Crowd of Orthodox Jews in New York City (Photo by David H. Wells)

No place for idealists

A highly informative history of ideas let down by a drumbeat of liberal bias

This is a book that starts better than it finishes. What Are Jews For? is a provocative title. It encompasses innocent curiosity, bewilderment, exasperation, and even the sound of patience running out. What the hell are Jews for? What the hell are Jews for if not to … ?

If the catchiness of the title pulls in the general as opposed to the academic reader, disappointment awaits. This is not a book to curl up on the sofa with. It is, let me say, none the worse for that. Whoever you are, you are likely to come away from it knowing a lot more than you did, not just about those disputes concerning the Jewish contribution to civilisation with which all educated Jews are more or less familiar — Hannah Arendt versus Gershom Scholem, Spinoza versus the religious authorities of Amsterdam, etc — but about more abstruse questions of divine and mundane purpose.

What Are Jews For? by Adam Sutcliffe
Princeton University Press, £30

The voices in this book are not those of Jews in the street, witnesses to pogroms and massacres, survivors of camps, or memoirists of comfortable lives in Vienna and Berlin. This is Judaism as thought about, rather than lived, by intellectuals, philosophers and theologians, for whom the question “What Are Jews For?” has profound ethical, metaphysical and political significance. Not being abstract enough to fit the brief, even novelists don’t get much of a look-in. In this way the book belongs to the category of History of Ideas and stands or falls by the disinterestedness of its immersion in a very precisely delineated argument, to wit, and to put it simply: are the Jews for themselves or for others?

“Particularism” versus “universalism” is how the book would prefer to frame it. If Jews are a chosen people, does that not compromise their claim to be an example to the world? Chosen to be “a light unto nations” is how the rabbis have explained it, “chosen” precisely in order to look beyond themselves, but that has exposed them, over time, to many logical and ethical pitfalls, around which Adam Sutcliffe proves to be a painstaking and scholarly guide. At least until the final chapter where his politics get the better of him.

Smuggled into the pages of a seemingly dispassionate history of two sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary ideas, is an unscholarly preference for one over the other. We hear the drumbeat of this bias in prefatory sentences such as “Hard-line Zionistic arguments, emphasising Jewish security and collective interests, are opposed by liberal or leftist perspectives stressing universal and ethical and political principles.” Put like that — “hard-line” versus “liberal” — what well-intentioned person would ever favour the former?

No one would read this book for its writing. As prose, it is routine academic gruel

Only imagine how the sentence would read if “hard-line” were omitted as a description of Zionists, to be replaced, say, by a word like “concerned”, and “lily-livered” were to take the place of “leftist” as a description of those stressing “universal principles”. Now whose side are you on?

No one would read this book for its writing. As prose, it is routine academic gruel, of which this sentence might fairly serve as an example: “Geiger’s work has been interpreted as a Jewish reversal of the dominant vector of interpretive power, anticipating postcolonial challenges to other forms of Christian and European intellectual hegemony.” You have to care greatly about the subject to trudge through pages of that, and it’s no small tribute to Sutcliffe’s breadth of knowledge and persistence — by which I mean his dogged pursuit of the argument’s appearance in the work, it sometimes seems, of any philosopher who’s ever used the word Jew — that we do trudge through it.

Whether the thinkers in question come down on the side of Jewish particularism or Jewish universality is, on the face of it, a matter only of historical record for Sutcliffe. But, as the book progresses, his predilection for one sort of Jewishness over another — “liberal” over “hard-line”, let’s say — starts to show, tipping the scholarship in the direction of polemic, and thus weakening our confidence in the impartiality of the whole enterprise. Rather than being led to his conclusions by his reading, it becomes clear that he has known all along what he thinks, where he’s heading, and why.

The phrase “postcolonial vantage point” that appears late in the book explains the let-down we feel. All those hours passed following the reasoning of Spinoza and Lessing, Halevi and Maimonides, only to end up in the waste bin of contemporary academic commonplace, denouncing Israel as an imperialist entity, end of. Thus does the book betray the sophistication of its own ambitions.

That Zionism is in for a rough ride we detect from the strange absence from the book of so many of the reasons Jews have embraced it. Yes, this is a book about thinkers, but modern Israel wasn’t simply thought into existence.

Of what use is scholarship if, learning nothing from other minds, you go on closing your own?

Of the troubled, not to say desperate lives of Jews before the Balfour Declaration Sutcliffe has little to say. If, from the “postcolonial vantage point”, Israel always was and still remains imperialist, there can be no place in the story for actual Jews who went there out of idealism, or were driven there out of desperation. Whatever else empire describes, it doesn’t describe the individual fears and yearnings of those whom the prevailing ideology identifies as imperialists.

To say that the author of this book is not much touched by actual Jewish adversity — or even by the Holocaust itself beyond the usual formalities of respect — might not be to say a great deal since he isn’t much touched by anything. The only time a modern or modernish work of art germane to his subject enthuses him — the work is Angels in America — it is because he shares its politics.

Disraeli gets a mention, so does George Eliot, and so do I. The Finkler Question is hardly likely to endear itself to someone whose sympathies are unequivocally on the side of Labourites who think antisemitism is no more than a trumped-up charge designed to silence criticism of Israel and discredit Jeremy Corbyn. But the assumption that, when a character in the novel dreams of murdering an anti-Zionist he must have the author’s blessing, is a mistake no university professor, even of history, should make.

Not understanding the dramatic, inconclusive give-and-take of art takes the fun out of reading, leaves you at sea in the world of the imagination, and betrays an inability to think beyond political partisanship.

This should have been an important work of emollience, demonstrating how a fascinating, sometimes inspiring, sometimes tragic ambivalence buried deep in a people’s consciousness, could help calm some of the most bitter obduracies of our time. But knowledge isn’t always power. Of what use is scholarship if, learning nothing from other minds, you go on closing your own?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover