08 November 2008

George Steiner

[from George Steiner's My Unwritten Books, New Directions, 2008]

Essentially powerless for some two thousand years, the Jew in exile, in his ghettos, amid the equivocal tolerance of gentile societies, was in no position to persecute other human beings. He could not, whatever his just cause, torture, humiliate, or deport other men and women. This was the Jew's singular nobility, a nobility that seems to me far greater than any other. I hold it as axiomatic that anyone who tortures another human being, be it under compelling political, military necessity, that anyone who systematically humiliates or makes homeless another man, woman, or child, forfeits the core of their own humanity. The imperative of survival, the ethical ambiguities of its settlement in what was Palestine (by what sophistry does a nonbelieving, nonpracticing Israeli invoke God's promise to Abraham?), have forced Israel to torture, to humiliate, to expropriate -- though often to a lesser degree than its Arab and Islamic enemies. The State lives behind walls. It is armed to the teeth. It knows racism. In short: it has made of Jews ordinary men. Demography in fact threatens this soiled normality. There will before too long be more Arabs inside Israel than there are Jews. Only catastrophe in the outside world could trigger a new inflow of immigrants. That the collapse of Israel would produce an irreparable psychological and spiritual crisis throughout the Diaspora is more than likely. But it is not certain. It may well be that Judaism is larger than Israel, that no historical setback could extinguish the mystery of its endurance. Christianity may have been arrogant in the catacombs. We simply do not know. In the meanwhile, however, Israel is reducing Jews to the common condition of nationalist man. It has diminished that moral singularity and that aristocracy of nonviolence toward others which were the tragic glory of the Jew.

My Unwritten Books

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