By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
George Steiner, the celebrated literary critic and exponent of contemporary thought, describes himself as a proud, though non-practicing, Jew: “The highest nobility is to have belonged to a people that has never humiliated another people.”
That makes him, in words spoken to the French journalist Laure Adler, “fundamentally anti-Zionist.” In a recent book of conversations that Adler had with Steiner, excerpted in the Forward from which the quotes in this piece are taken, Steiner stated: “But today, Israel must necessarily (I stress this word, and would repeat it 20 times if I could), necessarily, inevitably, inescapably, kill and torture in order to survive, Israel must behave like the rest of so-called normal humanity.”
Steiner fully understands the challenges imposed on the Jewish state, but he wants no part of it. He describes himself as a “confirmed ethical snob” and asserts that “by becoming a people like others [the Zionist ideal}, the Israelis have forfeited that [Jewish] nobility.”
He’s quite prepared to sacrifice Israel which must act like any other state to protect its some six million Jewish and more than two million Arabs and other citizens, but argues that “if Israel were to disappear, Judaism would survive; it is much greater than Israel.”
The Jews who oppose Israel in one guise or another may not be as articulate as George Steiner but they seem to share, explicitly or implicitly, his vision. They not only criticize but often openly attack Israel for its actions against enemies outside and subversives within. For them, too, noble Jewish values, whether or not they live by them, are more important than the survival of Jews in their own state.
Greek, Steiner tells us, has the same word for “guest” and foreigner: xenos. Therefore, the xenophobia that’s often behind anti-Semitism shouldn’t intimidate Jews as guests, even when it troubles them. As perilous as Diaspora existence may be – Steiner’s family were Holocaust refugees – it’s worth the price for being guests in the world in order to help maintain Judaism’s ethical superiority.
We Zionists believe that the price is too high. It’s morally wrong to expect us to pay it and be sacrificed for it. Judaism as an abstract concept as defined by Steiner may survive in books and museums, but it’s most unlikely that, without Israel, there’ll be Jews to practice it. That’s why to retain Judaism we must be committed to Israel if not by living there then by supporting it, warts and all.
I’m a critical fundamental Zionist. I’ve joined those who seek to curb the many excesses of power by the politicians and their servants in the name of Judaism while remaining passionately committed to the existence and security of the State of Israel. The perfect is the enemy of the good. By pointing to a perfect, theoretical Judaism, as Steiner describes it, we may forfeit the great good – indeed, the historic miracle that the existence of the Jewish State of Israel has become
In a recent column in the Toronto Star I cited Peter Berger, the great sociologist of religion, whom I understand to say that the mature way of dealing with issues is on a “Yes, but” basis: Yes, I share Steiner’s view about the nobility of Judaism but to live it, not just articulate it, we need Jews and, as things seem because of assimilation and anti-Semitism in the Diaspora, soon there may too few Jews left outside Israel. Israel is good, very good, even though it’s anything but perfect.