Has history ever toyed so wantonly with a people as history toyed with the Jews in the 1940s? It was a decade of ashes and honey; a decade so battering and so emboldening that it tested the capacity of those who experienced it to hold a stable view of the world, to hold a belief in the world. When the light finally shone from Zion, it illuminated also a smoldering national ruin; and after such darkness, pessimism must have seemed like common sense, and a holy anger like the merest inference from life. But it was in the midst of that turbulence, in 1948, that the scholar and man of letters Simon Rawidowicz published a great retort to pessimism, a wise and learned essay called "Am Ha-Holekh Va-Met," "The Ever-Dying People." "The world has many images of Israel," Rawidowicz instructed, "but Israel has only one image of itself: that of an expiring people, forever on the verge of ceasing to be.... He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel's chain. Each always saw before it the abyss ready to swallow it up.... Often it seems as if the overwhelming majority of our people go about driven by the panic of being the last."
In its apocalyptic season, such an observation was out of season. In recent weeks I have thought often of Rawidowicz's mordant attempt to calm his brethren, to ease them, affectionately and by the improvement of their historical sense, out of their tradition of panic. For there is a Jewish panic now. The savagery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the Arab world, the rise in anti-Jewish words and deeds in Europe: All this has left many Jews speculating morbidly about being the last Jews. And the Jews of the United States significantly exceed the Jews of Israel in this morbidity. The community is sunk in excitability, in the imagination of disaster. There is a loss of intellectual control. Death is at every Jewish door. Fear is wild. Reason is derailed. Anxiety is the supreme proof of authenticity. Imprecise and inflammatory analogies abound. Holocaust imagery is everywhere.
In the discussion of the atrocities that the Palestinians have committed against the Israelis, the subject is Hitler. "I am convinced that we are facing a threat as great, if not greater, to the safety and security of the Jewish people than we faced in the '30s," the head of a national Jewish organization announced in February. In the New York Observer in April, Ron Rosenbaum warned of "the Second Holocaust": "It's a phrase we may have to begin thinking about. A possibility we may have to contemplate." Indeed, "there's likely to be a second Holocaust. Not because the Israelis are acting without restraint, but because they are, so far, acting with restraint despite the massacres making their country uninhabitable." George F. Will admiringly cited Rosenbaum in a column that he called "`Final Solution,' Phase 2." "Here in Washington, D.C., a few blocks away, is the Holocaust Museum," William Bennett told the rally in support of Israel at the Capitol on April 15. "What we are seeing today, what Israel is feeling today, was not supposed to happen again." On the same occasion Benjamin Netanyahu compared Arafat to Hitler, and also to Stalin. ("We don't have to be afraid that the international community doesn't see eye to eye with us," he proclaimed at the Likud Party conference this week. "Did the international community see the danger of the Holocaust?") "THE NEW KRISTALLNACHT," screamed the headline of a Jewish paper in New York about the Passover massacre in Netanya. "This is Kristallnacht transposed to Israel," wrote Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. And doves are as unnerved as hawks. "As I've said before," Nat Hentoff told New York magazine, "if a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, 'All Jews gather in Times Square,' it could never surprise me."