Edward Alexander, Jews Against Themselves

, May 8, 2016

Edward Alexander, Jews Against Themselves, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2015, 178pp.

These remarkable essays by Edward Alexander bring intellectual precision, moral clarity and literary elegance to bear on a syndrome that could be called “Jewish suicidalism.”  That is almost the right name for it, except that its advocates, who are described eloquently by Alexander, exempt themselves from the condemnations they rain down on their fellow Jews.  The motivational patterns that Alexander exposes cannot, as is sometimes claimed, be reduced to self-hatred.  Rather, shown in vivid detail are the workings of opportunistic self-love.

Edward Alexander, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Washington, is the author of books that span literary, cultural and Jewish worlds.  In his latest book (Transaction Publishers, 2015), Alexander’s contemporary survey is far-ranging, albeit, not exhaustive. 

In “Michael Lerner: Hillary Clinton’s Jewish Rasputin,” we meet the founder of the magazine Tikkun, “the omnipresent, gentile-appointed voice of the Jewish community,” at an earlier career stage of his career, when he incited mob violence and threatened lawsuits to intimidate his opponents. 

And in “Antisemitism Denial: The Berkeley School,” we meet Judith Butler who urges progressive people to fight antisemitism but maintains that it is “wildly improbable that somebody examining the divestment petitions signed by herself and her co-conspirators might take them (as hundreds on her own campus already had) as condoning antisemitism.”  Alexander compares Butler’s puzzlement to that of Charles Dickens, who did not know what to make of Fagin, the villainous Jew he had created in Oliver Twist.  “The reason for Dickens’ puzzlement was that, in an important sense, he did indeed not ‘make’ Fagin, and therefore didn’t know what to make of him.  Fagin was ready-made for Dickens by the collective folklore of Christendom, which had for centuries fixed the Jew in the role of Christ-killer, surrogate of Satan, inheritor of Judas, thief, fence, corrupter of the young—to which list of attributes Butler and her friends would now add ‘Zionist imperialist and occupier.’”

The type described in Jews Against Themselves is not new.  Drawing on recent scholarship by Sander Gilman, Ruth Wisse and others, Alexander traces the genre to its historical medieval prototypes.  Throughout the era of triumphalist Christianity, there were Jewish informers – my term not his – who converted to the dominant religion.  Innocent themselves, they deflected attacks onto other, also innocent Jews, thereby becoming guilty accomplices in acts of betrayal. Indeed, Pope Gregory IX, who ordered the public burning of the Talmud in Paris and Rome, acted on the advice presented by a Jewish convert to Christianity, the Dominican Nicholas Donin, in 1239.  In 1263, the Jewish convert Pablo Christiani played a leading role in the famous Barcelona Disputation. The latter actually was a show trial in which the eminent Jewish scholar, Nachmanides, was forced to defend Judaism against Christiani’s accusations under intellectually disabling rules of engagement.  Likewise, possibly another convert, Johannes (Josef) Pffefferkorn, may have inspired Martin Luther’s destructive campaigns against the Jews of Germany. Luther justified his calls for humiliating, looting and burning in Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1543), which was one of Hitler’s favorite books.  In “Disraeli and Marx: Stammgenosse?” (Members of the Tribe), Alexander describes these tormented and influential figures within the political context of the Nineteenth Century, who persisted in publically repudiating their Jewish forebears (in the case of Marx, more damaging and venomous).

Unfortunately, the Jewish informer is not just an historical curiosity.  He is still with us and thriving.  In his current form, however, he no longer disavows his Jewish identity.  On the contrary, the new anti-Jewish Jew embraces his Jewishness.  One might wish it were otherwise but, for good or ill, we will not find him among the converts – neither to Catholicism nor Protestantism, nor to Voltaire’s religion of reason or to Marxism. Like his predecessors, the new informer still attacks the innocent Jewish actor on the stage of history – in the present case Israel – hoping thereby to deflect attacks from himself.  In doing so, however, he claims to be more authentically Jewish than those retrograde fellow Jews who somehow fail to follow him in his tireless efforts to delegitimize and thus destroy the only Jewish state.

The new informers have their own particular characteristics. For example, they are great moralizers.  Of course, as Aristotle stated, the problem of moral evaluation is not to find a principle, but to discern what principle is the remedy for the precise situation in view.  Thus, patience is an exemplary virtue, but not in the case of a fire.  Moral questions call for discernment.  Alexander is constantly finding the anti-Jewish Jew to be at least morally imprecise, but more often tastelessly obtuse. 

For example, in “Why Jews Must Behave Better Than Anyone Else,” Alexander looks at Jewish pundits such as Anthony Lewis and Milton Viorst, who openly proclaim that they judge Israel by standards “higher” than the ones they apply to its enemies or to any other state.  Lewis writes:  “From its birth, Israel asked to be judged as a light among nations.”  Alexander points out, it asked no such thing. The Zionists hoped to build a Jewish state that could be “normal,” like other nations.  Thomas Friedman, another advocate for higher moral standards only for Israel, justifies this unfairness by imputing to journalists an “’identification with the dreams of Biblical Israel and mythic Jerusalem [that] runs so deep that when Israel lives up to its prophetic expectations, it is their success too.’”

Alexander refutes Friedman’s statements as well. Christians, among them journalists, have inherited a two-thousand year old propensity to view Jews in a light so harsh and unflattering as to be notably mythical, with a correlative habit of thinking that Jews should not be allowed to defend themselves.  As to the “prophetic” pretensions of Israel’s critics, whether Jewish or Gentile, when they wield the double standard: the prophets gave a message from God to the people of the Covenant.  Journalists are not God. 

In “The Moral Failure of American-Jewish Intellectuals,” Alexander compares the silence of these intellectuals during the Holocaust with their deafness to the significance of reborn Israel.  “Like protagonists in a great tragedy, the Jewish people had imposed a pattern of meaning upon otherwise incomprehensible suffering. … Having averted their eyes from the destruction of European Jewry, the ‘first-rank’ Jewish intellectuals now looked away from one of the most impressive assertions of the will to live that a martyred people has ever made.”

Similarly, the late professor of history, Tony Judt also is counted among the obtuse. Upset that Israel’s policies did not facilitate his acceptance in New York society, Judt complained that, when he justly criticized Israel, people looked at him askance!  Alexander observes that “Judt saw nothing ‘disproportionate’ in recommending politicide – the end of Israel – as the cure for his insecurity.”

If there is such a thing as tone deafness for what is consequential in history, Edward Alexander’s Jews Against Themselves has refined our capacity to recognize it. 

About Abigail L. Rosenthal

Abigail L. Rosenthal is the author of A Good Look at Evil, Confessions of a Young Philosopher (forthcoming), and editor of Henry M. Rosenthal’s Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way. She is Professor of Philosophy Emerita at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York.