Edward Alexander, professor emeritus of English, is the author of the new book, “The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal” (Transaction Publishers). Alexander, author of “The Jewish Wars” and “Classic Liberalism and the Jewish Tradition,” answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.
Q: What’s the concept behind this book?
A: The book’s title is deliberately ambiguous, referring to the Land of Israel, to the people Israel, and the relation between them. That is a very old subject, defined in its most dramatic and accusatory form by Moses himself: “And Moses said unto the children of Gad and the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall ye sit here?’”
When the Jews of Europe were being persecuted and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II American Jewish intellectuals paid little or no attention to what was happening. Irving Howe later called this “a serious moral failure on our part.” Saul Bellow confessed that “We should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with [the Holocaust]. Nobody in America seriously took this on and only a few Jews elsewhere (like Primo Levi) were able to comprehend it. All parties then are passing the buck and every honest conscience feels the disgrace of it.”
Jewish intellectuals had shown appalling indifference not only to what had been endured by their European brethren, but to what had been achieved by the Jews of Palestine. A few years after the destruction of European Jewry, the Jewish people had created the state of Israel, which Winston Churchill called “an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.”
Although my book is a collection of historical, literary, and political essays, or what my old teacher Lionel Trilling would have called “a gathering of fugitives” (i.e., essays in flight from unity) it really is united by the conviction that the pariah people has now become the pariah state, and the Nazi question — “Do Jews have the right to live?” — has been replaced by the “anti-Zionist” question, usually posed by “progressives”: “Does Israel have the right to exist?” In other words, Jews, because they are Jews, are still not able to take the right to live as a natural right.
Q: Can you comment on your subtitle, “A Critical Appraisal”?
A: My subtitle alludes not to such calls for politicide (and genocide) where Israel is concerned, but to Matthew Arnold’s definition of criticism, which operates in the spirit of science, not of sect. Its function, as Arnold wrote, is “to “see the object as in itself it really is,” not to destroy the object.
The establishment of Israel just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry was for most Jews and millions of Christians a more hopeful sign for humanity than the dove’s reappearance to Noah with an olive branch after the flood.
My book examines the reasons why, as Stanley Fish observed a few years ago, the depiction of Israel as the devil’s own experiment station and the cause of all the world’s problems (with the possible exception of global warming) has become the “default” position of large numbers of liberals and PhDs., including (if not especially) the Jewish ones.
Q: What is the book’s general structure?
Because the “new” antisemitism emanates mainly from the left of political center, I begin with a lengthy analysis of both antisemitic and philosemitic strains in three prominent Victorian liberals: Thomas Arnold, his son Matthew, and John Stuart Mill. The rest of the book is divided generically into history, politics, and literature. It is united by constant consideration of Israel-Diaspora relations, giving particular attention to Jews who wish to advertise their own goodness by dissociating themselves from a people under attack.
Q: What were your conclusions?
Grim. Most of the world averts its eyes from the genocidal intentions and capacity of the Iranian theocracy; antisemitism, briefly given a bad name by the Holocaust, is again emerging as the “default” ideology of Europe, which may become judenrein within a decade; the angelic sociology of liberals, including Jewish ones, is invoked to “explain” suicide bombing as the inevitable result and measure of Israeli oppression. So let’s talk about something pleasant, like the explosive power of boredom in activist university professors.