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Hertzberg assesses Israel's effect on global Jewish life after 50 years

Asserting that the state of Israel has forced a "radical and important change in the politics of our century," Jewish scholar Arthur Hertzberg delivered the fourth-annual William G. Bowen GS '58 lecture last night.

"Israel has made a fantastic, a colossal, an unappreciated difference for the Jews of the world," he said, addressing a crowd of about 250 people in McCosh 50.


History professor Theodore Rabb, a friend of Hertzberg since 1952, introduced the speaker. Hertzberg, a humanities professor at New York University, shared his perceptions of how Israel has changed the world during its 50 years of statehood.

Hertzberg said Israel's main contribution has been to endow Jews with a sense of power and security by giving them a country where they constitute a demographic majority. "We are no longer a people without an address," he said.

"The great success of Israel is that it has provided a basic certainty that Jewish tradition cannot vanish," he explained.

Hertzberg offered several personal anecdotes, including a story of how he wrote to the U.S. Department of State as a teenager to request an immigration visa for his grandfather from Poland.

He said the government wrote back that the Polish quota "was oversubscribed for 16 years." The agency advised Hertzberg's family to reapply for the visa in 1952, by which time his grandfather had died.

He contrasted this situation with recent successful waves of immigration, when Jews have left countries such as the former Soviet Union, Romania and Ethiopia to escape persecution. "They did it all with Israeli visas," he said. "That was the difference."

Israeli politics


Hertzberg offered several comments on contemporary Israeli politics, though he emphasized repeatedly that Israeli-Arab relations were not the focus of his talk.

"I am less than an unqualified admirer of the Prime Minister of Israel," he said of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The problem between Jews and Palestinians these days is that they still haven't agreed who is the bigger historical victim."

By obstructing the peace process, he added, both sides were simply delaying the inevitable – the creation of two separate states, one Jewish, one Palestinian. "Partition is the only solution," he said.

Hertzberg also spoke extensively about Theodore Herzl, historically recognized as the founder of Zionism. "Herzl thought that the powers of Europe did not need to have their societies upset by the problem of antisemitism," he said.

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According to Hertzberg, Herzl therefore concluded that European leaders would welcome his ideas about the creation of a Jewish state, – a view which Hertzberg said proved to be "an overoptimistic idea."