George Steiner’s Jewish Problem

By Assaf Sagiv

Should the Jews survive? A prominent intellectual wonders.

In a lecture delivered in 1966, noted Hebrew University scholar Gershom Scholem offered his impressions of the widespread assimilation that German Jewry had undergone over the course of two centuries of emancipation. Though many Jews took great pains to obscure their origins, Scholem argued, they never were able to earn full acceptance in German society. Cut off from both their own religious heritage and the culture of Christian Europe, assimilated Jews came to be seen by many Germans as the embodiment of alienation:
The German Jew was held to blame for his own estrangement or alienation from the Jewish ground that had nourished him, from his own history and tradition, and was blamed even more for his alienation from the bourgeois society that was then in the process of consolidating itself. The fact that he was not really at home, however much and emphatically he might proclaim himself to be…, constituted, at a time when alienation was still a term of abuse, a powerful accusation.1
After the Holocaust, however, intellectual circles in Central and Western Europe came to appreciate and even admire the alienation of the exiled Jew. The same sense of estrangement and rootlessness that once inspired contempt now represented the antithesis of that chauvinist romanticism of blood and land that had dominated Europe; the Jew in exile now wore a tragic, heroic mantle. The traditional image of the Jew as perpetual stranger became an ideal, extolled by intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Edmond Jabes, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Zygmunt Bauman.2 For them, the “otherness” of the Jew was nothing less than a badge of honor.
Today, such a positive view of Jewish alienation still has many adherents, of whom perhaps the most prominent is George Steiner, a professor of comparative literature at Oxford and Cambridge and one of the more original intellectuals in the contemporary cultural landscape. Since the publication of his first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), Steiner has gained renown for his remarkable erudition and his willingness to tackle the most difficult questions facing modern Western culture. Through twenty books and numerous essays, he has explored the mystery of human creativity, the power of language and its limits, the connections between art and theology, and the moral condition of modern civilization. In Britain, Steiner has become a cultural mandarin, a high priest of good taste and spiritual refinement. His most important mission has been to promote, for the English-speaking world, the ideas emanating from the intellectual centers of Central Europe—Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, and Frankfurt—and to draw attention to the achievements of German art and culture. Bryan Cheyette, a comparative literature professor at the University of Southampton, credits Steiner with being “the first telling those who would listen in Britain about Heidegger, Benjamin, and Paul Celan…. Now work on those figures is an industry, but he was a lone voice in the 1960s.”3 Lisa Jardine, a Renaissance scholar at the University of London, describes Steiner as “a rebel who made us aspire to be European; he helped move British culture from utter provincialism to cosmopolitanism.”4 A similar account of Steiner’s influence was described by the Irish author and critic John Banville: “A door was flung open on what had been there all the time, at our backs, namely, our European heritage. He told us not to be cowed by insularity or hidebound by small minds, but to look beyond the border.”5
Although not as influential in the United States, Steiner has certainly left his mark there as well. In 1966, he was asked by The New Yorker to pen a regular column on culture and literature, filling the post left by the celebrated critic Edmund Wilson. In that capacity he published more than 150 columns and articles, giving his American readers a taste of the European spirit and redefining the position of cultural critic in the American landscape. In 2000 he was awarded the coveted position of Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, previously held by T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Jorge Luis Borges. World Literature Today has called him “the most influential cultural mediator writing in English today”; L.A. Weekly has dubbed him “the prime minister of culture.”6
Steiner’s writings reflect an unflagging commitment to the cosmopolitan ideal, a belief in forging a common human consciousness that dissolves barriers of language, ethnicity, and territory. This view is most vividly expressed in his discussion of his own Jewish identity, the focal point of some of his most important essays. Steiner has no sympathy for the more isolationist elements of Jewish tradition, contending that such tendencies–and particularly their manifestation in Zionism and the State of Israel—“debase” Judaism and undermine its most important qualities. According to Steiner, the true mission of the Jews is to be found in exile: It is to be “guests” among the nations, aliens who live as refugees, restless and dispossessed. Only when they are outside of their homeland, Steiner argues, have the Jews served as the cultural vanguard and moral conscience of the nations, as prophets of a lofty and profound human ideal.
Steiner’s opinions on Jews and Judaism may be impassioned, but they nonetheless reflect a surprising degree of alienation from the Jewish tradition itself. His views, rather, seem to have been inspired mainly by the depictions appearing in Christian theology and German philosophy—traditions whose approach to Judaism has tended to be anything but sympathetic. As a result, Steiner’s observations on Judaism approach their subject from a distance, and bring to bear far less knowledge than one would expect from a thinker of his caliber.
This is evident not only in the fact that Steiner is one of the most prominent contemporary Jewish thinkers willing to cast doubt on the moral justification for the Zionist enterprise. It also comes through in his willingness to question whether even the continued survival of the Jewish people is itself desirable. Steiner sees in the existence of the Jews not only a blessing but also a moral and psychological burden on humanity, one that is perhaps too heavy to bear. If so, he suggests, the only relief for the human race may consist in the complete assimilation of the Jews, and the disappearance of the Jewish people as such. Such thoughts are a difficult pill for most Jews to swallow, and it is hard to imagine any non-Jewish thinker daring to voice them openly today. Nevertheless, when adorned with the impressive moral rhetoric of a man of Steiner’s stature, they resonate in a way that is difficult to ignore.
It should be stated from the outset that Steiner’s opposition to Zionism and his challenge to Jewish collective existence contain no hint of what is often called Jewish self-hatred. On the contrary, Steiner is proud of his origins, of belonging to a people that has played such a decisive role in the development of civilization. He lauds the moral vision of the Jews, which has set them apart from other peoples. But despite his appreciation of Jewish uniqueness in history, Steiner’s approach is emphatically universalistic. The Jews’ achievement, he argues, consists solely in their contribution to the rest of humanity—a contribution that was made possible by the unique conditions of exile that shaped the Jewish genius over the centuries. Indeed, Steiner’s cosmopolitan view of Jewish existence leaves little room for national or communal concerns. Rather, the Jews must remain true to their vocation in exile, scattered and wandering among the nations.
Steiner’s attitude reflects, in part, his own life story. The child of Viennese parents who moved to Paris in 1924, and then to the United States in 1940, Steiner has described himself as a perpetual migrant, everywhere a guest and nowhere at home. His childhood fashioned in him a kind of refugee consciousness, which would form the core of his identification as a Jew: Steiner not only lives in exile, he lives the exile. For him, exile is an emotional, spiritual, and cultural condition from which one must never—indeed, can never—sever oneself. The anomaly of Jewish rootlessness, which most Jews over the generations have perceived as a divine punishment, is depicted by Steiner as a great virtue: “Instead of protesting his visitor-status in gentile lands, or, more precisely, in the military camps of the diaspora,” he writes, “the Jew should welcome it.”7 For Steiner, exile is no punishment; it is, rather, a liberating state of detachment which enables the Jew to undertake his authentic mission on earth:
Stalin and Hitler made of the glorious noun “cosmopolitan,” with its promise of the inalienable, a murderous sneer. But did not Rashi himself, acutest of talmudic readers, tell of the everlasting need for Abraham to abandon his tent and rejoin the road? Did Rashi not instruct us that, when asking the way, a Jew should prove deaf to the right answer, that his mission lay with being errant, which is to say, in error and wandering?8

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