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Kol Nidre, Israel, and American Jews

Kol Nidre is the most haunting prayer in the Jewish liturgy. I would gauge that more Jews attend synagogue at this moment than at any other time in the year. (You’ve already missed it if you wanted to go.) For some it may be an act of desperation, a stance between belief and non-belief, hovering somewhere between trust and trembling. In any case, it is my or your—if you had decided to try—last chance to settle accounts with God, in the heavens or with the god of your imagination. Kol Nidre means not “all prayers” but “all vows.” The theology of this distinction goes back many centuries, at least to the sixth century C.E. There are several interpretations. But the dry legal formula which introduces the plea certifies at least one explanation for sure, and it is that Jews had for more than a millennium been legally coerced or socially dragooned into swearing fidelity to one or another Christian faith and Christian prince. It happened to Jews in Muslim jurisdictions, as well.

Could these converts be admitted to a congregation of Jews? Here’s what the rabbis answered:

In the tribunal of Heaven and in the tribunal of Earth, by the permission of God and by the permission of the holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors.

Simple! But what sturm und drang attended these trials of the soul. 

Kol Nidre has its place in the general culture. A part of the traditional niggun (melody) found its way into Beethoven’s 6th String Quartet, Op. 131. Max Bruch—a Protestant, by the way—did his own gorgeous orchestration and you can listen to it with either Pierre Fournier, Jacqueline Du Pre, or Yo-Yo Ma as cello soloist. It was also put to song by Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, and Neil Diamond, aside from a close-to-authentic rendition earlier in the century by Al Jolson in the film The Jazz Singer.

Still, the most chilling of the cultural expressions of Kol Nidre is the one composed by Arnold Schoenberg, the innovator of twelve scale and inspiration to just about everyone from Alban Berg through John Cage to Glenn Gould. Born a Jew, he was converted in 1898 to Christianity under the influence of Gustav Mahler, a prior convert himself. Schoenberg returned to the faith and to the Jewish people, with Marc Chagall at his side, at a 1933 religious ceremony in the synagogue on the rue Copernic in Paris where in 1980 Palestinian “freedom fighters” pulled off a bombing which killed four people and injured dozens. It was October 3, the eve of Simhat Torah, what turned out to be only the beginning of a series of attacks at pregnant moments of the Jewish calendar in places of Jewish worship, at each of which several lives were taken from the innocent.

You might have noticed the year of Schoenberg’s return: 1933. It was not an accident. He was standing up as in a confessional to declare himself a Jew and a Zionist when mobs all over Europe were braying for the skin of his people. I always listen to some of Schoenberg’s music around the High Holidays—and, frankly, some of it is trying. But the environment was much more than trying, especially for Jews, and his compositions were part of his way of coming to terms with the hatred of the gentile world—at once oh, so polite and so bloody—for the people of the book who, in Palestine, were also making themselves the people of the plow. Now, they are a people among very few other peoples who can claim to have put their stamp on science. I confess to feeling fraternal pride whenever one of my tribe receives the Nobel Prize. So I’ve admitted it: I have tribal feelings and I pity those Jews who don’t. They are nothing Jews. You can see the discomfort on their faces when they try to explain to you that they are “cultural Jews” when all that means is that they like Woody Allen. A world of thought and spirit and body, and they proudly reduce it all to one little drip. Oops! This is another sin of mine, to insult a great comic and just before Kol Nidre.

Fifteen years ago, maybe 20, I was asked to do the narration to Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre with the American Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Leon Botstein at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. It was not a star performance. But after the concert I was accosted (politely) by a tall and elegant old man who told me he had survived Sobibor, the umshlagplatz from which very few escaped alive. My guess (he told me but I can’t remember now) from his accent is that he hailed from Germany or Austria or maybe Czechoslovakia, not Poland where my mother and father’s families were led or fed to the slaughter. The man told me that he’d been a communist in his youth, that there were communists as well as Jews in the camp. And then his eyes teared up. He asked me whether I knew the poem “Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers” by the late great novelist Chaim Grade. I said yes. I even recalled some lines. He wandered off, muttering something like “the communists, too. For survival trust only ourselves.”

It’s a harsh judgment he made. And wrong in a way. FDR may not have much cared for the dying Jews under his war watch. Maybe, in the tangle of strategy and tactics, he didn’t much notice. But it is America and some of the commonwealth English-speaking countries who have bonded with Israel and in the crazy house of the United Nations sheltered it from what could be a Charlie Chaplin spoof of international diplomacy. The U.S. has made itself responsible for some of the margins in military hardware that insure the Jewish state. I want to be very candid about this: As some of you understand, I do not trust Barack Obama’s feelings for Israel. But he has not ever endangered Israel’s strategic edge. What his silly talk does is another matter. Still, his talk has become in recent weeks less silly. But only in recent weeks.

Some synagogues and congregations—this means mostly their rabbis—charge their faithful with transgressions of the whole house of Israel. Some charge them with bearing the sins, real and imagined, of the State of Israel. I do not deny that there are such sins. But—this is a weak defense—even they are lesser offenses than the offenses of other nations. Compare the targeted assassinations conducted by Israel and by our own country. Hands down. For Israel, this struggle is a fight for survival, no way out. For the U.S., it is an intricate calculation with many alternatives: After all, George Bush didn’t conduct the Iraq war relying on targeted assassinations (although I would have wished he had). I could go on and on.

There is a new type of Jew in the world: one whose only Jewish feelings and only Jewish thoughts are criticisms of Israel. Nothing else. If he cries gevald he’s so full of heart—for Israel’s declared enemies. If he’s of the cerebral type he’s a dreykop with clever burglaries from Jewish logic. It cannot be a gratifying life. Or certainly a gratifying Jewish life. His Jewishness—in name only, of course—is an instrument, a useful instrument to more effectively lambaste Israel. “I am one of them. And even I despise them.”

On the day before Kol Nidre, Nicholas Kristof took it upon himself to lecture the Jews about their responsibility to chastise Israel for the idea of a “whole” Jerusalem, for new housing in Jerusalem, even for Israel’s rough-going with Turkey, “its most important friend in the region.” Why do I say that he is lecturing the Jews? It’s simple, all too simple. He addressed his column to Israel’s friends: “Friends do not let friends drive drunk.” He is finished arguing with Netanyahu. It’s hopeless, although the Israeli prime minister has been willing to come to the table for eons but without having settled the issues that have divided the two parties for more than 60 years—and actually closer to a century.

Now, I have a grudge against Kristof. Last year about this time he wrote a column attacking me for what he deemed racist words about Muslims. I apologized for one stupid, really stupid and perhaps also prejudiced remark about them. I’ve woken up nights thinking about this fault—yes, even sin—against conscience. But I am not so sure that my main point that Muslim societies and Arab societies tolerate mass violence with greater equanimity is wrong. Just think of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, even Egypt. And Libya where the rebels are said to have triumphed over the tragic-comic personalist killer-fascism of Qaddafi. But in that liberated Libya there is an epidemic of revenge. Anyway, Kristof wrote and a mob of thugs, following him, so to speak, tried to chase me across Harvard Yard, shouting, “Peretz is a racist pig.” Big triumph for Kristof and his sensitive sensibility.

I suppose that I am among the friends of Israel who is called upon to intercede with Netanyahu. But, as Kristof points out himself, it is not Netanyahu alone or with his coalition. It is the people of Israel who no longer can be seduced into an agreement that is fundamentally implausible. I know, moreover, that it is difficult for an egotist like Bill Clinton to accept that the terms of peace which his underlings crafted are by now not even germane. After all, Israel accepted them before. The Times columnist may console himself that, if not for Bibi, even Oslo might be resuscitated. It can’t. And it is not especially because of the settlements. I happen to think that there will be a tacit understanding without a signed agreement, and that small Jewish villages and towns in central Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) will be left empty. Gaza is an ugly precedent. But it is a precedent, nonetheless. No Israeli really wants all of Jerusalem. Parts of it will be shucked off to whatever the Palestinians can make of Palestine. Maybe you think a lot. I think it’s a phantasm. Maybe many Arab flags will fly on Al Aqsa plaza and many Israeli police will be stationed there. In the meantime, we know that more and more Palestinians want to live in an Israeli Jerusalem. Some 20,000 have already moved there within the last 18 months.

Kristof also pins responsibility on Bibi for the conflict with Turkey, “burning bridges with Israel’s most important friend in the region.” Perhaps Kristof hasn’t noticed that Erdogan has shattered ties with many countries and entered upon a pan-Islamic campaign in the Ottoman style. Even the FT, which finds it hard to chastise any Muslim country, published an at once plaintive and angry editorial, “Talking Turkey,” which is an attempt to curb the country’s sudden aggressive spirit.

As it happens, Kristof’s strategem of calling on Israel’s friends—in the Yom Kippur context, the obvious ploy for America’s Jews—to change Netanyahu’s policy is actually based on false history. The Palestinians have not yet—and I sadly believe they won’t anytime soon—confronted the reality that is staring them in the face. It is the reality of a democratic, social democratic, increasingly social democratic country with the advantages of active enterprise that knows how to defend itself. It will not empty the West Bank as long as there is the probability, even the possibility of rockets and missiles and bombs aimed at the heart of the country which, given its size, is everywhere. History has not stood still over these last more than six decades. The Arabs cannot have what they turned down as temporary armistice in 1949. They also cannot have a peace with neither of their movements (Fatah and Hamas) having provably shorn themselves of the terrorist spirit and terrorist strategy.

Here is Kristof’s panacea:

The Palestinians’ best hope would be a major grass-roots movement of nonviolent peaceful resistance aimed at illegal West Bank settlements, led by women and inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A growing number of Palestinians are taking up variants of that model, although they sometimes ruin it by defining nonviolence to include stone-throwing and by giving the leading role to hotheaded young men.

From his mouth to God’s ear. And, no, I will not confess at Kol Nidre tonight and at Neilah tomorrow night and during the day of fasting in between to what Kristof sees as my sins and the sins of the people Israel in this blessed land.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.