February 25, 2006
By Jamie Glazov
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Edward Alexander, professor emeritus of English, University of Washington. He is the author of many books,
including The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate, The Jewish Wars: Reflections By One of the Belligerents, and
Classical Liberalism and the Jewish Tradition. He is the co-editor (with Paul Bogdanor) of the new book The Jewish Divide Over Israel:
Accusers and Defenders.
FP: Edward Alexander, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Alexander: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.
FP: Why is it that you think that large numbers of Jews have turned against the Jewish state? When exactly did this start happening? What are their true motives?
Alexander: A large proportion of Jewish intellectuals, even more than ordinary Jews, have long assumed that Judaism and liberalism are the same thing, or that Judaism follows an arrow-straight course from Sinai to liberal and left politics, in this country to the left wing of the Democratic Party. So long as the existence of the state of Israel seemed to harmonize with liberal ideals, especially in the years after the Holocaust, it could be actively supported or at least tacitly accepted by most Jewish liberals. But the June 1967 war changed all this, and with remarkable speed. For now Jewish intellectuals were required to choose between liberal pieties and defense of the beleaguered Jewish state.
What happened was that the Arabs proved nimbler in the war of ideas than they had in the war of guns and bombs. They ceased telling the world that they wanted to reduce Israel to sandy wastes and redefined their struggle as the search for a homeland for homeless Palestinian Arabs. This change in their rhetoric of opposition to Israel from Right to Left was a shrewd appeal to liberals, not least to Jewish liberals. The more Israel was cast in a negative role by “progressive” opinion for its alleged misdeeds, the more eager were Jewish intellectuals to escape the taint, the embarrassment of association with the state and Zionism.
Readers of broadsides against Israel by Jewish intellectuals will note the amazing frequency with which they mention the “shame” or “embarrassment” they endure at cocktail parties or in faculty lounges. So sheer cowardice is certainly a motive. And there is, for a surprisingly large number of these Israel-haters, yet another motive, lucidly analyzed by Alvin Rosenfeld in his introductory essay, “Modern Jewish Intellectual Failure.”
The disproportionate influence of Jewish accusers depends in large part on the fact that most of them demonize Israel precisely as Jews; indeed, since religion and tradition count for little to them, it’s the demonization of Israel that makes them Jews. For them the old wisecrack (first uttered by Haim Hazaz in 1942) that “when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist” no longer applies. These people embody a new reality: “When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes an anti-Zionist.” By declaring themselves in favor of Jewish powerlessness they announce, with a vanity that is both personal and ethnic, both their supreme virtue and their “Jewishness.”
FP: How did you decide which Jewish accusers of Israel to concentrate on in the book?
Alexander: This was not an easy task. Inclusiveness was out of the question because, alas, there are so many Jewish accusers/haters of Israel now scribbling and speechifying that an encyclopedia would be required to cover them all. We tried to go after those with the largest followings and influence. Chomsky, for example, commands audiences not of hundreds but (especially in Europe) of thousands; his chief acolyte Norman Finkelstein is a best-selling author in Germany even though his books are deemed worse than worthless by nearly all scholars, including German ones.
Although (or perhaps because) he is probably the most admired Jew in the whole history of antisemitism, his works are trumpeted in the English press, even serialized by the Guardian, a paper notoriously short of sympathy in the Jewish direction. After some hesitation, we decided to devote an essay (by my co-author Paul Bogdanor) to Israel Shahak.
One need not read far in Shahak to see that his was a disturbed mind who made a career out of recycling Nazi propaganda about Jews and Judaism. So why bother with him? The answer is that he has been cited for decades by such perfervid Israel-haters as Alexander Cockburn and the late Edward Said. The BBC and NPR also thought it fitting to feature his ravings about Zionism, Judaism, and the Holocaust. Was he not, after all, an Israeli, a Jew, a survivor?
Again, Bogdanor and I regret leaving out many Jewish accusers of Israel who really deserve to be in the book, and we often imagine their disappointment as they search the book’s index for their names and find them not. To them we tender our apologies.
FP: What place does the Holocaust have in the world outlook of Jews who hate Israel?
Alexander: An enormous one. Most of them believe, mistakenly of course, that Israel came into existence because of western bad conscience over the Holocaust, when in fact Israel was born not because but in spite of the Holocaust, which destroyed the most Zionistically inclined segment of the world’s Jewish population.
Many of them–like Finkelstein, Peter Novick, and numerous Israeli leftists–relentlessly assault Holocaust memory and deride any Jew who dares to mention the Holocaust in relation to Israel’s constant burden of peril.
Some blame Jewish Holocaust memory for alleged Israeli “intransigence” towards Palestinian Arabs and for the (to them) fantastic notion that Arabs want to obliterate Israel; others blame Holocaust memory for distracting Jews from liberal causes they were put into the world to promote. George Steiner, the subject of one of the book’s essays, not only (in his infamous play about Hitler) blamed the Holocaust on Judaism itself but rendered a dramatic verdict in favor of yet another “endlosung” (final solution–yes, he uses the word) of the Jewish question as a necessary stepping-stone en route to utopia.
Finkelstein sees the Holocaust as largely an ideological construct that enables Jews to extract money from poor helpless Swiss bankers or German industrialists. Chomsky, as everyone knows, has actually collaborated with French Holocaust-deniers.
FP: Do you think there a Christian or Islamic element in the Jewish accusers of Israel?
Alexander: Theologically, there is a strong link–which one sees in people like Steiner or Tony Judt, the subject of an essay by Benjamin Balint—between Christian supersessionism, the notion (expressed, for example, by the church father Origen) that “in the fullness of time Judaism came to naught” and the (convenient) discovery by Israel’s Jewish accusers that Israel, and Israel alone, is an anomaly in the family of nations and must be erased as quickly as possible.
I see no theological link between the Jewish accusers of Israel and Islam, but a very powerful (if paradoxical) political link. It’s well-known, for example, that Jewish liberals stridently oppose “faith-based initiatives”–with one notable exception: Islamic suicide bombings. The rhapsodizing over Islamic suicide bombers that one finds in such Jewish haters of Israel as Canada’s Michael Neumann or England’s Jacqueline Rose, breaks new ground in the long history of Jewish self-hatred.
FP: What impact have the accusers had in America, Europe and Israel?
Alexander: Tremendous. People like the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli philosopher, were virtually unknown in Europe until he began to promote his Israel-accented version of the Israeli-Nazi equation. In England, the virulent attack on Israel, more obscene in its particulars than in almost any other European country, is dominated by Jewish figures: the playwright Harold Pinter, the three Roses, and so on ad nauseam. The academic boycott of Israel was launched by British Jews.
Several years ago the president of the Middle East Association in this country was Joel Beinin, a Stanford professor who often expresses his dismay about having to share the planet with a Jewish state. Most departments or centers of Middle East Studies which consider erasure of the Jewish state a primary professional goal take special care to fill their tenured positions with Jews who loath Israel.
FP: What do you think is behind the Jewish-Nazi analogy that Israel haters often use in their condemnation of Israel? Do the accusers use this weapon?
Alexander: It retrospectively absolves the Nazis (and the Europeans who stood by while the Nazis did their murderous work) of guilt: if the Jews were as bad as the Nazis, was it really a crime against the human status to destroy them? Moreover, if the Israelis are Nazis, then the Palestinian Arabs are “the Jews.” People like Chomsky would be rendered virtually speechless if deprived of the Israeli-Nazi analogy.
FP: Why would a Jew deny anti-Semitism? Why would a Jew collaborate with anti-Semites?
Alexander: My quick answer would be: cowardice. Coming to the defense of this beleaguered minority has never been an exercise for timid people. This business has a long history, unfortunately. See, for example, Sander Gilman’s excellent book Jewish Self-Hatred. The larger problem that arises from anti-Semitism denial is captured in the old rabbinic saying: “he who is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent.”
FP: What were your own personal feelings as you wrote and assembled the essays for this book?
Alexander: A peculiar mixture of agony and exhilaration: agony because reading the outpourings of people like Steiner or Judith Butler or Marc Ellis or Daniel Boyarin requires the mental equivalent of hip boots; exhilaration because I kept thinking of the ancient text which says that “in the destruction of the wicked there is joy.”
FP: Edward Alexander, thank you for joining Frontpage.
Alexander: Thanks for the invitation.