This is going to be one of the hardest blog posts I’ve ever written. Not because it’s painful, but because the topic is controversial, and I’m going to be arguing with a giant, and my words could be very easily misunderstood. I want to talk about Jewish identity, Israel and anti-semitism.
The occasion is this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, which is titled “The Jewish Question” and features book reviews by two high-profile Jewish writers on the cover: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius, reviewed by Harold Bloom, and two books on Martin Heidegger, Heidegger: Tne Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye, and Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed by Adam Kirsch.
Two more featured reviews within touch on the “Jewish Question” theme: Friedrich Nietzsche by Julian Young, reviewed by Francis Fukuyama and The Life of Irene Nemirovsky by Oliver Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt and Dimance and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky, reviewed by Francine Prose.
Collectively, the understanding of Jewish identity that emerges from these four pieces resembles what I call the Philip Roth Paradigm: the idea that Jews are essentially different from other humans in some way, that we carry some moral legacy that gives us special status in the world. This paradigm has a corollary: the idea that anti-semitism is a different kind of hatred from other kinds of hatred.
I have a lot of respect for the elderly critic Harold Bloom, who is introduced (rightfully) in reverent terms in the “Up Front” section:
Harold Bloom is probably the most prominent — and the most formidable — literary critic and commentator in America today … He is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles, reviews and introductions. He has taught at Yale for 55 years and, in an e-mail message, promises that he “will go on teaching” … “Anti-Semitism is an inescapable interest, though I have never suffered it personally,” Bloom writes. “My four grandparents and many other relatives were murdered in the Shoah.”
Who am I to take on Harold Bloom? Well, I am also an American Jew. My four grandparents were not murdered in the Shoah, but my Grandma Clara’s entire family back in a town called Potok Zloty near Lvov were, so I guess I have a right to speak on the Jewish question too. I’m sorry to say that the old lion has gone soft. This is a poor article, beneath the standards of the New York Times.
The article, allegedly about Anthony Julius’s book of British history, is a howl of protest on behalf of the nation of Israel. Here’s how it begins:
Anthony Julius has written a strong, somber book on an appalling subject: the long squalor of Jew-hatred in a supposedly enlightened, humane, liberal society. My first, personal, reflection is to give thanks that my own father, who migrated from Odessa, Russia, to London, had the sense, after sojourning there, to continue on to New York City.
With a training both literary and legal, Julius is well prepared for the immensity of his task. He is a truth-teller, and authentic enough to stand against the English literary and academic establishment, which essentially opposes the right of the state of Israel to exist, while indulging in the humbuggery that its anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Endless boycotts of Israel are urged by this establishment, and might yet have produced a counter boycott of British universities by many American academics, whether Jewish or not. However, under British law the projected boycotts may be illegal. The fierce relevance of Julius’s book is provoked by this currently prevalent anti-Semitism.
He returns to the topic of Israel (neatly shuffling Julius’s book aside) for the piece’s big finish, the final four paragraphs:
At his frequent best, Julius refreshes by a mordant tonality, as when he catalogs the types of English anti-Semites. The height of his argument comes where his book will be most controversial: his comprehensive account of the newest English anti-Semitism.
To protest the policies of the Israeli government actually can be regarded as true philo-Semitism, but to disallow the existence of the Jewish state is another matter. Of the nearly 200 recognized nation-states in the world today, something like at least half are more reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. A curious blindness informs the shifting standards of current English anti-Zionism.
I admire Julius for the level tone with which he discusses this sanctimonious intelligentsia, who really will not rest until Israel is destroyed.
I end by wondering at the extraordinary moral strength of Anthony Julius. He concludes by observing: “Anti-Semitism is a sewer.” As he has shown, the genteel and self-righteous “new anti-Semitism” of so many English academic and literary contemporaries emanates from that immemorial stench.
The suggestion that anyone around the world who protests against Israel is an anti-semite is extremely offensive, and I hope it goes without saying that it’s incorrect. Many, many people around the world who do not hate Jews wish to protest against Israel, and I can’t imagine why Harold Bloom thinks they ought to be satisfied that “something like at least half” of the nation-states in the world are more “reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians”. (Half? That’s not a record for Israel to be proud of. No wonder people are protesting.)
The moral superiority of the Jewish people is the unspoken assumption of Harold Bloom’s piece. There’s no other way for the argument to add up. Certainly nothing in this piece has any power to change anyone’s mind. It does not reach for a universal statement to any other race, religion, gender or group that might feel victimized. He’s preaching to the synagogue. It’s a pep rally for the pre-convinced, and it offers nothing at all but a cold hand in the face to anyone who wishes to fairly represent the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli wars.
I imagine that many people around New York City and around the world will throw this issue of the Book Review across the room in anger. I’d be surprised if many of them pick it back up, and I don’t know why they should.
The assumed moral superiority of the Jewish people also seems to underlie the essays of Adam Kirsch, one of many younger lions in today’s neo-conservative field who aspire to someday reach Harold Bloom’s status. This moral superiority is usually understood to come from the experience of the Jewish Holocaust in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945, which is understood to have been an unusual occurence in history. The fact that World War I and World War II were nothing but bloody barrels of genocide and mass murder for every society in Central Europe is often forgotten. The fact that there were other genocides during the 20th Century is shuffled aside, with polite nods to the poor Armenians in 1915 or that mess in Rwanda. But there was never anything else like the Holocaust.
These people don’t know much about history, and they’ve probably watched Schindler’s List too many times. Genocide, in fact, is a common disease of our times. How many people know about the Holodomor in Soviet-occupied Ukraine in the 1930s, when millions of peasants were physically starved to death by Stalin’s enforcers? These were the lands of the Jewish Holocaust — but it is barely known at all that the Ukraine had suffered a gigantic holocaust a decade before.
Stalin’s genocide numbers were lower than those of the 20th Century’s murder champion, Chairman Mao. Can somebody remind me what about the Jewish Holocaust was unique? But this sense of uniqueness all too often feeds into the popular myth of Jewish moral superiority, the idea that we as a people can do no wrong. This myth was born in the Holocaust, and is enthusiastically nursed today by many Jewish intellectuals like Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom and Adam Kirsch. An impressive squad, but the myth remains that: a myth.
I don’t believe in Jewish moral superiority for a minute. I think we’re pretty much the same as everyone else. I believe strongly that Israel has a right to exist, and I’m happy to debate this with anyone who disagrees. I can tell you in one sentence why Israel has a right to exist. Because there are people living there, and they have nowhere else to go.
That is, in fact, the only reason any nation needs to exist (and Israel is hardly the only nation in the world that exists because its people have nowhere else to go).
Harold Bloom, once a fierce and self-critical thinker, is now suggesting that the world must support Israel because of Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock. This is a shocking confusion of sentimentality with politics, and this self-pitying article will not persuade a single person who does not already agree with it. Bloom fail.
The Francine Prose and Francis Fukuyama pieces are much better, and really don’t deserve to be lumped with Bloom’s and Kirsch’s effusive displays at all (for the record, it is NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, not me, who did the lumping).
Fukuyama leaves me very eager to read this new biography of the great Friedrich Nietzsche (who was, just for the record, a hundred times more important as a philosopher than the wordy and deadly-boring Martin Heidegger). I have no complaint with Francine Prose’s well-written piece, but even her recounting of Irene Nemirovsky’s story here fails to reach beyond Jewish identity for a universal significance. In fact, Irene Nemirovsky died in the Holocaust because she was a Jew, but also because she was a Russian Jew. To be a Russian person at all during World War II was very bad luck. To live in the cities of Leningrad or Stalingrad was a death sentence. The death numbers throughout Russia were absolutely staggering. Auschwitz was hardly the only horror in town.
There are several gutter comparisons in these essays. Harold Bloom quotes Anthony Julius: “Anti-semitism is a sewer”. Adam Kirsch describes his book’s mission as “expelling [Heidegger] from the ranks of the philosophers into the cesspool where Nazi ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg dwell.”
I would prefer to say: war is a sewer. War is a cesspool. Hatred is a sewer. Racism is a cesspool.
Would Harold Bloom and Adam Kirsch stand behind these more universal statements of truth? I hope they would, if they intend to have any moral authority at all.
Please let me know what you think, if you have anything to say on this topic.