Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Eric Alterman and the Legacy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz

In his shrill response to Max Blumenthal’s letter to the Nation, Eric Alterman continues to question Blumenthal’s claim that the Israeli thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz was revered by the Israeli left.  He takes issue with what I wrote in the post below, which Blumenthal had quoted.

I have no desire to respond to Alterman’s defense of his claim that “Jews all over the world ‘revered’ Leibowitz for the brilliance of his Talmud exegesis” except to reiterate the accepted scholarly (and obvious) view that Leibowitz’s writings on Jewish philosophy do not constitute Talmudic exegesis. Obviously as  a philosopher writing about Judaism, Leibowitz occasionally cites and creatively interprets the Talmud, as does Martin Buber and  Michael Waltzer. But this doesn’t make him, or them,  brilliant Talmudic exegetes. 

As for being revered by “Jews all over the world,” I wish Leibowitz were better known outside of Israel. I have been teaching his thought for over thirty years, and I attended his public lectures in Jerusalem. Enter any synagogue in the US (including orthodox) and ask Jews if they have heard of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and you will generally encounter blank stares. The philosopher’s sister Nehamah is much better known, especially among the orthodox. And pace Alterman, how many Jew outside of Israel are familiar with Ha-Entziklopedia ha-Ivrit  (the Hebrew Encyclopedia, which he may be confusing with the Encyclopedia Judaica) of which Leibowitz was once editor-in-chief?

In any event, I claimed that Alterman was confused about Leibowitz. It turns out that the Leibowitz with which Alterman is acquainted is the Jewish philosopher whom he studied in a New York yeshiva and whose philosophy merited an entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Full disclosure:  I am one of  SEP's editors on Jewish philosophy.) That apparently explains his surprise at Blumenthal’s claim that Leibowitz was revered by the Israeli left.

But the Leibowitz known and revered by the Israeli left was the outspoken moral critic who foresaw already in 1969 how the Occupation would cause Israeli society to rot,  who accordingly demanded an immediate total Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines without a peace agreement, who referred to the nationalist fervor around the conquest of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, as “fascism,” who coined the memorable term “Diskotel” for the religio-nationalist infatuation with the Western Wall (‘Kotel,’ in Hebrew), who called the religious Zionist settlers “worshippers of stones and trees” (i.e., idolaters), and who claimed that the Israeli public enjoyed the murder of Arabs in Beirut in 1982, predicting that Ariel Sharon and others would establish concentration camps for him and his ilk. (Much of the above can be found in Leibowitz's book advertised here and on a Hebrew website here; for a good English website devoted to his multifaceted career see here.)

Alterman correctly remarks that Leibowitz was not awarded the Israel Prize because of his “Judaeo-Nazi” statement, but he neglects to point out that he did not attend the ceremony because of the public outcry over the award. But again, Blumenthal’s point was about Leibowitz’s fame among the Israeli left, not the Israeli public at large, or scholars of Jewish thought.

Was Leibowitz indeed revered by the Israeli left? On the centennary of Leibowitz’s birth in 2003, and at the height of the Second Intifada, the Haaretz magazine section published a cover article whose inside headline began, “What remains of the worship of Yeshayahu Leibowitz?” That “worship” was not of the Leibowitz the philosopher but of the sharp-tongued social critic who railed against the establishment. The fact that the Left did not understand that critique in context of Leibowitz’s religious philosophy is irrelevant to that reverence. 

Is Leibowitz now revered by the Left? Two months ago Haaretz’s intrepid columnist and critic Gideon Levy delivered a birthday tribute to that grand Israeli leftist, Ury Avnery, saying, “Avnery was one of the first to utter the words that everyone mumbles now – ‘two states for two peoples.’ Together with Yeshayahu Leibowitz and the radical socialist organization Matzpen he was the pillar of fire that went before the camp.” 

From Leibowitz and Matzpen to Avnery and Levy there is an Israeli tradition of harsh criticism of mainstream Zionist policies towards the Palestinians. Leibowitz’s moral criticism against the actions of the Israeli army and its government began already in the early fifties. This earned him the reverence of the left. 

Perhaps I did Alterman an injustice for inferring that he did not know the above. He gave his readers no reason to believe that he did.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blumenthal’s Goliath and PEP Critics like Eric Alterman

Update: My original claim of Alterman's ignorance when it comes to Israel was uncharitable, and I have changed it below.  I simply was astounded that he questioned Blumenthal's claim that Leibowitz was revered by the Israeli left -- something known by anybody familiar with the Israeli left -- as well as by his other claims about Leibowitz. I will respond to his clarification at a later time.

I read half of Max Blumenthal’s new book Goliath on Shabbat, and I would like to send a copy to every Jew I know, especially every PEP Jew I know  (“PEP” means “progressive except for Palestine.” ) This is the sort of book that even if you want to diss it, you can't dismiss it. To quote PEP critic, Eric Alterman, the book is "mostly technically accurate". And that should be enough to make anybody's hair stand on end.

Clearly, Alterman and other leftwing American secularists can't accept the unstated conclusion of the reportage that some of the fundamental problems of Israel are not due to a bunch of right-wing religious fanatics and nationalist Russians – not even due to Bibi and his crowd – but that, on the contrary, to core Zionist principles of the Ben Gurion school.  As Ari Shavit put it bluntly in this week’s New Yorker, you could not have a Jewish state without inducing the mass departure of the native Palestinians in strategic areas like Lydda and elsewhere.  And that is one of the foundations of the State of Israel today for all Israelis, left and right. Anybody who opposes the return of Palestinians refugees to their homes, or allowing their immigration and naturalization, because of a “demographic threat” justifies post factum that ethnic cleansing. (There may be other humanitarian reasons for opposing such a mass return, but that’s another issue.) That is the inexorable logic of Ben Gurionism that managed to refashion Zionism in its image. That is the core philosophy of the 1948 regime. It was not the core philosophy of Zionism before the 40s. 

In his response to Goliath, Alterman  reveals himself to be an am-haaretz (ignoramus) on key issues . My favorite howler is his criticism of Blumenthal's appeal to the philosopher Yeshayah Leibowitz. Alterman writes:
Jews all over the world “revered” Liebowitz (sic!) for the brilliance of his Talmud exegesis, not—as Blumenthal might wish—because he called Israeli soldiers “Nazis” and told them not to serve.
Alterman (or his research assistant) may be interested to learn that Yeshayah Leibowitz didn’t  write any Talmudic exegesis and was NOT revered by Jews all over the world -- in fact, virtually nobody outside of Israel knew who he was, despite his being considered 20th on a list of influential Israelis. I don't know whether Alterman's informant confused Yeshayahu with his sister Nehamah, who was indeed revered by Jews for her books on Biblical (not Talmudic) exegesis, or whether the informant may be confusing him with the orthodox theologian, Rabbi Soloveitchik.  [UPDATE: One reader has suggested that he was mixing Leibowitz up with Saul Lieberman or Emanuel Levinas.]

By the way, Leibowitz didn’t call Israeli soldiers Nazis.  He said that were they to do the things that they were said to have done in Lebanon, then they would be acting like Judeo-Nazis. And yes, he counseled soldiers who asked him  to refuse to serve in an immoral war. 

That, sadly, speaks volumes about the ignorance of the American Jewish leftwing Zionist. 
In fact, as books go on this subject, I thought Blumenthal's book pretty moderate -- yes, there is the occasional sarcasm and yes, it is pretty much only the dirty laundry, of which there is a lot.  Most of it is reportage with the obvious implication of advocacy. It is certainly not charitable or even-handed to the colonizer (although it is not particularly charitable to Hamas or the PA either. When will the hasbara trolls who “review” books on Amazon learn that the story  is not just about one ethnic group vs. another but also about civil society and civilians vs. politicians and leaders?)  

But when Alterman says that one has to take into account the "context" I wonder whether he read the book. The book is ALL about context, it is the context of the sort of Zionist ideology that never left Israel (except dying down maybe for a few years in the early eighties) and which has come back with a vengeance.

The difference between an American leftie like Alterman and somebody like Blumenthal is partly generational but mostly experiential. Alterman clearly doesn’t read Haaretz or YNET daily; he hasn’t spent months in the Occupied Territories; he gets his reporting on Israel from the mainstream media.

There are many others of his generation like him.  These are the “I-oppose-the-Occupation; I-support-Peace-Now;-I-believe-in-Two-States-I hate-Bibi” crowd who can’t get past their self-imposed veil of ignorance. And it is self-imposed. If you want to write a criticism of Blumenthal, tfadal, go ahead.  There is enough to criticize.

But first, as Hillel said, Go study.