The more things change, the more they stay the same

'What we'd like to know is, what exactly is a Jew? I mean, are you a religion, or a nation, or what?'

Jewish education 88 (photo credit: )
Jewish education 88
(photo credit: )
In 1949, foreign minister Moshe Sharett appointed a blue-ribbon committee to formulate responses to those who singled out the newly established Jewish state for singular criticism - from fair to foul, from slight to slander, from tut-tut to enmity. This forum of brilliant minds - Abba Eban, Abe Harman, Walter Eytan, Ya'acov Herzog - elaborated the case for Israel, rebutting those who challenged Israel's right to exist, who equated Zionism with colonialism, who blamed Jewish chicanery for the Palestinian refugees, and who challenged Israel's sovereignty in Jerusalem. The committee's formulations became the bread and butter of hasbara - of robust information offensives. The first time I heard them put to the test was in October 1952, when I found myself in Oxford checking out premises for a winter seminar of Bnei Akiva whose general secretary I then was. Inhaling the musty air of early editions in one of Oxford's celebrated, well-stocked secondhand bookshops my eye caught sight of a handbill announcing a debate that was to take place that evening at the Oxford Union. The announcement read: "MOTION: This House Condemns Zionism as Imperialism. FOR THE MOTION: Dr. Ali El-Husseini, adviser to the Secretary General of the Arab League, Abdul-Khalek Hassouna. AGAINST THE MOTION: Dr. Gershon Levy, Adviser to Israel Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion." Gershon Levy I knew. He had lectured at a course I had attended in Jerusalem some years before. So it was with high anticipation that I went to hear the debate. THE OXFORD Union is celebrated as being the most prestigious debating society in the world, with a reputation for airing the most controversial issues. It is the cockpit of national British crossfire. One of its most outrageous motions was famously debated in 1933, just as Hitler rose to power. It read, "This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country." The motion was passed by a spanking majority, sparking off a national outcry. Winston Churchill denounced it as "this ever shameless motion," and editorialists suggested it contributed to Hitler's delusion that Britain would not fight, thus encouraging him to invade Poland, igniting World War II. I sat crammed into the spectator's gallery, looking down on a chamber packed with students, many of whom were attired in a dress code peculiar to the Oxford Union - eccentric hats, fancy waistcoats, brilliant neckties, and every kind of whiskers. Sanctuary for future statesmen, the Oxford Union had the appearance more of a cathedral than a students' debating society. Its oak benches were old and heavily pew-like, and its Tudor windows reached up to an oak-carved, arcaded ceiling from which hung wrought-iron chandeliers. Portraits of illustrious ex-Union presidents hung around the walls, interspersed with marble busts of former prime ministers who had once held Union office. When I entered a satiric debate was in progress - a warm-up to the main contest. The motion was, "This House Considers Non-perforated Postage Stamps a Menace to Society." It was a scintillating exhibition of brilliant wit, clever quip, cutting irony, and hilarious anecdotes that reached an uproarious finale when the last speaker perorated: "And so, my right honorable friends, after the Great War of 1914-18 - the war to end all wars - the victors carved up Europe into small pieces and called that making the world safe for democracy. All it really did was to create a glut of new, worthless, non-perforated postage stamps that made life damned complicated for collectors like me." This set off a shower of guffaws. And when the Union president on his mounted throne, dressed in traditional white tie and tails, called on the tellers to count the show of hands, he was greeted with light-hearted cheers. As they died down Gershon Levy and Ali el-Husseini took their seats, adjacent to the dispatch box from which they were to make their addresses, reminiscent of the House of Commons. ALI EL-HUSSEINI had a resonant voice, an appealing appearance, and the confident eloquence of one raised in a household whose daily fare was the politics of Palestine. Galvanizing his audience with grandiloquent verbal tabloids which he punctuated with passionate outbursts and disarming digressions, he triggered off a big applause at the end of his presentation. Now it was Gershon Levy's turn. He spoke as he looked: reserved, pensive, erudite and thought-provoking. He spoke with an intellectual power that was without guile, laying out his facts with precision. And when he laced these with satiric irony, they cut like a scalpel, so that when he sat down people clapped hard for him, too. A short floor debate followed, students making brief points for and against, after which the two adversaries were invited to wind up their respective cases. Tempers were higher now, reaching a pitch of an all-out war of words as both sought to clinch their arguments with every verbal device they could muster in an effort to vanquish the other. And then something preposterous happened. Just as Gershon Levy was wrapping up the case for Israel an unseen blackguard hurled a fistful of stink bombs in the direction of the president's chair. They fell at his feet, and the foul stench they emitted was so pungent it reached up to the spectators' gallery. We all held our noses, our faces screwed up as though biting into lemons. People flailed their arms in an effort to waft the stink away. The president, handkerchief over his nose, began yelling, "Order! Order!" but his audience was fleeing in such droves he declared the debate null and void. IN THE entrance hallway a dozen furious students were bawling epithets at each other, and thrusting fists into each others faces. There I caught sight of Gershon Levy in the company of a Union officer, and he insisted I join him at the post-debate reception. The reception was in an adjacent room where some 30-odd people stood about in high mood, drinking and laughing, and referring to the most famous Englishmen by their first names. The Union president, glass in hand, called out that he would like to propose a toast. "A toast, not a speech," teased a tower of a man with the posture of a Grenadier Guard and a Kaiser-style mustache, causing people to chuckle. He sounded tipsy. The president responded with a meaningless smile, and said, "First, I'm sure everybody will agree that both our debaters tonight presented their cases and causes admirably." "Hear-hear," people grunted gravely. "Secondly, I wish to extend my deepest apologies for tonight's inexcusable and insufferable incident that brought the debate to an abrupt end. It is my resolve to uncover the perpetrator, be it a prankster or a trouble-maker. It seems this sort of behavior reflects the spirit of the times we live in." SOMEBODY piped up, "Was it not Goethe who said that what people call the spirit of the times is mostly their own spirit in which the times mirror themselves? Ha, ha!" The witty man looked hardly more than 40, yet he had a pronounced scholarly stoop and a prematurely balding scalp. He was, I learned, Isaiah Berlin, a brilliant philosopher and an ardent Zionist who, in later life, would be revered as Britain's most celebrated intellectual, philosopher, historian of ideas, and recipient of the highest award the monarch can personally bestow - the Order of Merit. Across the room someone began playing a popular chorus on a grand piano and people gathered round to sing. Berlin sauntered over to congratulate Gershon Levy on his presentation, and surmised that the stink bomber was a student up to mischief, not politics. The philosopher then asked me about my pedigree, and proceeded to volunteer his own in an extraordinarily rapid manner of speech. He said he was an agnostic Jew born in Riga to a devout family. His maternal grandfather was a hassidic rabbi of the Lubavitch tradition, and a direct descendant of the renowned 18th-century Lubavitch luminary, the Tzemah Tzedek, who was, in turn, the grandson of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. And in those circles there could be no greater noble pedigree than that, he boasted. "I say, old chaps, mind if we butt in?" It was the Grenadier Guard type with the Kaiser mustache, accompanied by a skinny, long-necked lady with cobweb-like hair. "Please do," said Gershon Levy. "Well the thing is this - nothing personal, you understand, I mean to say, well…" His voice was warped with whiskey, and he dropped it to a conspiratorial whisper when he rolled on, "My wife and I were just talking: what we'd like to know is…well, you in the debate were talking about Israel being a Jewish state. What we'd like to know is, what exactly is a Jew? I mean, are you a religion, or a nation, or what? I mean to say, you seem to be so many things all at once, if you know what I mean." "Both," answered Levy, amusement lurking in his eyes. "Both? But how can that be?" asked the woman in a whispery tone. "Well," said Levy good-naturedly, "We Jews are both a religion and a people. When we were liberated from Egypt - the Exodus - we entered history as a people, and when we were given the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai we entered history as a faith. So we are a people and a religion both - a nation-faith, so to speak." To this, Berlin added enigmatically, "Remember memory! Don't forget memory. Jews are steeped in memory. We have longer memories than anybody else. Hence, we are aware of our continuity and heritage more than any other surviving community in the world." 'Oh dear," sighed the woman vacantly. "Now I understand why you Jews are such a clannish lot." Her husband laughed with gusto and said in the breathy good-old-boy voice of the high-class alcoholic, "Well said, Ethel." Then, to us, "You chaps have to admit - calling yourselves Jews, well, I mean, it is a bit thick. Can you imagine me going around calling myself a gentile? It would sound funny, don't you think? Bloody alien, I would say." THE FOUL smell of prejudice sated the nostrils, and sniffing it, Gershon Levy said, "That sounds to me like anti-Semitism, sir." "Does it?" The man seemed genuinely puzzled. Isaiah Berlin demonstratively turned his back on the awful pair, and said grumpily to us, "I can tell you as a researcher of the history of ideas that anti-Semitism is the most resilient prejudice in all of history. It is one of the strongest forces in world affairs. Amazing how many people are anti-Semites and don't even know it." To that, Gershon Levy, smiling in an unmirthful way, said, "It reminds me of a story. When the Germans conquered Paris they confiscated the grand houses of French nobility. One such grand house was that of Philippe de Rothschild, and its new occupier was SS General Halle. Rothschild was taken to a concentration camp. He survived the war and when he returned home, back to Paris, his mansion was restored to him. 'Felix,' said Rothschild to his old butler who had remained in domestic service in the mansion throughout the war - 'Felix,' he said, 'the house must have been very quiet during my absence. What did you do?' "'Oh no, sir,' answered Felix. 'It wasn't quiet at all.' "'Not quiet?' asked Philippe de Rothschild. "'No sir,' said Felix respectfully. 'The SS general hosted receptions every night.' "'Every night?' asked Rothschild, baffled. 'But who came?' "'The same people who used to come to your receptions before you were taken away, sir,' answered Felix. 'The very same people.'" THIS WHOLE episode of so very long ago came vividly back to mind when I happened the other day upon a Foreign Ministry circular which I received in 1993 when serving as ambassador to Australia. It was Oslo time, and the circular essentially noted that since peace was at hand and anti-Semitism receding, the ministry's information department had become virtually redundant. And now, here we are 13 years later, witnessing Palestinian enmity peaking, anti-Semitism rising, and the information department's budget for 2006 soaring. What's more, much of the material the department circulates nowadays originates from that very same blue-ribbon hasbara committee which Moshe Sharett set up in 1949. Oh, the irony of it all. Plus a change, plus c'est la m me chose. The writer is a veteran diplomat.