The Zionist Betrayal of Jewish Civilization: Amos Oz, Charlie Rose, and Ashkenazi Hegemony I have often remarked that
there is a foundational paradox within Ashkenazi-European Zionism. At its core Zionism is an attempt to resolve the so-called “Jewish Question” by restoring the Jewish people to its historical homeland in the Middle East. When looked at more carefully, the two formative elements of Zionist identity – Judaism and life in an Asiatic land – are both deeply problematic. Back in 1983 the internationally-known Israeli novelist Amos Oz published a non-fiction work called In the Land of Israel (the English translation was not published until 1993) which sought to examine the troubles of his nation. In a particularly jarring chapter of the book called “The Insult and the Fury,” he visits the town of Beit Shemesh filled with angry Sephardic Jews, Jews native to the region, who confront the Ashkenazi Sabra hero Oz and his Kibbutznik ethos with their sense of alienation and resentment at being treated like second class citizens in the Jewish state. Oz is taken aback by the deep wells of Sephardi anger and resentment but lets the confrontation play out. Over time, the anger of the Sephardim in Israel has been sublimated in different ways while the acclaim and celebrity of Amos Oz as an Israeli writer of international repute has increased. The narrative of the Middle Eastern Jews, a narrative of struggle and bitter loss, is now almost completely unknown both inside and outside Israel. On a recent appearance on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show, Oz was presented as an elder statesman of Israeli letters and an authority on all things Israeli and Zionist. In what has become a standard routine with Mr. Rose, Israelis and Zionist supporters are fawned over as if they are some holy objects of worship. These Israeli pundits, politicians, and cultural figures are spoken to in tones of hushed awe and their pronouncements – as we have seen in the case of another recent Rose interview with the architect Moshe Safdie – are deemed authoritative. Oz presented a number of views in the discussion that are well-worth recounting and examining more closely: Mayflower Zionism Oz (born Amos Klausner, the Hebrew name “Oz” means “strength”) recounted to Rose that his life is more akin to that of the original American colonists than merely one that has encompassed the events of the mid-20th century to the present. He sees himself not simply as a 72 year old man, but as far older in conceptual-historical terms. Imagine, he tells Rose, that you have met Washington and Lincoln and have lived through the Boston Tea Party, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. That is what his life has been like as an Israeli pioneer.
In Oz’s formulation, being an older Israeli is something akin – and Meron Benvenisti has been saying this in recent years as well – to being part of the Mayflower generation of American history. In this context, Israel is compared to the United States as a new nation starting out from scratch. The problem with the Mayflower analogy is that Israel is not a new nation, but the product of centuries of Jewish existence. It is predicated upon a rich and varied Diaspora life which stretches back to the end of Jewish national-territorial existence in the wake of the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. But Israelis like Amos Oz often forget that Jewish history continued after the tragedy of 70. In a mad embrace of atavism, Israel sees itself in quasi-magical terms as the resurrection of an ancient nation that was cut off at the knees, only to be magically resurrected in 1948. In this context, it is not the rabbinical tradition which in its Talmudic formulation became normative in the Jewish Diaspora that encapsulates the current Israeli reality, but the more ancient and less defined identity of the age of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish commonwealth(s). Such a benighted view was embodied in Israel’s most important statesman David Ben-Gurion who typified the new ethos and relentlessly imposed it on citizens of the state. Mayflower Zionism as a myth of origins is a handy way of eviscerating centuries of Jewish life in the Diaspora and marking it as essentially bereft of meaning and substance. Israeli Jews have embarked on a new phase of Jewish history which is not beholden to the Diaspora past. Israelis can thus create themselves out of whole cloth rather than be forced to connect directly to what preceded them historically. Hebrew as a “Volcanic” Eruption Oz was excited to relate in the interview that the Hebrew language over the past century has been completely re-invented. As if Hebrew too had no history and no cultural standing over the course of centuries, Israelis have re-formed the language to suit their Indo-European proclivities. The current variant of Hebrew in Israel has changed not simply the auditory element of how the language is pronounced, but has dealt with lexical matters, syntax, grammar, and poetic values in ways that bypass the vast literature of the Jewish past. Critical to any understanding of the Jewish literary heritage is an engagement with the rabbinic tradition as well as the neo-secular movements that emerged in the Sephardic West and in the Middle East under the aegis of Arabic poetics. Israel, having dispensed with the Diaspora Jewish past, has formulated a Hebrew that effectively functions as a Western language and not a Semitic one.
When Oz asserts that Hebrew is now in a state of volcanic eruption, what he means is that, similar to the way in which Jewish history has been erased and re-formed under Zionist thought, so too has the Hebrew language found a new freedom from the rubric of the past. It is something quite simple to prove given the almost complete absence of pre-Zionist Hebrew literature – most specifically that of the Sephardic heritage which did not limit literary expression to rabbinics – in the Israeli marketplace. A “Lost” Jewish Civilization Missing in this new Israeli-Zionist Jewish culture are brilliant literary prose texts like Judah Alharizi’s Sefer Tahkemoni (composed in Spain around 1218) and Immanuel of Rome’s Mahberot (late 13th-early 14th century); the groundbreaking poetry of Judah Halevi (c. 1075-1141), Solomon ibn Gabirol (c. 1021-1058), and Samuel Hanagid (c. 993-1056), the most prominent of the many rabbi-poets of Spain, France, and Italy; important historical works such as Abraham ibn Daud’s Sefer ha-Qabbalah (1161), Abraham Zacuto’s Sefer Yuhasin (1504), Solomon ibn Verga’s Shebet Yehudah (early 16th century), and Joseph ha-Kohen’s Emeq ha-Bakha (mid-16th century); philosophical classics like Abraham bar Hiyya’s Hegyon ha-Nefesh ha-Azubah (early 12th century), Meditation of the Sad Soul, which is a Jewish work akin to Boethius’ Latin classic The Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524), and Don Santob de Carrion’s Proverbios Morales (c. 1355), a Spanish-language poetic treatise in the venerable tradition of Jewish Wisdom literature re-cast in the lexicon of Andalusian-Sephardic Religious Humanism; ethical-moral literary classics like Moses Cordovero’s Tomer Deborah (mid-16th century) and Moses Hayyim Luzzato’s Mesillat Yesharim (1738); and important rhetorical and linguistic achievements such as Moses ibn Ezra’s Kitab alMuhadara w-al-Mudhakara (11th-12th century), a book on Hebrew poetics, and Jonah ibn Jannah’s (c. 990-1050) seminal studies of Hebrew grammar and lexicography which were written in the Arabic language, but became a central part of Hebrew culture in the Middle Ages. The vast production of the Andalusian, Provencal, and Italian Jewish poets alone could fill dozens upon dozens of volumes (An excellent single volume anthology of the Sephardic school, the only one of its kind currently available, has been published in English translation by Peter Cole in his comprehensive Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry in Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492. It is important to note that the Hebrew originals of the poems remain relatively inaccessible to all but the most devoted student of this tradition, collected in out-of-print and hard-to-find academic editions). We can point in regard to this massive stockpile of Hebrew poetry the colossal achievement of Solomon ibn Gabirol, one of the most original and innovative poets of the Andalusian-Sephardic school whose epic poem Keter Malkhut, The Royal Crown, is one of the most astounding accomplishments of the Hebrew literary heritage.
This vast library of Jewish literary production was predicated on the values of Religious Humanism; a noble and valiant pursuit that diligently united the spiritual values of monotheistic religion with the great advances in the sciences and philosophy that embraced the humanistic disciplines. Religious Humanism sought to understand the commands of God by making use of the intellectual resources of the human mind in all its workings. It combined sublime faith with rigorous scholastic analysis. These great texts, if they were to become part of contemporary Israeli culture, which they are most certainly not at the moment, would permit Israeli writers and readers to partake of their own native Jewish cultural heritage. But an Israeli reader would be hard-pressed to find a copy of any of these works in a local bookshop. The Europeanization of Israeli Literature When seeing things in light of Oz’s assertions about the Hebrew language and literature, it is perfectly clear that a transformative “Europeanization” of Israeli letters has taken place over the past century. In the Ashkenazi tradition that Zionism was tied to, secular literature was a rare, if totally unknown phenomenon. It was not until the Haskalah movement of the 19th century, which rejected the religious ethos of the Shtetl and sought to abandon traditional rabbinic Judaism, that European Jews found an outlet for their secular literary pursuits. Unlike the Sephardic tradition which successfully integrated religion and general culture under the rubric of Religious Humanism, Ashkenazi Judaism continued to maintain a tension between Judaism and Gentile culture. In Israel we have seen the emergence of an Ultra-Orthodoxy that rejects secularism and has done so much to compromise the political workings of the state in a general context. Israeli literature is largely in the hands of the secularists and the religious tension remains a critical part of the internal schism between Orthodox Judaism and Zionism. Settler Messianism In the interview Oz asserts with absolute authority that he knows how the Palestine Question will be resolved – by a Two-State solution. What Oz does not discuss is how this Two-State solution has been effectively thwarted by Israeli governments who have rejected any attempt to establish the pre-1967 armistice lines as a valid territorial entity for a Palestinian state. This is not really a negotiable proposition for the Israelis. All sorts of contortions are undertaken by the Israeli Left in order to try to validate what has been called the “Green Line,” but there has only been a lot of verbiage on the part of Israel that involves arcane “land swaps” and a hard line on the issue of Palestinian refugees. It has been clear for many years that the Arabs will completely accept Israel’s relinquishing of the lands it conquered in 1967 as a means to end the conflict, but it is just
as clear that Israel has refused to even consider such a proposition. Without entering into the tortuous details of the Israeli PILPUL over how to deal with both the affirmation and denial of the Two-State principle in an international context where that principle is sacrosanct, it must be said that when people like Oz affirm the Two-State solution they are not speaking with any real clarity. The reason for this obfuscation lies in the ongoing transformation of the reality in the West Bank and the relative silence on the way in which Israel has built its settlements there. This reality was originally planned and executed by Labor governments working surreptitiously with Religious Nationalists in order to create new facts on the ground that would obviate Palestinian claims. But, at the same time, without much thought on the part of the Labor government, the Settlement enterprise generated a new sense of religious mission among the Settlers. The development of the West Bank Settlements unleashed what has now become a fullblown eschatological Messianism that has raised the stakes on any possible Two-State settlement. Israel has yet to stop Settlement construction and has largely turned a blind eye to Settler violence and the ongoing radicalization of this element of its society. In addition, over time the anti-Zionist Haredim have increasingly found common cause with the Religious Nationalist Settlers, the Mitnahalim; conflating the two camps under the rubric of “Hardalim.” The new religious radicalism in Israel is not seriously addressed by Oz in the interview as it serves to undermine the belief of Israeli “seculars” that a Two-State solution is still possible. Jews and Arabs Know Each Other Amazingly, Oz insists to Rose that Israelis and Palestinians do not need to learn about each other – they have ample knowledge of one another. This is even stranger given Rose’s question to Oz about the Palestinian activist and prisoner Marwan Barghouti. Oz confirms that he gave a copy of one his novels to Barghouti who he hoped would read it in his jail cell in order to better understand the Israeli narrative. Why Barghouti would need to read Oz’s novel is not clear given the assertion that Palestinians already “know” their Israeli Jewish neighbors. It is not that Israelis and Palestinians do not know about each other; it is that what they know about each other is strictly limited to the conflict and its violent posture. Israelis and Palestinians have been force-fed a binary narrative which asserts that they are different peoples who have a primal hatred for each other. This primal conflict is then played out simply as a fight over land. But the truth that emerges from Oz’s Mayflower Zionism relates to the alienation of Israeli Jews from the traditional Jewish past and its organic roots in the region.
By uncoupling Jewish identity from its Diaspora history and its literary heritage in the Mediterranean where it cross-pollinated with the Arabo-Islamic civilization, Oz, ever the good Zionist, affirms a strange, but rarely examined duality: Israel is mired in an ancient past that has been magically transported into a virginal present. The historical ties of Jews to the real land of Israel as it has existed in more recent times – not the place found in the Bible – has been attenuated by a historical ellipse that has led to a sense of Israel and its culture being something new and unprecedented in Jewish history. For Zionist veterans like Oz, and willing acolytes like Charlie Rose, this historical sleight-of-hand is something that flows directly into the Ashkenazi-Eurocentric nature of the state and its culture. Such Eurocentrism marks Israel as “one of us” for Westerners. Indeed, Oz spends a good deal of time discussing with Rose the writers that are most important to him. From Chekhov to Shakespeare to James Joyce and the other usual suspects, Oz as an Israeli writer chooses a Gentile parentage rather than a Jewish one. This is not altogether surprising given the deeply Spartan nature of Oz’s new “Zionist” surname and the rejection of the Diaspora Jewish one. The importance of contemporary Arabic authors working to illuminate the complexities of life in the region is thus completely bypassed. In contrast to Arab Jewish writers such as Nissim Rejwan and Sasson Somekh – not acknowledged by Ashkenazi Sabras like Oz as central to the Israeli cultural ethos – who not only read and write about Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz, and other Arab writers, but see those Arab literary figures as indispensable in their own self-understanding and articulation of their identity, Oz’s Israeli identity finds its heritage in the climes of Europe where a once-excluded Ashkenazi Jewish ethos can now find, paradoxically, its contemporary fulfillment. Israeli Jews living in Asia paradoxically turn back to Europe for their literary inspiration. It took a return to the Levant for Jews to reject the culture of the Levant and militantly affirm the culture of the place they left. The perceived barbarism of Arab civilization serves to alienate the Jews returning to their homeland from the organic history and culture of the region in which that homeland is situated. It is a very strange thing, but something that makes perfect sense given the ways in which Ashkenazi Zionism has tried to occlude the Jewish past and substitute for it something altogether, as Oz confirms, new and different. So I would maintain, contrary to Oz, that Jews and Arabs do not know each other at all. Those Jews with roots in the region have been – as we have seen time and again – forced to relinquish any sense of being Arab. These Sephardic Israelis have been stripped of their culture and told that the true Israeli culture is Russian, German, French, British – anything but Middle Eastern and Jewish.
In this way Oz and Rose can profitably discuss European civilization in an Israeli context. Oz expostulates on the idea of a “provincial” literature and tries to fit his own Ashkenazi-Zionist-Israeli writing into that niche. The two men seem to relish this fact which serves ultimately to confirm the profound ways in which Israeli culture has deJudaized and de-Arabized the world of Ottoman Sephardic civilization which had once held sway in pre-1948 Palestine. Athens, not Jerusalem: “There is no Hebrew Word for Fiction” In the interview Rose asks Oz what the Hebrew word for fiction is. Oz answers that there is no Hebrew word for fiction; the term used is “sipporet” that comes from the root SPR, to narrate. In his response to the question Oz makes the educated student of Hebrew civilization aware that he is thinking about literature in terms of European and not indigenous Jewish categories. In the Jewish tradition, beyond the literary production of the Biblical authors, there is the massive literature of Rabbinic Midrash; exegetical analysis and investigation of the many issues arising from the complexity of the Biblical narratives. Midrash is a creative and imaginative literature that deepens the Biblical texts by telling stories that often reflect a moral-ethical sensibility. These Midrashic stories provided an important counter-point to the heroic-mythical epics of the Greco-Roman literary tradition. It is not that cross-cultural borrowings and influences did not take place; on the contrary, Jewish writers and thinkers constantly found innovative ways of appropriating and transforming Gentile culture in order to expand and enrich the Jewish literary tradition. In the Medieval period there was a profound symbiosis in Muslim Spain that brought the entire system of Arabic poetics, philosophy, and scientific inquiry into the orbit of Jewish letters. Oz’s cultural limitations are evident in the way that he sees the literary experience and how Hebrew civilization works in historical terms. By seeing “fiction” as an exclusively European category which is then appropriated in toto by “real” Israeli writers, he is ignoring the profound cultural exchanges and reciprocal influences that have taken place throughout Jewish history. By emphasizing an autonomous and completely independent Israeli Hebrew culture, he has laid bare its Eurocentrism and disregard for a vast history of Jewish literary production, some examples of which we have presented earlier. It is in essence the triumph of a Hellenistic thinking in Zionist culture that chooses Athens over Jerusalem. It is a deeply troubling to see that the Zionist return to Israel has engendered a profound and tragic loss of the vast cultural edifice that was erected over the course of many centuries by thousands of Jewish writers. Finally, a Western, not a Jewish, Writer So in the end what we see in the conversation between Oz and Rose is a transplanted Eurocentrism in Jewish Israel. The literary and historical antecedents that are a natural
part of Jewish experience, both religious and secular, are denied and suppressed in favor of a spurious sense of an international multiculturalism which is predicated on a Eurocentrism that itself is rooted in the internal contradictions of Ashkenazi Jewish culture. This narrative is conventionally understood to be that of Israeli society to the point where any counter-narratives – most specifically that of the Sephardic-Andalusian Jewish heritage – are deemed “exotic” and alien to the standard understanding of contemporary Israeli culture. It is through the machinations of writers like Amos Oz and cultural arbiters like Charlie Rose that we see the most primal elements that inform the Arab-Jewish conflict. By denying the organic cultural and historical realities of Jews in the context of both their religion as well as their existence as native inhabitants of the Middle East over the course of many unbroken centuries, the new Israeli ethos affirms an Ashkenazi-European hegemony that continues to stand in the way of a rational and transparent understanding of Jewish identity and the way in which it is rooted in the Middle East over the course of centuries. The intimate links between the culture of Middle Eastern Jews and the heritage of classical Judaism have been broken by this Ashkenazi-Eurocentric Jewish hegemony. The affirmation of such a hegemonic discourse in a Western context distorts not only the reality of Jewish civilization as understood over the course of many centuries, but serves to alienate Jews and Arabs who are caught on the losing end in a cruel East/West binarism. What might be seen as the “advanced” and “modern” culture of Israel in one context can with equal clarity be seen from another perspective as a deeply divisive and troubled Israeli civilization whose understanding of its own Jewish identity and place in the region is riddled with contradictions and paradoxes. Amos Oz, far from expressing an authentic Jewish cultural narrative, serves the cause of a radical Ashkenazi-Zionist hegemony that has torn asunder the organic fabric of a Jewish past that has now been subsumed and collapsed under the rubric of Europe and its hegemonic force as filtered through the Ashkenazi sensibility.
To view the full Amos Oz interview on the Charlie Rose Show: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11968