Eric Hoffer and Israel

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The next year, Hoffer picked up on the double-standard theme in another syndicated column: “It is good form to be shamelessly brazen when dealing with Israel. A Russia that has despoiled every one of its neighbors says that Israel is expansionist and imperialist, and no one laughs.”

The Six-Day War and the activists’ and the intelligentsia’s about-face on Israel served as the context for Hoffer’s articles. When the National Conference for the New Politics held in Chicago in the fall of 1967 condemned “the imperialistic Zionist war” by more than a 2-1 margin, many Jewish leftists felt a conflict between their cultural and political identities. With the Soviet Union backing Arab States in its Cold War with the United States, leftist outlets, such as The Nation magazine, began embracing this antagonistic line toward Israel. Here, Hoffer’s True Believer proved more instructive to understanding the Left’s championing aggressors as victims and the historically oppressed as the current oppressors than any of his contemporary newspaper columns. “All active mass movements strive,” his 1951 book informed, “to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.”

To this day, friends and foes dub Hoffer a Jewish intellectual. He thought himself neither. While detractors may seek to dismiss his pro-Israel writings through this false ethnic-religious modifier, it is the descriptive—intellectual—used more by his admirers that he would have taken violent issue with. “An intellectual is a man of some education who considers himself a member of the intellectual elite with a god-given right to direct affairs,” Hoffer explained to Eric Sevareid in a 1969 primetime CBS special on him. “To me, an intellectual doesn’t even have to be intelligent to be an intellectual.” In that sense, and perhaps in that sense alone, Eric Hoffer wasn’t an intellectual.

If Hoffer was neither Jewish nor an intellectual, who was he? We really don’t know. The first four decades of his life remain a complete enigma. We know, for instance, neither when nor where he was born. We only know that his insights into twentieth century mass movements are among the best of the twentieth century. That he dispensed this wisdom from the San Francisco waterfront, rather than from, say, Harvard Yard, makes him not only a man shrouded in mystery but a character draped in originality.

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  • FriendofGaryCooper

    Thank you for this very good article. I'm going to go out and get The True Believer, and
    read it.

  • pagegl

    He was spot on in regards to intellectuals.

  • Mitch Cohen

    I heard Hoffer speak once in California. He said his interest in Judaism derived from the fact that an American Jew had greatly helped him out when he was destitute and blind.

  • mlcblog

    He is definitely a fascinating figure.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    I learned from Hoffer that all labor is honorable and work is good for the soul.
    He saw the Israeli dilemma and was clear thinking in how disadvantaged the
    Jews were in the way public opinion was being orchistrated. "Money speaks" and
    the Arab or Muslim leaders understood this and made advances with American
    politicians as far back as the early "50's, money buys friends and today our
    politico's are well bought and we are well sold…………………………William