Historian Simon Rawidowicz is the subject of a book about Israel

Historians in the News

Well, I am going to go out on a limb. If there is one book that has come out recently on the history of Israel and Zionism that you should read, then David N. Myers' book on Simon Rawidowicz is the one.

Myers's book contains the translation of a chapter that Rawidowicz wrote for, and then suppressed from, his great work on Jewish nationalism, Bavel vi-Yrushalayim (Babylonia and Jerusalem). In that chapter, written c. 1956, Rawidowicz called for the government of the State of Israel to admit responsibility for the flight of the Palestinian refugees, and to let them return to their homes. His arguments were both pragmatic and moral. That they were written in a beautiful and fluent Hebrew by one of the most interesting Zionists of the twentieth century gives the chapter special signficance. Why he suppressed the chapter remains a mystery to this day and is the subject of Myers' scholarly speculations.

Simon Rawidowicz was a leading historian of Jewish philosophy who died, tragically at the age of 60, in 1957. A native of Grayewo, Poland, he inherited his Zionism, Hebraism, and the love of the study of Torah from his father, a religious Jew who had learned in the yeshivas of Mir and Volozhin, yet who was attracted to the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) and Jewish nationalism. Like other Eastern European Jews of a philosophical bent (e.g., Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel) Simon traveled as a young man to Berlin to study philosophy. There he became involved in Hebrew publishing and Hebrew literature. His introduction and edition of Krochmal's Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zman (Guide for the Perplexed of our Time) is still unsurpassed. A scholar recently told me that his edition of one of Moses Mendelssohn's writings was first-rate. Of course, I am familiar with his articles on medieval Jewish philosophy.

Rawidowicz, as a Zionist, Hebraist, and scholar of Jewish philosophy, would have been ideal for the fledgling Hebrew University, and, indeed, for many years he actively sought a position there. But the chair of Jewish philosophy went to Julius Guttmann, a liberal German Jewish professor at the Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums in Berlin, who knew little Hebrew. Remember that the Hebrew University in its early years, especially the faculty of Jewish Studies that included men like Buber and Scholem, was composed almost entirely of"yekkes", i.e., German Jews. (For years there was no department of German language and literature at Hebrew University – who needed one?) And Rawidowicz, the Ost-Jude from Poland, did not have the academic reputation of Guttmann. Rawidowicz spent some time in England at Leeds University and ended up in America, first at the College of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and then as the first occupant of the Phillip W. Lown Chair of Jewish Philosophy and Hebrew Literature and the first Chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. That makes Rawidowicz the first chairman of a Jewish Studies program at an American university, I suppose.

Rawidowicz's Babylonia and Jerusalem, a huge Hebrew work that has never been translated into English, was a statement of his own philosophy of the Jewish people, and of the relations between the Jewish Diaspora and Zion. Unlike Zionists who preached the"negation of the diaspora," Rawidowicz saw an essential relationship between the two poles of Jewish existence. In that sense his ending up in America, rather than in the State of Israel (a name he disliked intensely, as he famously wrote to Ben-Gurion) was entirely appropriate, but had he come to Hebrew University, his ideas would have become more influential. As it is, his insistence on writing in Hebrew in Waltham, Massachusetts, marginalized him both from the American Jewish scene and the scene in Israel.

David N. Myers, a professor of history at UCLA and the director of its Center for Jewish Studies, has been interested for a long time in Rawidowicz, but instead of writing a full-fledged biography, decided to translate (together with Arnold J. Band) the suppressed chapter as part of a larger book on Rawidowicz. In fact, the chapter is only sixty-five pages of a three hundred page book. To fill out the book, Myers has several introductory chapters and nine appendices that include some of the classic documents to which Rawidowicz refers (i.e., the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, The"Law of Return,", the"Nationality Law," etc. Some may feel that this unnecessarily pads the book; I don't. They provide the broad context that is needed and should be read together with Rawidowicz' chapter.

As for Rawidowicz's arguments themselves, some seem justified by history; others not. But the tone of moral urgency and indignation is as true today as it was then.

"The question of these refugees is not an Arab question; it is a Jewish question, a question that 1948 placed upon the Jewish people…Let not a single Arab refugee from the State of Israel remain in the world. This is an existential imperative for the State of Israel from which it cannot flinch…" (173)

"Defenders of the plight of the refugees, including those among the Gentile nations, claim that if those hundreds of thousands of Arabs had not left Palestine in 1948, the State of Israel would not have arisen at all. And if they be permitted to return to settle in the State of Israel, it will be destroyed. Is this an argument of defense on behalf of the State of Israel? Reflect on it well and you will see that they are making a mockery of the dream of Zionism at its core. These defenders affirm that they never believed in the dream of Zionism. They always knew that it could not be undertaken without destroying the Arabs in the land of Israel. In their view, there was no Zionism to speak of between 1884 and 1948. Its goals were in fact nothing but an illusion." (174)

"I am ignorant in military and security matters, but I do know one thing: practically speaking, five or six hundred thousand Arab refugees from the State of Israel outside of its borders are much more dangerous to the state than five or six hundred thousand additional Arab citizens within its borders…Any aspiration that an Arab"fifth column" may have regarding the State of Israel is nothing compared to the aspiration of those hundreds of thousands of refugees who dream night and day, by virtue of their stateless existence, of the possibility of creating a state right now, of realizing this goal in the immediate future." (174-175)

"Never in their history did Jews force refugees into the world. Let not the State of Israel begin its path by forcing refugees into the world." (176)

And, finally:

"May there not have to be among Jews in coming generations those who will call to justice the generations of the gatekeepers of the state who locked the gate to former residents of the land – and who thereby opened, through this closing, the door to their defamers and persecutors in surrounding countries. It is in your hands, guides of the current generation in the state, to safeguard those who will come after you from the verdict of that future day of retribution. May it not come, but if it does come, what will be the price that the children of ours sons and daughters will pay?"

One of the great joys – and weighty responsibilities – of the historian is to reincarnate the forgotten voices of the past, so that we can listen to them and learn from their neglected counsels. The time still may not be ripe for a Rawidowicz, a Magnes, a Buber, or a Leibowitz to be heard.

But that time is coming soon. As Israel becomes more and more deeply racist (Today I saw a big metal sign outside a company that says proudly that it employs only Jews), as its rightwing legislators compete with each other to propose legislation restricting the rights of its Israel's Arab minority, as its Minister of Justice equates Arab observance of Nakbah day with"wishing the State to fall and to throw its inhabitants into the sea" (here), as it forces the entire country into an unnecessary air raid exercise, thus further sowing panic, as a government radio announcer wonders out loud on the air whether Obama is more"Hussein" than"Barack" --

The time for the likes of a Rawidowicz is coming sooner than you think.

Read entire article at Jerry Haber at The Magnes Zionist (blog)

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