Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Reviewing the Review: May 9 2010

By Levi Asher on Sunday, May 9, 2010 08:24 pm

This is going to be one of the hardest blog posts I've ever written. Not because it's painful, but because the topic is controversial, and I'm going to be arguing with a giant, and my words could be very easily misunderstood. I want to talk about Jewish identity, Israel and anti-semitism.

The occasion is this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is titled "The Jewish Question" and features book reviews by two high-profile Jewish writers on the cover: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius, reviewed by Harold Bloom, and two books on Martin Heidegger, Heidegger: Tne Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye, and Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed by Adam Kirsch.

Two more featured reviews within touch on the "Jewish Question" theme: Friedrich Nietzsche by Julian Young, reviewed by Francis Fukuyama and The Life of Irene Nemirovsky by Oliver Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt and Dimance and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky, reviewed by Francine Prose.

Collectively, the understanding of Jewish identity that emerges from these four pieces resembles what I call the Philip Roth Paradigm: the idea that Jews are essentially different from other humans in some way, that we carry some moral legacy that gives us special status in the world. This paradigm has a corollary: the idea that anti-semitism is a different kind of hatred from other kinds of hatred.

I have a lot of respect for the elderly critic Harold Bloom, who is introduced (rightfully) in reverent terms in the "Up Front" section:

Harold Bloom is probably the most prominent — and the most formidable — literary critic and commentator in America today ... He is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles, reviews and introductions. He has taught at Yale for 55 years and, in an e-mail message, promises that he “will go on teaching" ... “Anti-Semitism is an inescapable interest, though I have never suffered it personally,” Bloom writes. “My four grandparents and many other relatives were murdered in the Shoah.”

Who am I to take on Harold Bloom? Well, I am also an American Jew. My four grandparents were not murdered in the Shoah, but my Grandma Clara's entire family back in a town called Potok Zloty near Lvov were, so I guess I have a right to speak on the Jewish question too. I'm sorry to say that the old lion has gone soft. This is a poor article, beneath the standards of the New York Times.

The article, allegedly about Anthony Julius's book of British history, is a howl of protest on behalf of the nation of Israel. Here's how it begins:

Anthony Julius has written a strong, somber book on an appalling subject: the long squalor of Jew-hatred in a supposedly enlightened, humane, liberal society. My first, personal, reflection is to give thanks that my own father, who migrated from Odessa, Russia, to London, had the sense, after sojourning there, to continue on to New York City.

With a training both literary and legal, Julius is well prepared for the immensity of his task. He is a truth-teller, and authentic enough to stand against the English literary and academic establishment, which essentially opposes the right of the state of Israel to exist, while indulging in the humbuggery that its anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Endless boycotts of Israel are urged by this establishment, and might yet have produced a counter boycott of British universities by many American academics, whether Jewish or not. However, under British law the projected boycotts may be illegal. The fierce relevance of Julius’s book is provoked by this currently prevalent anti-Semitism.

He returns to the topic of Israel (neatly shuffling Julius's book aside) for the piece's big finish, the final four paragraphs:

At his frequent best, Julius refreshes by a mordant tonality, as when he catalogs the types of English anti-Semites. The height of his argument comes where his book will be most controversial: his comprehensive account of the newest English anti-Semitism.

To protest the policies of the Israeli government actually can be regarded as true philo-Semitism, but to disallow the existence of the Jewish state is another matter. Of the nearly 200 recognized nation-states in the world today, something like at least half are more reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. A curious blindness informs the shifting standards of current English anti-Zionism.

I admire Julius for the level tone with which he discusses this sanctimonious intelligentsia, who really will not rest until Israel is destroyed.

I end by wondering at the extraordinary moral strength of Anthony Julius. He concludes by observing: “Anti-Semitism is a sewer.” As he has shown, the genteel and self-righteous “new anti-Semitism” of so many English academic and literary contemporaries emanates from that immemorial stench.

The suggestion that anyone around the world who protests against Israel is an anti-semite is extremely offensive, and I hope it goes without saying that it's incorrect. Many, many people around the world who do not hate Jews wish to protest against Israel, and I can't imagine why Harold Bloom thinks they ought to be satisfied that "something like at least half" of the nation-states in the world are more "reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians". (Half? That's not a record for Israel to be proud of. No wonder people are protesting.)

The moral superiority of the Jewish people is the unspoken assumption of Harold Bloom's piece. There's no other way for the argument to add up. Certainly nothing in this piece has any power to change anyone's mind. It does not reach for a universal statement to any other race, religion, gender or group that might feel victimized. He's preaching to the synagogue. It's a pep rally for the pre-convinced, and it offers nothing at all but a cold hand in the face to anyone who wishes to fairly represent the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli wars.

I imagine that many people around New York City and around the world will throw this issue of the Book Review across the room in anger. I'd be surprised if many of them pick it back up, and I don't know why they should.

The assumed moral superiority of the Jewish people also seems to underlie the essays of Adam Kirsch, one of many younger lions in today's neo-conservative field who aspire to someday reach Harold Bloom's status. This moral superiority is usually understood to come from the experience of the Jewish Holocaust in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945, which is understood to have been an unusual occurence in history. The fact that World War I and World War II were nothing but bloody barrels of genocide and mass murder for every society in Central Europe is often forgotten. The fact that there were other genocides during the 20th Century is shuffled aside, with polite nods to the poor Armenians in 1915 or that mess in Rwanda. But there was never anything else like the Holocaust.

These people don't know much about history, and they've probably watched Schindler's List too many times. Genocide, in fact, is a common disease of our times. How many people know about the Holodomor in Soviet-occupied Ukraine in the 1930s, when millions of peasants were physically starved to death by Stalin's enforcers? These were the lands of the Jewish Holocaust -- but it is barely known at all that the Ukraine had suffered a gigantic holocaust a decade before.

Stalin's genocide numbers were lower than those of the 20th Century's murder champion, Chairman Mao. Can somebody remind me what about the Jewish Holocaust was unique? But this sense of uniqueness all too often feeds into the popular myth of Jewish moral superiority, the idea that we as a people can do no wrong. This myth was born in the Holocaust, and is enthusiastically nursed today by many Jewish intellectuals like Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom and Adam Kirsch. An impressive squad, but the myth remains that: a myth.

I don't believe in Jewish moral superiority for a minute. I think we're pretty much the same as everyone else. I believe strongly that Israel has a right to exist, and I'm happy to debate this with anyone who disagrees. I can tell you in one sentence why Israel has a right to exist. Because there are people living there, and they have nowhere else to go.

That is, in fact, the only reason any nation needs to exist (and Israel is hardly the only nation in the world that exists because its people have nowhere else to go).

Harold Bloom, once a fierce and self-critical thinker, is now suggesting that the world must support Israel because of Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock. This is a shocking confusion of sentimentality with politics, and this self-pitying article will not persuade a single person who does not already agree with it. Bloom fail.

The Francine Prose and Francis Fukuyama pieces are much better, and really don't deserve to be lumped with Bloom's and Kirsch's effusive displays at all (for the record, it is NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, not me, who did the lumping).

Fukuyama leaves me very eager to read this new biography of the great Friedrich Nietzsche (who was, just for the record, a hundred times more important as a philosopher than the wordy and deadly-boring Martin Heidegger). I have no complaint with Francine Prose's well-written piece, but even her recounting of Irene Nemirovsky's story here fails to reach beyond Jewish identity for a universal significance. In fact, Irene Nemirovsky died in the Holocaust because she was a Jew, but also because she was a Russian Jew. To be a Russian person at all during World War II was very bad luck. To live in the cities of Leningrad or Stalingrad was a death sentence. The death numbers throughout Russia were absolutely staggering. Auschwitz was hardly the only horror in town.

There are several gutter comparisons in these essays. Harold Bloom quotes Anthony Julius: "Anti-semitism is a sewer". Adam Kirsch describes his book's mission as "expelling [Heidegger] from the ranks of the philosophers into the cesspool where Nazi ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg dwell."

I would prefer to say: war is a sewer. War is a cesspool. Hatred is a sewer. Racism is a cesspool.

Would Harold Bloom and Adam Kirsch stand behind these more universal statements of truth? I hope they would, if they intend to have any moral authority at all.

Please let me know what you think, if you have anything to say on this topic.


This article is part of the Reviewing the New York Times Book Review series. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review of the Review: May 15 2010. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: May 2 2010.


18 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: May 9 2010"

by Mayowa on

I applaud your dissent Mr. Asher. It is never easy to challenge assumed wisdom and the lengthy invisible ties that bind a people.

Hi Levi,

You make some good points, though I want to offer a couple clarifications. The notion of the Holocaust as somehow unique in the realm of genocides generally derives from the argument that, for the first time in history, an entire state apparatus was devoted to exterminating a people and that the extermination was carried out on an industrial scale -- or rather, as an industry, with the attendant use of modern machinery (trains, crematoria), cost-benefit analysis (mobile gassing vans and, eventually, gas chambers were determined to be cheaper than bullets), and so on. Some of these elements were indeed found in other genocides, such as the use of trains to deport Armenians, but the Holocaust's level of planning and organization, as well as its chillingly sophisticated bureaucracy, are indeed distinct. So too was Germany's single-mindedness about the task at hand -- e.g. the Nazis went out of their to deport and kill the Jews of Rhodes toward the end of the war, even as it was clear that Germany was on the verge of surrender.

One other point: During WWII, Irene Nemirovsky lived in France, not Russia, until she was imprisoned and later deported to Auschwitz, though Leningrad and Stalingrad were, as you say, extremely deadly places to be. Having read the Nemirovsky bio, I think that Francine Prose's review is accurate. The question of the nature and extent of Nemirovsky's Jew-hatred is a central component of this book. But I wish she were even more severe towards the authors: they're incapable of being objective towards their subject, and it's incredibly sloppy how they use passages from her fiction -- often without attribution -- as examples of her impressions or feelings about particular people. They've done some good research, but there's still room, I think, for a thorough, dispassionate account of Nemirovsky's life and works; it should be an account that's willing to put up with some cognitive dissonance.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for responding, Jacob -- I've read your writing elsewhere and am glad to engage with you on this topic.

If you don't mind me responding in reverse order -- it's my fault that I wasn't clear what I meant when I called Irene Nemirovsky a Russian Jew, but of course I know that she was living in France, not Russia. I've read her "Suite Francaise" and followed the story closely. But what I say is exactly right: Vichy France had different policies for French Jews and foreign Jews. To quote Wikipedia:

"It is interesting to note, however, that the majority of Jews deported from France and killed during the Holocaust were non-French Jews. Until severe pressure was brought to bear by Nazi Germany, Vichy sought in many instances to protect its native French-born Jews, especially those who had assimilated into the culture or converted to Catholicism."

Throughout occupied and Fascist Europe World War II, Jews who were citizens of the countries they lived in had much better chances of survival than Jews who were originally from the pale (Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics) and were therefore deported back to these war-stricken regions -- and straight to the concentration camps. Many French Jews in France survived the Vichy years. Russian Jews in France did not. That's why I say Irene Nemirovsky died because she was a Russian Jew.

Then, about your first point: well, you're probably right that Nazi Germany's use of technology and level of obsession in carrying out the murder of six million Jews was unique. But, okay, so it was unique in this way. Other genocides were unique in other ways. The unfathomable murder of millions of Ukranians by Soviet Russia in the early 1930s was unique for barely making a dent in history. I don't think one in a thousand people alive today know that this ever took place. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians -- mostly old people, women and children -- in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is unique in another way -- it was the fastest mass murder of all time. The monthlong rampage in Rwanda in 1994 was unique for being the only genocide ever organized and initiated by public radio broadcast. I bet every genocide is unique in many ways. I still ask: why do Harold Bloom and so many other Jewish thinkers keep pressing this strange claim that the Holocaust was in a completely different moral category from the rest of the 20th Century's sorry genocidal record?

I had the accident in life of reading the Zionists at the same time I was reading the French Existentialists. I was a teenager and far more credulous at that time than now, but just as certain foods are more nutritionally valuable when combined, these two philosophies taken together compacted into a powerful and potent worldview: We can make our own reality and it can be a paradise.

In mathematics, compacting is the precondition for convergences, so I use that word most advisedly and ask Litkickers to spend a few moments reading the etymology and brief Wikipedia entry. With that point of view please also keep in mind that the only usage of “compacted” by Shakespeare, according to the concordance, is in The Rape of Lucrece, the themes of which are central to my argument (so I walking down this scenic road not with Oprah but with William Fucking Shakespeare). Please check that out too and take a good long stare at Titian's painting. He painted it for YOU!

Lately I've been wondering if others, like Michael Bloomberg for instance, may have had a similar reading experience—conflating Zionism and Existentialism—but perhaps arrived at a more literal conclusion, a literal redrawing of the map, as imperialists are wont to do. Henry Hudson is very much in the house.

Follow me down my “What if” path?

1.We know from experience that Sam Tanenhaus' lumps are never accidental. His goal always, first and foremost, is to be seeming to raise important issues while distracting from the actual import. But if he can agglutinate Judaism, the Holocaust and Zionism, we can disambiguate as you have done very well, Levi. But let's take it a bit further.

2.If we can make the desert bloom, we can also do the opposite and expand land boundaries (think Battery Park City, built on landfill, a euphemism for garbage.)

3.Water with Spitzer, allowed to become governor with the full knowledge of his unsavory predilections only to be taken down in that peculiarly invasive way at the opportune moment (it's all in the timing) replaced by that clownish and pathetic straw man, David Patterson.

4.Another featherweight, Bill Thompson, somehow becomes the Democratic Party nominee for mayor of NYC in the most important political battle in American democracy since the Revolutionary War battle at the North Bridge in Concord described by Emerson as the “shot heard 'round the world.” The result is that we now have a King Georgian ruler who extended his rule by manipulating the rules.

5.What should have happened? He needed to be confronted and bested, but on November 3, 2009, voters in NYC by commission and omission affirmed the legitimacy of fascism here (in its classical definition of the convergence between state and corporate power). This did not/does not bode well for American democracy. It is in fact the big mushy, tasteless apple we now have to chomp into. Remember please that Noam Chomsky (not exactly the boy who cried wolf) has drawn parallels between this moment in the condition of our democracy, in fact offering proofs by argument to its equivalency, to that of Weimar. That should give us some serious frigging pause.

6.Mr. Patterson names Mr. Thompson to head the Battery Park City Commission at the exact moment when Bloomberg is trying to wrest control of BPC from the state and transfer it to the city. http://www.downtownexpress.com/de_365/mayorflirting.html Even Thompson admits it looks “cute.”

7.Bear with me, I'm getting there (to the real reality). Who owns New York City? That's right, the realtors. What would the realtors give both nuts to be able to do again in New York City? Right again, when you say sell waterfront property. And who would, but for that MF Robert Moses who saw them coming and thwarted them by wherever he could ringing the city in parks, aka publicly-owned land.
8.How could Bloomberg representing the global real-estate interests who represent the oil intersts (Hola BP!) overcome this wee gauntlet Moses threw down to him from his grave?
9.What pecuniary interest might the New York Times have in partnering with Bloomberg to help obtain this fabulously lucrative pot of gold for themselves and the other approximately 1,000 families who own and rule the world, many of them oil-rich and democracy-loathing Arabs, by the way, not to play the race card or anything, but gimme a break;.I like and enjoy my clitoris and wouldn't want to part with it anytime soon.
10.Do you now understand who Levi Asher is? Am Yisrael CHAI!

Levi, I like the way you remove both the religious and the political aspects of Israel's right to exist, and focus on the point that they are human beings.

From 1945 through the 1950s, in my opinion, the United States political leaders and Christian religious leaders embraced the Jews as yet another way to promote America's shining, good-guy image, like Superman, baseball, and John Wayne. This was what I call the Billy Graham era, when the media presented concepts of God and country that were virtually inseperable. America was riding high after WWII and television allowed the sentiment to spread quickly. I'm not suggesting it was all hypocrisy. I'm sure many people were sincere in their beliefs, but I think that, ultimately, it was propaganda at the top.

Neither Christians nor American politicians have always embraced the Jewish people like they started doing after WWII.

In the 1500s in Germany, Martin Luther, who is now lauded as the father of the Protestant Reformation, had some very harsh things to say about the Jews. He first wanted to treat them nice in an effort to convert them to Christianity, but when they wouldn't convert, got got downright beligerent and called them rejects of God and suggested that everyone treat them as callously as possible.

The same goes for American politicians prior to 1945. They didn't have much reason to care what happened to Jewish people. In 1943, 400 rabbis had to march in Washington to draw attention to the Holocaust. Senator William Warren Barbour was one of the few American politicians who would meet with the rabbis. He introduced a bill that would have allowed thousands of Germans to emigrate temporarily to the United States to escape the Holocaust, but it failed to pass. A similar bill was introduced by Samuel Dickstein in the House of Representative but it failed, too.

Conservative Republican Christians have jumped all over Jimmy Carter for criticizing certain actions by Israel in his latest book. The point is not whether you agree with Carter or not. It's that that people use Isreal and Jewishness as a "hot button" to get other people stirred up.

Thanks for your comments, Levi. I'm not sure if I can go much farther in answering your last question because it challenges a position that I don't identify with very strongly. When I wrote about the Armenian Genocide for VQR, I pointed out that it served as a sort of blueprint for future genocides, so I must agree with your notion that each genocide is, in its own horrid way, somehow unique.

As for Nemirovsky, you're right that her status as a Russian citizen living in France certainly harmed her. That's one part of her life that I think the biographers covered pretty well: her desperate, fruitless quest to become a French citizen. Yet while they presented the facts well enough, I think they could have gone farther. Analyzed properly, it could've been a great touchstone for the bio, because in some ways it encapsulated her desire to see herself as an elite, an aristocrat, a true Frenchwoman, someone above the rabble that she left behind in Ukraine. That, to me, is the root of her Jew-hatred (which I think is different, by a degree, from anti-Semitism). It's a class thing, and she never let go of it.

by Mark on

Hi Levi,

I'm surprised by your reaction to the Bloom piece. I had the opposite reaction. I found its directness refreshing. He called it as he saw it without flinching or pulling his punches.

He didn't claim that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. In fact he said the opposite. "To protest the policies of the Israeli government actually can be regarded as true philo-Semitism."

You quote this line in your post but you appear to ignore it.

And the Bloom article does not mention Jewish superiority or the Holocaust. You bring up those topics as the "unspoken" ideas that undergird Bloom's assertions, then you proceed to have an argument with these unspoken ideas. By inventing your adversary's position you are in a good position to defeat it. But that's not cricket.

And your call for "more universal" statements condemning racism opens a can of worms. Why are condemnations of racism more universal than condemnations of anti-Semitism? Well, the question answers itself. Because crimes against the Jews are often not considered crimes against humanity. That is the nature of anti-Semitism. Jews have to remind the world that crimes committed against them are also crimes against humanity. Do Bloom and Kirsch really have to take a Crimes Against Humanity loyalty oath? Does their condemnation of anti-Semitism make them suspect that they do not condemn racism? You imply it does. That's not fair or right.

Also, while war is terrible, can you really relegate it to the sewer along with the racism, slavery, tyranny, and genocide that wars are sometimes fought to end?

Finally, you protest too much in your argument against the Holocaust's unique nature, and I'm disappointed that you allow yourself to be so contemptuous and mocking toward your phantom enemies and the Holocaust itself ("Can somebody remind me what about the Jewish Holocaust was unique?"). Whether it is unique or not, it was certainly among the greatest crimes against humanity in any age, anywhere. And it has struck thoughtful people as a new low in humanity's record of behavior, a final collapse of decency that, as Robert Nozick wrote, "drastically alters the situation and status of humanity." The other crimes you mention were terrible, and certainly equally terrible for the victims, but the differences are also glaring. Did the Turks seek out Armenians in every far-flung corner of Europe or the Balkans to destroy them all? Were Stalin or Mao's crimes -- which in sheer numbers did surpass the Holocaust -- efforts to wipe out a group, and all of its members everywhere, as subhuman vermin unfit to exist?

These are some of the elements that make the Holocaust different than so many other horrible crimes. It is nothing for the Jews to be proud of. I'm not proud of this distinction. But it deserves thought. What do these differences mean? What does it say about we human beings? What does it mean for the future of Jews, non-Jews, and their dealings with each other? You want to evade these questions and make the Holocaust easy to understand and no different from any other mass murder or attempt at genocide. That's not possible. They are all different from each other and, I think, they are all different from the Holocaust.

Levi, are the true foes of your post are not Bloom or Kirsch, whom you admit did not say what you hate hearing, but the stupidity, vanity, pride, unearned specialness, and condescension that one runs into in the Jewish community? If so, take heart. Philip Roth made a career going after these Jews. You're in good company.

yours,
Mark

by frsh on

I think Jesus used to say the same thing: that Jews are just people too (Cf. Mark 12,38-34; Luke 10,25-37).

Your words, Mr. Asher, are a lot like the words of Jesus and I completely agree with you.

by Levi Asher on

This discussion means a lot to me, so thanks so far for the thoughtful responses (even if I'm not completely clear what Frances's connection to NYC mayor Bloomberg is supposed to be here).

To Mark Cohen: thanks especially for your questions. Yes, absolutely, I plead guilty here to blatant use of the "straw man" in this argument. Yes, I am attacking the "unspoken assumptions" behind Harold Bloom's words, rather than his explicit statements. Sometimes one must pull out the infamous straw man to make a point. As long as I admit to doing this (as I do), I don't think it's a foul.

You're also right that I did not address Bloom's (good) point that some criticism of Israel's policies might be reasonable. He seems to draw the line between those who critique Israel's policies and those who question its right to exist. I wanted to address this specifically but did not want to let the piece go on too long. I'm glad Bloom welcomes the critique of Israel's policies, but I believe he goes way too far when he claims that anyone who question Israel's right to exist must be anti-semitic. I personally disagree with those who question Israel's right to exist, but that doesn't mean I subscribe to Bloom's offensive over-generalization. It's simply false.

One reason I think this matters is that, despite the overwhelming pessimism many feel about the prospects for Israeli/Arab peace, I feel strongly that real peace in the Middle East is possible, and may not even be as far out of reach as it seems to be when one only listens to the extremists on both sides. That's why I want to speak out against the bigoted statements Bloom makes here, because they move the dialog in the wrong direction.

Finally, Mark, to answer your last question: yes, yes, yes, I believe that war is always wrong, I do not believe in the myth of a "good war" (until you can show me a war without weapons, a war that does not kill innocent people), and I wish our most important public intellectuals would stand with me on this statement.

(And if you're one of the many Americans who think that World War II was that mythical "good war" because "we had to stop Hitler", please read "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker. This book makes the important point that World War II did not save the Jews of Europe at all, but rather doomed them to their worst possible fate, worse than anything Hitler could have subjected them to in peacetime.)

by Mark on

Well, Levi, I guess this ends our virtual friendship. Not out of rancor, but because our views are so out of step that there is really nothing to discuss. Samuel Johnson said somewhere that a fruitful argument requires some shared precepts. I now know what he means.

First, a straw man argument is fine when constructing a hypothetical case, not for attacking an actual argument that lacks the weaknesses you'd like to see in it. You attribute your straw man argument to Bloom. You say, this is what Bloom is really thinking, though he doesn't say so. That is a foul.

I don't know how you can view the position that Israel does not have the right to exist as anything other than anti-semitic. A belief that France has no right to exist is by definition anti-French. The belief that the Jewish state has no right to exist is anti-Jewish. You call Bloom's agreement with this an "offensive over-generalization." Offensive to whom? Do you really believe that those who want to see Israel dismantled would be offended by being tagged anti-semites? You also say that Bloom's statement is "simply false." Well, it is obviously not "simply false." At the very least it is merely likely true.

And your statement that Bloom's position makes it harder to achieve Middle East peace is incomprehensible. Will allowing these people into the debate make things easier?

I can understand that you'd like "our most important public intellectuals" to stand with you in saying there is no good war. But instead of wishing and hoping, you might wonder why they don't, and what that might say about your position. Perhaps it's mistaken?

I haven't read Baker's book and based on the reviews I have read of it I won't. We can't read everything, and the decisions we make about what to read and what we are drawn to read probably tells us much about ourselves. You believe Baker that the war against Hitler was a mistake. I again side with Samuel Johnson. Such arguments fall into his category of truth being a cow that will give no more milk, so he's gone to milk the bull.

And you say that the fate of the Jews was sealed when the Allies made war against Hitler and that they would have been better off under Hitler "in peacetime." Just typing these words makes me queasy. I've never felt such moral disgust at a position in my life. But let's put that aside. What "peacetime" do you have in mind? You might have inside information on this, but didn't the war begin in September 1939 when Germany attacked Poland? Just asking.

In closing, I remember lines from Bellow's Herzog, when he wrote to a friend about that friend's new history. "A merely aesthetic critique of modern history. After the wars and mass killings? It torments me to insanity that you should be so misled." Or something to that effect. It's close enough.

by Levi Asher on

Mark: "this ends our virtual friendship"? Wow. Well, you can go ahead and end it on your side, but the door's always open over here. I think you're shutting your ears to something you can't stand to hear, though, and I strongly suggest you look for a wider variety of viewpoints on the history of World War II.

"Human Smoke" laid out a case, which I can only barely summarize here, that the only possible solution to the crisis faced by the Jews of Eastern Europe between 1933 (when Hitler took power) and 1939 (when World War II began) would have been emigration. The book describes many serious attempts to find a way for the Jews of Nazi Germany to emigrate (it's very disappointing that the United States and England were not interested in helping to make this happen). The book than makes the case that the plan of war chosen by England and the United States against Hitler -- basically, a slow, grinding starvation blockade of Central Europe, which lasted six excruciating and violent years -- was obviously going to have a have a tragic result for the Jews trapped in these countries. After reading this book, it's hard to still believe that winning World War II "helped the Jews" of Europe in any way. The larger point is that, whenever we hear that a war was a "good war", we probably need to ask more questions.

The myth of the good war, and of the unquestionable benevolence of American military power, is all around us today. I recently heard John McCain bleating on TV news about how "America is the greatest force for human freedom in the history of the world". This is a man who spent years personally flying bombing missions over North Vietnam villages. He must have killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. And yet he seems to have truly convinced himself that America's ethical record in the world is beyond reproach.

I don't think America's record is worse than that of other major powers -- nor do I think it's better. I feel similarly about Israel in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries. Mark, I really think you're making a mistake if you shut your ears and start shedding friends whenever somebody challenges your closely-held beliefs about right and wrong. There's a lot of moral gray area out there.

by Don on

Thank you. For your passion, your courage, and your belief in the equality of all people. Well done, Levi.

Don

by Mark on

Levi,

As I said, it is not out of rancor. You have been generous to me and behaved decently and I am grateful. It is just that as the conversation continues I realize that the gulf continues to widen. I'm open to counter-arguments, but I have to be convinced. I know that makes things more difficult, but I can't simply accept your arguments to improve my image as a likable, open-minded person who is not so old-fashioned as to actually have convictions or a point of view. How antediluvian! (He must be a conservative.)

I thought your comments on Bloom were off-base, but now that the conversation has morphed into one about WWII I'm even more mystified by your arguments.

For instance, let's look at what you just wrote, which you apparently find convincing. I know you're only paraphrasing Baker, but nothing even close to this argument can hold water. "The only possible solution to the crisis faced by the Jews of Eastern Europe between 1933 (when Hitler took power) and 1939 (when World War II began) would have been emigration."

But, Levi, in 1939 the Jews of Eastern Europe were not facing a crisis. They were living in their home countries, not subject to Germany's Nazi law. Are you suggesting that it was incumbent on those Jews and the rest of the world to anticipate Hitler's invasion of western, eastern, northern and Balkan Europe, and anticipate also his maniacal plan to systematically murder every Jew in all those countries? Is it now not the fault of Hitler that those Jews were murdered, but England and America's fault? According to Solzhenitsyn, even Stalin, one of the most untrusting people who ever lived, didn't think that Hitler would invade Russia. C'mon, Levi, c'mon.

You continue, "The book than makes the case that the plan of war chosen by England and the United States against Hitler -- basically, a slow, grinding starvation blockade of Central Europe, which lasted six excruciating and violent years -- was obviously going to have a have a tragic result for the Jews trapped in these countries."

Well, as the kids say, duh! Yes, now it is painfully clear that the Jews were not rescued. You don't have to read Baker to understand that winning the war did not help the Jews very much (although a remnant managed to survive because of the Allied victory, and the Jews of Palestine, too, who were next in line). If that's the insight Baker offered and the one you gained then you both wasted your time.

But was this the fault of the the Allies' poor plan? Did England and America perversely choose the six-year war plan when there was a two-year plan that would have worked great, but they were too embarrassed to admit that they forgot where they put it? Did they choose the six-year plan because it was good for business? Or did it take six years (only three and a half after the US entered the war in basically 1942) because Germany was the strongest most industrialized nation in Europe and the US was fighting an equally formidable enemy at the same time in the Pacific?

Levi, I'm confounded, perplexed, and astounded that someone as intelligent as yourself accepts Baker's propositions and that you are not asking the questions I'm asking.

And onto McCain. McCain is not important. I live in the Bay Area and I see this all the time. Just because McCain -- or someone of his ilk -- says something, does not mean it is not true. (Is that gray enough for you?) America, just on the facts, for its influence on so many later revolutions and revolts against tyranny, from the French Revolution onward, probably is one of the greatest forces for freedom in the history of the world. I know it is hard for you to accept it -- hard for me, too -- because we see this country and all its foolishness, and worse, everyday. But think how the Athenian Greeks would probably laugh if they could see how we view that tiny state now as the birthplace of freedom and democracy, since like everyone living in the midst of a time they were consumed by their state's corruption, hubris, wasteful wars, failed opportunities, etc. But the fact remains that Greek democracy was a turning point in world history. The founding of the United States and its continuing efforts to broaden freedom to all its inhabitants is also a great engine of freedom. Samuel Johnson noted (I love Johnson), that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." But just because a scoundrel wraps himself in the flag doesn't mean you have to throw away the flag. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water is ancient wisdom.

Finally, America no better or worse than other major powers and the same goes for Israel and its neighbors. I know that this kind of even-handedness is generally accepted as the ne plus ultra of high-minded fairness, but it doesn't cut any ice with me. Such equivalence is typically a ruse used to besmirch the better of the two sides. America -- just on the facts -- does have a better record than nearly all of the major powers (my exception is England). That should be obvious. Germany, Japan, France, Russia, China -- the competition isn't so tough, really, so it's maybe not much to boast about. But America avoided fascism in the 1930s when virtually of all Europe was ready to abandon democracy, and that was a major accomplishment. The same goes for Israel and its neighbors. Again, the competition sets a low bar, so it's not much to crow about. And, yes, of course, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is a disaster. But it is hard to see how Israel could be seen as no better than Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or Egypt.

I know there's a lot gray. But this is like the pot calling the kettle black. Saying that it is anti-semitic to believe that Israel has no right to exist is "simply false." Bloom's assertion to the contrary is a "bigoted statement." War is "always wrong." Gimme some gray, Levi. Where's the gray? How about war is almost always wrong. How about Bloom's assertion is not always true?

You run a good blog. There aren't many like it. I agree with your post on Eliot. The work has to stand on its own, regardless of how distasteful the artist's views.

But your Bloom post was wrong, and your follow-up attempts to justify it are equally wrong. I wager that you've got a Krimian rant bottled up inside you on this Jewish issue and you should let 'er rip and, like Krim, admit from the outset that you will have no truck with fairness in it but instead explore every nasty area of that complex subject. Did you read Krim's "Epitaph for a Canadian Kike?" Fantastic. Also "Black English, or the Motherfucker Culture." They're actually the same article, express the same bile, admit to the same bile.

Levi, I'll show you my bile if you show me yours.

by Levi Asher on

Great points, Mark. Yeah, let's do it, let's bring the bile. You're absolutely right that I've been keeping some of this bottled up. There's a lot of history to cover here, though, so the big challenge will be how to keep this discussion contained.

It's no easy road, you know, being a pacifist. The guy who stands there with bullets and rockets flying all around saying "we need to talk" has to take a lot of ridicule, and has to come up with answers to a lot of tough questions. I'll do my best.

You're absolutely correct that proposals for Jewish emigration had no relevance by September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and England declared war on Germany. And, as I'm sure you know, tens of thousands of innocent Jews (and innocent Poles, and innocent others) were mercilessly murdered immediately after the Nazi occupation of Poland began.

So let's contrast the treatment of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1939 with the treatment of Jews in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovokia in 1938. It must have been a terrible thing being a Jew in Prague in 1938 (or, similarly, being a Jew in Berlin or Vienna in 1938). But the type of persecution they experienced in Prague, Berlin or Vienna did not rise to the level of mass murder. They faced abuse and discrimination, at a level similar to that of many other persecuted minorities throughout history such as African-Americans or Native Americans in the USA, but it still fell short of the horrors of the Holocaust. Why was Poland in 1939 so much worse than Czechoslovokia in 1938? Why were the actions of the Einsatzgruppen (SS murder squads) so much worse in Warsaw than in Praque? One major difference is that war had been declared. War unleashed the violent extremes that were inherent, but repressed, during the earlier occupations. War gave the Einsatzgruppen "carte blanche". It also made communication with the outside world much more difficult, again increasing the abilities of the Nazi forces to inflict abuse and murder upon the population.

So, what could have been done instead? There are no good answers for how to deal with Hitler, but declaring war against him in 1939 was the worst possible solution for the innocent people -- Jews and otherwise -- of Eastern Europe. We know that Hitler had already made a mockery of peace talks after Chamberlain and Munich, but even so, the choice to allow Germany to reclaim the Prussian lands and the city of Danzig (which it had lost in World War I, and which was Hitler's rationale for invading Poland) and attempting to sort out the horrible resulting mess at some kind of negotiating table ... well, this isn't a choice anybody would have liked. However, it's hard to imagine how the outcome could have been much worse -- for the Jews, and for all of Eastern Europe -- if this choice had been made.

Like I said, it's not easy being a pacifist. It means you have to be willing to sit down with people you hate, people who hate you and want to kill you. When it's hardest to comprehend the idea of peace talks ... well, that's when peace talks are needed the most.

Mark, I promise you I will hear a lot of ridicule (and worse) for saying what I am saying. I know this is not a popular idea. But, yes, I believe that negotiation and non-violent protest is always the right answer, and war is always the wrong answer. My ideas about this come not from Nicholson Baker but from the great pacifists: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus.

Finally, Mark, I'm glad you recognize that -- "duh", as you say -- winning World War II did not help the Jews. Unfortunately, the idea that Churchill and Roosevelt "saved the Jews" is actually quite popular. The idea that Neville Chamberlain's Munich peace talks in 1938 were an abomination and a terrible mistake are also very, very popular today. Chamberlain's name is likely to come up if somebody suggests that we should have peace talks with Iran, for instance. I believe strongly that we should have peace talks with Iran, and I can only gape with incredulity when I hear a smart person say in all seriousness that it would be a good thing for the United States to bomb Iran (because, invariably, Ahmadinejad is "the new Hitler").

I believe that we in the USA need a better dialog than we currently have about the real costs and consequences of war, and that's why I think this topic is so relevant today.

Mark, I've gone on a long time here so I'm going to stop. I've tried to address what I think is the most difficult question you've asked me. I could answer most of your other challenges more easily, but I think we're already at the heart of the matter here. Your turn (or anybody else's who wishes to jump in) ...

by Mark on

I'm all tuckered out. I still don't agree that England declaring war on Germany after the latter invaded Poland was a mistake (Germany declared war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor). And I'm afraid I can't join the Chamberlain Cheerleading Squad, either. It seems to me that anyone wanting to avoid war would want to issue stern warnings to likely war-makers, instead of coddling them. But Chamberlain couldn't know what we know now. However, when Hitler violated the White Paper and invaded Poland the world knew more than it did in 1938. It knew enough was enough. We'll never agree on pacifism. So let's drop it.

You obviously have something you want to say about your own Jewish identity and the Jewish identities available to us, etc. I've been struggling with it for a few decades or so, trying to create my own version, rejecting the sentimental, apologetic, ignorant, embarrassed versions and groping toward something else. I'm making progress and as Bellow's Herzog says, I expect to be in great shape on my deathbed. Krim basically spelled out the problem, for me. And again, he embraced his subjectivity and prejudices as valid and was freed from having to be right about anything except what he felt. A good strategy for certain topics.

Levi, I'm trying to stay out of this, but I've got to say, I hardly see how England could have avoided declaring war on Germany.

Then, again, I just saw a TV documentary about how England attacked a French destroyer, supposedly to keep the vessel from falling into German hands, but some people think Churchill did it to prove to FDR that England was ready to fight. Up until that point, FDR didn't want to help England against Germany. So the whole thing is bad no matter how you look at it. Arrghh! Are there any answers?

Levi, I think I see what you are trying to say: That although it's counter-intuitive to "turn the other cheek" as Jesus or Ghandi or King did, in the long run, it might have been better. That's a tough proposition. Very difficult to follow through with a belief like that. I'm still mulling it around in me head.

by Levi Asher on

Hey Bill -- yeah, I believe over 1000 French sailors were killed in that naval attack. And, really, I hadn't even thought of that as one of Churchill's more questionable decisions. The logic was pretty clear: England and France were at war.

Yeah, I think you state my proposition pretty well. Nobody questions that Hitler was evil and that Nazi Germany was a racist state that had to be defeated. But I do not believe that it required a six year war and a death toll of 30 million to defeat Hitler. I do not believe the "good guys" exhausted all the possible ways to defeat Hitler politically and economically. And it's quite clear that Churchill and Roosevelt's war plans included nothing at all to protect the helpless minorities of Eastern Europe -- Jews, Poles, Ukranians, etc., who were then trapped between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia and were bound to suffer far more than either the British or the Germans or the Americans would.

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