Book Review: A Wandering Jew

Charles London thinks that Zionism doesn’t depend on the Jewish state. He makes a good argument, but he’s wrong.

Courtesy of Harper Collins
Charles London’s picaresque new book forgets that Diaspora Jews constitute vibrant communities only as long as Israel exists.

In the tradition of the classic road narrative, Charles London’s new book, Far From Zion, gives us everything we have come to expect: he visits exotic places, encounters colorful people, and experiences adventures you couldn’t make up if you tried. But there is something else that sets the book apart. It’s not your ordinary road trip; it’s a Jewish road trip. Think Jack Kerouac meets Jackie Mason, resulting in a picaresque travel journal, with impressive intellectual ambitions that London only just misses.

Looking to reestablish his own Jewish identity, the author, a young Baltimore native who grew up alienated from his roots, makes up for lost time by embarking on a global trek that takes him to Jewish communities in Burma, Bosnia, Uganda, Iran, Cuba, Israel, and the American South.

In a Ugandan hillside village, for instance, he finds himself “bopping and dancing” the night away while welcoming the Sabbath with the local Jewish community (who knew?) in a celebratory ritual mixing African tribal rites with ancient Jewish traditions. In Iran, he experiences a different spiritual awakening: overwhelmed by the blending of local sights, sounds, and smells, he feels compelled to recite—out loud and in Hebrew—the sacred Jewish prayer of Shehekianu, commemorating a moment of joy, in the last place you would expect: the Jamkaran Mosque near the holy city of Qum, known to be one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favorite hangouts. There is Shlomo, the “oldest living Jew” in Cuba, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to hit you up for a couple of pesos and to repeat his signature one-liner every time London is around: “Watch out for this guy, he is a lawyer for the mob.” And Yossi, a trigger-happy Santa Claus look-alike ex-cop from Arkansas, who moved to the West Bank in search of action.

But London’s ambition is bigger than simply chronicling the quirky Jewish Diaspora. In chasing Jews around the world, he is slowly building the case for a kind of alternate Zionism—a spiritual and humanistic Zionism of the kind developed by Jewish intellectuals like Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber. There’s only one thing standing in his way: actual Zionism in its political form—which is to say, the state of Israel. “I wanted to find a place where another narrative was being lived out … I wanted to find the stories of peaceful coexistence … I wanted to find a Judaism that was meaningful without politics, and grounded without dominating ground.”

By the end of the book, it appears he has found what he’s looking for. Invigorated by the relentless capacity of isolated Jewish communities to persevere by “creating a culture of respect” with their neighbors, he concludes that “the greatest achievement of the Jewish people was not the long struggle for their own state but the richness of their Diaspora. The state of Israel was necessary, for the time being, as a haven.”

In other words, London, looking beyond the conventional borders of the modern nation-state, is convinced that those same humanistic principles so prevalent in the Diaspora—and not the state of Israel—are what will ultimately ensure the collective survival of the Jewish people.

There’s a serious problem, though, with this idealized approach: it overlooks the fact that political Zionism (that is, Israel) arose because of the catastrophic failure of the Diaspora to preserve itself. And then London fails to consider the possibility that these communities continue to survive not in spite of the Jewish state, but because of it.

After all, the existence of a secure, powerful, and prosperous Jewish state serves both as a safeguard for Jews under immediate peril (think of the heroic evacuations of Ethiopian Jews by Israel in decades past) and a symbolic source of empowerment that accords Jews everywhere the comfort of knowing there is a permanent sanctuary always open for them, if and when they may need it.

What’s more, seeing Israel as a temporary haven is myopic and dangerous. Jewish history has a fully tragic flavor because at exactly the moment when Diaspora Jews have felt most secure, their coexistence has unraveled. Think about the golden age of Spanish Jewry, or about fin-de-siècle Vienna and Berlin.

London here is oscillating between Machiavelli and Aristotle, trying to reconfigure the balance between politics and morality in the Jewish state—in favor of the latter. He should consider, though, that it serves him to accept this innate tension, which is prevalent in every liberal democracy, where it is generally seen as symbiotic rather than corrupting. The disengagement from the Gaza Strip, for instance, was an implicitly moral decision that could have been implemented only by considerable political force. Saul Bellow once remarked that Israelis “are required to perform an incredible balancing act … [Israel] is both a garrison state and a cultivated society, both Spartan and Athenian.” In that way, Israeli politics has helped preserve Jewish morality as much as that morality has helped define the politics.

Despite some questionable conclusions, London’s book remains a genuine attempt to examine Zionism through an all-too-overlooked alternate scope. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict subject to “professional” punditry on cable networks, London’s method of inquiry is refreshing. His ability to go out into the field—and confidently to switch between the storyteller’s, the anthropologist’s, and the historian’s hat—produces a rich and personalized narrative immensely different from the hollow polemical crossfire we’re accustomed to. And even if he occasionally seems naive, London’s moral critique of Israel emanates not from animosity but from deep admiration—a quality that clearly differentiates him from the anti-Israel left.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has exercised an increasingly humanitarian approach toward the conflict, invoking concepts of compassion, justice, and morality. This is not appeasement of terrorism, as some of the president’s critics claim; it’s a perfect encapsulation of what Judaism has always been about.

Fromer is a New York-based journalist. He writes a regular foreign-affairs column for the Israeli Daily Maariv.


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