Table of Contents:
A Kosher Fourth of July: William McGurn, Wall St. Journal, July 1, 2019
The Achievement of Vasily Grossman: Joseph Epstein, Commentary Magazine, May 2019
Dark Days for Jews in Literature: Abe Greenwald, Commentary Magazine, July 1, 2019
Whither Léon Blum? —Paul Berman’s Misplaced Faith in Bernie Sanders: Matt Johnson, Quillette, July 3, 2019
Since that fateful July 4 when the Second Continental Congress invoked the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to declare independence from King George III, an argument has raged over the Christian roots of the American Founding. Now a group of scholars suggests that if we are looking only to the Gospels to understand the new American nation, we may be arguing over the wrong testament.
“The American Republic,” they write, “was born to the music of the Hebrew Bible.”
The book is called “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States: A Sourcebook.” The title comes from Leviticus and is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The book comes courtesy of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, where it was pulled together by Meir Soloveichik, Matthew Holbreich, Jonathan Silver and Stuart Halpern.
These men are not arguing that America was founded as a Jewish nation. Nor is their subject Jews in America, or the role of Jews in the American Founding. Their proposition is more supple and profound: that at key moments in the national story, Americans have looked to the ancient Israelites to understand themselves, their blessings and their challenges.
The evidence, they say, is all around us. The American landscape is dotted with town names that reflect this understanding, from the Zions, Canaans and Shilohs to the Goshens, Salems and Rehoboths. And whether it is John Winthrop invoking a “covenant” to characterize the order the Puritans established with Massachusetts Bay Colony, or Martin Luther King more than three centuries later talking about having been to the mountaintop, Americans have long looked to the biblical Israelites for the “political and cultural vocabulary” to explain the American proposition.
Though this American affinity for the Israelites pre-dates the Revolution, the war for independence intensified the parallels. In their revolt against George III, the men of the 13 colonies saw themselves as modern Israelites escaping a latter-day Pharaoh. So, when the Second Continental Congress created a committee to design a seal for the new United States, also on July 4, 1776, it was only natural that two of the committee members—Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—turned to Exodus. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
“Well, comrade Mostovskoy,” said Sofya, “so much for your 20th century. So much for its humanity and culture… All I see is unprecedented atrocities.” —Stalingrad, Vasily Grossman.
In a conversation sometime in the mid-1970s, Saul Bellow remarked to me on the crucial difference between European and American writers of his generation. Writers in Europe have looked the devil in the eye, he said, while in America writers have to make do with irony, comedy, and anything else that comes to hand. The devil, of course, was totalitarianism, in particular fascism and Communism, which promised its adherents heaven and brought them unmitigated hell.
The European writers Bellow had in mind were Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Stefan Zweig, André Malraux, Boris Pasternak, and others. Vasily Grossman (1905–1964), a writer Bellow surely did not know about at the time we spoke, perhaps stared that devil in the face with greater intensity than anyone else and came away the most impressive of all literary witnesses of the malevolence of totalitarianism. Judged by the centrality, the significance, of his subject and his aesthetic grasp of it in powerful novels and penetrating essays, Grossman may have been the most important writer of the past century.
Vasily Grossman had the misfortune of being born in Russia, a country that, under the czars as under the commissars, has traditionally treated its people as if they were a conquered nation. “There was only one thing Russia hadn’t seen during these thousand years,” thinks a character in Grossman’s novel Everything Flows—” freedom.” Another character in the same novel remarks: “Happiness doesn’t seem to be our fate in this world.” In 2014, the actor Leonid Bronevoy, whose father had been sent off to the Gulag, described the Soviet experiment as “an absurd horror film stretching over 70 years.” Government-organized famine, hideous show trials, brutal gulags, mass murder, life in the Soviet Union made the plagues that fell upon Egypt seem a week in the Catskills.
Grossman was also a Jew, who under the Czars were for the most part kept segregated in the Pale of Settlement and victimized by pogroms (there were more than 1,200 pogroms in the Ukraine alone). Under Stalin, Jews were systematically hunted down after the false Doctors’ Plot of 1952–53, in which Russians were told that a group of mostly Jewish doctors supposedly plotted to assassinate the dictator. Grossman somehow evaded the fate of death by execution that befell those two other immensely talented Jewish writers, Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam. But his mother was murdered by the Nazis in Berdichev in 1941 in Ukraine, where some 62,000 Jews were massacred. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The world of literature, where Jews have made so many invaluable and long-standing contributions, is succumbing quickly to the new anti-Semitism.
The most recent example comes from the United Kingdom. Two cultural organizations in England have just rejected hosting talks by novelist Richard Zimler—explicitly because he’s Jewish. In the Guardian, Zimler writes of the conversation with a friend in which he learned of the trouble: “‘They asked me if you were Jewish, and the moment I said you were, they lost all interest,’ he said. “‘They even stopped replying to my emails and returning my phone messages.’”
Zimler had been hoping to promote his new novel, The Gospel According to Lazarus, and up until his friend confirmed the author’s Jewishness, these unnamed organizations had been interested. And then they weren’t. “It made Britain seem like a place I didn’t know and maybe never knew,” Zimler writes. “Even just asking about my religious affiliation struck me as outrageous.”
It gets a bit more outrageous when you consider what Zimler’s publicist had to say to the Observer—while not revealing his own name: “I was very shocked and surprised. People in the literary world are not usually narrow-minded. Everyone who knows Richard knows he is his own person.”
Zimler “is his own person”? That’s a curious defense, isn’t it? It’s hard not to think that what he meant was that Zimler, while Jewish, isn’t a Zionist puppet and can, therefore, be tolerated.
It might behoove Zimler to exercise his individual personhood and fire his publicist—at the very least for remaining anonymous while commenting on the matter. And it would be helpful, too, if he revealed the names of the two blatantly anti-Semitic organizations that shot him down.
Zimler’s case isn’t entirely an outlier. In May, Michigan-based publisher Dzanc Books canceled the publication of the forthcoming novel, The Siege of Tel Aviv, by Hesh Kestin, an American Jew and former soldier in the Israeli army. The book imagines an Iranian-led attack on Israel, and Dzanc pulled out after a slew of the publishing house’s other authors complained that it promoted unflattering stereotypes of Muslims. Funny, Stephen King seemed not to have noticed. He blurbed the book, writing, “Hesh Kestin’s novel is scarier than anything Stephen King ever wrote—and then the fun begins as Israel fights back.”
What’s scariest, however, is the concerted effort to push Jews, Jewish ideas, and any expression of sympathy for Israel out of popular culture. Jewish writers face a perfect storm of hatred, especially if they dare to write positively about Israel. There’s the rise of the anti-Semitic BDS movement; a book industry marked by “sensitivity readers,” who assess works based on how closely they hew to leftist notions of identity-based victimhood (in which Jews always come in last); and cancel culture, which automatically sinks the careers of those who don’t play by the rules of intersectionality. In the case of Zimler, there’s also the triumph of anti-Semitism among the British left. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Just before the Second World War, the father of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas told him why it was necessary to make France their home: “A country capable of splitting itself in two over the honor of a little Jewish captain is a country where we have to go as soon as possible.” Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew who became a French citizen in 1939, after which he joined the military as a translator and ended up as a prisoner of war in Germany. Many of his family members died in the Holocaust, but he survived the war and returned to France where he lived the rest of his life.
The Dreyfus Affair divided France just a few decades before the Second World War, and Levinas’s father saw in the controversy the soul of a society that values truth and justice over the ancient hatreds and violent dogmas that were consuming so much of Europe. But the pardon and vindication of the “little Jewish captain” Alfred Dreyfus—who had been falsely accused of treason—was the result of a process that, as Levinas’s father observed, tore France in half. France was the country of Émile Zola, but it was also the country of Édouard Drumont and the howling mobs who read his antisemitic screeds and joined his campaigns against the country’s Jews.
Victor Klemperer, a philologist, and diarist who remained in Germany for almost the entirety of the Second World War, once referred to the Jews as a “seismic people.” It’s an apt metaphor—the tremors of antisemitism are an unfailing sign that a society is in grave danger (which is why it’s so often present in totalitarian regimes and mass movements), but conspiratorial suspicion of Jews has a tendency to create sporadic rifts, cracks, and sometimes earthquakes in even the most tolerant and liberal societies. In a series of articles for Tablet late last year, the American author and critic Paul Berman provides a kind of Richter scale reading for three of these countries: France, Britain, and the United States, and asks if the recrudescent antisemitism on the European Left is a sign of what’s to come on the other side of the Atlantic.
Berman provides a brief history of the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis—from Jeremy Corbyn’s record of praising terrorist organizations and celebrating artwork that looks like it was commissioned by Joseph Goebbels to the long list of condemnations of Labour issued by Jewish organizations in the UK. This crisis has only deepened in recent months, with a spate of resignations by Labour members of parliament, ever-increasing opposition from the Jewish community, and surging distrust of Labour among British Jews. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
On Topic Links:
American Jewish Literature: Dead or Alive? A Moment Symposium: Marilyn Cooper, Moment, Jan. 22, 2018 — As Moment’s culture editor, whether I am speaking with publishers, authors, scholars or people I meet during Shabbat morning kiddush, sooner or later I am inevitably asked the same question: Are great American Jewish books still being written?
Robespierre’s America: Bret Stephens, New York Times, July 4, 2019 — I was walking through an airport terminal trying to catch a connecting flight last Saturday when I spotted a writer I had never met but whose work I admire.
Leonard Cohen Documentary Makes Viewers Laugh and Cry About It All Again: Jordan Hoffman, Times of Israel, July 5, 2019 — In November 2016 music and poetry fans the world over mourned the passing of the legendarily out-of-time Jewish-Canadian balladeer.
Insinuendo: Why the Mueller Report Doth Repeat So Much: Eric Felten, RealClearPolitics, July 3, 2019 — The Mueller report should have been a knockout blow to anti-Trump forces who invested their hopes in the special counsel.
This week’s French-language Briefing is titled, Isranet Communique: Le Deal du Siècle: Plan de Paix ou Plan Marschall (5 Juillet, 2019)To access the Briefing, click the following Link – Ed.