Editor’s note: George Steiner is generally regarded as one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. He has taught at Oxford University, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, among others, and his books include the classic of criticism, “Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky,” “The Death Of Tragedy” and “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards The Redefinition Of Culture.” “A Long Saturday,” a book of conversations Steiner had with the French journalist Laure Adler, is being published this month by the University Of Chicago Press. Writing for The Washington Post in 1984, Robert Alter declared, “No one now writing on literature can match him as polymath and polyglot, and few can equal the verve and eloquence of his writing.”
The following conversation between Adler and Steiner has been excerpted from that book.
Laure Adler: The Jewish question, which has haunted your entire life, goes well beyond the existence of Israel, the settling of a people in a nation-state, doesn’t it?
George Steiner: That’s a crucial question. I have great contempt for armchair Zionists, who practice Zionism without ever wanting to set foot over there. The only time I had the huge privilege of meeting Ben-Gurion (very briefly), he said to me, “Only one thing matters: Send me your children.”
Which you didn’t do.
Which I didn’t do. And I am fundamentally anti-Zionist. Let me explain — even if, as I strongly fear, everything that I’m going to say now may be misunderstood, misinterpreted. For several thousand years, approximately from the time of the fall of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Jews did not have the wherewithal to mistreat, or torture, or expropriate anyone or anything in the world. For me, it was the single greatest aristocracy that ever existed. When I’m introduced to an English duke, I say to myself, “The highest nobility is to have belonged to a people that has never humiliated another people.” Or tortured another. But today, Israel must necessarily (I stress this word, and would repeat it 20 times if I could), necessarily, inevitably, inescapably, kill and torture in order to survive; Israel must behave like the rest of so-called normal humanity. Well, I’m a confirmed ethical snob, I’m completely arrogant ethically; by becoming a people like others, the Israelis have forfeited that nobility I had attributed to them. Israel is a nation between nations, armed to the teeth. And when I look from the top of a wall at the long line of Palestinian workers trying to get to their daily jobs, standing in blistering heat, I can’t help seeing the humiliation of those human beings in that line, and I say to myself, “It’s too high a price to pay.” To which Israel answers: “Be quiet, you fool! Come here! Live with us! Share our danger! We are the only country that will welcome your children if they have to flee. So what right do you have to be so morally superior?” And I have no response. To be able to respond, I would have to be there, on the street corner, giving my absurd spiel, living the daily risks there. Because I don’t do that, I can only explain what I perceive as the Jew’s mission: to be the guest of humanity. And, even more paradoxical (which places the mark of Cain on my forehead), what convinced me was something Heidegger said: “We are the guests of life.” Heidegger came up with that extraordinary expression; neither you nor I could choose the place of our birth, the circumstances, the historical time to which we belong, a handicap or perfect health. We are geworfen, to use the German word, “thrown” into life. And in my opinion, whoever is thrown into life has a duty to that life, an obligation to behave as a guest. What must a guest do? He must live among people, wherever they may be. And a good guest, a worthy guest, leaves the place where he has been staying a bit cleaner, a bit more beautiful, a bit more interesting than he found it. And if he must leave, he packs his bags and leaves. I haven’t visited or lived in any place in the world that hasn’t been fascinating, whose language hasn’t been worth learning, whose culture isn’t worth understanding, where one can’t try to do something interesting. The world is incredibly rich. If people don’t learn how to be guests of each other, we will destroy ourselves, we will have religious wars, terrible racial wars. Malraux saw this coming with stunning clarity. In the Diaspora, I believe the task of the Jew is to learn to be the guest of other men and women. Israel is not the only possible solution. If that which you don’t even dare to consider were to happen, if the unimaginable came to be, if Israel were to disappear, Judaism would survive; it is much greater than Israel.
In “Language And Silence,” you wrote, “The State of Israel is, in one sense, a sad miracle.” Would you say the same thing today?
It may be dangerous (and I’m serious) to say that, but yes, I can still say it: Judaism goes far beyond Israel. The 500 years in Spain were one of the greatest periods in Jewish culture. The 500 years in Salonica were a period of immense spiritual and intellectual glory. American Jews dominate a large portion of the sciences and the economy of the planet. Not to mention their importance in the media, literature and so on. Let’s imagine that Israel disappears — perhaps a dangerous thing to say, a dreadful thing to imagine from any point of view — could the Diaspora survive such a shock psychologically? I don’t know. The horror of that thought is inconceivable. But our brains are meant to think the unthinkable. This is my daily task as a teacher and a thinker; that is why God put me in the world. I haven’t the slightest doubt that Judaism would survive. Not the slightest doubt. Nor about the fact that the mysterious continuity of what I call the guests of life would go on. But it’s a dreadful thing to have to think about.
To adopt, as you do, the attitude of the wandering Jew, is that to question the existence of Israel?
No, I don’t question it. It was the miracle necessary for the survival of a portion of the Jewish people, but I dare not believe it’s the only option, as I’ve just said. And I see wandering as a wonderful destiny. To wander among people is to visit them.
Do you define yourself as a Jew, as a Jewish thinker?
No. A European Jew, if you like. A student, I like to consider myself a student. I have teachers.
Among the teachers you have had and still have, one has been particularly important to you: Gershom Scholem. He decided to leave Europe and move to Palestine to establish a university there.
He went at a time when it was very dangerous. He lived through wars there, he experienced what was supposed to have been the extinction of Israel in the first Israeli-Arab wars. But for Scholem, again, it was quite different. His inability to persuade others to leave Europe caused him true suffering. That was also the case with Walter Benjamin, whose brother was killed in a concentration camp while Benjamin was telling everyone he knew, “Come on! Come on!” But they didn’t go. He was like Cassandra. It’s terrible to be Cassandra.
You have taught all over the world; you have had a great number of students who have in turn become professors worldwide — in Beijing, Los Angeles, Cambridge, Geneva. Haven’t you wondered whether one day you might go live in Israel, become an Israeli citizen?
First, there’s the fact of my remarkable laziness. I studied Hebrew until my bar mitzvah, and then I turned to Latin and Greek. I dropped Hebrew. Inexcusable. I could have picked it up again later. Laziness. Also, I’m fiercely anti-nationalist. I totally respect what Israel is, but it isn’t for me. You need a Diaspora to balance things. And I also refused to consider it because I was proud to such a degree, to an almost absurd degree, to be stateless. Proud. That’s what I’ve been proud of all my life. To live in several languages, to live in the greatest possible number of cultures, and to abhor chauvinism, nationalism — which has been the guiding principle in Israel for a long time and is still dominant.
And yet you’ve gone to Israel several times to give talks.
But you’ve never been tempted.
Oh, yes, in Jerusalem, yes, because it’s a transcendently beautiful city. But that’s a bad reason.
But still you don’t challenge the existence of the State of Israel?
Now it’s too late.
And at the same time, you condemn the particular policy directed by the Israeli government against the Palestinians.
Yes. Even though I understand the reasons for it. Again, to say that [Benjamin] Netanyahu is wrong is easy when you’re in a Cambridge drawing room. You should say it when you’re over there. And as long as you’re not there, completely immersed in living there, I think it’s better to hold your tongue. Anyway, now that I’m so close to the end, to my end, I’m no longer at all sure about moving to Israel. There are moments when I’d like to go. Moments when I wonder whether I should have gone.
You still can.
No, not anymore. Neither my age nor my health would allow it. And they don’t need me there. Anyway, I’m persona non grata over there.
Because of things I’ve said all my life. The simple fact, for example, that I’ve asserted that the survival of Judaism goes beyond Israel’s survival; it’s the worst sort of betrayal, it’s inadmissible, and I understand that. But really, what fascinates me most is the mystery of Jewish intellectual excellence. I’m not being a hypocrite: In the sciences, the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is stunning. There are areas in which there is almost a Jewish monopoly. Take the creation of the modern American novel by Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow and so many others. The sciences, mathematics, the media, as well; Pravda was run by Jews. Is that the fruit of the terrible pressure of danger? Is danger the father of invention and creation? I dare to believe that is true, quite often. Judaism is the only religion, the only one on the planet, that has a special prayer for families whose children are scholars. That fills me with great joy and huge pride. I now have (and I don’t believe in miracles) a son who is the dean of a very fine college in New York, a daughter who directs the department of antiquity at Columbia, a son-in-law who teaches ancient literature at Princeton. That was my dream. Do we Jews, perhaps, have something of a gift for the life of the mind, for abstract thought? We seem destined to love knowledge, thinking, the arts. All men and women share this to some degree, I know, but this people, so small in number, so very small, that has been on the verge of disappearing several times throughout history, and yet survives — in short, this people, so hated, so feared, so persecuted, is still here. No one can explain why. Anti-Semitic jokes often contain a grain of truth. Hegel told this one: “God arrives, and in his right hand he is holding the holy texts of the revelation and the promise of heaven; in his left hand, the Berlin newspaper, Die Berliner Gazette. The Jew chooses the newspaper.” Hegel’s anti-Semitic joke contains a profound truth: Jews are passionate about the ductus, the internal current of history and time. And it was perhaps no accident that Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Einstein (with the major exception of Darwin, of course) were all born in the same century.
You often refer to those rabbis in the concentration camps who continued to pray to God: Do you think they prayed because they thought the camp was the antechamber of God’s house?
I can’t answer that. But I can tell you about those who were called “living books.” Other prisoners, other victims, came to consult them because those men knew thousands of pages — including the Torah, the Talmud — almost entirely by heart. To be a “living book” that you could leaf through as if leafing through the human soul is no small thing; it is in fact a great honor.
You’re rather hard on American Jews. In “Language And Silence,” you say, “In America, Jewish parents listen for their children at night; but it is to make sure the car is back in the garage, not because there is a mob out.”
But that isn’t a criticism. I say that with infinite gratitude. My children and grandchildren are over there. And I want them to be there because at this moment in time, for Jews in America, the escalator of history is on the way up. There is an extraordinary momentum. But also a great risk: assimilation. Slowly, through mixed marriages, even through tolerance, Jews are gradually disappearing from the United States. Not the Orthodox Jews, who assert their survival, an aggressive, superstitious survival, and who don’t assimilate. But American Jews, nonbelieving, nonpracticing Jews — like me — are in danger of slowly disappearing. In any event, when I arrived in the U.S., there were still quotas at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. If you had told me that in a few years the presidents of all those universities would be Jews, and that Jews would occupy chairs in literature — from which they were formerly excluded — I wouldn’t have believed you. There was a prevailing elitism that made Jews understand they were outsiders. Such thinking no longer exists. The last time I had the privilege of attending a session of the permanent members of the Institute for Advanced Thinking at Princeton, it involved the replacement of a brilliant mathematician, a world-renowned logician. Various names were suggested. Oppenheimer knocked on the table with his pipe — something he did when he’d had enough, when he was getting impatient — and said, “Gentlemen, I beg you, for the sake of good politics, try to suggest a name that isn’t Jewish.” But there weren’t any at that level of global eminence. Today I think there would be some Japanese, and tomorrow there will be Indians (including women, I’d like to stress). In the past few years, at all the universities I’ve visited, things have been changing a lot: the Jewish student is no longer necessarily the first or the second in his or her class; now it is the Chinese or Indian student who ranks highest in traditional disciplines such as pure logic, mathematics, theoretical physics and so on.
For you, being a Jew means belonging to the People of the Book and having a desire to study. It’s not belonging to a race; it’s a desire to learn.
I don’t understand anything about this race business; it’s a bad joke. To be a Jew is to belong to that multimillennial tradition of respect for the life of the mind, of infinite respect for the Book, for the text, and it means telling oneself that one’s bags must always be packed, that the bags must always be ready to go. Without complaining, without shouting about cosmic injustice. No, it’s actually a great privilege. Don’t forget (people forget this all the time): In ancient Greek the word for “guest” is the same as the word for “foreigner”: xenos. And if you were to ask me to define our tragic condition, it’s that the word “xenophobia” survives, and is commonly used, everyone understands it; but the word “xenophilia” has disappeared. That’s how I define the crisis of our condition.
You reread the history of the roots of anti-Semitism in a very original way, in quite a surprising or even, for some specialists, arrogant way. You explain that the sudden rise of anti-Semitism was not because the Jews crucified Jesus but because the fact that Jews gave birth to God made Christians jealous of them — jealous to the point of extreme madness and murder.
In three instances Judaism has held mankind hostage in the most tormenting manner. First, with the Mosaic Law. Monotheism is the least natural thing in the world. When the ancient Greeks say there are 10,000 gods, it’s natural, logical, delightful; they inhabit the world with beauty, reconciliation. The Jew responds: ”Unimaginable! You can’t have an image of God, you can’t have a conception of him other than an ethical, moral one. He is an all-powerful God; he avenges himself to the third generation, etc.” The Mosaic Law, the morality of monotheism, is terrible: That was the first act of blackmail. The second instance: Christianity. You have Jesus, the Jew, who enjoins people: “You will give everything you have to the poor. You will sacrifice for others. Altruism isn’t a virtue, it’s the very duty of mankind. You will live humbly.” This is a fundamentally Judaic message: The Sermon on the Mount is made up of quotes, you know, from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos. And the third time you have Marx, who proclaims, “If you have a fine house with three empty rooms and there are people all around you who have no home, you are the basest swine.” There is no possible defense for human egotism, greed, the lust for money, success. What did the revolutionary Saint-Just say? Happiness is a new idea in Europe. What did Marx say? Justice, a new idea in Europe. Enough of these terrible inequalities. Beggars are increasing on the sidewalks of our capitals — in Paris and in London. Three times, Jews have demanded, “Become a person. Become human.” It’s frightening. And then as a side note, Freud comes and takes away our dreams. He doesn’t even let us dream in peace. As for the great prophets, Isaiah declared himself the one who wakes us in the night, the one whose cries will awaken the city. Jeremiah pleads, “Wake up! Stop sleeping!” But it’s really mean to deprive us of our petty bourgeois sleep. Sleeping well is the luxury of the bourgeoisie, the middle classes. People who are starving never enjoy a good sleep. And Freud comes along and takes away even that. No, really, when Hitler declared in his Table Talk (Tischgespräche) that “the Jew invented conscience,” he was right. Absolutely. It was actually a profound statement from that evil man. When Solzhenitsyn, whom I consider a great man, though detestable, says that “the virus of communism, of Bolshevism, is totally Jewish and has infected the holy Virgin of Kazan and Russian theocracy,” he happens to be quite correct from a historical perspective. We can be proud of this, or we can deplore it. But anti-Semitism is a kind of human cry, “Leave me alone!” It’s a cry against the moral pestering Judaism represents. And I don’t think it can be eliminated. The crisis in the Middle East is only getting more severe. On the one hand there is an anti-Semitic left in the so-called liberal countries, and on the other you have the Baptists, the most fascist-leaning neo-conservatives in the United States — there are 50 million of them in the southeastern U.S. — who were sending money and arms to Sharon when he was prime minister: “Yes! Bravo! You have to keep the infidel away from the Nazarene Country.” Yes, they call Israel the Nazarene Country. These are cruel, sadistic absurdities, disgusting alliances. Once again, history is going to be very dangerous. Every person lives his life while delving into his inner world. When I get up in the morning, I tell myself this story, so I can make it through the day: God announces that he’s sick of us. Really. “I’m fed up!” In 10 days, the flood. The real one. No Noah this time. That was a mistake. The Holy Father tells the Catholics, “Very well. It’s God’s will. You will pray. You will forgive each other. You will gather your families and wait for the end.” The Protestants say, “You will settle your financial affairs. Your affairs must be completely settled. You will gather your families and you will pray.” The rabbi says, “Ten days? But that’s more than enough time to learn how to breathe under water!” And every day that magnificent story gives me the strength and happiness to live my life. And I believe it, deeply: Ten days is indeed a long time.
What do you think of the almost global rise in anti-Semitism?
I had hoped that at the end of my life (that is, now) the legacy of the Shoah would be calmed, that a certain reconciliation would have occurred naturally in Europe, but that hasn’t been the case; today the waves of anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews, are cresting around us everywhere. You wouldn’t have thought that possible only a few years ago. In Hungary, Romania, Poland, there are hardly any Jews anymore, but anti-Semitism has endured. And in my beloved England, I hate to tell you, the signs, indications of anti-Semitism, are increasing; there are academic boycotts against Jewish scientists, even in England. And a very profound sense of unease is developing in the face of this. And the incredible irony is that in Ukraine now it’s Putin who is denouncing anti-Semitism. It’s a scenario worthy of Kafka! Everywhere, the great wave is growing again, except, perhaps, in the U.S. I’m not talking about revisionism (which has followers in France); I’m talking about those who think of themselves as open-minded but feel increasingly ill at ease in the presence of Jews.
How would you describe the geography of the return of anti-Semitism?
It’s everywhere. You can’t open a newspaper without seeing incidents, attacks against Jewish cemeteries, against synagogues. And the nationalist movements, the movements of the right that openly proclaim their hatred of Jews. And so, provisionally at least, I would propose this basic hypothesis: There is a hatred of Jews wherever there are no longer any Jews, even where there have never been Jews. Where are the most copies of the so-called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” printed? In Japan, where there have never been Jews. That’s where this infamous and very powerful pamphlet is sold in the hundreds of thousands. And so one must ask the almost surreal question: What are the deep roots of this refusal of any reconciliation, this refusal to forget? We forget other problems, but not the Jewish problem. And I would like to propose a preliminary response, which now, at the end of my days, is becoming increasingly convincing to me: Jews have lasted too long. No one can say, “My people lived in the time of Themistocles or Caesar,” but the ethnic and historical Jewish identity has endured for 5,000 years — that’s a long time. Why such longevity? There is another people on Earth — and only one — that has a multimillennial tradition: the Chinese. And yet, here, obviously, you have to take into account the huge number of them. Here is a quite scandalous fact — and I use that word in the Greek sense, skandalon, which means enormity: At this moment there are more Jews on the planet than before the Shoah. One shouldn’t have the right to say such a thing; it’s indecent, but it’s true; there are more Jews living, surviving, than before the most powerful genocide in human history. How, as a Jew, does one survive the Shoah psychically? How can we avoid the crucial question raised shortly before his death by the eminent Jewish American philosopher Sidney Hook? I’ll ask it again. If you were told that your unborn children might confront a new Holocaust, an Auschwitz in another form, the threat, once again, of slavery and destruction, and if you had the choice either to have them convert, in any case to leave Judaism, or else not to have children, which would you choose? That is the philosophical question he asked. Others have certainly asked themselves the same thing — I’ve asked it myself. If we knew that the monstrous and the inhuman was waiting for us again, wouldn’t we try everything possible to disguise our Jewish past, to leave it, to go to the other side (which is possible in America, probably in Britain, perhaps in France), or would we just not have children?
Leave it? Does that mean changing your name and converting to another religion?
Changing your name, your culture, trying to hide. In one or two generations, that might work. But I believe that the great majority of Jews, even the totally nonbelieving, nonpracticing ones, would not choose that path. I’m just guessing — there are no verifiable statistics on the matter. What is it that makes a Jew want to remain a Jew — God knows it’s a wretched destiny! The mystery of this survival, the mystery of what draws the hatred of the non-Jew, a sense of the monstrous; I think it’s because Jews have signed a pact with life. Let me explain. For thousands of years there seem to have been negotiations between Jews and life itself, the mystery of human vitality. After spending 10 years in prison, often in solitary confinement, Natan Sharansky (the famous pro-Zionist dissident in Soviet Russia) was exchanged for a spy who had been imprisoned; the exchange took place on a small bridge. What does Sharansky do? He goes across the bridge dancing and shouting insults at his Russian guards! In the camp, in Kolyma, the Russian guards were apparently afraid of Sharansky. He danced. He danced like David in front of the ark. The dance of an inextinguishable pact with vitality. That’s only a metaphor, perhaps, but when you wonder what exasperates others, I think it’s the mystery of that survival, that refusal to disappear. We are touching on a realm that requires you to be a sociobiologist. “Is there an element?” asks Lamarck, a naturalist. “No,” says Darwin, “we don’t have a specific trait.” These days we are beginning to rethink all of Lamarck. Why are 70% of all Nobel Prize winners in the sciences Jews? Why are 90% of all chess masters Jews, whether in Argentina or Moscow? Why do Jews recognize each other on a level that is not just that of rational reflection? Many years ago Heidegger said, “When you’re too stupid to have something to say, you tell a story!” That’s mean. So I’m going to tell a story! Many years ago, when I was a young doctoral student, I went to Kiev. I went out in the evening to take a walk, heard steps behind me; a man started to walk alongside of me and uttered the word “Jid.” I didn’t know Russian, and he didn’t know German, but we discovered that both of us knew a little Yiddish. I said to him, “You’re not Jewish?” “No, no. But let me explain. During the dark years of the Stalin purges, extraterrestrials could have landed in the neighboring village and we wouldn’t have known; we didn’t know anything! But the Jews had news from all over the world! We never understood how, but they knew what was going on.” A true Freemasonry of underground communication. He added, “I learned enough Yiddish to at least be able to ask them what was going on in Moscow. Because they knew.”
What do you mean by a Freemasonry of information?
A Freemasonry of information for me means belonging to a world in which you know what’s going on, where you don’t allow yourself to be duped, where you know how to say no. Jews have always been able to say no to despotism, to inhumanity around them. They’ve never been completely cut off from the world; to me, that’s part of the transcendent vitality that negotiated a pact with history. Jews know how to say, “We are going to suffer terribly, we are going to be pilgrims, vagabonds on Earth, but in the end we won’t perish.”
What does it mean to be a Jew when you don’t recognize Israel as the incarnation of a political destiny, and when you’re not a believer?
I will answer that with some shame and some joy, too: it means to be sitting with you here in this room, in this place with all these books, all these records, practicing several languages every day by reading them, trying every morning to be someone who learns something new. For me, to be a Jew is to remain a student, to be someone who learns. It’s to reject superstition, the irrational. It’s to refuse to turn to astrologists to find out your destiny. It’s to have an intellectual, moral, spiritual vision; above all, it’s to refuse to humiliate or torture another human being; it’s to refuse to allow another to suffer from your existence.
But in all that, you are defining characteristics of humanity, not necessarily the character of a people or a civilization.
On the contrary; the rest of the world is becoming more and more sadistic, more and more provincial, nationalistic, chauvinistic. In the West today there would seem to be three times as many astrologists as scientists. Superstition, the irrational, is gaining a great deal of ground again. We are living in a society of ever increasing kitsch, vulgarity and brutality.
And you think being Jewish is a protection against things of that sort?
Yes, I do. Here’s a somewhat disturbing example, but one that means a lot to me. Up to now, we know of not one Jewish school where there has been an incident involving pedophilia. This is very important: Jews consider children to be sacred. If at least this fact is verified — but I’m cautious, because there are secrets that none of us know about. By contrast, there’s an increasing number of pedophilia cases throughout Christendom. And I don’t think there has ever been a Jewish teacher who has touched a child sexually. Nor a rabbi, for God’s sake! Whereas in Ireland, to mention a country that I know well, there isn’t one school that has escaped this. But in Britain, too, pedophilia cases are multiplying. So perhaps, for me, to be a Jew is to be someone who would never abuse a child, who would never torture anyone else. And someone who, when reading a book, pencil in hand, is convinced he will write a better one. It’s that wonderful Jewish arrogance regarding the mind’s possibilities: “I will do even better!” If any of that is true, then it’s a sort of infinite privilege regarding the life of the mind — which is for me the glory of humanity. This doesn’t mean there aren’t stingy, corrupt Jews (in high finance, those who buy up London, Russian gangsters who are in large part Jews and are taking over the luxury industry), but it does mean that Jews continue to contribute immeasurably to the glory of the sciences, philosophy and intellectual thought. As for me, I’ve always defined myself as a Jew, everywhere, in all my writing — in my first book, “Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky,” in “The Death Of Tragedy,” always. As someone on the move, proud not to have a home. And at the end of my life, that’s almost all I have left, that which defines me. Now I’m really sorry I never learned Hebrew. I studied it in the beginning, and then I got hooked on Greek and Latin; that was a big mistake.
You can still pick it up!
It’s a bit late.
It’s never too late.
There comes a time when it’s too late for many things.
Reprinted with permission from “A Long Saturday: Conversations” by George Steiner with Laure Adler, published by the University Of Chicago Press. © 2017 by The University Of Chicago. All rights reserved.
This story "What Does George Steiner Think About Jewish Thought?" was written by Laure Adler.