Harold Behr

My Zionism reinforced by an infusion of Isaiah Berlin

I was recently heartened by my discovery of a letter written by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford-based scholar and philosopher, to his friend Alastair Cooke, journalist and broadcaster noted for his BBC series, “Letter from America”, in which he discourses at length on the topic of antisemitism, and British antisemitism in particular.

Some of the points which Berlin makes are not new – that antisemitism will always be with us, for instance, and that it has its roots in Christianity. The Gospels, he points out, refer to ‘the Jews’ as the people who killed God and children who are taught about this have no idea who the Jews are in concrete terms, so that the word ‘Jew’ has come to have a sinister connotation, there being a connection in some way with an “alien, vaguely dangerous and not at all nice sect.”

Berlin uses the metaphor of antisemitism as the glowing ember of a flame lit by those early Christians, who wanted to detach themselves from, and therefore libelled, their enemies the Orthodox Jews in Rome. Any wind, says Berlin, can blow that ember into a flame and since winds differ, we have a range of theories of antisemitism – the search for a scapegoat, economic tensions, xenophobia, clever crooks and intriguers who mislead ordinary folk etc etc.

But what makes for a particularly lively read is Berlin’s depiction of the main British protagonists in the drama as palpably ambivalent towards the Jews. Even Balfour, he maintains, despite his regard for Chaim Weizmann as a quintessentially Old Testament prophet and a gentleman to boot, and the fact that he was driven by the romantic notion of an ancient people returning to their homeland, saw the Jews as potential revolutionaries who needed to be placated by the promise of their own patch of land. Weizmann himself, Berlin describes as a ‘fanatical moderate’, a strong-willed, highly rational politician, who had come to the conclusion that assimilation had been a failure. “And who would deny it today?” he adds laconically.

Berlin sees Weizmann as largely forgotten by modern Israelis, who dismiss him as an old-fashioned Anglophile, but he believes that if Israel survives at all, his outlook will be resuscitated.

Berlin was writing this in 1985, but I was struck by its relevance in today’s world. As an ex-south African Jew who left that country in 1970 to settle in Britain, I experienced raw racism from the privileged position of conferred on me by my white skin. Antisemitism existed, of course. The Afrikaner descendants of the early Dutch Calvinists who came to rule the country were constantly making antisemitic noises off-stage, but these noises were barely audible by contrast with the trumpeted warnings of ‘Die Swart Gevaar’ (the Black Menace). Nevertheless, few Jews gained comfort from the respite afforded them by the prevailing tension between black and white or felt that they were truly accepted by their fellow citizens.

For many Jews, Israel was the answer to Jewish persecution. Here, Berlin sounds a note of dubious optimism. He writes: “(Antisemitism) might greatly diminish if Israel were ever allowed to cease to be a source of friction and anxiety (the problem of the Arabs and Palestine has no clean solution, it’s a matter of time, patience and some kind of trade-offs, it seems to me”). But then he lapses into pessimism when he adds that “even the most friendly, unbiased, unprejudiced Englishman today certainly does not think of Jews as English – they may be alright, he has nothing against them, but they are Jews first and foremost.”

So why was I heartened to read this letter, which, if anything, paints a rather bleak picture of the overall predicament of the Jews? Firstly, because it is always reassuring to hear echoes of one’s own sentiments resonating elsewhere, secondly, because I feel affirmed in my Zionist sympathies, despite, as Berlin puts it, “the injustice to the Arabs and despite the appalling behavior of the fanatics and the zealots and the fools and the knaves”.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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