Book Review: Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers

RADICALS, RABBIS, AND PEACEMAKERS: Conversations With Jewish Critics of Israel, by Seth Farber, Common Courage Press,  252  Pages, $l9.95.  207-525-0900.

Reviewed by Michael Steven Smith

My grandparents came to America from Hungary in 1912. My family who stayed there and the Hungarian Jewish population were mostly killed by the facists in the bitter winter of l944, some 800,000. Twenty thousand alone died of the cold and disease, huddled in the great unheated synagogue, the largest in the world, on Dohany Street in Budapest. I was in Budapest with my wife and sister and friends this past October vacationing and visiting my cousins. As it happened it was during Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday and new year. We are not religious, nor are my Hungarian relatives, but we asked them to take us  to that synagogue  for Yom Kippur services. It was quite stirring to be there amongst the remnant of that ancient Jewish community that had been in Budapest going back to the times of the Romans.

My Hungarian cousin Anti is still alive and vigorous at age 96. He was not picked up in l944 with the others but rather in l94l, because he was a communist. So was his wife Manci. They managed to place their two year old son Vili with a sympathetic Christian woman before being arrested and put in separate labor camps. Anti soon escaped and fought in the forests with the Partisans. He is figure mentioned by his country’s historians. Manci lived. In l945 with the Russian liberation they returned to Budapest to fetch their son. Vili answered the door. “I am your mother,” said Manci. “No you are not,” answered Vili. “My mother was beautiful.” She was ninety pounds and bald. So they started anew.

The history of the Zionists in Hungary is a sordid one, even before they established their exclusivist colonial settler state in Palestine. My cousins, who were not important people, were amongst the several thousand Hungarian Jews who survived the fire. A pact was signed by Dr. Rudolph Kastner of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee and Nazi exterminator Adolph Eichmann in l944 allowing 600 prominent Jews to leave in exchange for Zionist silence on the fate of the remainder. Malchiel Greenwald, a Hungarian survivor, exposed the deal and was sued by the Israeli government, whose leaders at the time had actually drawn up the terms of the pact. Greenwald won. The Israeli court concluded, “The sacrifice of the majority of Hungarian Jews, in order to rescue the prominent ones (and send them to colonize Palestine – MSS) was the basic element in the agreement between Kastner and the Nazis….In addition to its Extermination Department and Looting Department, the Nazi S.S. opened a Rescue Department headed by Kastner.” ( Judgment given on June 22, 1955, Protocol of Criminal Case 124/53 in District Court, Jerusalem.)

In point of fact, members of the Zionist movement actively collaborated with Nazism from the beginning. The World Zionist Organization sabotaged world Jewry’s attempt to boycott the Nazi economy in order to be allowed to send money from Germany to Palestine. They fought against liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, for they wanted European Jews to go to Palestine, not America. As Ralph Schoenman, like me, an American Jew of Hungarian descent, wrote  “This obsession with colonizing Palestine and overwhelming the Arabs led the Zionist movement to oppose any rescue of the Jews facing extermination, because the ability to deflect manpower to Palestine would be impeded.(The Hidden History of Zionism, Veritas Press, P. 50)   David Ben Gurion summarized to a meeting of “left” Zionists in 1938 in England: “If I knew that it would be possible to save al the children in Germany by bringing them over to England and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I opt for the second alternative.” (cited in Lenni Brenner, “Zionism in the age of the Dictators,” p.49)

The first time I toured and worked in Israel was over the summer of 1959. I was sixteen years old. Israel was eleven. Anti’s brother Carl and his son managed to survive and get to Israel. The lived in Jaffa, a once Arab village north of Tel Aviv which was ethnically cleansed in l948. I found them in a two room apartment off an alley. Carl’s son, a boy of ten, greeted me at the door. He wore a blue shirt embroidered with white Chinese characters on the pocket. I recognized the shirt; it had once been my favorite. My grandmother must have sent it in one of the care packages she regularly assembled and mailed. Carl is dead now. So is his son. He was the last Israeli soldier to die in the 1967 war.

Seth Farber’s extraordinarily intelligent book, consisting as it does of interviews with ten eloquent critics of Israel, and a fine summation by Farber,  strikingly demonstrates, as
did my cousin’s death, that not only is Israeli a dangerous place for Jews, not the safe haven advertised by the Zionists, but the very existence of the State,  where when the state was declared 385 out of 475 Palestinian cities, towns, and villages were raised to the ground; where the construction of an apartheid wall and the widespread use of torture are an international disgrace;  where to live, lease, sharecrop, or work on 93% of the land administered by the Jewish National Fund one must establish four generations of maternal Jewish descent; where only its Jewish citizens have equal rights;  has undermined Judaism’s ethical and humane tradition and the moral capital oppressed Jews had accumulated over the centuries.

Farber writes in his introduction that “This book, this compilation is intended to be an affirmation of the moral and spiritual tradition of Judaism – or at least of certain aspects of this tradition that probably most Jews, most Americans, agree constitute a valuable legacy. It is based on my conviction, shared by most of the individuals interviewed in this book, that this legacy was betrayed and its currently threatened with extinction by the policies of the state of Israel, and in particular its violation of the Palestinian people. It was betrayed also by the American Jewish establishment which gives active and unqualified support to Israel’s and has been willing to turn a blind eye to the considerable evidence that Israel’s actions over the last few decades are those of a…state engaged in brutal military Occupation in violation of fundamental principles of international law….Most American Jews are reluctant to even consider the argument that Israel belies the ethical ideals of Judaism at its best – of prophetic Judaism – and instead have endowed Israel with mythic status as the political embodiment of Jews’ eternal innocence and goodness…”

Farber believes that “What is ultimately at stake because of the deeds of  ‘the Jewish state’ is the Jewish spiritual tradition itself and that the apologists for Israel “are betraying Judaism.”  Noam Chomsky,  states in his interview that “I think the creation of a state as a Jewish state was a serious mistake…I thought then, and think now, that it is wrong in principle to establish a state that is not the state of its citizens, but rather, as the High Court later defined it, though it was clear enough from 1948 – the sovereign state of the Jewish people, in Israel and the diaspora.  Hence it is my state as an American Jew, though it is not the state of non-Jewish citizens.  For the same reason, I would oppose moves to turn the U.S. into the sovereign state of the white (Christian, whatever) people, and I object to Islamic states, etc.  It is a matter of principle, quite apart from the consequences.”   He too, like contributors Joel Kovel, Norman Finkelstein, Marc Ellis, Daniel Boyarin, Steve Quester, Adam Shapiro of the International Solidarity Movement, Phyllis Bennis, Norton Mezvinsky, and  Orthodox Neturei Karta Rabbi David Weiss, his daughter Ora Weiss, make the central point of the book in their interviews that those who challenge the present consensus are keeping the prophetic tradition alive.   In Rabbi Weiss’ words, “”Zionism is the antithesis of Judaism” because Jews in their exile were supposed to be compassionate, “the work of the Jew is to perfect himself as best he could, to serve G-d and to emulate G-d and he should be a light unto nations,” not “oppressing a second person.”

Baylor University professor and Jewish theologin Marc Ellis says that the Jewish embrace of power and empire mirrors 4th century Roman Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity  (in the middle of a battle to better his chances) and the conversion and transformation of the Roman Empire to a Christian enterprise.  He says today we have “Constantinian Judiasm” where “The Jewish Community is divided between those who support Jewish power without question and those who resist the use of that power to oppress and silence.  A Constantinian Judaism has come into being, mirroring the empire-oriented Christianity that emerged…There is a civil war in the Jewish world that crosses geographic and cultural differences.  There are Constantinian Jews in Israel and America;  there are Jews of conscience all over the Jewish world.”

Ellis reflects that “It is little solace to remember that the prophetic, our great gift to the world, our indigenous practice, has always been heard and rejected by the Jewish community.  The prophets have always been persecuted within the Jewish world and one hears through the ages  the cries of Aaron and Moses, Jeremiah and Isaiah, Amos and Jesus.  They have always and everywhere been surrounded by darkness and violence…I cannot embrace my own history or religion without embracing the Palestinian people.  I cannot affirm the prophetic without practicing it in my own lifetime.  The prophetic is not for the few or for someone else or for another time.  It is the now deeply grasped, even in loss and at a cost.”

The ideal my cousin Anti fought for was the communist goal of universal human emancipation.  This was not the Zionists’ aim,  neither in its theoretical conception nor in its predictable and proven results.    In l887 The Zionist Congress sent a delegation of rabbis from Vienna to Palestine.  They reported back that “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.”.  The Zionists nonetheless persisted with their project of  overwhelming and displacing the Palestinians with the consequence that in the name of Judaism they have put into jeopardy the morality of the religion that gave us the ten commandments, especially the first.  The eminent scholar of Jewish origin,  Isaac Deutscher, wrote in the wake of the war that killed my cousin that “I hope that together with other nations, the Jews will ultimately become aware – or regain awareness – of the inadequacy of the nation-state, and that they will find their way back to the moral and political heritage that the genius of the Jews, who have gone beyond Jewry (Spinoza, Marx, Luxembourg, Heine, Freud, Einstein, Trotsky) has left us – the message of universal human emancipation.”  (Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, l968, p. 4l.)

This book with its probing interviews and unsparing analyses is a sunbeam of piercing truth, carrying the debate over Israel/Palestine to the highest level of understanding.  As Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. has written:  “For me, indebted as I am to the prophets from Isaiah to Jesus,  (Seth Farber) has illumed the human vocation…to labor on behalf of justice and peace, to stand with the victimized; to oppose war and its vile tactics…The book is indispensable, given…the ongoing tragedy of the Palestinian people.”

By Michael Steven Smith

Michael Steven Smith was a member of The National Lawyers Guild delegation which traveled to the West Bank and Gaza in l985 just before the first intifada to investigate Israeli human rights violations.  He later testified before a committee of the United Nations.  He practices law in New York City.

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