Books: Cromwell, the Habiru and the Shoah
Five books explore four complex people(s), places and events. Gloria Goldreich reviews two books that look at the enigma of writer Irene Nemirovsky—in her fiction and as her daughter Elisabeth Gille envisioned her and her anti-Semitism. Haim Chertok reviews historian Robert Wolfe’s thesis that the original Hebrews may have been “Habirus,” bands of runaway slaves and fugitives that went on to found the Jewish nation. Chertok also reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb’s slim book that reveals the historical ebb and flow of British tolerance toward Jews. Finally, Adam Dickter presents Giulio Meotti’s history of Israel’s victimization in the Middle East.
The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by her Daughter By Elisabeth Gille. Translated by Marina Harss. (New York Review Books, 239 pp. $14.95 paper)
With the publication of Suite Francaise in 2006, more than 60 years after her murder in Auschwitz at the age of 39, Irene Nemirovsky was catapulted into posthumous fame. Born in Kiev, to wealthy and determinedly assimilated Jewish parents who emigrated to Paris to escape the Revolution, Nemirovsky was an exceedingly reluctant Jew and had, in fact, opted for baptism. Her bestselling novel, David Golder, whose protagonist was a quintessential stereotypical Jew, “greasy and greedy,” is relevant of her consistent rejection of the heritage which she held in contempt. The manuscript of Suite Francaise, her unfinished work, was discovered by her adult daughters and is a masterful chronicle that begins in Paris on the eve of Nazi occupation and follows Parisian refugees in their desperate and often absurd flight from the besieged capital. Interesting enough, despite the fact that Nemirovsky herself, her husband, Michel Epstein, and their two small daughters were in hiding and desperately fearful of arrest as she wrote the novel, there is not a single mention of the tragic predicament of French Jews.
Similarly, a newly published earlier work, All Our Worldly Goods, which chronicles the intertwined lives of two feuding provincial French families, a narrative that has startling similarities to Suite Francaise, is also bizarrely lacking any Jewish component. Nemirovsky writes poignantly of the tragedy of France—a tableau of heart-rending despair; “everywhere mourning, tears and a sort of bewilderment that weighed heavily on people’s souls”—but Jewish despair, Jewish tears, Jewish bewilderment, remain unmentioned. There is, however, an oddly biblical evocation in the very last lines of this tender and insightful novel as Agnes, the aging (non-Jewish) heroine acknowledges “that she had reaped her harvest…gleaned all the love, the laughter and the tears the God had owed her, that all she had left to do was eat the bread from grain she had milled herself, drink the wine from grapes she had pressed.” The reader wonders whose God this complex and tortured writer turned to in a final chapter, penned so near to the final and terrible chapter of her own sad life.
That mystery is partially solved by the poetic, imagined autobiography of Nemirovsky by her daughter Elisabeth Gille, who undertook the daunting task of re-creating the life of her enigmatic mother and thus “rediscovers her own lost voice.” Gille, who last saw her mother when she was 5 years old, calls this unique and heart-rending memoir The Mirador, which is a balcony or gallery commanding an extensive view, and it is from that imagined ‘balcony’ that she sees the woman she hardly knew and imagines a life filtered through dream and memory. Heiress to her mother’s extraordinary talent, Gille, who died in 1996, offers a brilliant literary construct, beginning each chapter with a brief diary entry in her mother’s voice beginning in 1937 and then writing, as it were backward. She re-creates her mother’s childhood in Russia as the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker and a cruel, narcissistic mother, then traces Irene’s life in France, her happy marriage (ironically in a synagogue) to Michel Epstein, the births of their two daughters, and the critical and financial success she enjoyed as a writer beginning with the publication of David Golder.
Gille, with brutal honesty tries to understand how her mother could have written what was perceived to be an anti-Semitic novel. She offers alternative explanations. At one point, she has Irene aver that her “…arrival in France after the Great War convinced me that anti-Semitism there is no danger in creating the hateful Jew, David Golder. But Gille is not content with that explanation. She would gain absolution for her mother by vesting her with regret when it becomes apparent that her novel has, in fact, had a dangerous impact. Irene writes, when she is forced to go into hiding and it becomes belatedly clear to her that a virulent anti-Semitism does in fact exist, “I am plagued with guilt for having written this book…and I ask myself whether…I furthered the arguments of anti-Semites.” The answer, of course, is obvious. Unlike her mother, Gille had no patience of self-deception.
Struggling to find her own voice as a writer, Gille became her mother’s tender advocate and her regretful prosecutor. This first published work was followed by her largely autobiographical novel, Shadows of a Childhood: A Novel of War and Friendship (The New Press), which offers further insights into Gille’s childhood and difficult life and that of Nemirovsky, a woman who rejected her Judaism and is now, ironically, claimed as a Jewish writer. —Gloria Goldreich
Editor’s Note: More books by Irene Nemirovsky are being published. The latest is The Wine of Solitude, a Vintage paperback original.
Robert Wolfe, a Harvard-trained historian, is a fully engaged Zionist: An independent scholar, he’s been living in Netanya, Israel, since 2001. During this past decade, Wolfe has turned out a series of finely argued historical essays that explore facets of Jewish history that, he argues, have been treated skimpily or tendentiously by mainstream biblical scholars.
“From Habiro to Hebrews,” the opening selection, is pivotal to the author’s larger argument. Wolfe is unapologetically secular. His point of departure about the origins of the Jewish people subverts the traditional biblical narratives dealing with a primal Creator’s relationship to a tribe of patriarchs and matriarchs; instead, it is about the Habiru, a societal underclass who appear on hundreds of cuneiform inscriptions starting in the second millennium B.C.E. Wolfe’s thesis is that these Habiru were composed of “scattered bands of runaway slaves and other fugitives who maintained themselves on the outskirts of settled areas of the region.… It was they…who were the founders of the ancient Jewish nation.” Perhaps equally noteworthy is Wolfe’s discussion of King David, the very model of a Jewish leader, who not only had humble beginnings but was himself an outcast and fugitive, at times even a traitor to his own people.
Wolfe would have that groups of Habiru fled from Egypt, coalescing over time into a “warrior elite” that infiltrated into Canaan where they overthrew the existing social order of inhabitants from whom they differed little or not at all ethnically but in significant ways ethically. One of the strengths of his version of Jewish origins as runaway fugitives from Egypt is that it satisfactorily elucidates why Jewish law, at variance with law of other nations of the period, considered slavery an utterly repugnant condition and why Jews are famously exhorted never to forget their origins as slaves. Extending this theme, it also suggestively clarifies why so many contemporary Jews (particularly in the diaspora) seem hard-wired to empathize with society’s underdogs.
In the essay “Jewish Influence,” Wolfe exploits to startling effect standard Jewish demographic studies in the Roman period. Historians estimate that the world’s Jewish population at the start of the first century C.E. was roughly eight million. As a result of sequential Roman wars against the Jews (66 C.E. to 136 C.E.), not alone was conversion to Judaism made a capital offense, not only did the nation of Judah effectively cease to exist, but the Roman onslaught assumed a genocidal character: Around two million Jews were killed (including virtually the entire “Jewish Christian” community of Jerusalem, thus sealing the development of Christianity in an anti-Semitic direction). This Roman policy of mass murder, Wolfe notes acerbically, is rarely if ever spelled out by historians of antiquity who typically characterize Romans “as ‘tolerant’ in matters of religions but stirred to action by the ‘stubbornness’ of the Jews.” Wolfe argues that over and above congenital Jewish abhorrence of idol worship, it was this ingrained Jewish repugnance to slavery that rendered them indigestible to the Roman social order that was, after all, fundamentally dependent on a slave economy.
The final entry is an articulate apologia: “Why I Am a Zionist.” Although traditionally oriented readers will take exception to many of Wolfe’s assumptions, his clearheaded exposition, if not always convincing, adds to our store of knowledge and is at no point implausible. All in all, the appearance of From Habiru to Hebrews argues strongly for the utility and worth of the recent surge in indie publishing. —Haim Chertok
Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The People of the Book was conceived as a modest antidote to the elephantine history of anti-Semitism. However because Britain’s philosemitic momentum has been ebbing since Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six Day War, her implied agenda is additionally to recall Britain to its better self and Britons to their modern nation’s mainstream, pro-Jewish traditions. Himmelfarb, a celebrated social and intellectual historian with high competence in the Victorian era, is richly qualified to carry out this assignment.
The People of the Book is divided into five pithy chapters—four that range over the four centuries from Cromwell to Churchill, during which period the legal and social position of British Jews grew increasingly secure and an outlier chapter that focuses on the figure of the Jew in 19th-century British fiction of Walter Scott, Benjamin Disraeli and George Eliot. It opens on the momentous 17th-century debate over the readmission of the Jews in England after four centuries of banishment. Himmelfarb records how the 16th-century English Reformation was inextricably linked to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish scholars from the Continent from whom Henry VIII sought for doctrinal legitimization of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Adroitly evoked is the growing Hebraist movement among many English Protestants for whom the readmission into England of Jews, “the apple of God’s eye” in the words of one, was a critical precondition in fulfilling biblical prophecy and God’s plan. These led in turn to the establishment of professorships of Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge, necessary prologue for the production of the King James edition of the Bible in 1611, the benchmark against which all subsequent translations must be ranked.
Of particular interest to American readers is surely the prominence among these voices of American Baptist Roger Williams, who, on a visit to London in 1644, published a tract that forcibly argued for the toleration of all sects, including Jews. Oddly, the notably illiberal voices on this last issue were those of Quakers of the period and of that great Hebraist and defender of free speech John Milton.
The most fascinating tidbit from this early period is that “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland Oliver Cromwell” could or did not simply on his own authority order the readmission of Jews into Britain. Instead, on 1655, responding favorably to “the Humble Addresses of [Dutch rabbi] Menassah ben Israel,” Cromwell turned the matter over to a committee that readily agreed to Jewish trade and traffic but balked at approving Jewish immigration. Cromwell was furious, but the issue was settled the following year and neither by council nor the lord protector. On the outbreak of war with Spain, the property of Antonio Robles, a wealthy Spanish Marrano living in England, was confiscated. He submitted a petition for restitution on the grounds that he was not Spanish “but a Portuguese of the Hebrew nation.” Accepting his argument, the Council ordered the return of his property, a precedent that decisively established the legal basis for Jewish residence in England. Subsequent chapters chart the growing acceptance of Jews into British society, a process that culminates in 1858 with the seating in Parliament of Lionel de Rothschild who swore his oath on an outsized Hebrew bible. Her final chapter recounts how this process then transmuted into the wellspring of British Zionism.
Himmelfarb is not only a distinguished scholar but, one can’t help noting, also the longtime associate (now widow) of Irving Kristol, “godfather” of the recoil to political neoconservatism of a small but extremely influential segment of American Jewry. Except tangentially, her political partisanship plays no perceptible role in this new study that, like all her work, is blessed by crystalline style. On the other hand, Himmelfarb’s prologue, which clears the ground of some verbal ambiguities that adhere to the antithetical modes of “semitism”—for example, in the shifting valence of race as regards the Jewish people—exemplifies her limitations. She invokes the oft-repeated, formalist objection to Emil Fackenheim’s “614th Commandment”: Jews are enjoined to remain Jews. Why? Because, she argues, it grants Hitler “a posthumous victory” by lending him purchase in defining the Jewish agenda. However independent of Hitler, the perpetuation of the Jewish people has unquestionably been a longstanding, cardinal Jewish concern, one all the more salient in the shadow of the Shoah. What then is her point? In sum, although Himmelfarb’s essay is timely, balanced and written with transparent grace, it also displays an unfortunate paucity of fresh interpretation or insight. —Haim Chertok
A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism by Giulio Meotti. Translated by Matthew Sherry. (Encounter Books, 400 pp. $27.95)
As the title suggests, this is an agenda-driven book that not only chronicles the stories of hundreds of terror victims but does so in a way intended to encourage right-wing views about the peace process.
Italian journalist Giulio Meotti, a non-Jewish admirer of Israel, also wants to send a signal to the European Union, which participates in the peace process through its role in the Quartet along with the United States, the United Nations and Russia. “The ‘blame Israel’ approach to Middle Eastern politics is now the semiofficial attitude of the European Union,” he writes. “Let us hope this book will awaken Europeans to their duty toward the Jews, whose vigil down the centuries has been an example to us all.”
Meotti conducted extensive interviews and research to tell the backstory of some of the most devastating and notorious suicide bombings, targeting Jerusalem cafes, Egged buses, a Tel Aviv disco and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem cafeteria, among many others. He describes the victims’ backgrounds as well as what he calls media bias in reporting on these events.
Meotti justifies the provocative title not only by likening the slaughter of Jews to the carnage of the Nazi era but also by likening contemporary European passivity to the failure to save Jews from the Nazis. In an interview with Menachem Gantz of Yedioth Ahronoth, Meotti says “those in European press and universities who delegitimize Israel use the Holocaust against Israel by claiming: ‘You, who were exterminated on European soil are now exterminating Arabs.’ In other words, the Holocaust is still part of the agenda today. The massacre of some 2,000 Israelis over a period of more than a decade is equivalent to 70,000 Americans being killed. The name of my book aims to link the old Holocaust and the one going on today.”
Meotti’s quest takes him not only to the survivors of the bombings and families of those killed, but to the doctors who treated them and the Zaka volunteers who painstakingly collect all human remains from the scene. “The most mysterious figures of Israel’s resistance against terrorism, they are called to undo the suicide bomber’s work of fragmentation,” he writes. “The men of Zaka follow the commandment of kevod hamet, to honor the dead.” Zaka founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav recalls that responding to the scene of a bus full of broken bodies driven off a cliff by a terrorist “brought our minds back to the Holocaust.”
The book aptly contrasts the devotion to the sanctity of life in Israeli society with the culture of death and martyrdom that makes suicide bombings possible. But most compelling are the stories of survivors left with unspeakable devastation after losing family members, sometimes multiple members in one incident, who somehow summon the determination to go on with their lives. “I found myself alone to fight,” says Menashe Gavish, who lost his parents and grandfather when a Palestinian gunman invaded their Eilon Moreh home in March 2002. “I had to survive, without time or energy for my personal growth.”
A New Shoah also touches on the resolve of Israelis to continue fighting that is fueled by terror atrocities, and Israelis who acted heroically in the face of other catastrophes. That includes Daniel Lewin, who is believed to have died trying to stop the hijackers who took over American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11, 2001; and Prof. Liviu Librescu, who held off a Virginia Tech gunman trying to enter his engineering class in 2007 before he was felled by bullets in the worst gun massacre in United States history. He died on Yom Ha-Shoah, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance day.
The title becomes more compelling when dealing with the stories of European immigrants who came to Israel only to be killed by terrorists. For example, Marianne Lehmann Zaoui, a victim in the 2002 Passover bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya. “The fate that Hitler had prepared for them was realized by a Palestinian suicide bomber,” Menachem Rosensaft, founder of the International Network of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, tells Meotti. “Once again Jews were killed because they were Jews.” —Adam Dickter