Eloquent and courageous, Edward Alexander takes the theme of anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism and transforms a mere topical debate into profound reflections on the meanings of self-hatred and bigotry; on Jews’ hatred of themselves and on Gentile anti-Semitism in its most contemporary version. These occasional essays, written in the specific context of immediate controversies, transcend their occasions as Alexander pursues a single theme through diverse variations.
Jewish self-hatred is the more surprising subject, since, as a topic of public exposition, Jews’ intense dislike of their own Jewishness, and the psychological and cultural consequences of that dislike, have found only a few important expositors. One was Theodore Lessing, the Czech Zionist murdered by the Nazis, who in 1930 invented the term “Jewish self-hatred” and defined its pathology; the other, Kurt Lewin, whose writings on “leaders from the periphery” and other aspects of ethnic self-hatred, in the late 1940’s, proved prescient for the next half-century of American Jewish life. Now Alexander has shown how the relationship of American Jews to Israel—involving demands that Israel display a degree of self-abnegation unparalleled by any other nation—and Israeli Jewish self-hatred have shaped debate on Israeli policy.
He writes in the aftermath of the Arabs’ remarkable propaganda victory in the Intifada, which dramatically accorded to the Palestinian side the moral authority of victim and stigmatized the Israelis as oppressors. The Israeli left turned against its own country—ignoring the wisdom of Berl Katznelson, the conscience of Socialist Zionism, who in 1936 wrote, “Is there another people on earth whose sons are so emotionally and mentally twisted that they consider everything their nation does despicable and hateful, while every murder, rape, and robbery committed by their enemies fills their hearts with admiration and awe?” In his classic essay, “Antisemitism, Israeli style,” Alexander proceeds to rehearse, chapter and verse, the violent self-hatred characteristic of Israelis’ criticism of their own country and its policies.
A single—remarkably sick—example suffices: the invocation of the blood libel of medieval times, which held that Jews use Gentile blood to make Passover matzot, in a poem on the Lebanon war by Yizhak Laor. Dedi Zucker, commenting on the murder of Jews burned to death in their car by a fire bomb thrown by Arab terrorists, said on the fourth day of Passover, “Palestinian brothers, the Jewish settlers need Ofra Moses’ blood. They are drinking it.”
The equation of Jews with Nazis— which began with British officers in Palestine who spoke, in the midst of the holocaust, of Jewish Palestine as “the Jewish Nazi state”—forms a staple of Israeli left-wing writing. Alexander’s account records no story sorrier than that of the government-supported Haifa Municipal Theater, which made a specialty of “the Jew as Nazi” plays. When they performed these in Germany they received uproarious applause from all but the local Jewish communities, which condemned their plays as pure anti-Semitism.
From among the Americans, Alexander singles out Leonard Fein, David Novak, Michael Lerner, Noam Chomsky (the Jews’ answer to Timothy Leary), and any number of others who qualify, in one way or another, for classification as self-hating Jews: meaning Jews who demand that the Jews be better than everybody else and condemn them for the slightest failure to conform to this fictive gold standard, and who, where the state of Israel is concerned, leap to the barricades to condemn the slightest Israeli aberration but never find fault with anyone else. Any passing cloud that shadows the Jews’ light to the Gentiles betokens the next Flood, and we are no longer Noah but Sodomites.
The introduction of the Nazi metaphor into public debate on Israeli policy derives from anti-Semitic Gentiles as much as from Jews. It is one thing to criticize what Israelis do or do not do; it is quite another to evoke Adolf Hitler as the generative symbol. In this connection Conor Cruise O’Brien has said, “If your interlocutor can’t keep Hitler out of the conversation . . . feverishly turning Jews into Nazis and Arabs into Jews— why then, I think, you may well be talking to an anti-Jewist.” Alexander takes on a whole wolves’ lair of anti-Jewists: Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn, Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Patrick Buchanan (with special attention to his Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons to the Jews of some years back), and many others. A single essay captures it all: “Why Jews must behave better than everybody else: the theory and practice of the double standard.”
Alexander sets himself not only against a massive movement in contemporary politics—the Jews’ own surrender of conscience and character to the care of their worst enemies—and the Western world’s reversion to its long history of Jew-hatred. He also stands against another vile incubus of culture and sensibility. As a professor of English who actually believes that literature edifies, he numbers among his enemies not only the multiculturalists but the lit-crit movement, with its betrayal of literature and its barbaric prose. To underscore the issue, Alexander himself writes elegantly, imparting to his prose a dignity and craft that his enemies’ writing—cited abundantly—strikingly lacks. (One of his principal targets, Edward Said, writes like a barbarian when he is not simply squealing like a stuck pig.)
These great essays recall the moral authority and righteous anger of Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse,” the great essay that turned the tide for the Dreyfusards and against the anti-Semites in France at the start of this century. Indeed, if the book should find its audience, Alexander will be known as the Second Zola. When we recall that it was Zola who persuaded Clemenceau and other French political leaders to take up the Dreyfus cause and fight anti-Semitism in France, we can appreciate the potential effect of this writer’s words. And when we consider, also, that words change the world, we can understand the importance of what is at issue. The survival of the State of Israel, the enduring sense of self-worth of the Jewish people in the Diaspora—these in the end define Alexander’s cause, and everyone’s legitimate concern.
[The Jewish Wars: Reflections by One of the Belligerents, by Edward Alexander (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press) 206 pp., $29.95]
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