Responding with gravitas to a recent online piece of petty Jewish politics, historian David Myers posted something online and there was this picture there of Abba Kovner and his partisan comrades. I went immediately to Dina Porat’s biography The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner.
Kovner was a legendary leader of the socialist Zionist Ha’Shomer Ha’Tzair in Vilna, a partisan fighter in the forests, poet and propagandist, a cultural figure in Israel between 1947 and his death in 1987, both at home and out of place in that country, seared by the experience of social death and personal suffeng.
Kovner in his appeal to the Vilna Ghetto was the one who coined the phrase “sheep to the slaughter.” Strange episodes after the war included a plot to murder Germans by poisoning the water supplies to major cites, and bloody battle pages against the Egyptian invaders that he wrote as a soldier during the 1948 War of Independence. Kovner was a founder of the the old Beit Hatfutsot Museum, which opened in 1978 in Tel Aviv. A member of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, Kovner was committed to secular Jewish culture and to diaspora memory. He is interviewed by Lanzmann in Shoa, talking primarily about Vilna and armed resistance.
What caught my eye and what I came to see and admire about Kovner in Porat’s biography was the place, time, and particularism of a twentieth century eastern European-Ashkenazi-Israeli political type. While I remember something of it from when I was young, its appearance today can only be strange. We are not today composed this way, and I am sure there is some good in that. The self-enclosed ideological comportment represented by Kovner is non-critical about the in-group. But what gets lost in the passage to postmodernism is something integral to socialism. Not “universal,” most distant from us in this stubborn Jewish socialism is the way of life and social being determined by unyielding moral solidarity, the collective life of the group, the freedom of people held together by binding ideological commitments, cellular in form.