If you were Jewish and lived in the 1940s, to say that Arthur Koestler was on your side was no small thing. Then at the height of his renown, Koestler, born in Budapest in 1905, had become one of Western literature’s most revered figures. His anti-Stalinist novel “Darkness at Noon,” published in 1940 and still his most famous, made him one of the first liberals to come out against Communism. The book would partly inspire George Orwell, an author whose reputation today far eclipses Koestler’s.
Before Israel was created, Koestler had another claim to fame, too: he was an ardent Zionist. In Michael Scammell’s new biography, he shows how Koestler became enamored with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Russian Jewish nationalist who advocated a rapid, and if necessary, violent establishment of a Jewish state. In his college days, Koestler, as chairman of the Federation of Zionist Fraternities, was asked to escort Jabotinsky on his lecture tour around Europe’s universities. “To my relief, Jabo was rather on the David side,” Koestler later wrote in his autobiography “Arrow in the Blue,” relieved that his onetime idol was less imposing than he had thought.
But Koestler’s esteem for Jabotinsky was hardly diminished, and after living for a time on a kibbutz in pre-state Palestine, and filing some of his first bylines there, he hoped to become Israel’s first belletrist, its Benjamin Franklin, documenting the creation at its dawn. But, alas, the fall came quickly. Shortly after publishing his pro-Israel novel “Thieves in the Night” in 1946 — a book that even the United Nations’ chairman, who granted Israel statehood, cited in the state’s defense — Koestler began to come under attack from liberal Zionists.
The Jabotinsky-aligned militias, Irgun and the Stern Gang, were carrying out assaults against the British and even Haganah, the liberal-aligned Jewish army. Their acts were done in defiance of the liberal leaders who would soon dominate Israeli politics. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a member of Mapai, which spawned today’s Labor party, pleaded with Koestler to rein in the Jewish militants. But Koestler balked. Instead, he wrote a book.
“Promise and Fulfillment,” published in 1949, was ostensibly a history of Israel’s founding. But it was more fundamentally, Scammell argues, Koestler’s personal disavowal of any allegiance to the Jewish people. He argued that since a Jewish state had now been created, diaspora Jews must either immigrate to Israel or fully assimilate into whatever country they lived. Koestler, rather tellingly, stayed in Europe.
When a Jewish critic in Britain demanded a further explanation, Koestler responded: “To put it bluntly, I regard it as an outright crime for parents who neither believe in Jewish doctrine nor live up to its commandments, to impose the stigma of ‘otherliness’ on a defenseless child who has not asked for it.” In his defense, Koestler argued that a Jewish state that contained all the world’s Jews would effectively end anti-Semitism since people could not hate what was no longer their “problem.” Otherwise, Koestler argued, the hatred hoisted upon Jews in other nations was of their own devising.
So was Koestler a friend or foe of the Jews? That question is being resuscitated with Scammell’s biography, a work nearly two decades in the making, and nearly 600 pages in length.
Scammell takes a cautious line, arguing in effect that to readers of Koestler, his relationship to Israel in its pre-state days was, on the whole, positive. But given his ceaseless Jewish self-loathing, Koestler’s public break with Israel and other Jewish issues reveals a more fundamental truth. Koestler should not be remembered as a luminary of any Jewish cause, Zionism or other. Even in his earliest days, Scammell writes, Koestler evinced an incipient self-hatred cobbled together from his own experiences in interwar Europe and a nagging lack of self-esteem.
In college, for instance, Koestler wrote approvingly of the racist philosopher Otto Weininger and journalist Karl Kraus, both Jewish converts to Lutheranism, whose most acerbic writings were pointed at Jews. “It seems that both Weininger and Kraus had a profound influence on Arthur, and between them set the parameters for his mature beliefs on Judaism,” Scammell writes. “He was on his way to becoming, in Kraus’s memorable oxymoron, a Jewish anti-Semite.”
Scammell goes on to cite friends of Koestler who argued that his defense of Zionism was, in fact, a way for him to escape his Jewish identity. If Jews must, according to Koestler’s estimation, immigrate to Israel in order to be considered part of the Jewish people — and he himself did not — then he was implicitly arguing that he was completely assimilated, no longer a Jew. As Manes Sperber, a late friend of Koestler, and himself Jewish, said: “Koestler’s path to Zionism seems so very odd because it was a flight away from his Jewishness.” Sperber, Scammell writes, “probably got it right.”
It is a somewhat surprising admission for Scammell to make. Those versed in Koestler’s postmortem travails — he committed suicide in 1983, along with his wife, Cynthia, on an overdose of sleeping pills — will remember the fracas that ensued with the publication of Koestler’s last biography. In 1998, the British scholar David Cesarani published “Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind,” which was originally intended as a study of Koestler’s Jewish identity. But the book morphed into a full-blown biography after Cesarani gained official access to Koestler’s private archives, which Scammell originally had the sole permissions to use. When Cesarani’s book was released in Britain, the book made headlines for claiming to unearth new evidence that Koestler, a notorious womanizer, had actually raped a woman in 1952.
The controversies surrounding the book, however, might have subsumed one of the main points of Cesarani’s book — that Koestler was a self-hating Jew. And even though Scammell retains some residual animosity towards Cesarani (in his bibliography, he calls Cesarani’s work “thinly researched, and heavily slanted biography, masquerading as a study of Koestler’s Jewishness”), he basically appears to agree with him. This is a point that Cesarani and Scammell both made in recent interviews with The Jewish Week, too. “It’s very close to my own” thesis about Koestler’s Jewishness, Cesarani said of Scammell’s conclusions. Scammell, for his part, called Cesarani’s case “reasonable,” adding that “it’s a question of how far you push it” with regard to whether his Jewish identity affected his other views.
To be fair, important differences remain. Cesarani argues that Koestler’s Jewish identity surfaced throughout his entire career, even though he renounced any public involvement with Jewish causes after the publication of “Promise and Fulfillment.” Cesarani, for instance, sees evidence of Jewish self-loathing even in Koestler’s endorsement of anything anti-Communist, including a tacit approval of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “It was in order to show that Jews weren’t all Communists,” Cesarani said, that Koestler was willing to make alliances with characters he privately found deplorable. Scammell disagreed, saying that there was no evidence of Koestler endorsing McCarthy. In any event, both books marshal the same evidence, citing CIA-sponsored lectures given by Koestler. (Scammell says Koestler didn’t know the CIA sponsored them; Cesarani says he did.)
By the mid-1950s, Koestler had not only renounced his Jewish allegiances, but all of his political ones too. There was no question whose side he was on in the Cold War, and even Western liberals had realized that, if they still perhaps liked the idea of communism, the way it was being administered in the Soviet Union was all wrong. Koestler spent the next two decades devoting his writing to quack sciences like parapsychology, ESP and, ever so briefly, the hallucinogenics of Timothy Leary. Given his involvement with fringe ideas, it’s perhaps no small wonder that when his last fit of Jewish work emerged, “The Thirteenth Tribe,” it was also regarded as quintessentially bogus.
Published in 1976, “The Thirteenth Tribe” was the last book Koestler would ever write. Though it became a best-seller, its premise was widely denounced from whatever precinct it came — Jewish liberals, hawks, Zionists, critics and, most importantly, scholars. Koestler used the discredited academic idea that the Khazars, a Caucasian tribe that converted to Judaism in the eighth century, were the blood ancestors of European Jews.
To this day, it’s unclear from where Ashkenazi Jews descend, but Koestler borrowed one idea that was simply off the wall. In the early 1940s, a few Jewish historians put forth the Khazar-Ashkenazi theory based on the thinnest possible evidence. But by the time Koestler wrote his book, scholars roundly rejected it, asking why, for instance, Polish Jews and Khazars spoke wholly unrelated languages. Just as crucial, critics argued that the Khazar theory was a way for demoralized Jewish historians, before the establishment of Israel, to find a example of illustrious Jews living in the diaspora. The Khazars existed, it was true, but their ties to the Jews of Europe were patently false.
So why did Koestler invest in the idea anyway? Scammell and Cesarani agree that it wasn’t to find a shining example for Jews. To the contrary, it was simply new evidence for the extenuation of an old idea: that Jews should either immigrate to Israel or assimilate. In the book, Koestler wrote that he wanted to disprove any racial claims Ashkenazi Jews were making to the land of Israel. If the Jews of Europe were descendents of the Khazars, and not the Jews of the Bible, he argued, then the stakes would be even higher against them.
If Koestler’s lifelong biography had not been so replete with evidence of self-hatred, it could have proven a provocative spur to the diaspora’s secular Jews. Israel had, for many of them, become the core of their Jewish identity, as it remains today. But like other liberal Jewish intellectuals, such as Arthur Hertzberg, Koestler’s point was not to goad secular Jews to return to the one essential part of their Jewishness; that is, the religion. Instead, Koestler seemed to distance himself further from both Zionism and the Jewish people. He made a decidedly uninspiring case for Israel, reducing its sole defense to that simple fact that it was already there. And for Jews who decided to remain in the diaspora, like himself, he was basically saying that that they might as well not exist. No matter what anyone else might say about Koestler’s Jewishness, the book was for him, personally, a last disappearing act.