Editor’s note: George Steiner is generally regarded as one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. He has taught at Oxford University, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, among others, and his books include the classic of criticism, “Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky,” “The Death Of Tragedy” and “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards The Redefinition Of Culture.” “A Long Saturday,” a book of conversations Steiner had with the French journalist Laure Adler, is being published this month by the University Of Chicago Press. Writing for The Washington Post in 1984, Robert Alter declared, “No one now writing on literature can match him as polymath and polyglot, and few can equal the verve and eloquence of his writing.”
GS: “For several thousand years, approximately from the time of the fall of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Jews did not have the wherewithal to mistreat, or torture, or expropriate anyone or anything in the world.
That would be news to groups with conflicting interests from Jews. For instance, in a free country, Ashkenazi Jews, due to their high verbal IQs, naturally rise to prominence and dominate certain professions such as law, media, medicine, accounting, finance, etc. By excluding Jews for centuries, many European countries such as Spain developed their own indigenous middle class rather than outsource those positions to Jews.
The idea that Jews could never mistreat anyone before the state of Israel would be news, for example, to people who’ve been rooked in a business deal by a Jew or by those slaughtered by Stalin’s Willing Jewish Executioners.
All groups are competing with other groups for scarce resources and in many of these competitions, one group wins and other groups lose. What is good for the Jews is often bad for other groups. For example, white solidarity and Jewish power have rarely grown together. Instead, they’ve usually developed on opposite trajectories.
Jews do best in individualist aka WASP countries such as the USA, England, Canada, and Australia. As these countries become less WASPy and individualist, Jewish success and safety will be increasingly threatened.
When a Jew does bad, WASPs tend to look at that person as an individual, while Catholics and Muslims and other tribes tend to see that Jew as first a member and representative of a group.
Group strategies will usually out-compete individualist strategies, which is one reason why WASPs no longer rule America and the West, but instead, in many places, Jews have out-competed them.
For me, it was the single greatest aristocracy that ever existed. When I’m introduced to an English duke, I say to myself, “The highest nobility is to have belonged to a people that has never humiliated another people.” Or tortured another.
One is entitled to one’s opinions, i.e. that Jews are the greatest aristocracy that ever existed, but the idea that Jews have never humiliated or tortured another people prior to the state of Israel is ridiculous. For example, many of the biggest mass murderers of the 20th Century were Stalin’s Willing Jewish Executioners. It was precisely because they were Jews that these hard men felt little sympathy for the kulaks and other groups they liquidated (because of bad history between Jews and these peoples).
Hugh notes: “You could flip that around and say that communism was the result of pogroming and exclusion from rank while being more capable, and being forced into dirty jobs while simultaneously demeaned for it. (Of course, they didn’t need to be in Europe in the first place.)”
GS: “I’m a confirmed ethical snob, I’m completely arrogant ethically.”
On what metric would Steiner claim that Jews are head and shoulders over other groups in ethics? Jews, like almost all groups, practice a dual morality that goes back to Torah — there’s one morality for how you treat your in-group and there’s another morality for how you treat outsiders. This approach is not likely to ethically excel WASPs who practice a universal morality — one standard for how you treat everyone. Which group, for example, has a better reputation for honesty in business? WASPs or Jews? For much of the world, the word “Jew” is synonymous with dishonesty in business (not that Jews are less honest in business than other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean peoples, ethics are usually the result of genes and environment). Incidentally, there seems to be a cline in the Northern Hemisphere running from Finland to the equator where predisposition towards monogamy, universalism and honesty in business decrease as you go south.
Most people will naturally think the best of their own group and easily slip into negative views of out-groups. Jews are no exception to this social identity theory.
GS: “I can only explain what I perceive as the Jew’s mission: to be the guest of humanity.”
Wanting to be a permanent guest is a childish want. Adults take responsibility and create a home for themselves. If Jews had had an Israel in 1939, there would not have been a Holocaust. But what is six million Jewish lives compared to the sweet feeling of moral superiority and helplessness?
No group, no individual, has a right to exist. No country has a right to exist, not even Israel. Every person, group, country, must work to protect its interests if it wants to keep on existing.
GS: “What must a guest do? He must live among people, wherever they may be. And a good guest, a worthy guest, leaves the place where he has been staying a bit cleaner, a bit more beautiful, a bit more interesting than he found it.”
Those are very nice thoughts but I doubt Jews collectively or any group can be said to live up to this charge. It is not pleasant to be a minority.
GS: “Judaism goes far beyond Israel. The 500 years in Spain were one of the greatest periods in Jewish culture.”
These were often rotten stinking years for ordinary Jews. I don’t think many Jews would want to go back to those conditions. Jews are usually going to do better in a Jewish state than in a Catholic or Muslim state.
GS: “American Jews dominate a large portion of the sciences and the economy of the planet. Not to mention their importance in the media, literature and so on.”
Yes, they do, and as Joe Biden said, it is all for the good. We wouldn’t have had same-sex marriage without this.
GS: “This is my daily task as a teacher and a thinker; that is why God put me in the world. I haven’t the slightest doubt that Judaism would survive.”
Yes, Judaism would survive, but there would probably be half as many Jews in the word (as more Jews would choose to assimilate). And thousands of Jews would die in the destruction of Israel.
GS: “I see wandering as a wonderful destiny. To wander among people is to visit them.”
Sometimes wandering is wonderful, particularly when you have a high IQ and abundant resources, but most people want a secure home.
GS: “…to abhor chauvinism, nationalism — which has been the guiding principle in Israel for a long time and is still dominant.”
Chauvinism and nationalism are the most natural things in the world, and generally speaking, they are healthy predispositions. If you don’t prefer your own kind to out-groups, you are weird.
But really, what fascinates me most is the mystery of Jewish intellectual excellence. I’m not being a hypocrite: In the sciences, the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is stunning. There are areas in which there is almost a Jewish monopoly. Take the creation of the modern American novel by Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow and so many others. The sciences, mathematics, the media, as well; Pravda was run by Jews. Is that the fruit of the terrible pressure of danger? Is danger the father of invention and creation? I dare to believe that is true, quite often. Judaism is the only religion, the only one on the planet, that has a special prayer for families whose children are scholars. That fills me with great joy and huge pride. I now have (and I don’t believe in miracles) a son who is the dean of a very fine college in New York, a daughter who directs the department of antiquity at Columbia, a son-in-law who teaches ancient literature at Princeton. That was my dream. Do we Jews, perhaps, have something of a gift for the life of the mind, for abstract thought? We seem destined to love knowledge, thinking, the arts. All men and women share this to some degree, I know, but this people, so small in number, so very small, that has been on the verge of disappearing several times throughout history, and yet survives — in short, this people, so hated, so feared, so persecuted, is still here. No one can explain why. Anti-Semitic jokes often contain a grain of truth. Hegel told this one: “God arrives, and in his right hand he is holding the holy texts of the revelation and the promise of heaven; in his left hand, the Berlin newspaper, Die Berliner Gazette. The Jew chooses the newspaper.” Hegel’s anti-Semitic joke contains a profound truth: Jews are passionate about the ductus, the internal current of history and time. And it was perhaps no accident that Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Einstein (with the major exception of Darwin, of course) were all born in the same century.
Yes, they do, and as Joe Biden said, it is all for the good. We wouldn’t have had same-sex marriage without this.
GS: “American Jews, nonbelieving, nonpracticing Jews — like me — are in danger of slowly disappearing.”
Yes, only Orthodox Judaism consistently preserves Jewish identity.
In any event, when I arrived in the U.S., there were still quotas at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. If you had told me that in a few years the presidents of all those universities would be Jews, and that Jews would occupy chairs in literature — from which they were formerly excluded — I wouldn’t have believed you. There was a prevailing elitism that made Jews understand they were outsiders. Such thinking no longer exists. The last time I had the privilege of attending a session of the permanent members of the Institute for Advanced Thinking at Princeton, it involved the replacement of a brilliant mathematician, a world-renowned logician. Various names were suggested. Oppenheimer knocked on the table with his pipe — something he did when he’d had enough, when he was getting impatient — and said, “Gentlemen, I beg you, for the sake of good politics, try to suggest a name that isn’t Jewish.” But there weren’t any at that level of global eminence. Today I think there would be some Japanese, and tomorrow there will be Indians (including women, I’d like to stress). In the past few years, at all the universities I’ve visited, things have been changing a lot: the Jewish student is no longer necessarily the first or the second in his or her class; now it is the Chinese or Indian student who ranks highest in traditional disciplines such as pure logic, mathematics, theoretical physics and so on.
I don’t understand anything about this race business; it’s a bad joke. To be a Jew is to belong to that multimillennial tradition of respect for the life of the mind, of infinite respect for the Book, for the text, and it means telling oneself that one’s bags must always be packed, that the bags must always be ready to go. Without complaining, without shouting about cosmic injustice. No, it’s actually a great privilege. Don’t forget (people forget this all the time): In ancient Greek the word for “guest” is the same as the word for “foreigner”: xenos. And if you were to ask me to define our tragic condition, it’s that the word “xenophobia” survives, and is commonly used, everyone understands it; but the word “xenophilia” has disappeared. That’s how I define the crisis of our condition.
To not understand anything about this race business is not to understand life.
In three instances Judaism has held mankind hostage in the most tormenting manner. First, with the Mosaic Law. Monotheism is the least natural thing in the world. When the ancient Greeks say there are 10,000 gods, it’s natural, logical, delightful; they inhabit the world with beauty, reconciliation. The Jew responds: ”Unimaginable! You can’t have an image of God, you can’t have a conception of him other than an ethical, moral one. He is an all-powerful God; he avenges himself to the third generation, etc.” The Mosaic Law, the morality of monotheism, is terrible: That was the first act of blackmail. The second instance: Christianity. You have Jesus, the Jew, who enjoins people: “You will give everything you have to the poor. You will sacrifice for others. Altruism isn’t a virtue, it’s the very duty of mankind. You will live humbly.” This is a fundamentally Judaic message: The Sermon on the Mount is made up of quotes, you know, from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos. And the third time you have Marx, who proclaims, “If you have a fine house with three empty rooms and there are people all around you who have no home, you are the basest swine.” There is no possible defense for human egotism, greed, the lust for money, success. What did the revolutionary Saint-Just say? Happiness is a new idea in Europe. What did Marx say? Justice, a new idea in Europe. Enough of these terrible inequalities. Beggars are increasing on the sidewalks of our capitals — in Paris and in London. Three times, Jews have demanded, “Become a person. Become human.” It’s frightening. And then as a side note, Freud comes and takes away our dreams. He doesn’t even let us dream in peace. As for the great prophets, Isaiah declared himself the one who wakes us in the night, the one whose cries will awaken the city. Jeremiah pleads, “Wake up! Stop sleeping!” But it’s really mean to deprive us of our petty bourgeois sleep. Sleeping well is the luxury of the bourgeoisie, the middle classes. People who are starving never enjoy a good sleep. And Freud comes along and takes away even that. No, really, when Hitler declared in his Table Talk (Tischgespräche) that “the Jew invented conscience,” he was right. Absolutely. It was actually a profound statement from that evil man. When Solzhenitsyn, whom I consider a great man, though detestable, says that “the virus of communism, of Bolshevism, is totally Jewish and has infected the holy Virgin of Kazan and Russian theocracy,” he happens to be quite correct from a historical perspective. We can be proud of this, or we can deplore it. But anti-Semitism is a kind of human cry, “Leave me alone!” It’s a cry against the moral pestering Judaism represents. And I don’t think it can be eliminated. The crisis in the Middle East is only getting more severe. On the one hand there is an anti-Semitic left in the so-called liberal countries, and on the other you have the Baptists, the most fascist-leaning neo-conservatives in the United States — there are 50 million of them in the southeastern U.S. — who were sending money and arms to Sharon when he was prime minister: “Yes! Bravo! You have to keep the infidel away from the Nazarene Country.” Yes, they call Israel the Nazarene Country. These are cruel, sadistic absurdities, disgusting alliances. Once again, history is going to be very dangerous. Every person lives his life while delving into his inner world. When I get up in the morning, I tell myself this story, so I can make it through the day: God announces that he’s sick of us. Really. “I’m fed up!” In 10 days, the flood. The real one. No Noah this time. That was a mistake. The Holy Father tells the Catholics, “Very well. It’s God’s will. You will pray. You will forgive each other. You will gather your families and wait for the end.” The Protestants say, “You will settle your financial affairs. Your affairs must be completely settled. You will gather your families and you will pray.” The rabbi says, “Ten days? But that’s more than enough time to learn how to breathe under water!” And every day that magnificent story gives me the strength and happiness to live my life. And I believe it, deeply: Ten days is indeed a long time.
The other possibility is that anti-Jewish sentiments spring from the same source as other negative views of peoples — from conflicts of interest.
When you are brilliant and articulate, you can come up with the most wonderful reasons totally divorced from reality. Paul Johnson called it Judaic irrationality (kaballah, communism, etc).
Letting go of the victimhood narrative is a sign of growing up. That applies equally to Jews as to non-Jews.
I had hoped that at the end of my life (that is, now) the legacy of the Shoah would be calmed, that a certain reconciliation would have occurred naturally in Europe, but that hasn’t been the case; today the waves of anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews, are cresting around us everywhere. You wouldn’t have thought that possible only a few years ago. In Hungary, Romania, Poland, there are hardly any Jews anymore, but anti-Semitism has endured. And in my beloved England, I hate to tell you, the signs, indications of anti-Semitism, are increasing; there are academic boycotts against Jewish scientists, even in England. And a very profound sense of unease is developing in the face of this. And the incredible irony is that in Ukraine now it’s Putin who is denouncing anti-Semitism. It’s a scenario worthy of Kafka! Everywhere, the great wave is growing again, except, perhaps, in the U.S. I’m not talking about revisionism (which has followers in France); I’m talking about those who think of themselves as open-minded but feel increasingly ill at ease in the presence of Jews.
What has been the legacy of the other genocides? Natural reconciliation? I don’t think so. Why would the legacy of the Jewish genocide be any different? Genocides are a natural a way of settling group differences, they are politics by different means. There’s no natural reconciliation after a genocide. It would be against group interests to reconcile after a genocide, whether you are the perpetrator or the victim. If you are the perpetrator, you will be afraid to reconcile with the people who’ve survived your slaughter. If you were slaughtered, you will either burn for vengeance or you will be reconciled to being slaughtered and hence likely to depart quickly from the pages of history.
Steiner says there are people in France who are open-minded but ill at ease in the presence of Jews. Well, there are plenty of Jews who are ill at ease with goyim. That’s the way the world works. Most of us most of the time are ill at ease with people who are different when compared to how we feel around people who are similar to us.
GS: “And the nationalist movements, the movements of the right that openly proclaim their hatred of Jews.”
Yes, there is such hatred and it is rational because organized Jewry often casts itself as the enemy of gentile nationalisms. Gentile nationalisms by definition almost inevitably exclude Jews. Jews have reason to be wary of gentile nationalisms just as gentile nationalists have reason to be wary of Jews, the international people. Right now the most powerful political divide in the West is between globalists (whose leaders are often Jews) and nationalists (whose leaders are almost always goyim). Different groups have different interests.
GS: “There is a hatred of Jews wherever there are no longer any Jews, even where there have never been Jews.”
It would be more accurate to say that where there are no group conflicts between Jews and non-Jews, there is relatively little anti-Jewish sentiment. In Australia, for example, you’ll only find anti-Semitism where people are likely to meet Jews, such as Sydney and Melbourne.
GS: “At this moment there are more Jews on the planet than before the Shoah.”
GS: “If you were told that your unborn children might confront a new Holocaust, an Auschwitz in another form, the threat, once again, of slavery and destruction, and if you had the choice either to have them convert, in any case to leave Judaism, or else not to have children, which would you choose?”
Jews are in a far better position than many other peoples. No people has a guaranteed right to survival. You have to earn your survival by making smart choices.
GS: “What is it that makes a Jew want to remain a Jew — God knows it’s a wretched destiny!”
By what metric? Which groups consistently have it better than Jews?
GS: “The mystery of this survival, the mystery of what draws the hatred of the non-Jew, a sense of the monstrous; I think it’s because Jews have signed a pact with life. Let me explain. For thousands of years there seem to have been negotiations between Jews and life itself, the mystery of human vitality. After spending 10 years in prison, often in solitary confinement, Natan Sharansky (the famous pro-Zionist dissident in Soviet Russia) was exchanged for a spy who had been imprisoned; the exchange took place on a small bridge. What does Sharansky do? He goes across the bridge dancing and shouting insults at his Russian guards! In the camp, in Kolyma, the Russian guards were apparently afraid of Sharansky. He danced. He danced like David in front of the ark. The dance of an inextinguishable pact with vitality.”
When somebody makes irrational claims, what can you say? Jews have survived because they are very smart and adaptable people. They are hated because their interests often clash with the interests of those around them.
GS: “Why are 70% of all Nobel Prize winners in the sciences Jews? Why are 90% of all chess masters Jews, whether in Argentina or Moscow? Why do Jews recognize each other on a level that is not just that of rational reflection?”
Because of the combination of genes and environment. It is the same answer for why the Japanese and blacks and Chinese and Russians and Finns are so special in their different ways. Which people are superior? It depends on the metrics you choose for measuring success.
GS: “Jews have always been able to say no to despotism, to inhumanity around them.”
Except for the millions of Jewish communists, including Stalin’s Willing Jewish Executioners.
GS: “For me, to be a Jew is to remain a student, to be someone who learns. It’s to reject superstition, the irrational. It’s to refuse to turn to astrologists to find out your destiny. It’s to have an intellectual, moral, spiritual vision; above all, it’s to refuse to humiliate or torture another human being; it’s to refuse to allow another to suffer from your existence.”
Jews are as likely to believe in superstition and the irrational as any other people. They’re as likely to consult astrologers. They’re as likely to have a vision as other people with a similar IQ. They’re as likely to humiliate and torture as other people with their IQ. They’re as likely to cause others to suffer as any other people with their IQ.
George Steiner has obviously never read my blog.
“On the contrary; the rest of the world is becoming more and more sadistic, more and more provincial, nationalistic, chauvinistic. In the West today there would seem to be three times as many astrologists as scientists. Superstition, the irrational, is gaining a great deal of ground again. We are living in a society of ever increasing kitsch, vulgarity and brutality.”
Jews are as likely to succumb to these things as non-Jews with a Jewish-level IQ.
“Up to now, we know of not one Jewish school where there has been an incident involving pedophilia. This is very important: Jews consider children to be sacred. If at least this fact is verified — but I’m cautious, because there are secrets that none of us know about. By contrast, there’s an increasing number of pedophilia cases throughout Christendom. And I don’t think there has ever been a Jewish teacher who has touched a child sexually. Nor a rabbi, for God’s sake! Whereas in Ireland, to mention a country that I know well, there isn’t one school that has escaped this. But in Britain, too, pedophilia cases are multiplying. So perhaps, for me, to be a Jew is to be someone who would never abuse a child, who would never torture anyone else.”
He’s never read my blog.
“This doesn’t mean there aren’t stingy, corrupt Jews (in high finance, those who buy up London, Russian gangsters who are in large part Jews and are taking over the luxury industry), but it does mean that Jews continue to contribute immeasurably to the glory of the sciences, philosophy and intellectual thought.”