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The Jewish Intellectual Predicament

Posted By David Solway On May 25, 2010 @ 12:03 am In FrontPage | 45 Comments

I’ve written on this site and elsewhere about the curious phenomenon of Jewish intelligence, so competent across the disciplines and professions—approximately .04 per cent of the world’s population garnering 18 per cent of Nobel prizes—and yet so feckless and inept when it comes to taking stock of its precarious position in the world and working to ensure its own perpetuation. I’ve suggested a heuristic distinction between specialized intelligence and general intelligence, with Jews excelling at the former and lamentably deficient in the latter. Jewish accomplishments in music, mathematics, literature, theology, economics, science and jurisprudence are legendary. At the same time, millennia of social and cultural quarantine must have their effect on the sensibility of a people, producing a creature who is always in danger of contracting that wasting disease which Ruth Wisse in Jews and Power has diagnosed as “the veneration of political weakness”—not a smart move given the bloody historical register.

There is also a powerful strain of self-loathing and self-betrayal in the Jewish sensibility, exemplified by the personage whom Wisse anatomizes as “the ubiquitous informer, or moser…For every Mordecai and Esther who risked their lives to protect fellow Jews, there were schemers who turned betrayal or conversion to profit.” This is as true today as it was yesterday and the day before that, and as it is likely to be tomorrow, assuming there is one. We can plot the long chronicle of perfidy along a continuum from the iconic to the picayune, let us say from Cain who slew his own brother to Josh Levinger today, an MIT lab technician and member of the anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement, who invented the “Boycott Toolkit.” This is described in a press announcement as “a resource where users can generate lists of specific products and companies targeted for boycotts [and] locations of stores that sell each product.” To paraphrase Lee Kaplan of Stop the ISM website, who has written about this latest development, in today’s high-tech environment there’s even an app for treachery against Jews. And it was provided by a Jew. This is only another way of refusing to be one’s brother’s keeper.

Being Jewish myself, I have tried, intently if not quite successfully, to understand this mysterious and self-destructive tendency that prospers in the Jewish soul. It should be immediately evident to anyone who thinks about it that such indifference to the sanguinary lessons of history—whether out of a benign identification with the supposedly universal aspirations of mankind, known in Hebrew as the yetzer hatov, or the malign inclination toward defection from principle and unscrupulous opportunism, the yetzer hara—must inevitably lead to self-immolation. For that matter, to these traditional Hebrew terms we might propose a third, the yetzer ba’arout, or the inclination to ignorance, which is equally noxious and no less widespread. All three yetzerim invite disaster. In the last analysis, the antisemite does not distinguish between Jews; even those he regards as accomplices would not be spared in a final reckoning.

There is a passage in Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness which makes this running together of distinctions painfully clear. Referring to the Nazi cleansing operations in the Polish town of Rovno, he writes: “the Germans opened fire and slaughtered on the edge of pits, in two days, some twenty-five thousand souls…well-to-do and proletarian, pious, assimilated, and baptized, communal leaders, synagogue functionaries, pedlars and drawers of water, Communists and Zionists, intellectuals, artists, and village idiots, and some four thousand babies.” As I commented in The Big Lie, “the message is that we’re all incriminated. Warm Jews, lukewarm Jews and cold Jews are equally at risk. At the end of the day, the antisemite never stopped to take their temperature.”

It matters little which of the three inner dispositions or yetzerim governs Jewish thought and behavior, be it the tropism toward the “good” that issues in a kind of unanchored evangelism at the expense of one’s own well-being; or the inclination toward communal infidelity, the breaking faith with one’s  threatened collective for one’s own sordid advantage; or just plain ignorance,  lethargy and intellectual vagrancy. Removed from the social and political dynamic of what historian Robert Wistrich calls “the longest hatred,” hatov, hara and ba’arout lean alarmingly toward the same destination.

Psychologist Scot Gardiner in his recent publication Roots, Episodes, Cohorts conceives of good and evil “not as a dichotomy but as a dimension”; those “at the ends of the scale” are still related. The same is true of the three yetzerim, the good, the bad and the ugly, which all have the potential to divert attention from the essential issue: continuation. In the absence of common sense—which a commenter to a previous article of mine felicitously renamed “uncommon sense”—grounded in a knowledge of history and a willingness to survey and confront the world as it is, in other words, in the absence of non-specific or general intelligence, none of the three catalytic propensities has much survival value.

To begin with, the unreflected practice of the yetzer hatov is no guarantee of divine favor and certainly not of earthly longevity. The temptation to embrace the high abstractions of universal justice, ecumenical peace and various lofty idealisms of purpose and belief seems endemic to the ethical component of the Jewish mind. Perhaps generations of Torah study and Talmudic speculation have led inexorably to a passion for remote implausibilities and the esoteric delight in intricate or elevated fantasies. Being lost in thought leads to being lost in the world, specific intelligence and notable accomplishments notwithstanding.

Albert Einstein, to take a resonant example, was by general consent a pretty smart guy and one of the two or three greatest physicists who ever lived. His mind could traverse the mathematical contours of time, gravity and space—his proper discipline—but when it came to Israel and the hard thinking necessary for ensuring its survival in the boiling cauldron of the Middle East, he was a veritable dummy. Much like that dubious glory of the Jewish people Martin Buber, Einstein believed that Israel should strive to entrench a form of cultural Zionism in its communal soil. But he repudiated Zionism as a nationalist enterprise, which required the maintenance of defensible borders and a spirit of martial vigor and self-assertion. Speaking at a seder in New York, as reported in Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe, he told his audience that his “awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power.” A political innocent, he could not see that absenting such facts and qualities, Israel might never have come into existence or would have been rapidly obliterated once it had.

The same is more or less true of another Jewish luminary, Avishai Margolit,  feted as Israel’s “foremost philosopher.” A founding member of Peace Now, which should tell us all we need to know, Margolit insists that Israel should lift the “siege” of Gaza, forgetting that the so-called siege allows thousands of tons of supplies, medicines and electrical power to transit from Israel into Gaza, except when the crossings are closed owing to Hamas sniper fire and mortar bombardments or when the Ashkelon generator comes under attack. The great philosopher also appears untroubled by the prospect of suicide bombers and  guerilla fighters sifting into Israel as students, laborers and patients. Further, Margolit does not seem aware of the fact—he has much company here—that Israel is under no obligation, neither domestic nor international, neither legal nor moral, to victual and replenish an uncompromising enemy. What other nation on the planet would commit a folly of this nature? Margolit may be an acclaimed “thinker” but he is neither wise nor street-smart; the fatuousness of his proposals is exceeded only by the dangers they would unleash. In short, Margolit is a typical Jewish savant of emeritus caliber, crowned with laurels and showered with awards, dispensing nuggets of pseudo-sagacity, and completely irrelevant.

Then there are the Jews who embody the yetzer hara, the propagators of lies and harms. These are Jews like Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University, famous for describing the country that pays his salary, which he is apparently in no hurry to forgo, as an “apartheid state,” and for having raised his arms in solidarity with Yasser Arafat in his Mukataa compound during the last intifida. Or Bard College professor Joel Kovel who has published a book titled Overcoming Zionism in which he condemns the creation of Israel, places the term Islamo-Fascism in scare quotes, traffics in barefaced lies (“Israel’s bombing of ambulances,” its deliberate targeting of “humanitarian aid workers and UN observers,” its causing of ecological disasters, etc.), and opts for the one-state solution beloved of closet antisemites. Or poet Aharon Shabtai who in his volume J’Accuse vilifies Israeli soldiers as killers from the egg. Or author Shlomo Sand, celebrated in Europe for his recently published The Invention of the Jews which argues that the Jewish “nation” is a late social construct without historical or biblical warrant. Or Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who solicits funds from the Saudis and flagrantly tilts HRW reports to excoriate Israel and “parrot Palestinian testimonies.” Or filmmaker Shimon Dotan whose documentary Hot House sympathetically profiles Palestinian terrorist Ahlam Tamini who murdered fifteen Israelis, eight of them children. Or the leftist daily Haaretz’s literary critic and belletrist Yitzhak Laor who champions the late, fiercely anti-Israeli Palestinian laureate Mahmoud Darwish (who compares Jews to “flying insects”) andconsiders Israel as a country fighting a “dirty war,” a killer of “unarmed Palestinians.” Or Middle East prof Mark LeVine who believes Israel needs to be saved from itself and that the Gaza war was unjustified, and cites highly contaminated sources like “a joint Tel Aviv University-European study,” Jimmy Carter, a Hamas spokeman in the Los Angeles Times, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), revisionist Avi Shlaim, Haaretz Israel-bashing lefties Gideon Levy and Amira Haas, and of course the redoubtable Neve Gordon, to support his bias. Of despicables like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Klein and Ilan Pappe, nothing more need be said; the very names are sufficient.

Perhaps the worst of this lot, in terms of the empirical harm done to the Jewish state and by extension to Diaspora Jews as well, is the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, crouching like a spider at the center of a UN web of lies. On September 16, 2009, Goldstone tabled his United Nations Report on Israeli conduct during Operation Cast Lead, accusing Israel of crimes it did not commit while effectively exculpating Hamas for crimes it did. Goldstone’s strategy was initially to establish a moral equivalence between a country defending its citizens and a terrorist organization deliberately attacking that country’s civilians. As one delves deeper into the Report, the strategy becomes ever more insidious, presenting Israel and Hamas not merely as moral equivalents but as political incompatibles, that is, Israel is depicted as a terrorist regime and Hamas as a legitimate government. Goldstone also implied that Israel, but not Hamas, might be referred to the International Criminal Court. In the words of Alan Dershowitz, with reference to the breaking scandal of Goldstone’s apartheid past as a white South African hanging judge, “Goldstone is an ambitious opportunist…He has always put personal advancement over principle.” With Jews like Goldstone, who needs antisemites?

All of these “haraites,” if I may coin a word, have profited in one way or another from their moral delinquency, basking in public renown, cashing in on book sales and lecture fees, furthering their careers and assuming positions of public or institutional importance. Apostasy pays.

The constituency of the ignorant, the negligent, the indifferent and the apathetic is no less vast. The third yetzer is ubiquitous among the Jewish population at large but flourishes most conspicuously on university campuses. Leading the charge of the Israel-divestiture movement at UC Berkeley, to take a representative instance, is the Jewish group Kesher Enoshi which, as former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association Abraham Miller writes, “partners with the virulently anti-Zionist group Students for Justice in Palestine.” Moreover, “fully one-third of the Jewish Studies program faculty signed a petition on behalf of the divestiture resolution.” Even Berkeley Hillel has become problematic, “showcasing…Israel-bashing groups.” Jewish apathy, he continues, along with Jewish left-wing politics, promotes the Palestinian narrative while prejudicing the Zionist future. Similarly, as Daniel Gordis, president of the Jerusalem Shalem Center, says of Brandeis University’s Jewish students who objected to Israel’s ambassador Michael Oren delivering a commencement address, “one is struck by an astounding simplicity, and frankly, an utter lack of courage to stand firm against the tidal wave of unbridled hostility toward Israel.”

These students are enormously energetic in pursuing their project of delegitimizing the Zionist experiment which is Israel, but they are nonetheless totally apathetic in undertaking the quest for truth, that is, the effort to disambiguate the historical and legal facts stifled beneath the many layers of propaganda to which they readily succumb. A moribund curiosity and a lack of enthusiasm for real scholarship are infallible symptoms of intellectual lassitude. These students are obviously bright in their way, no doubt excelling at their studies, yet the simplicity of mind is also startling in their failure to recognize how they are ultimately delegitimizing themselves. Apathy and simplicity together constitute the third yetzer, the inclination to ignorance, of which these campus Jews are the chief carriers and the heralds of things to come.

These three categories of desolation will overlap to some extent. Where does one locate the plethora of anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, like J Street, the New Israel Fund, the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East, the Union for Progressive Zionists, the Israel Policy Forum, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (Brit Tzedek V’Shalom), Rabbis for Human Rights, Gisha, Peace Now, B’Tselem, the American Jewish Committee, Choice (Breira), the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, Independent Jewish Voices, the Union for Reform Judaism and most recently JCall, among hundreds of simulacra? Some of their members will be motivated by what they regard as a higher vocation, generally of a leftist stamp, others are in the game to advance their own narrow interests, and still others have little idea of the consequences of their lobbying. But like their assorted compatriots, they too are tarred by the promiscuousyetzer brush.

I have presented merely a random sampling from all sides of the yetzerdivide—scientists, philosophers, poets, sophists, casuists, professors, students, organizers, the whole megilla. What they all share in various degrees is a specialized intelligence that generates proficiency in their respective fields. But they have something else in common too, namely, an inability to connect with the reality of a world that has rarely managed to welcome or accommodate the Jew in its midst. What is missing here isordinary smarts.

There are, of course, exemplary figures blessed with prodigies of (un)common sense and worldly perceptiveness, from, say, the great Halachic scholar Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (the Vilna Gaon) for whom secular knowledge, particularly history and geography, were paramount concerns, and the founder of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl, to contemporary political writers like Caroline Glick, Sarah Honig, Barry Rubin, David Horowitz, David Hornik and Dennis Prager, among others. I suspect they comprise the exceptions. But for so many Jews, both among the acclaimed and the general public, an education in the ways of the world is asine qua non. And especially for Jews distracted by the yetzerim—even the admittedly noble yetzer hatov—such an education would enable them to adopt the necessary strategies for survival, to wit, waking consciousness, group solidarity and a belated awareness that the state of the Jews is inseparable from the Jewish state.

How to acquire this education, this inclination to worldly knowledge and pragmatic intelligence—let us call it the yetzer hada’at, the most essential impulse of all—is obviously another question entirely. But one thing is certain. Knowledge of the temporal domains of history, politics and culture, and of one’s place in the unfolding drama of human relations, is the ground of perseverance. Only thus can Jews subject to the enchantments of rootless exaltations, venal self-aggrandizement and congenial mental indolence finally repudiate the derisory pageant of the foolish, the contemptible and the ignorant. For moral and intellectual redemption is the condition of communal survival.


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