by Sam Bluefarb (July 2014)
A framed portrait of a swarthy, bearded man hung in a passageway leading to the basement of a four-story house at the easternmost end of London’s East End. Indeed it was the last house of the East End’s Whitechapel district, the Mile End Road of historical Jewish London, which ran from “the City” to the west; and eastward to the borough of Bow, where the demography became progressively less Jewish to give way to the largely Christian, non-Jewish population.
As a boy, I would glance at the portrait of Herzl from time to time, but saw him only as one of many bearded characters of my father’s circle of synagogue acquaintances…so I took the stern-faced, bearded fellow for just another synagogue character, perhaps a rabbi. I never “connected the dots” with the little blue box of the Jewish National Fund with which my father solicited donations from relatives and friends for the purchase of land in Palestine. I was too young to see the connection between that photograph and the little box, which my father and friends alluded to as having some connection to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, the Holy Land. Not until years after did I become aware of the full picture, the Zionist movement, and the part that an obscure French army officer of middle rank, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, played in an unfolding drama of lies and false accusations that was to earn him a life sentence and transport to the French penal colony of Devil’s Island–the entire series of tragic events, which came to be known as the “Dreyfus Affair.”
The case drew the attention of all Europe, but especially in France, its epicenter, and of Herzl, an assimilated Austro-Hungarian Jew, whose connection to the Jewish community was at best, tenuous. But the case marked a turning point in Herzl’s career of journalist, man of letters, and bon vivant. For the first time, he became more aware of his own roots, but even more significantly, as an educated European and secular liberal, he was struck by the discrepancy between a France whose ideals were manifest in the watchwords liberty, equality, fraternity, and the sordid injustice and frame-up of a loyal and patriotic Frenchman. For Herzl, that was a bitter pill to swallow. If such an injustice could be perpetrated on a Jew in a free country like France, then Jews everywhere were not safe from similar persecution. Thus, Jews needed their own state. Thus Herzl found his niche in history and became the father of modern Zionism and spiritual and political founder of the state of Israel.
With the intervention of novelist Emile Zola into the case, and the dramatic effect of his fiery J’Accuse on it, after serving four years, Dreyfus was exonerated and finally released, and reinstated with a promotion in rank into the French Army. He served honorably with tours of duty at the front in the First World War (1914-1918). The real culprit of the affair, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a dissolute gambler, who gambled well beyond his military means, fled to England and was never caught or prosecuted.
By the 1930s, the Dreyfus Affair was history and a new and greater threat to Jews threatened. By then, in my teens, I was apprenticed to a commercial art studio whose main business was the supply and furnishing of posters, placard displays for movie theaters. I wanted to be an artist, and that would be a step in that direction.
Meanwhile, a rise in anti-Semitism was growing in Britain. Its foremost spokesman and rabble-rouser was a former British army officer who had fought on the Western Front in the First World War. Under his leadership Sir Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists. Its aims and methods paralleled those of the early Nazi Party; and even in its uniforms it emulated the Nazi brown shirts with its own distinctive black shirts.
I remember the pitched street battles between Blackshirt toughs and Jewish Youths when Mosely attempted to lead his Blackshirts on a march through the East End. Young Jews gave a good account of themselves and chased the fascists out of east London. Among these young men were a contingent of communists, perhaps the most active and militant to battle the Blackshirts, even though the defeat and outlawing of the German Communists and Social Democrats was still fresh in recent memory. The accompanying disillusionment with the German Communists, because of their rejection of the Social Democrats’ offer to form a united front against the Nazis, all led to the defeat of the Left in the elections of 1933 and the victory of the Nazi Party.
The young journeymen artists in the North London studio where I was serving my apprenticeship were largely on the left, the norm in those days among young artists and intellectuals. There was one communist in the shop, but most were unaffiliated. To be more precise, they were largely anti-fascist rather than leftist ideologues. At fifteen, I was swept up in the larger sense of urgency of the times…and I became a Young Communist, with all of the righteous certitude so characteristic of an early precocious youth. But those years and sentiments were transient, and eventually, like so many disillusioned idealists, I deserted the left, though not before I underwent a transitional period of liberalism before I began to think of myself as conservative. But that philosophical and personal evolution took place haltingly and over many decades.
My parents immigrated to the United States in 1935, hardly the most happy time in that era of depression. It was the Second World War and the Holocaust that pulled me back into the vortex of self-appraisal and reappraisal. And I divested myself of my secular liberalism and remembered those dim years of boyhood when I had glimpsed Herzl’s portrait on the wall of our basement. That and the battle for Israel’s independence formed the crucible in which my consciousness as a Jew was formed. Just as the Dreyfus Case jolted many assimilated, secular Jews into a new awareness of Jew hatred, so the Holocaust would turn out to have an even more profound effect on Jews everywhere. Both were tipping points of consciousness for many of us. Periodically in Jewish history, it takes traumas such as these to awaken sleepers.
In the wake of the post-war years, my reading, heretofore devoted to literary classics—19th century Victorian novelists to such 20th century modernists as Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Marcel Proust–these were, for a time suspended, and I found myself drawn to the works of thinkers like Martin Buber, Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), Moses Hess, Ber Borochov of the Labor (i.e. Socialist) Zionist movement, Vladimir Jabotinsky (Zionist Revisionist), and Maurice Samuel, of which more presently. Anna Frank’s Diary put a human face on the faceless millions of Nazi victims when it was first published in parts as “The Secret Annex” in Commentary magazine in the early 1950s.
About that time, I picked up Maurice Samuel’s recently published The Professor and the Fossil (1956)i. The book was Samuel’s response to Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume Study of History (1947). Among his larger theories (the growth and decline of civilizations–pace Spengler) Toynbee concluded that Judaism was no longer a viable living faith, but a “fossil” left behind by its more vital Christian successor. Samuel responded by arguing that if Judaism was a fossil, then the fossil still seemed to have lots of life left in it. And he offered scores of examples from history, going back to early Christian times, to the golden age of Spanish Jewry, to the growth of the (revivalist) 18th century Hassidic movement and the later Reform movement.
Many years later, I obtained a used copy of The Professor and the Fossil and reread it. This time, I became more aware of its eloquence and the passion I had missed years earlier. Samuel maintained that the term “scientific” Toynbee ascribed to his study, is far from accurate. A Study of History was published under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which was “founded in 1920 to encourage and facilitate the scientific [my emphasis] study of international questions.”ii Toynbee was not only the author of that massive study; he was the Director of Studies—”scientific studies, at that–“iii of the Institute that sponsored it. As such, it would not have escaped Samuel’s accusative eye that Toynbee’s treatment of the role of the Jewish people in history was shot through with a bias that sinks to bigotry. Toynbee’s conclusions were not merely that the Jews were a “fossil” remnant, but that, on the founding of the State of Israel, the Jew as victim had become the victimizer. These and kindred theories have now tragically become the common currency in today’s Israel-hating academia. Decades ago a seed was planted in Toynbee’s Study of History that has sprouted into a poisonous fruit: the Israelis—read Jews—have treated the Palestinians much as the Nazis treated the Jews. This view of Toynbee’s presaged much of the “rationale” for the spiraling Jew hatred of today, not only from Palestinian Arabs, but from the left in democratic countries. In that respect, while Samuel’s response to Toynbee was published at a time when much of the left was pro-Israel, its transformation from a friend of Israel to an ally of those who would isolate it and, ultimately, wish to destroy it, would not have come as a surprise to Maurice Samuel. Chapters 14 and 15 of his larger, more general polemic soar to heights of incandescent eloquence in their attack on the professor’s distortions. Once one sifts through the book’s detailed criticism of A Study of History, the passion and the power of those two chapters rise to the heights of Emile Zola’s J’Accuse. They are an answer not only to the genteel anti-Semitism of the British intellectual aristocracy; they are a devastating deconstruction of the mythology that has metastasized in the academy and beyond, to become the stock-in-trade of every Holocaust denier peddling the Jew=Nazi, Palestinian=Jew myth. There is no brief against legitimate criticism of Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians (The Jews living in pre-Mandate and Mandate Palestine considered themselves to be Palestinians! We boys referred to our cheder (Hebrew school) teacher as “the Palestinian.” a Palestinian import) But what makes Toynbee’s analogy so tragic—even dangerous—is that in his view the Jews “stumbled” when they adopted “Nazi ways.” This wrenching of history has filtered, like a virus, into the bloodstream of the political and academic worlds; the old problem has taken on a new face.
Today, the message of Toynbee’s study has double the force of seventy years ago. For the memory of the Holocaust for this generation has slipped; but where it is touched on, it is more often in denial than in acknowledgment. Necessarily, this summary of Samuel’s impassioned response hardly does justice to the power and eloquence of its message.
Books with Jewish concerns, all began to make inroads in me and this produced a reborn interest in Jews and Judaism. My youthful socialist universalism had long given way to a sense of reconnection with my own people. Eventually, I began to read up on Jewish history, articles on various aspects of Judaism. Martin Buber’s writings on Hassidism–his seminal I and Thou (1937) made me aware that one did not need to go after strange (Oriental) gods; that Jews had a long tradition of learning that had influenced and been influenced by the panoply of civilizations the Jews had, for better or worse, lived among.
The cumulative effect of the war, the savagery of the Holocaust, Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War, which spared Jews a second Holocaust—all profoundly affected the direction my life would take, long after that portrait of Theodor Herzl had become a dim and distant memory, yet a memory that would someday reach beyond my boyhood, to lodge itself into an evolving consciousness of what it meant to be a Jew and to recover what had almost been lost.
[i] Maurice Samuel, The Professor and the Fossil (New York; Knopf, 1956).
[ii] Quoted in Samuel, The Professor and the Fossil, 213.
[iii] Samuel, 213.
Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.
To comment on this article, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish thought provoking articles such as this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Sam Bluefarb, please click here.