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Saul Bellow

“When I was a graduate student in anthropology, it was my immature ambition to investigate bands of Eskimos who were reported to have chosen to starve rather than eat foods that were abundant but under taboo. How much, I asked myself did people yield to culture or to their lifelong preoccupations, and at what point would the animal need to survive break through the restraints of custom and belief? I suspected then that among primitive peoples the objective facts counted for less. But I’m not at all certain now that civilized minds are more flexible and capable of grasping reality, or that they have livelier, more intelligent reactions to the threat of extinction. I grant that as an American I am more subject to illusion than my cousins. But will the Israeli veterans of hardships, massacres, and wars know how to save themselves? Has the experience of crisis taught them what to do? I have read writers on the Holocaust who made the most grave criticisms of European Jewry, arguing that they doomed themselves by their unwillingness to surrender their comfortable ways, their property, their passive habits, their acceptance of bureaucracy, and were led to slaughter unresisting. I do not see the point of scolding the dead. But if history is indeed a nightmare, as Karl Marx and James Joyce said, it is time for the Jews, a historical people, to rouse themselves, to burst from historical sleep. And Israel’s political leaders do not seem to me to be awake. I sometimes think there are two Israels. The real one is territorially insignificant. The other, the mental Israel, is immense, a country inestimably important, playing a major role in the world, as broad as all history – and perhaps as deep as sleep.”


From To Jerusalem and Back by Saul Bellow.