TOUGH JEWS

Political Fantasies and the

Moral Dilemma of American Jewry

By Paul Breines

Basic Books. 277 pp. 19.95

IN THIS remarkably interesting and suggestive essay in cultural analysis, Paul Breines shows how after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War the image of the Jew in American popular culture as a gentle, meek and even saintly figure changed dramatically. The new image to emerge was that of a tough and lethal fighter, one prepared to do battle with hostile non-Jews -- Arabs usually -- who are equated with Nazism and anti-Semitism. Breines connects this change directly with the politics of Israel and Zionism, arguing subtly that the new image was addressed paradoxically to non-Jews who had rejected anti-Semitism; the tough Jew image foreclosed the options culturally available to outsiders who were now to be confronted almost exclusively with the Jew as a savage macho fighter. This figure's origins in the 20th century were to be found in people like Vladimir Jabotinsky, patriarch of the Revisionist Zionism that has lately brought Menachem Begin and Itzhak Shamir to unchallenged prominence in contemporary Israel.

Breines claims that the change in image derives from a change in attitudes to the body, once conceived of as weak and unimportant, now transformed by history and fantasy into an all-encompassing and threatening muscularity. The irony, says Breines, is that the tough Jew now peopling the novels of Leon Uris, Ken Follett, Howard Hunt, John Fredman, Marge Piercy and others (not an impressive roster of talents) is connected exclusively to Israeli tough guys: in a compact chapter, "From Massada to Mossad," he presents an alternative historical record of Jews as warriors, gangster and the like. "In reality," he says, "Jewish Americans did not need Zionism and Palestine to demonstrate Jewish toughness in the period before 1948." Jews were historically tough and gentle, depending on the circumstances.

The gist of Breines's book is therefore that what he calls "gentleness" -- a word required to do more service than perhaps it can -- has been banished by muscular Zionism, which in turn has inflicted a series of distortions upon Jewish culture and politics, here and in Israel. For one, it has legitimized killing as a result of re-thinking the Holocaust, giving a "moral sheen" to militancy as part of the Jewish "need to be ethical" in responding to the horrors of an appalling history. Given the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian struggle, Breines is right to believe that Rambo-esque Jewish characters (and Gen. Sharon) are far more of a hindrance to peace than a boon to Israel.

Second, the demonization of the Arabs in tough-Jew literature is, according to Breines, a terrible human diminishment of an entire people. Not only is it reminiscent of the racial stereotypes heaped upon Jews; it also either obscures or encourages the actual brutalizations of Palestinians by Israeli Jews and their American supporters. Lastly, Breines says that tough-Jew ideology has in effect brought an anti-Jewish sentiment into Jewish life; in the words of Israeli author and politician Amnon Rubinstein, this is "stunning in its strength and in its longing for the pagan and the Gentile."

THERE ARE many other perceptive and often disturbing insights in Breines's iconoclastic book. Many of them center on the career of a particularly horrifying Jewish tough-guy, Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose life and career are rigorously chronicled in Robert Friedman's recent book The False Prophet. Breines, however, is not strictly speaking a biographer or historian, nor is he a political analyst in the conventional sense. He writes as a dissenting Jew, and also as an intellectual who is aghast at the impoverishment of an ideology that sees all Arabs as Nazis, for whom the best fate is death or endless punishment. Because of such views he will surely be accused by supporters of Israel as being "soft" on the Arabs, not drawing enough attention to their violence, not criticizing them enough for their evils, etc.

But that, I think, would be too easy and obvious a tactic, and it does absolutely nothing to mute the severity of Breines's self-critical expose'. He writes about what he feels he can influence -- the culture of America and of American Jews -- and doesn't fall into the dutiful polemic indulged in even by Zionist doves (e.g. Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Amos Oz, et al.) of getting off five blasts at the Palestinians for every one tiny demurral at Israel.

I won't pretend here that as a Palestinian and an American I can read Paul Breines with complete detachment. I find it encouraging and refreshing that for a change resourceful analysis of this sort is turned not against Palestinians but against a notion that regards Palestinians as legitimate targets for killing.

Yet something more is needed than that, especially since the current situation (worsened by the Gulf crisis) is so massively weighted against the Palestinians. With an overwhelmed and poorly performing leadership, Palestinians face more persecution, as the gains of the intifada lessen and the dreadful right-wing Israeli government contemplates more settlement, mass deportation and perhaps even genocide against the defenseless population of the Occupied Territories. As an antidote to those actualities, "gentleness" seems to me unsatisfactory, too slender, vague and even a bit fey. I would have wished Breines to carry his analysis further, to distinguish between American and Israeli fiction, to connect his ideas substantively to the work of Chomsky, Shahak and other dissenting Jews, and to consider in more depth the various options proposed by the Palestinian national movement itself for compromise and reconciliation.

There is something truly depressing about the fearsomely charged situation sketched by Breines. But there are signs that an alternative to it is slowly emerging, for example in the studies of reconciliation and self-criticism by Jewish liberation theologians like Marc Ellis, whose challenging book Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power is a serious moral and interpretive achievement.

Yet in the present atmosphere, with much of the Israeli peace camp retreating like frightened rabbits, Breines's forthrightness is to be admired. At very least Tough Jews keeps the discussion going, prevents it from settling down into the triumphalist formulas of the pro-Israeli lobby, shows up toughness for the self-gratifying fantasy that it is.

Edward W. Said, who teaches English at Columbia University, is the author of "Orientalism" and "After the Last Sky."