Past and Present: Some Reflections on American-Jewish Intellectuals: Edward Alexander

IN MEMORIAM: Norman Fruman, soldier, scholar,
loyal friend
“Shame and contrition, because we have not done enough,weigh even more heavily upon the Jews of the free countries [than on the Allied powers]. Not only do wehave the greater responsibility of kinsmen, but our own
weakness may be one of the causes why so little has been done. The history of our times will one day make bitter reading, when it records that some Jews were somorally uncertain that they denied they were obligated
to risk their own safety in order to save other Jews whowere being done to death abroad.” BEN HALPERN
“We and the European Jews,” JEWISH FRONTIER,August, 1943.

The first issue of SOCIETY appeared in November of 1963,
6 months after the publication of a single book made it clear
how much American Jews were still living “abroad,” in both
the shadow of the Holocaust and the afterglow of the creation
of the state of Israel. Just a few years after the destruction of
European Jewry, a martyred people had created in 1948 what
RuthWisse has called “a more hopeful augury than the dove’s
reappearance to Noah with an olive leaf after the flood.”
The book was Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem:
A Report on the Banality of Evil. It first appeared in New
Yorker articles of February and March before being published
as a book in May. George Eliot’s prediction (of
1876)) that some day, when the Jews were no longer a
dispersed people, they would “have a defense, in the court
of nations, [just] as the outraged Englishman or American”
did, had come true. But not even the great sibyl could have
prophesied that in the twentieth century, “crimes against the
Jewish people” would include the destruction of European
Jewish civilization.

Arendt’s book aroused a storm of controversy, primarily
because it alleged that the Jews had cooperated significantly
in their own destruction. Except among her
most passionate disciples, it is now generally accepted
that Arendt was woefully and willfully mistaken in this
central assertion. In 1963 little serious historical research
had been done on the subject of the Judenrate. But even
to the meager historical material available Arendt paid
little attention, preferring secondary sources that supported
her accusation of Jewish collaboration. The abrasive
effect of the book was increased by its original
appearance in the New Yorker—discussion of mass murder
alongside the ads for perfume, mink coats, and racing
cars—and what Gershom Scholem its “heartless… sneering
and malicious” tone towards Jewish leaders.

The rebuttal of Arendt came from Zionists like Marie
Syrkin, but also from non-Zionists like Irving Howe. Howe
had defended the Israeli capture of Eichmann in Argentina as a
necessary moral act by the victims of Nazi Germany. He was
outraged by the fact that her articles, which had brought the
most serious charges against European Jews, their institutions
and leaders, had been distributed to a mass audience unequipped
to judge them critically, and had then been sealed shut
against criticism in the New Yorker itself. The debate took
place in the Partisan Review, although Arendt and her
acolyte Dwight Macdonald did their best to stop William
Phillips from printing Lionel Abel’s attack on the book.
Dispute over the book, which also meant dispute over the
state of Israel and over the ingrained, ineradicable intellectual
tradition of blaming Jews for the violence unleashed
against them, divided the New York intellectuals into opposing

Howe’s magazine Dissent organized a public
forum on the book early in the fall of 1963; it was attended
by nearly 500 people to witness a debate between Arendt’s
detractors, Abel and Syrkin, and defenders Raul Hilberg and
Daniel Bell. Like the Dreyfus Affair, the Eichmann controversy
split families. Although Howe awarded the accolade
for the “most judicious words in the whole debate” to
Norman Podhoretz, Podhoretz’s wife Midge Decter accused
Howe of having arranged a “lynching” of Arendt and her

Syrkin scoffed at the notion that haughty Arendt could
ever have been a defenseless lamb set upon by a frenzied
mob. The symposium, she argued, was not a mere literary
controversy about a book, but an examination of widely
disseminated allegations of the Jews’ complicity in their
own destruction. Howe had performed notable service by
involving a previously aloof sector of the Jewish intelligentsia
in a consideration of the greatest crime of the century, and
brought awareness of the catastrophe to a once indifferent

Certainly, the debate had brought awareness to Howe
himself. Long after World War II ended, William Phillips
recalled that Howe “was haunted by the question of why our
intellectual community…had paid so little attention to the
Holocaust in the early 1940s…. why we had written and
talked so little about the Holocaust at the time it was taking
place.” One may search Partisan Review from 1937 through
summer1939 without finding mention of Hitler or Nazism.

When writing his autobiography, Howe looked through the old
issues of his own journal Labor Action to see how, or whether,
he and his socialist comrades had responded to the Holocaust.
He found the experience painful, and concluded that Trotskyists,
including himself, were only the best of a bad lot of leftist
sects, and that this inattention to the destruction of European
Jewry was “a serious instance of moral failure on our part.”
Nor was this their only moral failure. The leading New
York intellectuals had shown appalling indifference not only
to what had been endured by their European brethren but to
what had been achieved by the Jews of Palestine. Events of
biblical magnitude had occurred within a single decade: a
few years after the destruction of European Jewry, the
Jewish people had created the state of Israel. Like protagonists
in a great tragedy, the Jewish people had imposed a
pattern of meaning upon otherwise incomprehensible suffering.

Winston Churchill, addressing Parliament in 1949,
said: “The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is
an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective,
not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a
thousand, 2,000 or even 3,000 years.”

Having averted their eyes from the destruction of European
Jewry, the “first-rank” Jewish intellectuals now looked
away from one of the most impressive assertions of the will
to live that a martyred people has ever made. They had been
immersed in the twists and turns of literary modernism, the
fate of socialism in the USSR and the U.S., and in themselves,
especially their “alienation” from America and from
Judaism and Jews. Indeed, they found their Jewish “identity”
precisely in their alienation from Jewishness.

Looking back on this debacle many years later, Saul
Bellow admitted to Cynthia Ozick that “It’s perfectly true
that ‘Jewish Writers in America’ …missed what should
have been for them the central event of their time, the
destruction of European Jewry. I can’t say how our responsibility
can be assessed. We … should have reckoned more
fully, more deeply with it. Nobody in America seriously
took this on, and only a few Jews elsewhere (like Primo
Levi) were able to comprehend it all. The Jews as a people
reacted justly to it. So we have Israel, but in the matter of
higher comprehension …there were no minds fit to comprehend….

All parties then are passing the buck and every
honest conscience feels the disgrace of it….”
Four years after the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy,
the 6-Day War of June 1967 presented American Jewish
intellectuals with a new challenge, one that, even more than
Hannah Arendt had done, brought Holocaust “consciousness”
to the fore. Gamal Nasser, declaring that “Israel’s
existence is itself an aggression,” launched a war intended
“to turn the Mediterranean red with Jewish blood.” As in
1948, the Arabs lost the war on the battlefield; but they and
their supporters threw their energies into rescinding its
results. Having failed to destroy the Jewish state, they commenced
an ideological onslaught against Zionism itself.

Here, where the Jews were alleged to be adept, the defeated
Arabs did much better. Having refused to admit a Jewish
state into a region they proclaimed exclusively theirs, they
accused the Jews of refusing to accept an Arab (“Palestinian”)
state; having launched several wars, countless terror
attacks, and an international boycott, they accused Israel of
aggression for defending itself. Having exploited Arab
refugees they themselves had created and continued to
exploit as human refuse, they blamed Israel for Palestinian

In transforming their rhetoric from Right to Left, the
Arabs made a calculated appeal to liberals, especially
Jewish ones. The latter, as Ruth Wisse has pointed out,
were now forced to choose between abandoning their
faith in progress and enlightenment, and –once again–
abandoning the Jews. Irving Howe saw what was coming.
Even more contrite than Bellow about his “moral
failure” with respect to the Holocaust, he foresaw the
next great moral debacle of American Jewish intellectuals.

As the verbal violence of the New Left turned into
actual violence in the late sixties, his direst predictions of
the “movement’s” fate were being realized, especially by
its Jewish cadre of liberal “explainers” of terror. By 1970
Soche found the treachery of the younger generation of
Jewish intellectuals literally unspeakable:

“Jewish boys and girls, children of the generation that
saw Auschwitz, hate democratic Israel and celebrate
as “revolutionary” the Egyptian dictatorship;… a few
go so far as to collect money for Al Fatah, which
pledges to take Tel Aviv. About this, I cannot say
more; it is simply too painful.”

The late sixties and early seventies were also the years in
which an earlier abandonment of the Jews—by American
Jewry’s most beloved and adored politician, FDR—had
been made common knowledge among literate people by
the books of David Wyman and Henry Feingold. They
revealed that, as Howe himself put it in World of Our
Fathers, the record of the Roosevelt administration in admitting
Jewish refugees had been “shameful,” more stonyhearted
than that of any European country. To this subject I
shall return.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world historic facts
and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add:
the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce…
– Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire

What should have been the besetting questions for
American-Jewish intellectuals during Hitler’s 12-year war
against European Jewry had long ago been asked in the
“Am I My brother’s Keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)
“And Moses said unto the children of Gad and the
children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war,
and shall ye sit here?’” (Numbers 32:6)

Generally, as we have seen, they were not. Has the
belated recognition, by such formidable figures as Howe
and Bellow, taught their successors among Diaspora Jewry’s
learned classes, any lessons? Can they respond any more
convincingly to Moses’ question to “the children of Reuben”
than their ancestors did during World War II? Have
they learned, from the moral debacle of their intellectual
predecessors, that survival must precede definition?

Many of those “Jewish boys and girls” whose hatred of
Israel rendered the usually voluble Howe speechless would
go on to become (some still are) well-established figures in
journalism and academia, tigers of wrath who became tenured
and heavily-petted insurrectionaries warming themselves
in endowed university chairs, or editorializing in the
New York Times or New Yorker or New York Review of
Books. If ideological liberals became unsympathetic to the
fate of the Jews in the Middle East because it contradicted
their sanguine view of the world, the tenacity of the Arabs’
rejection of Israel and their worldwide campaign to destroy
Israel’s moral image by “delegitimization” have brought a
mass defection of Jewish liberals from Israel. They fall
roughly into three categories.

First, we have the “ashamed Jews,” desperate to escape
the negative role in which they are being cast by the alleged
sins of Israel. Careful readers of spiteful broadsides against
Israel by Jewish intellectuals will notice the frequency with
which these accusers mention a blood vessel problem
known as blushing – a shame and embarrassment that overcomes
them at cocktail parties or faculty lounges. Thus
Berkeley professor Martin Jay’s notorious essay blaming
Ariel Sharon for the rise of the new antisemitism begins as
follows: “’No one since Hitler,’ my dinner partner [another
Jewish academic] heatedly contended, ‘has done so much
damage to the Jews as Ariel Sharon’…this stunning accusation
[was] made during a gracious faculty soiree in Princeton.”

Julien Benda, the French Jewish philosopher and
novelist, once urged intellectuals of all countries “to tell
your nations they are always in the wrong by the simple
fact that they are nations… Plotinus blushed at having a
body. You should blush at having a nation.” So far, however,
only Jews have responded in substantial numbers to Benda’s

The late Tony Judt was perhaps the most famous
victim of this newest entry in the nosology of social diseases.
“Today,” he wrote, “non-Israeli Jews feel themselves
once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for
things they didn’t do….the behavior of a self-described
Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews….”
Poor Judt saw nothing “disproportionate” in recommending
politicide–the end of Israel– as the cure for his insecurity.
Secondly, we have the Jews who nimbly turn their cowardly
desire to advertise their own goodness by dissociating
themselves from a people under attack into a mode of
Jewish “identity.” In 1942 the Hebrew writer Haim Hazaz
created (in his story “The Sermon”) a literary character who
declared that “When a man can no longer be a Jew, he
becomes a Zionist.” That motto has now been replaced by
a new one: “When a man can no longer be a Jew, he
becomes an anti-Zionist.” Jewish intellectuals who cannot
read the alef-beys discover their Jewish “identity” by denouncing
Israel for its manifold sins, and call for the dismantling
of the very state upon which their identity rests.
(The roman a clef by Howard Jacobson entitled The Finkler
Question affords a group portrait of such people, most based
on actual persons; English, to be sure, but indistinguishable
from their American cousins.)

A third, perhaps more subtle form of identity-creation via
anti-Zionism is what might be called “the new Diasporism.”
It flourishes mainly among writers and scholars, including
those in Jewish Studies. Ironically, this academic specialty,
So very much like Soviet Jewry’s awareness of and yearning
for Israel, came into being because of the exuberance generated
by Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War. But now its
practitioners bombard the university presses with manuscripts
purporting to discover that the Jewish state, which
most Europeans blame for all the world’s miseries except
perhaps global warming, should never have come into existence
in the first place.

They suggest or assert that “the
[non-Zionist] roads not taken” would have brought (and
may yet bring) a “new” Diaspora Golden Age. Some of
them organize kangaroo courts (called “academic conferences”)
on “Alternative Histories within and beyond
Zionism;” others are content to churn out articles or monographs
or novels celebrating those roads not taken.A few even
breathlessly recommend a one-state solution or a no-state
solution or (this from the tone-deaf George Steiner) “a final

The strategy of the new Diasporists is at once timely and
timeless. By a happy coincidence, they dredge up from
relative obscurity long-dead Jewish thinkers who opposed
Zionism altogether or opposed political Zionism (a Jewish
state) at the very time that their liberal, progressive colleagues
are discovering that the nation-state is itself obsolete
and that Israel is the most pernicious nation-state that exists
or has ever existed. But in another sense they are ahistorical
and disdainful of time and change because they write as if
there were no difference between Jewish opposition to a
conjectural Jewish state eighty or a hundred years ago and
opposition to a living entity of almost 6,000,000 souls under
constant siege by genocidal fanatics. (So far none of them
has been willing to accept open debate about whether they
themselves have “the right to exist.”)

Finally, we have the species I would call “Zionists against
Israel,” epitomized by an organization called J Street, which
misses no opportunity to blacken Israel’s reputation, and
very few opportunities to encourage campaigns to delegitimize
it, yet insists on calling itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”
“Not since the days of the Communist Party,” the sociologist
Werner Cohn has written, “has there been a comparable
spectacle of methodical disingenuousness in American
political life.” Funded by such billionaires as the Israelhating

George Soros, boasting (justifiably) strong ties to
the Obama administration, and fancying itself a (Jewish)
government in exile, it has a “Rabbinic Cabinet” whose
members include supporters of the Hamas bombing of Sderot
and also Michael Lerner, the pioneering promoter of the
“Palestinian cause” within the Jewish community.
J Street is exceeded in palpable misrepresentation and the
pursuit of moral rectitude in disregard not just of reality but
of danger (to Israelis, that is) only by that phenomenal
world-wide industry called “Peter Beinart.” Before entering
the realm of myth, Beinart was a more than usually selffascinated

By dint of constant publicity not only
in such predictable places as the New York Review of Books,
New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly, but in the Israeli press, he
had by 2012 become the existential realization of Jewish
liberalism’s historical stupidity. If American Jewry is really
divided between those who judge Judaism by the standards
of the New York Times and those who judge the Times by the
standards of Judaism, Beinart was the anointed philosopher
king of the former group; indeed, it was the Times that
published his book, called The Crisis of Zionism.

He was reported to have been assisted in this courageous attempt to
save Israel from itself (in Beinart’s view, its only mortal
enemy)—and America from Israel—by advances from “progressive”
Jews of several hundred thousand dollars. This
stipend helped him to hire the 24 researchers whom he
thanks for helping to assemble the 800 footnotes that adorn
his prophetic denunciations of fallen Israel.

Convinced that Judaism follows an arrow-straight course
from Sinai to the left wing of the Democratic Party, Beinart
contends that Zionism must do the same. Although second
to none in tooth-baring hatred for Israel as it actually exists,
Beinart insists on calling himself a Zionist (just like his
grandmother). He supports (more explicitly than J Street)
the 65-year old Arab economic boycott of Israel, but with a
difference, intended to preserve the mask of the do-gooder
(that is, a person who confuses doing good with feeling
good about what he is doing).

He would boycott, divest from, “sanction,” only the so-called “occupied” territories.
He published his book at a mid-point in Barack Obama’s
presidential trajectory from “first black president” to “first
Jewish president” (Chapter Five of the book) to “first gay
president,” and so provided his hero with the second person
of his triune divinity. Lest anyone doubt Obama’s credentials,
Beinart conjures up a dream-vision in which Rabbi
Stephen Wise, meeting with Obama (and today’s woefully
illiberal and unrepresentative Zionist leaders) in the Oval
Office, pronounces the president the only genuine Zionist in
the room.

The irony of Beinart’s identification withWise was pointed
out by Sol Stern in a shrewd (and shrewdly entitled)
piece called “Beinart the Unwise,” but it is worth further
elaboration. Wise was the most important American Jewish
leader throughout FDR’s long years in the White House.
Although he wrote to a colleague in 1933 that “FDR has not
lifted a finger on behalf of the Jews of Germany,” he came to
adore the man who was, after all, Commander in Chief of
the war against Hitler. American Jews, he said, “rightly look
up to [FDR], revere him, and love him…No one would
more deeply sorrow than I…if this feeling of Jewish homage…
should be changed.” Wise obsequiously (Jeremiah,
with whom Beinart confuses himself, would have said idolatrously)
referred to Roosevelt as “the all Highest.”

In his
best-known “Dear Boss” letter to FDR (November 1942)
about irrefutable reports of the mass murder of European
Jewry, Wise apologized for impinging on the president’s
precious time (“I do not wish to add an atom to the awful
burden which you are bearing with magic”), confessed that
he had kept the terrible information secret and sworn other
Jewish leaders to do so, and asked the president not for a
rescue plan, but only “a word which may bring solace…to
millions of Jews who mourn.” In May of 1944 Wise, together
with Nahum Goldmann, actually urged FDR’s state
department to deport the leaders of the Bergson Group, by
far the most effective force at work for the rescue of
Europe’s Jews. Their reasoning was precisely the apologia
Roosevelt used for not admitting Jewish refugees: Bergson
activities (rallies, newspaper ads, rabbinical marches on
Washington) would stir up the (conjectural) antisemitism
of Americans.

By May of 2012 Beinart, as a reward for his own oily
sycophancy, was invited to the White House to “share” his
views on how to renew the “peace process.” (The aforementioned
Michael Lerner had also, in 1993, been given entrée
to the White House, but for the Clintons he was less a court
Jew than a Rasputin.) Beinart had become the reincarnation
of the Stephen Wise of his dream-vision; just as (in his
view) Benjamin Netanyahu is the ideological reincarnation
of his late father, Benzion Netanyahu. (Bibi’s public endorsement
of the idea of a Palestinian state, the very opposite
of his father’s views, was for Beinart merely typical
Israeli subterfuge.) The elder Netanyahu, let us remember,
became the preeminent historian of the Spanish Inquisition
because he discerned the very truth constantly denied by
Beinart: antisemitism is not the result of Jewish misbehavior
but of the Jew-haters’ panic. Netanyahu was active in the
Bergson Group and also executive director of the Revisionists
(New Zionist Organization of America) about whom

Beinart regurgitates the fixed epithets that, as Orwell observed
long ago, progressives reserve for people they don’t
like; “fascist” and “militarist.” But for Beinart, Netanyahu’s
greatest sin must surely be that he went regularly to Washington
with the express purpose of establishing ties with
prominent figures in the Republican Party in order to promote
the twin goals of rescue and the Jewish claim to

It was due to such (renegade) efforts by Wise’s
Jewish opponents that in 1944 first the Republicans and then
(in large part out of political necessity) FDR and the Democrats
incorporated support of Israel into their presidential
platforms. That is the reason why America remains, even
now under a president in whose ostensibly warm heart there
is always a cold spot for the Jews, Israel’s sole reliable ally.
Beinart gave Obama two copies of his book at their May
meeting, and in return received Obama’s encouragement to
stand firm against his detractors (who by this time included
even several “liberal” Zionists): “Hang in there,” Beinart is
reported to have been told by the grateful recipient of his
oily sycophancy. Beinart’s polemic brings us, full circle,
back to the painful subject of American Jewry and the
Holocaust, and also to a still more enduring theme: the need
to choose between survival and definition. Were Beinart to
read a few serious books on the subject, he might be surprised,
indeed shocked, to discover that the split between
Wise and the Bergson Group over how to rescue European
Jewry was not primarily one between left and right but
between Zionists and rescuers; and his man was on the side
of the Zionists. In 1962 Lucy Dawidowicz wrote that “political
Zionists” like Wise “gambled away [the] one chance
to save the Jews” by emphasizing the Palestine issue instead
of rescue in 1943–44. Samuel Merlin, although he was the
co-founder with Menachem Begin of Herut, emphasized
that “Bergson once explained to Rabbi Stephen Wise, in a
private conversation, that if the rabbi was trapped in a house
that was on fire, his main concern would be how to get out
alive, not how to get to the Waldorf Astoria.”
Perhaps, when Society publishes its centenary edition in
2062, somebody will recount the belated misgivings of the
Beinarts – and Jays and Friedmans and Remnicks – for
having helped, by cowardice and immoral thoughtlessness,
to tighten the noose around Israel’s throat. Perhaps they will
even come to recognize, as a contrite Saul Bellow did when
he visited Israel in 1976, that “The subject of all this talk is,
ultimately, survival…. The Jews, because they are Jews,
have never been able to take the right to live as a natural
right.” (Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back, 1976).
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A
Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers, 2012).

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