A Matter of Validity
by Howard Fast
Like others of my generation, I have spent a sufficient number of hours wondering what is a Jew. Entering our middle-forties, we are of a lot that becomes more Jewish with age; although I am not sure that this hasn't been a part of all other generations. Our understanding grappled with the Brown House of Berlin, when first it was reported here in America, and then fifteen years later, we saw the redemption of Israel on her own ancient soil. It was a progression complex enough to confuse thoughtful men and to compound superstitious tendencies of those less thoughtful.
It seems to be a part of the fate of every thoughtful Jew that he should spend an enormous number of hours attempting to unravel the puzzle of what he is. In Israel they emerged finally with the definition of a Jew as anyone who claims the title. In other words, he who says he is a Jew is a Jew.
That is not quite so simple, we understand, each in his own way. I remember a day in 1933, when another boy and I stood in the sun on a road outside of Tampa, Florida. It must have been 120 degrees in that broiling sun. We were physically and mentally exhausted, used up from wandering and walking and going nowhere, as so many thousands of boys were at that time, our clothes dirty, worn and torn, our sunburned, freckled faces pinched with apprehension and despair. In other words, we were tall, skinny, knowledgeable and no different from the thousands of others.
And the man across the road from us was no different from other men who ran feed stores in Florida at that time. His chair tilted back, he sat under the corrugated iron shed of his store, all in the blessed shade, long of limb, raw-boned, his hard face surly with the suspicion of those who have something toward those who have nothing. That was in 1933. He wore a straw hat, tilted to the back of his head, and he chewed on a piece of straw. His neck above his collar was red and wrinkled. He wore heavy leather shoes without socks. We had seen him in a hundred places, knew him, feared him and right now envied him the shade in which he sat. We nurtured a dream that he would invite us into the shade and give us each a glass of cold water; and we knew how much more likely it was that he would take a shotgun to us and drive us away. Our occupation at the moment was an attempt to hitch a ride on one of the occasional trucks that rolled by.
Such was the situation. I think he watched us for a full hour before he rose and walked slowly and ominously across the road to where we stood, and then we expected anything but not what he did, which was to ask us quietly in Yiddish whether we were Jewish.
Afterward, when we sat in his living room behind the feed store, drinking ice water in the delicious coolness and darkness, his wife preparing lunch for us, he explained that he had to be sure before he approached us. It was hard enough to run a feed store in Florida, without being Jewish in the bargain. Where was his reason for asking?
Is it written on my face? I have been taken for other nationalities and not too often for a Jew, my name being Fast, and the boy with me was blond, long-faced, and looked Irish, if people must look like something or other. In an old manuscript of the 1770s, I read the account of a traveler in newly opened Kentucky, still the dark and bloody ground in those days, who wrote, "I met a skin-clad man in the deep forest, leading two pack animals with furs, and I knew he was a Jew, for he carried no gun." That was a definition; he traded with the Indians from the Canadian frontier to the mangrove swamps, and everywhere he went in safety and without a gun. Even the Indians knew. I recall the account of the first Jewish trader to appear at Salt Lick in Kentucky. The settlers came from miles around to look at one of the old folk out of the Bible, and they were bitterly disappointed at the fact that he was in no way different from themselves. Being a good-natured fellow, he allowed them to feel in his hair for the horns the legend of the horns of Moses and he commiserated with their disappointment and disbelief.
Yes, I have always taken a certain particular if nationalistic pride in the fact that the Indians knew. An old, old Indian, a Cheyenne in Oklahoma some twenty years ago, this was told me that only when the Indian traded with a Jew could he be sure that he would not be cheated. A peculiar reversal of a legend. "But how did you know he was a Jew?" I demanded. He could not explain it.
Yet the Indians knew. There was a special status implied. The story of the Wyoming Valley (Pennsylvania) Massacre has an important place in early American history. Many school-children learn about it, but what is to me the most dramatic part of it remains untold. The people who settled the Wyoming Valley shortly before the American Revolution crossed over westward from Connecticut. The attack upon them and the subsequent massacre occurred during the first years of the Revolution; in the course of it, a party of women and children, led by a single old man, managed to escape, and having no other place to turn, decided to make their way over the long stretch of wilderness that separated them from their families who had remained in Connecticut. The attempt would have been doomed to failure and they would have died of starvation and fear, had they not fallen into a very curious set of circumstances. A few days after they started, on toward evening, coming over the brow of a hill, they saw before them a little log trading post. To the man who sat in front of this log house, watching the sun go down, this pathetic file of ragged and forlorn women and children seemed to emerge completely from the memories of his own people.
He took them in and gave them shelter and food, and he and his wife washed the feet of these people and made them secure. With his great black beard and his strange-sounding speech he had born in Poland he frightened them at first, but as a survivor wrote afterwards, ". . . We soon became used to his ways, and he was as gentle as a woman. He was the first Jew any of us had ever seen."
Thus they were led from Jew to Jew, until at last they came home safely to Connecticut; nor did the Indians bother them again. Of course, behind this is a rich and wonderful story the whole of the handful of Jews who traded with the Indians in those times, but that is something else. Here is only a question of the validity of Jewishness and all the many perplexities that flow from it. If anyone who says so is a Jew, and no more than that, it still leaves unexplained why most by far continue to say so, and why those who stop saying so never rid themselves of a lump of loneliness, a great sense of loss.
There have always been people who stopped saying so. In Spain, for example, hundreds of thousands converted; many to this day practice a blunted sort of ritual, the survivals of four and a half centuries in the Christian world. Some cling to the memory with no more than the compulsive ritual of the act.
But if there is nothing new about conversion, the conversion in Russia today has at least a new quality. A Soviet Jew moves, not toward Christianity, but away from Jewishness. He assimilates, but he is afraid to look back over the road he travels; there is too much fear where he came from. If he no longer ponders the old puzzle of what it is to be Jewish, he nevertheless realizes that it is a troubling and unhappy thing to be.
I recall the meeting of my wife and myself with Boris Polevoy, here in New York two years ago, when he came here with a writers' delegation. We had been told so many times by so many different people that Polevoy was Jewish that we simply took it for granted. Perhaps we had no right to, for the folklore of Jewish people tends to collect a population of those who are not Jewish at all; yet as far as Polevoy was concerned, we seemed to have it on good authority. We met him in his hotel room at the Waldorf, himself entirely alone at the moment and unable to speak a word of English a great, smiling bear of a man, outgoing and warm and gracious. Knowing no Russian, my wife and I tried this and that and finally Yiddish, which we have found to be the only Esperanto that actually works, whatever corner of the world you happen to be in.
It worked here, and Polevoy answered us with a peculiar German intonation which, as he explained, came from the fact that he had learned his German from Nazi prisoners during the war. God be praised, there is a way to learn a language! I argued with my wife that it sounded like Yiddish to me, but she being a purist, had her doubts. In any case, he understood our Yiddish completely and by implication, if not by blunt denial, gave us to understand that he was not Jewish. Later, we met others of the group who were Jewish beyond doubt, such as Isakov, for example, but never by word or sign did they hint at anything Jewish and never so thoughtless as to remark on our being Jewish.
Never a glance backward permitted; yet though I did not know it at that time, each of them who was Jewish carried in his pocket an identity card with the word "Jew" printed on it, such being the mores of the Soviet Union in their process of assimilation. The Supreme Soviet defined as Jews even those who denied the fact. Yet in all fairness, it should be remarked that the Soviet Union reserved and reserves its less civilized attitudes toward Jews for the "Jewish Jews," or those with a memory for things Jewish. Being a Jew is permissible, providing one is content with the "misfortune" of being born Jewish and makes no more of it than that. It is the memory of Jewishness, or what we call culture, that is so hateful and despised.
I don't pretend to be able to answer the question concerning what values these Jews lost through ceasing to remember. Perhaps they have performed new motions of validity; but just as consciousness and the sense of being which is a prime factor in the humanness of mankind, depend to so large an extent upon a clear memory, so it would seem to me that a common historical experience is a part of the necessary equipment for civilization. Equality based upon the forcible blotting out of differences and the subjugation of the group memory of minorities is not a pleasant thing to contemplate, and little enough dignity goes along with it. Whether or not we can understand why we are Jews or what is the particular validity of our being Jews, I hold that we have the privilege of treasuring the Jewish experience if we so desire and remembering it.
What a bitter thing it is to be robbed of your fathers as well as of your own pride! I remember a poor Mexican peon, who, asked of Montezuma, replied that it was a more expensive brand of beer.
He had lost something most precious indeed, and the burden of the illegitimate, unknown of his own father, is not wholly what hypocrisy places upon him. I have no doubt and never have had that there will be a time when the whole human race will partake of a single brotherhood; but that must come in its own good way, as a part of the inevitable progression from family to gen to tribe to nation and then to inter-nation.
No mailed fist can substitute for this. Always, it was for his own good, his own immortal soul, his own happiness, his own "necessary" evolution, that the Jew was persecuted and slaughtered down through the ages. Always, he remembered things that were not good for him to remember.
It was almost inevitable for me that in 1947 I should write the story of the great agrarian war of the Jews, the splendid struggle for national liberation that we celebrate as Chanuka. It would seem that, witnessing what was happening in Israel that year, the whole world would delight in this proof that a will toward freedom is an older and perhaps more potent force than the atom bomb. But in Russia the resulting book, My Glorious Brothers, was greeted with silence, omitted from a subsequent bibliography of my work; and with the negative and the omission, I was given to understand that this remembrance of Jewishness was in the worst of bad taste. It was again the sin, not simply of being a Jew, but of being Jewish. The question was sharp and pointed:
"Why do you say you are a Jew?"
I remember during World War II, an evening in Calcutta as one of a group of guests at the home of a cultured Indian. It was a good evening, and along with three GIs, I left rather late yet we still had much to talk about before sleep. The GIs two of them, that is happened to be Jewish, and they suggested that we have something to eat in the Jewish restaurant. I agreed eagerly, filled with memories and visions of what went for Jewish food in New York City; but it turned out that the only recognizable item on the menu were potato pancakes, which the GIs had taught the Indians to make. But the tall, dignified black man who was introduced to me as the proprietor was as warm and considerate a host as one could desire. He was happy to meet another Jew, and he sat with us and talked of many things in common. When I asked him when his people had come to India, he thought for a while and then said:
"During the Babylonian Exile, I would imagine. You see, we don't celebrate Chanuka. We left before it happened."
I did not ask him why, after two thousand years, undistinguishable in a physical sense from the people among whom he lived, he continued to assert his identity and the particular memories and communion to which it entitled him. I did not think that I needed to ask him. It was because he desired to be a Jew. And when the whole world comes to comprehend and honor such desires, understanding their validity and necessity, we will have moved a long step toward the breaking down of all differences and antagonisms in the family of man.
However, there are very important sectors of mankind which deny the above proposition and hold it to be an amorphous concept, part of what is glibly called "reactionary deception." The choice of Jewishness as a positive part of human existence so long fought for by men of good will throughout the Western world that it has become an integral part of the language of freedom has been denied in the Soviet Union. It is important that the meaning of this denial be understood.
In this case and in this essay, I refer to my own experience because I am intimately aware of it. There may have been a great many similar experiences; but in my case I have all the facts and have experienced them. Nevertheless, there is a danger of succumbing to subjectivity; I can only try to avoid that.
I spoke before of My Glorious Brothers, which was a "no-book" in Russia. I had another "no-book," a short history of the Jewish people for youngsters, which I had written in 1939, and which was published by Hebrew Publishing Company under the title: Romance of a People.
I had, of course, made no effort to conceal these titles. Not only were they included with the front matter of every book I published, but the Romance of a People was always sub-titled "a history of the Jews." So the banishment of these two books to none and never-existence by the Russians during those years when they accepted and praised my other work was conscious, if strikingly schizoid. Their over-enthusiastic praise of my other work led to the compilation in the Soviet Union of an amazingly inclusive bibliography of practically everything I had ever written less these two Jewish titles.
I have tried many times to understand their thinking but never with much success. Were they pretending I was not Jewish, because of my value to them? But even the worst ignorance and bigotry does not indulge in such "pretense." Were they hiding the fact that I was Jewish from their own readers? If so, here was an admission of a national attitude toward Jews both terrible and damning. At the same time, on occasion after occasion, I was invited to Russia as were many other writers, artists and trade union people in America who were Jewish. But when the editor of the Jewish Daily Freiheit, the Communist Yiddish-language paper in New York, throughout the same period made frequent pleas to the Russians that he or one of his staff be given a visa to the Soviet Union, such pleas were always denied without explanation.
Evidently, there were Jews and Jews, and in a mechanical sense a manner of reasoning the Russians frequently resort to a Yiddish language Jew was a "Jewish Jew." It is almost impossible for a normal person to comprehend this split national personality, unless one reluctantly admits what the facts appear to demonstrate that being unable to display their seething hatred of Jews within a framework of socialist ideals to which they gave lip-service, the Soviet leaders, like the Czarist officials before them, have categorized their resentment, reserving the sharpest part of it for Jews who are most consciously Jewish.
No one in his right mind will deny that an escape hatch of total assimilation and cultural amnesia is preferable to the gas chambers of Adolf Hitler; but neither should anyone deny that both are variants of anti-Semitism, with all the implicit dangers and horrors of anti-Semitism. Nor can it be denied that both are reactionary, barbaric and unworthy of civilized man.
In their compulsion to fit even the most degraded of actions into a framework of what they so glibly and certainly term "Marxism," the Russians evolved an incredible, pseudo-scientific anti-Semitic theory which they called "Cosmopolitanism." Reduced to terms that allow normal intellects to follow it, it meant the impulse on the part of certain "depraved" individuals who curiously enough were always Jews to befuddle the "pure" Russian aesthetics with international literary attitudes, modes, styles, etc. Under a thick cover of mumbo-jumbo, this was a return to the provincialism of the Moujik, to the bigotry of the Czarist bureaucrat.
In the world we inhabit, threatened by atom bombs, torn by a mighty power struggle in which hundreds of millions of human beings are involved, the foregoing might appear rather rarefied and precious. There are very few Jews in the world, and there are hundreds of millions of people who have never seen a Jew who are concerned with war and starvation and not with theory. Yet the validity of the desire to be Jewish appears to contain a historic necessity out of proportion to the numbers involved.
This was brought home to me very personally when the official Russian literary newspaper, The Literary Gazette, launched an attack upon me early in February, 1958. Even though more than a quarter of the entire newspaper was devoted to this lengthy storm of abuse; even though it outdid anything of its kind formerly directed against writers the rage and the fury might have been accepted as anticipated if hysterical hatred of a writer, once a Communist, who could no more tolerate the Soviet definition of freedom. After all, the sum of what the attack contained had been said, if only in part, against Silone, Gide, Priestley, Steinbeck and many others. Yet with one striking difference.
The others had been criticized, slandered and defamed as renegades, traitors, spies, tools of the capitalists, degenerates, liars, decadents, etc. I was called all of this and more but the basis of the attack was concentrated upon the fact that I was a Jew. All other adjectives were used simply to underline the fact that my betrayal was a Jewish betrayal, that my wickedness was Jewish wickedness. The sum total of the filth directed against me was summed up as "militant Zionism." This was my greatest and over-all crime. But I was also called a "psalmist," "Isaiah" and a number of other delicately "Jewish" terms.
Their hatred of the Jew who, in their terms, has dared to act as a Jew, goes further than anything I have seen in recent Soviet documents. Gribachev, the Russian critic who was chosen to defend "socialism" from Howard Fast, cries out, "If Howard Fast professes the religion of his fathers, why doesn't he go to the synagogue... why does he not go with arms outstretched to the throne of the Lord appealing for the gift of brotherhood from the heavenly heights?" And again, Gribachev sneers, "The truth is that Howard Fast is not a Marxist, not an internationalist but a militant Zionist, who masks the insistent sermon of national exclusiveness with platonic words about brotherhood." And still again, "He confuses Marx with the Prophet Isaiah." And finally, in ominous accord with the methods of Nazi propagandists, Gribachev ties his little hate-worn bundle together thus:
"And what does Howard Fast do? Having cheated on the facts, he yells, 'Stop thief!' In preaching and defending Zionism he resorts to mimicry and hides behind the mask of wailing about Semitism."
Even before I had an opportunity to think through all the menacing implications of this document, I felt that it had to be answered; what follows is most of a reply I cabled to the editor of the Literary Gazette in Moscow. Of course, it was neither acknowledged nor printed, but I felt that the gesture had to be made.
"Through dispatches from Moscow, I have been informed that Literary Gazette, official organ of Communist Party writers in Russia, carried a long and bitter denunciation of me. In the course of its arguments, it refers to me as a 'swindler, a savage, a deserter, an opportunist, immodest, discourteous, cheap, wall-eyed, cowardly, dishonest and indecent.'
"Just what have I done to bring forth this incredible roll-call of adjectives?
"I resigned from the Communist Party of the United States.
"I told why I believed that the Communist Party was a power-organization, devoid of inner democracy.
"I spelled out my reaction to the Khrushchev 'secret speech' and to the barbaric invasion of Hungary.
"I quoted Communist Party sources about the murder by Stalin and his secret police of almost every Jewish writer of standing in the Soviet Union, the murder of Polish Communists, the destruction of Jewish culture and similar terrible deeds. I quoted only communist sources, and I did not repeat or give credence to the thousands of similar accusations made against the Soviet Union by her enemies; even though I knew so much of these to be the truth.
"I pleaded for peace and understanding between Russia and the United States, and for a straightforward explanation and airing of the circumstances around these monstrous crimes.
"These things I did. Let me say, even more strongly, that there were other things which I did not do.
"I betrayed no one. I named no names. I testified nowhere and I informed on no one. When called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, I refused to give any information whatsoever concerning those who had been my associates in the Communist Party. I have not testified before any congressional committee, any court, any grand jury neither secretly nor publicly.
"Never, through all my years in the Communist Party and since I left it, have I been in the pay of any government, my own or another. Never have I accepted any payment from any government bureau, agency or otherwise.
"Few of us are saints. I have many faults; and I have made more mistakes than I care to remember. I have made many friends and many enemies. But never in my life have I knowingly performed a dishonest act or acted apart from the dictates of my conscience. And as far as cowardice is concerned, the press of my own nation has called me most things but I have yet to be called a coward by those who know my record.
"Having said this, I hold that the article in the Literary Gazette is not only a lie, a contrived and shameless lie, but a most ominous document in every sense. The sight of a great and powerful nation provoked to this disgraceful public display of bad taste and hooligan-like obscenity cannot be written off as simply official imperviousness to the obligations of civilized behavior."
However, the more I considered the article in the Literary Gazette, the more I came to realize that the personal attack and the action of character-assassination directed against myself was the less important part of the affair. Having chosen during the past two decades of my life to handle a variety of hot coals, I have come to accept the burns that go with it; and long ago, I came to the conclusion that personal defamation of character wreaks its worst havoc upon the slanderer, not upon the slandered. The deeply important fact of this attack was that it used the foulest tricks of anti-Semitic procedure integrated shrewdly if not subtly, with the general propaganda line of the Soviet Union.
As anyone even casually connected with Jewish organizations knows, I have never been a Zionist, nor am I one today. I have written novels about a variety of subjects, taking up the cause of the American Indian, the Negro and the worker as well as the Jew. Rather than advocate national exclusiveness, I have preached angrily against it; and many times in the past I have been savagely attacked for "sentimental equalitarianism." On the other hand, I have lived through the Jewish experience of the fourth and fifth decades of our century, and I have tried to cope, in my own mind, with the fact that of all modern peoples, the Jews have suffered most savagely at the hands of reaction and fascism. Their loss was the greatest, fully one third of their number done to death, their pain the cruelest, their agony the most symbolic in terms of the historical role of anti-Semitism. The Soviet desire to deny this cannot change it.
In the same manner, the Soviet insistence on equating the Jewish people and their national and international experience with organized religion must be seen for what it is part of an attempt to eliminate the national experience, memory, culture and very existence of a people. It cannot be laid down to ignorance; the Soviet leadership is simply not that ignorant. Not one of all the many Jewish Communist Party delegations Canadian, British, Australian, etc., sent to the Soviet Union during the past two years to protest and examine this situation has delivered any hopeful prognosis, nor has one of them reported any signs of sincerity or effort in the reconstitution of Jewish culture. And that reliable barometer of Soviet theoretical change, the Soviet Encyclopedia, has reduced the space given to the Jews and their history from half a hundred pages to half a dozen paragraphs.
Thus, even as a book becomes a non-book, a person a non-person, so is a great and numerous and ancient people made to become a non-people.
Many had hoped that this particular horror and insanity was a part of the Stalin past. Unfortunately, it does not seem so, and the attack upon myself lends a new dimension. I do not resent the label of Zionist. I have always respected Zionists, and I consider that the concretization of their age-old dream is one of the triumphs of the human spirit. On the other hand, as a humanist and a Jew, I supported every step in the reconstruction of Israel and supported the young state to the best of my ability.
But the label of Zionist pinned on me is false. The Soviets know it is a lie. They chose the particular lie with deliberation and cruel logic. During the past ten years they themselves built me up out of all proportion to my work or place in the literary world. They created, within the Soviet Union, a person of immense stature and suddenly they found themselves faced with the problem of turning this image they had created into a non-person. It is most difficult to praise a man for a dozen years, heap every sort of honor upon him, and then about-face and prove that he is a contemptible wretch and always has been one. But suppose you have at hand and already prepared a national reaction to the Jew; then the problem is simplified.
Let us explain, one of them must have decided triumphantly, that Howard Fast is not only a Jew, but a Jewish-Jew, in other words, a militant Zionist. Then, immediately, our world will understand the depths of his corruption. They will understand that no matter how he acted in the past, there was always within him that Jewish disease. They will also understand, when we label him a Zionist, that he 'Was always a part of this secret-magical-hideous-Jewish-Zionist plot to control the world. And, as proof of his guilt, we will repeat and underline every instance in which he took up the cause of the Jews or the state of Israel.
And this they proceeded to do, with a sort of brute cunning. I am accused of weeping for Israel, but showing no concern for the common people of Egypt. With scorn and epithet the world is informed that I have compared the Unknown Prophet (Deutero-Isaiah) with Marx; a reference of mine to Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiba is held up to sardonic laughter. The Jewish people and their aspirations are equated again and again with Catholicism, capitalism, reaction, imperialism or whatever is the particular attack-word at hand.
And of their theory of Cosmopolitanism, that most insane and sickening elevation of anti-Semitism to what they call "dialectic," their spokesman Gribachev has this to say:
"Howard Fast's attempt to represent the struggle against cosmopolitanism as one more form of anti-Semitism is in the same category. How low did the dignity of this writer fall, if he indulges in such obvious juggling of facts in order to play with marked cards among decent people! It does not in the least matter who is the first to say, Ah; all that matters is the fact that cosmopolitanism as a definite ideology at the present time, is a tool and weapon of reactionary policy in its designs on national freedom and independence and culture."
But the facts remain, and it is a fact that only Jewish writers and critics in Russia were charged with cosmopolitanism. Actually, the whole meaning of cosmopolitanism as the Russians define it is the introduction of foreign tendencies, schools and innovations in writing, a practice as old as mankind among civilized people. And was the attempt to represent it as a species of anti-Semitism solely mine? For two years now, American, British, Canadian, Australian and French Communists have expressed precisely this attitude toward cosmopolitanism as used by the Soviets. The Russians could answer that most of these critics have subsequently left their respective parties, but that does not change the fact.
As long ago as 1949, when I was about to leave for France to participate in the Peace Congress there, I was asked by the Jewish Commission of the Communist Party of the United States to raise certain questions of importance with any Russians I might meet there. Fortunately Alexander Fadayev, the Russian writer, was present. As he was not only the chairman of the Soviet Writers Union but also a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, he could discuss the matter I had to raise with him with some authority. I met with him, and informed him that it was the considered decision of the Jewish Commission of the Communist Party, USA, that the newly-developed Soviet theory of cosmopolitanism was being used as a mask for anti-Semitism. I demanded from him an explanation why every accused writer we knew of was a Jew, and also why, when a particular Jewish writer had Russianized his name, his original Jewish name was given in brackets alongside his Russianized name.
For two hours we argued this issue. During that time, Fadayev became almost hysterical with anger and shouted again and again that anti-Semitism did not exist in Russia. Finally he met my charges with a fantastic story to the effect that the Joint Distribution Committee, in league with Zionist organizations, had established a vast spy network which penetrated the Kremlin itself. Perhaps Fadayev believed this nonsense, perhaps not; I don't know. But certainly many Communists have comprehended for many years now, that a development of anti-Semitism was taking place in the Soviet Union; and many others beside myself fought against the theory of cosmopolitanism while we still remained in the party.
For all its evil resemblances to Nazi anti-Semitism, this Russian variety is not the same. The Nazi goal was the elimination of all Jews through the direct and brutal action of mass murder. The Russian purpose, it seems to me, is to grant Jews at least a fair amount of equality, opportunity and security, provided they consent to cease being Jews. Whereas the Nazis, in a Medieval assault upon all reason, declared Jewishness to be an ineradicable blood taint, even unto the fifth generation, the Russians, officially, at least reverse this and say that Jewishness is merely a rather offensive religion and can be cast off as easily as a garment.
Naturally, there will be categories of Jews in such a situation as there always have been when Jewishness was looked upon through the eyes of religion. There will be the total Russians, whose misfortune of Jewish ancestry is tucked totally out of sight. There will be almost-Jews and perhaps-Jews and not-quite-Jews and now-and-then-Jews, and there will be super-zealous creatures who will snap the whip, so that it is even conceivable that my critic Gribachev, he of the many adjectives, could himself be Jewish; but by and large the tremendous majority will continue to be Jews, un-hyphenated. For the mistake of the Russians consists of a dull and boorish comprehension of history and the development of peoples, combined with their primitive notion of the Jew as a product solely of religion. This attitude toward the Jews cannot help but feed every latent fire of anti-Semitism in a land with a very substantial history of the practice and thus a developing Jew-hatred will be added to the officially-promoted difficulties.
An Israeli official told me not long ago that he felt Russia's attitude toward Israel was conditioned wholly by the power struggle in the Middle East, in which it is so deeply and so nakedly involved. But I cannot accept this as the sole determinant. The process is incredibly complex, just as the almost uninterrupted persecution of the Jews through the ages was not simply the result of power situations or racial antipathy. The role of the Jews is a most important thread in the fabric of civilization, and not only of Western civilization. World civilization as a whole would be radically different today were it not for the existence of the Jews. My critic Gribachev, who regards all talk of ethics or morality as the mark of the beast, will find a host of new adjectives for me as I mention a "conscience of mankind," for he feels that all talk of conscience is merely a cover-up for hydrogen bombs and Mr. Dulles' foreign policy. Nevertheless, there is such a conscience and the Jews have had a profound influence upon it. There are three million Jews in Russia, and after forty years of Soviet rule they refuse to dissolve and relinquish memory. They do not throw off the coat because they cannot. They cannot cease to be Jews any more than the Russians can cease to be Russians. But whereas tiny tribes in Siberia have been given an alphabet, language and culture by the Soviets, these three million people, whose ancestors gave the alphabet to all mankind, are forbidden to learn Yiddish or Hebrew, to remember their own forebears, or to turn their eyes inward and examine what they are.
Three millions are a large number. The same Russians who thundered with righteous wrath when I was denied a passport, and who still thunder with horror and hate and indignation that Paul Robeson is denied a passport (sounding all the depths of this injustice, which, I agree, it is) see nothing wrong with holding a people of three million prisoner within the Russian frontier. The shoe fits one foot but not the other, and they declare, on the solid ground of their own "morality," that no one in Russia has the right to a passport, Jew or otherwise. "The Jew is no different," they insist; but after years of what they call "socialist" government, the Jew in Russia still must carry an identity card marked with the word "Jew," no matter how un-Jew he has become.
This question of Russian anti-Semitism is so very complex that a broad study would be required to make it fully understandable. It cannot be explained in terms of a power-struggle. The charge of cosmopolitanism is merely another aspect of the old, murky "Elders of Zion" canard. Howard Fast, the "militant Zionist," is cursed with Medieval frenzy because he stated the validity of his own being. I could plead in his defense, if he needs such a plea, that he had no choice. The need in man for a measure of dignity is almost as powerful a drive as life itself, and we who are Jews can find the validity of being, of existing, of inhabiting this earth, only in our own acceptance of ourselves. I am not speaking against the Jew who does not desire to be a Jew; that is his inalienable right. But another inalienable right was stated by the Knesset in the Law of the Return, "'That he is a Jew who says he is a Jew."
That is all the Jewish people ask of Russia. And perhaps for all of the Soviet bureaucrats' sneering and boorish contempt for what they call an "unimportant handful," they will discover that we too have contributed something to the progress of mankind.