We are closely following the reception for John Judis’s excellent new book Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict because Judis is arousing the establishment in ways that other interventions have not.
Two days ago, rightwinger Ron Radosh wrote an angry but serious review calling the book “polemics disguised as history” and saying Judis had made many factual errors because he had a “profoundly anti-Zionist” axe to grind. Radosh is the co-author of his own book on Truman and Israel, and he said he was only noticing Judis’s book because of his stature– Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic– and that of the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Now another shoe has dropped. The Washington Free Beacon has published a letter to Radosh from Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, congratulating him on the review. Wieseltier admits he knows nothing about Truman but then goes much further against Judis than Radosh does, in an ugly, ad hominem manner. He says that John Judis has discovered his Jewish identity in a critique of Jews, and he has no love for Jews, and he’s a “nasty” ignoramus too. I have seen evidence that Wieseltier authorized the release of this letter. Here it is:
Ron,What you’ve written is absolutely correct. In some respects I’d have gone further. I am no authority on Truman’s decision (though you are), but I know with certainty that Judis’ understanding of Jewish history, and of the history and nature of Zionism, is shallow, derivative, tendentious, imprecise, and sometimes risibly inaccurate—he is a tourist in this subject. Like most tourists, he sees what he came to see. There is more to be said also about the utter shabbiness of discovering a Jewish identity in—and for the purpose of—criticizing the Jews: it is not only ignorant but also insulting. The magnitude of Judis’ indifference to the fate of the Jews in the very years in which they were being massively slaughtered—the 1940s: now there was a decade of Jewish power!—is quite shocking. (His Abba Hillel Silver is just an early version of [AIPAC leader] Howard Kohr, in consonance with his AIPAC-centric view of the world.) The truth is that no amount of sympathy for Palestinians requires this amount of antipathy to Israelis.
Remember Rosa Luxemburg’s letter to her friend in which she proudly announced that she had no corner of her heart for the Jews? Judis is her good disciple. But my favorite bit of self-congratulation on Judis’ part is his belief that he is heroically defying the Zionist thought-police at the New Republic. For three decades and more we—by which I emphatically mean Marty [Peretz] too—have been publishing criticisms, even bitter ones, of Israeli policies by myself, Michael Walzer, and many others. True, we have not published pieces rejecting the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism or wishing away the Jewish state, and we have published pieces defending Israel against states and non-state actors (and intellectuals arguing on their behalf) who have denied the right of Israel to exist and have used violence in the name of that idea—and all this, I know, makes us highly unsatisfactory as progressives. Israel was indeed a house obsession here—but not any single idea or image of Israel. There has been no conformity of opinion in this office about this subject or any other subject in the two hundred years I have worked here. And now comes Judis’s nasty little book to prove this definitively! By jumping on a bandwagon he has rescued our reputation for freedom of thought!
So, my compliments.
Wow. Wieseltier can sure bring it! His attack on Judis for having no place in his heart for Jews is very similar to Gershom Scholem’s famous attack on Hannah Arendt.
Though I would say this is further evidence of the crumbling of the rightwing Israel lobby. Wieseltier speaks at AIPAC, Judis is a non-Zionist who supports the two-state solution and gets along with liberal Zionists. The two broke bread together when Marty Peretz ran the magazine, now I wonder what they’ll do when they see each other in the hallway. And the magazine is owned by Chris Hughes, who lives in my town and whose big issue is marriage equality and I can’t believe gives a fig about the Jewish state. The magazine indicated its new direction by running an excerpt of Judis’s book.
As to Radosh’s critique, Judis’s great gift in this book is that he has recognized an important historical pattern and he is insistent on it: Zionist political pressure in London and Washington overwhelmed a postcolonial western principle, self-determination, as well as a sacred American ideal, separation of church and state. That makes his book extremely important and a worthy topic for discussion at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on June 1.
Last night I was reading the part where the British despair about violence between Arabs and Jews in the 1920s and they come up with the Passfield Report calling for a binational state. The Arab leaders were open to it. But the Zionists opposed it, and initiated a pressure campaign in the U.S. and Britain. Leading Jewish intellectuals were recruited; Harold Laski and Lewis Namier said that Lord Passfield had spoken of supporting Arab underdogs against “the powerful and wealthy Jews.” And Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald– already suffering politically from the Depression– then nullified the Passfield report.
Judis describes this pressure as inflicting a “rank injustice” on Palestinians.
From the 1890s, when Zionists first settled in Palestine with the express purpose of creating a Jewish state where Arabs had lived for centuries, until the early 1930s, the responsibility for the conflict lay primarily with the Zionists. They initiated it by migrating to Palestine with a purpose of establishing a Jewish state that would rule the native Arab population.
I think he puts more blame on the Palestinians for the conflict later, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet.
Also, I can’t resist: for another example of Wieseltier’s over-the-top style, see his wedding toast at the wedding of Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power.
Update: Jacob Heilbrunn has a good piece up at the National Interest about Wieseltier’s smear showing Wieseltier’s pattern of tarring writers who criticize Israel, and calling Wieseltier a mummy.
As TNR morphs into a general interest magazine, he is a living mummy, a repository of the ancient feuds that convulsed the New York intellectuals during the 1950s and 1960s. In some ways his vituperativeness evokes a sense of nostalgia. Like the Partisan Review crowd, he specializes in intestine feuds.
For as anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Wieseltier’s writings knows, he has a proclivity not only for extremism, but also for attacking his brethren. To put it more precisely, he is an expert practictioner of what is known as prolicide—in his case, the killing of one’s intellectual children…
Judis has written a mildly critical account that is triggering a furor. That his detractors would respond so extravagantly and violently may say more about their dispositions than his.