Verso, New York, paperback edition, 164 pages, 2017
As a historian, Deutscher writes without religious belief. As a philosopher, he writes about the great Jews of Europe: Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Freud.
Novelist Graham Greene called the historian’s three-volume biography of Trotsky “among the greatest biographies in the English language.”
In this slim collection of speeches and essays, Deutscher unleashes his fury over the Holocaust: “the unconditional extermination of every Jewish man, woman and child who fell into Nazi clutches.”
The grim toll: six million Jews, an unbelievable catastrophe unique in history. “It was the degeneration of the human character that will forever baffle mankind,” he writes. “The pathological character of Nazi theory and practice defied sane human imagination.”
Jews don’t need to read this book. They are all too familiar with the frightening history of the race. But many gentiles should. It might lessen some of the anti-Semitism still infesting too much of America today.
Deutscher (1907-1967) relates the drama in his life. He joined the Polish Communist Party, was exiled from the party, joined the Polish Army, became a correspondent for a Polish-Jewish newspaper in London, travelled to the Soviet Union, lectured on Marxism and Soviet affairs at Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia and took part in the first teach-in at Berkeley.
At the age of four he was sent to Kheder, a Jewish religious school, which he spoke of with disgust. Yet he became a rabbi at 13.
His mother was a fanatical, God-fearing woman. When he was just 11 she feared he was heretical so she determined to “save him.” She failed. He was deeply committed to radicalism, calling Christ “a Jew and a communist.” Moreover, Deutscher was an atheist–a Yid (an offensive Jew).
He praised Spinoza, “the rebel, the atheist, the heretic, the ex-communicated Jew.” He ate ham, “the most sinful of foods to a Jew.”
DIALOGUE WITH BEN GURION
He tells of the time Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion spoke to him “bitterly about non-Zionist Jews: ‘They have no roots. They are rootless cosmopolitans. There can be nothing worse than that. Speaking Yiddish is the linguistic yellow patch. ‘ “
Deutscher came to admit that carving out the state of Israel on Palestinian terrain was “a historical necessity.” But still that frequent ambivalence. He called Israel “the Prussians of the Middle East” and rightly lamented that “Israel never even recognized Arab grievances.”
What he really loved was the kibbutz, “the rural commune, the essence of Israeli egalitarianism, an indirect descendant of the Russian Narodniks (populists and socialists).
“Food, clothing, furniture, medical supplies, cigarettes, books, paintings and artistic reproductions are all distributed from a common pool–‘to each according to his needs.’ (Marx).
“It was no arm of Jewish government. It had no army, police or judiciary. The kibbutz with its high morals formed a Jewish shadow state. No Jew was above another.
“In one kibbutz a taxi driver was once Israel’s ambassador to Prague and Budapest. In another a tall, sunburnt and bare-footed shepherd, with a likeness to Michelangelo’s sculpture of ‘David,’ was herding sheep in a golden sunset. The sheep herder was a commander during the Emancipation War of 1948.
The faults of the book are numerous.
Deutscher is addicted to writing “of course.” It’s particularly annoying in situations the reader knows nothing about.
He is a master of clichés: “to stew in his own juice,” “make a virtue of necessity” and the meaningless “more or less.” He also a master of speculation: “he may have,” “seemed,” “possibly,” “is believed to have,” and “might have watched.” He is prone to writing “rather large’ when the word does not need that unnecessary modifier. He writes the worthless “somewhat.”
Yet his thinking is balanced. He writes that despite his monstrous crimes, Stalin ordered two and one-half million Jews into the interior of Russia during the invasion. The move kept them out of Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.
PRAISE FOR CHAGALL
Deutscher wrote a glowing tribute to the Jewish artist Marc Chagall.
He cites Judaism’s “hostility toward the visual arts under the biblical command “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” (Exodus 20:4, KJV) He writes: “For a Jew to paint was to revolt against Jewish clerical obscurantism.”
The artistic world is grateful Chagall defied tradition.
Chagall was born in Vitebsk (Belarus, Lithuania). He lived in its Shtetl, the quarter with a large Jewish population.
“Early on Chagall was influenced by Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin,” Deutscher writes. “The spontaneity of Chagall’s surrealism testifies to the universality of artistic ideas.“
Example: Chagall painted a bearded fiddler standing on a roof top while lovers float in the air. That painting inspired the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” with its constant refrain, “tradition.” It stars Topol as Tevye.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)