Letters, Spring 2015

Stubborn Soul

Kol ha-kavod to David G. Roskies for his recognition of the genius of the stubborn soul of Grażyna Pawlak, whose mind gave birth to the idea that our friend Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett would eventually deliver after years of nurturing by Jerzy Halbersztadt (“POLIN: A Light Unto the Nations,” Winter 2015).

I vividly remember my first meeting with Pawlak in the lobby of the Forum Hotel in 1994 where she dismissed the superficiality of foreign Jews who came to Poland in those years, shed a few tears, left, and forgot what they saw, thereby laying down the gauntlet. I’m glad Roskies reminded us of her great achievement and the pioneering work of Jerzy Halbersztadt.

Michael H. Traison

via jewishreviewofbooks.com



Animal or Vegetable?

Jeremy Wanderer’s interesting review of two books regarding sacrifice (“Silence of the Lambs?”) in the Winter 2015 issue unfortunately gets off to a bad start when his first sentence refers to the offering of a one-year-old lamb together with wine and a vegetable on the altar. Unless one thinks of bread as a vegetable, vegetables were not offered in biblical sacrifices, after Cain’s rejected one (and that was not accompanied by a lamb).

Micah Bloomfield
New York, NY


Jeremy Wanderer Responds:

The first sentence of the review is ambiguous perhaps, but not outright mistaken. The sacrifice imagined in the sentence was the korban olah, the burnt offering, described in Numbers (28: 3–8) as accompanied by a mincha (“the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour for a meal-offering, mingled with the fourth part of a hin of beaten oil”) and a libation. I simply followed others—see, for example, Isadore Epstein’s “Introduction to Seder Kodashim,” in The Babylonian Talmud (Soncino Press)—in describing the mincha as “a vegetable offering,” where the term “vegetable” is used in contrast to animal or liquid oblations. I agree it would be incorrect to make mention of “offering of a one-year-old lamb together with wine and a vegetable on the altar,” but that was not something I said.


Life and Literature

Steven Zipperstein faults us for including, in our new edition of Mendel Beilis’ memoir, unfavorable commentary on Bernard Malamud and his novel The Fixer (“Fateless: The Beilis Trial a Century Later,” Winter 2015). At the outset, we want to stress that our main purpose in publishing Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis was not to criticize Malamud, but to put Beilis’ memoir back into print. We are gratified that Zipperstein considers the memoir a “still-riveting tale.”

That said, we do have an extended essay in the book, titled “Pulitzer Plagiarism,” in which we level a number of charges against Malamud regarding his fictionalized retelling of the Beilis story. We appear to have convinced Zipperstein of the justice of our first charge: that in writing his novel The Fixer, Malamud plagiarized from the 1926 English edition of Beilis’ memoir, The Story of My Sufferings. Zipperstein even adds an additional charge of plagiarism, saying that “Malamud lifted passages almost directly from Life Is with People, much as he did from Beilis’ memoir.” Given this acknowledgment of Malamud’s plagiarism, we are at a loss to understand why Zipperstein felt it necessary to make the sophomoric comment that “even paranoiac relatives can have genuine cause for complaint.” Since we have genuine cause for complaint, we are not paranoid.

Zipperstein writes that Malamud was “hounded by Beilis’ heirs” when The Fixer first appeared in 1966. This is a vast exaggeration. David Beilis, the son of Mendel Beilis and the father of Jay Beilis, corresponded with Malamud, sending him two letters. David Beilis also sent a letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review, which was forwarded to Malamud and to which Malamud responded.

David Beilis had two main concerns about The Fixer, which remain our main concerns today. First, Malamud plagiarized from Mendel Beilis’ memoir. Second, Malamud gave to his Beilis-based character, and to that character’s wife, unfavorable qualities that would predictably be imputed to Beilis and his wife.

These may seem like inconsistent criticisms, but in fact they are not. Indisputably, Malamud’s novel has caused two kinds of confusion about Beilis. First, it has caused literary critics and other readers to give Malamud credit for inventing passages that he plagiarized. Second, it has caused literary critics and other readers to assume that the historical Mendel Beilis shared some of the unfavorable traits of Malamud’s protagonist. We document both kinds of confusion.

There has been considerable debate over whether authors of historical fiction have any responsibility to avoid debasing the reputations of real people about whom they write. We argue that the fiction author’s responsibility is at its highest when he is writing about people who have come into the public eye because they have suffered unjustly. We also argue that whatever artistic license Malamud might have possessed, he forfeited that license through his plagiarism

Far from giving Beilis credit for the passages he borrowed, Malamud made several public statements belittling Beilis, thus adding insult to injury. Zipperstein focuses on Malamud’s remark that Beilis “died a bitter man.” Zipperstein wonders how we can possibly disagree with Malamud’s assessment, given all that Beilis suffered, including tragedies and disappointments, following Beilis’ release from prison.

In addressing Malamud’s “bitter man” remark in our book, we grant that “there may be an element of truth” to what Malamud said. We then argue, based on documentary evidence, that while Beilis had cause to be bitter at the end of his life, he was probably less bitter than others would have been in his place. Our evidence includes what is probably Beilis’ last recorded utterance, his 1934 letter to Oskar Gruzenberg, the Russian-Jewish lawyer who had been Beilis’ lead defense counsel at the trial in 1913. In this letter, written while Beilis was in failing health and close to death, he stated: “I am happy. God permitted me to live and I am able to write to you.” That does not sound very bitter to us.
Jay Beilis

Jeremy Simcha Garber

Mark S. Stein


Steven J. Zipperstein Responds:

Family loyalty is nobler than literary acumen. On these grounds, Beilis’ heirs are to be commended for their dogged defense of their famous, tragic ancestor. But hounded by them Bernard Malamud certainly is: The appendix to Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis is nearly 70 pages of legalese-inflected bombardment. Just one example from page 278: “Having plagiarized so extensively, we contend, Malamud forfeited any artistic license to give his Beilis-based character, and that character’s wife, unfavorable traits that would predictably be imputed to Beilis and his wife.” They would be hard-pressed to cite any literary critic, anywhere, of any standing that would defend such silliness.

Malamud borrowed promiscuously from nearly everything around him. This is hardly less true of Dubin’s Lives or A New Life than of his Beilis-inspired novel, The Fixer. It’s what he made out of all this, including the stray sentences he lifted from Beilis’ memoir, that make him still worth reading today. The Beilis family should take solace in the simple fact that non-fiction accounts of Beilis’ travails, including those I discussed, continue to be produced. Such works stand or fall on their ability to relate with accuracy historical truth. The truth that animates literary work is of a different nature, and few have reminded us of this more bracingly than Malamud himself. Recall that scene in The Assistant, where his protagonist exclaims when first learning of Dostoevsky that “I’d rather read the truth” only to be told “It is the truth.”



David and Goliath

I am gratified that the Jewish Review of Books gave space in its pages to a review of my book, Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel and that your reviewer, Allan Arkush, presented a cogent summary of it (“And How Do You Like Israel?” in Winter 2015). I was naturally disappointed, as I imagine any author would be, that, apart from saying I had done something deftly, he found little to commend and a handful of things, albeit none fundamental, to criticize. Whether the book is worthy of more commendation than he voiced is of course impossible for me to judge. But I feel confident that each of his criticisms is misplaced.

First Professor Arkush writes that my account of Israel’s alienated intellectuals is “puzzling” because I describe them as, in his words, “refugees from the left” who “find their bearings, once again, on the left.” What I in fact wrote was that as long as Zionism was dominated by Labor Zionism it was relatively easy to be both a leftist and a Zionist. When Israel turned rightward and abandoned socialism this dual identity became more difficult, and as a result some one-time leftist Zionists abandoned Zionism, not leftism.

Next, Professor Arkush writes that “Europe is still suffering from the after-effects of right-wing and Nazi anti-Semitism, and that the revival of anti-Israel sentiment . . . reflects this.” He complains that I “overlook” this. If so, it is because I find no sense in his formulation. Whatever the lingering impact of Nazi ideology it is preposterous to suppose that it grows stronger the further we get from the Nazi era. As for right-wing anti-Semitism, that alas is quite contemporary, not a mere “after-effect,” but it has no appreciable impact on the stances toward Israel of European governments or on public discourse.

Professor Arkush goes on: “In his discussion of America, too, Muravchik pays no heed to anything that has taken place on the right. He makes no mention, for instance, of Pat Buchanan’s ugly insinuations and denunciations.” But my book is about the turn against Israel. Were I to discuss the American right, I would be writing about a turn toward Israel. In 1948, Israel enjoyed more support on the left than the right. In modern times this alignment has reversed. This summer, the Pew organization reported that “the partisan gap in Mideast sympathies has never been wider,” with 73 percent of Republicans and only 44 percent of Democrats sympathizing with Israel. Among Republicans, pro-Israel sentiment was strongest among self-identified “conservatives.”

It seems odd to tax me with not mentioning Pat Buchanan without mentioning that the most telling indictment of Buchanan on this count was written by me (“Patrick J. Buchanan and the Jews,” Commentary, January 1991). When William F. Buckley, the doyen of modern conservatism, weighed in on the Buchanan controversy, he concluded reluctantly that Buchanan was guilty as charged, and he based his verdict in large part explicitly on the case I had put. Buckley, in effect, excommunicated Buchanan from the ranks of respectable conservatism, and this marginalization has left Buchanan largely devoid of influence.

Lastly, Professor Arkush complains that I am too “dismissive” of the thought of Avraham Burg, Judith Butler, and Oren Yiftachel. It would suffice to reply that my subject was the impact of the Jewish and Israeli radical left and that engaging with the political philosophy of each of its exemplars was well outside the ambit of my book. But I confess that I find absurd individuals who would seek the prime ministership of a country and six years later forsake loyalty to it, branding it “fascist” and seeking citizenship elsewhere (Burg); or who would call it a “living hell” and not seek to leave it (Yiftachel); or who would make a career of radical feminism and explicitly embrace Hezbollah and Hamas (Butler). (I confess further that I laugh when I picture Professor Butler trying to explain her mantra that gender is constructed to such comrades as Khaled Meshal and Hassan Nasrallah.) I leave it to Professor Arkush to give these thinkers their due.

Joshua Muravchik
Wheaton, MD


Allan Arkush Responds:

As Joshua Muravchik notes, I do not disagree with the fundamental argument of Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel. In fact, I am more in accord with him than he seems prepared to recognize. I did not write, as he maintains, that his account of Israel’s alienated intellectuals is puzzling. I did say that some readers might find Muravchik’s account of the trajectory of these particular Israelis puzzling, but then, in the very next paragraph, I tried to show such readers how his analysis of the recent metamorphosis of leftism clears this matter up. I also registered my agreement with Muravchik’s contention that it was this metamorphosis and not, as Yoram Hazony has argued, the revival of Martin Buber’s anti-Zionism that spurred the growth of post-Zionism in Israel.

When I applauded, at the end of my review, Muravchik’s “timely warnings” against the dangers posed by Judith Butler and the other American as well as Israeli foes of Israel and said that his book had to be “complemented by vigorous refutations of what they have to say,” I was paying Muravchik at least something of a compliment. If he does not wish to stoop to the level of such all-too-influential writers by refuting their arguments directly, we must set his valuable history alongside that of others who will.

Where I actually differ most with Mr. Muravchik is in his assessment of the relevance of anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism stemming from quarters to the right of those he has investigated. I did not suggest, as he seems to think, that this animosity has grown stronger “the further we get from the Nazi era” or that it is of comparable significance to what has taken place on the left. But I do think that some European figures and Pat Buchanan, in particular, have had an impact over the last generation that has extended far beyond their own ideological circles. Who knows, for instance, how many of the people who heard Buchanan describe the Sabra and Shatila massacres as the “Rosh Hashanah massacres” began then to think differently about Israel—and later bought Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (and their arguments)? I remember reading “Patrick J. Buchanan and the Jews” in Commentary and being very impressed by it. I am only sorry that I forgot who wrote it. More than that, I am sorry that Joshua Muravchik didn’t return to this subject in his fine new book.




Suggested Reading

Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction

Steven E. Aschheim

Although Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and never forthrightly repented of the episode “no other philosopher had more impact on twentieth-century European Jewish thought.”