“We are all ex-Jews now” – Berlin, Deutscher, Koestler and their Jewish wars

Three of Kind: Isaiah Berlin, Isaac Deutscher and Arthur Koestler and their Jewish Wars

Bernard Wasserstein, University of Chicago
John Klier Memorial Lecture, UCL, 20th February 2008

Berlin, Koestler and Deutscher

Koestler, Deutscher and Berlin, as contemporary Jewish intellectual emigres born at the turn of the 20th Century in Eastern Europe – Hungary, Poland and Latvia respectively – were three of a kind. They were part of a generation of Jewish intellectuals which, between 1945 and 73 formed a cohort of thinkers with as much influence in Jewish culture as the thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah.

In other respects, and in a way which might be described as Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’, they were not three of a kind. They hated each other vehemently. Deutscher pronounced Koestler to have “less integrity than George Orwell”; Berlin “hated and dispised” Deutscher and blocked his position at the University of Sussex as “morally intolerable”. ‘Jewish Wars’ refers to the fierce public debates they had about the nature of Jewish identity, Israel, Zionism and the lessons to be learned from contemporary Jewish history.

Wasserstein’s well-attended talk was gripping. With its “He wrote… and he responded … then he said …” you could discreetly indulge, if you were that way inclined, a kind of tabloid prurience observable in The Guardian’s addiction to provoking and following fights between Jews and antisemites. But much more than this, in their day Berlin, Deutscher and Koestler were, without ceremony, what ‘Independent Jewish Voices’ self-consciously aspires to today. Learning about the debates fought between these three lays out the range and depth of responses Jewish intellectuals of that time had to Israel, Jewishness and Zionism, and in doing so sheds light on the influence of the Nazi genocide on Jewish intellectual thought in the years following the Holocaust, and helps to account for the activities of Jewish anti-Zionist intellectuals today. I think Wasserstein is onto a very good thing and await his book with impatience.

Berlin, Deutscher and Koestler

Deutscher was brought up in a Zionist family. He was said to be a Jewish prodigy but this has been questioned, as has the fable of the ham and butter sandwich he ate on the grave of the rebbe. He spent his politically active years as a Marxist secularist in the Jewish Labour movement, which he consistently insisted did not have an identity of its own

Koestler was an intellectual nomad of astonishing range – erstwhile Communist, Zionist turned anti-Zionist, ex-Jew, animal rights campaigner, founder of euthanasia charity Exit, endower of a chair in the paranormal at Edinburgh, intrepid Zeppelin explorer and author of three highly-regarded sex manuals. The monostrosities of his personal life are well-documented. Wasserstein, reporting that he preferred dogs to bambinos, tells us that he ‘almost trampled down a poor infant lecturer in a corridor’ – the two-year old Wasserstein himself. But his autobiographies were masterpieces (they are seriously some of the most exciting books I’ve ever read) of “zest, humour and insight”.

Berlin was a liberal individualist who penetrated to the heart of British society, educated at Corpus Christi, Oxford, staff of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Information, radio broadcaster, president of the British Academcy, and long-standing Zionist. Although related to the Lubavitcher rebbe, he described himself as “religiously tone deaf”. It was Berlin who coined the phrase ‘Holocaust’ in an Economist piece in 1946.

Jewish wars

Things first kicked off in the 1950s when Koestler became disaffected with the “Jewish dwarf state” saying that it might well be necessary but that any Jew who was not prepared to move there should resign from the Jewish people. He contended that ongoing attachment to Jewish identity in the diaspora was subject to “unwholesome environmental pressure which at best leads to [neuroses, or something like that] and at worst to Auschwitz”.

Berlin rejected Koestler’s demand that Jews choose between aliyah and apostasy as “petty tyranny”. Koestler wrote a long rejoinder, the only piece of his which the magazine Encounter rejected. Published elsewhere, it contained the statement ‘The liberal in retreat does not ask for freedom of choice, but freedom from choice.” Berlin responded by quoting Moses Hess (if I understood this correctly) that “nobody should be forced into a tidy solution”.

In the 1970s Koestler published The Thirteenth Tribe in which he discredited modern diaspora Jews as a pseudo-nation descended from Turkic peoples. His aim was a sort of cultural irradication of non-Israeli Jewishness from Europe. For many this was redolent of the Holocaust and appalling.

Deutscher rejected this, recalling how three days after the final suppression and liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Bundist Szmul Zygielbojm, a friend of Deutscher, had committed suicide in London, citing a lack of assistance for the insurgents on the part of Western governments, whose Bermuda Conference had come to nothing. From Zygielbojm’s suicide letter:

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.

by my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

Berlin, in the same 1946 Economist article as the one in which the term ‘holocaust’ was first attached to the genocide of the Jews, said that he would have preferred 6 million to survive and Jewry to perish.

All three despised the Anglo-Jewish bourgeoisie for pusillanimously hiding its Jewishness. Deustcher was particularly loud about Jewish intellectual identity. Each was distinctively non-Jewish in speech; each a stylist of the English language and all retaining their mother tongue – Russian, Polish and Hungarian respectively. None retained or learnt Hebrew or Yiddish – Wasserstein wonders whether this was willful.Nor were they attached to Israel – Deustcher was furious after 1967 and the beginning of the occupation. Berlin couldn’t stand Menachem Begin.

None of these three would exploit the Holocaust for political gain. Koestler, who had sounded the alarm like Cassandra throughout the war, felt the futility of “the old labelled names” – Jewish names – attempting to talk about the Holocaust. (It’s ironic now that talk of the Holocaust is most rapturously received by those who like Finkelstein are revising its memory, or like Pappe are neutralising it through demonising references to Israeli Jews). Deutscher, formerly an anti-nationalist anti-Zionist later described himself as “not a Zionist though I’m not against Zionism now. I have long since renounced my anti-Zionism”. Each resisted and disdained perhaps the most powerful Jewish pressure of their day, the attempts to turn the Holocaust into a spurious premise for Jewish identity. Wasserstein interprets their Jewish wars as identity struggles during a shift in the intellectual cenre of gravity from the collective to individual self-understanding which eclipsed the relatively closed Jewish world. Koestler, Berlin and Deutscher as remnants of a diaspora (did the diaspora in some way cease to exist when Koestler said so, then?) metamorphosed into something else: “we are all ex-Jews now”. The 1965 publication of The God That Failed, edited by Richard Crossland, to which Koestler contributed, set up a struggle between Communists and ex-Communists, with an underlay of struggle between Jews and ex-Jews. It is the exes, observes Wasserstein, who appear to be winning the battle.

UPDATE March 09: You can now obtain Wasserstein’s text in English – 35 pages including references and bibliography – from the Menasseh Ben Israel Instituut. Wasserstein, B. (2009). Isaiah Berlin, Isaac Deutscher and Arthur Koestler: Their Jewish Wars. Menasseh Ben Israel Instituut Studies 11. ISBN 978-90-806570-6-9. Contact the author about the publication in translation.

4 thoughts on ““We are all ex-Jews now” – Berlin, Deutscher, Koestler and their Jewish wars

  1. Dear Professor, I wasn’t aware the butter and ham sandwich was a fable? Is there something I should have read?

    John Price

  2. Hi John, Wasserstein recently published and I got my hands on a copy, so I can tell you that he attributes this question mark over the ham sandwich episode to Jon Kimche, Orwell and Deutscher, New Middle East, Dec 68. Kimche knew Deutscher well and declared the episode “quite out of character and probably untrue”.

    You can get Wasserstein’s text in English – 35 pages including references and bibliography – from the Menasseh Ben Israel Instituut – http://www.mbii.nl/?id=10&taal=en

  3. You make no mention of Koestler and Berlin being in the regular pay of the CIA. Surely that provided a definite colour to their writings.

    • I’m not sure Billy. I find it more likely (given the independence they demonstrated in other parts of their lives) that the CIA paid them because the CIA liked their views, not the other way round.

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