A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Arabs, David Daiches, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Georges Seurat, Islam, Israel, James Morris, Jewish Law, Jewish Revolt, Jews, Judaism, Leslie Fiedler, Lubavitcher Rebbe, Palestinians, Pharisees, Rabbis, Roy McMullen, Sadducees, Walter Karp
A bumper issue, in two parts.
This issue’s cover shows a detail from Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte:
It illustrates an article on the painting by Roy McMullen.
Also in this issue:
In an introductory letter, ‘Arab and Jew’, Contributing Editor Walter Karp writes about the special section on The Middle East:
Writings about Arabs and Jews these days strike a common note. The sound like the claims and counterclaims of litigants in a protracted lawsuit, the suit, of course, being the Arab-Israeli conflict. As in most protracted lawsuits, the rights and wrongs at issue have grown increasingly obscure. This being so, we thought it useful to step back from the contemporary fray and look at matters from a different standpoint. Instead of airing the dispute between the contending parties, we asked two authors to help us identify the contenders. What is an Arab? What is a Jew? What kind of history, what fundamental experiences, have made these two peoples what they are and brought them to their present impasse?
In ‘What is an Arab?’, James (later Jan) Morris gives a brief history of the Arabs and Islam, then sums up the position in 1971, reflecting on moves for Arab unity, before the rise of Islamism both in and beyond Arab countries in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution:
Oil also gave the Arabs new confidence. They discovered, through no merit of their own, a new importance in themselves. They were not born to be poor after all, but to be immensely rich. They did not inhabit a backwater, but rode the mainstream of world affairs. The possession of oil gave the Arabs a tremendously powerful instrument of persuasion – or blackmail.
Two more developments gave a new vitality to the Arabs. The first was the emergence, in the 1950s, of a remarkable young leader, the first Arab statesman of world importance since Saladin resisted the Crusades: Gamal Abdel Nasser, who made Egypt the epicentre of Arab progress and gave to all the Arab peoples, not prosperity, nor even serenity, but a new pride. The second was the existence of Israel, an alien body planted on the shores of the Arab world by the intervention of the West, which acted as a catalyst to the energies of the Arabs, spurring them on to a common cause and intermittently reviving their sense of camaraderie.
All these factors have combined to bring the Arabs nearer to political unity than they have been since the heyday of their empire. The dream of unity is vivid and inescapable: it enters every Arab declaration and is a sine qua non of political respectability…
Somehow, it never works. Arab co-operation, let alone unity, remains fitful and unreliable. The leaders of the Arab world seldom trust each other – and not surprisingly, for each country’s leadership shifts from figure to figure, ideology to ideology, incessantly down the years.
In ‘What is a Jew?’, David Daiches considers ‘the criterion of Jewishness’:
If the Jews are, as is sometimes maintained, a “socio-religious group,” then neither Freud nor Marx could be considered Jews – nor could Spinoza after his expulsion from the Jewish community. One cannot solve the problem by arguing that Jewish identity is cultural rather than biological: there is a far greater cultural difference between an American Jewish businessman living in Westchester County and a Yemenite Jew then between an American Jew and a non-Jewish American. There is today no cultural unity among the Jews of the world, or even among the Jews of America: The Lubavitcher Rebbe and (shall I say?) Leslie Fiedler have no common language. To be Jewish does not necessarily involve membership in a specific race, a specific religion, or a specific culture. Yet a Jew remains a Jew until generations of assimilation have removed the memory of his origins.
He looks at the origins of current Jewish identity:
At the time of the rebellion against Rome, there were two main ideological groups in Judea, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The former were conservative and priestly, concerned with temple worship, and the latter were concerned with the interpretation of the Law and its application to daily life. The Sadducees mostly perished with the destruction of the Temple; in a way this was fortunate for Jewish survival, for it meant that the Pharisaic interpretation of Judaism, which was in any case the more popular, became dominant. More than a mere profession of faith or a pattern of ritual was needed to maintain the identity of the Jewish people. But the Pharisees made the Law adaptable to circumstances widely different from those that had prevailed in earlier periods of Jewish history. It was their insistence on knowledge of the Law and in interpreting it far beyond its literal meaning that enabled Judaism to survive as a way of life in all parts of the world. From now on the rabbi – the scholar and interpreter of the Law – and not the priest, determined the nature of Jewish religious life.