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Antisemitism, Israeli-Style Edward Alexander
Is there another people on earth whose sons are so
emotionally and mentally twisted that they consider
everything their nation does despicable and hateful,
while every murder, rape and robbery committed by
by their enemies fills their hearts with admiration
and awe? As long as a Jewish child, nurtured by
generations of pain and hope, can come to the Land of
Israel, and here catch the virus of self-hate . . . let not
our conscience be still.
Berl Katznelson, May 1, 1936

That Jews may themselves be antisemitic long ago ceased to be an
occasion for surprise, except to those completely ignorant of the history of
Jews in Europe. Self-hating Jews have made such large contributions to the
ideology and politics of antisemitism that it may fairly be called a product
of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. Examples are plentiful. Before Pope
Gregory IX ordered the Talmud to be seized, examined, and publicly burnt in
Paris and Rome, he was presented in 1239 with a detailed analysis of the
manifold evils of the Jews' religious books by the Dominican brother Nicholas
Donin, a Jewish convert. In the sixteenth century Martin Luther's seemingly
innovative program of burning synagogues, destroying Jewish homes,
confiscating the Talmud and all other Hebrew books, was in fact derived from
the proposals of Johannes (formerly Josef) Pfefferkorn, the Jewish convert
who had years earlier exhorted his German countrymen to "drive the old Jews
out like dirty dogs and baptize the young children" and "take their goods and
give them to those to whom they belong." Christians appear to have
invented, all by themselves, the belief in Jewish male menstruation, but
doubters among them received reassurance from Jewish converts such as Franco
da Piacenza, who in 1630 revealed to the world the shameful secret that
Jewish males of the lost tribe of Simeon menstruated four days a year.
When we "advance" from the old era of religious Jew-hatred to the modern
one of political antisemitism, we still find Jews doing very well in
competition with their gentile neighbors in the production of antisemitic
fantasies, slanders, and lunacies. Karl Marx, converted to Lutheranism at
age six, imputed to Jews other than himself false language, bad manners,
sexual aggressiveness. Of the "Jewish nigger" Ferdinand Lassalle (himself a
Jewish antisemite of formidable derangement) Marx wrote: "Always this
constant babble with the falsely excited voice, the unaesthetic,
demonstrative gestures . . . and also the uncultivated eating and the horny
lust of this 'idealist.' . . . As his skull shape and hair prove, he is a
descendant of those Blacks who accompanied Moses on the exodus from Egypt . .
. Now this combination of Jewishness and Germanness upon the Black basic
substance must bring forth a strange product. The pushiness of this fellow
is also nigger-like." 1 (Are these, one wonders, the sentiments for which
Marx is today revered in the third world and segments of the Israeli Labor
party?) Even today, when the whole world has known for almost half a century
that antisemitism visited upon the Jews, including antisemitic Jews, evils
greater than anyone had imagined possible, the tradition of Jewish
antisemitism continues unabated, although it has taken on new, highly
imaginative names, if not entirely new forms.
Zionism, in the nineteenth century, proposed to establish for Jews a
refuge from antisemitism. In the first instance, this would be a political
refuge. Even so surly an anti-Zionist as Hannah Arendt was forced to admit
that the Zionist movement was the only political answer Jews had ever found
to antisemitism. But Zionism also aspired to cure the antisemitism of the
Jews themselves, sometimes referred to as Jewish self-hatred (an awkward
term because it so frequently identifies those very Jews inordinately
consumed by self-love). Once liberated from the constant sense of danger
that came from living as a feared and despised minority within an alien
Christian culture, the more timorous Jews would no longer be driven to
desperate stratagems for diverting gentile hatred of Jews in general onto
certain segments of Jewry: ostjuden or Oriental Jews or Yiddish-speaking
Jews, or Jews who were slow to shorten their jackets and beards and memories.
The Zionists also sought to "normalize" Jewish existence. Once Jews had
the power and the responsibility of managing their affairs in a state of
their own, they would surely repudiate the superstitious belief that
suffering and powerlessness confer virtue. The protagonist of Haim Hazaz'
famous story "The Sermon," when he is in his Zionist mood, declares that
"Everything is rotten around suffering . . . history, life itself, all
action, customs, the group, the individual, literature, culture, folk songs .
. . everything! . . . Sorrow is prized higher than joy, pain easier to
understand than happiness." Gershom Scholem thought that Hermann Cohen's
description of them as "those people who want to be happy" was the wisest
criticism ever made of Zionists. It was, of course, recognized by Zionists
that normalization would bring with it many things less intrinsically
desirable than happiness and national independence: Jewish prostitutes,
Jewish thieves, Jewish political parties and their attendant insanities. Few
Zionist theorists, however, anticipated that the normalization of Jewish
existence would bring with it, along with the other vices, crimes, and
historic hatreds of European societies, antisemitism.
It might be argued that some element of antisemitic feeling was already
latent in Zionist ideology insofar as it repudiated the life of the European
shtetl and ghetto as stunted, abnormal, and demeaning to Jews, a travesty of
the great nation whose history was recounted in the Bible. Many a Zionist
writer reacted as did the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to modern
Jewish decadence viewed against the background of a noble past. "The two
images farthest removed from each other which can be comprehended under one
term, are, I think, Isaiah--'Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!'--and
Levi of Holywell Street-- 'Old Clothes!'--both of them Jews, you'll observe."
2 Hazaz's protagonist gave classic utterance to the Zionist revulsion from
Jewish life in the Diaspora: "Jewish history . . . has no glory or action, no
heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection
of wounded, hunted, groaning, and wailing wretches, always begging for mercy
. . . I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the
devil teach them about their ancestors' shame? I would just say to them:
'Boys, from the day we were driven out from our land we've been a people
without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.'" Many an
Israeli work of fiction turns upon a generational conflict over the choice of
names for children. The old folks, still tied to Diaspora memories, favor
"Jewish" names like Mendele or Moishele or Zeitl, whereas the young, native
Israelis want Hebrew or at least biblical names, such as Osnat and Ehud.
Ben-Gurion himself was a prodigious redesigner of immigrant names that had
the exilic taint on them.
One group of Israeli thinkers, called the Canaanites, carried these
anti-Diaspora tendencies to the point where they sought to sever all
connections between the state of Israel and the Jewish people. They believed
that a new national identity was being formed in Palestine and later the
state of Israel that was not Jewish at all. They argued that it was the
anachronistic notion of Israel's Jewish identity that kept any sense of unity
and shared history from developing among the various peoples in the Middle
East: Maronites, Druze, Alawis, Kurds, Bedouins. For the Canaanites, Israel
was rightly a nation of Hebrew-speaking gentiles. The Canaanites may have
begun with certain ideas latent within Zionism, but they carried these to
such extreme and radical form that they were recognized, and correctly, by
the Zionist leadership as anti-Zionist in their aims and outlook, and were
One does not require a specially refined taste to recognize the
antisemitic flavor of Canaanite ideology. Here is a sample from Yonatan
Ratosh's 1944 manifesto called "Discourse": "Here in the Hebrew land the Jew
has removed the furry tails (shtreimel) from his head, cut off his side
locks, learned to mouth the Hebrew language and to utter slogans about a
homeland and nationalism. . . . But let us look with open eyes. He is the
same Jew, the eternal Jew of the eternal Diaspora. In France he pretends to
be a Frenchman, in Germany a German. Here he plays his game in
Hebrew. . . . He is the enemy who eats up all the best parts.
He is the one who tramples on the best of our children with his
obsequious pleading and fund-raising. . . . " 3 The Canaanites
failed as a movement, but the ideas of some of their leaders
still make themselves felt today among certain segments of
Israeli society, especially the militantly secularist left,
whose influence is likely to increase in the future.
Nevertheless, it would be simplistic to allege that antisemitic feeling
in Zion today derives primarily or even substantially (if indirectly) from
Zionism itself. If Zionism repudiated the Jewish life that existed in the
ghetto and shtetl, it did so in order to perpetuate Jewish life and not
extinguish it. The Zionists acted from the conviction that distinctions
could be made between those beliefs, customs, and attitudes that were
peculiar to Jewish life in exile and those that were permanently,
intrinsically, and universally Jewish. Along with other Jewish enlighteners,
the Zionists believed that traditional, religious Jewish culture could be
secularized in such a way that, as Hillel Halkin has written, it would remain
genuinely and identifiably Jewish in all its aspects "while at the same time
serving as the basis for a modern society whose members will share a common
cultural identity that draws on what each of them has brought to it." 4
But perhaps I have put the cart before the horse in speculating about
the roots or antecedents of Israeli antisemitism before having given evidence
that such a thing even exists. Indeed, I am more than a bit squeamish about
providing anti-Zionists (as antisemites now call themselves) with yet
another stick with which to beat the Jews, but I am afraid that the secret is
already out. Awareness of it crops up in all kinds of places, sometimes in
humorous form. The American novelist Philip Roth in The Counterlife (1986)
introduces a character who explains why she, notoriously stingy, contributes
money to Israel. "'You know why I give to Israel?' . . . 'Why?' Grossman
said. 'Because in Israel you hear the best anti-semitic jokes.'" The
Israeli humorist and cartoonist Dosh, in a column of 22 May 1987 in Ma'ariv,
drew a picture of a shopper in a supermarket specializing in antisemitic
merchandise reaching for the top shelf carrying the most expensive package,
which is adorned by a Stuermer-like caricature of a Jew and prominently
labeled "Made in Israel." The article that this cartoon illustrated spoke
of Israel's need to increase exports by embellishing products available
elsewhere in the world with unique local characteristics. Israel had done
this with certain fruits and vegetables in the past, and now she was doing it
with defamations of Israel, produced in Israel. Market research had shown a
strong demand for documentary material to justify hostile attitudes to the
Jewish state; but it also showed that customers were becoming more selective,
and no longer willing to make do with grade B merchandise produced by British
leftists or German neo-Nazis. No, these discriminating buyers wanted
authentic material, from local sources; and Israeli artists, playwrights,
intellectuals, aware of the tremendous opportunities for exporting
antisemitism from Zion itself, were responding with alacrity to the
But if Roth and Dosh are joking about antisemitism in Israel, it may
well be that, as the French say, they laugh in order not to cry. Contemplate
the following incidents and ask whether they would have provoked jokes or
outrage if they had occurred in any country except Israel. In 1984 a minor
Israeli poet named Yitzhak Laor published a series of seven poems in a
literary journal supported by the Arts Council of Israel, that is to say, by
government funds. They dealt with the war in Lebanon from a leftist point of
view, but with a virulence that went beyond garden-variety leftist effusions
toward something distinctly reminiscent of the propaganda of Nazi Germany.
General Rafael Eitan was called "a lead nose-ring in the snout of the State,"
and Menachem Begin was described as a "greedy, grunting blood-sucker," but the
most inflammatory epithets were reserved for religious young men in the army
who had studied in the hesder yeshivot of the Gush Emunim movement. In a poem
entitled "A Hymn to the Gush," Laor puts the following speech into the mouths
of the Jews: "They scorned us, but we shall celebrate this festival of our
freedom, this feast of unleavened bread, with pious shakings, and holiness
and with devotion, and in our matzot there will be the blood of Palestinian
youth, for just the same it's all a heathen slander." In spring of 1987, a
much better-known Israeli figure, the left-wing Member of the Knesset, Dedi
Zucker, followed Laor's lead. A few days after a Jewish woman named Ofra
Moses was burned to death by a fire-bomb thrown into her car by Arab
terrorists and the other passengers were badly burned (the son
Moses died of his wounds some weeks later), Zucker, a leader of
"Peace Now," and much beloved of Western television reporters
seeking Israeli-accented condemnation of Israel, took it upon
himself to interpret the religious significance of the event.
In a speech to those he called his "Palestinian brothers,"
delivered on the fourth day of Passover, Zucker said: "The
Jewish settlers need Ofra Moses' blood. They are drinking it."
5 Thus did Zucker, whose previous excursions into the realm of
theology had generally been on the level of Bob Dylan, his
"culture hero," 6 perform a public service by supplying the one
element of a traditional, "normal" European Passover that had
been sorely lacking in Israel during the first thirty-nine years
of its existence: the blood libel.
Both the poetical and the political blood libeler, it should be noted,
defamed the religious Jews of Israel with impunity. A few people had the
temerity to ask whether Laor's ejaculations ought to be subsidized by public
funds, but they were shouted down with the usual cries of censorship. Zucker
was not even criticized publicly, even though it is difficult to think of a
democratic parliament anywhere in the world that would not have censured him
or expelled him from elected office for thus indulging his baser impulses.
[He would go on to become a leading figure in the Rabin government elected in
In recent years several grisly incidents redolent of European
antisemitism have shocked the Israeli public, or at least some segments of the
Israeli public. In June of 1986, following a series of disputes between
religious and secular Jews over the opening of movie houses on Friday nights
and the destruction of Jerusalem bus kiosks displaying half-nude women in
suggestive poses, a synagogue in Tel Aviv was vandalized, swastikas were
painted on its walls, and many of its holy books burned. In December of the
same year some soldiers, during their swearing-in ceremony at the Western
Wall, flung to the ground the copies of the Hebrew Bible with which they had
been presented. In August of 1987 an eleven-year-old boy wearing the long
curls (payot) of the orthodox, was set upon in a Jerusalem street on the
sabbath and shorn of his locks.7
But these sporadic outbursts of secularist zealotry are less
important in the burgeoning of antisemitic feeling in Israel
than a weirdly refracted, nightmarishly distorted memory of the
Holocaust. Many desperate Israelis, too lazy to think through
the implications of the Holocaust for the Jewish state or too
craven to acknowledge them,8 have decided that in this as in so
many other things they will, like the ape in Kafka's story,
"Report to an Academy," imitate the average European. We all
remember how this clever ape, in order to find a way out of his
cage, in which he can neither stand nor lie nor sit, imitates the
ways of his captors, however disgusting they may appear to him:
if they spit, he will spit, if they smoke foul cigars, so will
he, and if they drink schnapps, he will drink schnapps. The
half-educated Israeli intellectual or politician, descended from
this ape, if he wants to evade the terrifying fact that Israel
has for over forty years been a beleaguered nation surrounded by
enemies eager to reduce her to sandy wastes, will imitate the
half-educated intellectuals and politicians of Europe by
identifying some or all of his countrymen with Nazis, who must
deserve such relentless enmity.
The equation of Jews with Nazis antedates the Holocaust and the
establishment of the State of Israel. It appears to have been a British
invention, one Conor Cruise O'Brien has traced back to British official
circles, which in 1941 were using the epithet "Jewish Nazi state" to refer to
Jewish Palestine.9 By now it is a mere commonplace in the parlance of
Israel-haters. The same Conor O'Brien, fresh from many conversations with
Britons in 1982, proposed making this vilification a kind of litmus paper for
the detection of antisemitism: "If your interlocutor can't keep Hitler out of
the conversation, . . . feverishly turning Jews into Nazis and Arabs into
Jews--why then, I think, you may well be talking to an anti-Jewist."10
The first step in transforming Jews into Nazis and Arabs into Jews is to
"universalize" the Holocaust by concealing the specific identity of both the
killers and their victims. Few historical "revisionists" have done this with
the gross blatancy of Israel's most aggressively antireligious politician,
Shulamit Aloni. Describing the Demjanjuk trial as "more a vendetta than a
punishment," she alleged that Holocaust education in Israel had failed because
it taught youngsters that "the Nazis did this to the Jews instead of the
message that people did this to people."11 Transform the Holocaust from a
crime of clarity committed by Nazis against Jews into an indiscriminate part
of man's inhumanity to man, and you have opened the door wide to the people
whose political purposes are served by making Arabs into Jews and Jews into
Nazis. [Aloni would later serve as minister of education in the Rabin
Israelis of the far left, it goes without saying, have been heavily
involved in this sordid enterprise for many years. Such desperadoes as
Israel Shahak, Felicia Langer, and Lea Tsemel have for over a decade adorned
their statements to the press on the Arab-Israeli "conflict" with references
to Israel as a Nazi state, and to Palestinian Arabs as Jews. Shahak, in a book
of 1975 called Le Racisme de l'Etat d'Israel, went a step beyond his
competitors in slanderous bombast by stating that "The Jews of Israel, along
with most of the Jews of the world, are at present undergoing a process of
nazification."12 But in recent years figures much closer to the center of
Israeli political and intellectual life have also plunged into the mire. In
April of 1982 the journalist Amos Elon concocted a story, which turned out to
be a tissue of lies, about books allegedly banned by the Israeli military
government in Judea and Samaria. When questioned closely by Melvin Lasky of
Encounter about what appeared to be gross misinterpretation of the facts, Elon
replied: "It's all part of the preparations for a fascist regime! Soon we'll
have it all, concentration camps as well as the burning of the books."13
During the war in Lebanon a host of Israelis, ranging from publishers of
pornographic newspapers to university professors, whom nobody outside of
Israel had heard of before became instant celebrities in Europe and America
by characterizing the Israeli government, in the words of Professor Yeshayahu
Leibowitz, as "Judeo-Nazi." Since 1982 Israelis of the most modest
intellectual endowments discovered that the licentious equation of their
country with Nazi Germany provided a short, ready, and often lucrative path
to radio and television appearances and to the lecture circuit. They could
also be enshrined as prophets in books about Israel that fall into the
category known as Israel-bashers. David Shipler's best-selling Arab and 
Jew, for example, relies heavily upon testimony from Israelis that their
country is the one true inheritor of the regime that perpetrated the
Holocaust. Shipler showed special diligence in ferreting out Israelis ready
to malign their country according to formula. Dov Yermiya, who has made a
profession of speechifying around the world about Israel's similarity to Nazi
Germany, assured Shipler that he and his friends had predicted, way back in
1945, that the Holocaust would "affect . . . Jews in Israel for the bad,"
that the former victims would become "more or less similar" to the
victimizers. 14 Another Israeli, a young publisher, told Shipler that when
his army unit told the people of Nabatiyeh to come out of their houses and
separate according to sex, he instantly saw in his mind's eye "the trains in
the '40s in Germany, one side children and women, one side men." Ran Cohen,
the leftist Knesset member, revealed to Shipler (not very reluctantly, we may
be sure) his feeling that searching the Palestinian population for members of
the PLO was just like the Nazis "making a selection from the Jewish people."
Hillel Goldberg, a Hebrew University expert on ethics praised by Shipler for
his "precision . . . of reasoning," demonstrated his surgical exactness by
saying that "What happened out there [in Sabra and Shatila] was somehow of a
kind with what happened in the Holocaust." After all these examples, one is
ready to believe the Arab writer who explains to a surprised Shipler how he
came to use Treblinka as a metaphor for the "West Bank": "An Israeli friend
of mine told me about this." Shipler himself at first "boils and rages" over
the Arab equation between Ansar detention camp and Auschwitz, but he is
helped to overcome his indignation by the radical Israeli journalist Cordelia
Edvardson, herself a Holocaust survivor. She explains to Shipler (as she was
later to explain to readers of the Washington Post in October 1983) that the
Arabs' use of the slogan "Ansar is Auschwitz" was nothing more than the
imprisoned terrorists' search for a Palestinian history.15 But not even she
was sufficiently prodigious an explainer to show why this search can take
place only amidst the ruins of European Jewish history.
In the arts too, the Holocaust has been exploited by certain Israelis for
the purpose of besmirching their countrymen in general or their political
opponents or religious fellow-citizens in particular as Nazis. It might be
argued, as Norma Rosen has done in an important essay called "The Second Life
of Holocaust Imagery,"16 that the associative habit of artistic metaphor,
which discovers likenesses in things apparently unlike, can serve to extend
awareness and understanding of the Jewish tragedy during World War II. More
often than not, however, making Jews into metaphors is a licentious habit
serving pernicious ends. In Israel as elsewhere it reveals not merely the
intellectual vulgarity and lack of distinction that pervade modern culture
but the will to deceive through outrageous hyperbole.
In 1985, for example, a show by the Haifa Painters and Sculptors
Association entitled "Israeli and Palestinian Artists Against Occupation and
for Freedom of Expression" advertised itself in the stridently gaudy red,
white, and black of the Nazi flag. How better to enrage Jews in the Jewish
state, especially in a building located on Zionism Avenue? The Nazi-style
posters were more suitable than their designers had imagined, for the
scandalous center of attraction of the show was a painting by one Harold
Rubin depicting a Nazi thug with "Jewish" features and a Star of David on his
hat, twisted (in the unsubtle style of Arab and Russian cartoons that appeared
after the Six-Day War) into a swastika. The hoodlum's hand is raised in the
Nazi salute, and the painting is labeled "Judenjugend," i.e., the Israeli
Hitlerjugend.17 One had only to look at this painting and a few others like
it to understand why the exhibit's organizers had chosen for it so ungainly a
title: anyone who voiced a protest about the antisemitic intent of such
works as Rubin's could be derided as an enemy of free expression. Israeli
antisemites have derived at least one benefit from the Enlightenment: they
know how to advocate, when it suits them, a tolerance so capacious that it
tolerates fanatical intolerance itself.
At least one major Israeli cultural institution has virtually based
itself upon the unrelenting pursuit of the Israeli-Nazi equation. In the
article mentioned earlier, the Israeli humorist Dosh singled out the Haifa
Municipal Theatre as the most consistently successful exporter of Israeli
antisemitism to a world eager for something better than the shoddy goods
turned out by Europeans, who had greater experience in antisemitic production
but few fresh ideas and little sense of immediacy to their subject, Jews now
being in short supply in Europe. The productions of the Haifa Company have
been received with acclaim in Berlin, in Chicago, in Washington, in
Edinburgh, despite the fact that no serious literary critic would place the
company's playwrights on a level with Israel's many distinguished poets and
novelists; and few critics would rank them above mediocrity. Whence, then,
derives their astonishing success in the theatrical centers of the world?
The answer is that the Haifa Municipal Theatre specializes in Israeli-
produced antisemitism, and also--an added attraction of a curious kind--
government-supported antisemitism, since the theatre receives large public
support from the Cultural Division of the Ministry of Culture and Education,
support so generous that the company puts on productions, as one critic
wrote, "overlavish even by Western standards."18 When the Jewish community
of Frankfurt protested in 1985 the Fassbinder play titled Trash, the City and 
Death, one of the protesters held aloft a poster reading "subsidized
antisemitism." He might well have offered it to his co-religionists in
Dusseldorf who have twice had occasion to protest against Haifa Theatre
productions staged in that city as antisemitic, or at least powerful
encouragements to antisemitism.
The reasons why these Israeli theatrical productions find favor with
foreign audiences eager for new lethal ammunition to fire at Israel are not
far to seek. Yehoshua Sobol's The Soul of a Jew recounted the career of the
half-deranged Otto Weininger, an Austrian Jewish antisemite. The play
offended many Israelis when it was first performed in October 1982, but was
far more warmly received at the Edinburgh Festival, where it supplied the
opening program in summer 1983. Sobol had already indicated his curiosity
about Weininger in Night of the Twentieth (1976), a play about young Jews who
(in the third aliyah) leave their homes in Europe for the express purpose of
driving the Arabs out of their homes in Palestine, a play that ends by
showing a degenerate Jew about to open fire on an Arab village. But this
play about a psychotic Viennese-Jewish antisemite seemed the very thing for
the Haifa company to produce in 1982 when the Lebanese War was raging and much
of Europe was fulminating against the evil inclinations of the Zionists.
In the course of Soul of a Jew, Weininger insists frequently on the
incompatibility of Judaism and Zionism, with special emphasis on the
loathsomeness of the former. "You have to understand," he tells a Zionist
character named Clara, "that Judaism is an abyss in the Jewish soul. It is
bound to devour what we try to build upon it." Some of his anti-Jewish
reflections are less "philosophical": "From time immemorial Jews have never
done a thing that does not pay off in hard cash." But mainly it is the
contradiction between Zionism and Judaism that he insists on, as in his final
speech before shooting himself: "Zionism aspires to goals totally opposed to
the spirit of Judaism. It needs to oppose and conquer Judaism from within,
rid itself of Judaism once and for all. . . . " At one point Weininger even
goes so far as to say something favorable about Zionism, calling it "the last
remnant of nobleness left in Judaism." But this line appears only in the
original Hebrew and had mysteriously disappeared when the play reached
The familiar techniques of literary apologetics have been practiced by
Sobol's defenders among the journalists and assistant professors. Weininger,
they argue, is a literary invention, and why suppose that the author would put
his own ideas in the mouth of a lunatic, any more than Swift put his own ideas
in the mouth of the narrator of A Modest Proposal or Tale of a Tub?
Unfortunately, Sobol himself has endorsed Weininger's definition of
Judaism, for it seems to him a potent weapon in his struggle against the
religious Jews of Israel. "I think Judaism is taking over Zionism," he said
in commenting about the play. Referring to the (to him) deplorable elements
of both Diaspora Jewry and Israeli religious nationalists, he continued:
"Weininger, just as Zionism was beginning, saw where things would lead. If,
35 years after the establishment of the state, there isn't massive
immigration, then Weininger's claim is pertinent." All of this authorial
"interpretation," like many of Weininger's speeches, might be used to buttress
the claim that Sobol is really defending Zionism in its pristine form against
the incursions of religious obscurantism. But Sobol himself has made this a
difficult task for even his nimblest apologists. What, asked an interviewer,
was his underlying purpose in recreating the world of fin-de-siecle Viennese
Jewish antisemitism? "We're used to seeing Zionism as a healthy thing. I
want to show that Zionism is a sick flower which grows in sick soil." Since
the title of his play in Hebrew--nefesh yehudi--implies a generalization--
i.e., the soul of any Jew, the Haifa rabbinate might have been forgiven for
seeing Sobol's portrait of his misogynistic, antisemitic, sexually perverted
protagonist as a celebration of "blasphemy and deformity, depravity and Jewish
In the same tumultuous year, 1982, a theatre in Tel Aviv, not wishing to
be outdone by Haifa in shocking the Jews, staged Hanoch Levin's The Patriot.
This play is about a man eager to flee Israel's endless wars and ruinous
inflation, who invests in land in Israel's administered territories, hoping
to make a profit if a settlement should be built there, and a still greater
profit if the government should dismantle the settlement and pay
compensation. The play is replete with the orthodoxies characteristic of the
herd of independent thinkers who comprise Israel's theatrical establishment:
religious Jews are hypocrites, perverts, and sadists; Israeli parents are
sending their children to war in order to make financial profit; and--this
above all-- Jews have become Nazis. Hanoch Levin's The Patriot became the
first play ever to have been banned in its entirety by the Israeli Film and
Theatre Censorship Board. The scene which caused Levin most trouble with the
censors was the one in which the patriot must kick an Arab shoe-shine boy to
maintain the standards of Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria. The scene
ends with the boy cowering in fear before the patriot's gun, a scene
choreographed to refer to the famous picture of a Jewish boy in Europe
cowering before the Nazis.19 Coming a close second in its power to offend
was a scene in which Jewish sabbath candles are used as instruments to
torture Arabs.
The newspaper Ha'aretz conceded that The Patriot "may indeed seriously
harm the basic values of the nation, the state and Judaism," but opposed
censorship in accord with standard liberal dogma. People unacquainted with
Israeli life need perhaps to be apprised of the curious fact that Israeli
liberals go well beyond John Stuart Mill in their readiness to accommodate
libel and sedition. Mill wrote that in every permanent political society
there must be "in the constitution of the State something which is settled,
something permanent, and not to be called in question: something which, by
general agreement, has a right to be where it is, and to be secure against
disturbance."20 In a Jewish state established three years after the end of
World War II that "something" might be thought to include the conviction
that a Jew is not a Nazi, that Zionism is not racism, and that the victims of
the Holocaust were Jews and not Arabs. But so far Israeli liberals have
decided otherwise, with what consequences we may one day see.
In April 1984, the Haifa players gained more of the peculiar success
that comes with scandal by staging Yehoshua Sobol's play Ghetto. The English
translation of this Holocaust musical is introduced by an Israeli critic named
Uri Rapp who declares--appropriately enough, given what follows--that
"historical accuracy is unimportant in a work of art." The play's hero is an
anti-Zionist Jew named Herman Kruk who belongs to the socialist Bund party.
Its chief Nazi, Kittel, turns out to be not just a great admirer of Jews
(Gershwin is his favorite composer), but a Talmudic scholar whose mind was
formed not in Tubingen or Heidelberg but in the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem. He is also, needless to add, a devotee of Zionism, particularly
of the Revisionist Zionism of Jabotinsky.21 The Jews of the Vilna Ghetto are
shown as eager to develop a commercial enterprise out of mending German
uniforms, and to carry out roundups (Aktionen) and selections. Jacob Gens,
the Nazi-appointed Jewish chief of the ghetto, offers the following apologia
for his conduct: "In order to spare some Jews their clear conscience I had no
choice but to plunge into the filth, leaving my own conscience behind." For
the Bundist librarian Kruk, the clear sign that Gens is the dutiful puppet of
the Nazis' evil intentions is his "Zionist" speech requiring Hebraization of
the ghetto. Any such encouragement of Jewish national feeling demonstrates
that the Nazis have "succeeded," since "Nationalism breeds nationalism."
Sobol's Holocaust musical was soon exported to Germany and performed at
the Freie Volksbuhne of Berlin in June 1984. It was nominated by the German
Critics Poll of Theater Heute as best foreign play of the year in 1985, and
Peter Zadek's German production was chosen as best show in Germany for 1985.
Many German reviewers spoke gleefully of how the play depicted Jews as
"accessories to the Holocaust," and one wrote that "Ghetto depicts how
incredibly easily the Jews allowed themselves to be pushed into the role of
victims, sometimes to the point of virtually obscene collaboration with the
perpetrators."22 At the party celebrating the premiere of Ghetto in Germany,
the hosts showed an unerring instinct for the level of taste displayed by
Sobol himself: they served cupcakes in the form of the yellow star. At
another reception for Sobol during his company's 1985 tour of Germany, the
director of a leading German theatre thanked his Israeli guests for having
appeared there: "The works of Yehoshua Sobol," he asserted, "will help us to
better forget Auschwitz." But then, caught by the embarrassment of
unintended candor in words too true to be good, he corrected himself:
"better understand the meaning of Auschwitz."
Having done so much to assure Europeans, especially Germans, that the
Jews of Europe cooperated actively in their own destruction and were not
morally distinguishable from the Nazis, who were themselves crypto-Zionists,
the Haifa Theatre had now to demonstrate that the evil spirit of Nazism found
its continuator not in Europe at all but in the very state that had given
lodging to those who survived the Holocaust, the state of the Jews
themselves. The Palestinian (1987) deals with a favorite cliche of
contemporary Israeli writing, a love affair between an Arab and a Jew that is
doomed to sterility and failure because of the prejudices and hostility of
that convenient culprit "society," especially its Jewish sector. The Jews in
the play are depicted as, for the most part, ugly, bigoted, brutal,
"fascistic." The Palestinian Arab girl in the title role has been so
atrociously treated by these Jews that, when asked for her address in one
scene, she replies, "Nuremburg Avenue, corner of Auschwitz." The incipient
Nazi tendencies of the European Jews in Sobol's earlier play have now reached
their full flowering in Israeli "Nazism." When invited by morbidly curious
journalists to interpret his own play, Sobol, with characteristic
intellectual delicacy, said that he was warning of the "danger of fascist
tendencies in Israeli society" and, in a rhetorical question meant to
implicate everyone but himself, asked "How much anti-Semitism do we carry
within ourselves?" If we were to generalize from the example of Sobol, the
answer would have to be plenty.
In Germany, once again, many reviewers interpreted the play in the
spirit of the Zionism-Racism resolution passed by the UN when Kurt Waldheim
directed that august body; and they drew from it the lessons that Sobol
intended. One praised it for showing "the existing reality of Zionism" and
the way in which "the Israelis behave as a master race . . . towards the
Palestinians." Another praised Sobol for having boosted German morale by
"knocking the Jews from their pedestal of being taboo" and "showing them
without their halo." Sobol had courageously displayed the "ugly" Israeli and
had been unabashed about having this nasty specimen "express his fascist
attitudes." Henryk Broder, to whose excellent discussion of the play's
reception in Germany I am indebted, described how, at the premiere in the
newly renovated Bonn theatre, the audience burst into frenzied, frantic
ovations and "showered Sobol with cries of bravo." Were they in ecstasy over
the dramatic or lyric power of a play that the more sophisticated and reserved
German literary critics variously described as "artistically and politically
mindless, even embarrassing," "sentimental and trivializing," and "spewing
kitsch"?23 Or were they expressing their gratitude for being released at
last from whatever burden of guilt they might have felt for their country's
role in the greatest crime of the century, released, moreover, by an Israeli
Jew who assures them that the spirit of Nazism has moved to the Middle East
and taken up residence among the Jews themselves? Some Germans, to be sure,
were less grateful for a play that presented Jews in something like the way
they had once been depicted in Nazi propaganda: all- powerful, aggressive,
greedy, brutal. These ungrateful Germans were, of course, the Jews. The
Jewish community of Dusseldorf, which had already protested vociferously in
1985 against the antisemitic flavor of Ghetto, now appealed to the Haifa
Municipal Theatre not to perform The Palestinian there. Antisemitism, they
argued, was already doing very well in Germany, and there was no need to carry
coals to Newcastle. The theatre's board of directors, after endless
wrangling, finally acceded to the Dusseldorf Jewish community's request in May
of 1987. While the Dusseldorf Jews were wondering whether it was for such
things as the Haifa Municipal Theatre that we needed a Jewish state the play
was being performed elsewhere in Germany as well as in Holland and Belgium.
In February of 1988 the PLO's Madison Avenue branch contrived a scheme
to send to Israel a ship intended "to echo the voyage of the Exodus." The
event was laden with a great force of symbolic revelation, but what it
revealed was not what its designers intended. The real Exodus, as some may
still recall, was in 1947 carrying 4550 Jewish survivors of Nazi death camps,
and was turned away from Palestine by the British who then ruled there. This
year's Arab imitation of the Exodus carried 135 terrorists deported over the
years from Israeli-administered territories--the sweepings from the gaming
tables in Monte Carlo, the cafes in Paris and Rome, the lecture platforms of
countless left-wing groups; they were accompanied by 300 journalists and 200
assorted well-wishers, among them Israeli Jews.
What moved each of the groups on this ship of knaves and fools to
participate in the charade, the symbolic effort to recreate Palestinian Arabs
as Jews? For what the New York Times (February 16) referred to as the "scores
of minor Western dignitaries and journalists" the equation of Arabs with Jews
and, in consequence, of Israelis with Nazis, affords a welcome escape from
any lingering feelings, however faint, of responsibility for what their
countries did, or allowed to be done, to European Jewry. As for the
Palestinian Arabs, they have long been consumed by resentment that the Jews
should have permanent ownership of all that Holocaust suffering which they
themselves would very much like, retrospectively, to share. Palestinian Arabs
suffer from what might be called "Holocaust envy," a feeling so strong that
it prevents them from seeing that their compulsive desire to appropriate a
history that is not their own is itself powerful proof of just how contrived
and artificial is the Palestinian sense of national identity. A movement
that can conceive of itself only as a mirror image of its Jewish enemy is an
anti-nation that derives much of its purpose and meaning from the desire to
destroy and replace a living nation.
But what moved the Israelis who wanted to participate in this PLO
publicity stunt? What does it say about their sense of identity as Jews that
they can confirm or discover it only by allying themselves with Arabs who are
pretending to be Jews and who are constantly accusing the Jewish state of
being essentially Nazi? Many plausible if not wholly convincing motives
suggest themselves. The bitterness of Israeli leftists over having lost what
had begun to seem their ownership of government in the 1977 election to people
they considered their cultural inferiors has never abated. Indeed, it has
been nurtured by the inducements of fame and fortune available to Israelis
willing to denounce their country and countrymen as Nazis. I have already
alluded to the desperate search for an explanation of the unrelenting
hostility, for over four decades, of Israel's neighbors. It is an old law of
Jewish history that external aggression, if maintained long enough, will
exacerbate the tendency of the more timorous Jews to blame other Jews for
the general misfortune of the community. Thus Yehoshua Sobol explains Arab
unwillingness to accept the Jewish state by charging that Judaism is
essentially "barbaric" and therefore by its nature a provocation: the Jews
always, he says, "bring destruction on themselves by provoking great
The desperation of Israelis who resort to antisemitism as a means of
explaining the world signifies the failure of dogmatically secular Zionism to
provide Israeli Jews with a culture and an inner world of their own. If
secular Zionism had succeeded in its intellectual and spiritual aims as well
as it had in its territorial and political ones, none of its
offspring would today resort to their enemies' travesty of the
Holocaust as a means of understanding their own past. It is no
accident that the Holocaust is so large a bone in the collective
throat of Israel's most militantly secular party, the Citizens'
Rights Movement. The flamboyant Shulamit Aloni's colleagues have
not lagged behind their leader in expressing the wish to transfer
the cherished badge of victimhood from Jews to Arabs. In March
1989 Citizens' Rights Knesset member Ran Cohen told a group of
Palestinian Arabs that he and his fellow leftists had "come to
help save you Palestinians from the 'pogroms' of the
occupation."25  Six weeks later, CRM Knesset member Yossi Sarid
reluctantly expressed regret that French President Francois
Mitterrand had met with Yasser Arafat on Holocaust Memorial Day,
"not because it means anything to me,"26 but because it fed the
fire of critics of the idea of Israeli negotiations with Arafat,
which Sarid eagerly supported. How inconvenient and bothersome
that the burden of Jewish memory should keep Jews from breaking
bread with the chairman of the leading organization of Jew-
killers in the world!

Jewish tradition holds that 600,000 Israelites witnessed the giving of
the Law at Sinai; and historians record that in 1948 657,000 Israelites
witnessed and participated in the birth of the State, a birth that took place
only a few years after the greatest dying in the history of the Jewish people.
Was not this a miracle? Was not the absorption, within just two years, of
another 600,000 people--and this in the midst of severe economic hardship and
in the wake of a war that had destroyed one percent of the population--a
miracle? Were not the revival of Hebrew and the ingathering of the exiles
miracles? The age of miracles is not past, but if you teach your children
for two or three generations that God is incredible and revelation
impossible, some of them will eventually fail to see miracles that take place
before their very eyes, miracles in which they themselves have participated.
Light is a quality of matter, but blind people don't see it.
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