Magazine | January 25, 2016, Issue

A People Divided

Jews against Themselves, by Edward Alexander (Transaction, 178 pp., $24.95)


 To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,

Is a keen observer of life,

The word intellectual suggests right away

A man who’s untrue to his wife.

W. H. Auden could well have carried his lampoon further by pointing out that any intellectual these days is most likely to be untrue to his country, his compatriots, and their culture. It seems to come naturally to some characters to condemn what they are expected to praise, and praise what they are expected to condemn. Accordingly, the assumption takes root that Western societies are unjust at many a level, and that they do things much better somewhere else. One approved model used to be the Soviet Union, then it was Maoist China or Castro’s Cuba, and there are even socialists now who look to the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez. A small but vociferous number of academics and littérateurs repeatedly put across some inner vision that possesses them, falsifying reality in the manner of artists.

The primary explanation of this phenomenon is snobbery. The works of a Gore Vidal, a Norman Mailer, a Harold Pinter, an Edward Said, and all their kind are exercises in superiority. To hold opinions about national politics and purposes contrary to those of everyone else seems like flattering evidence of being cleverer than the masses who can’t think things out for themselves and don’t know they are being hoodwinked. In this mindset, doing harm is progressive and unpopularity is proof of courage.

A particular subsection of intellectuals comprises Jews who are engaged in a very old battle to define their identity. Scattered in many countries and living among Christians or Muslims, they were nonetheless always a nation, with a faith and languages and customs of their own. The obvious strategies for survival were to avoid drawing attention to themselves, to stay apart, to do whatever was asked by the powers that be, and finally to flee if persecution was threatening martyrdom.

Under compulsion, and occasionally of their own free will, some Jews converted to Christianity or Islam. Whether opportunists or cowards, a few apostates in the Middle Ages put themselves at the service of the persecutors. Their names, for instance Pablo Christiani and Petrus Alfonsi, are familiar only to specialists, but the damage they did — in effect, betrayal — was deep and lasting. Speaking with the apparent authenticity of insiders, they spread crude defamation and fantasies that Jewish men menstruated, bled Christian children to death for ritual ceremonies, poisoned wells (the well-known writer A. N. Wilson thinks they are still doing so), and controlled the world although visibly confined to miserably poor ghettoes. To this day, imams are preaching in mosques and on television that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs. The apostate Nicholas Donin, who became a Franciscan friar, is thought to have sent 3,000 Jews to their death (and to have driven 500 more to save themselves through baptism). Out of such careers emerged Torquemada and the Grand Inquisition.

This pattern of behavior repeats. Karl Marx defamed Jews as “hucksters,” a favorite word of his. He devised a sociopolitical scheme in which there would be no Jews at all: They would become internationalists. Soviet KGB Jews saved themselves by persecuting other Jews still attached to their heritage. In Hitler’s Germany, Max Naumann ran an association that aimed to erase Jewish ethnic identity and replace it by complete assimilation to German ways. A Jewish classicist and professor at Kiel University, Felix Jacoby, boasted that he voted for Hitler, adding, “Augustus is the only figure of world history whom one may compare to Adolf Hitler.” “Raus mit Uns,” or “Out with Us,” was the slogan coined with gallows humor by those in the community who could see these measures for what they were.

A professor of English literature at the University of Washington, Edward Alexander brings this story up to date in Jews against Themselves, a short and well-written polemic. Taking John Stuart Mill as his model social analyst, he makes his own commitment clear. The response to Nazi genocide is Zionism, a national-liberation movement that has been fulfilled beyond all expectations. Jews have a state of their own, and Alexander considers that this is “one of the most impressive assertions of the will to live that a martyred people has ever made.”

Every national movement defends itself as best it can, and Israel is no exception. More than once, Alexander observes that it is not Israeli occupation of Arab land that leads to Arab hatred of Israel, as detractors regularly say, but it is Arab hatred of Israel that leads to occupation. Time and again, nevertheless, Israel is expected to have a standard of behavior not required of anyone else, and one that would leave it defenseless. Still more unfairly, false moral equivalence is drawn between its defenses and the aggressions of its enemies. Anti-Semitism, wherever and whenever it breaks out, is not to be perceived as racist bigotry on the part of Christians or Muslims but as “a response to Jewish misbehavior.” In the hostile quasi-Marxist critique, Zionism is not a movement of national liberation, but a cover for pure and simple colonial conquest, a living injustice. And if Jews really are to blame for the aggressions of Arabs and Iranians, then they deserve the boycotts and sanctions and divestment now generating animus with a spread and an intensity not seen these many years since the end of World War II.

With alarming insistence, the Islamist regime in Tehran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon keep promising to wipe Israel off the map, and they are developing the means to that end. The Palestinians of Fatah and Hamas maintain steady programs of carefully calibrated violence. The European Union knowingly allows grants and subsidies to finish up in the hands of terrorists. Hardly a week goes past without the United Nations or one of its committees passing a resolution against Israel.

What provokes Alexander and brings an edge of scorn into his prose is that the existence of Israel means that everything is different but the danger to Jews is the same. At the beginning of the last world war there were 14 million Jews, and it has taken till the present to regain that number. Half of them live in Israel. How is it possible, this book asks, for Jewish intellectuals not only to live under the shadow of a second genocide but to furnish arguments that prepare for it?

Jews who take a strong and public position against Israel are putting themselves in the same position as those apostates in the Middle Ages. They, too, seemingly talk with inside knowledge. Among them, the currency speculator George Soros, the linguist Noam Chomsky, and Richard Falk, a United Nations bureaucrat, are public figures, but here again only someone with a special interest in the fate of Jews will have heard of the minor academics and journalists in their wake. Here is one Michael Lerner, who earned the sobriquet of Mrs. Clinton’s “Rasputin,” and who could write, “The Jewish community is racist, internally corrupt, and an apologist for the worst aspects of American capitalism and imperialism.” In Israel itself, current intellectual theorizing posits that nationalism has been outgrown and exposed as retrograde. Ha’aretz, the quality daily newspaper in Tel Aviv, is more like a political party opposed to Zionism than a news outlet. In his discussion of an Israeli political geographer by the name of Oren Yiftachel, Alexander notes that “The other country, right or wrong” will serve as today’s motto for this individual and every other post-Zionist as well.

Granted their history, Jews have every reason to think through the demands of identity. Superficially, it is plausible that the men and women who so provoke Alexander are acting out of self-hatred. In one chapter, he catches up with the British novelist Howard Jacobson, the first to break psychological ground by describing Jews as proud to be ashamed. It’s a peculiar form of snobbery to think that losing is really a form of winning. Alexander is not asking for a tribal closing of the ranks, merely for common humanity; in the testing years ahead, a lot of it will be needed.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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