The worrisome state of the Jewish people these days has little to do with anything intrinsic to the State of Israel, the thriving, vibrant, and solitary democracy in the Middle East. Rather, as Edward Alexander writes in the Introduction to The State of the Jews, his selection of trenchant essays and reviews spanning the last decade, it is attributable to “the role played by Jews in the war of ideas against the state of the Jews.”
Alexander, professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington (who also taught for many years at Tel Aviv University), does not suffer liberal fools gladly. It was, he reminds us in his scrutiny of the Victorian background of anti-Semitism, the writer George Eliot who suggested back in 1878 that liberals have a “Jewish problem.” To be sure, not only liberals. The Fagin of Oliver Twist, after all, was the direct literary descendant of Shakespeare’s Shylock.
Alexander’s scathing scrutiny of English literary anti-Semitism befits a professor of literature whose powers of critical analysis expose “the enormous role of English Jews in the current war of ideas (and agitprop) against Zionism and Israel’s existence.” Yet he also illuminates the complementary Victorian phenomenon of “British Philosemitism,” a now bygone sympathy once expressed by Benjamin Disraeli, Arthur Balfour (of Declaration fame), and Winston Churchill.
It is a chilling contrast, as Alexander notes, with the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rants by contemporary British academics: philosopher Ted Honderich, who proclaimed that Palestinians have “a moral right to their terrorism”; Jacqueline Rose, who condemned “those wishing to denigrate suicide bombers and their culture”; and Oxford poet Tom Paulin, who urged that Jewish settlers “should be shot dead.”
As Alexander makes clear, the history, politics and literature of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are inextricably interwoven. Along the way, he moves deftly from the history of Commentary magazine to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s invented story (predictably featured in The New York Times) about his family’s “expulsion” from Palestine that never happened. He eviscerates Barack Obama’s “artful theft of the Jews’ sad history” in his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention and his “engagement” with Islam five years later in Cairo when, as president, he challenged the legitimacy of Jewish settlements and obscenely compared “more than sixty years” of Palestinian suffering to the Holocaust.
Alexander’s most scathing analysis focuses on academic anti-Semitism and the collaboration of Jewish liberals in the demotion of Israel to the fetid sewer of illegitimacy until recently reserved for Nazi Germany and South Africa. The chapter titles alone are eye-catching: “Professors for Suicide Bombing”; “Poetaster of Murder” (Tom Paulin); “Afrocentrism, Liberal Dogmatism, and Antisemitism at Wellesley College” (my own academic home for forty years).
“Hitler’s professors,” he notes, “were the first to make anti-Semitism both academically respectable and complicit in crime.” But hardly the last. Their contemporary emulators, liberally (of course) sprinkled throughout British and American academic precincts, have provided “grotesque apologetics” for Arafat, bin Laden, Hamas and Hezbollah. The “new anti-Semitism,” he writes, has transformed “the pariah people into the pariah state.”
In “The Antisemitism of Liberals” Alexander explores the “ideological violence” of “the new Jew-hatred,” which “is the work primarily of leftists, battlers against racism, professed humanitarians, and liberals (including Jewish ones).” His own sharp condemnation of those he labels “liberal antisemites,” whose “liberal dogmatism” makes them into “accessories before the fact of Ahmadinejad’s plan ‘to wipe Israel off the map,’” will surely stir the wrath of any liberals who might encounter his critique of their own distinctive brand of intolerance.
But Alexander, a keen reader and adept textual critic, has far more to offer than justifiable wrath over the liberals’ betrayal of Israel – and, too often, their own Judaism. His concluding essays cover a wide range of Jewish angst and self-flagellation. He deftly analyzes (Jewish) critic Lionel Trilling’s sharp rejection of “the suggestion that he might be a Jewish writer.” He precisely locates Cynthia Ozick’s fiction within German Jewish history in the Nazi era and in post-Holocaust Europe. He carefully explores Saul Bellow’s explanation of the silence of Jewish writers (himself included) during the Holocaust. And he deftly analyzes poet Abba Kovner, the paradoxical Zionist who led the resistance fighters in the Vilna ghetto and survived to castigate Israelis who scorned Diaspora Jewry.
Edward Alexander’s critical appraisal of “the state of the Jews” reinforces his place of primacy in the continuing war, waged by far too few of our academic or intellectual colleagues, against Israel. He actually believes that ideas are vital weapons in this struggle, and his cogent essays demonstrate why they are.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey (Quid Pro Books).