Atheist's File Herman Wouk, "We Unbelievers"

Herman Wouk, "We Unbelievers"

WE UNBELIEVERS

(A speech by the character Max Roweh in Herman Wouk’s The Glory, 1994, London: Hodder and Stoughton, .549-553.)

“We unbelievers, ... we unbelievers, I say, are confronted with a large perplexity in recent history ... Since next Sunday is Israel’s Independence Day, that perplexity will be my theme. I shall argue that the Return of the Jews to the Promised Land, though possibly the most remarkable event of modern times, is no support whatever for the notion of divine intervention in human history... a notion no doubt regularly promulgated from this pulpit.

“...We unbelievers hold, you see, that our majestic old Hebrew faith is a naive if long-lived and splendid dream, extinct as believable truth since, let us say, the year 1687, when Newton published his Principia, or even earlier, when Descartes wrote On Method. Since these two giants and the other luminaries in the galaxy of the Enlightenment – Hobbes, Galileo, Copernicus, Spinoza, Hume – battered down the immense gloomy walls of dogma which imprisoned man’s intelligence, and let the sunlight of naturalism into the human condition, most well-educated men can no longer take the Bible literally and believe, as our fathers did, in the old Jewish God. Instead our knowledge of the immeasurable realities in deep time and deep space, however incomplete, has become our poor ersatz Book of Genesis; sadly inferior as poetry and profound vision to the scriptural Genesis, but displacing it as fact. We do not have to assert with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra that God is dead. We unbelievers rather hold with Comte’s view of God; and I much appreciate your forbearance, and that of your rabbi, in giving ear to an unbeliever, in this magnificent shrine to what Comte called ‘unnecessary hypothesis.’

“Now for our perplexity. We unbelievers have to face up to the striking chain of events and accidents of recent history, leading – almost as though by the will of Providence, I readily grant – to the fantastic Return of the Jews, a historical anomaly nearly as unlikely to the mind of a naturalist, as the resurrection of the dead. I shall very briefly trace this chain, before going any further.

“One must of course start with Napoleon.”

           ... Yossie Nitzan found himself captivated by Roweh’s amiable effrontery, as step by step he traced the extraordinary origins of Zionism, at each step denying that God had had anything to do with it. Roweh’s general theme was that the major powers of the world, without any intent whatever to promote the interests of the Jews – in fact, sometimes with opposite purpose – had each forwarded the most unlikely historical process that had created Israel.

Treating each power at some length but with express speed, he started with France because, as he said, Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and Syria had opened the Middle East to modern times, and his spreading by armed force of the French Revolution’s idea of liberalism and equality had freed the Jews of Europe. When Roweh spoke of Russia, his rapid-fire delivery became tinged with passion. He stemmed from Russian Jewry, he said, and the pogroms of1881 were a family memory. They had convinced millions of Russian Jews that they had no future under the Czar, so they had gone into the socialist
underground, or to America like his own parents, or to Palestine. Zionism in its true beginnings was sparked by anti-Semitic Russian hooligans. Herzl and ideology came later.

The passage about England was fervent too. The British part in creating Israel, he had to admit, was the nearest thing to a show of God’s hand. The King James Bible had stamped in British culture so vivid a vision of an eventual Jewish return to Palestine, that an army general like Orde Wingate could risk his career training Jewish settlers in night fighting against Arab raiders, foreshadowing the Palmakh. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, the entire legal basis of Zionism and of Israel, seemed an outright miracle; but in fact the British were simply making such a declaration ahead of Germany, so as to
win American Jews to their side in World War I.  There was much more, about Lord Palmerston, George Eliot, and Winston Churchill, which was quite new to Kishote.

Roweh turned brusque and arid about America and Germany, rapidly flipping his handwritten notes. The American immigration law of 1924 slammed shut the Statue of Liberty’s “golden door,” he pointed out, compelling emigrating European Jews to consider Palestine instead; and the German Holocaust created a short-lived mood of world favor for the Jews, resulting in the UN partition vote and the establishment of the Jewish State.

Picking up the microphone from the bracket, trailing the wire to walk directly before the splendiferous Holy Ark, his notes left behind, Roweh exclaimed, “Ah, but the Arabs, dear friends, how can we unbelievers possibly account for the Arab contribution to Zionism?”    More than all other nations combined, more one is tempted to say than the Jews themselves, the Arabs have created Israel.”

In one of his frequent pauses for breath, a murmur rose in the audience, which he seemed to welcome. “Absurd?  Perverse? Self-contradictory? But just consider and bear well in mind, my friends, the words of George Bernard Shaw: ‘My best friend is my worst enemy, the one who keeps me up to the mark.’

            “Who but the Arabs forced the Jews to learn the art of war again, forgotten since
the Romans crushed Bar Kokhba? Who woke in them the dormant genes of Joshua’s warriors, by making the very first settlers fight to survive in the ruined and barren Holy Land?

            “Dear friends, how could the Arabs rationally have rejected early British proposals
which would have given them control of Palestine, ended Jewish immigration, and
made present-day Israel an impossible dream? How could they have rejected the UN partition which awarded them a Palestinian State?

            “What did they do instead? They invaded newborn Israel on five fronts, giving the Jews a brief chance to capture enough territory, in defending themselves, to make their borders viable. And in 1967, by threatening a second Holocaust, they triggered the Six-Day War, a triumph that won Israel the whole world’s reluctant admiration, and made Zionists of nearly all the world’s Jews. 
           
“Moreover, to this day their terrorism sustains sympathy for Israel. Arab thinkers have themselves told me, in confidence and in despair, that this persisting blindness of their own people to what they are doing can only be the will of Allah. Though we unbelievers do not accept that explanation, we can certainly understand it.”

Concentrate as he might on Roweh’s iridescent flow of words, Yossi was befuddled by what followed, a rapid run through Vico’s theory of ‘the barbarism of reflection,’ as it related to the civilization of Islam, which Roweh clearly admired, and in which he saw the bedrock of future peace between Arabs and Jews. “Like Egypt in Moses’ time,” Roweh
concluded on this theme, “ Islam is a crucible of rejection for the Jews, in which the nation is being forged and tempered for another twenty centuries of survival against all odds.”

He went back to the podium, fitted the microphone into its bracket, and looked around at the vast expanse of faces with a benign smile, “Have I gone on too long? I have simply done my best, in the forty minutes your rabbi allotted to me –“A ripple of audible amusement spread through the temple. “Sorry, I’m accustomed to a classroom bell to cut me off – I’ve done my best, I say, to suggest that for us unbelievers purely natural causes have propelled the Jews back into history. The accumulation of favoring events and coincidences, and I could cite many many more, is exceedingly unusual, I concede. But in the end, the most unusual element of all is the will of the dispersed tiny Jewish people to survive forbidding odds through more than twenty centuries, and on the brink of annihilation, to come back to life and create the third Jewish commonwealth. Today, facing nuclear or environmental annihilation, all mankind needs such a will to survive. In that sense, if not in any Godly sense, the Jews may perhaps be called ‘a light to the nations.’

“Yet to the believers among you in the supernatural explanation of Israel’s rise, I can only say – and with this I conclude and take my leave – I can only say that you almost have a case.”

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