why try Eichmann? Some of the older Israeli Jews will tell you that Eichmann symbolises ages of anti-Semitic persecution, that his crimes must be exposed as an object lesson in what Jewish identity can involve and a memorial to the inhumanity Jews have suffered. Eichmann’s judgment must demonstrate the determination of the Jewish people (here synonymous with the Israeli nation) to end 2,000 years of persecution, to reverse one particular historic process by their conscious act. But will it work? Will the world accept the Israeli equation: Jew equals Israeli, Jewish people equals Israeli nation? There is a difference between Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship which all Ben Gurion’s appeals to diaspora Jewry will not reconcile. Will the evolution of Israel define the 20th century Jew? Or will it define a new national entity—the Israeli? The process works both ways. As Jews become Israelis, they cease to be Jews.
Whatever the Eichmann trial means to two and a half million Jews rapidly becoming Israelis, it means something different to us diaspora Jews. What can we think, feel, remember, about Eichmann and what he symbolises? What do we make of films like Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, The German Story, Warsaw Ghetto, and Mein Kampf? What might these reminders mean to the world’s most secure, most powerful Jewish community, the five million American Jews?
There is no American Jewish community. There is the appearance of one, a plethora of money-raising organisations, community welfare groupings, civic clubs, friendly societies, defence and aid organisations. There remains a felt network of relationships, emotional loyalties, and mutual acceptances, remnants of the defensive position once required by a minority that has now assimilated. Fragments—the East Side, Williamsburg, south Philly, tiny sections of perhaps a score of cities I’ve never visited—remain from an older unity, an orthodox existence that almost achieved community. But in spite of sporadic revivals, orthodoxy is dead; the original immigrant generations are virtually extinct, their children drifting, their grandchildren—Conservative, Reform, Unitarian. And since orthodoxy (the stubborn refusal to temper or change any of the laws, customs, traditions or ceremonies that marked the Jews off as a separate people through two thousand years of exile) is the only possible definition of Judaism, as a religion, a traditional, cultural heritage, a way of thinking and acting and living, Judaism also is dead.
What might resurrect Judaism, reassert our Jewish identities, and reopen the (now historic) problem of the viability of the Jewish religion, is another Hitler, another Nazi movement, another series of concentration camps. But Ben Gurion cannot artificially resurrect that world and expect that Eichmann will force diaspora Jews to come to grips with a now ambiguous identity. The problem for diaspora Jews is not keeping faith with their inherited past but choosing their future, deciding which way they will go. And into that decision, Eichmann can only intrude; an unwelcome reminder, an alien problem.
The decision for American Jews is a particularly unpleasant one, since there is only middle-class America to assimilate into. True, assimilation is decidedly easier than in pre-war days; university, professional, even most social barricades are lower. But this ease of entry is not wholeheartedly welcomed. Many of the contributors to Commentary’s April symposium, Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals, wondered what damage might have been done to whatever Jewish heritage and traditions existed in those pre-easy-assimilation days by the fluidity that now
“The danger lies in the cultural outsider’s powerful urge to divest himself of this painful identity and become an arch-insider—a yearning that can be pursued, literally, with a vengance, as perhaps in the case of those cultural outsiders of various backgrounds who direct their energies more toward the build-up of American military power than toward the preservation of all human life.” (Robert J. Lifton.)
“All my political beliefs are linked to the fortunes of this country, and all my cultural allegiances are rooted, sentimentally and nostalgically, in the traditions of the West.” (Edgar Rosenberg.)
“By paradox the very enfranchisement of ‘minority groups’—their Americanisation—has accelerated the nation’s progress towards a homogenous, not to say, homogenised, culture which, at worst, can be reduced to a quasi-Yiddish joke on TV.” (Allan Temko.)
Three excerpts can give little idea of the flavour of a symposium to which 31 people contributed; a “fair selection” is equally impossible. So I chose at random; a few better statements, many far worse, occur. Similarities exist, but compare the accents, the attitudes of the 1944 contributors.