Past and Present

Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 1999 /4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Tell me you love me --- please!

By Jonathan Rosenblum

ONE OF THE STOCK FIGURES of Eastern European lore is the "Ma Yafis Jew" forced to sing and dance for the entertainment of the local paritz (landowner). (The term derives from the name of a particularly long and mournful Sabbath song that the Polish landed gentry apparently delighted in hearing.)

"Ma Yafis Jew" became a term of derision among the early Zionists, something akin to "Uncle Tom" among American blacks. Meek and subservient, he represented the antithesis of the "new Jew" Zionism hoped to create. The "new Jew" would be proud, independent, and would glory in his martial abilities: a free man in his own land.

In one sense, the "Ma Yafis Jew" received a bum rap. For all the external obeisance he paid to the paritz, who held the power of life and death over him, in his heart he never doubted that he was a member of a chosen people and his oppressor a drunken lout.

Nor was the "new Jew" quite so independent as he imagined. There is more than one way for a man to debase himself. Subservience of heart and mind entails a far greater loss of pride and is more self-destructive than subservience of the body. The "new Jew" would prove highly vulnerable on this score.


The reasons for that vulnerability are not hard to find. As Professor Shlomo Avineri pointed out in his The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State, the founders of modern Zionism, by and large lacked any deep connection to their Judaism or grounding in classic Jewish sources. They "were products of European education, imbued with the current ideas of the European intelligentsia." Disappointed that political emancipation had not ended anti-Semitism, they turned to 19th century European nationalism as a possible solution.

Unable to assimilate individually within their host nations, political independence offered the possibility of assimilating collectively among the nations of the world.

The models for national existence that Zionist thinkers developed were based on existing European models. Thus the hero of Herzl's Alteneuland announces, "Neudorf (the ideal Jewish community) was not built in Palestine, but in England, in America, in France and in Germany."

A.D. Gordon, intellectual father of the kibbutz movement, offered little more than warmed over Tolstoy in his prophetic mode.

That dependence on European ideologies and models left us highly anxious about the good opinion of the civilized nations. Rejection by them is experienced as rejection by the father figure whom we seek to emulate.

At the very outset of the Oslo process, Martin Peretz, an ardent Zionist, noted: "These Zionists acted as they did because they value something more than territory, something more even than the protection that territory gives. They wanted recognition of their legitimacy . . . . This is perhaps a weakness of the Jews worrying too much whether others acknowledge their peoplehood."

After making the mistake of winning one too many wars, Israel became since 1967 the most frequently condemned nation on earth. From being widely admired as being in the vanguard of political liberalism, Israel became the subject of widespread opprobrium. Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin (who once admitted he would have no convincing argument for his children against intermarriage) - men of culture and broad general learning - were galled to find themselves representing a pariah nation wherever men of enlightenment and understanding gathered to discuss the great issues of the day. Oslo was their means of recapturing Israel's lost lustre in the eyes of the world.

That same cast of mind is all about us today. Take the reporting of the Supreme Court's decision on the GSS questioning of security prisoners.

Running as a virtual refrain through the commentary on the case was the idea that the decision will bring us great honor among the nations of the world, as if those nations had ever shown any sympathy for the threats under which Israel lives.

One person for whom it will certainly bring credit is Court President Aharon Barak, who announced the result just before he was about to leave for his annual victory lap around America's elite law schools. There he is a hero for having fulfilled every law student's Walter Mitty dream of turning the Supreme Court into the country's most powerful institution. The GSS interrogation practices sullied his halo and could not remain.

Note, we are discussing the language and manner in which the decision was hailed not its legal merits. The case was one clearly within the Court's jurisdiction and the issue could not be avoided. The writ of habeas corpus requiring the state to justify the detention of prisoners is one of the fundamentals of democratic society. And the danger inherent in any situation where security authorities have unfettered power is obvious.

Now it is for the Knesset to enact legislation dealing with possible variants of the "ticking bomb" scenario. Until it does, we can only hope that the GSS will act as necessary and bear the consequences later if confronted with such a situation.

The fawning coverage of the Prime Minister's maiden trip to Washington provides another example of our obsession with popularity. Every news report, it seems, emphasized the good "chemistry" between Clinton and Barak, and how much Bill liked Ehud. We celebrate the fact that our Prime Minister has found favor in the eyes of a man who has repeatedly shown morals bearing considerable resemblance to those for which six teenagers from Ramat Hasharon are sitting in jail.

Israel cannot afford to thumb its nose at the United States with impunity.

Too great a belief in our own independence is just another pernicious effect of the "new Jew" myth, and invites disaster just as in the days of the Zealots who brought on the destruction of the Temple.

But must we gush like lovestruck school girls everytime Bill smiles at us?

Personally, I'll take the "Ma Yafis Jew".

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


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02/04/99:Those ornery Orthodox: Myth and Reality
02/01/99: Keep the money

©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum