Israel: Is it Good for the Jews? by Richard Cohen. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2014. 244 pp. $26.
Israel: Is it Good for the Jews is not only extremely well written but is chock full of interesting tidbits. Readers learn, for example, that the iconic Theodor Herzl was an unhappy man. “[Herzl] was a psychological mess, miserable in his marriage (and miserable to his wife), fixated on young girls … and pathetically, a touch anti-Semitic.”
We are told that even the British politician most associated with the revival of the Jewish state, Arthur Balfour, and even the Zionist Winston Churchill were infected with the anti-Semitic bug. “To many in the British government, including Balfour and Winston Churchill, the [Russian Soviet] revolution seemed the work of Jews.”
I knew that Eastern Europe in the interwar years, before the Nazi conquest of that area, was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. But author Richard Cohen demonstrates the extent of that hatred. Polish and Romanian university students, The Washington Post columnist writes, were beating up on their Jewish counterparts to the point where many Jews were dropping out of school.
His descriptions of the murders of some Jews who returned to Poland after World War II are chilling, and his analysis of why they happened are, as our British friends might put it, spot on.
“These were not killings carried out by bureaucrats – no banality of evil here. No. These were the killings of raw unmitigated hatred, of fun and excitement, of homicide chosen and carried out gladly, of sexual or emotional release, of lackadaisical stoning carried out in the open so everyone could watch, of uniformed Boy Scouts and police officers taking part, of the poor Jew running around in an ever-closing circle until he ran out of space and out of life.”
Jews were not the only victims of this postwar killing spree. Almost 100,000 Germans living outside Germany were killed by the Czechs and the Russians after World War II and about 2 million of the 14 million Germans who were expelled from their homes in those two countries and Poland died on their way to Germany. “Israel was born in hell,” he writes.
Cohen certainly gets it when it comes to Arab anti-Semitism. “In the Arab world, the word Zionist has become synonymous with Jew. … Anti-Zionist is the term of the educated classes, of the first-class lounge.
“But outside the lounge or the meeting hall, where the porters and the waiters can be found, no such sophistry is practiced or condoned. The Zionist is the Jew and the Jew is the enemy.”
In the end, he concludes that “Israel is not evil. It is merely human.” And that “Israel must endure.”
Yet, despite Cohen’s eloquence and all the other virtues of the book, Israel: Is It Good for the Jews suffers from a fatal flaw, the concept that underlies the book: that Israel’s existence is justified by 20th-century anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Yes, those factors were the immediate spurs for many Holocaust survivors to immigrate to the land of Israel and for the world community – which had shown so little interest in the plight of those Jews living under Nazi tyranny and had done absolutely nothing to deter Hitler from carrying out his genocidal policies – to try to soothe its collective conscience and validate the idea of the Jewish state with its votes at the United Nations.
But Israel’s raison d’etre is not, nor can it be, the Holocaust. Israel is not only the “product of history’s most murderous century,” in Cohen’s words, and of modern anti-Semitism.
Israel is also the culmination of the Jewish people’s national liberation movement called Zionism, which posits the return of the Jewish people to its long-lost homeland in the land of Israel. Only as such does Israel have a lasting raison d’etre and legitimacy as a state in the Middle East.
If it had been created only as a result of the Holocaust, then the Arabs would be right – that Israel is simply theft of their land. If the country exists solely thanks to the Shoah, then why doesn’t the Jewish state exist on German land where the crime of genocide was hatched? That is the question that those Arabs who don’t deny the Holocaust always ask.
But the Jewish state can only legitimately exist in the land of Israel. For two millennia, visitors to synagogues anywhere in the world would have been struck by the Jews’ strong, continuing attachment to the land of Israel by listening as they prayed to God to restore them to that place.
At the end of the 19th century, inspired by the examples of other European nationalists, some Jews decided to take their destiny into their own hands by returning to Palestine and trying to resurrect their ancient homeland. Their efforts were rewarded with the creation of the infrastructure for a Jewish government and society in British Palestine, without which the state of Israel would not have come into being in 1948.
There were more than 500,000 Jews living in British Mandatory Palestine at the end of World War II, the overwhelming majority of whom were Zionists living in communities on land purchased from their Arab owners. Not to give these remarkable pioneers their due perverts history. Worse, it supports the narrative of the enemies of the Jewish state who constantly try to sever Jewish links to the land and portray modern-day Israel as simply the creation of European survivors of the Holocaust.
This is an absorbing, if somewhat rambling, modern history of the Jews and of those whose actions have affected them. I especially enjoyed the way that Cohen weaves the history of his own family into the narrative, and the chapter about his first trip to the Middle East in 1980 is fascinating.
But, as well as the book is written, the Jewish people would have been better served if it had not been published. For in writing this book, Cohen is, in effect, undermining the intellectual basis of Israel’s existence.
Yes, I’m afraid that Israel: Is it Good for the Jews? is bad for the Jews.
Aaron Leibel is WJW’s copy chief. His novel Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at createspace.com, at amazon.com and in Kindle format.