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MAIRSON: Denude anti-Semitism? Im against it

By Harry Mairson

Section: Opinions

February 11, 2005

False, phony accusations of anti-Semitism only make the real thing harder to talk about. And untruths in the name of what we believe in whether its philo-Semitism, Zionism, or Holocaust memory detract from the truths that we think are so important. Both impede the free thinking that is essential at a university.

Jacob Baimes essay (Forward editor anti-Semitic Jew, The Hoot 2/4) wrongly accused an editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Ami Eden, of repeating in a New York Times piece (1/29) echoes of Joseph Goebbels, Henry Ford, and the most heinous of historys anti-Semites, concluding in his final words, Ami Edens op-ed piece is shamefully anti-Semitic. Without your reading it, I can prove to you that he isnt, and it wasnt.

I thought Ami Edens piece in the Times was great. If Ami Eden is an anti-Semitic Jew, and I agree with Ami Eden, then I must be an anti-Semitic Jew. If the University is harboring Jewish anti-Semites on the faculty like me (and maybe others?) whose thoughts echo the heinous evil of Joseph Goebbels and Henry Ford, I emailed Jacob Baime, wouldnt it be prudent to tell someone?

Get real: Ami Eden is no anti-Semite, nor am I. Jacob knows that too otherwise, when I emailed him how much I liked the Eden piece, he wouldnt have politely written back that wed have to agree to disagree, while thanking me for writing. I appreciated his polite response but why be that nice to a real anti-Semite? His public lashon hara (slander, literally evil tongue) stands in the same equivalence class as that which appeared in the sports pages of the Justice last year. A similar conflict is currently taking place in the Boston Globe, regarding a column by Cathy Young criticizing a left-wing Jewish journalist, Eric Alterman (see here for details).
Particular offense was taken at Edens criticism of playing the Holocaust card. The historical existence of the Holocaust is undeniable, but its meaning is malleable. Holocaust historians and cultural analysts havent all seen eye to eye, and not just on minor technical details, but major conclusions, with profound professional jockeying and emotional repercussion: Raul Hilberg, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Hannah Arendt did not all genially take baths in the same tub. Equally undeniable is the deliberately constructed interpretation of Holocaust history for political advantage, especially in recent years, and its manipulation to serve ideological goals. Manipulating facts for political advantage is the practice of politics. Its not a hatched conspiracy, its not a cabal, its not Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Peter Novicks remarkable book, The Holocaust in American Life, is a good and readable description of how Holocaust facts are transformed into Holocaust myth not the myth of never existing, but that of interpretation, with social consequences, with political winners and losers. Denying someones interpretation of the Holocaust isnt Holocaust denial.

Recurrent warnings of the new anti-Semitism make me worry. One frightening source of the increase in anti-Semitism is that the bar is too low: any substantive criticism of Jews, Israel, or in fact the sentence youre reading right now, is too quickly labelled anti-Semitic. Criticism of Israel isnt anti-Semitic. Even anti-Zionism isnt a sufficient condition for anti-Semitism: didnt Orthodox Jews virulently criticize the creation of a secular Jewish state as an abomination?

Powerful words are written in the name of combatting anti-Semitism which is frightening to me when the anti-Semitism is perceived, but not real. Norman Finkelstein, a left-wing Tom Paine with real research credentials, wrote a book called The Holocaust Industry which said many things found as well in Novicks book mentioned above (to the latters furious consternation), in Commentary editor Gabriel Schoenfelds essay on the reparations movement, and so on. Finkelstein has the support of Raul Hilberg, a dean of Holocaust historians, whose own memoir is appropriately titled The Politics of Memory. Now Finkelsteins book is very provocative and he managed to provoke Steven Zipperstein, the Koshland Professor of Jewish Studies at Stanford.

In his Washington Post book review, Zipperstein concluded by describing Finkelstein not merely as a failed Philip Roth, that once-bete noire of Jewish literature, but instead as a boring Alexander Portnoy wannabe, the fictional hero of Roths famous novel. Can you imagine comparing your intellectual adversary in print to the guy who so famously abused himself in the liver that his family ate for dinner? Think of it as a kind of verbal Abu Ghraib. Its not coincidental that the vulgar idiom for too much boring written or verbal ado about nothing is whacking off the title of the most ribald chapter in Roths novel.

The combatting of real anti-Semitism is weakened by testimony and advocacy that may seem to be the right stuff, but ends up being the stuff of misinformation, fantasy, shoddy scholarship, or outright hoax, depending on who youre talking to. Put on this list Jerzy Kosinskis The Painted Bird, his childhood memoir of anti-Semitic Polish peasant brutality, only he made it up, and maybe it wasnt even written by Kosinski;

its successor, Binjamin Wilkomirskis fraudulent Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, another Holocaust memory hoax written by a mentally disturbed Swiss man, Bruno Doessekker;

Daniel Goldhagens Hitlers Willing Executioners, an academic monograph turned bestseller because its title and text spoke to the profoundest Jewish paranoia and fear: that the Germans were just dying to kill all the Jews when the Nazis finally gave them the green light but as a senior Brandeis professor of European Jewish history told me, what was true in that book wasnt new, and what was new in that book wasnt true;

and Joan Peterss discredited From Time Immemorial, lauded with glowing reviews from Saul Bellow, Elie Wiesel, Barbara Tuchman, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Jehuda Reinharz a trope of colonial statistics saying that the land of Israel was literally empty when the Zionists arrived.

These books werent just marginalia: they won National Jewish Book Awards and Holocaust Memory prizes, and their authors travelled the lecture circuit, telling people what they may sincerely have believed, or wanted to believe. Only it wasnt true. Books like these contribute to a different kind of anti-Semitism.

The necessary, essential denial of legitimacy to deniers of the factual Holocaust is compromised when defenders of historical truth cant bring themselves to also publicly acknowledge these wild excesses, as well as the social complicity that has celebrated these works instead of condemning them. Thats no conspiracy of the elders of Zion thats an embarrassing, cosmic screw-up.

The stifling of free thought, empowered by accusations of anti-Semitism, or of conflicted Jewish identity, impedes education that is crucial at Brandeis. One of my humanities colleagues told me recently of asking her USEM class, What would make someone desperate enough to crash airliners into the World Trade Center? As a consequence, her course reviews said she was anti-Semitic. One review said that she wanted to destroy the state of Israel. Now, she tells me, she shuts up. Another colleague told me he cant get enrollment for a course on modernist poetry students wont read Ezra Pound because he was anti-Semitic. Ezra Pound was a giant of modern poetry. His lifes work wasnt writing about antipathy towards Jews. Even Jehuda Reinharz told the Boston Globe last year that we ought to listen to Richard Wagners sublime music.

This ordeal by slander and intimidation recalls the 1950s and legitimate Cold War fears of Communism. There really were Communist agents in this country: Alger Hiss, a prominent State Department official and head of the Carnegie Foundation, was a famous one read Sam Tanenhauss Whittaker Chambers to learn the probably final word on this celebrated case. But that fact does not make Senator McCarthy and his famous acolyte, Roy Cohn, clairvoyant in retrospect. They ruined the lives and reputations of many honest, free thinking people.

One of my all-time favorite books is an autobiographical memoir, Ecorche Juif (Thin-Skinned Jew), written by Michel Goldberg, a Parisian whose father was detained at Beaune-la-Rolande and then perished in Auschwitz. The son seeks revenge as an adult, and on none other than Klaus Barbie. Posing as a journalist, he interviews Barbie in Bolivia, with a gun under the table but decides not to pull the trigger. I came to kill a Nazi in La Paz, and I did, he wrote. It just wasnt the one I expected to kill.

Klaus Barbie was a real anti-Semite. Ami Eden isnt. Lets distinguish utter revulsion for the first from possible disagreement with the second. Identifying Ami Eden as an agent provocateur of the new anti-Semitism, a kind of slander that is increasingly common, serves rather to denude anti-Semitism, and the real evil in the world.
Editors Note: Harry Mairson is a professor of computer science.

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