The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism
By Jean Daniel, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Melville House, 214 pages, $14.95.
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In “The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism,” an often impassioned, sometimes contradictory and always very French essay, Jean Daniel argues that contemporary Jews have fallen into a truly disastrous trap: By opting for a very narrow definition of what it means to be the Chosen People, they have forgotten their historical mission. These are — and are meant to be — fighting words.
Daniel comes to his fight uniquely prepared. Born in 1920 to a large, middle-class and very cosmopolitan family of Algerian Jews, Daniel served against the Nazis. As a journalist in the 1950s, he gained a good deal of notoriety for supporting the cause of the Algerians in their anti-colonial struggles against the French. At 85, he remains a leading liberal political commentator and is currently the editorial director of an influential Parisian weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, which he helped found. A prolific writer, he has devoted a lot of attention to the Middle East over the past half-century and has shown himself to be a critical supporter of Israel as well as a critical defender of Palestinian rights. Therefore he occupies a position that is both deeply honest and increasingly difficult, in no small part because each side demands unconditional loyalty.
Daniel will pledge no such loyalty. He maintains a brave, if somewhat quaint commitment to the existential freedom of the individual. (He was, after all, a friend of Camus.) He bridles at any claim that his identification as a Jew should trump his other commitments. He is, he maintains, as much a Frenchman as a Jew and, above all else, a human. Indeed, at certain points in this book he seems to reject the very notion of identity itself as an illegitimate limitation of his liberty.
Daniel is fascinated by the fact that both secular and religious Jews seem to accept the idea that God, having chosen the Jews for their inherent and inherited superiority, then rewarded them by ordering them to overrun Canaan. Even if secular Zionists do not consciously claim a divine charter for their possession of the land, they act as if such a charter must certainly exist. In the process, both believers and atheists forget the weird paradox of Jewish election: that God demands the Jews be a nation of priests at the same time that He commands them to devastate the kingdoms of their enemies. Does the covenant presage a universal and universalist demand for justice, or is it just an excuse for conquest and occupation? According to Daniel, contemporary Jews understand it in this second sense, and so they mistake their mission as a clear warrant for the sometimes — but only sometimes — necessary violence of the state.
If God’s favor to the Jews manifests itself in apparently contradictory decrees, His disfavor becomes equally baffling. How, if Jews are God’s beloved, could the Shoah have been permitted? Was the Holocaust a monstrous form of punishment? For the religious, this is a troubling idea; after all, the pious suffered as much as anyone else. For the secular Jew, it is quite literally inconceivable. So Israel — especially the blinding victory of the Six Day War — is needed to illuminate the darkness of the Shoah. Israel makes it all clear: “In short, He had punished us when we were peaceful. He protected us when we were warriors.” For many people, then, Israel presents a solution to the problems posed by the Holocaust. Israel’s military success is taken as proof of the election that justifies it in the first place. (Is this logic circular? Of course it is.)
Even so, Israel itself presents a new problem, or rather several new problems. On the one hand, while Zionism promises liberation for the Jews, it looks like colonialism to the Arabs. It is one of the bitter ironies of modern history that Israel — a visibly European state — should have been born just at the time that the great colonial powers were forced to shed their empires. And from the anti-colonialist viewpoint, many of the steps the Israelis take in the name of security look a lot like naked aggression and willful oppression — that is, like the old colonialism born anew.
Daniel objects to the notion, widespread as he sees it, that there is no room for Jews outside Israel to express discomfort with Israeli policy, to see Israel’s actions from that anti-colonialist stance. The prevailing conviction that antisemitism is our unavoidable fate — a belief that takes hold, according to Daniel, just at the moment when it really ceases to be true — and the equally debatable notion that Israel is our last hedge against this antisemitism leads to a closing of the ranks around the Jewish state. According to Daniel, this enforced identification with Israel presents a great dilemma for those Jews who decide to remain in the Diaspora: “Each Jew is enjoined to feel and demonstrate solidarity with a government other than the one in which he has chosen to spend his life, and with which he can at times be in conflict.” It is precisely against such conformist pressures that Daniel has written this book.
In the end, Daniel argues that the idea that the Jews are a people unlike any other because they are better than all others has had fatal consequences. It has led the Israelis to violence and injustice, and it has forced the Jews of the Diaspora into a willful and often self-righteous complicity.
Citing a cadre of modern Jewish philosophers, Daniel proposes that Jews interpret their election not as a reward but as a challenge. It is “an exhortation to holiness.” He sees in the covenant a “command to be the best” and takes from the covenant “only the obligation to make Israel a beacon for other nations.” He suggests that there is a form of idolatry in believing too much in the Land of Israel itself. The territory does not define the holiness of the people. In fact, the drive to maintain sovereignty over that territory by whatever means necessary actually undermines holiness. Daniel sees it as nothing less than a form of divine caprice to bestow a land on the Jews “whose defense implies fidelity to the Covenant, of course, but also a betrayal of Election and of the Ten Commandments.” The Jews, then, are locked in a bloody paradox.
Should the Jews resolve this paradox by abandoning Israel? Does the election of the Jewish people entail the scuttling of the Jewish state? Not by a long shot.
Daniel is a fine stylist in the French mode, which is to say that he mixes a truly classical clarity with a certain opacity. His taste for a good aphorism — and he is good with aphorisms — works against the nuance of his arguments. And some of these arguments are not as universal as they might appear at first. Rather, they are jabs and feints that seem to be required by the peculiar position of the Jews in France, who are faced by a large and angry Arab and Muslim minority and backed by a long tradition of conditional tolerance. (Conditional, that is, on Jews not separating themselves from the rest of the nation. The limits on this kind of tolerance were clearly visible last year when the French outlawed the wearing of headscarves, yarmulkes and crosses in public schools. Covering the head is important to the practice of many forms of Islam and Judaism. Wearing a cross is hardly central to Christianity.) The French situation leads Daniel to say that things might sound offensive to American ears, such as the implication that the Jews’ actions lead to antisemitism. It also causes him to make statements that he then seems to contradict (as when he inveighs against theology and identity, only to then propose a theologically based vision of Jewish identity). But these skirmishes are mere distractions from the main event on the fight card. Daniel’s points are that Jews in the Diaspora have a responsibility to hold Israel accountable to its highest calling and that the Israelis have a responsibility to listen.
The safety of Israel ultimately depends on those reciprocal responsibilities. And so does the very nature of Judaism. As the pun in his subtitle indicates, the state of the Jewish faith is now tied for better and for worse to the fate of the Jewish state. Daniel’s deep concern with Judaism might seem odd. By his own admission, he is not a believer. Daniel has some caustic things to say about God, and his book is in no small part an indictment of the Almighty. Not for nothing does he preface his chapters with quotations from the Book of Job.
But “The Jewish Prison” is marked by a passionate disappointment and an equally passionate if perhaps impossible hope. It would be easy to misunderstand that disappointment and that hope. After the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Gershom Scholem accused Hannah Arendt of lacking ahavat Israel, love for the Jewish people. He mistook Arendt’s argument, her tone and her intentions, because the cold fury of Arendt’s essay was motivated by an abiding commitment to Jews and to Jewish ideals. The same is true of “The Jewish Prison.” It is a provocative book, to be sure, but it is not capricious. Some of Daniel’s punches might miss their mark, but he proposes a fight that is hard to avoid.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.