The focus of my writing is the current Israeli situation, call it the prevailing situation of Israeli mind and action, as well as an examination of the future of Holocaust studies and the birth of the Israeli Nation.
When I was eight years old, in the middle of the night my mother picked up me and my younger brother and took us to the far end our backyard. There we lay quietly in total darkness in a ditch that my father had dug as a shelter among the fruit trees, before he left for the war of 1956. For my parents were worried over a possible repeat of the 1948 air attack on Rishon le Zion by Egyptian airplanes, in which quite a few people were killed. I cannot forget that night; the fear of that war, of being bombarded in the middle of the night, never left my mind, and consequently the ever-present worry of being again in a war, or endless wars, made me think differently. My parents survived the Holocaust. They ran away from what was then Eastern Poland/Soviet Russia amidst a German bombardment and the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. They ended up in the Far East, where they rested for a while in the city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. As a child, I heard many stories about how my parents had fled in the middle of the night. That event never really left my father’s mind, and he took his memories about it with him to his grave. On the night he fled his home, he made the most difficult decision a young person can make: he chose with great pain to escape with my mom and leave his entire family behind. His entire family was soon murdered by the invading Germans. The events that occurred that night influenced him to later leave my mother in Bukhara and join the efforts of the Russian Army to take revenge against what the Nazis had done in 1941. When I use the word “revenge,” I mean it literally. My dad joined the Soviet military might only because he wanted to avenge the killing of his family. For that he was willing to leave the relative comfort of the Far East and fight courageously, finally reaching the gates of Berlin. He was a sharp-shooter. He also paid dearly for this adventure. He was severely wounded, spent some time in a military hospital, recovered, and thus ended his military service. The Soviet authorities on their part, as a thank you gesture to him, permitted him to travel to the town he had run away from. That was where he saw first-hand what had happened to his entire family. He made his way back to Bukhara, picked up my mom, returned to Poland in 1946, and from there they moved to modern Israel, but not before they had spent some time in jail because of the Exodus 1947 incident.
I was born in 1948 in Tel Aviv. We lived in the town of Rishon le Zion, just a few miles outside of Tel Aviv, the town that made the modern Hebrew language what it is today (more on that subject later). As a child, I loved to listen to my parents’ and our relatives’ stories. They were mostly conducted in Yiddish or in Russian --Yiddish I picked up very easily, but Russian only a few words. Of course, the real challenge was to read, write and speak Hebrew. That burden became a mental challenge that brought me ultimately to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where I studied Hebrew Literature as well as History. As a young Israeli, I was a bit unconventional in my behavior, because I read a lot in Hebrew. I am not trying to say, by any means, that I understood everything that I read, but I kept on reading. And then, I am not sure whether it was at the end of my military service or before that, I read an interview that was published in Ma’ariv, a daily evening newspaper, where the outgoing Israeli Chief of the Mossad, Meir Amit, looked back at his career and revealed the biggest secret of his job. He said that the issue that he tried to figure out was how the Israeli Nation would be able to interact with its neighbors. He categorically stated that if Israel would not be able to pursue integration into the region where it exists, the whole story of Israeli survival would be doomed. If one thinks about it seriously, what he said was and still is alarming. Here was another defining moment in my life that finally laid out a fundamental issue for me. After many years of thinking about the subject, I finally decided to call it Am Lo Levadad Ishkon, or in English “A Nation Does Not Dwell Alone.” The slogan Am Lo Levadod Ishkon is contrary to the theology of Judaism. The more common belief, or the religious dogma, is Am Levadad Ishkon, or “A Nation Dwells Alone,” which is mentioned in the Bible and has been practiced for a few thousand years by Jews. The Holocaust and the birth of the Israeli Nation stand to contest that doctrine in one way or another. As Jews, we need and must have allies, and these allies must not necessarily be Jewish. I will try to explain the idea of Am Lo Levadad Ishkon, as well as to see what it will mean if the old doctrine of Am Levadad Ishkon continues.
Like most Israeli young men, I spent a few years in the military, including service in two major wars. To my own surprise, I survived the wars. After my service I tried to resume my studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; it did not work out for me. Close to 45 years ago I came to the United States and received my BA at the University of Massachusetts. At the University I met Dr. David S. Wyman and spent some time with him studying the US response to the Holocaust. I continued by pursuing my MA at Yeshiva University. My MA explores the initial response of the American Jewish leadership to the reports of the massacre of European Jews between November 1942 and April 1943. My research was unique in a sense, as nobody before me had looked into the archives of certain Jewish organizations -- for example, the papers of the World Jewish Congress, or the Jewish Labor Committee, or theAmerican Jewish Committee’s Executive Committee papers. Up to that point, barely anyone had visited these archives, which for me proved to be critical sources for writing a well documented MA. While working to complete my MA, I also enrolled in the History Department at the Graduate Center of CUNY, which in those days was on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
In the meantime, an even more significant event happened in my life, when in 1977 or 1978 Dr. Wyman (while still working on his book that appeared later in 1984) told me that I should try to meet Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, in connection to the American response to the Holocaust. Dr. Wyman had interviewed Kook at length in Amherst. I do not know, and it is difficult for me to explain logically, why I did not contact Mr. Kook immediately. It took me some time to see him, but our meeting finally took place probably in 1978 after I had completed my MA. At the time of our meeting, I was extremely stressed. My work at the Yeshiva Library was coming to an end. In short, I called Kook’s office at the Institute of Mediterranean Affairs in Manhattan, and I went to see him. I brought with me some important papers, mainly copies of documents that I had found in the archives. Many of these documents referred to him mostly with criticism, although not all.
But, I first want to go back a bit. I was almost thirty-years old at that time, had served in two wars, had completed my MA in Jewish History studies, and was ready to pursue a PhD. I had undergone some life-altering experiences. My first real-life event was running in the middle of the night to our backyard shelter. Then as I grew older I began to hear Holocaust stories. I went to school and studied the standard Israeli/Jewish stories of survival throughout the centuries -- the aspects of schizophrenia, victim/hero status of the Jews. Next, I spent some time in the Israeli army with the great thrill of participating in two wars. In addition to all of this, I always kept in the back of my mind the interview I had read with the Chief of the Israeli Mossad, which gave away the biggest secret of his long-life service to the country, that “A Nation Cannot Stand Alone,” and we must find a way to integrate ourselves into the region. Finally, while working on my MA, I discovered a key document about the legendary meeting FDR had with the American Jewish leadership on December 8, 1942, at noon in the White House. It was on this day that FDR announced to the Jewish leadership gathered that his sources confirmed the genocide of the Jews in Europe. I was able to publish a short article about this meeting in the September 1980 issue of the magazine Midstream.
Going back now, of course, nothing had prepared me for my first meeting with Hillel Kook. After saying hello, introducing myself and telling him what I was working on, he said in an angry voice that he had never met such an ignorant Israeli! He was probably right! After his cooling off, I had the opportunity to open my briefcase and present some of my findings to him. The presentation went well, and I spent the next several years working in his office in Manhattan on issues related to Kook’s response to the Holocaust.
Here I must explain something. The years I spent working with Kook at the Office of Mediterranean Affairs led to another stage in my growing-up continuum. Trying to figure out the events of the Holocaust, and trying to figure out the Israeli story, were both complex issues for me. There in New York City I encountered another real-life challenge that especially affected me for many years to come. I walked into this office called The Institute of Mediterranean Affairs to discover another aspect of a Jewish/Israeli attempt at survival. Kook believed that Israel must be a part of a Mediterranean regional society; thus I understood that the name of the organization that he was heading said it all. It confirmed to me the same view that had been expressed by the Israeli Chief of the Mossad years earlier. Over the next four years it became increasingly clear to me that I needed to synthesize my research and thoughts into developing some sort of a political philosophy that would hopefully be able to serve to function if the Israelis and Palestinians would ever figure out a peaceful way to resolve their differences. In the early 1980’s, I wrote a short article titled, “Who is an Israeli” to explain part of the problem and part of the solution to the Israeli situation. Twenty years later I published a short Amazon e-book titled Who is an Israeli? to further explore and develop this idea. In 2016, I finally wrote down my thoughts on the Holocaust and the Birth of Israel.
So what did I learn from Hillel Kook in the four years that I worked in his office? A critical highpoint for me was to reach the understanding that Zionism as a political movement had ended in 1948. Political Zionism, with great success, emerged as a winner in a political battle, and its objective was achieved – the Israeli Nation does exist. Second is the issue of a constitution: never heeding the advice Hillel Kook vehemently voiced as a member of the first Israeli Knesset, Israelis have never written a constitution. The fact that no Israeli constitution has ever been written created and creates problems in a variety of fields for the Israelis. Simply stated, they have never acquired a political definition of who they are. Being Jewish is a wonderful thing, but the failure to understand that religion is not a nationality creates other issues altogether. The fact that the Israeli Nation does not recognize itself in political terms just begins to explain why the Jewish Israelis call other Israelis “Arabs” or fail to recognize the Palestinians as a nation.
Israel in 2017 is moving slowly to reverse the purpose of its existence, i.e., a modern Israeli Nation; rather, it is moving quickly to become a “Jewish State.” I am not sure exactly what type of a “Jewish State” it thinks it should be, and I do not think that the Israelis know what the Israelis want. They definitely, for whatever reason, want to be left alone. It is the unfortunate political reality that Am Levadad Ishkon, a nation dwells alone, signifies the wrong political philosophy. It is rather the opposite philosophy, Am Lo Levadad Ishkon, a nation does not dwell alone, that should be pursued. Of course, this political philosophical reality is ignored almost entirely by today’s Israelis.
Concerning my work at the office of the Institute of Mediterranean Affairs, I did all sorts of things there, from filing papers to participating in long conversations about the Holocaust and Israel with Hillel Kook. It took me a long time to figure out that while he was alive it would not be the right thing to do a short biography about him. He was still very passionate and a very difficult person to work with. I think that doing the research I did I was able to put him historically where he should be. He was happy with my research.
Again, I want to return to my concerns as a young man. One major issue I was struggling with most of my life was the Hebrew language itself. The home I grew up in could not contribute to a better understanding of Hebrew. At the various public schools I attended, most of the teachers, except for a very few, were all immigrants who were themselves struggling with the language. Their Hebrew, to say the least, was not perfect. At the Hebrew University I took a year-long course on Israeli Literature from the 1880’s to the 1920’s with Professor Gershon Shaked. The reading list was long. The National Library had very few copies of these books. However, a bookseller in Tel Aviv, Mr. Lerner, sold me a copy of every book on that list, and I read them all. The books on this list represented the beginning of what one might call Israeli literature. I did well in that course, but, in reality, I did not learn much. In New York City, while working in Hillel Kook’s office, I started getting a feeling, or an understanding, of the tragedy I will call the renewal of the Hebrew language. Of course, I am not a linguist, and I do not understand fully the philosophy of language as espoused by Ludwig Wittgenstein, with his acrobatic explanation of language tricks and games. I once read a great short book written by an Israeli on the development of the Israeli language. The book is called, Israeli, a Beautiful Language: Hebrew as Myth, and was written by Ghil’ad Zuckerman. Zuckerman’s main argument is that the Hebrew we speak today is actually not really Hebrew, but that the Israeli language is rather a combination of native development mixed with ancient Hebrew as well as recycled Yiddish. Of course, the Arabic language, as well as English, French and German, are also mixed into this soup. To me, the most difficult thing to explain is how, with the emphasis on the developed and renewed ability to speak and write Hebrew, how did that produce a non-intellectual level of conversation or writing which are at the core of Israeli existence? One has only to listen to a conversation that Charlie Rose had with David Grossman to tell how futile and awkward it was for Grossman to try to explain the Israeli senseless labyrinth of Israeli life and ideology. The renewed use of Hebrew has come with a pricetag, i.e., the inability of writers and historians, with very few exceptions, to understand who the Israelis are. I mean this in the political sense, which I will explain. The basic idea of being an Israeli can be an interesting cultural conversation: I eat this, you eat that, we dance Hora, we live in a kibbutz, we celebrate Jewish holidays, Chanukah, etc. – this all sounds good. But when we come to define the political identity of the Israeli, we hit a fire wall. Israeli has no constitution. Hillel Kook tried to present the idea of the necessity of a constitution for Israel’s existence and its future at the first Knesset. Very few agreed with him. Israel today, if one agrees or does not agree, is some sort of a continuation of something called “Jewish.” What that “something” is we are not sure. But a modern-day Israel must be a modern nation with an Israeli constitution. The reason is very simple: if we do not have a constitution, we cannot define who is a citizen of the nation. The Israeli political leaders, when they tried to declare the birth of the Israeli Nation in 1948, declared rather, and it is funny, the creation of a government agency: for example, the term Medinat Yisrael, which is understood among Israelis to mean the Israeli Nation, is an abstract noun which in practice defines instead the name of a government ministry -- Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education, etc. And there are many other examples of where the Hebrew language is completely miscomprehended. For example, sometimes that issue of “nationality” appears to be more than a bit of a problem in the Israeli government-issued Identity cards: Israeli Nationality has been entered and recorded in such terms as “Unclear,” “Converted,” “Catalonian,” or “Aramaic” – clearly none of which can denote a nationality. This becomes a bit more absurd when one thinks about how David Ben Gurion, an avid Socialist, tried to imitate Thomas Jefferson in declaring independence and ended up instead declaring the establishment of a nation-synagogue. It appears clear to me that this had to do with the follies of language, the consequences of which impact today with the lack of acknowledgement of a half-million Israelis who are not Jews, whom the Jewish Israelis refer to as “Arabs” – while the Arabic language exists, there is not a single “Arabic” nation. Furthermore, how is it that a political entity, which calls itself “Palestinian,” is not recognized by Israelis? It is because the Israelis do not recognize themselves as Israelis.
These are complex issues that need to be resolved: Who are the Israelis? Are they a new nation that political Zionism created and successfully resolved, or are they a nation that does not know that it is actually a nation because it cannot define itself? As long as Israel has no constitution, one cannot be certain whom the Israelis represent and who they are. And more, the study I took upon myself to figure out, i.e., what was the actual response of the American Jewish leadership to the Holocaust, taught me that the American Jewish leadership suffered from an old disease, called ideology: thinking about the future and forgetting the present provided them, for whatever reason, a path they chose that had nothing to do with the European Jewish crisis. The Zionist ideology provided a path for the Jewish leadership to do almost nothing to save European Jews. It is the same today – we Jews have no clue politically where we are going. We are caught in political/ideological limbo. Israel cannot be a “Jewish State,” the same as the USA cannot be the United States of Christian America.
I could tell more about what I learned from Hillel Kook, but I will leave that to another occasion.