people ascending to Israel) and ma’apilim (illegal immigrants during the British Mandate period) and halutzim (pioneers) and to view themselves accordingly – without idealizing suffering and victimization, and without the importuning and the vengefulness to which that gives rise.

Yael Bogen

Weizmann was against the use of violence to advance the cause of Zionism. Shortly before the events of 1929, he lamented in a letter to Albert Einstein that at the Paris Peace Conference a decade earlier, he and others had dreamed of two races bound by blood ties, with close historical connections, who would work together for the rehabilitation of the lands that lie along the Jordan, the Tigris and the Euphrates. It was in this spirit that he met with Emir Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1919 to try to achieve a peace agreement, and had his photograph taken wearing a keffiyeh – a gesture that no Jewish leader has reprised. Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin, has been known to quote from the Koran; Weizmann would have liked that.

Weizmann believed that the Jewish-Arab conflict could be solved on the basis of economic interests. In 1918, he wrote to British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour: “The problem of our relations with Palestinian Arabs is an economic problem, not a political one. From a political point of view, the Arab center of gravity is not Palestine, but the Hedjaz, really the triangle formed by Mecca, Damascus and Baghdad.” To Winston Churchill, he observed that Jewish settlement on both sides of the Jordan could proceed “without friction with the local population.”

Along with others, Weizmann ridiculed the feelings and beliefs that engendered Arab nationalism. They attributed Arab objections to Jewish settlement to leaders who were inattentive to the will of “the people” (referring to a low socioeconomic class). Weizmann was among those who believed in the mutual benefit that the two sides could bring to each other, and in the “respectful understanding” that this could generate.

Writing to Einstein, Weizmann argued that Zionism needed to treat the Arabs differently than the way the imperialist states had acted toward weaker populations they had encountered. To spare the Arabs as much as possible the suffering that has been the lot of every backward people upon the arrival of another, more progressive people, the Jews have the duty to refrain from resorting to force, which every other people has used in similar cases, he observed. If he were with us today, he would ask: Are the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens making every possible effort to spare the Arabs suffering and to avoid the use of force?

Weizmann would be pleased to see the women of Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, the Israeli-Palestinian Forum of Bereaved Families and the aid given by Israeli volunteers to Palestinian families whose children need dialysis treatments. He would be happy to know about the cooperation between Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian organizations with regard to water and quality of the environment. Perhaps he would urge greater governmental backing and funding for every action that allows for unofficial interaction and dialogue between people on both sides of the divide.

As a man of balanced views, Weizmann would be glad to know that, in contrast to the boycott by all the Arab countries of the Israeli-Zionist voice in literature, the press, radio and film, it is possible to read Arab anti-Zionist literature in Israel; to make films and produce plays that are anti-Zionist; and to demonstrate against the minister of culture for being against using taxpayers’ money to underwrite anti-Zionist projects.

Weizmann would remind us that there are people, among them Jews, who dispute Israel’s very right to exist; that some view its establishment and achievements as nothing short of a miracle; that there are those who are fed up with the tension and the price in blood that the struggle for that right exacts; and some who believe, as he did, that the Jews are an ancient people who have learned forbearance, and that allowing these different points of view to be heard does not need to bring down disaster on the country.

Weizmann’s Zionism was suffused with a romantic outlook, which based the argument for a nation’s existence not on ethnic identity but on the existence of a national culture, which includes national cultural creativity and a distinctive way of life followed by people who share a common history.

Accordingly, his Zionism encompassed the “work of culture” as self-evident. “For us,” he wrote to Einstein in 1938, “the state is a means to an end,” and that end is to uphold Jewish culture. Culture was for him both a basis for political claims and a source for inner forces of struggle. The founding of, say, a Hebrew-language journal in Palestine and the establishment of a school of art were means to strengthen the Jewish community, he believed. Three of the nine points he sent to London in 1917 as part of the conditions for a Jewish “national home” were: Hebrew as an official language, autonomy in education and culture, and Shabbat and the Jewish holy days as official days of rest.

In 1945, in a letter to Truman, he set forth his vision of the Jewish state as “a secular state, based on sound democratic foundations with political machinery and institutions on the pattern of those of the United States.” In a Tel Aviv synagogue he had found an “atmosphere so different from that of a Russian or Polish town – or even an English one.” He was charmed by the sight of “young men who had marched into Tel Aviv from the neighboring villages… Their presence in the synagogue belied all the rumors that the people of the kvutzoth [collective settlements] were atheists, disregarding all the traditions and tenets of the Jewish religion.”

On occasion, the Zionist political culture of Weizmann’s time left him disgusted and apprehensive. He emerged disappointed and bitter from meetings with leaders and functionaries of the Zionist movement. He found them to be consumed by arrogance, as well as narrow-minded, vengeful and petty. His diagnosis was that they were afflicted with a serious internal disease that goes by many names: demagogy, intellectual falsity, political utilitarianism, chauvinism and a readiness to act with malice – toward the Arabs, for example. Today he might say that the majority of Israeli politicians look worn down, embittered and uninspired, that they lack vision, and are crushed by the burden of pressures and ongoing frustrations, harassed by a nosy media and vulgar election campaigns.

In the autumn of 1934, writing from Rehovot, he noted a grievous dearth of morality, precision and efficiency, a lack of obligation toward society; instead, it was every man for himself. What would he have said in the light of the fact that these ills are rampant nowadays, not only in the political establishment but throughout the public and private systems of service in Israel? Describing one of the leaders of his time, he observed that his behavior and manners recalled those of a provincial despot, a type one encounters frequently in public life. He added a recipe for identifying petty tyrants: They were humorless, categorical, morally flawed, zealous and recalcitrant. Whom would he include in that group today?

II

In 1918, Haim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), Israel’s national poet and a leading representative of spiritual Zionism, wrote: “The true, even if hidden, leader of the ship of politics is the spirit; without it, all the sails of history are no more than limp rags.” The sense of longing, for example, was a cogent historical force. “We must place a noble idea at the foundation of the revival,” he said in 1921. It was imperative to “crown ourselves with a noble idea.” Today he would accuse Israel’s leaders of ignoring and scorning the power of ideas and feelings.

In 1922, Bialik said that, “It happens that history mocks us and pulls the wool over our eyes: it draws our attention to the supposedly real events … while the truly great occurrences, which are a foundation for the eruption of the titanic forces within the people, unfold in secret … Thus it was at the birth of new religions … and it is the same for all the revolutionary, social and national movements … Their operations appear ridiculous in the eyes of the people of action and precise calculation, who are unable to appreciate the secret inner tremor and work based on faith and devotion.”

If he were here with us, he might say that the people of action and the precise calculation – who are the leaders of the people of Israel today – do not scorn the soul of the people, but attribute to them only economic interests and a passion for comfort, pleasures, social status and other benefits. These leaders manipulate the people by triggering their traumas and fears – of a security, economic and social character – as well as their competitiveness, jealousy and vengefulness.

Bialik believed that in difficult periods, a nation needs spiritual leadership above all. The type of person who embodied that trait had at one time been known as a “prophet.” Bialik’s poem “In the City of Slaughter,” like the essays of Ahad Ha’am, impelled people to act and shaped Zionism. If Bialik were here, he would ask: Is there a leader of this ilk in Israel today?

The number of Jews living in Israel was not of prime importance to him. The dream, Bialik said in the summer of 1922, was to forge here a harmonious culture of quality that would be wholly Jewish and would influence all the people’s communities wherever they were. “The Land of Israel needs to give the Diaspora something more,” he observed in 1926, “something that partakes of the holy spirit, that transcends the ordinary and the average.” He would ask: Is contemporary Israeli culture like that?

Yael Bogen

Bialik believed that national missions, including creative work, could not be executed without the sort of passion and enthusiasm that spur devoted action and even self-sacrifice. “Spark” was his word for it. The spark is the inspiration, the uplift, the sense of meaning and the value that leaders should invoke in people who have born a heavy historical burden on a long journey. It is not enough to tell them about financial and technological achievements in order to get them to continue devotedly on that road. The “spark” is not rhetoric or demagogy or vociferousness, but the ability to thrill and exalt by sharing deep and sincere feelings. “Self-sacrifice” is not a suicidal tendency – which some attribute to Zionist culture – but enthusiastic and determined surrender to the mission, even at the expense of one’s personal life.

Bialik might accuse the media and psychologists, researchers and philosophical thinkers in Israel of deploring and defaming that spark. The goal of Zionism, he believed, was to rehabilitate national honor. A recurrent image in his poems is that of the Jew as a stray dog. Underlying that disparagement was neither economic nor class inferiority; it was, rather, what he termed “parasitic shame,” by which he meant life in a culture that the Jews did not create but received, exploited and “took over” – an anti-Semitic allegation in Bialik’s time. In 1928, he said, “We have come to recognize that every people that wishes an existence unmarked by shame and disgrace, is obliged to create culture.” For Bialik, Judaism was neither a race nor a religion, but a rich, high-quality culture.

Language was the most important proof of a people’s existence, he maintained, and was a sine qua non for demanding a Jewish state. “The Hebrew language is a deed for our patrimony and for all our national assets,” asserted Bialik. Living Hebrew would have made him happy – provided its speakers preserved its spirit, richness and quality. In 1938, he castigated the Hebrew used by the institutions of the Jewish community in Palestine. “The whole of the official Hebrew language here not only is not Hebrew, it is a mark of shame on Hebrew, coarse barbarism. Documents and proclamations are shot through with emasculated language, prattle that contains not an iota of the spirit of the language.” The pollution of the country’s water sources would have disturbed him less than the poverty and mangling of the Hebrew language by many graduates of the Israeli education system.

The idea of the “negation of the Diaspora” is usually attributed to the writer Yosef Haim Brenner, whereas Bialik is seen as being enamored of the old-time beit midrash and the Jewish religious tradition of which it was a part. However, a distinction needs to be drawn between the pride that Bialik took in the Jewish literary, philosophical and popular heritage, and his absolute (perhaps exaggerated) despair at the situation of Diaspora Jewish culture in his time. “Zionism is out to save a nation from degeneration,” he said in 1926. “For the past 30 years, our cultural passivity abroad has far outstripped any activity,” he noted in 1933. Would he have helped encourage the post-Zionist idealization of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe? To learn Yiddish and Ladino is one thing, but to pine for the way of life of those who spoke those languages is something else again, he would have said.

Bialik quoted (in a somewhat mangled version) a remark by Albert Einstein: “If I am successful [in proving the theory of relativity], the French and the Germans will fight over me; if I fail, they will say I am a Jew.” He thought that the achievements of assimilated Jews could not be credited to Jewish culture, which remained vacuous. In the Land of Israel, by contrast, “If you work hard… you will not sow thorns, you will not toil for nothing.”

Bialik was worried and saddened by the phenomenon of talented young Palestinian Jews who left the country and nourished other cultures. “Let us not make do with a bad and inferior imitation of the actions of other nations,” he urged in 1925, in his speech at the inaugural ceremony of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on Mount Scopus. And, eight years later, “The university stands on a high place, but it is necessary to be not only high in the [physical] place but also high inwardly.” Is this the situation in Israel’s universities today?

In Bialik’s view, even those who remained part of religious Jewry but upheld the commandments like automatons, were part of Judaism’s death throes. “Religious Judaism, which observes the halakha, is like the empty shells of lead bullets,” he said. “Culture is the fruit of the experience of genuine life,” he observed, and this was lacking in the Diaspora, “because all of that was taken from others.”

His hope was that in Israel, Jewish law would connect with life and develop from it. Would he be pleased with the upholding of religious law in agriculture or the ban on public transportation on the Sabbath? Would he support alternative wedding ceremonies and alternative cemeteries? Possibly he would shrug off the importance of the deeds themselves and ask: At bottom, is the culture of life in Israel continuing to develop Jewish culture? Does a child who is born in Israel speak Hebrew? Does he know the Bible and Jewish history, is he familiar with Jewish literature? Does he identify with the destiny of the Jewish people?

Bialik would not be happy about the encouragement of ethnic distinctions. As he saw it, the salvation of Jewish existence depended on gathering the tribes of Israel and uniting them culturally, uncovering their common roots and fostering their shared growth. He would be furious with the use of works of literature and art to protest against supposed racism or as weapons in the struggle between rich and poor sociocultural classes. That would remind him of the successful war of Yiddish on Hebrew in the early Soviet years, which was a contributing factor to the extinction of Jewish culture in Soviet Russia.

He would be happy to see that increasing numbers of synagogues in Israel offer a liturgy that is Israeli and not based on ethnic origin. He would say that preservation of ethnic-based liturgies attests to a difficulty in forgoing non-Jewish influences.

There is no need to clear his name of the libel of his supposed insulting references to Frenkim – a pejorative term for Sephardic Jews. Shmuel Avneri, the director of the Bialik Archive in Tel Aviv, has already done that. Bialik admired medieval Jewish-Mizrahi literary and philosophical works and the contemporaneous folkloristic creative endeavors of Mizrahim (Jews originating in Middle Eastern and North African countries). He supported the Jerusalem-born writer Yehuda Burla, whose roots lay in Izmir, economically and otherwise, and he had good relations with the leaders of the local Sephardi community.

Bialik would be happy to see Israelis of Mizrahi origin moving from poverty to wealth, from seeing themselves as victims to fruitful activity in all areas, particularly in culture. He would be pleased to see the ethnic colorfulness of the Israeli population. He would be delighted to see that the integration process between different ethnic groups is continuing to develop rapidly, compared to other countries. He viewed with trepidation the impact of violent hostility on an individual and a nation. In a period in which the situation of the Jewish people was far worse than in our time, he appealed to a “depressed, powerless, indigent people” with the call, “We shall uncover the many layers of light.” Perhaps he would say the same today.

III

The poet, author, playwright and literature professor Lea Goldberg (1911-1970) received a Jewish-Zionist education in the school she attended in Lithuania from the age of 9 to 16. The combination of secular Jewishness, Zionism and a multilingual European education shored up her cultural identity. At the universities in Berlin and Bonn she chose to study Semitic languages in order to broaden her Jewish knowledge, and thereby to prepare for immigration to Mandatory Palestine. She planned to write her doctoral thesis on Hebrew poetry in Spain, and she translated poetry from Eastern languages. She considered medieval Arabic poetry part of the classics.

True, she inherited the unrequited love of Enlightenment Jewry for European culture (for books, music and painting – but not for people or regimes). But both in her play “The Lady of the Castle” and in the unpublished (until 2010) novel “Losses,” she focused on Jews who choose to immigrate to the Land of Israel despite their love for European culture. That was her choice as well. Her roots drew on and were nourished by two homelands, in neither of which had she been born.

History was Goldberg’s favorite field and her area of specialization at Kaunas University. Neither then nor throughout her life did she accept the materialist conception that was espoused by the left-wingers she socialized and worked with. Like Bialik, she, too, viewed wars, revolutions and governmental changes as being the result of cultural, spiritual and above all mental-psychological processes.

Yael Bogen

She described the anti-Semitism she encountered in early-1930s Germany as an eruption of culture that encourages debased human mental qualities. She herself sought, and at times fought courageously and fiercely, to improve cultural taste in Israel and espoused literature that bears a moral mission. The content of Israeli stage productions, of museum exhibitions and dance performances, even of the pictures that were hung in the children’s houses in the kibbutzim, were important to her. Like Weizmann and Bialik, she would be happy to find a nation possessing high culture here. But if Bialik believed that Zionism was intended to salvage and revive Jewish culture, Lea Goldberg, whose life was fraught with traumas, viewed the Jewish state as a place of healing for those individuals whom fate had left chronically homeless, as well as a haven for cultural values that were “rescued from the conflagration.” What would she say today? Has life in Israel liberated us from Jewish angst, or only altered its form and power?

Lea Goldberg’s Zionism was a dream of psychic recovery and of rehabilitation of joie de vivre. Zionism as a healing from trauma, as physical and mental rehabilitation, Zionism as therapy for personal and Jewish despondency, for the crushed and withered Jewish mentality – that was her “negation of the Diaspora.” She believed that love of life was an imperative and that everyone who had been battered by fate was bound to obey that injunction.

If she were here, she would greet us with the “blessing of our period: the courage for the mundane,” as she put it in her essay “The Courage for the Mundane,” which was the manifesto of her worldview. She would urge us to devote ourselves to the living and not to the dead, to foster feelings of gratitude rather than ones of discrimination, anger and vengefulness, to do battle within ourselves for optimism and for delicacy. That’s no easy mission in an atmosphere of chaotic raucousness, where everything is meant to boost ratings. In a 1938 essay, “Wretched Jews,” Goldberg mocked journalists who described the country as pathetic and pitiful. “Perhaps we can try to forge our culture without their help,” she suggested. Would she join the chorus of those who find in Israel melancholy, suicidal tendencies and psychic disorder, or might she admire the ability of Israeli Jews to recover from historical and personal traumas, raise families, devote themselves to work and enjoy life to the fullest possible degree?

Every war was a disaster in her eyes, because it inflicts destruction on people and on culture. “I do not believe in the victory of justice by means of the most just war […] War [in my eyes] means the destruction of my life and the destruction of culture across the world,” she wrote in her diary in 1939. Obviously, she would be infinitely miserable in the light of the protracted bloodletting as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would that prompt her to join the ranks of the left? She possessed a rare ability to be part of a group without adopting its opinions and its style, such as the Petah writers group in Lithuania, the Yahdav group of poets in Tel Aviv, or the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In the midst of the War of Independence she wrote, “Precisely at this time, when we are caught up in the most difficult test of our human qualities, we must not – more than at any other time – be dragged in the wake of cheap propaganda of hate, of loathing, of mockery… Our fighters, too, are obliged to remember – and there is nothing more difficult – that they are waging this war for the day, which we believe will indeed come, when we will need to dwell in peace and tranquility in this land… And we will need to foster relations of peace and of honor and of friendship with our neighbors, for otherwise there is no value precisely in this war, this blood and these victims.” If she were here now, she might reiterate those thoughts.

Following the passage of the United Nations partition resolution in 1947, Goldberg was asked to express her opinion of the event for the newspaper Itim. She talked about the “tragic birth pangs of the Hebrew state,” and one of the difficulties she noted referred to the problem of educating ourselves for an attitude of respect for the state, its leaders and its institutions, along with an attitude of respect toward ourselves: “To know our concrete ability and courtesy toward everyone who deserves courtesy in other nations.” Have we learned how to treat ourselves and others with honor, she would ask us if she were here.

Goldberg despised provinciality and feared it. After her immigration to this country she traveled a great deal to centers of culture in Europe but did not feel at home in any of them. In 1937, visiting Italy for the first time, she was afraid to make contact with German speakers, in case they were Nazis, and when she spoke German she announced immediately that she was from Palestine. Throughout every such visit she was upset about the situation in the Yishuv – the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine – was gripped by fear of the possibility of war, and cried ceaselessly.

In Italy she felt “a sense of alienation, horrible loneliness, baseless sudden fear.” She looked for reports in Italian newspapers about events in the Yishuv, was alarmed when she read about the partition plan proposed by the Peel Commission. “They left us nothing. You can go out of your mind. Actually it’s almost a canton,” she wrote in her diary. Of the demand to pay the Arabs compensation she wrote, “It’s truly an unconscionable scandal!” In the poems she wrote during that visit, Italy is a “foreign land” that stirs indifference.

In August 1954, Goldberg visited the Soviet Union as a member of a Jewish-Arab women’s delegation. “It was a bit strange to me that the rumor that people in Israel actually speak Hebrew hadn’t reached the expanses of the Soviet Union,” she wrote in her diary. In the Lenin Library she searched in vain for a catalog of Hebrew books, but to her disappointment was shown only titles in Yiddish.

The sense of belonging to Israel was not self-evident to Goldberg. What would she say about the Israelis’ rush to travel abroad, about those who dream of immigrating to Europe or the United States?

If she were here today, she would remind us about how hard it is to leave a home and move to a different country, how difficult it is to feel at home in a country that was established to serve as a home for every Jew. And also how difficult it is to accept in your home people who don’t look or behave like you, how much love of Israel was needed for half a million refugees and children of refugees, who lived in poverty (known as “austerity”) and were seared by bereavement from the Holocaust and the War of Independence, in order to accept here three times that number of Jewish refugees. They too were poor and they too were traumatized, proponents of different cultures. How difficult it is for those who are in distress to see the distress of the other and to help him; and how splendid was the help that was proffered at that time, when volunteer activity for new immigrants was self-evident.

Perhaps Lea Goldberg would remind us that there is no country in the world where everyone is treated with equal respect. In every country social status is a result of certain achievements, of productivity or some sort of contribution, not of vengeful, spiteful power struggles.

As a fighter for culture she would have a hard time evaluating the political functionaries of literature. “Cultural politics drives me crazy. I am miserable with the right and with the left, and a middle – actually – doesn’t exist,” she wrote in 1952. It was clear to her that “in our time individuals cannot influence the course of events in the world in any case.” But she continued to write wise and consoling poetry, faithful to the modest path of the “courage for the mundane.” I supposed that if she were with us here, she would recommend again that we follow that path, and that both Weizmann and Bialik would agree with her.

Hamutal Bar-Yosef is a poet, writer, translator and literary scholar. This piece is based on a lecture she gave at Weizmann House in Rehovot on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence.

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