“Hayehudim: 7 She’elot Nefutsot (“The Jews: Frequently Asked Questions”), by Shmuel Rosner; Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan Publishing House (in Hebrew), 176 pages, 94 shekels
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The point of departure of “The Jews: Frequently Asked Questions” is Jewish historical continuity. The distinctiveness of the Jewish people, Shmuel Rosner explains, lies in its “progress from breakthrough to crisis, and from destruction to resurgence. Every jolt changes it, foments a turning point, sometimes a revolution, in its religious and political culture. But even the revolutions don’t sever the continuity.” Rosner – an editor, who was a Haaretz correspondent in Washington and is now based in Tel Aviv – generates healthy optimism about the future of the Jewish people, even when he wonders whether “the important Jewish historian Simon Dubnow (who was murdered by the Nazis) was right when he maintained that ‘Judaism, being a spiritual entity, is imperishable.’”
Something about the tone Rosner adopts at the beginning of the book, which is forthcoming in English, makes him sound like the responsible adult. For example, the text suggests to readers who are perturbed about the situation in Israel that they put things in proportion, given what happened to the Jewish people over the past 300 years: “the undermining of the innocent belief in God and in being chosen; the dissolution of the traditional Jewish community and the Jews’ acceptance as possessing equal rights among all human beings; the horrific annihilation of European Jewry; the comfortable ascension of a flourishing Jewish community in America; the eradication of the Jewish communities in the Islamic lands, from Iran to Morocco; and the wondrous creation of a Jewish nation-state in the Land of Israel, for the first time since the kingdom of the Hasmoneans.”
Maybe we really should loosen up a little. Maybe what’s happening today isn’t as serious as it looks?
The problem is that as one reads further, one begins to suspect that this effect is deliberate, that viewing contemporary reality through the lens of the continuum of Jewish history has an ulterior motive. Everything the Jews have undergone – bad and good, in the same measure – is described as having ensured the nation’s survival. Rosner doesn’t say this, but the message is made to penetrate one’s heart like a divine truth: Everything that is happening today, too, is to be understood as being guided by the hidden hand of Judaism, with one overriding purpose: the preservation of the Jewish people. What we’re offered here is nothing less than the torah – the doctrine – of survival of the people of the Torah.
But there is something fraudulent about this. I am not accusing Rosner of falsifying historical facts or of manipulating the facts, not even of cutting corners. It has to do with a lack of honesty that’s disguised as honesty. What seems to be a journey of elucidation into the recesses of Judaism – questions such as, Who are we Jews? Of what does our Jewishness consist? What values do we espouse? Do we have a role in the world? – increasingly turns out to be an elucidation whose point of departure is the Jews’ moral supremacy. When this is exposed in all its glory in Chapter 4, as will be explained immediately, it projects retroactively – making the reader feel ashamed of having been moved by the earlier chapters. And the affection for the Jewish people that Rosner aroused at the beginning turns back on the book, the author, the reader and eventually on the Jewish people.
In the fourth chapter (each of the seven chapters begins with a question), Rosner asks himself, and us, a seemingly trenchant question: Why are we hated? This is an issue of fundamental principle. Can individuals (or a people) even know the answer to that question? Is it proper to ask ourselves such questions? Perhaps one ought not ask this question, and Rosner should make do with just six questions – to refuse to play the anti-Semitic game. Rosner could have chosen a middle road, by limiting himself to a retrospective review of anti-Semitism and reporting only what was said about Jews by those who loathed them across the generations.
But, unable to restrain himself, he chose to go all the way and ask, “How far are the Jews themselves responsible – by their customs, by their comportment – for the hatred that is aimed at them?” If that is the case, why has criticism of the Jewish state during the past half a century – for occupying another people by force – been omitted from the soul-searching?
“Anti-Semitism is not becoming extinct,” he argues, “it changes shape and form.” Why did the author forgo elucidation of the form it takes today? Why did the contemporary situation not serve him as a test case for the phenomenon? Instead of speculating about the role of the Jews in the hatred they stirred in the Middle Ages, for example, or in the first half of the 20th century, would it not be simpler to inquire into the Jews’ part in the hatred aimed at them today? Rosner copes with the question with the same honesty that a job candidate demonstrates when he responds to the question, “What are your flaws?” by saying, “Perfectionism.”
Rosner: “With regard to eradicating anti-Semitism, Israel, too, has been a disappointment. Israel today serves as a central explanation (or excuse) for anti-Semitic phenomena across the world, for two reasons. One is self-evident: the very fact of its presence in the Middle East, which inflames the Muslim world against its [Israel’s] Jews in particular, and against Jews as such. The second is perhaps slightly less evident: the very fact of its existence, which irrespective of its location nourishes suspicions of the ‘dual loyalty’ of Jews in other countries.”
It takes a large measure of chutzpah to make do with “the very fact of its presence” and “the very fact of its existence” as explanations for Jew-hatred, without saying a word about Israel’s character and behavior; without invoking the major political and moral issue that engages Jews today in Israel and the world – and all in the guise of an honest elucidation of ourselves and our values and our contribution to the world. It is impossible to talk about Jewish historical continuity and not address the Jews’ own failure to assume the responsibility that derives from their sovereignty, and their betrayal of the lofty values they attribute to their genetics, their mothers, their education or their religion.
The omission of any mention of the occupation is particularly puzzling in light of Rosner’s ambition, as he himself acknowledges in his introduction: “The book you are holding is thus no more than a snapshot of a Jewish moment in time, as apprehended through the eyes of one writer.” Snapshot? His camera must have been in selfie mode. Because all is mustered in aid of denying the true situation of the Jews today: the very fact that they are mired in the occupation, at the price of being transformed into what the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz – who is quoted in the book but not, heaven forbid, on the subject of the occupation – called “a Shin Bet state, with all that this entails in terms of its implications for the spirit of education, for freedom of speech and thought, and for a democratic regime.”
For anyone who wishes to understand what Leibowitz was talking about when he warned about the consequences of being an occupier for the “spirit of education” and for “freedom of thought,” Rosner’s book is a must-read.
Explaining what he means when he talks about anti-Semitism in our time, the author writes: “The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that documents anti-Semitic stances, estimated that more than one billion people around the world ‘hold anti-Semitic attitudes.’ Many of them believe that ‘Jews have too much power in the business world.’ Or that ‘the Jews think they are better than other people.’” If Rosner is indeed troubled by the spread of anti-Semitism in the world, it’s not clear why he included Chapter 7 in his book, which asks (and see if you can guess what his answer is), “Does Jewish genius exist?”
It will be very difficult to persuade those who read this book that Jews do not “think they are better than other people.” Especially when Rosner doesn’t make do with surveying the social reasons that explain why Jews excel (a culture that emphasizes learning, a minority mentality that impels them to excel, experiences of discrimination and exclusion that necessitated development of alternatives, and so on), but instead quotes from research according to which “the Jews who took part in the studies have a higher average IQ than any other ethnic group.” Furthermore, “It’s clear that intelligence is a quality that possesses a hereditary dimension. It’s possible that the Jews have it in abundance. Possibly they will continue to transmit it to their offspring (though of course the mixed-marriage phenomenon complicates the mathematics of heredity).” Manifestly, “If they have characteristic genetic diseases, why should they not also have other characteristic genetic qualities, such as intelligence?”
The deeper one delves into the book, the more one understands that it’s an intellectual mobilization on behalf of the project of rewriting history, which is being undertaken by the Jewish right wing – one that the world will stop talking about the “occupation of the lands” and adopt instead the idea of the “liberation of the lands.” For that, it’s necessary to create an entire moral language. Otherwise, how will teachers in Israeli civics classes respond when students ask them questions about the morality of the occupation? How will group leaders in the youth movements explain to kids that we’ve given up on solutions and instead we’ve simply cancelled the problem? What will the Taglit-Birthright staff say to the Jewish students when their bus passes by the West Bank separation barrier and checkpoints or when they visit settlements? Better to talk about Jewish historical continuity.
Is anti-Semitism helping Judaism survive?
Rosner’s book is an excellent educational tool for teachers and group leaders who are looking for the semblance of a moral discussion, while it ignores the elephant of the occupation that’s with us in the room.
In his effort to reply to the fifth question – “How do we survive?” – Rosner identifies a number of structural causes that operated in the people’s favor throughout history. In the end, we discover that we have a recipe for the preservation of the Jewish people. Its necessary elements include the following: Jewish dispersal between Israel and the Diaspora (to ward off our enemies without, who are persecuting us with attempts at annihilation or nuclear weapons); a culture of debate that maintains ideological diversity (to ward off the enemies within, who pose a threat to the Jewish people); and anti-Semitism as a unifying, anti-assimilation factor. Perhaps this is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speeches and his policy, insists on making the whole world (or at least that esoteric continent, Europe) hate us. He simply recognizes the necessity of anti-Semitism for preserving the Jewish people!
But the peak of the book occurs in Chapter 6, and don’t let the innocent-sounding formulation of the question it poses – “Israel or Diaspora?” – confuse you. The elucidation here is far from innocent. Rosner sets himself up as counsel for Judaism to examine whether it’s good for the Jews to possess a sovereign framework altogether.
Seemingly, he’s only joining an ancient discussion among Jewish thinkers concerning Jewish sovereignty. But the State of Israel already exists, and there are questions that just should not be asked. Is Rosner truly contemplating the possibility of doing away with Israel for the good of preserving the Jewish people? Okay, but what will become of the Scouts movement if its group leaders won’t encourage the boys and girls to challenge themselves with questions of quantum ethics. If it’s a given that having a state is not good for Judaism, is dismantling the State of Israel justified?
Fortunately, Rosner spares the Jewish state, at least for now. “Even if in principle the debate over whether state existence is good for Judaism has not yet been decided, it has been decided – at least for the time being – in practice,” he writes.
Throughout the book Rosner shows he’s fond of morbid questions. So it’s not surprising that he concludes by asking, “Why should anyone want to be a Jew at all?”
I admit I never considered that question until I read Rosner’s book. Definitely another achievement for the author.