In my own mind Steiner will perhaps live on forever as elucidating one of the greatest and most profound critiques of Zionism. by the Forward

George Steiner’s profound criticism of Zionism will haunt us forever

Image by Getty Images

Last week, on February 3, George Steiner, literary critic, author, and philosopher passed away at the age of 90. While Steiner will undoubtedly be remembered internationally for a whole array of achievements, in my own mind, Steiner will live on forever as the man who posed the greatest and most profound critique of Zionism.

Steiner’s critique stemmed from what he viewed as an inherent pathology that would result in an attempt to re-nationalize what had become an ethno-religious tradition. Ever since Jews were cast into exile two thousand years ago, Judaism has taken shape divorced from a national context and attached to a religious, ethnic one. Our exile entailed a complete reshaping of Jewish identity, transforming Judaism from a people in a land to the people of the book.

Of course, this transformation couldn’t have taken place without its own theological implications. While Christians came to see the Jewish diaspora as theological proof of their own supremacy above that of the Jews, Jewish thought incorporated exile into our religious outlook. God afflicts those he loves, the Talmud teaches in a variety of places; the suffering of the Jewish people is a symptom of Jewish divine chosenness, not proof of its absence. In this way, our existential homelessness, the state of the Jewish people for nearly 2,000 years, ceased to be simply a supremely unlucky historical event and took on new meaning as an inherent part of the Jewish tradition.

Opinion | George Steiner’s profound criticism of Zionism will haunt us forever

There’s little debate about this straightforward historical facts. But for Steiner, they amounted to an argument against Zionism. Exile was Judaism, Steiner believed, whereas Zionism was a movement that sought to create a Jewish state, binding the Jews once more to a nation state like any other, with all the banalities and corruption that all nation states contain. And there was something truly perverse, even unholy, to have 2,000 years of a deep religious tradition bound to the inevitable pettiness and corruption of nation-state building, Steiner wrote.

It was to go backwards, he thought. To have a tradition unbound by physicality, infinite in scope and imagination, rebound to a government and a country surrounded by the very finite and even ephemeral attributes of statehood was fundamentally wrong, per Steiner. Just as Judaism strongly teaches that one should not have idols, because our prophets and Rabbis understood the dangers in trying to capture an infinite God in anything finite, so too Steiner maintained we should not attempt to create a Jewish state.

In an essay called “Our Homeland, the Text,” Steiner used the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem as a poignant example. A beautiful exhibit in the Israel Museum houses the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish manuscripts dating back over 2,100 years found in Qumran. Steiner pointed out that there is a security system in place that, in case of attack, that will sink the texts underground, protecting them from incoming bombardment. “Words cannot be broken by artillery, nor thought live in bomb-shelters,” Steiner writes. To acknowledge the Shrine of the Book as just that, a shrine, is to lose sense of what is truly important in the realm of Jewish ideas and writings: that they cannot be lost in a physical attack.

Opinion | George Steiner’s profound criticism of Zionism will haunt us forever

It’s a moving passage, and a deeply Jewish one. It reminds me of the famous talmudic story of Rabbi Chananya where he is wrapped in a Torah scroll and subsequently burned by the Romans as punishment. When asked by his students what he sees, Rabbi Chananya said, “I see the parchment being consumed by the flames, but the letters, the letters I see flying off; they remain.” Judaism’s ability to survive and be such a profound source of truth stems from the fact that we have always been able to separate the letters from the parchment.

With Israel, Steiner was worried that the Jewish state implied that the words could no longer escape, bound as they were to a new material Jewish entity.

Opinion | George Steiner’s profound criticism of Zionism will haunt us forever

I don’t agree with Steiner. I myself am a very ardent Zionist and Israel is always in my heart and Jewish worldview. I am proud Israel exists as the Jewish state and will continue to support it with my whole self. We can’t be so naive as to build up an idyllic picture of Judaism, and the Jews need a Jewish state.

But there is something utterly profound about Steiner’s criticism of Israel, something that gives me much more pause than conversations about the Nakba, occupation or colonialism, for which every accusation has an equally strong rationalization.

Steiner’s is a criticism that we would be foolish to ignore and avoid as we continue to wrap up our religious, cultural, national, and ethnic identities in a nation-state across the world. There is a risk to our binding the infinite nature of Judaism to something finite, a risk we must keep in mind even as we take it, if we are to honor our history, and who it has made us.

Moshe Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel and a Jewish blogger. He can be reached at dlevine21@gmail.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

George Steiner’s profound critiques of Israel

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

George Steiner’s profound criticism of Zionism will haunt us forever

Thank you!

This article has been sent!

Close