Can Wieseltier, D.C.’s Big Mullah, Have It Both Ways?

People have taken to calling it “The Second Holocaust Debate”-the polemical fracas that has followed upon my recent column with that title (“Second Holocaust,” April 15).

A column in which I expressed a tragic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one prompted by some bleak prophetic musings upon the possibility of a Second Holocaust-the destruction of the Jews of Israel-in Philip Roth’s 1993 Operation Shylock .

I argued that things had taken such a turn toward mutual tragedy that hope for a peaceful settlement-as opposed to an unending Holy War against the Jewish state-seemed irredeemably lost. And that, in the context of exterminationist death-to-the-Jews rhetoric flooding the media and the mosques of even the so-called “moderate” Arab states, and the exterminationist weapons soon (if not already) in the hands of Iraq, Iran and Syria, we might have to begin thinking about the unthinkable. We might have to contemplate that a war or act of terrorism could destroy a good portion of the five million Jews of Israel.

In subsequent columns, I pointed to the way that European anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism on the left could be seen as preparing the way for the world’s indifference to such an outcome, by delegitimizing the state of Israel and focusing upon it the same poisonous rhetoric the Jews of Europe faced in the years preceding Hitler’s Holocaust. The column clearly touched a nerve among many, including Holocaust survivors who thanked me for expressing the sense of foreboding they felt.

Just last week, I was particularly pleased to see Paul Berman-a writer I’ve always respected for his judicious intelligence-weigh in on the question of whether, in fact, we are facing a new, different, more menacing situation. The title of his important piece in Forward says it all: “Bigotry in Print. Crowds Chant Murder. Something’s Changed.”

But there have been attacks, as well, from those who prefer to deny that something’s changed. To deny the possibility of tragedy in history. A denial that can be seen in a remarkably condescending attack on American Jews and their supporters in, of all places, The New Republic . In a cover story (“Hitler Is Dead”), literary editor Leon Wieseltier accuses just about all American Jews (but himself, of course) of “ethnic panic.” Because Mr. Wieseltier is an important voice in an important forum, it’s worthwhile engaging with his attack in detail.

That it should come in The New Republic is particularly ironic, since that magazine has spent the last 20 years making one point above others: The Jewish state has real enemies; its peril is always real. Its recent reporting from Israel, by the estimable Yossi Klein Halevi, documents the demoralizing effect of suicide bombings on the populace; a recent “Diarist” column by editor in chief Martin Peretz eloquently denounces rising anti-Semitism abroad (U.K. poet Tom Paulin’s “Jews in the West Bank should be shot” pronouncements, for instance). And then, suddenly, its literary editor turns on the poor, credulous New Republic readers and attacks them, in effect, for believing what they read in The New Republic -calling concern for the fate of Israel “ethnic panic,” “Jewish fright.” Get your story straight, guys.

But aside from this external inconsistency with the pages in which it appears, the internal inconsistencies of the Wieseltier piece deserve further exegesis. Because it is symptomatic of something deeply sad, an extreme version of the transposed-fear syndrome: fear of facing the possibility of tragedy leading to the projection of “panic” on those who do. And even sadder: the tendency, at a time of crisis, for some Jews to attack, not the real enemies, but their fellow Jews.

In his Forward essay, Paul Berman somberly concludes, “Something has changed.” But for Leon Wieseltier, nothing has changed; there’s nothing to be alarmed about. Those who are alarmed, those who express despair about the way the vicissitudes of history have made victims of both Israelis and Palestinians, are exhibiting “panic” and “fright.” What’s surprising about Mr. Wieseltier’s attacks on American Jews is that someone who styles himself a littérateur should have so little recognition of a tragic view of history, which is what some of us were trying to express. Literature 101 reminder to Leon: A tragic sense is not the same as fearfulness ; Sophocles was not exhibiting “Greek panic.”

How could someone so ostensibly intelligent, so deeply concerned with being seen as intelligent, someone who indeed published (well, edited) a book with the title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent , have failed to live up to that obligation in assaulting and insulting his fellow Jews at this critical moment?

I’ve heard a number of theories on the question. Some have said, in effect, “Leon needs to be Pope of the Jews.” He’s never happier than when he’s issuing papal bulls, so to speak, and hurling maledictions and proscriptions at those who fail to be infallible according to his lights.

Still, one has to question the consistency, if not the sincerity, of his attack. The piece of evidence that calls both into question-I don’t want to call it a “smoking gun” in this context, but it’s close-is an eloquent advertised appeal, “To Our Fellow Americans,” written by two formidable intellects, Cynthia Ozick and Ruth Wisse, that appeared in The New York Sun , among other places, in the month of April, in the aftermath of the Passover massacre and the Israeli response.

It was an appeal for support for Israel, “a democracy that has flourished honorably for 54 years despite repeated Arab attempts to annihilate it.” An appeal that concluded, “In this hour of peril and anguish, we call upon the continuing support of America for our Israeli allies.”

The ad was signed by a number of impressive luminaries, including Saul Bellow, Martin Peretz, David Mamet, Elie Wiesel and … Leon Wieseltier !

Could this be the same Leon Wieseltier, here expressing a sense of “peril and anguish” over the threats to “annihilate” Israel, who then proceeded to denounce everyone else who expressed a sense of “peril and anguish” over the threat of annihilation? So it’s O.K. to express a sense of “peril and anguish” when one gets to place one’s name in the company of Nobel Prize–winning signatories, but it’s not O.K. for less august Jews to express their concern? Get your story straight, Leon. Cynthia Ozick, after all, had written as far back as the late 70′s that the world was getting ready to kill the Jews again. Does Leon believe that she, too, suffers from “ethnic panic”?

But setting aside for a moment this hypocrisy, and the flawed logic, disingenuous argument and Biblical sophistry deployed in the piece itself (all of which I’ll get to in a moment), consider a previous episode, not long ago, which contains what I believe is a clue to the motivation for his current attack on American Jews.

Someone suggested I read a Dec. 3, 2001, analysis of the Wieseltier method by Slate ‘s Timothy Noah, one entitled “The Mullah of Dupont Circle” (the old New Republic offices were in the Dupont Circle neighborhood), in which we see displayed the exact same pattern of papal bull exhibited in his “Hitler Is Dead” screed.

“The Mullah of Dupont Circle” examines Mr. Wieseltier’s savage attack on fellow writers like Adam Gopnik and John Updike for daring to write (in a manner not approved by him) about another tragedy-the Sept. 11 attacks and Ground Zero:

“Since the Word Trade Center towers fell, Wieseltier … has been on a mission to excoriate any writer who dares to aestheticize the moral horrors. Like a Taliban mullah inveighing against the corrupting effects of photography and kite-flying, Wieseltier cries foul at any attempt to ‘meet atrocity with sensibility.’”

Mr. Noah then supplies the coup de grace for the Mullah: He quotes from Mr. Wieseltier’s own attempts to describe Ground Zero, which demonstrate precisely the qualities he purports to denounce in others: “the cheap balm” of “fine writing.”

Here, for instance, is what Mr. Wieseltier considers really good, really appropriate writing about Ground Zero, the kind of thing nobody but he has been able to express, or express so well:

“I do not know how to express the quality of my shock except to say that it banished culture completely from my mind. I fell dumb and stood there as if I had never read a book …. I was without allusions and without metaphors. Can a mind be naked? Then I was naked, without coverings.” (As opposed to the other kind of nakedness … with “coverings”? Love that faux-Biblical stuff!)

Mr. Noah is excellent on the disingenuousness of this passage: “What’s striking of course about Wieseltier’s claim to have banished sensibility from his mind is its sly boastfulness about achieving, in doing so, an even finer sensibility. This clears the way for some sensory evocation of his own:

“The metal was the color of an infernal tarnish …. I watched the cranes scoop up soil from the pit and then I grasped that it was not soil …. What they were moving was the substance that was formed out of the dissolution of everything and everybody that had been crushed and incinerated: a deathloam.’”

What is fascinating is not just the strained “fine writing” (“deathloam” is derivative Paul Celan, one might say), but the resort to apocalyptic extremity of language- exactly what he purports to warn against in his “Hitler Is Dead” screed. By saying this is a place beyond metaphor, beyond descriptive language (except that crafted by the Mullah, of course), he is invoking the post-Holocaust apocalypticism of Theodor Adorno, who said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. He is, in fact, turning Ground Zero into a place virtually indistinguishable from Auschwitz, precisely the kind of distinction-abolishing apocalyptic comparison he inveighs against in his “ethnic panic” piece.

But the clue to motivation comes in an extraordinarily revealing passage not quoted by Mr. Noah. In attempting to “explain” why various critics and writers weighed in on 9/11 (i.e., before he set the permissible parameters), Mr. Wieseltier gives us a hint of his own motivation:

” … they were solving their problem, I guess … their spiritual problem. After all, the horror must somehow be put down. We have suffered the most extreme disruption that bourgeois existence can suffer: an exposure to evil. We all have our avenues of flight. But when we flee, we must agree we are fleeing.”

We all have our avenues of flight …. So condescending, but so revealing. I think it can safely be said that Mr. Wieseltier’s “Hitler Is Dead” screed is his “avenue of flight”-a flight into denial, one in which he projects his fears onto that of his fellow Jews.

Let’s examine the way this is borne out by specific flaws in logic, various straw men that he boldly strikes out against.

The basic argument of “Hitler Is Dead” is that American Jews are exhibiting “ethnic panic” in making analogies between Hitler’s destruction of the European Jews, and the peril to the Jews of Israel from nations with weapons of mass destruction and populations whipped into a kill-the-Jews exterminationist frenzy.

Forbidden! the would-be Pope of the Jews tells us. Of course, there’s precedent for his attitude: A certain elitist faction of American Jews pooh-poohed the pre-Holocaust warnings about Hitler’s exterminationist designs, and later refused to listen to reports of the death camps, from writers such as Ben Hecht, as the product of panicked alarmists. (They were so embarrassingly “ethnic,” to use Leon’s condescending term). Of course, they happened to be right-but no matter.

The first straw man he constructs is what he calls “the conflation of the Palestinians with the Nazis.” He disingenuously makes it appear that those who are concerned about the future of Israel think that Arafat and suicide bombers represent the sum of all fears.

“Only a fool could believe that the Passover massacre was a prelude to the extermination of the Jews of Israel,” he writes.

No, Leon, only a fool (or a dishonest debater) could believe that this is what those of us you are attacking are alarmed about. No, the threat to the existence of the Jews of Israel comes not from teenage suicide bombers, but rather, as any fool should know (and Leon later acknowledges), from the development of weapons of mass destruction, their possession by Arab rejectionist states-and the willingness of terrorists to smuggle them into Israel and use them.

His argument then falls apart completely when he attempts to shrug off this possibility. Having lashed out misleadingly at us “alarmists” for an argument we did not make, he now makes a botch of responding to the one we did.

A full three pages later, he raises the argument that those of us he’s attacked as alarmists have raised from the beginning. But raises it as if he and only he had thought of it:

“The real threat to Israel comes not from Jenin and Gaza but from Baghdad and Tehran … from advanced missile technologies.”

One wants to say, “No shit, Sherlock.”

But having revealed this great discovery of his about “the real threat,” he proceeds to dismiss it in a way that demonstrates he doesn’t understand the “real threat” at all.

“The Jews have a spectacular deterrent,” he informs us, referring presumably to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. That’s it. End of story; end of worry, supposedly, all you panicky alarmists out there. But as he surely knows, but will not admit (because it pulls the rug out from his entire deterrence argument), 9/11 has shown us a couple of new things about deterrence. First of all, a deterrent effect can be blurred if a terrorist group carrying out an attack with smuggled weapons of mass destruction leaves no convenient return address, as Al Qaeda obligingly did with Afghanistan. And people who want to commit mass murder in the Middle East are not necessarily deterred by fear of death or retaliation, anyway. So if an attack comes, after half the Jews are dead from nuclear, chemical or biological attack, and the land made uninhabitable, the survivors will have the satisfaction that this “spectacular deterrent” affords: Many Arabs will die, too. Is that supposed to make us feel better? A deterrent has failed if it has to be used.

Another thing 9/11 should point out is that an attack on two American cities did not destroy America, or any but a regrettable but tiny percentage of Americans. But an attack on two Israeli cities with any combination of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons is something very different, in a small country. Something that could very well amount to a Second Holocaust, with the millions in mortality, millions more in casualties, and a land made unlivable.

But like a playground bully trying to hide his own insecurities, the would-be Pope of the Jews goes on from his flawed deterrence argument to renew his attack on “the fright of American Jewry.”

There’s an element of cruelty to this-attempting to shame people for their sense of peril and anguish-and self-congratulatory self-approbation as well. Having made, for instance, his specious argument that those concerned for the people of Israel in their ethnically “panicked” way (is there a hint of an Otto Weininger–like self-hating stereotype in this repeated slur?) are magnifying Arafat into Hitler, Mr. Wieseltier goes on to heap further obloquy upon his fellow Jews and demonstrate his own noble universalism by contrast. By allegedly elevating Arafat into Hitler, American Jews somehow demonstrate that they believe “Palestinians have no legitimate rights or legitimate claims upon any part of the land, and that there never can be a Palestinian state.” (I certainly don’t believe that.)

Compare this pronouncement with another attack which sounds eerily similar to Mr. Wieseltier’s: “American Jewish support for Israel today simply does not tolerate any allowance for the existence of an actual Palestinian people.”

The author of that last statement, which appeared in Al-Ahram , the semi-official Egyptian government weekly, is none other than Edward Said. Leon Wieseltier’s “avenue of flight” has landed him in the lap of Edward Said, echoing Mr. Said’s critique of American Jews.

But I suppose my favorite part of the Wieseltier screed is the Biblical sophistry in which Mr. Wieseltier gets to flourish his deep, deep learning and place himself on the level of various Jewish sages such as the “scholar and man of letters” Simon Rawidowicz, or the “thinker and statesman” Isaac Abarbanel, or the King of the Jews himself-here we see the self-image-”the poignantly human Saul.” He does so by once again setting up another straw man: that those concerned with the current state of affairs in the Middle East are mythologizing the enemies of the Jewish state into “Amalek,” the eternal typological Biblical enemy of the Jews. And that by doing so, they are foreclosing the possibility of politics, diplomacy-of seeing things clearly, as our “poignantly human” sage of Dupont Circle virtually alone is able to.

One has to admire his ability to read the minds of all the fellow Jews he heaps contempt upon and find Amalek there-but really, the whole Amalek business is nonsense, with no relevance to the actual concerns some of us feel about real weapons of mass destruction in the hands of states and leaders with exterminationist designs on the Jewish state. (As Bill Keller put it in The New York Times Magazine , in regard to a terrorist nuclear attack on the U.S.: “The best reason for thinking it won’t happen is that it hasn’t happened yet, and that is terrible logic.”)

It’s strange: I wish more than anything in the world that I could agree with Mr. Wieseltier’s Pollyanna optimism. I wish I could dismiss the concerns that I and a number of others across the spectrum from hawk to dove have expressed. I wish I could avail myself of the “avenue of flight” that Leon Wieseltier has taken. Denial is so comforting. Hitler is dead.

But alas, Hitler is not dead when the Saudi government TV station broadcasts the words of a cleric who tells millions of listeners, “Defeat the usurper Jews …. O God, annihilate them soon.”

Hitler is not dead when a Palestinian textbook tells teenagers the Nazi Holocaust was an understandable response to the Jews’ “greed and religious fanaticism.”

Hitler is not dead when Arab daily papers publish accounts of Jewish ritual murder to obtain blood for Purim pastry.

Hitler is not dead when Arab bookstores make Mein Kampf a popular best-seller in the region.

Hitler is not dead when a columnist for an Egyptian government paper, Al-Akhbar , writes, “French studies have proven that [the Holocaust] is no more than a fabrication …. But I … complain to Hitler, even saying to him from the bottom of my heart, ‘If only you had done it, brother, if only it had really happened, so the world could sigh in relief” when the Jews were “actually” exterminated.

Hitler is not dead when, as Paul Berman put it, “the notion that Israel’s Jews are evil demons, has swept the world in recent months.”

Hitler is not dead when Saddam and the mullahs of Iran will soon have the weapons to duplicate Hitler’s feat, and terrorists have the means to deliver them.

But don’t concern yourself with it anymore, Leon. Continue down your “avenue of flight” into denial. Perhaps more study of Amalek lore will help. “We all have our avenues of flight. But when we flee, we must agree we are fleeing.