A Rejoinder

I didn’t know that there was anyone left in the academic world who held as simplistic view of history as the one that Eric Alterman espouses in his response to my review (“Context and Content,” Winter 2023). The historian’s job, he says, “is not to voice disapproval or approval” of anything. Consequently, he endorses “nothing and no one in this book. It’s a history.” Most historians deny the very possibility of this kind of “just the facts, ma’am” objectivity. And even those who share Alterman’s professed aspirations usually admit that they cannot entirely prevent their own preconceptions and ideological biases from shaping their narratives, however much they may wish to do so.

There is already a vast scholarly literature on the subjects that Alterman has addressed in We Are Not One. It includes books that display a certain resemblance to his, bearing titles like The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture, The Making of an Alliance: The Origins and Development of the US-Israel Relationship, and Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel. These and other works of more or less contemporary history are, if not entirely objective—for who could be on such complex and contested issues?—at least not polemical. Alterman’s book is quite different and announces itself as such from the title on. That title ironically echoes and defiantly repudiates a slogan commonly used by American Jews who identify strongly with Israel: “We are one!” It also announces the adversarial tone of the book and foreshadows many of its passages (some of which I discussed in my review).

Alterman’s remarks at Tel Aviv University, where he was promoting his then-forthcoming book last spring, merely made explicit the antagonism that was already clear in his book. Bizarrely, he alleges that by quoting what he said there, I have both broken the rules of the review genre and violated his privacy, as if I had repeated whispered confidences. This is ridiculous and he knows it. A serious review essay often, and properly, discusses an author’s other works, public statements, and intellectual biography. I wasn’t in Tel Aviv for Alterman’s talk, but I watched the recording on YouTube, which, for better and for worse, is part of the public sphere. I do regret that I went beyond his remarks about Israel on that occasion to quote what he said about what he would do with his money, but only because it gave him the opportunity to pretend that I am opposed to financial support for American Jewish institutions, which is plainly absurd.


In my review, I tried to elucidate the bias that underlies much of Alterman’s narrative and the way in which it tilts it against Israel and its American supporters. When I pointed out that Alterman failed to pass judgment on the radically anti-Zionist Elmer Berger of the American Council for Judaism, it wasn’t because I thought, as he suggests, that as a historian he had a duty to be for or against the man. I merely contrasted his dispassionate (if faintly approbatory) observation that Berger had failed to “hop aboard the Zionist express” with his plainly judgmental statement that it is sometimes difficult to forgive American Jews who during World War II were swayed more by—his words, not mine—“the thrilling potential of the first Jewish state in nearly two millennia” than the cause of rescuing Jews threatened by the Nazis. Surely Alterman, who is a member of an English department, understands the valence of his own sentences.

It’s true that Alterman didn’t explicitly say that Commentary contained anti-Israel pieces in the decade before 1967. What he said was that after the Six-Day War, the magazine “flipped 180 degrees and now basked in Israel’s military prowess.” Did Commentary? No, but it fits Alterman’s narrative of an American Jewish community seduced and thrilled by the sight of Israeli power. (Nothing he says in his letter about the twenty-one-year-old Norman Podhoretz’s utterances supports his baseless claims on this point. I refer interested readers to Marie Syrkin’s essay in the January 1966 issue of Commentary: “The Arab Refugees: A Zionist View.”)

Similarly, Alterman admittedly doesn’t call Jeffrey Goldberg naive, but he certainly implies it. In the context of a long description of the pernicious impact of Leon Uris’s Exodus on American perceptions of the Middle East, he notes that it helped inspire the young Jeffrey Goldberg to make aliyah. Why does he then immediately describe Goldberg’s present lofty position in American journalism if not to indicate how deeply the infection has spread? And why does he neglect (even in a footnote) to note that Goldberg now holds more or less the same view of Uris’s simplistic bestseller as he does? For a historian ostensibly dedicated to a Rankean ideal of objectivity, Alterman spends an awful lot of time acting like an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney. Speaking of Exodus, Alterman gleefully pounces on my use of the phrase “real-life Ari Ben Canaans” as if he had found the clinching evidence of my own laughable naivety. But, of course, he has disingenuously wrenched these words out of context. I was, quite unmistakably, paraphrasing his own account of the way in which large numbers of American Jews in 1967 viewed the victors of the Six-Day War. Using these words as if they characterized my own viewpoint is nothing but a cheap debater’s trick.

I’m not going to slog through each of Alterman’s slippery treatments of my specific arguments, nor will I try to demonstrate all the other ways he distorts my words by taking them out of context, but I will call attention to one query to which, remarkably (or perhaps unremarkably), he neglects to respond. In my review, I asked where he obtained what seems to me to be the preposterous idea that Israel lost 1,237 lives in frequent military clashes with neighboring countries in its early years, a figure he deploys to demonstrate the nascent state’s supposed bellicosity. When I learned that Alterman had dispatched a response that was a full one thousand words longer than my original review, I expected that I would find an answer to my question somewhere among the verbiage. I didn’t.

In addition to being a defense of his book, Alterman’s letter is an attack on me, or rather, a malicious caricature of me. This altered Arkush is a pugnacious member of the “pro-Israel thought police” out to combat anything that isn’t “Hasbara-style propaganda.” Well. When I picked up We Are Not One, I didn’t expect Alterman to endorse or defend Israel, nor did I expect some kind of impossible God’s-eye objectivity, but I did expect him to be fair minded. That’s by no means the same thing as demanding fealty to what Alterman calls “the Exodus version of Israel.” Rather, I criticized his mishandling of facts and the one-sidedness of his historical narrative. Nothing, in short, justifies his attempt to fold my review of his book (or, for that matter, the independent magazine for which I write) into the historical record of harsh and unreasoning responses to any criticism of Israel.

Nonetheless, I shouldn’t have compared We Are Not One to Max Blumenthal’s execrable book Goliath.I did so only because I found Alterman to be doing the very same thing that he himself years ago strongly and rightly accused Blumenthal of doing: obscuring or ignoring “the larger context of Israel’s actions.” But that wasn’t a sufficient reason to compare these two vastly different, and differently flawed, books.


In response to Eric Alterman’s letter.

Comments

  1. Richard Genirberg

    Such a long debate over a common difference of opinion. As I am not an historian, I am allowed to opine about how things "seem." I have experienced the high-brow debate between Profs. Alterman and Arkush time and time again among family and friends, albeit at a plebian level of discourse. I enjoyed the scholarly face-off, and feel grateful to each of them for devoting time and exerting effort to write long missives, but I distill their differences down to the following simple formula: one cherishes modern liberal political values over Zionism; the other elevates Zionism over politics. It is obvious to all of us who is who.

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