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The Jewish Oyster Problem

The idea that Jewish virtue is rooted in Jewish powerlessness is both deeply selfish and remarkably stupid

Andrés Spokoiny
May 13, 2024

Tablet Magazine

In the Kuzari, one of the great Jewish philosophical treatises of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Judah Halevi depicts a fictional dialogue between the king of the Khazars and a rabbi. The rabbi points out that Jews are peace-loving and that they don’t kill like others. We can imagine the wink of the Khazar when he says, “This might be so if your humility were voluntary, but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would slay.” Ouch, responds the rabbi. Or more precisely, “Thou hast touched our weak spot, O King of the Khazars.” (Kuzari 115).

Judah Halevi understands that there’s nothing intrinsically more moral about Jews. It was our tribulations that made us uniquely nonviolent, and absent those, we may well revert to being like any other people and “slay” just like them. Yet, while aware of that reality, Judah Halevi didn’t oppose the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty. Rather, the opposite: There’s a proto-Zionism in Halevi that led him to emigrate to Jerusalem. In his native Spain he had experienced the vulnerability of living at the whims of both Muslim and Christian rulers. He saw powerlessness as an unmitigated tragedy, and he illustrated as a moral failing the attempt to disguise that powerlessness as a virtue.

Some modern thinkers, however, turn powerlessness on its head and present this tragedy, which has cost Jews millennia of persecution, as a virtue. In the 19th century, the Jewish Enlightenment considered the Jews a “spiritual people,” untroubled by the messy realities of political power and thus capable of developing a higher form of morality. The Jewish existentialist Franz Rosenzweig saw Judaism’s uniqueness as a result of this position “outside of history,” giving us a timelessness that other religions lack. Hannah Arendt echoed that sentiment: “Jewish history offers the extraordinary spectacle of a people … which began its history with a well-defined concept of history and an almost conscious resolution to achieve a well-circumscribed plan on earth and then, without giving up this concept, avoided all political action for two thousand years.”

Others note that works of Jewish genius, like the writings of Kafka, the philosophy of Spinoza, and the discoveries of Freud, are due precisely to the diasporic uniqueness of the Jewish people, their reality as fragile minorities at the fringes of society who are capable of seeing what those in the mainstream can’t. By virtue of their powerlessness, Jews could become the conscience of the world, the ultimate parameter of the morality of a human society. By sustaining a romance with powerlessness, and an idealization of the lack of agency that transforms tragedy into virtue, Jewish vulnerability in the Diaspora could be reimagined as the ultimate engine of Jewish moral and intellectual genius.

Zionism called the bluff of Jews falling in love with their own oppression, seeing it as a form of dysfunctional cowardice transformed into virtue. In Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “In the City of Slaughter,” written after the pogrom of Kishinev, there’s no empathy for the victims but devastating and bitter mockery:

“Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes, and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering,—the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!”

Zionism understood that Jews did not avoid all political action, but that they were forced to avoid it. “Normalizing” the Jewish people therefore paradoxically demanded a revolt against the destiny of powerlessness that characterized the Jews for 2,000 years. As David Ben-Gurion wrote in 1944, “All other revolutions, both past and future, were uprisings against a system, against a political, social, or economic structure. Our revolution is directed not only against a system but against destiny, against the unique destiny of a unique people.”

The end point of the unique Jewish destiny of powerlessness would soon become plain. Those enamored with Jewish powerlessness should have been forever chastened by the Holocaust. The Shoah proved that powerlessness is not some abstract philosophical exercise, but the very real extermination of our people. Some Jews still believe that our lack of sovereignty might have produced moral excellence—the point is a debatable one. What can’t be denied is that it produced an inconceivable amount of suffering. “How else,” I can hear the ghost of Herzl saying, “did you think this would end?”

Zionism became a majority movement, and the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel became a redemptive return of the Jews to power and the realm of history. This march back to power from the abyss of powerlessness is nothing short of one of the major transformations in human history.

Yet, for some, 6 million dead wasn’t enough proof that powerlessness kills the powerless. They have an unmitigated nostalgia for the times in which Jews could claim the purity of the mortal white shroud that gets buried without ever being soiled by the messy exercise of political action and sovereignty. According to the anti-Zionist writer Michael Selzer, for example, “Jewish ethics and purpose derive from the rejection of power, from the actual contempt of power which pervades the Jewish ethos.” Judaism, for Selzer, constitutes a revolution to “radicalize the world through Jewish powerlessness and suffering.” In his view, Israel represents a bad counterrevolution against the noble, eternal Jewish essence of victimhood.

Zionism called the bluff of Jews falling in love with their own oppression, seeing it as a form of dysfunctional cowardice transformed into virtue.

George Steiner, in his article “Our Homeland the Text,” similarly feared that the creation of Israel would “normalize” the Jewish people and submerge them in the uninspiring (and dirty) business of statehood. It is the Jews’ absence of a territorial patrimony that explains, in Steiner’s view, their contribution to civilization. To be sure, Steiner, unlike today’s anti-Zionists, didn’t demonize Israel. He said in a speech, “Israel is an absolute miracle, a dream out of the inferno that was realized as though with a magic wand. Now it is the safe haven for Jews. Should trouble arise again—and it will arise—one day maybe Israel will give shelter to my son and my son’s sons.” Steiner also wrote, without equivocation, that Israel’s actions in its self-defense against fanatic, hate-filled enemies, are justified.

But he notes that over 2,000 years of persecution, Jews didn’t have the power to dominate or humiliate any other human, whereas Israel, to survive, is now obliged to dominate and humiliate neighbors. “Is this,” he wonders, “too high a price to pay?”

The one who best answered Steiner was Isaiah Berlin, who, in a witty article called “The Cost of Curing an Oyster,” compared the exile of the Jews to a disease. “A people condemned to be a minority everywhere, dependent on the goodwill, toleration or sheer unawareness of the majority, but made aware of its insecure condition, of its constant need to please, or at least not to displease … cannot achieve a fully normal development either individually or collectively.” Exile created distortions of personality: self-insulation, anxiety, aggressive defensiveness. True, the peculiar position of the Jews as a minority on the margins of society resulted in works of genius, like Kafka, Freud, or Heine. When your life depends on understanding the whims of the majority, you develop a clear and critical view of that majority, an outsider’s perspective. But that deeper insight possessed by gifted individuals was “purchased by untold suffering of entire communities” and “could not be accepted as natural or unavoidable.” Exile, in this sense, subjected Jews to mental illness and, as mental illness sometimes does, produced works of genius. But at what cost?

“Hundreds of thousands of oysters,” wrote Berlin, “suffer from the disease that occasionally generates a pearl. But supposing an oyster says to you, ‘I wish to live an ordinary, decent, contented, healthy, oysterish life; even though I may not produce a pearl. I’m prepared to sacrifice this possibility for a life free of social disease; a life in which I need not look over my shoulder to see how I appear to others.’”

Maybe Imre Kertész, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, synthesized better the bargain that Jews needed to make. During a visit to Israel, a foreign journalist, aware of Kertész’s humanist and pacifist leanings, asked him, “How does it feel for you to see a Star of David on a tank?” “Much better than seeing it on my concentration camp uniform,” he answered.

The exercise of power is messy. Always. Not a single national liberation movement in the world was neat and blameless. Thinkers like Steiner don’t deny that. In fact, they admit to the dirty nature of statehood and consider that the only way for Jews to stay “pure” is to forego political power and submit to the rule of others. This is different than universalist utopians. Anti-Zionists who long for powerlessness don’t necessarily harbor a Lennonesque dream of “no countries and no religion.” Pointedly, they see nothing wrong in Palestinians exercising political power in the context of a Palestinian national state and even oppressing Jews—or killing them. It’s Jewish power that bothers them; it’s Jewish sovereignty that they disdain and rage against for exposing their own pretensions to moral superiority as fallacious.

That their supposed moral excellence is acquired by trading on the bodies of dead Jews doesn’t bother them, since they’ve established that playing the victim is by definition a morally superior posture. Jews need to be oppressed to produce their best.

Under the layers of intellectual distortion and self-righteousness, this pretension of moral superiority is, paradoxically, morally rotten. The carefully crafted self-image of privileged Jewish academicians, who observe the world from the heights of their tenured positions, seems ruined by Jews who refuse to be at the mercy of others. “How dare those plebeian oysters deny me the right to be a pearl? Don’t they know that they must die so that I can be an ethical beacon to the world?”

Those who criticize Israel for pushing “Jewish supremacy” are, in fact, advocating for another type of Jewish supremacy, probably more racist and self-righteous than the former. But more important than the question of whether being a Jewish oyster with or without a pearl is better, the argument that powerlessness is necessary for “the Jewish genius” to develop is factually false.

Yes, the diasporic persecution produced Freud and Kafka, but Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel produced the Bible and the Mishnah. Israeli Jews win more Nobel Prizes and gain more patents than French Jews or Russian Jews. The truth is that a people, any people, can develop its greatness only by being the master of its own destiny. True, you mess up bigger and more noticeably if you run an economy, an army, and a police force than if you run a corner store or a physician’s office. But avoiding power to avoid the problems of power is like starving to death to avoid obesity.

The anti-Zionism of powerlessness is deeply cowardly. It avoids the real challenges of power, its messiness, its insolvable moral dilemmas, and its endless shades of gray. Diasporism is a facile escape, for which someone else is expected to pay the tab. Easier to sit in judgment in an air-conditioned room at Columbia University writing about the virtues of powerlessness than to work hard to make prophetic visions a reality.

Zionism’s Israel presents a historical opportunity for Jews to deploy the values we developed in the Diaspora and move them from the abstract realm of books to the arena of real life. It may not be so pristine and pure as Steiner wanted, but that’s okay. Our values were never meant to be theoretical. They were meant as a practical guide to life in the here and now, not in the hereafter.

Refusing the opportunity and rejecting the challenge is craven. Doing so while putting other Jews at risk so that our unearned sense of our own superiority can remain intact is a morally criminal act.

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.