The blue-collar intellectual who stood athwart the intelligentsia’s about-face on Israel.
Google “Eric Hoffer” and one is bound to stumble across articles and posts extolling the longshoreman philosopher as one of America’s great Jewish intellectuals. I certainly shared that assumption when researching him for my book, Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America. But when I brought up Hoffer’s religious background to Lili Osborne, his late, longtime, lady friend, she responded with a quizzical stare. Eric Hoffer wasn’t Jewish, insisted the person who knew him best.
But he had read Ernest Renan’s five-volume History of the People of Israel. This set of books, coupled with the experience of living through what he referred to as the Hitler-Stalin decade, provoked both a great admiration for, and an instinctual defense of, the Jewish people. His quarter-century as a stevedore stemmed from the fortysomething’s thwarted attempt to enlist during World War II. He wished to fight against totalitarianism the best he could, and in the wake of his rejection from the armed services he reasoned that working the San Francisco docks was the way to do that. He later tried to make sense of the bewildering Hitler-Stalin decade in 1951’s The True Believer. The agnostic warned of the irreligious making politics a religion. “The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross,” The True Believer noted. “The ceremonial of their parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession. They have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers.”
In the late 1960s, Israel had come under attack in a figurative sense from the intellectuals and in a literal sense from neighboring Arab states. Whereas the author of The True Believer had been caught flat-footed by the events of the thirties, he reacted in real time, and with a massive megaphone, to sixties anti-Semitism. Hoffer took up his pen in defense of Israel.
“The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews,” he wrote in a 1968 op-ed. The piece, and subsequent ones that ran in the 400 or so newspapers that carried his column, outlined the peculiar indignation raised against Israel by those silent to offenses committed by non-U.S.-allied states.
“Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms,” he noted. “But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace. Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world.” He continued, “Other nations when they are defeated survive and recover. But should Israel be defeated it would be destroyed.”
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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