Swans Commentary » swans.com January 26, 2009  



The Clever Child


by Michael Doliner





The clever boy wrinkles his high forehead, gazes searchingly with his big eyes and wants to know what really was the matter. Why did they first love his forefathers in Egypt, welcome them with open arms, and then begin persecuting and tormenting them, and, so queerly they kept on persecuting and tormenting them and throwing the baby boys into the rivers, but wouldn't for anything let them go. What was the explanation, Daddy? - asks the clever boy.

You see, my son, the philosophy of the Exodus from Egypt is contained in two sentences of the Eternal Book. These two phrases are like 'A' and 'Z' in the alphabet, the beginning and end of your forefather's welfare in Egypt. You may also compare them to the poles of an axis, round which the whole question of the Jews in Egypt turns. And not only in Egypt.

—Vladimir Jabotinsky, The Four Sons (PDF)


(Swans - January 26, 2009)   Jabotinsky's article, published in 1911, is an elaboration of an important part of the Passover Seder, the explanation of the Passover story to the Four Sons. Although the answer to each son is important, the answer to the first son is the most important, for he is the "clever son," the one who must understand and pass on the tradition. The answer given to him is the true answer, the way the Jews see themselves in the world. In what follows in Jabotinsky's article, the father recounts a tale of the Jews in Egypt. Pharaoh invites them in to herd cattle because the Egyptians have many cattle and like cheese but don't want to do this job themselves. But when the Jews prove very good at herding cattle and make it into a profitable business and themselves grow numerous, the Egyptians, many generations later, decide they want to take it over and so drive the Jews out little by little by persecuting them. They want to eliminate them not all at once, but gradually so that their numbers would slowly decrease. Jabotinsky goes on to tell the same story about Europe, where the Jews were first allowed to practice trade, which the European nobility thought despicable, and then banking. Jabotinsky warns that in each case the expression, "let us deal wisely," describes the later attitude, when "Pharaoh" begins to persecute the Jews and take over the activity himself.

Jabotinsky's influence in modern Israel cannot be overestimated. Jabotinsky founded Betar, a youth organization that Menachim Begin joined in his teens. Benjamin Netanyahu's father was a chief aid to Jabotinsky, and Yitzak Shamir is the honorary chairman of the Jabotinsky Institute. In 1923 Jabotinsky broke with the World Zionist Organization (WZO) over the use of force to found the Jewish state and founded Revisionist Zionism. It is reasonable to say that Revisionist Zionism gained control of Israel with Menachim Begin's ascension to the prime ministership in 1977, though Jabotinsky had had plenty of influence long before that. The paramilitary organization, Irgun, grew out of Betar and Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang, out of Irgun. Both Ehud Ohlmert and Tzipi Livni were born into Irgun families. Jabotinsky's description of Jewish life to the clever son is the Zionist world picture.

Jabotinsky's break with the WZO in 1923 was over his advocacy of the use of force to create the Jewish state. Jabotinsky insisted that the Arabs, like anyone else in that situation, would not simply allow the Jews to peacefully come, take their land, and create a Jewish state. The land had to be taken from them. Jabotinsky thought that once the deed was done the Arabs would acquiesce to the "facts on the ground" and all would be peaceful and Jews could then take up their other ideals again.

In the same year Jabotinsky founded Betar (Brit Yosef Trumpeldor), named after Joseph Trumpeldor, a Jewish fighter. Jabotinsky described the purpose of Betar as follows:

The duty and aim of Betar is very simple though difficult: to create that type of Jew which the nation needs in order to better and quicker build a Jewish state. In other words, to create a "normal," "healthy" citizen for the Jewish nation. The greatest difficulty is encountered because, as a nation, the Jews today are neither "normal" nor "healthy" and life in diaspora affects the intelligent upbringing of normal and healthy citizens.

So the purpose of Betar was to transform Diaspora Jews into warriors who would fight to found the Jewish state. The justification for this transformation was the answer to the clever child -- eternal Gentile hostility towards Jews. Jabotinsky wanted to reform Jewish character so that young Jews would live and sacrifice themselves for one idea, the creation of the Jewish state. Everything the Jews were prior to their entry into Betar he despised. He was opposed to commitment to the very ideals of Judaism as they developed during the nineteenth century.

There was prevalent for a long time the opinion among Jews that although the Jewish nation has a "mission" of its own, a complexity of ideals which it must contribute to civilization, we can, nevertheless, best serve this mission by remaining scattered among the nations of the world. Thus we will be able by closer contact, they maintain, to offer our ideas to every nation so that it should follow our advice in its collective life. This is a grave mistake.

Jabotinsky insisted that he still believed in the Jewish ideals of peace and social justice, but founded Betar on a refusal to make any commitment to these ideals. Betar is based on the principle of "Had Nes." "The special pride of Betar, which differentiates it from all other youth movements in Jewry, is Monism, Had Nes. Betar signifies a generation that dedicates its life to the sole idea of a Jewish State, without recognizing any other ideals." Zionism, perhaps because of Had Nes, often encourages its adherents to ignore any idea that human life is precious. There is plenty of evidence of Zionist brutality not only against Arabs, but also against Jews, in the cause of founding the Jewish state. Just one of these is the notorious Patria disaster in which the Haganah, to keep them from leaving Palestine, blew up a ship carrying Jewish refugees.

The ideals Jabotinsky, Betar, and now Israel put on hold are not ancient Jewish ideals, but ideals most of Europe acquired during the Enlightenment, a cultural wildfire that caught on in Europe during the late eighteenth century and burned brightly through the nineteenth. These ideals were, in fact, quite shallow. The Enlightenment's crown jewel is the United States and its Declaration of Independence that declares all men are created equal. The Enlightenment, with its new sciences, made the industrial revolution possible. Europe's subsequent industrial expansion spurred Imperialism and at the same time hatched its collapse as the Enlightenment idea of universal human dignity -- the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence -- spread throughout the world with the imperialists themselves, and encouraged people everywhere to want freedom from their oppressors, European and otherwise. During this time Jews abandoned Orthodox Judaism in droves and embraced both the new opportunities the Enlightenment and its industrial revolution offered them and the ideals of universal human worth and dignity.

Prior to the Enlightenment most people, including Jews, had no real sense of universal human dignity. Israel Shahak, concentration camp survivor, professor of chemistry, historian, and thorn in the side of Zionists describes the life of what he calls "classical Judaism," that existed from the tenth century on and continues to exist today in the shadows of the Enlightenment. Classical Jews lived in communities tightly controlled by Rabbis under Halacha, Jewish law. They thought of the surrounding peasantry as not much more than animals. The salient point here is that halacha treats Jews as different and superior to other people. For example, halacha hedges in almost all Jewish activities, and most importantly, the keeping of the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is perhaps the most important duty of an Orthodox Jew, but the Sabbath can be broken to save a Jewish life. Not, however, a gentile life, Shahak claims. Immanuel Jacobovitz, chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in the UK, making an effort, back in 1966, to rebut Shahak's claim, wrote an article for Tradition that can be found here. In it Rabbi Jacobovitz writes:

Accordingly, the whole sanction to violate the Sabbath for the preservation of life is founded on the superior value not of life itself but of the prospect to observe "many Sabbaths" afterwards, so that the Sabbath can be suspended only for a person who himself observes the Sabbath.

It is hard to see this as a refutation of Shahak's claim.

Classical Judaism embraced the feeling that Gentiles and Jews were, for all purposes, entirely different species, and the Jews were far superior. Not only did they think that Gentile hostility to Jews was eternal, but they also fostered a Jewish sense of eternal superiority and hostility to Gentiles. Although Jabotinsky's answer to the clever child supplies a story in which the Gentiles turn on a wholly innocent Jewish population, the history is something different. Jabotinsky tells the clever child that "Pharaoh" turns against the Jews because they do their distasteful job too well and he, becoming envious, wants to take it over for himself. Classical Jewish communities did suffer discrimination, but they were on the whole part of the privileged classes and served to "mediate the oppression of the peasants on behalf of the nobility and the Crown." They acted as bailiffs for the nobility, collecting taxes from the peasants and serfs and keeping a portion of the take for themselves. Shahak describes a virulent anti-peasant attitude among classical Jews and it is not too big a stretch to see Jabotinsky's metaphor of cattle herding as the way the Jews thought of themselves vis-à-vis the peasants. The distasteful job the classical Jews did was the dirty work of extracting wealth from the peasantry. Shahak's claim is easy to support. Here is a quote from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The Jews increased rapidly in the Little Russian territories at the beginning of the seventeenth century. They farmed not only the taxes, but even the revenues of the Greek Orthodox Church. At every christening or funeral the peasants had to pay a fee to the Jew. The lords were the absolute rulers of their estates, and the peasants their dependent subjects. When a lord or any other member of the nobility leased his villages or estates to a Jew, his authority also was delegated to the latter, who even had the power to administer justice among the peasants ("Yewen Mezulah," p. 2a).

The point is not that Orthodox Jews were bad people, but that the hostility between Jews and Gentiles grew, as one would expect, from the relations between them, not from irrational Jew hatred. Zionism grew out of Enlightenment liberated Judaism that had broken with classical Judaism, but it retained above all Jabotinsky's answer to the clever child. The sense of permanent Gentile oppression of Jews was the bridge between otherwise incompatible Orthodox and Enlightenment Judaism. In retaining this bridge Enlightenment Jews undermined their own commitment to Enlightenment ideals. By abandoning the rigid structure of Orthodox Judaism, and because of the rapid development of the industrial revolution, Enlightenment Jews quickly grew in wealth and power while Orthodox Judaism shrank. Hannah Arendt, in "Antisemitism" describes how necessary it was for Enlightenment Jews to both throw off any remnant of Orthodox Judaism yet somehow retain something called Judaism if they were to be accepted in nineteenth century European society. That Enlightenment Jews even thought of themselves as Jews testifies to how weak Orthodox Judaism was at that time. In the eighteenth century or earlier they all would have been excommunicated, as Spinoza was. But underneath it all, because of the answer to the clever child, Enlightenment Jews retained an attachment to Orthodox Judaism that undermined their new Enlightenment commitments.

For the most part Orthodox Judaism opposed Zionism. Neturei Karta, a present day loose coalition of Orthodox Jews, opposes Zionism on the grounds that the Torah specifically forbids Jews to return to Palestine and create a state by force. Their position is the same as that of almost all of Orthodox Judaism in the nineteenth century. Perhaps it was the impoverished state of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world that persuaded Avraham Kook, the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, to break with most of Orthodox Judaism and embrace Zionism. He insisted that Zionism, though obviously secular, could be turned to a religious purpose. Here is how Wikipedia puts it:

Kook built bridges of communication and political alliances between the various Jewish sectors, including the secular Jewish Zionist leadership, the Religious Zionists, and more traditional non-Zionist Orthodox Jews. He believed that the modern movement to re-establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel had profound theological significance and that the Zionists were pawns in a heavenly plan to bring about the messianic era.

This seems to have been possible because the Zionists, who for the most part were secular Jewish socialists, had, like Jabotinsky, abandoned their Enlightenment ideals for the single ideal of founding the Jewish state. Today Orthodox Judaism virtually dominates Israeli politics in spite of the small size of the religious parties.

Enlightenment Judaism is faced with a conundrum. Its sole real connection with Orthodox Judaism is in its belief in the answer to the clever child. But the Enlightenment value that is at the very foundation of Enlightenment Judaism is reason. "We hold these truths to be self evident...," that is reason tells us "that all men are created equal..." It is above all reason that has proven the value of the Enlightenment, and it is above all Enlightenment Judaism's embrace of reason and rejection of mysticism and religious dogma that characterizes what it is and accounts for its phenomenal success. But reason is what is at the root of modern historiography, and reason shows us that Gentile hostility to Jews grew not from some irrational, inexplicable, eternal Jew hatred, but from the very real social conditions obtaining in various times and places. To continue to embrace the Orthodox answer to the clever child, Enlightenment Jews must believe in what anyone who looks at it will have to agree is ludicrous unreasonable Zionist historiography and abandon their commitment to reason itself. For no one could maintain a commitment to reason and continue to believe the ever more irrational and hysterical justifications for the answer to the clever child used to justify, for example, the present attack on Gaza.

Enlightenment Jews cannot embrace ever more Orthodox Zionism without denying the Enlightenment foundation of the United States. For the belief in the answer to the clever child, a belief that is necessary to justify the indiscriminate killing of non-Jews, is incompatible with a belief in the Declaration of Independence, a belief that requires that all humans, Jewish and Gentile, are equal and are endowed by their creator with the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course Americans and all Western Europeans have been less than loyal to their own Enlightenment principles. It could easily be argued that the enemies of the Enlightenment besieged it from the very beginning. Racism, embedded in Imperialism, is everywhere. But it is also true that any community that embraces racism openly cannot thrive in the modern world. Racist communities are eventually poor communities. The world, perhaps in spite of itself, turns against the South Africas. It is to the Enlightenment that Enlightenment Jews, and that means American Jews, owe their success, and if they turn away from the Enlightenment they will lose it. Most of what Jews think of as essentially Jewish, their love of learning, their humor, their cultural achievements, are characteristics of Enlightenment, not Orthodox Judaism.

As long as Orthodox Judaism took the form of small communities serving the wishes of the oppressive rulers of larger surrounding communities, it could do relatively little damage. The need to serve the ruler curbed the essentially paranoid attitude to non-Jews, and the lack of heavy weapons made the Orthodox Jews relatively harmless. But Orthodox Judaism more and more now dominates Israel. Baruch Goldstein, an Orthodox Jewish doctor, who on February 25, 1994, killed 29 Arabs in cold blood while they were at prayer, received a funeral organized by Israeli President Weizman, and was treated as a hero. That he had refused to treat non-Jews, even non-Jewish soldiers in the IDF, was glossed over. Today his grave is a shrine. As Zionism comes more and more under the sway of Orthodox Judaism, Israel's chance of ever becoming a state among states vanishes. For Orthodox Judaism's contempt for and prejudice against non-Jews is embedded in the halacha and must be continually renewed.

To defend its actions in the present attack on Gaza Israel has floated a question: "What would you do if your neighbor were lobbing rockets at you?" The assumed answer is that you would retaliate. But of course the correct answer is that this does not adequately describe the situation. Israel has been occupying Palestinian land and turning the Gaza strip into a virtual concentration camp for years. I have heard many Jews repeat this question as a defense of Israel's actions. When they do so they embrace and take as their own the hopelessly inadequate Zionist historiography and all but announce their own abandonment of the Enlightenment ideal of careful rational analysis. In doing so they have cut the ground out from under themselves. Like the Zionists of Betar, they will likely come under the sway of the powerfully persuasive Orthodox Rabbis.

Neturei Karta rightly warns of the danger posed by the Zionist state. Orthodox Judaism with its dark Gentile hatred, allied with a state possessing atomic weapons, could be an apocalyptic prospect. For Orthodox Judaism must be in a hostile relationship to any surrounding non-Jewish community. American Enlightenment Jews, and that still includes most of them, now seem to be the only force capable of turning Israel back towards Enlightenment ideals and away from Orthodox Jewish virulent xenophobia and hostility that Zionism so easily embraced. In the midst of the present confrontation, which, interpreted with Zionist Orthodox historiography, seems only to confirm the answer to the clever child, this will be difficult. It will become ever more difficult if American Jews abandon their commitment to reason and instead embrace Jabotinsky's idea that they should support the Jewish state against all sense.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published January 26, 2009