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Across the pond, leading American Jewish writers like novelist Saul Bellow and the critics Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe racked up a miserable record of sins of omission during the Holocaust, failing to write about it or show any particular concern for what was unfolding. That, at least, eventually evoked contrition, with Bellow writing in a letter to the writer Cynthia Ozick that “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties…. Growing slowly aware of this unspeakable evasion I didn’t even know how to begin to admit it into my inner life.”
That contrasts, Alexander points out, with present-day American Jewish Israel bashers like Tony Kushner, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, or the late Tony Judt, for whom alienation from Jewish national priorities is not cause for remorse but for self-celebration and strutting one’s superior morality. In America and elsewhere, Alexander observes, such Jews invert the 19th-century notion of “a Jew at home, a man in the world”: generally devoid of Jewish culture in their personal lives, they start adducing their Jewishness when publicly excoriating Israel as a dark stain of evil on the face of the earth.
There are, too, some good guys (and girls) in this book in addition to the younger Arnold and (equivocally) Mill. The 19th-century English novelist George Eliot, in her Daniel Deronda, showed both prescience and deep sympathy toward the Jewish yearning to return to Zion. The late American Jewish author Marie Syrkin, while of socialist leanings herself, staunchly defended Israel when apathy or criticism were the going trends. Efraim Karsh, an Israeli emigrant in Britain, has with his book Palestine Betrayed definitively refuted claims of Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem. The Israeli poet Abba Kovner was a heroic anti-Nazi fighter in Lithuania during the war and, after emigrating to Israel, a patriot and leading light of Hebrew literary revival.
Still, if more Jewish (and non-Jewish) highbrows were of the ilk of such individuals, there would have been no need for a book like Alexander’s. Instead, a besieged people shows signs of cracking under the pressure as many of its most talented sons and daughters join the attackers, flaunting their cowardice and betrayal in hues of moral grandeur. However appalling much of the subject matter, Edward Alexander’s wit, erudition, and insight make this a desirable and important book to read.
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