Jacques Picard, Jacques Revel, Michael P. Steinberg and Idith Zertal, eds., Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders and the World They Made

, January 2, 2017

Jacques Picard, Jacques Revel, Michael P. Steinberg and Idith Zertal, eds., Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders and the World They Made, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016, 680 pp.

Makers of Jewish Modernity is an ambitious, intriguing and occasionally useful volume. While the book is a somewhat impressive and even compelling venture, it is also disturbing. The editors describe their work as a collection of “original portraits of thinkers, writers, artists, and leaders who founded, formed, and transformed the Twentieth Century and laid down intellectual, cultural and political foundations ahead of us. […] Modern Jewish experience forms a dimension of our post-Enlightenment world.” (1) Contrary to what its title conveys, this book is not about “Jewish modernity” as such, but about Jewish modernity insofar as it is a “dimension” of the contemporary world at large. Perhaps this explains the fact that, with the exception of the literary critic Jacques Derrida, Makers of Jewish Modernity does not include a single “thinker, writer, artist and leader” who is a “Mizrahi” (Middle Eastern or Sephardic) Jew. Moreover, although Derrida was born in Algeria, his thought and writings appear to be largely “Ashkenazified” (European). While Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein certainly are among the founders of the “post-Enlightenment world,” it is not clear that the same applies to the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl; the historian Simon Dubnow; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook; Hebrew poet Dahlia Ravikovitch; scientist and thinker, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz; or Hebrew poet Natan Alterman, – all of whom appear in this volume.

Furthermore, we usually understand the terms, “making” or “makers,” as resembling what is described in the introduction and quoted above, namely, founding, forming, transforming, or perhaps creating or bringing into existence something that had not previously existed. For example, sociologist Emile Durkheim (an illuminating article by Bruno Karsenti); art historian and cultural theorist, Aby Warburg (by Griselda Pollock); or German statesman and foreign minister, Walther Rathenau (by Leon Botstein) were all, as it were, “very Jewish.” They were among the makers of the contemporary world, but not of Jewish modernity, per se, unless, the terms, “maker” or “to make,” mean passively “making present” by the very fact of existing in a certain way. Not all of the Jewish figures noted above contributed to the advent of “Jewish modernity” actively and positively. Indeed, along with several others in this anthology, they represent a particular strain of Jewish modernity. While they certainly may have been faces of Jewish modernity, they can hardly be considered as its makers.

This thick volume contains some 43 “portraits.” As may be expected from such a project, the results are uneven. Some articles are more interesting and illuminating, well written and even original. Many leave much to be desired and some consist simply of compilations based on existing scholarship. The articles differ sharply as far as methodology is concerned. While some writers give an objective presentation of their subject, others use this volume as an opportunity to express their personal political or ideological agendas. In light of the vast richness and diversity of Jewish modernity and the great number of outstanding women and men that appear in this book, it is clear that the editors had difficulties in choosing whom to include. Some choices seem obvious, while others, less so. In fact, there are important persons who are not included in Makers of Jewish Modernity. To be sure, such choices may be arbitrary. While the limited space of this review does not permit me to discuss this issue at length, I must admit that some of the selections caused me to raise my eyebrows. Therefore, I shall limit my essay to the “making of Jewish modernity” in the more literal and straightforward sense of the term and avoid commenting on the more universal “dimensions” supposedly highlighted in this book. This review will not discuss the articles on scientists (Einstein), artists or painters (Mark Rothko), composers (Arnold Schoenberg), novelists and poets (Else Lasker-Schüler, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Saul Bellow, Paul Celan, and Natan Alterman), film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen, and several others. However, this essay will relate to several of the more problematic aspects of the book.

For example, Rosa Luxemburg (by Kevin B. Anderson and Peter Hudis) and Simone Weil (by Maud S. Mandel) were fascinating and extraordinarily women. Despite the fact that the former was a socialist revolutionary and the latter, a religious mystic, both women represent a paradigm of modern “Jewishness” that probably dates from the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch/Benedictus Spinoza, on the threshold of modernity. This paradigm essentially consists of a conscious, explicit and ideological (or theological) refusal to live and act within the boundaries of Jewish existence and espouses a “positively non-Jewish universalism,” which is a modern version of Paulinian universalism. The apostle Paul (first century CE) may or may not have invented such “universalism,” but he definitely invented a concept of universalism that is contingent upon the rejection of “Jewish particularism.” In the case of Rosa Luxemburg and Simone Weil (and Spinoza as well), this meant an active, total and hostile rejection of Judaism as such. As far as Jewish modernity is concerned, they represent a rather peculiar phenomenon. Although many Jews live their modernity and, paradoxically, their Jewishness in the manner of Luxemburg or Weil, this type of negative Jewish existence cannot not define the “making” of Jewish modernity. Indeed, Luxemburg and Weil represent modern modes of turning away from Judaism – the un-making, rather than the making, of Jewish modernity.

Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler And Hannah Arendt

In light of the above and of what I shall elucidate below, reading this informative volume frequently is accompanied by a vague, persistent feeling that the work is somewhat disingenuous. Behind its respectable and academic veneer, Makers of Jewish Modernity has an unspoken ideological-political agenda. A glance at its thematic-temporal framework will suffice. The first article is about Sigmund Freud and the last, Judith Butler. Certainly Freud is one of the most important makers of modernity in general, and perhaps, of Jewish modernity as well, albeit in a more complex manner. Author Lydia Flem, however, chose to write almost exclusively on Freud’s Jewishness as reflected in his encounter with the Bible, or, more precisely, on the profound influence of the Bible upon Freud’s inner life and “psyche.” She includes many details on the copy of his family Bible, a bilingual German-Hebrew edition, known as the Philipson Bible. Perhaps many students of Freud are aware of the fact that it might have played an important role in his mental and intellectual development. That being said, despite the fact that this point is of biographical interest, Flem does not enlighten the reader regarding the way that the family Bible influenced Freud’s thought and whether it was significant regarding the history and nature of psychoanalysis, which is often described as “a Jewish science.” Since Freud, however, is one of the greatest modern Jews, the decision to open Makers of Jewish Modernity with this article is clearly justifiable.

In contrast, the radical feminist literary theorist, Professor of Rhetoric Judith Butler (by Bonnie Honig and John Wolfe Ackerman) is completely different. There is nothing in her writings that approaches Freud’s originality and intellectual rigor. While Butler is extremely popular among more “progressive” audiences, such as the practitioners of “theory” and “criticism,” she seems to be more of an epigone than an original thinker, as far as philosophical and literary texts are concerned. It is noteworthy that the editors decided to close the volume with an entry on Judith Butler whose only contribution to Jewish thought is her strong and vocal anti-Israel position. The latter most likely explains the reason for her inclusion in the first place. For Butler may well be a major contributor or even a “maker” of the contemporary “critical” and “progressive” discourse about Israel, which often has taken the form of delegitimization of the Jewish state. According to the authors, she has developed “a post-Zionist Jewish ethics and politics of cohabitation,” which basically expresses the hope that the Jews in the Land of Israel (referred to as “Israel-Palestine”) would give up their right to self-determination.

Butler considers her work to be “Arendtian,” namely a continuation of the thought of the political theorist, philosopher and thinker, Hannah Arendt. There is hardly any justification for this pretentious claim. Despite criticism of her work, Arendt was an outstanding figure and an original thinker. She never would have endorsed Butler’s anti-Zionism or her support of BDS and other anti-Israel movements. Arendt’s attitude toward Israel and the Zionist movement was complex and bears no resemblance to Butler’s simplistic pronouncements. Although she was critical of Israel and its leaders, Hannah Arendt was deeply attached to the country and to her the many friends and relatives in Israel. She publicly espoused the opposition of Judah Magnes and of Brith Shalom to the founding of the State of Israel, but definitely supported the existence of a Jewish “national home,” in the ancient land of the Jews. She was neither a post-Zionist nor an anti-Zionist. After the War of Independence, Arendt acknowledged that the wheels of history could not be turned backward and, on more than one occasion, stated that she could not think of anything more terrible than the destruction of Israel. If she were alive today, I imagine that she would have ridiculed Butler’s ruminations about “cohabitation” as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike Butler, Arendt was far too honest and too intelligent to think that such a plan could succeed. It would only lead to more bloodshed.

Both Arendt and Butler are currently fashionable. As the example of Butler shows, the role of Hannah Arendt in contemporary progressive and critical circles, especially with regard to the popular hatred of Israel, is mainly symbolic. Butler uses and abuses Arendt in order to lend moral and intellectual weight to her Israel-bashing. Martine Leibovici, author of the article on Arendt, acknowledges this point. She correctly states that despite her reservations about the Zionist plan to establish a state, Arendt understood perfectly well that “the state of Israel was an established fact. This means that there exists somewhere an institution that is not communitarian but political and as such is therefore responsible, constructing a new kind of relation with the Jew of the diaspora.” (439) In light of Judith Butler’s contrived “Arendtism” and her misuse of Arendt’s name, the author’s assertion is indeed refreshing. Otherwise, the article on Arendt offers an unsurprising, competent and informative portrait of Hannah Arendt as modern or post-Holocaust Jew. It is based upon a selection of Arendt’s pronouncements and some pieces in which Arendt portrayed problematically modern and ambiguously Jewish figures such as writer Franz Kafka; essayist and literary critic, Walter Benjamin; and, first and foremost, nineteenth- century polemicist and thinker, Bernard Lazare. In fact, Arendt may have been telling her own story in those pieces. According to the excellent article on Lazare (by Nathaniel Berman), Arendt’s description of the man is simplistic and inaccurate. Berman has contributed a comprehensive, enlightening article which is objective and free of ideological bias. Bernard Lazare is a complex figure whose attitudes toward his own Jewish identity, the fate of the Jews, and particularly to Zionism continuously evolved and changed throughout his life.

It is noteworthy, that Leibovici does not mention some of Arendt’s major works, such as her study of the writer Rahel Varnhagen or her controversial book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem. She barely mentions the harsh criticism of Arendt and the intense debate among Jewish intellectuals after the publication of her essays on Eichmann which first appeared in the New Yorker. In the context of Jewish modernity, a portrait of Hannah Arendt that does not present these facts certainly is incomplete. Arendt remains a controversial figure. Generally speaking, writers sympathetic to Arendt, let alone her many hagiographers, often tend to ignore criticism of her work and her opinions. Therefore, this article does not list recent publications critical of Arendt, such as Emmanuel Faye’s study of Arendt’s outrageous admiration of the thought of German philosopher/ideologue Martin Heidegger or Bernard Wasserstein’s argument that Nazi writers influenced her concepts of antisemitism.1

Men of ideas

Other figures in the volume participated more directly and positively in the making of Jewish modernity. Several articles deal with men who contributed to Jewish modernity in the realm of ideas. While some are well known outside the Jewish world, either their entire or a significant part of their lives were spent in Jewish circles. For example, Dan Dinner has written an illuminating article on the historian Simon Dubnow. Free of jargon and ideology, the essay provides the appropriate balance between description and analysis. In addition to Dubnow’s biography and a discussion of his work, Dinner notes its important contribution to the secularization of Jewish historiography. The article on the philosopher Martin Buber by Christopher Schmidt is excellent as well. While Peter Gordon’s article on Franz Rosenzweig treats the man and his thought quite well, the author takes the liberty of going beyond a scholarly presentation and praises the merits of life in the Diaspora as opposed to the territorial nationalism of Zionism. The article on Gershom Scholem (by David Biale) ably describes Scholem’s dialectic conception of Jewish history and Jewish modernity. Other solid contributions include Leora F. Batnizky’s piece on the philosopher Leo Strauss and Avi Sagi’s on Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Unfortunately, the piece by Raphael Zagury-Orly on the philosopher Emanuel Levinas does not contribute much to our knowledge.

Men of action: René Cassin, David Ben Gurion And Theodor Herzl

Makers of Jewish Modernity includes surprisingly few men of action, such as statesmen or political figures. Among them are: René Cassin (by Samuel Moyn); David Ben Gurion (by Yaron Ezrahi); and Theodor Herzl (by Raef Zreik). There are no women of action in this volume. Nearly all of the politically active “makers of Jewish modernity” are either committed Zionists or somehow associated with the Zionist project.

René Cassin won the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his leading role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Moyn’s article briefly relates his biography but mainly focuses upon Cassin’s activities in the field of Human Rights. According to the author, “Cassin’s importance comes into most profound relief when he is considered as a renovator of the tradition of Jewish internationalism.” ( 278) This assumption may be questioned because there is no evidence of a link between René Cassin’s activity in Jewish “transnational” organizations such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle and his role within the framework of the United Nations in the formulation of the Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the revelations of Nazi atrocities and war crimes provided the real incentive for the involvement of Cassin and other, mainly Jewish, jurists in the field of human rights. Hence, the reader is confronted with contradictory claims. On the one hand, the author contends that there are structural similarities between the “new space, consciousness and activity” emerging in the mid- nineteenth century among Jews living in the different “nation states,” and, on the other hand, the post-statist global “space” of universal human rights. Moyn’s assertion that there was an allegedly “new” phenomenon of Jewish internationalism is wrong since Jews always maintained all types of networks across political borders. Moreover, Jewish organizations, such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle, represent institutions of “particularist” Jewish solidarity rather than the creation of a “universalistic space.” In any case, according to the author, Cassin’s support for the creation of Jewish state “complicates any notion that a new Jewish internationalism broke through” at the time that he was active. Even worse is the writer’s argument that “if he was … not particularly clairvoyant about the disastrous consequences … of the Israeli occupation after 1967, it was because he did not fully understand what it meant to be loyal to the assumptions of the 1940s that he had pioneered about the interdependence of Jewry and human rights…” (287) Like other contributors to this volume, the ideological agenda of this writer casts its spell upon the entire article. Scholarly objectivity is sacrificed for the sake of fashionable discomfort with Israel and Zionism.

A similar tone may be noted in Professor Yaron Ezrahi’s extremely disappointing article on David Ben Gurion. Ezrahi portrays the first prime minister of Israel mainly as a type of propagandist. He describes him by using the somewhat dated paradigm of “imagined nations,” as if Ben Gurion’s major accomplishment was the creation of collective “imagination” in the minds of Israelis. The editors’ baffling choice of Yaron Ezrahi raises numerous questions, since there are excellent biographers and scholars of Ben Gurion both in Israel and abroad. The answer may be found toward the end of the Introduction of the book. There, in a programmatic statement, the editors explain that “it goes without saying” that not only have they have reviewed the articles “for their historical and empirical accuracy,” but they have also “arranged the choice of subjects and authors, as well as the ‘marriages’ between subjects and authors, according to the present realities of the […] Jewish world.” The articles on David Ben Gurion and on Theodor Herzl, however, prove that scholarly accuracy and objectivity did not always serve as criteria for arranging these “marriages.” Apparently, the match between author and subject were not necessarily made on the basis of the writers’ knowledge of the personalities about whom they wrote. In fact, nearly all the Israeli writers in this anthology belong to a specific political-ideological group. It is clear to the reviewer that this tendency was important in the choice of contributors.

This feature is particularly striking in the article on Theodor Herzl, which must be read with extreme caution. The author, Raef Zreik, is the “Co-academic Director at the Minerva Humanities Center, Tel Aviv University and Associate Professor of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law at Carmel Academic Center.” Zreik is an Israeli Arab. A qualified Arab scholar certainly may write about Herzl or about any other Zionist figure. That is not the issue here. Unfortunately, the article is neither well written nor original. The reader learns more about the Zreik’s attitude toward |Zionism than about Herzl. The essay consists of three parts: a summary of Herzl’s major ideas for solving the “Jewish problem,” based mainly upon The Jewish State and Altneuland; background material gleaned from the vast literature on Theodor Herzl; and finally, Zreik’s opinions and theoretical ruminations on the nature of Zionism. He argues that there are logical flaws in Herzl’s thinking and that the “conclusion in favor of the Jewish state does not derive naturally from the fact of antisemitism.” (48) Furthermore, Herzl had “a typical colonial mindset.” (49) Zreik states that while Herzl’s strategy for constructing Jewish sovereignty is powerful, “it enforces representation on those Jews who do not share the Zionist worldview,” especially, of course, on “those non-European Jews who had not experienced antisemitism in their home countries and who opposed the generalization of the Zionist narrative.” Here, he cites the work of Ella Shohat, a strident example of current Israel bashing. Finally, after several clichés, he asserts that “the Herzlian state […] assumes two kinds of liquidation (sic!): that of Jewish religious life in exile and that of an Arab collective life in Palestine.” (57)

The article is sorely lacking in scholarly objectivity. It is clear that Zreik does not have much understanding of his subject, and Herzl simply serves as a vehicle for voicing his dislike of Zionism and the State of Israel. Occasionally, Zreik goes further and calls Zionism a “settler-colonial project,” and argues that the process of decolonizing Israel must “rally all powers against the Israeli aggression. One of the factors in this rallying process is fury: moral rage, anger, even enmity. Some sense of enmity is required in political struggles, and some level of ignorance of “The Other” might be productive in such political struggles.”2


While Zreik is entitled to his opinions, the reader may question the editors’ choice of this author for the article on so important a maker of Jewish modernity. Indeed, this is symptomatic of the book and reveals its subtext, – a fashionable anti-Israelism and vague favoritism toward life in the Diaspora. This message even appears in the following excerpt from the Introduction: After World War II the Jewish question became transformed “into the Israeli or the Palestinian question, creating a new and so far unsolved tragedy that has largely, – if not entirely, – displaced the earlier one. The historical proximity of the Holocaust to the achievement of Jewish political sovereignty […] was to yield a special kind of catastrophic messianism, and a new or new-old myth of destruction and redemption, of powerlessness and empowerment, that was removed both from the historical and the political. […] [T]he Holocaust [is] the constituent myth of the Zionist-Israeli metanarrative.” As a result, Israel “now finds itself gradually shrouded and sinking into a self-made new ghetto […] of an old new Arendtian ‘worldlessness’3 – a ghetto defined by fears, isolationism and devastated public spheres,” etc. There is also a reference to Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge, 2005) by Idith Zertal, one of the editors of this volume. The few phrases quoted above summarize the main thesis of her book which I have reviewed elsewhere. The work is an example of bad faith, lack of truth, deceit, and extraordinary malice. To a certain extent, the words of Hannah Arendt regarding The Protocols of the Elders of Zion may well apply to Makers of Jewish Modernity because of the ideas expressed in the Introduction. Arendt remarked that the only thing interesting about The Protocols is its reception and the fact that otherwise intelligent and decent people can take it seriously. In conclusion, the quotations cited above make it clear that despite its many good points, the ambitious project represented by this volume is partially a serious failure.

* * *


1 See: E. Faye, Arendt et Heidegger. Extermination nazie et destruction de la pensée ( Paris : Albin Michel, 2016). This comprehensive study appeared too late to be included in this volume. Faye, however, had published articles that contained extremely critical views of Arendt prior to the publication of his book. See also: B. Wasserstein, “Blame the Victim: Hannah Arendt among the Nazis: The Historian and her Sources”, The Times Literary Supplement, October 9, 2009.

2 R. Zreik, “When Does a Settler Become a Native? (With Apologies to Mamdani),” in: Constellations, Volume 23, No. 3 (2016), 352.

3 The text reads “worlsnessness”, but what is intended is most probably Heidegger”s, rather than Arendt’s idea of “worldlessness.”

About Elhanan Yakira

Elhanan Yakira is Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is the author of Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting and the Delegitimation of Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Spinoza and the Case for Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).