Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘antisemitism’ Category

Another Dreyfus Affair Moment for France? Musings on American and French Antisemitism, and the Jewish Diaspora

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by David

I was about to write a post about conservative blogger Brooks Bayne’s antisemitic rant directed towards Sandra Fluke’s boyfriend Adam Mutterperl, when I read the news about the horrific shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, that left four dead, including three children. We don’t know for certain that this attacks was motivated by antisemitism, but it seems likely, and kind of makes the Brooks Bayne nutjob variety seem less threatening, even if a Bayne is an admitted gun enthusiast.

What to make of these incidents? Is the recent shooting a Dreyfus moment, a wakeup call to French Jews, and Diaspora Jews in general? Contrary to popular myth, the Dreyfus Affair in France, did not launch Theodor Herzl’s Zionist beliefs, though it certainly helped reaffirm them. For those who don’t know, in 1894, French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, convicted, and imprisoned in solitary confinement on an island in French Guiana. Eventually, new evidence came to late proving Dreyfus innocence. The “Affair” really began in 1898, when author Emile Zola wrote J’accuse and blamed French antisemitism for the mistaken conviction. Riots rocked France, dividing the population between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards, generally liberal and secular), and those who condemned him as guilty (the anti-Dreyfusards, generally conservative and often religious). Eventually, in 1899, Dreyfus was retried, convicted for a second time, but then pardoned by the French government, though he was only fully exonerated in 1906.

Theodor Herzl, a journalist, covered the story for a Viennese newspaper. He went on to lead the modern political Zionist movement. And so, we must ask, does this recent shooting in France offer any Zionist lessons? After all, A.B. Yehoshua, left-wing Zionist author and activist, has just told us again (and again) that Diaspora Jews live only a partial Jewish existence, unlike the full Jewish existence that he and other Israeli Jews live. Perhaps the most interesting (and most new and original) thing Yehoshua said this time around was “I have never heard the Jews analyze the Holocaust as a Jewish failure, which was not anticipated.”

Of course, the Holocaust was sort of anticipated, by Herzl in the 1890s, by Leo Pinsker in the 1880s, even Karl Marx’s friend Moses Hess in his 1862 book Rome and Jerusalem, where he wrote “Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism. The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race – they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews, less than their peculiar noses.” (I like to chide my Marxist friends by saying that Hess was much more prescient than his friend Karl, though that prescience was tragic).

So I ask again, are these recent French shooting a similar warning sign? Or are they an aberration, the work of a lone lunatic? Neocon John Podhoretz has already jumped to red alert, declaring that “Jews are being hunted.” J-Pod brings up 9/11 in his article, which made me think of the 2002 essay in The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier (certainly his best work), “Hitler is Dead.” Jews in the Diaspora should not panic.

The irony, it seems, as Yehoshua well knows, is that for the most part, antisemitism does not threaten Jews in the Diaspora, at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrates. We all know this well.

So I’m horrified by the shootings in France. But I’m not going to go alarmist yet. Let’s focus on this incident, on who is responsible, and on honouring the victims and providing sympathy for their families. It seems like Jews are not the only target of this attacker. Let’s learn more before making sweeping judgments.

And I’m much less worried about the ravings of one antisemitic moron in the United States who thinks that “Brandeis University is one of the nation’s leading petri dishes for anti-American and neo-Marxist thought.” Has Brooks Bayne ever been to Brandeis? I think it’s more of a hot-bed for capitalist consumerism, like most educational institutions, Jewish or not (and Brandeis is not Jewish in the way Yeshiva University is, for example).

Brandeis is a great school, and indeed, one of our tentacles at PhD Octopus, Julian, actually goes there. Hey Julian, would you say that Bayne has pegged Brandeis pretty well? Do the undergrads you’ve taught ooze anti-American Marxism? Or is Brandeis one of those places where you find actual conservatives studying and teaching the humanities, at the undergraduate and graduate level? I think it’s more of the latter. I don’t want to give Bayne too much attention, and my friends Sarah and Liora have already trashed his post very effectively.

So I’ll conclude by writing that antisemitism in the US remains a minor phenomenon, in the words of scholar Stephen Whitfield, a “dog” that “did not bark,” or perhaps more accurately, barked but did not bite. Yes, there is American antisemitism, on the right and left (and yes, it can be different than anti-Zionism). It is a phenomenon that needs to be denounced, punished (in the court of public opinion, if nowhere else), and understood. But the real problem for the Jewish Diaspora’s future is assimilation, and that has been true for the past several decades.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 19, 2012 at 16:55

Museums of Vilnius

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by David

Castle in Vilnius

In exploring Vilnius yesterday, the whole “city of ghosts” thing seemed to ring true. We walked along the beautiful streets, but the people seemed detached from the beauty around them. We claimed up to a castle at one of the flat city’s highest points, and took in the view. It was truly majestic. But through that castle was a museum, which hardly recognized the non-Lithuanian character of the city for much of it’s history. It’s as if they went from paganism to the Soviet era with nothing in between. And what they truly celebrated was liberation from the Soviets. On the top floor of the museum, a television played clips about Lithuania’s “2009 Millenium Odyssey: One Name – Lithuania.” This country celebrated 1000 years of Lithuanian history by sending a yacht sailing to visit every Lithuanian community in the world. Impressive, but strange. Hearkening back to a pagan past with a worldwide sailing trip for a nation with no real connection to seafaring? Imagined Community anyone? Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh here. Lithuania is a young country, building its own culture and nation. But I think an honest assessment of their history would do them some good.

The Lithuanian “Genocide” Museum, formerly the KGB museum, was even more troubling. The museum’s name begs the question: genocide committed upon Lithuanians, or by Lithuanians? The museum was in fact dedicated to the two Soviet occupations, from 1940-1941 and then 1944-1990. Those occupations were indeed oppressive. But if genocide ever occurred on these lands, it was between 1941-1944. One exhibit, outlining the casualties of the three occupations, noting 240,000 “Lithuanians” died between 1941-1944, and in brackets, that 200,000 of those were “Jews.” Apart from that, there was no mention of the Holocaust, except for a couple of lines at the bottom of one early exhibit, which said something like: “For those interested in the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, you should check out the Holocaust museum.”

I have no trouble with a museum dedicated to horrors of and resistance to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. As I wrote earlier, I was very impressed with the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which told a Polish story while not neglecting the Jewish element. The Lithuanian Genocide museum had none of that subtlety. Indeed, it had a large outdoor exhibit about the role of basketball is unifying the Lithuanian nation and resisting the Soviets. This exhibit, which consisted of a basketball net and about ten displays, was orders of magnitude larger than any mention of Jews in the museum.

Basketball Exhibit at Lithuanian Genocide Museum

So today, after a lovely guided tour of the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood/ghetto, I went to check out the Holocaust museum, or rather, two parts of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum: The Museum of Tolerance, and another museum specifically dedicated to the Holocaust in Lithuania. I did not have high hopes. When I walked through the first section of the Museum of Tolerance, I feared that this museum was not for me: it had artifacts from Jewish Lithuania, but nothing I hadn’t seen elsewhere. It seemed that the museum existed to educate native Lithuanians about Judaism, which is great, but I I already knew the basics and didn’t need a refresher course. What was worse, there weren’t any Lithuanians in the museum actually learning this stuff.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 19, 2011 at 11:21

Vilnius and Vilna: City of Ghosts

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by David

At the beginning of this trip, what seems like eons ago, my father and I attended a conference in Warsaw on transnationalism. At one of the lunches, we sat with Scotsman, a professor at a Swedish university who had spent the previous several years teaching in Vilnius, Lithuania. I knew it would be the last destination on my eastern European voyage, so I asked him how he felt about the place.

His face darkened. “It’s a city of ghosts,” he said.

That’s what I had heard, and read. In this way, Vilnius, formerly Wilno, or Vilna, was not unlike Lviv, formerly Lwow, Lemberg, or Lemberik. Vilnius had once been a mostly Polish and Jewish city, with a small Lithuanian population. In fact, it had been a seat to Jewish intellectual life in Europe, home to the famous rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, and to YIVO, an academic institution dedicated to the scientific study of Yiddish culture and language, until it relocated to the New York in the 1930s, where it became part of the Center for Jewish history, where I conduct much of my dissertation research.

Indeed, in American Jewish history, a distinction is made among formerly Polish Jews between Galicianers (from Galicia, the region of Poland/Ukraine controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1) and Litwaks (Lithuanians). They spoke Yiddish with different inflections and pronunciations, but supposedly the differences ran deeper. The Galicianers were supposedly simpler but more pious, the Litwaks more secular but also more educated and enlightened, with YIVO emerging as a shining example of this enlightenment.

The YIVO people who left were smart to get out when they did. Because then the Nazis came and killed all the Jews. And then the Soviets came and exiled all the Poles, and moved the Lithuanians in. And so Wilno/Vilna became Vilnius, a city populated by formerly rural Lithuanians, just as Lwow had became Lviv, a Polish-Jewish city now firmly Ukrainian.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 18, 2011 at 04:50

Budaniv and Budzanow: The Weinfelds Come Home

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by David

The Weinfeld House in Budzanow

My dad and I came home yesterday. Not to Montreal, but to Budaniv, Ukraine, formerly Budzanow, Poland, where my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, was born and raised. We’d come a long way.

In my parents’ home in Montreal hangs a large, blown up framed photograph of house. Standing in front of the house are my great-grandparents, Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, and two of their three kids, my grandfather Arnold, and his older sister, my great aunt Gizela. That was their house in Budzanow. Two stories and with a basement, apparently it had been one of the largest houses in town, as my great-grandfather had been a successful tobacco distributor. My father had that image seared into his mind, because he knew that that house was no more. Or so he thought.

Four years ago, I still didn’t think Budzanow existed. My grandfather had always told my father that Budzanow had been destroyed. Flattened. Erased like so many others shtetls by the Nazi killing machine. In 1999, I visited Treblinka, and took a picture of myself next to a stone commemorating the destruction of Budzanow, annihilated like so many other Jewish communities in eastern Europe. I thought that the last remnant of the town.

And so, four years ago, during my summer Yiddish class, in a discussion about shtetls, I told one of the instructors that my grandfather was from Budzanow, but it no longer existed. “Yes it does,” she said. “No it doesn’t,” I replied. “My grandfather said it doesn’t exist anymore. The whole town was destroyed.” I felt certain. But she said: “maybe he meant the Jewish community was destroyed, but the town is still there.”

And so later that day, thanks to the glory that is the internet, I googled the Polish shtetl Budzanow. And sure enough, it still existed, only now it was called Budaniv and was in Ukraine. I should have noticed an inconsistency long ago. After all, my grandfather had also said that he returned to Budzanow immediately after the war. Though his neighbours greeted him warmly, he found his childhood home looted. He never returned.

In any case, after learning about Budaniv, I excitedly told my father. He was in shock, but that quickly turned to happiness. We said that one day we would visit. And we finally made that happen.

So early yesterday morning, me, my father, our guide Alex, and our driver Vitali set out to find Budaniv. Neither of them had been there before either, but armed with GPS and maps, they said getting there would be no problem.

Our first stop, though, was Tarnopol, to visit the local archives. Tarnopol is the major city in the region Budaniv is located, and contained town registries for all the surrounding villages. The archives were old and dark. There was no internet access, and the computers appeared to be from the 1980s. Everything seemed a bit chaotic, but Alex spoke to a very friendly and helpful archivist, who was able to provide us with voting records from Budzanow from 1930.

My father, Alex, and I brought the two musty record books to the reading room, and began poring through them. Neither my father nor I can really read Polish, but we can read names. At first, it seemed fruitless. But then, not more than 10 minutes after we began, I saw them. “Weinfeld!” I shouted. There they were. Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, my great-grandparents. The book listed their professions: we couldn’t make Moishe’s out, but knew he had been a tobacco distributor, a very religious man having come from nearby Zabraz (another shtetl in the Tarnopol region) to marry Brauna Schutzmann and work in her family’s tobacco business. Under Brauna, it simply said housewife. It also listed their ages: Brauna was 57, Moishe 56, meaning they had been born in 1873 or 1874. And best of all, it lasted an address. There were no street names, but they had lived in the central town area, house number 635.

My father and I were ecstatic. We looked through the books a bit more, but were too excited to stay in Tarnopol much longer. We thanked the archivists, ate a quick lunch, and got back in the van to go to Budzanow.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 16, 2011 at 11:28

Lviv and Lwow

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by David

Lviv Opera House

Today was a day of contrasts in a city with many names. Today, it is Lviv, a Ukrainian city. Before World War II, it was Lwow, a Polish city. Before WWI, though still Polish, it was officially  Lemberg, a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And all the while, until the Second World War, it had a large Jewish minority, many of whom called it Lemberik in Yiddish. These name changes, though, only scratch the surface of the city’s fascinating and tragic history.

The city long had a Ukrainian presence, and the oldest church building, St. Nicholas, is Orthodox, dating to the 1200s. But for most of the past few centuries, Poles dominated numerically and culturally. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned 3 ways, the city fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Through World War I, it remained mostly Polish, with a small Ukrainian minority, and a much larger Jewish minority. After the war, Poland became a nation, and though the Ukrainian population increased, they still remained the city’s third ethnic group, and the least important culturally. Then the Nazis came and murdered all the Jews, and then Stalin came and expelled all the Poles. Today, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian (with a small Russian minority), its ties to its past severed.

We hired a guide for the day, a superbly knowledgeable and friendly Ukrainian named Alex. The goal was to see mostly Jewish Lwow, but not to neglect the rest of the city. I thought of my recent discovery that my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, had attended Kazimierz University in Lwow from 1922 to 1926. My grandmother, Irene Weinfeld (nee Altstock) had been born and raised in the city. He was 12 years older than her, and they only met in 1944, after Poland had been liberated by the Soviets. But I imagine that they might have talked about beautiful Lwow in their courtship period. My wife, Julie, reminded me that our courtship was similar: we both graduated Harvard in 2005, but only met in New York a couple of years later. But we already had much to talk about, friends and places and memories in common, and that made the romancing all the smoother.

Me at the Remains of Lwow's Rose Synagogue

Thus, despite my unease at being in Ukraine, I felt excited to see the city that may have helped bring my grandparents together. Hiring a guide was the right decision, as seeing Jewish Lwow is more difficult that it sounds. We walked through the cobblestone streets, and stopped at parks  and outdoor markets and decaying remnants of buildings where synagogues once stood. We saw a Jewish hospital, now simply a hospital with Stars of David adorning it. We saw doors that had once been entrances to Jewish shops, with the mezuzahs long stripped away. We saw the apartment where the famous Yiddish poet Sholem Aleichem lived, for a year in the early 20th century, en route to New York. Some of the places were marked with plaques. Others were not. Some of the plaques’ English text contained numerous spelling mistakes. Occasionally, the words “synagogue” or “Jewish community” in the Ukrainian text were scratched out.

Historian Omer Bartov wrote a book called Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine. I haven’t read it, but the title says it all. Unlike in Poland, Ukraine has not made any effort to come to terms with, or even really acknowledge its Jewish past. According to Alex, the typical Ukrainian resident of Lviv probably has no idea that his or her city had once been a third Jewish.

Poland has not entirely exorcised its antisemitism, past or present. But they are trying. The rejuvenation of the Jewish neighbourhood in Cracow, the construction of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, the clear, beautiful monuments to the Jewish past throughout the country, the inclusion of Jews in Polish museums such as that commemorating Polish events such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, all point to this change in the right direction, a change towards objectivity in looking at the past, a change toward healing. In the essay that concluded his magisterial Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that acknowledging and coming to terms with your antisemitic past, or at least beginning to do so, was the entry ticket into the European Union. Poland has done it. I believe Lithuania has done it. Ukraine has not.

Nonetheless, the city charmed me. We went from site to site, of the vanished Jewish past, but I imagined that my grandparents may have attended those synagogues, shopped at those shops, walked on those streets. We visited the university, now called the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, teeming with young Ukrainian students, and I imagined my grandfather in those same buildings. We went to several spectacular churches, pointing to the remaining religious diversity still present in Ukraine: from ornate Catholic churches to the dark, mysterious and beautiful houses of worship of the Ukrainian Orthodox, to the Greek Catholic cathedrals, somewhere in between. I came to enjoy the city that had made me uneasy just a day before.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 15:56

Entering Ukraine

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by David

I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that Ukraine would be less developed than Poland. Still, some experiences early on surprised me.

At 9 am yesterday, our driver, Vitali, picked us up in his van at our Cracow hotel. He didn’t speak much English, but he was friendly fellow. More important, he knew the way to Lviv, Ukraine, and was going to drive us the 600 or so kilometers to get there.

We did our best to communicate with Vitali, my father relying on the bits of Polish he remembered from his childhood (his parents spoke to him in English, but to each other and their friends in Polish, not Yiddish). Turns out Vitali spoke Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Hungarian, after living in Hungary for six years serving with the Red Army. We stopped at a truck stop for lunch, which had a grill with only female servers and only male customers. I had some kielbasa, the first real kielbasa I had all trip. It was delicious, and didn’t need any condiments.

There is no main highway between Cracow and Lviv. We took small roads, sometimes only with one lane in each direction. Sometimes, the roads had a half-lane/shoulder on each side. If you wanted to pass the car ahead of you, you pulled into the other lane (of potentially oncoming traffic) and any car coming must drive half in their lane and half on the shoulder. This struck me and my dad as pretty scary, but Vitali handled it without difficulty.

Crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine was an amazing experience. When we first pulled up to the border, we saw a huge line of cars and anticipated an enormous wait. I’ve waited upwards of 2 hours at the Canada-US border, so this wasn’t exactly novel to me, but I was still disappointed. We were stopped behind a long line of cars, and ahead of us was a traffic light, turned red, ahead of which was a similarly endless line of cars. Many in our section actually turned their cars off, and Vitali did so as well. My father stepped out to take a look, I stepped out to pee by the side of the road (public urination is a form of reparations). We feared the worst. The Vitali walked off ahead to try to speak to someone. A few minutes later, he came running back, as the light had turned green and others were starting their engines again.

Still the line moved slowly. So Vitali decided to simply veer to one side of line and drive up ahead, passing car after car. Eventually, he encountered a guard. He spoke to him jovially, and handed him our passports. We heard him say something about my father being a professor from Canada. A few minutes later, we were allowed to pass.

It turns out that that guard had been Polish. Apparently you have to go through/customs security on the way out too. We then drove up to a Ukrainian soldier, who Vitali approached with same jovial manner. We gave him our passports, and a few minutes later, he returned them and we moved on. Vitali was clearly a veteran border crosser. Apparently, he simply told them we were from Canada, and didn’t have any alcohol or cigarettes, and off we went. We’ve heard that is easier for Canadians to cross the Poland-Ukraine border than it is for Ukrainians.

Once we entered Ukraine, the difference seemed immediately apparent. Like in Poland, we drove through small roads, with a similarly treacherous way to pass cars ahead of you. But the scenery was rather different. We drove by old women with rakes, wearing handkerchiefs, plowing fields. Groups of horses with no fence to hold them in. And then cows actually walked in the middle of the road, forcing us to stop until they went by.

I thought of India first. I’ve never been, but have heard that this was a frequent occurrence there. But then I thought of Borat

I couldn’t help it. I remember a travelogue we read in my eastern European history class, from the 18th or 19th century, written by a Frenchman visiting Poland, who thought he had travelled back to the medieval era, only to be amazed that Warsaw was an actual city. If my demi-Orientalist prejudices had emerged in Poland, they doubled in the Ukraine. And sure enough, when we got to Lviv, I was a bit surprised to find a modern city. But there it was.

The roads around the downtown square are almost all cobblestone. It creates a very charming effect, but is murder on car suspension, and I suspect, on women or men in high heels. Lviv, like Cracow, had been a Polish city under the Habsburgs, and it had something of the same aura. But it also felt different. It wasn’t just that the cars were more run-down and the buildings more dilapidated.

Ukraine was the birthplace of the pogrom. One of the country’s heroes, Bogdan Chmielnicki, had led the butchering of thousands of Jews in the 1600s. They still have a statue of him (below). There are no statues of Hitler in Germany. My father’s father, born, raised and educated in Poland, a veteran officer in the Polish army, visited Germany after the war. But he would never set foot in Poland. And he would not have dreamed to going to Ukraine. I thought about that. I felt uneasy. I felt bad for feeling this way, but I felt it nonetheless.

Needing a bit of a break, my father and I ate at McDonalds that night. The food was cheaper, a bit over 8 American dollars, for a Big Mac, Quarterpounder with Cheese, a large fry, a Coke-Light, and a bottle of water (no gas). It tasted good, like I remembered it. But I knew that the next day would be radically different than the one before. More on that in the next post.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 11:10

A Sad Day for the Anti-Defamation League

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by Weiner

Good shabbos everyone, and welcome to another edition of Jewish stupidity. Today’s installment concerns the famed Anti-Defamation League, that venerable institution that has been fighting antisemitism, and all others forms of bigotry since 1913. Well, I guess the good people at the ADL feel like they’ve had a good run, because, as the New York Times reports, they’ve decided to oppose the building of mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks.

As Paul Krugman correctly notes, this is “bad for the Jews.” Greg Sargent is right on the money here too.

The ADL, founded in 1913, has had its hiccups in the past: as Stuart Svonkin’s Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties chronicles, the ADL, like the American Jewish Committee, unethically purged its membership of Communist sympathizers during the McCarthyite Red Scare of the 1950s. More recently, the ADL’s director, Abe Foxman, has made numerous stupid and offensive statements in the past.

This one, however, really takes the cake. As the ADL statement recognizes, Muslims have every right, according to American law, to build their center there. What’s more, to tar all the world’s Muslims with the “terrorist-Islamist-Al Queda” brush is out and out bigotry. As Matt Yglesias notes, several Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks.

The ADL, despite those hiccups mentioned earlier, has done a lot of good work fighting antisemitism, racism and other forms of intolerance in the past. That work, in addition to being right, was good for the Jews, helping to secure their place in America. For the ADL to side with bigotry is harmful to Jews, Muslims and all Americans. It is damaging in the present and tarnishes their proud tradition of fighting  prejudice.

Written by David Weinfeld

July 31, 2010 at 08:59

Adolf Hitler: Gay or Gassy?

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by Weiner

A recent episode of The Daily Show featured a hilarious bit about religious conservative nutcase Scott Lively‘s belief that Adolf Hitler, along with much of the Nazi leadership, were homosexuals. As historian Dagmar Herzog astutely commented, there is no evidence to support this claim, and more important, it’s entirely irrelevant.

Of course, it got me thinking about another strange Hitler theory, namely that his horrendous gas may have led to his horrendous deeds. According to Tony Perrottet, “medical historians are unanimous that Adolf was the victim of uncontrollable flatulence.” The implication, unstated but clear, is that Hitler’s farts may have caused the Holocaust.

Of course, among the “scholarship” in Perrottet’s “Further Reading” suggestions is The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor by notorious antisemite and Holocaust-denier David Irving. So it’s best to take Perrottet’s conclusion with a grain of salt (or Gas-X).

Still, this got me thinking about a common “what if” scenario involving the Holocaust: What if Hitler had been accepted to art school? Would he have become Adolf Hitler, the antisemitic artist, rather than Adolf Hitler, mastermind of the Holocaust?

This question in turns leads us to the bitter historical debate about the Holocaust, between functionalism versus intentionalism. Very briefly, intentionalists argue for a master plan to exterminate the Jews, a direct order from Hitler and the highest level of Nazi leadership. Many also believe that Hitler had planned to organize the genocide of the Jews as early as his writing of Mein Kampf. Functionalists argue that no such order or plan was made, and that the murder of Jews was decided upon at far lower levels in the German bureaucracy, or as a reaction to domestic power struggles in Germany, external events during the Second World War, or some other processes beyond the individual level.

For those who support the intentionalist school and place a great deal of blame upon Hitler, his sexual orientation, gastrointestinal problems and artistic ability could potentially be very significant. For functionalists, these are less important: something like the Holocaust was going to happen anyway.

Most historians today argue for a synthesis of these two views. But of course, this debate extends beyond the Holocaust and into broader questions for the field of history.

For example, the excellent book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by sociologist Charles Payne looks at the American Civil Rights movement but avoids a Martin Luther King Jr. centric perspective, focusing on grassroots organizing, or at least at the leadership level below King, like Ella Baker or Medgar Evers. This time looking at one of history’s good guys, we can pose similar questions: How important was MLK to the Civil Rights movement? Would it have happened without him? Would it have happened differently?

The turn towards social history in the 1960s and 1970s, history from the “bottom up,” so to speak, has done a lot of good, by opening up both new theoretical lenses with which to look at history, but also by granting agency to a new set of actors: the poor, workers, women, ethnic and racial minorities, children, and of course people who combine two or more of those categories.

Many historians today shun the “Great Man” school of history, whereby important individuals, almost always white men, shaped world history, on the battlefield, in seats of government, in the clergy or the Ivory Tower. Politicians, generals and intellectuals have become less interesting than the “ordinary men” who slaughtered Jews during WW2, as described in Christopher Browning‘s famous book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

Much of this social history, though by no means all or even most of it, employs a Marxist viewpoint. The pioneering work in this regard is E.P. Thompson‘s 1963 tour de force, The Making of the English Working Class, which argues that the working class developed its own class consciousness, restoring agency to poor English workers. Following this example, Lizabeth Cohen wrote Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, arguing that workers quite literally made the New Deal happen through their activism.

While these works of social history are both brilliant and important, as an intellectual historian, I’m sympathetic to individuals as major actors. I think Hitler’s personality, like MLK’s, or Josef Stalin’s, or Karl Marx’s, Margaret Thatcher’s, Albert Einstein’s, were all important in shaping world history.

Obviously there is some form of middle ground here, and perhaps I’m setting up a false dichotomy. But these questions are important, not just for historians, but also for those interested in the present, when we think about how much blame or praise to heap upon Barack Obama, Congress, the American people, the international market, fundamentalist Islam and other individuals, groups and large structural forces at work in the world.

Wieseltier Cries Wolf on Sullivan

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Just finished reading Leon Wieseltier’s insane “J’accuse” article, which argues the Andrew Sullivan is an anti-Semite. This article is very sad for a number of reasons. First, I believe it is wrong. Andrew Sullivan is not an anti-Semite. He has become ever more critical of Israeli policy, which is fine. So have I. What Wieseltier is doing is making an inappropriate leap between Sullivan’s Catholicism, or more broadly, his goyishness, and his views on Israel. When Noam Chomsky, or Glenn Greenwald, or Matt Yglesias make similar comments, and they do, Wieseltier cannot present similar objections.

Andrew Sullivan is not left-wing. He’s not even really liberal. I think he also has some sympathy for ethnic or cultural particularism. He is a religious man, and he respects different religions and different cultures and identities. He has written eloquently about gay identity and culture, celebrating new tolerance while lamenting the decline of cultural cohesiveness. He is not an anti-Semite.

There is a left-wing antisemitism out there, which is much more complicated, and more interesting. It is not religious, or racial. It goes something like this: “why won’t Jews just assimilate already? why won’t they just fade into the secular masses?” It does not understand why atheist Jews insist on being Jewish. It does not understand Jewish sympathy for Israel, or Jewish culture, or rooting for Kevin Youkilis. It has no patience for particularism of any kind, and especially not the particularism of relatively well-off, educated, liberal elites.

There’s a lot more to say about this, and I’m certain it will come up again in this blog. But suffice to say that Andrew Sullivan is not like this. He has no real problem with Jewish particularism, as far as I can tell. And that makes Wieseltier’s screed completely off-base.

Wieseltier was once a decent writer. Ok, he’s still a fine writer, but his articles used to make defensible arguments. In 2002, during the heart of the second Palestinian intifadah, he wrote an excellent piece in The New Republic titled “Hitler is Dead.” In this piece, Wieseltier mocked “Jewish panic,” and argued that Jews should not understand enemies of Israel, like Hamas members, as Amalekites, the antisemitic tribe in the Hebrew Bible that fought an eternal war against the Israelites.

To believe otherwise is to revive the old typological thinking about Jewish history, according to which every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy, and there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war…. the important point is that Amalek justifies nothing but the use of force. There is no other solution to the Amalek problem. And that is why all this pessimism is not only intellectually sloppy, it is also operationally superfluous. It is a view of history that provides no foundation for Israeli restraint, and sometimes restraint is the intelligent policy.

All right on the money. And yet, in his recent attack on Sullivan, without calling him Amalek, Wieseltier falls into a similar trap:

As a matter of numinous conviction, the jihadists are anti-Americans and anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, and their anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. They do not want to take the Israel-Palestine question off the table, they want to take Israel off the map. Their goals are literal and maximal. Their worldview is unfalsifiable; their “paradigm” does not “shift.” They do not make Sullivan’s distinction between Israel’s existence and Israel’s actions. If the two-state solution were to come into being, the jihadists would consider their job half-done…. Jihadism is a violent political theology determined by ideas and fantasies that do not come from America or Israel, and its abhorrence of freedom, materialism, democracy, modernity, and the West exceeds even its abhorrence of Jews.

Wieseltier’s 2010 analysis is just as “intellectually sloppy” and “operationally superfluous” as was the “Amalekization” he deplored in 2002. And The New Republic is not helping to soften its reputation as a mouthpiece of the “Israel Lobby” by printing this drivel.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 9, 2010 at 10:05

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