New York Jewish intellectuals: Another moral debacle?

As the international noose grows ever tighter about Israel’s throat, the learned classes of Diaspora Jewry are not asking themselves the right questions.

new york skyline 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
new york skyline 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
‘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). These should have been the besetting questions for American- Jewish intellectuals during Hitler’s twelve-year war against European Jewry; but generally they were not.
They should be the pressing ones for the learned classes of Diaspora Jewry today, as the international noose grows ever tighter about Israel’s throat; but they are not.
Long after World War II had ended, William Phillips, co-founder of Partisan Review, recalled that Irving Howe, the most astute political mind among the Jewish intellectuals, “was haunted by the question of why our [Jewish] intellectual community ... had paid so little attention to the Holocaust in the early 1940s.... He asked me why we had written and talked so little about the Holocaust at the time it was taking place.”
One may, for example, search the pages of Partisan Review from 1937 through summer 1939 without finding mention of Hitler or Nazism. When Howe was working on his autobiography, he looked through the old issues of his own journal Labor Action to see how, or indeed whether, he and his socialist comrades had responded to the Holocaust. But he found the experience painful, and concluded that the Trotskyists, including himself, were only the best of a bad lot of leftist sects. He told Phillips that this inattention to the destruction of European Jewry was “a serious instance of moral failure on our part.”
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. Of this achievement, 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, two thousand or even three thousand years.
“That is a standard of temporal values or time-values which seems very much out of accord with the perpetual click-clack of our rapidly changing moods and of the age in which we live. This is an event in world history.”
The moral failure of ignoring the Holocaust was now compounded by a related failure: having averted their eyes from the destruction of European Jewry, the Jewish intellectuals now looked away from one of the most impressive assertions of the will to live that a martyred people has ever made. The writers had been immersed in the twists and turns of literary modernism, in the fate of socialism in the USSR and the US, and most of all in themselves, especially their “alienation” not only from America but from Judaism, Jewishness, and Jews. Indeed they defined themselves Jewishly through their alienation from their Jewishness.
Looking back on this debacle many years later, Saul Bellow admitted: “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.... Not a particle of this can be denied.”
IN ONE sense, Howe and Bellow were the (embarrassed) prototypes, if not exactly the progenitors, of today’s bumper crop of “anti-Zionist” Jewish deep thinkers.
Howe, even more contrite than Bellow about his “moral failure,” was among the first to see what was coming, and by 1970 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.”
Many of these “Jewish boys and girls” are by now well-established figures in journalism and academia, tenured and heavily-petted, warming themselves in endowed university chairs, or editorializing from The New York Times or New York Review of Books. But the “alienation” of which the older New York Jewish intellectuals belatedly grew ashamed became the boast of the Judts, Kushners, Butlers, Chomskys, and their acolytes.
These are people who do not merely “sit here” while their brothers go to war. They take the side of their brothers’ enemies and call their cowardice courage. Others, more cautious, discover that the Jewish state, which most Europeans now blame for all the world’s miseries (with the possible exception of global warming,) should never have come into existence in the first place, and that “the [non-Zionist] roads not taken” would have brought (and may yet bring) a “new” Diaspora Golden Age. They are forever organizing kangaroo courts (called “academic conferences”) to put Israel in the dock; or else they are churning out articles or monographs or novels celebrating those roads not taken; or they are performing as “public intellectuals,” breathlessly recommending a one-state solution or a no-state solution or (this from the tone-deaf George Steiner) “a final solution.”
Their strategy is at once timely and timeless. By a happy coincidence, they excavate 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 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 six million souls under constant siege.
In 1942 a character named Yudka (“little Jew”) in Haim Hazaz’s famous Hebrew short story The Sermon says that “when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.” But the unnatural progeny of the New York Intellectuals embody a new, darker reality: when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes an anti- Zionist, building an “identity” on the very thing he would destroy. They have turned on its head the old slogan of assimilationism, which was “Be a Jew at home, but a man in the street.” Their slogan is: “Be a man at home, but a Jew in public.” By the time Howe and Bellow came to recognize that their lack of brotherly concern with Jewish survival had indeed been a “moral failure,” a new generation of Jewish intellectuals was already proclaiming it as a virtue entitling them to put on the long robes and long faces of biblical prophets.
Their prodigious work in painting Israel’s decent society black as Gehenna and the pit of hell has forced a small yet crucial revision of Orwell’s famous pronouncement about moral obtuseness and the ignorance of the learned: “Some ideas are so stupid that only [Jewish] intellectuals could believe them.”
The writer is the author of numerous books, including Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew, and (with Paul Bogdanor) The Jewish divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders.