In the summer of 1982 Yitzhak Ben-Ami published his memoir of the Irgun Years of Wrath, Days of Glory, a chronicle of the struggle, in the 1920s and 1930s, by the Zionist Revisionists and the Irgun Zvai Leumi (the movement of Jabotinsky and Begin) to get Jews from Europe to Palestine and then to fight the British and the Arabs for independence.

Ben-Ami was a founder of The American Friends for Jewish Palestine in 1939 and from 1946 to 1948  was executive Director of “The American League for a Free Palestine.”

Yitzhak Ben-Ami and I were friends. Our children attended the same schools–Collegiate and Princeton University. His article, reprinted below, appeared in 1983 in The Collegiate Review published by the Collegiate School in New York. It was written after the Lebanon War and the killing of Arabs by Arabs in the Sabra Shatilla Camp in Lebanon occasioned a tsunami of criticism of Israel. Although Ariel Sharon ultimately cleared his name in a suit brought against Time Magazine for accusing him of responsibility for those attacks, the floodgates had opened and pusillanimous Jews joined the chorus in condemning Israel even before the self-imposed investigation by Israel’s highest court had studied all the evidence.

Yitzhak Ben-Ami died in 1984. His daughter Deborah Benami-Rahm chairs the Yitzhak Ben-Ami Memorial Colloquium on Rescue from the Holocaust founded by the Wyman Institute.

Although we were not close, I know three things about him: He despised fools; he reserved particular enmity for the “beautiful” Jews who attacked and harmed Israel; and he loved his son Jeremy very much and held great hopes for him. Once, when we met in Princeton, he told me how proud he was that a member of his family was studying at Princeton. As he put it “We’ve come a long way from Grodno.”

For Yitzhak Ben Ami his son’s betrayal of his hopes would have been a tragedy. For his son is not only a fool but maliciously devotes his energies to attacking Israel through the vicious organization he co-founded, J Street.  Even its shabby pretense of supporting some Platonic ideal of a “beautiful Israel” has crumbled as co-founder Daniel Levy has openly declared he believes the creation of Israel “an act that was wrong.” J Street’s duplicity, on its funding as well as its goals, has appalled even some of the “beautiful people” whom his father despised.

Jeremy Ben Ami personifies what renowned playwright and author David Mamet has called “The Wicked Son.” The wicked son is filled with the self-hatred of the Jew estranged from his heritage: at some level he identifies as a Jew, but  he disparages Israel with  words and deeds that gratify enemies.

 The “New” Israel Versus The “Beautiful” Israel By Yitzhak Ben-Ami

  An intense ideological split is dividing the Jewish communities of Israel, Western Europe and the United States. On the one side are the so-called proponents of the beautiful Israel. Why “beautiful?” As adherents of Ahad Ha’am and Zionist Socialism, they maintain that the first priority of the renascent Hebrew nation is the quality of life, one that is motivated by high ethics and ideals. In pursuit of this goal, they impose upon themselves a double standard that requires them to be better than others in order that they may become “a light unto nations.”

On the other side are the followers of Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.  Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, is their representative today. The standard that is good enough for the democratic world is good enough for Israel so far as they are concerned. To them, and to me, dedicated as we are to the ethics of our heritage and prophets, the survival of the nation–today or decades ago, comes first.

Following is my rebuttal to my Rabbi who, on the holiest night of the Jewish year, attacked the concept of “survival at any cost” before his congregation.

Dear Rabbi:

I cannot let your emotional Kol Nidre sermon pass without comment. Since my first confrontation with the American Rabbinate in 1939-40, the anti-Zionist Rabbi Wolsey of Philadelphia, the powerful Stephen Wise and “spiritual Zionist” Mordechai Kaplan, I have been aware of the “politicized” tradition of the Rabbinate. Actually, I have no quarrel with it, except that the captive congregation is exposed to the particular views of the Rabbis without having the option to hear a differing view. How could I, for instance, manage to assemble 3000 of our congregants to listen for half an hour to an opposing view?

Now to the point; what you did in your sermon was to indict a large, possibly the largest, segment of the people of Israel (80%) who, by and large, up to a few weeks ago, gave the policies of Menachem Begin their support. You prejudged a government and people by agonizing from the pulpit over the decline of the “beautiful Israel,” thus implying that the majority is “ugly Israel.” You indicted before any impartial verdict was arrived as to who is responsible for what happened in the Palestinian camps where the PLO. murderers were based, hid their weapons, and left a nucleus of active terrorists (who are still there) and from which trouble and bloodshed will still come. What happened did happen; as to who is actually  responsible (regardless whether Ariel Sharon takes the blame on himself) the jury has not even convened.

What you did was to align yourself with the politically motivated Labor leadership which will live to regret identifying itself with Marxist-pro P.L.O. elements, non-Jews and Jews alike, in Israel and abroad, as it did when disseminating the Deir Yassin accusation (1948).

What you did is to introduce a century old ideological Zionist conflict into a current controversy involving a possible limited error by some army commanders that otherwise excelled under very difficult conditions in a complex operation.

The overwhelming majority of the congregation does not have the faintest notion of the difference between the Zionism of Pinsker, Herzl, Nordau and Jabotinsky, and the Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, Weizmann, Buber and Judah Magnes.

What you did is to oppose the formers’ ideologies against “beautiful Israel.” You did not explain why Jabotinksy’s disciples defined their movement as humanitarian Zionism, the Zionism that half a century ago aimed, above all, at saving the lives of the threatened Jews of Central and Eastern Europe–the Jewish Zone of Distress–and that today cares, above all, for Israel’s survival.

This basic concept has been, and still is denigrated by the “spiritual” cultural Zionists. Their ranks glitter with great names. They have dominated the Zionist movement from Theodor Herzl’s death in 1904 until 1977. They are credited with a “beautiful” society in Israel, indeed, with the very creation of the State of Israel.

What they are not debited with, however, is their share in the responsibility for what could have been done for and by the Jews of Europe in 1933-45 to save so many. This historic background is, of course, unknown to the majority of your congregation.

You did not explain why a multitude of Jews, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, led by these same “beautiful” people, refused to face reality and rejected the concepts of “mass evacuation” and “non selectivity” in immigration to Palestine, urged by the school of Zionism in which today Begin is the prime living spokesman. What you did not say is that there are many, many Israelis and friends of Israel abroad who believe that the purpose of Zionism is, above all, an option for survival, not the creation of an exemplary society.  It is up to a new, strong, independent nation to eventually contribute to the modern world–ethically, morally, intellectually–the more, the better! But first of all, there has to be life, and life in Jewish tradition is the essence of everything–except possibly Kiddush Hashem, and even there we have exceeded our quota!

What you told your congregation is that we Jews are different– if not actually “chosen”– to live and function on higher planes than the rest of mankind. You are creating an intellectual dilemma which leads nowhere, or worse, to destruction. You are creating confusion which engulfs Amos Oz on the hills of Judea, Anthony Lewis in Boston, Irving Howe in New York and Arthur Hertzberg in New Jersey. These poor souls are suspended in an intellectual and identity limbo. By the world’s consent and their own admission they are Jews. As such, are they ethically superior by special covenant, different from the rest of civilized mankind? Are Jews members of a nation? Is it linked to a land? What is permitted in defending one’s land? And, if the land is lost– what then? Or don’t Jews really need a land since in their dispersion, Jews suffering and facing frequent destruction are an “example” to mankind, in not compromising their unique superior ethics?

We have gone through this confusion for the last two centuries, since the early emancipation  and emergence from the ghetto. Finally the world gave their recognition to our “superior” ethics by confronting us with the extermination of our people!

Out of and despite all intellectual contortions there emerged a new Israel. To some it is not beautiful. To frightened souls it is so threatening and abhorrent that they wish it would rather not be there.

But all this is abstract “pilpul.”

Above all, let’s admit to reality: Israel and Israelis are like all other people. They make mistakes- sometimes very bad ones like the Lavon (Ben Gurion) affair; the Yadlin/Yom Kippur affair of 1973. Some mistakes cost hundreds of Israeli lives. Others damaged Israel’s image. I’m sure you don’t want to confuse the congregation with all these events, and others….acts committed, precipitated and carried out by the same “beautiful” ideologues, who today flagellate themselves, atoning for Israel’s “sins” in the center of Tel Aviv or on the Op-Ed pages of the beautiful New York Times, Ha-aretz and Labor’s Jerusalem Post.

It doesn’t really matter. The Jewish galut is ending. This century saw a terrible purging of the body and soul of Israel. Out of it arose the Hebrew Renaissance. It is neither “imperialist” nor “an aberration.” It is a painful, excruciating process. It will continue for decades and longer. But it is the one positive event in the last two thousand years of Jewish history.

The renascent nation is emerging. It has its roots in the ancient soil and rich traditions with which our history is amply endowed. This nation lives in a State that is part of the real world, but in an  unusually tragic, cruel part– the Middle East. The nation and the State, which has some loyal non- Jewish citizens, intends to survive. To do so, it has and will and must in the future have to use all means available to it including force. It is as simple as that.

If Jews in the Diaspora disagree with the methods and ways used by the State, they can express their opposition and frustration. However, one thing those of us who believe in the philosophy of survival above all and normalized existence (unchosen) should expect from others is an equal chance to be heard. We know that we cannot expect it from The New York Times, The Washington Post or the TV networks. But, since I believe a Rabbi’s duty is to expose them to all aspects of an issue, I do hope you’ll find a way to circulate this message among the members of your congregation.


Yitzhak Ben-Ami

P.S. My family went to Palestine 100 years ago to escape destruction. They went to Palestine to create a safe, dignified haven for themselves and their descendents. The family, hundreds of them, is well, including offspring who belong to the Peace Now movement. All of them are there because their ancestors had enough of the physical hell of the Pale of Settlement and chose life, which is today the State of Eretz Israel.

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