Beyond the Pale

THE ISRAELIS: FOUNDERS AND SONS by Amos Elon Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $10.00

Toynbee’s quaint conceit that history is made by creative minorities finds a recent exhibit in the Jews of the East European Pale. As revolutionaries, nationalists, and professionals, they have changed the course of events in Russia, the Near East, and the United States. The biggest and best part of the superb new book by the Israeli journalist Amos Elon tells the story of how and whence they sprang.
The Pale of Settlement open to Jews was established by Catherine the Great after the first partition of Poland. It ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from central Russia to the eastern border of Germany. Large parts of Lithuania, Poland, the Ukraine, Romania, Carpathia, Hungary, and White Russia lay within its borders. The Jews who lived there were clustered in small towns, or shtetl, that served as marketplaces for the surrounding countryside. Culturally and economically they lagged far behind their cousins in Central and Western Europe. While the latter spoke national languages, practiced a reformed religion, and made their way as professionals and bankers, the East European Jews spoke Yiddish, practiced a medieval cult, and eked out a bare existence as artisans and traders.
But the Jews of the Pale had that most precious of gifts—strong bonds of community. They lived among their fellows, not vainly striving for assimilation. The God they worshipped, however primitive, was their own, not a version watered down to meet the standards of the Enlightenment. As Dr. Shmarya Levin said in an autobiography written for the first generation of East European. Jews in America: “The world of their parents beyond the eastern shores of the ocean was a many-sided world, rich in content, rich in colors, with deep economic foundations and abundant streams of spiritual life.” Moreover, the advanced Jews of Central and Western Europe lived in Frankfurt and Hamburg and Amsterdam and other cities that were, before the hygienic reforms of the late nineteenth century, deathtraps of dirt and disease. Physically, life in the shtetl was much more healthy. So there the tribe increased. Of the 7.5 million Jews alive in 1880, three quarters were East Europeans, Yiddish-speaking and orthodox in belief. The Pale had become, as Sir Lewis Namier wrote, “the hinterland” of world Jewry.
Numbers, as the book of that name in the Old Testament announces, have always meant troubles for the Jews. Attempts to acquire land brought the growing Jewish community of the Pale into conflict with the local gentry and peasants, themselves newly freed from serfdom. Efforts to run their own towns encountered resistance from the mainly German civil servants. Quota systems, and outright proscription, prevented migration to the larger cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and entrance to their universities. A favored few managed to escape the Pale for an education in the freer universities of Germany and Austria—the circumstance which yielded, in Vienna, the intellectual flowering associated with Freud. But by 1880, the Romanov dynasty was approaching its term. In a desperate effort to avert collapse by linking themselves with the peasant nationalism of their empire, the dynasts set in motion the devastations that became known to the world by a peculiar Russian word. Of these pogroms Elon writes:
Modern readers versed in the details of concentration camps, death factories and nuclear weapons are frequently left unmoved by contemporary accounts of pogroms in Kishinev or Homel, Zhitomir, Odessa and Kiev, or tales of smaller outbursts of violence and arson at the turn of the century in hundreds of towns in hamlets throughout White Russia and the Ukraine. In the quieter days of 1890 or 1900 the sudden slaughter of forty or fifty innocent men, women and children, innocent except for their being Jewish, was so traumatic a shock that everywhere in Eastern Europe Jews began to change their entire outlook on life. More and more Jews searched for radical solutions.

The radical solutions took three forms. One, sketched briefly by Elon, was revolution. Since the pogroms had shown the European middle classes to be virulently anti-Semitic (even Tolstoy, after all, did not protest), it seemed to not a few of the most energetic Jews that socialism was the avenue for change. The Social Democrats and the Bolsheviks counted Jews among their chief recruits. Lenin himself wrote: “Russians were too easygoing, too readily tired of the revolutionary struggle. Jews, on the other hand, with their stubbornness and fanaticism, made excellent revolutionaries.” Trotsky, standing trial for his part in the abortive revolution of 1905, declared: “I am a revolutionary, not a Jew.” And when the revolutionary hour came round again, he played a leading part. So did Zinoviev, and Kamenev, and the first President of Soviet Russia, Sverdlov, and many other Jews. The British seriously assumed that the Bolshevik revolution was the work of German Jews seeking to help their countrymen win what was then the World War. The Germans, and many others, thought it was part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

The second radical solution, set out in full detail by Elon, was Jewish nationalism. In the wake of the pogroms “Zionist study circles and clandestine clubs sprouted in hundreds of cities all over Russia.” Jews already in Palestine sent appeals for further immigration. “The sixteen-year-old Shmuel Dayan, father of the future general, read one of these appeals . . . . Soon afterwards he left. . . . David Grien (who soon afterwards changed his name to Ben Gurion) defied his father and announced his imminent departure for Palestine.” In that semispontaneous fashion, hundreds of East European Jews began packing their bags. “Individuals and small groups of friends just started moving. They embarked at Odessa or Trieste, and in Constantinople or Port Said they changed for slow cargo vessels, or occasionally passenger boats bound for . . . Palestine.”

Once there, the cohesive community spirit of the East European Jews, their disposition to work together and make sacrifices for common goals, asserted itself. They rapidly wrested control of the Zionist movement from the more cultivated Jews of Vienna, Paris, and London. They revived Hebrew as a modern tongue. They built a pioneer movement, the kibbutzim. They put together, in the Labor Party, a political organization disciplined to the point of making the veriest ward heelers of the Daley machine in Chicago look like wide-eyed West Side reformers. When statehood came they constructed a nation conformist as few in history—sameness of viewpoint was not so much coerced as the product of convergent individualism. And when the test of battle came they threw up a defense force, made in the same spirit of voluntary self-discipline as the kibbutzim and the Labor Party, which won some of the most glorious victories of modern times.

The third radical solution was emigration to America. In the forty years between the outbreak of the pogroms and the enactment of restrictive immigration laws in the United States. 2.5 million Jews came from Eastern Europe to this country. They settled chiefly in and around New York. At first they lived obscurely as industrial workers and small shopkeepers. But as new businesses opened up, they began to rise rapidly—first in the ready-to-wear textile business which underwent tremendous expansion at the turn of the century, then in films, the building of apartment houses, associated real-estate ventures, and finally the newer ventures such as electronics.

By the end of World War II, the descendants of the East European Jews were moving into the downtown law firms, the major universities, and the leading hospitals. At that point they overtook the German Jews as a political and intellectual force. Far more than the German Jews, those from Eastern Europe, still strongly rooted in their sense of community, burned to express themselves. So they came to dominate (as entrepreneurs, creators, and audience) the cultural world of literature, painting, music, and the theater. Thanks to these grandchildren of the shtetl, the richest, most fashionable, and most powerful city in the world has become, in the eyes of most outsiders, a Jewish city.

Toward the end of his book Elon cites a Zionist slogan: “If you will it, it is no fairy tale.” Acts of will on a heroic scale inspired the achievements of the East European Jews. But do heroic acts of will endure? In Russia, the revolutionary idealism that drew so many Jews to Communism has long since been run into the ground. There has arisen a Populist regime—ultranational, anti-Semitic, and anti-intellectual—which is fostering a nation of hard hats on a diet of patriotic themes and consumer goods. The Russian Jews who now seek to reach Israel, at such peril to themselves, are for the most part young idealists turned off by the brainless materialism that now prevails in the Soviet Union.

In the United States, the most successful of the East European Jews now encounter a double challenge. Their achievement in business, scholarship, and the arts is questioned by the ethic of unachievement spread by the counter-culture. Insofar as Jewish leaders show sympathy for the counter-culture (as not a few in the universities and media have) they become targets for the wrath of the Middle Americans who now carry forward the Populist strain that has always been so strong in the United States.

In Israel, the East Europeans still rule in the person of Prime Minister Golda Meir, a seventy-three-year-old grandmother, tough and self-righteous. who symbolizes in many ways the tenacious sense of certain purpose that has marked so many of her contemporaries. But her most likely successor is Pinhas Sapir, the sixty-twoyear-old Finance Minister who counts the money cost of war as well as the exaltation of spirit that flows from righteousness. Mrs. Meir is sufficiently concerned by the prospect of Mr. Sapir’s becoming Israel’s next leader to have had the following story told to me, on my last trip to see her:

Mr. Sapir becomes Prime Minister of Israel. One day later, out for a walk, he is recognized by a journalist. The journalist says: “Mr. Prime Minister, what’s the matter? You look terrible. You’re all bent over; and you can hardly walk.”

Sapir replies: “It’s the cares of office. They weigh me down.”

“But you’ve only been in office one day,” the journalist protests, and Sapir replies “Do you think it’s easy being Prime Minister now that I’m ninety-eight years old?”

Success, in short, has not brought ease. The Jews of Eastern Europe took their lives in their hands to make for themselves a new beginning. Despite achievement rarely matched in history, their future remains a closed book. They have come to constitute the overwhelming bulk of world Jewry, and the one clear thing is that, whether in Russia. Israel, or the United States, they remain, in short, a community.