That grand old man of Zionism (and advocate of Israeli generosity toward the Palestinians), Nahum Goldmann, has reappeared in public to utter a cri de coeur. Or perhaps it's a kaddish for humanity.
Goldmann's vehicle is an essay in the Jan. 8 issue of Die Zeit entitled simply, ''I Don't Understand These Insanities.''
In this essay, he confronts present-day follies with the amazement of common sense.
On the first insanity - the nuclear arms race - Goldmann declares: ''I myself don't understand this insanity, and I am convinced that future generations - in case they survive an atomic war - will write lengthy and profound treatises about this collective madness of our generation in order to explain and understand it.''
To emphasize his point Goldmann retells the old joke of the Jew in Russia who comes to the rabbi to register the birth of his son in accordance with czarist law. ''Should I register the child a year earlier or a year later?'' The father asks.
''Why not give the correct date?'' inquires the rabbi.
''That idea never occurred to me,'' responds the surprised father.
The same reflex prevails, Goldmann says, among world leaders who lack either ''the capacity or the courage to permit themselves simple, primitive, and obvious reactions.
''It apparently doesn't occur to any of our politicians and experts to think of the idea that all lands and peoples have too many weapons, and that already the danger of an atomic war can lead to the ruin of the world.''
Other ''insanities'' challenged by Goldmann include belligerence toward Arabs by the Israeli state that he himself helped found. ''Every normal, rational person will understand that a Jewish state with a population of a few million cannot exist and survive in the long run if more than 100 million Arabs remain their enemies in the long run.''
Goldmann's experience and stature make others listen to such reproaches. This octogenarian who holds eight passports and once called himself ''a statesman without a state'' is one of the few remaining embodiments of the pre-Hitler marriage of Jewish and German cultures. And he survived the Holocaust with his magnanimity undimmed.
Goldmann was born in a Polish shtetl and grew up in Frankfurt. He gave his first Zionist speech at his own bar mitzvah. He interrupted his studies for a trip to Palestine. After finishing his studies at the universities of Marburg and Berlin, he became publisher of the Encyclopedia Judaica. In 1933 he left Germany for Switzerland, then France and the United States.
During World War II he worked tirelessly to save Jews still in Germany. After the war he campaigned tenaciously for establishment of a Zionist state, and then raised funds for it.
He was also an early champion of Jewish-German reconciliation; he negotiated the 1952 compensation agreement under which West Germany would pay some $1 billion as a token to Israel and to Jewish victims of Hitler.