George Steiner’s Jewish Problem

By Assaf Sagiv

Should the Jews survive? A prominent intellectual wonders.

Steiner’s Hitler, however, is not content to acknowledge the debt he owes to Judaism, and the debt owed him, in turn, by the State of Israel. Most of his address is dedicated to a third claim, one that casts him as defender of the world’s peoples from the worst aggression of all, that perpetrated by Jewish morality. The Jews, harbingers of a universal humanism, prophets of absolute justice, have encumbered humanity with an unbearable moral burden. This “blackmail of the ideal,” the exacting demand for perfection, is the cruelest oppression of all-the oppression of the ego, of desire, of human nature:
You call me a tyrant, an enslaver. What tyranny, what enslavement has been more oppressive, has branded the skin and soul of man more deeply than the sick fantasies of the Jew? You are not God-killers, but God-makers. And that is infinitely worse. The Jew invented conscience and left man a guilty serf.51
Most stunning is the fact that this speech marks the end of The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. In Steiner’s fantasy, Hitler remains unanswered. One of the witnesses, Teko the Indian, who has watched the entire drama from the side, wants to shout, “Proven!” but is silenced by the roar of landing helicopters. With this, the novel closes, as does the play that was later based on it. A reporter from the Observer who attended the play’s London performance in 1982 recounted that it was received with raucous applause, and wondered whether that applause was not also intended for Hitler’s monologue of self-justification.52 In a later interview, Steiner frankly acknowledged that “I don’t think that I even know how to answer what I say in the last speech.”53
This is an understatement. In fact, it is difficult to find any clear distinction between Steiner’s own professed views and those he puts in the mouth of A.H. Of course, Steiner does not endorse the historical Hitler’s monstrous crimes. On the contrary, Hitler stands in Steiner’s eyes as the incarnation of unprecedented and unparalleled evil; Nazism is for him a tortuous riddle, a dark cloud that influenced his entire life and work. And yet, it seems very much as though this speech in A.H.’s defense, this casting of the Jews as archetypal twin to the Nazis—part rival, part partner in crime—is meant to serve as a platform on which Steiner the Jew permits himself to enunciate his most vexing thoughts. And in fact, every one of the arguments raised by A.H. finds voice elsewhere in Steiner’s writings on the Jewish problem: He points out the biblical sources of the idea of the master race, for instance, in his article “The Wandering Jew” (1969); the idea of the “blackmail of the ideal” of Jewish universal morality is presented in the books Errata (1997) and In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971);54 the connection between Herzl’s Zionism and the German national state of Bismarck is mentioned in “A Kind of Survivor” (1965);55 and the claim that Hitler made a valuable contribution to the establishment of a Jewish state is repeated in Steiner’s interview with Rosenbaum.56
In The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., particularly in its concluding chapter, we find one of the central insights in the discourse Steiner has developed on the Jewish question: The claim that there is an inextricable link between the singularity of absolute evil perpetrated by the Nazis and the singularity of Jewish existence. The appearance of Nazism, the satanic climax of Jew-hatred, was possible only as a reaction to the moral, theological, and cultural uniqueness of Jewish identity.
Steiner does not shrink from the implications of such a claim. By his own testimony, he has found himself increasingly disturbed by a question first posed by the philosopher Sidney Hook, in an interview he gave on his deathbed to Norman Podhoretz in 1989.57 Would not the world be a better place, mused Hook, if the Jews would stop being Jews, if they would just assimilate altogether or disappear from the face of the earth? “I’ve found myself thinking about the crazy Zealots…,” he told Podhoretz. “What if the whole Palestinian Jewish population of that time had gone down fighting? Just think what we would have been spared, two thousand years of anti-Semitic excesses…. Under some circumstances I think it’s better not to be than to be.”58
Steiner, too, seems to be troubled by a similar question:
What I am asking is this: Might the Christian West and Islam live more humanely, more at ease with themselves, if the Jewish problem were indeed “resolved” (that endlosung or “final solution”)? Would the sun of obsessive hatred, of pain, in Europe, in the Middle East, tomorrow, it may be, in Argentina or South Africa, be diminished? Is liberal erosion, is intermarriage the true road? I do not think the question can simply be shrugged aside.59
There is a certain moral impudence in the asking of such questions. In effect, Steiner has entered Jewish existence in an accountant’s ledger, and seems to be asking whether the Jews have not been more of a liability to mankind than an asset. “Has the survival of the Jew been worth the appalling cost?” he asks starkly. “Would it not be preferable, on the balance sheet of human mercies, if he was to ebb into assimilation and the common seas?”60
Through such questions, Steiner’s pristine logic leads us to the brink of the abyss. In the name of a universal morality, he manages to lead his reader from a well-intentioned cosmopolitanism to a direct challenge to the Jewish people’s right to exist. Steiner’s willingness to entertain the idea of the disappearance of the Jewish people would surely have been met with disdain, if not outright disgust, had it come from anyone other than a prominent Jewish intellectual of Steiner’s caliber. Yet it raises serious questions about the quality of Steiner’s moral judgment.
In reading Steiner’s writings, it becomes clear that he regards himself as possessing an acute moral sensibility that sets him apart from the masses. Whereas most people are primarily concerned about the well-being of their closest relations—family, community, and nation—Steiner is guided by a conscience that seeks the benefit of all mankind. But it is just this higher concern which propels Steiner along a trajectory that leads from affirmation of the exile to negation of Jewish existence. Just as he demands that the Jews serve as the prophets of a universal and altruistic humanity, so he also assails their particular existence as an obstacle to fulfilling this promise.
Such beliefs have always had a powerful appeal to idealists. On paper, the fulfillment of the cosmopolitan dream will ineluctably relieve humanity of the impossible burdens of prejudice and bigotry. But when taken to their logical conclusions and applied in practice, good intentions can make hell on earth. One does not have to delve too deeply into recent historical memory to recognize this. It is ironic that one of Steiner’s articles on the fate and role of the Jews closes with a quotation from Leon Trotsky concerning his vision of the moral elevation of man. “The average human type,” wrote Trotsky, “will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”61 Trotsky, a Jew, fervently believed in cosmopolitan ideals, and in the obligation of Jews like himself to submit to them without qualification. The regime Trotsky helped establish sought to “redeem” the Jews from their persecuted isolation by integrating them into Soviet society. The results are known: In the name of an ultimate universal dogma, the Soviet state made the decision to eradicate Jewish identity. The Jewish religion was criminalized, synagogues were closed, communities dissolved, and the use of Yiddish and Hebrew prohibited. Jews in the Soviet Union suffered under a regime of brutal cultural oppression.
Steiner, of course, abhors violence, and cannot be suspected of promoting any kind of aggressive solution to the Jewish problem. Nevertheless, the web of arguments he weaves relies on many of the same images and ideas that have fed anti-Semitism over the generations, beginning with Augustine’s notion of the “eternal witness.” Too reminiscent of classical anti-Semitic apologetics, Steiner’s argument portrays the Jews as rootless creatures and embraces a moral reasoning that puts the blame for persecution on its victims. In the end, his formidable intellect falls prey to what appears to be a tentative, yet unmistakable, rapprochement with what is essentially an anti-Semitic position.
“He who thinks greatly must err greatly,” Steiner quotes Heidegger.62 True enough. But one wonders whether some errors are not too great to be so easily written off.

Assaf Sagiv is associate editor of
1. Gershom Scholem, “Jews and Germans,” in Gershom Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J. Dannhauser(New York: Schocken Books, 1976), pp. 82-83.
2. Hannah Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age (New York: Grove, 1978); Edmond Jabes, “The One Who Says a Thing Doesn’t Strike Roots,” interview with Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, in Sarit Shapira, ed., Paths of Nomadism: Migration, Journeys, and Passages in Current Israeli Art (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1991); Zygmunt Bauman, “Allo­semitism: Premodern, Modern, Postmodern,” in Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus, eds., Modernity, Culture and “the Jew” (Cambridge: Polity, 1998), pp. 143-156; Jean-Francois Lyotard, Heidegger and “the Jews, trans. Andreas Michael (Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1990).
3. Maya Jaggi, “George and His Dragons,” Guardian Saturday, March 17, 2001.
4. Jaggi, “George and His Dragons.”
5. Jaggi, “George and His Dragons.”
6. The citation from World Literature Today is quoted on the back cover of George Steiner, A Reader (New York: Oxford, 1984). The citation from L.A. Weekly is taken from George Schialabba, “The Prime Minister of Culture,” L.A. Weekly, March 20-26, 1998.
7. George Steiner, “The Wandering Jew,” Petahim 1:6 (1968), p. 21.
8. George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997), p. 57.
9. Steiner, Errata, p. 62.
10. Steiner, Errata, pp. 56-61.
11. Steiner, “The Wandering Jew,” p. 21.
12. George Steiner, “Our Homeland, the Text,” in No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 312.
13. Steiner, “Our Homeland,” p. 307.
14. Steiner, “Our Homeland,” p. 318.
15. Steiner, “The Wandering Jew,” p. 20.
16. Steiner, “Our Homeland,” p. 322.
17. Steiner, “Our Homeland,” p. 324.
18. Steiner, Errata, p. 54. [emphasis in the original]
19. Steiner, Errata, p. 54.
20. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William W. Hallo (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1985), pp. 299-300.
21. George Steiner, “A Kind of Survivor,” in Steiner, A Reader, p. 222.
22. Steiner, “A Kind of Survivor.”
23. Yirmiyahu Yovel, Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews (Cambridge: Polity, 1998), p. 35.
24. G.W.F. Hegel, “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate,” in G.W.F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings, trans. T.M. Knox (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948), p. 186.
25. Hegel, “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate,” p. 186.
26. Steiner, “Our Homeland,” p. 307.
27. Genesis 13:15.
28. Steiner, Errata, p. 54.
29. See, for example, Steiner’s brilliant monograph Heidegger (Glasgow: Fontana, 1978).
30. Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124.
31. George Steiner, “A Responsion,” in Nathan A. Scott, Jr., and Ronald A. Sharp, eds., Reading George Steiner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994), p. 277.
32. Steiner, Errata, p. 54.
33. Steiner, Errata, p. 56.
34. Steiner, “A Responsion,” p. 280; see also George Steiner, Real Presence (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1986); George Steiner, The Grammars of Creation (New Haven: Yale, 2001).
35. Cited in Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (London: Macmillan, 1998), p. 332.
36. Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley: University of California, 1999), p. 36.
37. Cohen, Living Letters of the Law, p. 2.
38. As Sacks points out, “the texts of the Greeks were not to be studied. At best, they were bitul tora, a distraction from Tora-learning.” Jonathan Sacks, “A Challenge to Jewish Secularism,” Jewish Spectator 55:1, Summer 1990, p. 28.
39. Sacks, “A Challenge to Jewish Secularism,” p. 28.
40. George Steiner, “Through That Glass Darkly,” in No Passion Spent, p. 334. [emphasis in the original]
41. Steiner, Errata, p. 137.
42. Steiner, “Through That Glass Darkly,” p. 338; Errata, pp. 137-138.
43. Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, p. 314.
44. It should come as no surprise that when the book was adapted for the stage (by Christopher Hampton) and performed at the Mermaid Theater in London in February 1982, the response was stormy—as illustrated, for example, by the protesters demonstrating outside the theater during show times. Both the provocative arguments and the dramatic platform chosen by Steiner to present them drew much attention and earned the public’s scorn. By his own report, Steiner himself was alarmed by the reception accorded his work. The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., according to Ron Rosenbaum, turned into a “Frankenstein story: About a frightening creature that escaped from its creator.” Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, p. 300.
45. George Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), p. 161.
46. Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal, p. 162. See also Joshua 6:21.
47. Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal, pp. 163-164.
48. Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal, p. 169.
49. Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal, p. 169.
50. Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal, p. 170.
51. Steiner, The Portage to San Cristobal, p. 165. [emphasis in the original]
52. Victoria Radin, “Finding the Fuhrer,” The Observer, February 21, 1982, p. 29.
53. Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, p. 312.
54. Steiner, Errata, pp. 56-61; George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture (New Haven: Yale, 1971).
55. Steiner, “A Kind of Survivor.”
56. Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, p. 312.
57. Steiner, “Through That Glass Darkly,” p. 346; Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, p. 314.
58. Sidney Hook, “On Being a Jew,” Commentary 88:4, October 1989, p. 36.
59. Steiner, Errata, p. 52.
60. Steiner, Errata, p. 51.
61. Steiner, Errata, p. 62.
62. Steiner, Errata, p. 171.

From the

Star-CrossedRosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy by Peter Eli Gordon
The DissidentVixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger and Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture by Richard Pipes
The Spectacles of Isaiah BerlinThe twentieth century's greatest liberal was anything but a pluralist
Secret of the SabbathIt isn’t about R&R. It’s about how to be a creative human being.
The Haredim: A DefenseHow scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022