Creating people's geographies
Like King Abdullah al-Hussein of Jordan’s American address in 1947, this telling letter by Alfred M. Lilienthal published in 1949 reveals a far greater openness of debate and expresses serious doubt and misgivings about zionism in the US than has occurred since. It was recently posted by our good friend Mr Savant at Ressentiment, yet does not appear widely: a web search yielded only 57 hits for it, many of them duplicates. (If you google “Israel’s Flag Is Not Mine”, the initial count is a mere 546 hits, which is whittled down to an actual count of 57). Picked up by The Least, First, our friend Monte writes, “How very intriguing it is to read the early Jewish anti-Zionists! Lilienthal, an American, articulately decried the way his lifelong faith became a tool of Israeli nationalism, and used as a competitor intended to weaken his American identity.” Quite. You can find the original 1949 Digest scan here.
I brought you my hurts and troubles when both they and I were little: in that same spirit I bring them to you today.
Only last year, a new white flag with single blue six-pointed star was hoisted to a mast many thousands of miles away on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This flag of Israel is the symbol of a new nationalist state, with its own government, army, foreign policy, language, national anthem and oath of allegiance.
And this new flag has brought every one of us five million American citizens of the ancient faith of Judah to a parting in the road.
Judaism, I have felt, was a religious faith which knew no national boundaries, to which a loyal citizen of any country could adhere.
By contrast, Zionism was and is a nationalist movement organized to reconstitute Jews as a nation with a separate homeland. Now that such a state exists, what am I? Am I still only an American who believes in Judaism? Or am I—as extreme Zionists and anti-Semites alike argue—a backsliding member of an Oriental tribe whose loyalty belongs to that group?
Let us start, Mother, with how I feel about this new State of Israel. I wish it well. I hope that several hundred thousand suffering displaced persons will find in it a happy home. I hope it will prosper as a center of democracy in the Middle East. But when its flag was first raised on May 14, 1948, I had no impulse to dance in the street with hysterical joy, as did so many in New York and London. For I was born and remain an American. I have no ties with, no longings for, and feel no responsibilities to Israel. And I believe that the future happiness of the Jews in America depends on their complete integration as citizens of this—our true—country.
I am sure that if we Jews as a group are persuaded to divide that love which people normally give to their native land, it can lead only to disaster.
The Irish? They are a nation and Judaism is a religion. Irishmen here have left Ireland only in recent generations. The Jews left Palestine in Roman times, and have come here from every European country.
My one and only homeland is America. I am proud of my belief in the age-old Judaic concept of one God in Heaven and one Humanity here below. But my faith does not pull me into a feeling of narrowly tribal kinship with all others who worship God in this way. Whenever I read of Americans singing the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, or see youth groups raising Israel’s flag beside the Stars and Stripes. I am outraged. For Israel’s flag and anthem are symbols of a foreign state; ,they are not mine.
The most powerful weapon which Zionism is using on Americans of Jewish faith is its outward cloak of humanitarianism. The argument runs that Israel was set up primarily as a haven for the persecuted, the homeless, so why should we be critical?
Mother, the truth is that Israel was not created primarily for displaced persons. Instead, Article 3 of its proposed constitution proclaims it to be “the national home of the Jewish people.” Meaning, Mother, you and me! As early as 1917 Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, was proclaiming: “We have never based the Zionist Movement on Jewish suffering in Russia or any other land. These sufferings have never been the mainspring of Zionism.”
Rabbi Abba H. Silver, a recent head of the American Zionists, declared: “We must stand foursquare on the proposition that Zionism is not an immigration or a refugee movement, but a movement to rebuild the Jewish State for the Jewish nation in the land of Israel.”
And what is the attitude of Israel toward those who adhere to the faith of Judaism but are citizens of other countries? Our “nationality” they insist is Jewish, no matter under what flags we were born; and, since we are not in Israel, we live “in the Diaspora,” which is to say in exile. And their plans for us?
“We must,” explained Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, in his first speech after the Israeli elections, “save the remnants of Israel in the Diaspora. We must also save their possessions. Without these two things, we shall not build this country.”
So the vast Zionist propaganda machine strives to cement national ties between Israel and all persons of Jewish faith. And sending money to Israel is only a small part of our supposed obligation. The deeper objectives are given by Dr. Margoshes, an executive of the American Section of the Jewish Agency, as being:
” – to Zionize world Jewry. . .to establish Zionist hegemony over the developing Jewish communities throughout the world.”
Daniel Frisch, newly elected president of the American Zionists, feels that “the American Jewish community will soon arrive at the inevitable conclusion that the all-day school plus a chain of summer camps is the only solution to the problem,” and that “we ought to be able to send to Israel American—bred young people who want to live as Jews minus the hyphen under the smiling skies of the reborn Israel. Our task has not ended with the birth of the Jewish State. It has but begun.”
Have these misguided zealots forgotten the indignation which was aroused in America In the ’30’s, when the Bundists tried to tell Americans of German ancestry that they owed loyalty to Germany, and set up in America youth camps dedicated to German culture?
Today we see Zionists boasting of “Jewish” political strength, Zionist picket lines around British consulates, Zionists demonstrating against Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin when he arrives here to sign the Atlantic Pact, New York stores plastered with posters screaming “Do Not Buy British. Made Goods.”
Are these people acting as Americans? Europe’s recovery through the Marshall Plan is the keystone of our bipartisan foreign policy, which the Communists are trying to sabotage. Any boycott of British goods, organized or unorganized, helps this destruction. Now I know these Zionists were not consciously trying to tear down American foreign policy, but their actions were the inevitable result of living under segregation is not solely the fault of the other guy. Part of the responsibility is on our shoulders. True, the Jew is sometimes segregated by Christians. But it is also true that the Jew sometimes sets himself apart from Christians.
We have moved out of the ghetto, but sometimes scars of the long imprisonment remain. This is why many Jews even today feel at home only with other Jews. Many carry their Jewishness on their sleeves and are extremely self-conscious and sensitive to their separateness.
ALL OF THIS I understand: most of it I forgive. After all, six million Jews were wiped out by Hitler and anti-Semitism does exist, even in America. Why should each of us not be at least a little sensitive? This I think most non-Jews understand. But when anyone criticizes, however mildly, either Zionism, the State of Israel or the hysterical behavior of some groups of Jews. we have no right to shout “anti-Semitism!”
In any religion one can find a small group of fanatics who hate those of other faiths. Such fanatics are not numerous or important. It is Semitism—the constant effort of some Jews to assert themselves as Jews—and not their religion of Judaism which feeds anti-Semitism.
‘No one knows better than you, Mother, that I, too. suffered humiliation from being a Jew. I have felt the arrows of discrimination. In my deep hurt I have cried out. But the discipline of two nationalisms. Were Hitler alive today, how he would laugh!
The plain fact is that we Jews are not a race and we should not let the Zionists persuade us that we are. Proof to the contrary lies in Palestine, plain for all to see. You had my letter, Mother, from my Army furlough there. I was second to none in my enthusiasm for. what my co-religionists had done—for a desert brought to bloom, for clean new cities rising out of age-old sand dunes. All of these wonders had come to pass while only a few fanatics talked of statehood. One evening I went to see a performance ,of an opera in Jerusalem. In that theater lobby you could distinguish almost at a glance the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jew from Poland, the Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jew from North Africa or Turkey, the German Jew, Jews from a score of countries all differing in dress, language, manners and mental attitudes. I had visual proof of the arguments of anthropologists. who laugh at the notion of a distinct Jewish race.
Anyone who tells me those foreign Jews are exclusively my people that I should be closer to them than to Bob McCormick, the kid on the block with whom I used to play ball: or to Nick Galbraith, who roomed next to me at Cornell; or Dave Du Vivier with whom I studied in law school—that man is talking dangerous nonsense. I have also learned, Mother, that when something. goes wrong in my relations with non-Jews. I avoid the habit of thinking that it happened just because I am a Jew. Such self-pity is comforting, but it is usually wrong and therefore dangerous.
There is today a deep split among Americans of the Jewish faith. The Zionists are the more vocal; they have more organized political power. But they do not speak for all of us, and I hope not for most. On the other side there is, for instance, the American Council for Judaism, which insists that the nationalism of Israel must be confined to the boundaries of that state. There are also countless other Jews without any affiliation who revere Judaism as a religion and scorn to degrade it into a cheap racial nationalism which competes with their Americanism.
But when we protest the right of the Zionists to speak as “American Jewry” on the question of Palestine, we are told that Jews should not be disunited, must not fight among themselves on Palestine or any other issue. And if we still speak out against what we feel is a dangerous trend, we find ourselves reviled and ostracized as traitors. Coercion, often economic, frequently silences the freethinker.
But why should Americans of Jewish faith be any more united on questions of American foreign policy than are Presbyterians, Baptists or Methodists?
Have we forgotten the words of Woodrow Wilson in 1915 when he warned all Americans: “You cannot become true Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American. And a man who goes among you to trade on your nationality is not worthy to live under the Stars and Stripes.”
Politicians of both parties who in the last election played to “the Jewish vote”‘ in connection with Israel will do well to reread those words.
The answer to bigotry and anti-Semitism does not lie in fanatical Jewish nationalism. Of course the blowing-up of the King David Hotel, the hanging of the two British sergeants, the assassination of Bernadotte, the massacre of Arab women and children at Dier Yasin were all acts of tiny groups. But they have weakened the moral and spiritual stature of the world’s oldest religion. Israel’s terrorist Beigin and Hollywood’s Ben Hecht, who encouraged such lawlessness by saying, “Every time you let go with your guns at the British betrayers of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts!” such people are doing the Jews more harm than any words which Goebbels spoke.
There was no holiday in my heart, nor in that of the late Rabbi J. L Magnes, president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who said sadly following that Hecht statement: “We had always thought that Zionism would diminish anti-Semitism in the world. We are witness to the opposite.”
All too many Christians have supported Zionism because they felt that Jews, having been persecuted, should now have what they want whether it is good or bad for them. Christian leaders can help us greatly. But Christian sympathy for Jews should be measured not in terms of support for Jewish nationalism in distant Israel but in accepting us as friends, neighbors and first-class citizens of this our country. That is true liberal Christianity. And also, Mother, good Judaism, that fine old faith which you taught me as a little child.
1949 The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. Pleasantville New York
Reprinted from the September, 1949 issue of The Reader’s Digest.