This is an extended version of an article that was originally published at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), and published here with the author’s consent.
George Steiner’s misconceived Ideas about Judaism and Jews
George Steiner passed away in Cambridge at the beginning of this month at the age of 90. He was Jewish, a leading public intellectual, an important thinker and literary critic. Many laudatory obituaries have been published. The Guardian wrote “For half a century, Steiner was a commanding reviewer and a subtle and enthralling lecturer. His books established fields, set agendas, and upheld the highest standards. There has been nobody quite like him in contemporary British intellectual life.”1 And the New Yorker praised him as follows: “The word ‘awesome’ is most easily used by adolescents these days, but the range of learning that the critic and novelist George Steiner possessed was awesome in the old-fashioned, grown-up sense: truly, genuinely awe-inspiring.”2
In 1981 Steiner had created much controversy with his novella The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981). In it Jewish Nazi hunters find Adolf Hitler alive in the Amazon jungle thirty years after the end of World War II.
In 2017, the book “A Long Saturday” was published. It contained his 1984 interview with Laure Adler.3 The Forward published an excerpt and wrote that Steiner was “generally regarded as one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.” He did not think this of himself. Adler asked Steiner “Do you define yourself a Jew, as a Jewish thinker?” Steiner answered, “No. A European Jew, if you like. A student, I like to consider myself a student. I have teachers.”4
Steiner was not a qualified thinker on Jewish issues. He knew many languages but not Hebrew. That was also the reason he did not go ahead with writing the book on Jewishness that he had contemplated.5 Steiner had a creative fantasy and expressed multiple ideas on Jewish subjects. Many of these lacked substantiation. His death would not have required much of a particularly Jewish reaction were it not for his extremely problematic and irresponsible opinion on the causes of antisemitism. Spreading his theories is outrightly dangerous and false.
Steiner nonsensically professed that antisemitism had not risen because of the claim that Jews crucified Jesus, but because Jews gave birth to God. He believed that this made Christians jealous. He observed: “In three instances Judaism has held mankind hostage in the most tormenting manner. First, with the Mosaic Law. Monotheism is the least natural thing in the world. When the ancient Greeks say there are 10,000 gods, it’s natural, logical, delightful, they inhabit the world with beauty, reconciliation. The Jew responds: ‘Unimaginable! You can’t have an image of God, you can’t have a conception of him other than an ethical, moral one. He is an all-powerful God; he avenges himself to the third generation, etc.’ The Mosaic Law, the morality of monotheism, is terrible. That was the first act of blackmail.” This argument is weak if not nonsensical, as many Westerners not only don’t yearn to believe in multiple gods but believe in no god at all.
Pieter van der Horst, a leading Dutch scholar of early Christianity and Judaism, does not bother with fantasies. He gives a solid reason on the basis of his studies for the rise of antisemitism. Van der Horst says that the split between Jewish and Gentile Christians brought with it the beginning of anti-Jewish sentiments. He added: “In creating a new identity for itself Christianity attacked the old religion as fiercely as it could including demonization.”6
Steiner, however, went on with his preposterous construct. He claimed that the second reason why antisemitism emerged was because Jesus, the Jew, told people “You will give everything you have to the poor. You will sacrifice for others. Altruism is not a virtue, it is the very duty of mankind. You will live humbly.” Steiner says that this is a fundamentally Judaic message. So according to him, believing Christians became antisemites because they followed these moral teachings of Jesus.
To these two invented origins of the rise of antisemitism, Steiner added one more: “And the third time you have Marx, who proclaims, ‘If you have a fine house with three empty rooms and there are people all around you who have no home, you are the basest swine.’ There is no possible defense for human egotism, greed, the lust for money, success.”
Steiner remarked that thus three times Jews have demanded: “Become a person become human.” He says that this is frightening. As if all this weren’t enough, Steiner provides an appendix: “And then as a side note, Freud comes and takes away our dreams. He doesn’t even let us dream in peace.”7 In an indirect way, Steiner thus justifies antisemitism – which must lead to discrimination and persecution — because of what some Jews have said. This is tantamount to explaining antisemitism as if it objectively resulted from Jewish attitudes. Instead it is a powerful prejudice, which has been promoted in the culture of Western societies and repeated there for more than 1500 years.
There are quite a few additional examples of Steiner’s bizarre imagination. About being a Jew he remarks: “For several thousand years, approximately from the fall of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Jews did not have the wherewithal to mistreat, or torture or expropriate anyone or anything in the world. For me, it was the single greatest aristocracy that existed.” He added: “I say to myself, ‘the highest nobility is to have belonged to a people that has never humiliated another people.'”
The Jews however maintained substantial political and military power in their ancestral homeland for centuries from the fall of the Fist Temple (586) BCE. There was the Hasmoneans successful resistance of the Seleucid Empire. The Hasmonean King Jochanan Horkenos (John Hyrcanos) in the second century before the Common Era began an extensive military campaign against Samaria. Ultimately the town was overrun and totally destroyed. He forced its inhabitants into slavery. This was the major conquest among others of that Jewish king. His son, King Alexander Janai (Alexander Jannaeus), was embroiled in wars during most of his reign. There was also the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE).
Steiner’s equation of helplessness with virtuousness is totally misconceived. There is nothing virtuous or noble in perpetual victimhood that inflicted untold suffering and exacted millions of lives from antiquity all the way to the Holocaust. If anything, this dismal history underscores the need for Jewish self-empowerment and self-rule.
Steiner’s ignorance didn’t end there. He also declared: “Up to now, we know of not one Jewish school where there has been an incident involving pedophilia. This is very important: Jews consider children to be sacred. If at least this fact is verified – but I’m cautious, because there are secrets that none of us know about. By contrast, there’s an increasing number of pedophilia cases throughout Christendom. And I don’t think there has even been a Jewish teacher who has touched a child sexually. Nor a rabbi, for God’s sake!” Regular reading of the Jewish and Israeli press over the past decades might have taught Steiner to start checking some facts before expressing opinions on issues.
Steiner, an anti-Zionist says: “In the diaspora, I believe the task of the Jew is to learn to be the guest of other men and women.” Jews, however, should be considered equal members of the societies in which they have resided for generations. Steiner’s claim that “the Jew’s mission” is “to be the guest of humanity” echoes antisemitic tropes of Jews as a self-absorbed, rootless group (e.g., the “wandering Jew,” the “cosmopolitan Jew”) lacking loyalty and attachment to anything apart from itself.
Some of Steiner’s forecasts weren’t very accurate either. Admittedly, the original interview with Adler took place in 1984. He said there that for American Jewry at this moment in time “the escalator of history is on the way up.” No professional observer of the current American Jewish scene would support that forecast. As the book with the interview only came out in 2017, Steiner had the opportunity to redress what he said. The same is true for many of his remarks about Judaism.
Steiner was one of the last remnants of a certain type of intellectual Jew whose family originated in central Europe. These people were very erudite about many topics, but not about Judaism. Steiner was a prominent intellectual as his books and the many columns in the New Yorker demonstrate. It is therefore particularly important to point out that he was often wrong as far as Judaism is concerned. The few examples above are only a selection of his misjudgments on the Jewish reality.