“Your fathers, where are they? and the prophets, do they live for ever?”

Most nations know all too clearly what they believe about Jews. Americans are less sure. This beneficial uncertainty inheres in the two major traditions that shape American souls: Christianity and modern political philosophy. Peter Grose writes that the Puritans “identified with the people of the Old Testament”; until 1787 Harvard College (which then promoted an identifiable morality) required its students to learn Hebrew. But in the name of Christianity, Peter Stuyvesant unsuccessfully tried to expel from Manhattan 23 newly arrived Brazilian Jews; in general, “the early American was fixed in his belief that for [refusing to worship the Christ] the Jew had forfeited his full rights in Christian society.” Among the “moderns,” Thomas Jefferson unhesitatingly extended his principle of religious toleration to Jews while privately lamenting, “among them ethics are so little understood.” John Adams endorsed the aspirations of Jews to return to Israel but imagined they might “possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.” Among both Christians and “moderns,” this desire to convert Jews was strong, exhibiting that mixture of esteem and hostility any proselytizer feels for potential proselytes.

America’s contemporary left has not escaped ambivalence toward Jews and the Jewish state. Grose, Girgus, and Chomsky represent, respectively, the liberal, left-liberal, and leftist ideologies prevalent in late-20th-century academia. Each writer illustrates the situation of world Jewry today not only by what he sees but by what he makes of what he sees.

As the sort of liberal found on the Council of Foreign Relations and the New York Times, Grose presents the most accurate and least colorful of the three pictures. Although titled Israel in the Mind of America, his book is primarily a political history of Zionism in America between the First World War and the founding of Israel.

As might be expected, during this period political Zionism—the desire for a Jewish state in Palestine—enjoyed the support of nowhere near the majority of American Jews, much less American Gentiles. American Jews wanted the right to settle peacefully in Palestine, but then as now not many wanted to exercise that right; as for Jewish sovereignty in the region, even fewer insisted on that. Ethnic, social, political, and religious divisions within American Jewry assured continued political incoherence. Typically, well-established “uptown” Jews of German origin preferred quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying; they regarded Judaism as a religion without national/political content. Newly arrived “downtown” Jews of Russian origin preferred political activism; to them, Judaism included nationality, if not national sovereignty.

Louis Brandeis attempted to overcome these divisions by uniting Jews behind a particular form of Zionism. He added some of “downtown’s” political energy to the elitism of “uptown” in an effort to make Zionism a Jewish version of Woodrow Wilson’s “progressivism.” This Zionism for middleclass liberals declined when World Zionist Organization leader Chaim Weizmann attacked it as insufficiently political. He found it too much a reflection of the American pragmatism that wants to “make the desert bloom” without much caring who rules the desert. But Brandeisian Zionism survived, albeit in a different form. Brandeis and his allies left the Zionist movement and involved themselves in the Democratic Party politics that led, tortuously, to American support for a Jewish state in Palestine.

The path was tortuous in part because the State Department remained anti-Zionist up to and beyond Israeli independence, for motives ranging from anti-Semitism to timidity. (Then a young diplomat in Germany, George F. Kennan best exemplified the latter when he advised against U.S. protest over Nazi anti-Semitism, “saying it would be an ineffective interference in another country’s internal affairs”—a refrain he would sing more than once in his long career. Kennan would later oppose Israeli independence out of fear of a Mideast war.) Unfortunately, the complacency of Americans, including American Jews, also added to the tortuousness of the path. The saddening fact is that only the Holocaust rallied American Jews to Zionism. As late as 1944, most Americans did not credit reports of mass extermination in Europe. Felix Frankfurter explained this most tellingly: “I do not have the strength to believe it.”

Quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes lobbying could not work without public pressure, and this finally came through the energy of Rabbi Hillel Kook (better known by his nam de guerre, Peter Bergson) and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. Kook was a disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, but for ideological reasons Grose undervalues the Jabotinsky faction, Zionism’s right wing. Grose is better on Silver, a brilliant political organizer who disdained courteous relations with Gentile politicians and, for that matter, with many fellow-Jews. Silver’s one blind spot was his failure to see and respond quickly to the disaster engulfing Jews in Europe. Nonetheless, “under Silver’s leadership, aroused and appalled by the ‘news from Europe,’ America’s Jews changed.” They learned to use the American political system. Congress and President Truman saw this and acted accordingly; political pressure caused such basically decent Americans to act with the vigor mere decency often lacks. While the major fight came “on the ground” in Palestine itself, American support for Israel was, of course, indispensable, and it has endured for nearly four decades.

Noam Chomsky condemns that support as one imperialism rewarding another. Grose admires Israel but deplores Jabotinsky and his “zealot,” Begin; Chomsky believes all Israel governments infamous in their domination of Palestinian Arabs. The Likud Party descends from fascism, the Labour Party from Bolshevism. America’s “critical supporters” of Israel remind him of American Stalinists of the 1930’s and 1940’s. “[T]hose who exercise real power in the U.S.”—evidently, large business corporations and the CIA—find Israel a useful ally, he claims. He does not base this claim on any talks with oil company executives. Such criticism of Israel as heard, for example, during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon is merely an instance of the “feigned dissent” that has “made an impressive contribution to indoctrination in the democratic societies.”

Anyone who rejects Palestinian Arab claims—”rights,” in Chomsky’s vocabulary—to a state west of the Jordan River is a “racist.” Israeli military prowess, he argues, makes security concerns irrelevant. He accuses Jewish leaders of borrowing Hitler’s rhetorical description of Czechoslovakia when they say that “a Palestinian state on the West Bank would be a dagger poised at the heart of Israel.” With equal sobriety, he praises what he calls an “international consensus” held by Arabs, Soviet-bloc oligarchs, and oil-blackmailed West Europeans for a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Given Chomsky’s professed concern for national self-determination, this is a peculiar group of nations to be surveying for political solutions to Israel’s problem.

Chomsky concedes that “Israel has been and remains a vibrant democracy on the western model for its Jewish citizens,” although his comments on news media “indoctrination” suggest that his joy at such vibrancy is not unalloyed. He also concedes that PLC terror is “surely to be condemned,” although it “hardly matched” that of Israelis in Lebanon. He goes so far as to compare the PLO to the Zionists of the 1940’s, without noting how ominous that must be in the blood-red light of his own polemic. Not only does he fail to explain how two “Zionisms” could ever occupy the same territory peacefully, but he fails to show why two such governments would be better than one. Governments generally are a bad lot, in Chomsky’s opinion, and those who attempt to defend them are “modern state-worshippers.” If states are so bad, why demand one for Palestinian Arabs? Would the PLO’s compaction of Islam and Marxism ever yield some form of anarcho-syndicalism that Chomsky might favor?

The title of his concluding chapter, “The Road to Armageddon,” suggests a certain pessimism about all this. Israel “drift[s] towards internal, social, moral, and political degeneration”—that is, toward religion. Israeli “Khomeinism” swells daily, as rabbis quote from “the genocidal texts” of the Torah, Chomsky expresses disgust at Israeli political scientist Mordechai Nisan, who, in Chomsky’s words, would “put aside” the “Western Enlightenment” as a “heresy” against the Torah. Scriptural texts authorizing ancient Israel to enslave, exterminate, or drive out whole nations because of their idolatry are evidently a mystery and an offense to Chomsky, who advocates the modern doctrine of “human rights, equal rights.” Such a doctrine gives Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs “essentially equal rights within the territory of the former Palestine.”

While the Enlightenment derives “rights” from what all men are, the Bible judges men by what it says God wants them to do. The egalitarianism and toleration of the Enlightenment quells religious warfare by denying that religion is worth fighting for. But it also tends toward denying that anything at all is worth fighting for, or living for, except comfortable self-preservation. Its reductionist materialism tends to undermine the foundations of its own doctrine of “human rights,” except as that may be defined in the least “righteous” terms. This can do Chomsky’s formidable self-righteousness no good. Evidently, there are at least two roads to this Armageddon without revelation, and one of them passes very close to nihilism on the way.

Sam B. Girgus describes the journey of certain Jewish writers in America whereby “Jewish history was transformed by the idea of America.” “America” is a compound idea consisting of “freedom, democracy, equality, and republicanism”; “in turn, Jewish writers, artists, and public figures helped to sustain and modernize this idea.” This two-sided metamorphosis amounts to a “new covenant,” one with rather less divine authority than the old one, but welcomed by a scattered and persecuted nation. The question one asks such writers must be, “Emancipation for what?” Unfortunately, Girgus can discover only the most general answers: “moral elevation” in “a competitive and brutal world,” egalitarianism, “consciousness.” His ideological hero is Brandeis, which explains some of the muddle. Mixing in sexual “liberation,” feminism, and “identity”-assertion thickens matters still more.

Though Girgus’ allegiances are tangled and misplaced, occasionally things come into focus, as when he sees that the Rosenbergs, as E.L. Doctorow depicted them in The Book of the Daniel, “let their belief . . . become a new kind of orthodoxy that inflates their importance, disguises their vulnerability, and encourages a kind of moral myopia, which confuses immediate self-interest, personal status, and convenience with universal truth and justice,” leading to “self-destruction, parfly through self-delusion.” To put it more harshly than Girgus does, the Rosenbergs, as Doctorow pictures them, are not martyrs at all. Their son Daniel achieves a “fusion” of Jewishness and Americanness, finding an equilibrium in legal and parental responsibility. But because they define authority, neither fatherhood nor law comport easily with liberty and equality. Girgus sees this and worries. In his postscript, he finds both power and danger in Jewish “moral authority.” “Jews embody patriarchy,” and patriarchy is resented, according to Ellen Willis, one of the scholarly hens of feminism that peck Girgus’ deferential skull.

However much one may deride his male feminism, a sort of uxoriousness out-of-wedlock, Girgus does uncover something important here. Liberty and equality want no authority, but mean nothing without it. That is, after an individual achieves liberty and equality, he has nothing left to do but defend them, and if he knows of nothing beyond them, he may doubt them worth defending. Liberty and equality resent, but need, some authority. Brandeis and the other pragmatist/ progressive intellectuals tried to solve this problem with the doctrine of pluralism. It proved unstable. Insofar as pluralism is coherent, it is no longer pluralist, and insofar as it is pluralist it cannot cohere. America’s left, whether pluralist, Marxist, or merely indignant, cannot decide what it thinks of Jews because it cannot decide what it thinks of authority and liberty. In less abstract language, it cannot decide what it thinks of Cod and His relation to His most problematic creature. Or it decides, with Marx, not to think, not to ask.


[The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, by Noam Chomsky; South End Press; Boston]

[The New Covenant: Jewish Writers and the American Idea, by Sam B. Girgus; The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill]

[Israel in the Mind of America, by Peter Grose; Alfred A. Knopf; New York]