I wish I could leave this subject behind. I was hoping to get back to my Jane Austen column, to the way the mocking of literary convention in the sonnet-parody passage in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is almost exactly echoed by the tone of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey when she first meets Mr. Tilney! Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the deeply disingenuous story in New York magazine called “How the War Came Home.” In which a New York magazine writer sneers at New York Jews, sneers at them for being concerned about the fate of the Jews of Israel. Sneers in a number of slippery, discreditable ways, all of which are designed to reflect-surprise!-great credit, by contrast, on the author of the story. Who, unlike her “frightened” and “alarmist” fellow Jews, staunchly refuses to abandon her noble belief in Universal Justice to embrace cruelty, “callousness” and war crimes, like all the other Jews she disdains.
I’m not exaggerating the insidiousness of the story, the centerpiece of a cover package (“Crisis for American Jews”), merely because I was one of those slimed by her sandbox-level name-calling, and I’m not alone in thinking the piece is a scandal. As one erudite friend e-mailed me:
“I found it awful for several reasons. Beyond the historical and moral stupidity and the arrogance and condescension, I thought it was a shoddy piece of journalism-the false dichotomies: People who feel force is necessary for self-defense don’t believe in peace. People aware of a genuine existential threat to Jews are ‘fearful.’ That’s the kind of insidious transformation of language that got us into this mess.”
Another astute writer thought it had to do with her embarrassment at being a Jew among her friends on the left. “Despite the outpouring of left anti-Semitism all over the world, her aim is to gratify the prejudices of the left here and in Europe. They are glad to hear the testimony of a self-proclaimed Good Jew who will allow them their prejudices against Bad Jews without guilt.”
And Nat Hentoff from The Village Voice , who was quoted in the piece, told me it was important to point out the slipperiness and journalistic evasiveness of the piece, particularly the way it “significantly underemphasized the core issue: the way the majority of the Palestinian community celebrated suicide bombings.”
But this needs to be put into the context of a greater scandal, the crisis of the American left. A crisis of the American left in its frightened and fearful refusal to speak out against the anti-Semitism of the left that is pouring out of the mouths and the pens of the left in the U.K. and Europe and on U.S. campuses. Or did I just miss the editorials in American left publications condemning the British left darling Tom Paulin for proposing that American Jews, Brooklyn-born Jews, “should be shot” if their presence is detected on the West Bank? (A matter of some moment, one might think, to New York ‘s Brooklyn-born readers.)
But rather than confront this ugliness among her ideological kin, the writer, this exemplar of the American left, chooses instead to blame the Jews ! Blame New York Jews. It’s easier that way; it doesn’t require her to question anything in her own belief system. The real problem isn’t suicide bombers, mass murderers, synagogue burnings, left anti-Semitism. The real problem is New York Jews. By acting “frightened,” they have empowered, in effect, the ugly Bad Jew Sharon to commit war crimes in their name.
The author doesn’t quite seem to realize-so preoccupied is she with her incessant celebration of her own noble universalism-that her disdain for lesser Jews that oozes out of every paragraph of the New York magazine story reminds one of the disdain that some early 20th-century German Jews had for the embarrassingly unsophisticated Jews of Eastern Europe, who came to Germany fleeing pogroms and rightly fearing worse.
It all comes out, her true attitude, in one of the last paragraphs of the piece, when she gives way to the smarmy self-righteousness which has subtly informed every paragraph up till then. She’s just shocked , she tells us, at the way her fellow Jews in New York lack even the rudimentary knowledge that the other side, the Palestinians, are human!
By contrast, she declares, “I happen to know that both sides are human. (Oops, isn’t that a ‘moral equivalence’? Verboten . Well: Sorry. Too bad.)” Isn’t she so brave ! And, of course, engaged in transparent sophistry: The “moral equivalence” argument has nothing to do with whether Palestinians are “human,” but whether mass murderers are to be considered “equivalent” to those seeking to prevent mass murder.
Note also the slippery use of Verboten : These lesser Jews implicitly use German (read: Nazi) language- Verboten -to express their repressive sentiments. (It’s the idiot Mirroring Evil exhibit rhetoric again.) But she’s defiantly unafraid to say that Palestinians are human: “Well: Sorry. Too bad.” She’s not cowardly, like all these hysterical New York Jews.
In fact, her own bravery is a recurrent theme of her piece. And in fairness, one must pay tribute to her courage. For her courage in being so cool-headed, so profoundly untroubled by the current situation, for how unnecessary she feels it is to question any of her extremely enlightened beliefs in the light of what her fellow Nation contributor Amos Oz recognizes as a situation which raises horrifyingly new questions. But then she sneers at Oz, too, even though he’s lived in Israel all his life-lives there now-and she spent a brief few years as a journalist there before returning to the safety of the Upper West Side.
By the way, I’m proud to be named among the Jews the author sneers at in the piece for being “angry and frightened.” Angry and despairing might be a more accurate characterization, but since she also calls my “Second Holocaust” column “clearheaded,” let’s proceed to a clearheaded examination of the journalistic shoddiness of her piece. The kind of elementary errors I’d caution students against when I taught at Columbia Journalism School.
Beginning with shoddy technique No. 1, the most glaring and tell-tale technique: the shift from “we” to “they.”
The central thesis, myth or, if you prefer, fairy tale at the heart of the New York magazine sneer is that, once upon a time, New York Jews were Good Jews who believed-like the author still does-in really, really Good Things like Social Justice. But now, because of a few things like suicide bombs, synagogue burnings in France, “Kill the Jews” chants elsewhere in Europe, exterminationist rhetoric in Arab schoolbooks and Arabic media, the Jews are Turning Bad ! They’re “frightened,” “nervous,” “alarmist,” lacking the staunch courage of our author. They’ve abandoned their belief in justice and begun to support the Very Bad Israeli government, which, by taking active measures to protect its citizens from mass murderers, is clearly no longer composed of Good Jews. New York Jews are not only “frightened”: They are embracing the alleged war crimes of the Israelis; they are empowering them. Their support for the Israeli government is unleashing them: “American Jews are ready to go in with the tanks, and that’s one of the factors that has allowed the Israelis to go in with the tanks,” she says. “There is this callousness now …” New York Jews, by supporting Israel, are in effect accomplices in these alleged war crimes (which mainly involved discredited reports from Jenin*). Thank you, New York magazine! Thank you for alerting us to the “fifth column” of war criminals among your Jewish readers.
“They” is the operative word. When the writer wishes to speak of the Golden Age when Good Jews (like her) believed in Peace and Justice, she speaks of “We”; when she speaks of the Bad Jews of New York who have abandoned that ideal out of some specious “alarmist” fear, it is always “They.”
As in: ” We were a peace-loving people once, or so some of us believed,” she tells us with great self-satisfaction (italics mine).
But now ” they [Jews] are under duress. American Jews are coming together because they are worried about what might happen if they don’t …. It is as if they want everyone’s eyes turned away, including their own” (italics mine).
Shoddy journalistic technique No. 2: Slippery mischaracterization of who “they” are. In calling Them “frightened,” she defines their fear as fear for themselves . They are-in the playground-level thinking represented by the piece-“scaredy cats.” But, in fact, this totally misrepresents the great majority of New York Jews, who are not afraid for their own physical safety, a concern which can then be disparaged as merely selfish. In fact, they are legitimately concerned with the fate of family, kinsmen, fellow Jews who are being blown to bits in the cafés of Tel Aviv and the markets of Jerusalem. They are worried about others.
But by using the disparaging word “frightened” instead of say, concerned or despairing about the fate of others , she is able to portray just about every Jew in New York but herself as fearfully selfish. Being so brave is a lonely task for her, she tells us: “Like a little fool, I still hope for peace.” The implication being “They” no longer do. This represents shoddy journalistic technique No. 2A: the False Dichotomy-you’re either “frightened” or you “hope for peace.”
It helps explain shoddy journalistic technique No. 3: the unacknowledged double standard. It’s apparently O.K. with the author for the U.S. to use force to protect her and her family on the Upper West Side from further terror episodes like 9/11. But if the Israelis use force against people who blow up a far greater percentage of their population than ours, it is unquestionably evil. Or does she think we shouldn’t have responded to 9/11 with force but rather, as she urges Israel, by “listening” to the kind of terrorists who murdered her neighbors. Suffer further attacks until we’ve “learned” enough and changed our bad behavior so maybe they’ll stop blowing us up.
Shoddy journalistic technique No. 4: argument by overstatement of an opponent’s position. One of many examples: Among all these frightened New York Jews, “Another overriding theme is how much the media hate the Jews …. [how] the New York Times was always and still is anti-Israel.”
Well, that was easy. Dismiss anyone concerned about fairness and balance of coverage as believing that the media “hates” the Jews. Turn any complaint about The Times into an assertion that all who complain believe the ” Times always and still is anti-Israel.” By marginalizing any criticism as the product of those who think the media “hates” Jews, one doesn’t have to deal seriously with any reasoned critique of it. I personally have not thought any of the media in New York to be anti-Israel-until New York magazine published this execrable effort. But I suspect it was the “slipperiness” that Nat Hentoff spoke of that allowed this biased polemic to slip under the radar of the editors of New York . Which is why I feel the need to elucidate for them just exactly how biased the screed they published was.
Which brings us to shoddy journalistic technique No. 5: meretricious use of a Holocaust survivor (well, not even a Holocaust survivor-a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor who is given all the moral authority of an actual survivor).
The chief example of this comes in the context of a quote I gave her. I know I was a disappointment to the writer when she called and spoke to me because she quite revealingly told me she was looking for someone more bombastic. In other words, she was looking for Jews she could caricature as filled with irrational hatred, and I didn’t fit the bill. Because my main emotion is despair at the tragedy of history that has victimized both sides.
But one thing she made clear was that she dearly wished to separate the Nazi Holocaust from any relevance to the current situation in Israel. And my original Observer column (April 15), which spoke about the possibility of a “Second Holocaust” for the Jews of Israel, was thus, from her point of view, a target.
In my most recent column (April 29), I spoke of this tendency to consign the Nazi Holocaust to irrelevance to the current crisis as a “polite form of Holocaust denial”: People who espouse this idea don’t deny it happened , they just deny that it mattered .
Nonetheless, knowing I was putting myself in the hands of a reporter with an agenda, I called her back and left the following quote on her machine:
“What struck me [while researching Explaining Hitler ] were the number of times Hitler made clear his exterminationist designs and how often they were dismissed as rhetoric. The Israelis are facing a people who regularly use extermination rhetoric, and it is not alarmist and it is entirely understandable to respond to that kind of rhetoric.”
After my quote about it not being alarmist for Israelis to pay attention to exterminationist rhetoric directed at Jews, the Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter is brought in to say: But, “the lesson of the Holocaust is not to fall into the trap of hatred.” It seems to imply that to pay attention to exterminationist rhetoric directed at Israelis is the same thing as “turning to hatred.” This is deeply offensive and very close to dishonest. An awareness of other people ‘s hatred for Jews somehow is twisted into an indictment of Jews for turning to hatred.
But there’s something more going on, I believe, in near-hysterical resistance to bringing history-i.e., the Holocaust-into a discussion of the exterminationist rhetoric deployed against Israeli Jews, what Amos Oz calls the “Holy War” against Israel that fundamentalist Islamists seem intent on pursuing regardless of the success or failure of any peace process or the establishment of any Palestinian state. (The leaders of Hamas made this clear in an interview with The Times ‘ Joel Brinkley on April 4, 2002.)
No, I think what’s going on here, on a deeper level, is a deeper form of denial than the polite Holocaust denial that consigns mass murder to historical irrelevance. As someone who has long considered himself a liberal, I think what’s going on here has something to do with the deep denial-the displaced fearfulness-the left has about any discussion of the Holocaust, because it might inevitably bring up the one thing the left is too frightened to face: Stalin ‘s Holocaust, the mass murders that killed more people than Hitler. The mass murders committed by people like Mao and Pol Pot who mouthed their commitment to “peace” and “social justice” while slaughtering millions in the name of leftist ideals.
Not a comfortable subject, then, the whole Holocaust thing, for leftists or the left to deal honestly with: Holocaust denial on the left. They’ve given themselves a free pass on the issue by saying: Well, Stalin’s mass murder was different because his intentions were good; Soviet mass murder was an unfortunate side effect of leftist good intentions. So they don’t have to deal with implications of genocide on the left.
It would take a brave writer on the left to take on this subject. It would take a brave writer on the left to investigate the connection between this kind of left-wing Holocaust denial and the left-wing anti-Semitism which is showing its slimy face in Europe and the U.K. and now the U.S.
But the author of the New York magazine piece is forever patting herself on the back for her staunch courage compared to the panicky, “frightened” Jews all around her. Perhaps she’s the one with the requisite courage to do it: take on this sickness on the left. But don’t count on it.