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Wednesday, 23 March 2016
My review of Edward Alexander’s Jews against themselves
Below is a longer version of the Review published by the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, of Edward Alexander’s collection of essays entitled Jews against Themselves.
(New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2015), 178 pages
Reviewed by Richard Landes
Senior Fellow, Center for International Communications, Bar-Ilan University
Every Anglophone reader, Jew and non-Jew, owes it to him or herself to read Jews against Themselves. And every non-Anglophone country that aspires either to establish or maintain democracy owes itself a good translation. Rarely has a book so thoroughly and eloquently identified, analyzed, and rebuked a form of thinking that endangers the very democracy from which that thinking arose. In this case, one might call the problem “the tyranny of penitence” or “masochistic omnipotence syndrome”—the tendency to blame oneself for everything in the vain hope that in fixing oneself, one can fix everything. Since, in the current world crisis of the early twenty-first century, this problem has struck the (post-) modern West with unusual force, and since the particular variant upon which Edward Alexander, professor of English at the University of Washington, focuses in this book is an especially powerful contributor to the phenomenon, his work deserves close attention. Alexander’s book is a collection of articles and op-eds written over the course of some three decades, from the mid-1980s to the present.
I have read many texts that try to explain why some Jews turn on their own people, from Sander Gillman’s Jewish Self-Hatred to the endless current Jeremiads by assertive Jews about how self-accusing Jews are a bane, not only on their own people, but on those who trust their pseudo-prophetic utterances. Never have I read one with such moral clarity, subtlety of thought, and, above all, such calm but righteous anger. The enormity of the deeds Alexander chronicles does not make him shrill in his indignation, but rather drives him to repeatedly point out, with a certain black humor and as little ad hominem as one could expect any human to muster, the exquisite and corrosive ironies that riddle the world of Jews who publicly attack their own people.
His case is a painful one, and meticulously chronicled. In a series of essays written between 1986 (chapter 1, discussion of Gilman’s book) and the present (essay on moral inversion at The New York Times), Alexander documents a phenomenon that Gilman had delineated as follows: “How Jews see the dominant society seeing them and how they project their anxiety about this manner of being seen onto other Jews as a means of externalizing their own status anxiety.” Unpacked, this sentence means that some Jews, seeing how negatively gentiles view them, turn on their own kind, holding them responsible for that hatred: “If only ‘they’ would behave the way ‘we good Jews’ do,” they tell themselves, “then non-Jews wouldn’t think so badly of us.”
For such Jews, antisemitism is not a gentile disease but rather a Jewish one. As Tuvia Tenenboim put it in his Catch the Jew:
It’s a mental problem…. For 2000 years Jews have been persecuted, for 2000 years they have been told taught they are the worst….Some people cannot handle it… and they say: “If everyone in the world says I’m bad, that I am ugly, a thief, a murderer, horrible shrewd person, a money grubber, I am. What can I do to cleanse myself of it?” And what do they do? Catch another Jew doing wrong… that makes them feel better, makes their ugly skin feel better.
The whole issue of internalizing the gaze of the hostile outsider obviously involves very painful emotional issues, matters of deep and even crippling insecurity; they are certainly not discussions that most cultures, averse to washing their dirty laundry in public, would willingly hold before the public gaze. So I apologize in advance for continuing to draw attention to such matters lest the stench emitted fill the Peloponnesian peninsula. But I do think it is impossible—certainly at this point in the twenty-first century—not to hold this conversation.
For in this still-young century, a terrible dynamic has taken hold, one in which as-a-Jew-catch-a-Jew Jews, mysteriously eager to bear witness to the crimes of their fellow Jews, have alas found an audience of people, endowed with an almost insatiable appetite for stories about Jews behaving badly. Some call these hyper-critical Jews “Theobald Jews,” others “alter-juifs”—previously “invisible” Jews, suddenly seized with the need to, “as-a-Jew” denounce Israel. These are Alexander’s “Jews against themselves.”
And in the twenty-first century, this anti-Israel discourse is no longer the “voice in the wilderness.” Sadly, that is where Alexander’s voice finds itself. Indeed, in the 21st century, the act of looking down with contempt on politically autonomous Jews—Israel—has become a dominant characteristic of the progressive public sphere. Ian Buruma noted (in passing!) in 2003: “The Palestinian cause has become the universal litmus of liberal credentials.”
It also does not seem to matter to those Jews so inclined—as is true of all “honor–shame” cultures—whether these lethal narratives about Israel are true or not: What counts for them is whether they make nationalistic, self-assertive, settler, Jews look bad, and make “us” who, in our humanitarian commitment to all mankind, embrace these accusations against “our own,” look good. This predilection for “catching a Jew” is what drives people like Gideon Levy and Amira Hass and Charles Enderlin, and so many other “progressive” Israelis and Jews, to become a major conduit for Palestinian lethal narratives and icons of hatred into the Western public sphere.
Indeed, this self-flagellating voice, behind which is the notion that Israel should be sacrificed for the sake of humanity, has penetrated into the heart of the “paper newspaper of record,” The New York Times, which systematically promotes the “narrative” that Israel is the main obstacle to peace (chapter 18, 2013). In two paragraphs, Alexander lays bare the moral disorientation of the age:
Those Jews who judge The New York Times by the standards of Judaism believe that the creation of the State of Israel was one of the few redeeming events in a century of blood and shame, one of the greatest affirmations of the will to live ever made by a martyred people, and a uniquely hopeful sign for humanity itself. They tend also to cling to Orwell’s view that some ideas—like the virtue of Jewish powerlessness—are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them.
Those who judge Judaism by the standards of the Timesboast…of not having “danced in the streets when Ben-Gurion declared that the Jews, like other peoples, had a state of their own.” They believe… that Israel is the chief obstacle to world peace, a diversion from such liberal desiderata as gay marriage and unlimited access to abortion, and indeed the principal cause of most of the world’s evils with the (possible) exception of global warming.
If future generations don’t look back and read this New York Times“moral standard” as one of the defining cognitive and moral disorientations of the early twenty-first century, it will be because the Jihadis prevailed in convincing a foolish and even suicidal West into sacrificing its most valuable ally. And if that happens, it will be in no small measure thanks to the Jews portrayed in Alexander’s book!
In a review, it is impossible to discuss every essay, though all warrant close reading. One of the most important themes of the collection is the emergence of a new form of post-Holocaust “Jews against themselves,” born at a time when being a Jew was suddenly and widely acceptable (in the West). Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the shift in focus, both empirically and analytically, in the essays written after the 2000 turning point, after the Oslo “Peace Process” gave way to Jihad.
Gillman’s self-hating Jews (chapter 1, 1986) were actually ex–Jews (whether apostates or those who rejected Jewish tradition and practice), and they tried desperately to avoid being identified (by others too) as Jews. They found to their chagrin that the more they tried, the more the non-Jews saw them as Jews. Ludwig Börne found that despite discarding his Jewish identity (Jewish name and language) and denouncing the “capitalist Jews,” gentiles read his German irony and his liberal journalism as markers of his Jewish identity. Similarly, “[i]t came as a shattering disappointment to Marx when his new, ‘non-Jewish’ language of revolution was labeled Jewish.”
At the end of this analysis, however, Alexander notes the appearance of a new mutation:
During the 1982 (Lebanon) war, a whole range of Israelis whom nobody outside of Israel had ever heard of before, from professors to publishers of pornographic newspapers, became instant European celebrities by applying the epithet ‘Judeo-Nazi’ to other Israelis, in precisely the style of ‘projection’ that antisemitic Jews have been practicing since the Middle Ages.”
What could produce such savage self-laceration?
Alexander identifies the problem (chapter 11, 2010) as a form of political anorexia, that is Jews who experience the state of Israel as a body whose inevitable and manifold imperfections humiliate, shame, and disgust them. These openly Jewish figures feel such revulsion at the public revelation of these bodily flaws (understandably, given the media’s lethal journalism), that every new round of accusations has sent them into paroxysms of moral indignation, and public “self-” flagellation.
In their own minds, of course, they are neither anorexic nor self-loathing. On the contrary they see themselves as carrying on the prophetic tradition (chapter 5, 1991). Yet, it would never have occurred to the prophets of yore to take their ferocious, flagellating rhetoric—Israel is as bad as Sodom—and utter it in the language and the courts of the nations. The outsiders there, their animus for Jews aside, could not and cannot fathom the level of mutual self-criticism in which the chosen people believe they are instructed to engage. Thus, far from moral grandeur, these “prophets” are just whipping and cutting their Jewish “body,” Israel, in the courts of the gentiles, where haters of Israel gather to mock. In its extreme forms, viewing their “body” (Israel) as not merely embarrassing but as catastrophic, as preventing peace, some Jews set themselves up to adopt the Jihadi salvific formula, “Destroy Israel for World Peace.”
Lack of Courage
One of the more important chapters in Alexander’s book (6, 2013, 2014) explores the way the American (NY) Jewish progressive Left responded to the Holocaust. In 1943, Ben Halpern wrote about the American Jewish intellectual community: “The history of our times will one day make bitter reading, when it records that some Jews were so morally uncertain that they denied they were obligated to risk their own safety in order to save other Jews who were being done to death abroad.” Irving Howe “was haunted by the question of why our intellectual community…had paid so little attention to the Holocaust in the early 1940s…why we had written and talked so little about the Holocaust at the time it was taking place.” Alexander argues that the reckoning for this “moral debacle” never took place, which may explain how The New York Times could now repeat its betrayal of both its journalistic ethics and Jews threatened by genocidal forces.
Alexander argues that current Jewish scolding of Israel replicates the same intellectual (and moral) failures that fueled the previous debacle: the same turning against a national or ethnic identification in favor of universal causes (this should not be a zero-sum choice); the same turning of one’s back on Jews in trouble lest we too get in trouble; and the same reluctance to even discuss the genocidal monster that stalks their brethren (and them).
Whether Martin Jay at an evening gathering in Princeton—or Edgar Morin at dinner-table conversations where anyone who spoke in defense of Israel was greeted with “Oh, I didn’t know you were Jewish”—, or Tony Judt among his British colleagues, the cry went out: Israel is endangering us! Judt noted [in 2003]
Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn’t do.… The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews.
And then he wrote the classic post-colonial attack on Israel.
This is precisely the same turn against the self that Gillman documented: Suffering from a cruel gentile amalgam that lumps all Jews in the same basket of hatred, these Jews turn to Israel and say, “You Israelis—Sharon!—you are killing us.” And after a thriving decade of these as-a-Jew-catch-the-Jew Jews, along come the paragons of “methodical disingenuousness,” J-Street and Peter Beinart, with the latest post-millennial mutation in Jewish self-loathing, “Zionists against Israel.”
Chapter 11 on Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (2011), Alexander unlocks the roman à clef, whose real-life personae Alvin Rosenfeld had earlier documented in his 2006 study. He identifies Jacqueline Rose, whom Rosenfeld had described as typifying “one of the most distressing features of the new anti-Semitism,” as Jacobson’s Tamara Krausz who,
…“appalled at what the Israeli nation perpetrated in my name,” expressed the wish to live “in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame” and looked forward to curing her shame-sickness by destroying its cause: Israel.
This is precisely the dynamic of the self-accusing Jew engaging in a proxy honor killing (really, “shame murders”), in which one gets rid of an embarrassing/ humiliating/shameful relative—Israel—in order to “regain the family—Jewish—honor” (really, escape shame). Unable (as pacific progressives) to actually kill, they encourage those who impatiently await the occasion to slaughter. “If There Is a Third Intifada, We Want to Be the Ones Who Started It,” announces Ben Ehrenreich, graciously given the pages of The New York Times to opine his suicidal obsessions (chapter 18).
In Israel, this anorexic reaction to the body had reached full throttle in the “happy ’90s,” the heyday of post-Zionism (chapter 12, 2006). Aharon Megged, one of the few dissenters from the collective euphoria of the “Oslo Peace Process,” noted in his dissection of “The Israeli Suicide Drive”:
Since the Six-Day War, and at an increasing pace, we have witnessed a phenomenon which probably has no parallel in history: an emotional and moral identification by the majority of Israel’s intelligentsia with people openly committed to our annihilation.
Alexander’s overriding focus on this self-accusing Left in and after Oslo raises one of the book’s problems: it lacks sympathy for those genuine Zionists who really did believe that Oslo would succeed, who supported the process not out of self-loathing but good intentions. Certainly that dynamic needs more attention: how did such good intentions empower such self-destructive behavior?
Certainly many in the Israeli intelligentsia had contempt for Jewish religious, cultural, and emotional affinity to the land (considering it disgusting tribalism), and openly and repeatedly drove home the equation of Israelis with Nazis. Having already contributed to the global anti-Zionist discourse, they were perfectly placed to ride the wave of revulsion against Israel in 2000 that turned the Left fully against Israel. Outsiders, unaware of the pathologies at work here, ended up mistaking this breast-beating for a description of reality – IDF kills children, Israel guilty of apartheid, criminal acts against humanity, genocide. And the purveyors of Jew-hatred can Jew-wash their moral Schadenfreude with the protest: “I’m not saying anything that Jews don’t say!”
Were this any other time—say, the Middle Ages—this Jew-baiting, aided by Jews who turn against their own, would mostly hurt the Jews (pogroms, massacres, expulsions) and not (most) gentiles. But today, the situation differs dramatically. On the one hand, Western culture has formally renounced these scapegoat sacrifices in order to build democracies—societies that treat their common people remarkably well. On the other hand, when faced with a culture that insists on these sacrifices, an increasing number of “progressives” have enabled and encouraged these demands, in a sense turning over a proxy to the Muslims.
That proxy has produced the most corrosive of ironies. The new force that (post-) Christians designate to carry out the bloody sacrifice of (autonomous) Jews they seem to feel they need, actually also targets them and their democratic societies. Indeed, Jihadis target all infidels, including Crusaders and “post-Crusaders.” As opposed to earlier forms of anti-Semitism, in which the cost to the anti-Semites were largely hidden at the time, we have a new form of own-goal anti-Semitism, in which the consumers of Jew-hatred score goals for their own enemies.
Thus, today’s Christians and post-Christians, in eagerly consuming the lethal narratives that alter-juifs relate about their own people, put themselves in the same immediate danger as the Israelis they so dislike. They endanger democracies of free citizens—societies far more worthy of support and defense than medieval theocratic monarchies, with their oppressed servile subjects who scapegoat Jews and heretics, whether in the 15th Christian century (1401-1500), or the 15th Muslim century (1979-2076). Today, this ancient vortex of moral Schadenfreude, fed by as-a-Jew-catch-the-Jew “Jews against themselves,” not only corrupts and debases the very principles of progressive thought, but benefits above all the people who most hate progressive values: the Jihadis.
Obviously, Alexander’s brilliant and scathing manifesto will not touch the narcissistic souls of the as-a-Jew-catch-the-Jew Jews; it will not strip them of their gnawing obsession with their own honor, and not penetrate the aura of prophetic morality with which they cloak themselves. But one can hope that Alexander’s essays reach a wide range of honest Jewish liberals, such as those affiliated with J-Street, people at once committed to liberal values, but increasingly troubled by the Fascist techniques of the BDS movement, with its Jewish intelligentsia, and by the increasingly aggressive behavior of triumphalist Muslims, whether performing Dawa or Jihad. If these essays can provoke self-criticism and introspection among progressives, then Alexander will have contributed significantly to the rescue of an Israel under siege.
Still more important, if this book reaches beyond these emotionally overheated Jewish circles, and encourages outsiders to realize that eagerly devouring the “prophetic rhetoric” of Jews against themselves, brings one to perilous climes, then Alexander will have contributed to the rescue of a beleaguered West, whose “progressive” leadership has proven astonishingly incompetent in the twenty-first century, in defending the values and institutions of democracy that took their forebears a millennium to bring forth upon humanity.
 Pascal Bruckner, La tyrannie de la penitence, mistranslated into English as The Tyranny of Guilt. On MOS, or the messianic delusion that “it’s all our fault and if only we could be better we could fix anything,” see Landes, “Proud to be Ashamed to be a Jew: On Jewish Self-Criticism and Its Pathologies,” ISGAP Working Paper Series, Number 9, April 2015; online: http://isgap.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Landes_Proud_to_be_Ashamed_Working_Paper.pdf.
 Interview with Tuvia Tenenbom by Daniel Seaman and Danielle Traub, on Israel National Radio, posted December 24, 2014 (italics mine); online: https://youtu.be/GcGwjoRZNBA?t=16m5s. The subject of the interview is Tenenbom’s book, Catch the Jew(Jerusalem: Geffen Publishing, 2015).
 On “Theobald Jews” (Theobald being the Christian convert/Jewish apostate who concocted the first blood libel in 1171), see David Solway, “Jewish Self-Hatred for Dummies,” Front Page, February 18, 2009; http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=34091. On as-a-Jews, see “As-a-Jew explained,” UKMedia Watch, June 23, 2011; http://ukmediawatch.org/2011/06/23/as-a-jew-explained/. The phenomenon, dubbed “alter-juifs,” is far more extensively explored and analyzed in French, in Les Alter-juifs, ed. Shmuel Trigano, Controverses, 4, 2007. (France was a major early site of such behavior from and the expression “en tant que juifs” appears for the first time on October 18, 2000.)
 Ian Buruma, “How to talk about Israel,” New York Times, August 31, 2003; Alexander, p. **.
 See also his brilliant treatment of Holocaust denial (chap. 8 on Noam Chomsky) and the bizarre forms of moral reasoning that some “Jews against themselves” derive from that catastrophe (chaps. 4, 7, 13, 17); and his analysis of Jews in the BDS movement (14-16).
 “Thou shalt surely rebuke your neighbor,” (Leviticus, 19:17); among the traits that make it possible to acquire Torah: “a lover of rebukes” (Ethics of the Fathers, 6:6).
 The pun between “cutting” as a teenage disorder, and the War of a Million Cuts (Manfred Gerstenfeld, Jerusalem, JCPA, 2015) from which Israel suffers, is intentional.
 On the previous episode of moral and professional failure by the NYT, also driven by an aversion to being seen as “Jewish,” see their record in under-reporting the Holocaust, and avoiding identifying the Jews as primary victims, see Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times: Buried by the Times: the Holocaust and America’s most important newspaper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
 Note how the same French who unthinkingly indulge in that cruel and Arab-driven amalgam against the Jews in France (Intifada des banlieues), formally forbade any trace of amalgam between radical and moderate Muslims.
 Alexander, p. **, n. 3: Alvin Rosenfeld, “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” New York: American Jewish Committee, 2006, comment on Rose, p. 9; http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=312.
 Here, a close reading (and translation) of Golan Lahat’s, The Messianic Temptation: The Rise and Fall of the Israeli Left (Hebrew; Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2004) would make a significant contribution.