Tuesday, June 2, 2009

David N. Myers’ “Between Jew & Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz”

Well, I am going to go out on a limb. If there is one book that has come out recently on the history of Israel and Zionism that you should read, then David N. Myers' book on Simon Rawidowicz is the one.

Myers's book contains the translation of a chapter that Rawidowicz wrote for, and then suppressed from, his great work on Jewish nationalism, Bavel vi-Yrushalayim (Babylonia and Jerusalem). In that chapter, written c. 1956, Rawidowicz called for the government of the State of Israel to admit responsibility for the flight of the Palestinian refugees, and to let them return to their homes. His arguments were both pragmatic and moral. That they were written in a beautiful and fluent Hebrew by one of the most interesting Zionists of the twentieth century gives the chapter special signficance. Why he suppressed the chapter remains a mystery to this day and is the subject of Myers' scholarly speculations.

Simon Rawidowicz was a leading historian of Jewish philosophy who died, tragically at the age of 60, in 1957. A native of Grayewo, Poland, he inherited his Zionism, Hebraism, and the love of the study of Torah from his father, a religious Jew who had learned in the yeshivas of Mir and Volozhin, yet who was attracted to the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) and Jewish nationalism. Like other Eastern European Jews of a philosophical bent (e.g., Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel) Simon traveled as a young man to Berlin to study philosophy. There he became involved in Hebrew publishing and Hebrew literature. His introduction and edition of Krochmal's Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zman (Guide for the Perplexed of our Time) is still unsurpassed. A scholar recently told me that his edition of one of Moses Mendelssohn's writings was first-rate. Of course, I am familiar with his articles on medieval Jewish philosophy.

Rawidowicz, as a Zionist, Hebraist, and scholar of Jewish philosophy, would have been ideal for the fledgling Hebrew University, and, indeed, for many years he actively sought a position there. But the chair of Jewish philosophy went to Julius Guttmann, a liberal German Jewish professor at the Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums in Berlin, who knew little Hebrew. Remember that the Hebrew University in its early years, especially the faculty of Jewish Studies that included men like Buber and Scholem, was composed almost entirely of "yekkes", i.e., German Jews. (For years there was no department of German language and literature at Hebrew University – who needed one?) And Rawidowicz, the Ost-Jude from Poland, did not have the academic reputation of Guttmann. Rawidowicz spent some time in England at Leeds University and ended up in America, first at the College of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and then as the first occupant of the Phillip W. Lown Chair of Jewish Philosophy and Hebrew Literature and the first Chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. That makes Rawidowicz the first chairman of a Jewish Studies program at an American university, I suppose.

Rawidowicz's Babylonia and Jerusalem, a huge Hebrew work that has never been translated into English, was a statement of his own philosophy of the Jewish people, and of the relations between the Jewish Diaspora and Zion. Unlike Zionists who preached the "negation of the diaspora," Rawidowicz saw an essential relationship between the two poles of Jewish existence. In that sense his ending up in America, rather than in the State of Israel (a name he disliked intensely, as he famously wrote to Ben-Gurion) was entirely appropriate, but had he come to Hebrew University, his ideas would have become more influential. As it is, his insistence on writing in Hebrew in Waltham, Massachusetts, marginalized him both from the American Jewish scene and the scene in Israel.

David N. Myers, a professor of history at UCLA and the director of its Center for Jewish Studies, has been interested for a long time in Rawidowicz, but instead of writing a full-fledged biography, decided to translate (together with Arnold J. Band) the suppressed chapter as part of a larger book on Rawidowicz. In fact, the chapter is only sixty-five pages of a three hundred page book. To fill out the book, Myers has several introductory chapters and nine appendices that include some of the classic documents to which Rawidowicz refers (i.e., the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, The "Law of Return,", the "Nationality Law," etc. Some may feel that this unnecessarily pads the book; I don't. They provide the broad context that is needed and should be read together with Rawidowicz' chapter.

As for Rawidowicz's arguments themselves, some seem justified by history; others not. But the tone of moral urgency and indignation is as true today as it was then.

"The question of these refugees is not an Arab question; it is a Jewish question, a question that 1948 placed upon the Jewish people…Let not a single Arab refugee from the State of Israel remain in the world. This is an existential imperative for the State of Israel from which it cannot flinch…" (173)

"Defenders of the plight of the refugees, including those among the Gentile nations, claim that if those hundreds of thousands of Arabs had not left Palestine in 1948, the State of Israel would not have arisen at all. And if they be permitted to return to settle in the State of Israel, it will be destroyed. Is this an argument of defense on behalf of the State of Israel? Reflect on it well and you will see that they are making a mockery of the dream of Zionism at its core. These defenders affirm that they never believed in the dream of Zionism. They always knew that it could not be undertaken without destroying the Arabs in the land of Israel. In their view, there was no Zionism to speak of between 1884 and 1948. Its goals were in fact nothing but an illusion." (174)

"I am ignorant in military and security matters, but I do know one thing: practically speaking, five or six hundred thousand Arab refugees from the State of Israel outside of its borders are much more dangerous to the state than five or six hundred thousand additional Arab citizens within its borders…Any aspiration that an Arab "fifth column" may have regarding the State of Israel is nothing compared to the aspiration of those hundreds of thousands of refugees who dream night and day, by virtue of their stateless existence, of the possibility of creating a state right now, of realizing this goal in the immediate future." (174-175)

"Never in their history did Jews force refugees into the world. Let not the State of Israel begin its path by forcing refugees into the world." (176)

And, finally:

"May there not have to be among Jews in coming generations those who will call to justice the generations of the gatekeepers of the state who locked the gate to former residents of the land – and who thereby opened, through this closing, the door to their defamers and persecutors in surrounding countries. It is in your hands, guides of the current generation in the state, to safeguard those who will come after you from the verdict of that future day of retribution. May it not come, but if it does come, what will be the price that the children of ours sons and daughters will pay?"

One of the great joys – and weighty responsibilities – of the historian is to reincarnate the forgotten voices of the past, so that we can listen to them and learn from their neglected counsels. The time still may not be ripe for a Rawidowicz, a Magnes, a Buber, or a Leibowitz to be heard.

But that time is coming soon. As Israel becomes more and more deeply racist (Today I saw a big metal sign outside a company that says proudly that it employs only Jews), as its rightwing legislators compete with each other to propose legislation restricting the rights of its Israel's Arab minority, as its Minister of Justice equates Arab observance of Nakbah day with "wishing the State to fall and to throw its inhabitants into the sea" (here), as it forces the entire country into an unnecessary air raid exercise, thus further sowing panic, as a government radio announcer wonders out loud on the air whether Obama is more "Hussein" than "Barack" --

The time for the likes of a Rawidowicz is coming sooner than you think.


Tamar Orvell said...

Terrific kindness you show by discussing the book and the sage, prescient voice of Rawidowicz. Question: You quote him on, "...State of Israel [as] (a name he disliked intensely, as he famously wrote to Ben-Gurion)...". Would you know his thinking, and alternatives he proposed?

David L. said...

It's sad we never knew about Rav Rawidowicz before.

LeaNder said...

because Ireland and Maine are territories, geographical regions. But Israel is not a territory; it is a region

Could you explain for a curious foreign nitwit the difference between region and geographical region? Are you alluding to the undefined borders?

I am admittedly always a bit puzzled by the argument of Richard Witty, a friend and strong critic of Phil Weiss (in Phil's comment section) He repeats over and over again that Israel is a state for the Jews just as France is a state for the French. Maybe I should ask him what precise point or combination of historical events makes him choose France. I may not have done, since it usually occurs in contexts were it feels like a defensive action, and the choice may not have any specific meaning.

Jerry Haber said...

Rawidowicz argued -- correctly -- that Israel in Jewish sources means the Jewish People. Hence wherever there are Jews there is Israel.

To this day I have students who think that, classically, Israel refers to a state or a territory rather than to a people. So if there is a rabbinical statement about "All Israel has a portion in the world to come" these students think that this means all Israelis have a portion in the world-to-come.

Ben-Gurion's response to Rawidowicz was, naturally, that you cannot be a complete Jew outside of the State of Israel. That may be true, but it is clear to me, after thirty years of living here, that I can't be a complete Jew in the State of Israel. Certainly not the sort of Jew I would like to be. Actually, that is not correct. The Jews who fight injustice on behalf of the Palestinians are a lot more authentic than many of the frum Jews I know.

Another alternative to "The State of Israel", apparently, was "Zion", but that was ruled out as offensive to the Arab minority, who would turn into "Zionists" automatically upon the declaration of the State.

By the way, the State of Israel -- i.e., the State of the Jewish People -- is an odd construction, if you think about it. We talk about the country of Ireland, or the State of Maine -- because Ireland and Maine are territories, geographical regions. But Israel is not a territory; it is a people.

June 4, 2009 12:41 PM

Jerry Haber said...

Lea, I messed up. Please read the comment now.

Jerry Haber said...


Does a male have to be circumcised in order to be a French citizen?

You can send Witty to my posts on the law of return.

I want Israel to be a state of the Israelis. So citizenship equals being a member of the Israeli people/nation. That is the situation in France. You can be a muslim and French; heck, you can even be an American and French, I think; but you cannot be a Muslim and Jewish in the State of Israel.

Of course, I have no problem with Israel being the state of the Jews, if you can become a Jew through naturalization. So Palestinians could become Jews like they become American.

But Witty doesn't like this, I guess.

Anonymous said...

"Reflect on it well and you will see that they are making a mockery of the dream of Zionism at its core. These defenders affirm that they never believed in the dream of Zionism. They always knew that it could not be undertaken without destroying the Arabs in the land of Israel. In their view, there was no Zionism to speak of between 1884 and 1948. Its goals were in fact nothing but an illusion."

Jerry, do you believe that cultural Zionism was not an illusion? Do you believe that there was a way to create an exclusive political entity in somebody else's land which would have been welcomed by the land inhabitants?

I think that cultural Zionists lost ground to political Zionists since they were dealing with illusions while political Zionists were dealing with reality.

No ideology or national movement justifies the destruction and/or dispossession of another people. Cultural Zionism eschewed dealing with this moral dilemma by ignoring reality, political Zionism simply did not see it as a moral dilemma.

What Avigdor Liebermann advocates now is to finish what David Ben-Gurion and co. planned and executed over 60 years ago. Political Zionism has not changed much through the years.