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On the dream of Zionism

Howard Jacobson
April 26, 2023
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

If asked to name what Jews were best at, I used always to say “argument.” Today—less glibly—I’d say that what defines Jews essentially is disappointment. Disappointment—the nonfulfillment of expectation—is the mournful poetry of the Jewish soul. Not only what we’re good at, but what explains—what helps explain, at least—how it is, to the disappointment of others, that we are still here.

The story I’m telling here is the story of ourselves we’ve been telling since we let God down at the dawn of time—some 5,000 years ago by the Jewish calendar, an approximation that might be on the short side but is still long enough for disappointment to have become a habit. However, it was more recently—while reading a reprint in the Jewish Quarterly of the great Israeli novelist David Grossman’s very fine 1998 essay which, at one and the same time celebrates and mourns Israel’s 50th birthday—that the centrality of disappointment to our people—not only as an emotion but as a tool of thought—dawned on me. To Grossman, Israel’s achievements are almost miraculous. But its failures, its missed opportunities, its discordancy, fill him with despair. “An evil wind is blowing through the country,” he wrote.

“Try living here, David,” I wanted to say.

You don’t argue with David Grossman about Israel. He has lived all his life, enjoyed esteem and happiness, and suffered great tragedy there. I have only ever been a visitor and most of those visits have been in my head. I can’t forget that Israel was once the collective noun for the Jewish people.

My Israel, anyway, is a series of moments in Jewish history, still unfolding. I don’t say one moment of Jewish history is much like another, but when, even for the most ardent Zionist, hasn’t a wind of discord been blowing through Israel? The joke we like to tell about ourselves is that we agree over nothing. Why should Zionists be any different?

When giving interviews about his novel To the End of the Land Grossman spoke movingly of the disappointment he shared with an Arab friend, the disappointment of a people who had a common dream and who saw it evaporate. But isn’t that what dreams do? And since no two dreams are ever identical, what chance was there that a Zionist dream could ever have unfolded to the satisfaction of more than one Jew at a time, let alone an Arab?

With so much anticipation of failure on the part of its foes, and so much dissension among its friends—this one wanting a religious state, that one wanting a secular state—it is a miracle that Israel has succeeded to any degree at all. And my question is this: Can there ever be any satisfying a Jew’s hopes? Or any assuaging a Jew’s disappointment when those hopes are dashed?

The first people the Jewish imagination conceived arrived too recently in the Garden of Eden to have anything to dream about. Was this really how God wanted us to be? Innocent, unwitting, obedient? So little chance was there ever going to be that we’d stay like that, what with snakes in the garden, incipient sexual politics, and irresistible temptation, that we must wonder if disappointment in his creatures was intrinsic to God’s plan. Barely two pages after God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good, he looked again and, behold, it wasn’t. If you want a paradigm of disappointment, here it is. The gates to Paradise no sooner open than they close, and cherubim with flaming swords bar the way back.

Those cherubim made a great impression on me as a boy. They stand guard in my mind still whenever I let extravagant hope get the better of me. “Back, Jacobson,” they order.

Jews wanted to be judged harshly and found the God to do it. How we relish his enumeration of the punishments Adam and Eve brought down on us. “Unto the woman, he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,” and “Unto Adam he said, … cursed is the ground for thy sake, in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee …”

More, more—“in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground …”

More, more—“for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return …”

Yes, it’s masochistic, but masochism is only a twisted branch of ethics. The life of hardship God visits on us, we deserve. “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” cries Cain when God consigns him to a life of wandering. It’s a piteous cry, yet somehow noble by virtue of not questioning the justice of it.

“Batter my heart, three-personed God,” wrote the poet and divine, John Donne. Jews don’t hold with any of that three-personed stuff, and we’d be loath to use Donne’s erotic vocabulary of beating to describe the pleasure we take in God’s wrath, but we slink from that garden with battered hearts, without essaying a word in our own defense. Henceforth, we are a fallen species in our own eyes and in God’s.

But we have further to fall yet. Three or four chapters of who-begat-whom later we are on the point of extinction. “And it repenteth the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” So suddenly and unexpectedly does this expression of profound disenchantment with humankind—us—fall from God’s lips that it’s easy to miss how extraordinary it is. God repenting! Aren’t we the ones who should be doing that? It’s as though we’ve confused who’s who here. In eliding our self-chastisement and God’s we are admitting the degree to which the God of Genesis speaks with our voice. Would we had never been born. Amen to that, sayeth the Lord who proclaims, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth …”

And so it goes on, in book after book of the Torah—we murder, lie, fornicate, follow false Gods, backslide and betray. And in book after book God does what we invented him to do and visits his vengeance upon us—staying his hand only when another Noah appears to save us.

If we think of a savior as a Christian concept, we should remember how often one turns up in the Torah to talk God down from violence. So intensely, anyway, does the Old Testament imagine God regretting having made us that we revel in what he’s going to do to us even before he does it.

The Deuteronomy curse—the most terrifying curse ever pronounced by any God on any people in any place anywhere—begins, sedately, with a promise.

“And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God,” that I will do the following for you. We needn’t list what’s on offer. Trust me, if you’ve forgotten—you’d want it. But then comes what happens if we break the covenant, of which let the following stand as examples—“The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and astonishment of heart; and thou shalt grope at noonday … thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look and fail with longing for them all the day long … and thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night …”

It’s important to note that this is not what God does, only what he says he will do. And not because of something we have done, but because of something we might do. The grammatical terrain of the Deuteronomy curse is the future conditional.

Grammatically, it is the mirror image of “Dayenu,” that great song of gratitude we sing at the Pesach table. Composed in what we might call the Judeo-hypothetic-past-preconditional tense, “Dayenu” imagines everything that could have gone wrong had God not helped us. “Yes, but he did,” a sympathetic non-Jew might interject. “Yes, but he might not have,” we retort. In this way the “Dayenu” gives us access both to the punishment and the reward. Let no one stand between a Jew and his comeuppance.

“Masochism,” the psychologist Theodor Reik explains, “is not characterized by the pleasure in discomfort, but by pleasure in the expectation of discomfort.” The Deuteronomy curse is one long wail of anticipated agony. Between this and “Dayenu,” between remembering and anticipating, you might ask whether Jews have ever really managed to live in the present.

The strange grammar of the Jewish imagination enables us to exist in a state of permanent apprehension. First the blessings—“And the Lord shall make thee plenteous … blessed shall be thy basket and thy store.” Then the curse—“cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shall thou be in the field …”

The curse comes toward the end of the Fifth Book of Moses, as the children of Israel stand on the brink of entering the land of milk and honey—re-entering it, we might say, since Eden was the prototype of all promised lands. Have we earned the right to return? The question is dodged by transferring it to Moses. We can enter, while he—after all those years of leading us through the desert—can’t.

And the LORD spake unto Moses that selfsame day, saying,
Get thee up into this mountain Abarim, and die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people.
Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel.

Perhaps because I first read this in an illustrated children’s Bible which showed Moses leaning on his staff on a mountain top, his robes flowing, looking out forlornly into the land he would never enter, I shed a small boy’s tear. The sadness of exclusion—out of the garden, out of Jerusalem, and never certain of return, is built into the consciousness of a Jew. We are an exiled people in our hearts still. And there are Jews who want us to stay that way. A favorite song when I was growing up was Where Can I Go, sung by Leo Fuld.

Tell me, where can I go?
There’s no place I can see.
Where to go, where to go?
Every door is closed for me.

I owned the record and played it over and over in my melancholy bedroom, trying not to cry in case my parents heard and wondered what the hell I was doing in there. Where to go, where to go? / Every door is closed to me. Words I would recall, years later, every time I couldn’t get into a disco.

Moses struck a rock intemperately and for that he had to remain behind? Was that not petty? In his diary, Kafka wrote, “He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life; incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short, but because it is a human life.”

Which, as always with Kafka, tells us everything and nothing. But might we interpret his interpretation this way? We must accept the limits set to our humanity. We must rein in our expectations of grandeur and continuance because the life of even the greatest of us is subject to rejection and failure. To be human is to be let down.

I have frequently told the story of my mother’s reaction to a letter I received when I was 17, telling me I’d won a place at Cambridge. Forgive my repeating it but it has a place here. My mother brought the letter to me in my bedroom where, when I wasn’t reading Reveille, I was still crying over Leo Fuld. I tore the letter open and said, “I’m in, Ma.” Instead of embracing me or throwing open the window and telling the whole street, my mother gently took the envelope from my hand, saying “Just let me make sure that this is really addressed to you, darling.”

Darling, notice. She wasn’t checking because she believed me to be undeserving. Rather, she wanted to protect me from a mistake. Better I discovered the mistake now, than turn up at Cambridge with my suitcase only to be told, “Howard Jacobson? No. Never heard of you. There must be some mistake. Try Wolverhampton Polytechnic.” If my mother had one aim in life as a parent, it was to save her children from disappointment. The evidential experience of our people was imprinted on her imagination. Moses not making it into Canaan was just an allegory for me not making it into Cambridge.

Yet in the very fulfilment of the curse, the Jewish people found a superb consolation. After all, their God was only doing what he’d warned them he would do. It was he, the Lord their God, not some tin-pot Babylonian deity, who was the author of their suffering. “And the Lord shall bring a nation against thee.” Far from vanishing, he remained in control of events—their agony was the very proof they were still his chosen people. And why had he brought a nation against them? Because they had broken his commandment. Thus understood, the Babylonians were nothing, mere vassals in the enactment of God’s justice. The God of the Jews was all-powerful after all. And the Jews themselves were instrumental in their own defeat. Thus, at a stroke, they removed the terrible events from the arbitrariness of nature or even history, acknowledged the working of divine justice, however harsh, and renewed the covenant between themselves and God. They made themselves agnostic-proof.

I say “they” but not everyone was prepared to leave it at that. In the fullness of time, others wanted more tangible proof of God’s love. It seems reasonable to assume that if the shock of exile and the destruction of the Temple paradoxically strengthened faith, it also stirred those apocalyptic expectations that would lead at last to that Messianic fervor out of which Jesus Christ emerged.

I have to confess I rather like Jesus. I said as much, many years ago, to a class of fifth formers I was teaching at King David High School in Manchester. It didn’t go down well. The fifth formers told their parents who told the headmaster. I was called into his office. Was it true I was a spy for Jews for Jesus? I told him no, I hated Jews for Jesus and believed Jesus would have hated them, too. How did I know that? I just knew. The fact that I was offering to speak for Jesus made the matter worse. Was I a covert Christian? I laughed. Having spent the first half of my life as a covert Jew, I wasn’t going to give up the second to being a covert Christian.

So what was it I liked about Jesus? The Jewish part. But hadn’t he tried to destroy Judaism? No. That was made up after his death. Alive, he said, “I am not come to destroy but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” The headmaster recoiled from my words. This would have been the first and the last time the voice of Jesus was heard in his study.

There is, I suppose, perversity in saying I like the Jewish Jesus, since every version of him we possess comes to us through Testaments it isn’t easy for a Jew to admire or trust. Nietzsche called the attempt to glue the New onto the Old Testament and make one book out of it, “perhaps the greatest audacity and ‘sin against the spirit’ that literary Europe has on its conscience.” How it is that a Jewish Jesus can pierce the anti-Jewish mood music of the Apostles takes some explaining. I suppose it’s akin to Tolstoy being Tolstoy even in a poor translation. A distinctive idiom, like a distinctive vision, can never be muffled. The American literary critic Harold Bloom heard and liked the Jewishness of Jesus’ voice in the first Gospel in particular, with its “unanswerably rhetorical questions, and fiercely playful outbursts that edge upon a frightening fury,” very much like Yahweh, the Jewish God.

I would rather, in my own pursuit of a nondivine, non-Christian Jesus, not have him likened to God. Could we not say that in his reported conversations and addresses he recalls the human voices of the Old Testament? He would have vexed God as Abraham and Moses did. He would have lamented as Jeremiah or Ezekiel did. And, I believe that he’d have rebelled against the idea that he was the Messiah. He would, I think, have found the idea un-Jewish, un-halachic even. But that’s just a guess.

I have said that we have saviors in the Old Testament—Noah, Abraham, Moses himself—figures who might temporarily intercede on our behalf, but a savior from the consequences of being human, no, that is ethically too frivolous a concept for a Jew. The curse must be laid and only we can lift it.

A great menorah sits in the forecourt of a shul at the corner of Bury Old Road and Leicester Road in Manchester. Behind it, a billboard proclaims, “Moshiach Is Coming.” Do I know a single Jew who thinks that likely or even remotely desirable?

Some years ago—it must have been about 1994—I was filming in Crown Heights in New York. The then-Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, was dying. I filed through his synagogue to receive the tzedakah dollar from him and yes, the light was all but gone from his eyes. Not much longer to wait. Moshiach was coming. Out on the streets were billboards preparing the community for the end of the world. People were stocking up on bagels. Others were selling apocalyptic CDs from the boots of their cars. There was rhapsodic singing. Jews who seemed to be of another age were wailing and davening. To say it felt like the Middle East 2,000 years ago doesn’t do justice to the foreignness and the fervor. How, I wondered, would these Jews who were Jewish in a way none of the skeptical, ironical, Jews I knew were Jewish, going to cope when the rebbe died and the world did not end?

As it turned out, much as the Jews did after Jesus’ Crucifixion, before the Apostle Paul made a gantse megillah of it. People shrugged, packed away their CDs and posters of the rebbe and made new ones in preparation for the next time. Even the Messianic Lubavitchers were only half-convinced by their own prophecies.

The fact is, Jews don’t do messiahs. We might have conceived them but we want them to remain a “concept.” Anything else would be too literal. It would destroy the poetry of waiting. Built into the concept of a messiah that will not come, as in a God who will not answer, is a conviction of eternal and impregnable disappointment. Not a small, deferred disappointment, which consoles with the thought that we might get what we want next time, but a permanent longing which is both profoundly poetical and profoundly ethical.

There will and never can be a messiah for the Jews because the job messiahs are expected to do, Jews must do themselves. That is the condition on which God gave us our humanity. Not truly wanting the Messiah ever to come is the guarantee of our ethical seriousness.

Is there something here that will help shed light on the strange phenomenon of Jewish anti-Zionism? Is Israel, too, the realization of a Messianic longing which Jews of a certain temperament would prefer to have stayed a longing?

Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups insist that until the Messiah comes, Jews have no business returning to the Holy Land. They, too, attach a mystical significance to the hanging on. The return to Zionism waits upon God’s revelation of his intentions for us. To have gone back before we have been redeemed, by force of political will and strength of arms, is sinful, not because of any harm done to people with whom we share the country, but because it is determined by mundane considerations rather than divine ones. “It is a terrible and awful criminal iniquity,” said the Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, “to seize redemption and rule before the time has come.”

Though these Jews often give succor to anti-Zionist protesters—and no doubt Jeremy Corbyn has had his photo taken with them—their views are not such as would be approved by the anti-Zionists who teach in our universities. If the Messiah were to turn up tomorrow, the antiwar coalition would not be on the first El Al flight to Israel with Neturei Karta.

But is secular anti-Zionism more closely related to this ultra-Orthodox version than it knows? When I say secular anti-Zionism I mean Jewish secular anti-Zionism, since that’s the more intriguing question. Non-Jewish anti-Zionism is not in the slightest perplexing. The reasons for it long predate the modern State of Israel and are easy to mistake for basic Jew-hating. Those who say we shouldn’t conflate anti-Zionism and antisemitism shouldn’t use the language of medieval Jew-hatred to vilify Israel.

Jewish anti-Zionism, though, of which there are many examples that also predate the State of Israel, is more complex. To a cosmopolitan Viennese Jew like the writer Stefan Zweig, Zionism simply put Jews back into ghettos; wasn’t the life he enjoyed contingent on the freedom of mind and body the diaspora provided? To his friend and superior writer Joseph Roth, a state of Israel would bring war and bad repute upon the Jews. Religious Jews feared a secular Jewish state. Secularists feared the Jewish religion. Of those like Gershom Scholem who embraced Zionism for its promise of a regeneration of Jewish faith, many lost heart when no such regeneration transpired.

Gershom Scholem used the phrase “deferred hope” to describe Jewish Messianism—a waiting for God’s blessing and instruction before entering onto the great public stage of life. This waiting—this withdrawal, we might call it—is lethal. What if we are never ready to join the world? But it has a fascination. It heightens the religious life and has a comparable effect on the irreligious, creating a culture of mournful mirth in which ineffectuality appears a virtue. I delight in that culture myself. I take an arrogant, self-punishing glory in being doomed to alienated irrelevance. But I understand why some Jews in the years before Balfour, and Israelis endeavoring to lead full lives in Tel Aviv today, don’t see the attraction. They have no truck with all our Paradises Lost and Paradises Postponed and Paradises for Someone Else. The God of eternal disappointment said stay where you are, remain forever exiled on the threshold of life, but they preferred to go in. They lifted the curse.

To Jewish anti-Zionists who wish to be taken seriously as ethical beings, I say this: Be disappointed, as we are all to a degree disappointed, that the great, adventurous ambitions of Zionism, to avert imminent catastrophe, to rejuvenate a too long confused and slumbering faith, to chart a course between aggressive assimilation and timorous isolationism, to live in peace with neighbors, have not yet, in all instances, achieved their goals

But don’t allow the disappointments of now to transfigure the ambitions of then. Just because iniquity appears sometimes to be its fruit, does not mean Zionism was iniquitous in its planting. It is in the tragic nature of dreams to evaporate. For which we weep. The grander the dream, the more copious the tears. And whoever will not weep, wanted to see the dream blighted in the first place.

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

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