George Steiner’s Jewish Problem

By Assaf Sagiv

Should the Jews survive? A prominent intellectual wonders.

It is hard to deny the influence that this doctrine has had on Steiner, who argues that the authentic “homeland” of the People of the Book is textual—a view that is far more difficult to find in the Jewish sources themselves. Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain and a professor of philosophy at the University of London and the Hebrew University, notes the difficulty: “If Jews in exile found a homeland in the text, it was because it was not a, but the text, the Tora, the written record of the divine covenant, locating Jews in time and space… and making them a people, despite their dispersion, who shared a constitution and a culture.”38 The Jews were dedicated not primarily to texts as such, but to the covenant, which was their founding constitutional source. While Steiner insists that a special Jewish intimacy with texts in general is inherent in the Jews’ commitment to the Tora, the Jews generally had little interest in any texts other than their own.39
Steiner’s views, therefore, are in many ways a product of his sources: By filtering his understanding of Jewish identity through the prism of Christian theology and German philosophy, he has produced a view of Judaism which, while far more sympathetic in practice to the Jews than were Hegel and Augustine, nonetheless preserves the core of their arguments about Judaism. As a result, Steiner is not undertaking anything that can be called a “Jewish” discussion; he has placed himself outside the pale of internal Jewish discourse. The result is a picture of Jewish history painted in dramatic strokes but lacking depth and empathy. Like the Christian and German sources themselves, it is hard to read this view of Judaism today, for its moral implications can be disturbing. For Steiner, these emerge most fully when he comes to address the larger question of what role Judaism should play in the future of mankind.
Given his enthusiasm for the Jews’ mission as prophets of a universal morality, it may come as a surprise that Steiner ends up casting serious doubt on the moral validity of the entire Jewish effort. Since his uncompromising cosmopolitanism leads him to weigh all questions solely according to their implications for the moral fate of mankind as a whole, he allows himself to come to the conclusion that humanity not only has benefited, but has also suffered greatly, from the Jews’ existence. Astonishingly, Steiner judges the Jews unfavorably for filling the very role in history that he has assigned them.
In Steiner’s view, the presence of the Jew is eternally bound up in that of evil: Not only as its archetypal victim, but also as an unwitting catalyst and interlocutor for the darkest impulses of man. One example of this is found in Steiner’s charge against the Jews—for which he has coined the jarring phrase “innocent guilt”—to the effect that they are responsible for the appearance of anti-Semitism. In addition to the spiritual heritage which the Jews have given humanity, he writes, one must never forget the heavy price they have exacted: The monstrous hatred they aroused in their neighbors, the anti-Semitism that reached its climax in the death camps of Germany, which dragged man down into the abyss of evil. “Jews are compelled to envisage, if not to allow, if not to rationalize, the hideous paradox of their innocent guilt, of the fact that it is they who have, in Western history, been the occasion, the recurrent opportunity, for the gentile to become less than a man.”40
Steiner traces the origins of anti-Semitism to the Jewish rejection of Jesus. In his mind, this case of Jewish restlessness and endemic dissatisfaction had an enduring impact on the way Christendom related to the Jews. Echoing his friend and colleague, the anti-Semitic Catholic philosopher Pierre Boutang, Steiner contends that “the Jews, by virtue of their rejection of the Messiah-Jesus, hold mankind to ransom.”41 Since the embrace of the Christian faith by the entire human race is a condition for the appearance of the Messiah, the kingdom of grace and compassion on earth cannot be built so long as the Jew insists on remaining outside the Church.42 The result of this historic choice was a bitter anti-Semitism that charted a course of hatred from Golgotha to Auschwitz. “We are that which has shown mankind to be ultimately bestial,” Steiner asserted in an interview with journalist Ron Rosenbaum, for a book the latter wrote on Adolf Hitler. “We refused Jesus, who died hideously on the cross. And then mankind turns on us in a vulgar kind of counter-Golgotha, which is Auschwitz. And when somebody tortures a child, he does it to the child, he does it to himself, too.”43
The idea that the Jews are somehow to blame for their own persecution finds expression in a number of Steiner’s essays, but its most vivid development is found in The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981), a novel which Steiner composed over the course of three feverish days and nights. Its central theme is one that has occupied Steiner’s writings incessantly over the years: The riddle of National Socialism and the singular evil manifested in the Final Solution. Yet as the story progresses, the narrative, which Steiner calls “a parable about… the abyss of pain endured by the victims of Nazism,” develops into a harsh indictment of these same victims, the Jewish people–not only for debasing humanity by bringing about anti-Semitism, but for actually developing the ideas that brought about Nazism and for causing untold suffering to mankind.
The plot is simple and provocative. An Israeli commando unit snares the ninety-year-old Adolf Hitler (the “A.H.” named in the title), who has been hiding since the war deep in the South American jungle. On their way back to San Cristobal, where he is to be tried, the soldiers succumb to illness and exhaustion. Fearing they may not reach their destination alive, the Israelis decide to try their captive in a field tribunal. Over the objections of their commander, who has warned them against Hitler’s hypnotic rhetoric, they allow the defendant to speak in his own defense. The speech, which appears in the novel’s last chapter, has made The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. one of Steiner’s most controversial works.44
Hitler’s defense is indeed spellbinding. It has an almost demonic quality, yet within the torrent of words there is also an inner logic. The defendant makes three claims as to why his war against the Jews should not be considered a simple tale of aggressor and victim.
First, he argues, it was not the Germans but the Jews themselves who invented the ideology of the master race. His views, after all, are only a shadow of the great biblical idea of the Chosen People—“the only race on earth chosen, exalted, made singular among mankind.”45 Furthermore, it was not Germans but Jews who thought up the monstrous tool of genocide, of annihilating races for ideological reasons. Hitler cites the account in the book of Joshua of the systematic destruction visited by Israel upon the Canaanites: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”46 At this point, Hitler takes pains to honor his spiritual precursors:
From you. Everything. To set a race apart. To keep it from defilement. To hold before it a promised land. To scour that land of its inhabitants or place them in servitude. Your beliefs. Your arrogance…. The pillar of fire. That shall lead you to Canaan. And woe unto the Amorites, the Jebusites, the Kenites, the half-men outside God’s pact. My “Superman”? Second-hand stuff. Rosenberg’s philosophic garbage. They whispered to me that he too. The Name. My racism was a parody of yours, a hungry imitation. What is a thousand-year reich compared with the eternity of Zion? Perhaps I was a false Messiah sent before. Judge me and you must judge yourselves. Ubermenschen, chosen ones!47
The idea of Hitler as a messianic figure in Jewish history is developed further on in the speech, when he presents his second argument: That just as Moses is in some sense the true father of Nazism, so is Hitler the true founder of the Jewish state. “That strange book Der Judenstaat. I read it carefully. Straight out of Bismarck. The language, the ideas, the tone of it. A clever book, I agree. Shaping Zionism in the image of the new German nation. But did Herzl create Israel, or did I?”48 Were it not for the Holocaust, Steiner’s protagonist argues, the Jews would never have taken their fate into their own hands and established a sovereign state, becoming sufficiently emboldened in the process to dispossess the Arab inhabitants of the land: “That made you endure knowing that those whom you had driven out were rotting in refugee camps not ten miles away, buried alive in despair….”49 Perhaps, muses the defendant, he himself is the Messiah, who has been charged with spurring the Jews to return to their homeland? Turning to his captors, he beseeches them: “Should you not honor me, who has made you into men of war, who has made of the long vacuous daydream of Zion a reality?”50

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