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This issue's letters to the editor.


Sam Kriss’s essay on Jerusalem (Saint Rose 2021) could be an old chestnut of the travel-writing genre: the refined Brit goes to the colonies and reports back that the natives are just as horrid as you always thought, superstitious, crass, and warlike. But here the natives are Israeli Jews, and the Brit, Mr. Kriss, is himself a Jew of a particular kind: atheist, communist, and extreme anti-Zionist.

Mr. Kriss has arguments against the Jewish state, but here he prefers not to make them. Instead, he aestheticizes his political judgements, expressing visceral disgust with every Jewish segment of Israeli society.

Let’s start with Haredi Jews, unhappily called “ultra-Orthodox.” Mr. Kriss calls them frummers and spies them “coursing through this maze like blackened honey . . . giving me and my shiksa girlfriend”—his words, not theirs—“quick and evil glances.” He rents an apartment from another “frummer,” who doesn’t shake his girlfriend’s hand and avoids her eyes. “I didn’t like him, and I didn’t like his city either,” Mr. Kriss comments, and we’re not supposed to, either. What Mr. Kriss knows but doesn’t mention to his non-Jewish readers is that the Haredi man wasn’t hateful but was merely following the law of shomer negiah, by which Jews do not touch or stare at those of the opposite sex other than a husband or wife. Readers may know a thing or two about being written off by secularists as hatemongers merely for following their religion’s teachings.

Maybe Mr. Kriss prefers the atheists of Tel Aviv, the secular cultural and nightlife capital? Nope, they repulse him, too. Instead of a fun and vibrant place, with an impressive literary scene, he sees a kind of science-fiction dystopia, “a city out of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers,” because some off-duty soldiers are enjoying the beach. No one was shot or harassed; Mr. Kriss just saw them and didn’t like it.

Between secular and Haredi lies Israel’s “national-religious” Jews. They also disgust Mr. Kriss, in the many places they live. In the West Bank? “Wherever the Israeli settlers go, they make a desert.” That is unrecognizable as a description of the beautiful Efrat or Gush Etzion, where Jews have returned (Jordan had expelled each and every Jew in the territory it occupied in 1948, seizing their property and destroying their synagogues). How about in Jerusalem itself? No, not the Muslim Quarter, where buildings have been “colonized by Israelis”—even though Jews had lived there long before any Muslim ever did. I mean the Jewish Quarter. But “the Jewish Quarter itself is an act of vandalism,” writes Mr. Kriss. Apparently, he doesn’t like its approach to historical preservation. By the Temple Mount—which Mr. Kriss repeatedly calls Haram al-Sharif, the Arabic term, even though it is Judaism’s holiest site and he is a Jew—he encounters a Jewish immigrant from America, a religious activist. He finds her “Protestantized” and “instantly repulsive.”

Mr. Kriss takes six thousand words to say what every tourist recognizes on his first visit: the real Jerusalem, where people live, doesn’t quite live up to the epic Jerusalem we imagine. For this, he mostly blames Israel, “a twentieth-century invention that wants to gobble up the three thousand years of tradition I’ve inherited.”

Three thousand years ago, Jews also had political sovereignty in Jerusalem, where they used the same language to pray to the same God. But Mr. Kriss doesn’t see that miracle, or the miracle of what Zionists were able to build only a few years after the attempted annihilation of European Jewry. Even Yiddish persists, though not as socialist nostalgia. Jewish tradition continues in Israel. Mr. Kriss’s problem is just that he hates it.

Mr. Kriss writes that Israel treats him “always as a Jew, never as a human being.” That’s a conscious resonance, I hope, of the modernizing slogan: “Be a man in the street and a Jew at home.” That was one vision of European Jewish assimilation and emancipation, and it failed spectacularly. The Zionists predicted as much and besides saw in it a formula for external freedom and inner servitude. They wanted a state that would recognize Jews as Jews, secure in the knowledge that a Jew is also a human being.

Elliot Kaufman
New York, New York

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The author replies:

Mr. Kaufman describes my response to Israeli society as that of a “refined Brit” on a jaunt to the colonies, disgusted by the lives of the natives. He allows that I’m Jewish, but the fact that I was born in Jerusalem—as I mention in the piece—doesn’t seem worthy of his attention. As it happens, I am a citizen of the State of Israel, and I lived my early life there. Clearly, he thinks it’s illegitimate for me to have any negative impressions of the place, but if I can’t, then who can? As Mr. Kaufman may be aware, Israel has one of the highest youth emigration rates in the developed world; of my Israeli cousins, one now lives in Berlin, the other in New York. Thousands of Israelis have perceived, as I perceived, that their country has become a very ugly place, and Jews are better off living elsewhere. They don’t need political arguments against Zionism; they just need to look at the callous, paranoid, philistine society that has finally emerged out of the Zionist dream. Mr. Kaufman describes the settlements of Efrat and Gush Etzion as “beautiful.” I find it very hard to believe he actually thinks that. These are both fortified hill-compounds composed of identical red-roofed housing units, utterly joyless and sterile. He also describes the systematic bulldozing and destruction that allowed for the Jewish Quarter as an “approach to historical preservation.” Well, I suppose it is, in a sense, but it’s only in this sense that ‘“Jewish tradition continues in Israel.” I note that Mr. Kaufman writes from New York, rather than Herzliya or Kiryat Hayovel. I’m sure he has his reasons for doing so.

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