Jews worldwide grapple with issues—anti-Semitism, assimilation, secularism, and more. In Israel, as I read recently in the Times, “the country remains split along the traditional fault lines of secular and religious, right-wing and left-wing and Jewish and Arab.” Rahv began his adult life painfully aware of those divisions. They affected the equivocal responses to anti-Semitism, fascism, and news of the Holocaust that the book considers. The enigmatic gift he made of his estate to the state of Israel compounds rather than clarifies the nature of his ambivalence.It provides a historical context for 21st century commitments and conflicts.

Jews routinely questioned Zionism in the first half of the 20th century. Lionel Trilling stated, “We were inclined to be skeptical about Zionism and even opposed to it, and during the violence that flared up in 1929 some of us were on principle pro-Arab.” The Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem reported that when his brother Werner announced he was engaged to a Christian girl his father cut him off, and when Gershom announced he was a Zionist his father cut him off as well. Franz Kafka wrote in his diary: “Unlike Kierkegaard, I was not guided in life by the now heavily sinking hand of Christianity, nor have I caught hold, like the Zionist, of one of the ends of the flying prayer-shawl of the Jews.”

Rahv’s mother was an ardent Zionist who arrived in the United States from Russia and then expatriated to Palestine (which became Israel in 1948) around the year 1925. She was a member of the “fourth Aliyah” wave of immigration between 1924 and 1928. She and her two sons settled in Haifa, a major seaport. MORE ON AVIVA. MAYBE REFERENCE SPIES IN PALESTINE

Not only did Philip not share her Zionist beliefs, he scorned them. In a letter he wrote to my mother Ethel Richman at the age of 21, he deemed the fervor of his mother’s Zionism “a sublimation of her repressed sexuality—that’s what comes from marrying a man one does not love.” His hostility toward his parents’ Zionism expressed written after the Palestine riots of 1929—“the heroics of their Zionist ardor leave me cold”—went hand in hand with his sympathy for Arabs who, as he reported to Mary McCarthy, “ate and slept and prayed lined up against the walls of the big room they worked in; if they had wives and family, they had left them behind.”

He spent about two years in Palestine before choosing to return, alone, to the United States at age 16.  He learned Hebrew there and taught it from 1928 to 1931. He told McCarthy about a rabbi who admonished settlers to speak Hebrew instead of Yiddish, saying “Jew, speak Jewish!” When he began his literary career he changed his name from Greenberg to Rahv, the Hebrew word for rabbi.

Rahv’s opposition to Zionism was not uncommon at the time. The American Zionist movement had been in a decline throughout the 1920s, from a membership of 180,000 in 1919 to 18,000 in 1929. Orthodox Jews considered it a sin to restore Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land before the advent of the Messiah. Socialists saw Zionism as a form of reactionary bourgeois nationalism. Assimilated Jews feared that it would lead to dual loyalty. Reform Jews viewed it as a reversion to a primitive stage of tribalism. Progressive political thinkers reaching back to the 19th century rejected Jewish practices and advocated assimilation as the only answer to the “Jewish question.” They argued that Jews should be diverted away from their traditional links to commerce and practices involving money and peddling.

All that changed with the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Arab countries, Jews worldwide rejoiced and affirmed a new commitment to Israel: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six-Day_War#Israel_and_Zionism.


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