I can virtually assure you that you will never read another positive word in this blog about Leon Wieseltier than what you’re about to read. Don’t get me wrong: Wieseltier is a very smart, very engaging, very literate and charming fellow. He has an inimitable prose style which upholds the finest tradition of the great literary stylists such as Edmund Wilson and Jacques Barzun. He’s simply a brilliant fellow.
But I can’t stand his politics. It’s liberal in the style of Michael Walzer, and hearkens back to other great Jewish literary liberals like Irving Howe. But in this day and age liberalism, when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict, is hopelessly adrift. If Wieseltier lived in Israel he’d be a former Meretz voter or perhaps he’d support Labor or even Kadima. He probably also quite likes Peace Now or did at one time before he was mugged by the reality of the first intifada. The problem is that Israeli liberalism is dead as a viable political movement. Wieseltier, when it comes to Israeli politics, represents an empty shell.
Part of my issue with his politics is that he writes for The New Republic, and though his are more sophisticated than Marty Peretz’s, he must be under the great ego’s spell. No doubt Marty feels quite magnanimous allowing a raging lib like Wieseltier to remain on his staff. So they seem to have this strange dialogue–one being somewhat of a humanist when it comes to Israeli politics and the other being a Neanderthal.
All the more surprising then, to discover, thanks to a reader, this partially wonderful piece from Wieseltier in which he explores the “self-hating Jew” meme in the guise of Bibi Netanyahu’s gibes directed at David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel for their alleged betrayal of Israel during White House policy deliberations. Though the analysis in this passage isn’t necessarily completely right, it is very suggestive nonetheless:
The accusation of ethnic infidelity is an old feature of the political culture of the Likud. The defenders of Greater Israel have values, but the critics of Greater Israel have motives. Perhaps the nether regions of the Israeli right will soon follow the nether regions of the American right, and alongside the birthers we will have the brissers: I mean, any man who opposes Jewish settlement in the West Bank must have a foreskin. It is important to understand that for the paranoid mentality that regards disagreement as betrayal, all of Emanuel’s Israeliness–his name, his Irgun father, his Hebrew, his service in an Israeli army program for civilians during the Gulf War–makes him more, not less, untrustworthy.
…Jewish self-hatred is another term for Jewish anti-Semitism, for the internalization of the standpoint of the enemy; and this is a genuinely grave charge. Jews who fling it about for political ends are desperate and disgraceful.
I took pleasure too in reading this passage attacking David Mamet’s impoverished view of Jewish identity. Here the TNR editor defends Axelrod from the charge of being a race traitor:
I am aware of no grounds for the suspicion that he has committed “race treason.” (I take that charming phrase, which sounds like it was translated from Treitschke, from David Mamet’s thuggish book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. Mamet is another one of the Most Jewish Jews of All.)
Wieseltier also propounds some sharp-eyed analysis of Bibi Netanyahu’s political motives:
There is no reason for Israel not to stop the settlements, unless it intends to keep the territories. My own opinion is that this is Netanyahu’s intention, his Bar- Ilan oration notwithstanding. No, he does not plan to annex them. That would throw Israel’s relations with America into serious crisis. Netanyahu makes peace with Americans, not with Palestinians. His sudden conversion to the idea of a two-state solution is a peace process with the Americans, and nothing more…I see no evidence in Netanyahu of Begin-like or Rabin-like greatness. Politics will always keep him from history. His diplomatic strategy is to postpone diplomacy or to bog it down. He will prevaricate–proposing freezes, denying freezes–on behalf of the status quo, in which the time is never right for the recognition that the Jewish state may be destroyed not by a Palestinian state but by the failure to allow one to come into being. There is nothing visionary about this. A look at the fertility rates on the west side of the Jordan River tells the tale. The continued appeasement of the settlers, and the continued alienation of the Palestinians, and the continued cartographic distortion of the West Bank, are in no way good for Israel.
Interestingly, when it comes to discussing the situation among the Palestinians, all of Wieseltier’s wisdom and eloquence deserts him. He instead lapses into Goldbergian shallow thinking and despair. I’d hoped for more and better from Wieseltier. Instead his thinking is clear only as far as his analysis of Israeli politics. When it comes to understanding Palestinian politics or even what the Obama administration’s policies should be, the TNR writer fails utterly and completely.
Leaving aside the fact that Hillary Clinton, Aaron David Miller and others who were there deny an agreement existed, who’d have thought that a liberal such as Wieseltier would defend the notion that Barack Obama must honor alleged oral deals made between George Bush and Ariel Sharon? I’ve never understood why the pro-Israel crowd raises this as a supposedly legitimate claim. Even if it is true (which it isn’t), it’s utterly lame to expect that one administration must honor an improvised, unwritten agreement by a previous one.
Here is one especially lame passage in which Wieseltier somehow convinces himself that Obama’s Cairo speech convinced the Arabs that all they had to do was sit back and wait for the U.S. to force Israel to give them everything they want (seriously!):
Obama’s great opening to the Muslim world, a strange blend of realism and multiculturalism, seems so far only to have imbued the Muslim world with the sense that in the cause of reconciliation with Israel it need exert itself no more, because it has at last been understood. I am not one of those Jews who are maddened by American “pressure” on Israel, but I do not take kindly to it when it is accompanied by a bow to the Saudi king.
The notion that Barack Obama is paying obeisance to Saudi royalty comes right out of Mort Klein and Baruch Marzel’s playbook. It is shameful that an otherwise intelligent individual would stoop to such pandering. Not to mention the fact that Wieseltier conveniently neglects to acknowledge that the very same Saudi king he so despises is the one who put forward the most promising peace offer from the Arab states in decades, one which Israel itself, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon and then Ehud Olmert, dissed and dismissed. So much for not exerting oneself for peace. When Israel exerts itself half as much, then Wieseltier can talk. Till then, his analysis is simply shallow and Israel-serving.
Richard Witty says
I don’t know Wieselter’s work.
I do know that the description of “playbook” is a sign of a weak argument. More likely Wieselter is an independent thinker, not a puppet, as self-defined “right-thinking” radicals gamble with.
There was an interesting article by Gideon Levy this morning in Haaretz.
The title was (that from earlier comments by Richard S, he would support).
Swedish article on organ harvesting was cheap and harmful journalism
But radical Gideon Levy, supporter of BDS, also stated:
“We, a small group of Israeli journalists trying to document the occupation, always knew that we must not publish an unfounded report. One mistake and the whole journalistic enterprise would fall into the hands of official propaganda, which automatically denies all suspicions and is just waiting for a mistake. ”
“Like the perverse comparison to the Nazis, any exaggeration in describing the occupation’s cruelty will ultimately damage the struggle against it. ”
“Over the years, the IDF has killed thousands of innocent civilians, among them women and children. The Shin Bet security service has tortured hundreds of people under interrogation, sometimes to death. Israel prevents food and medicine from reaching Gaza. Sick people are extorted by the Shin Bet to become collaborators in return for medical treatment. Thousands of homes in the territories have been demolished for nothing. Dozens of people have been killed by special units when they could have been arrested instead. Thousands of detainees have sat in jail for months or years without trial. Is that not enough to draw a reliable portrait of the occupation? Is that not shocking enough?”
While I have no interest in condoning yellow journalism as a man of principle, I have to take issue with Levy’s argument as a man of reason. Myths of exaggerated cruelty have often been employed effectively, those of overturned incubators in Iraqi occupied Kuwait being one notable example.
Regardless, I am disappointed with how carelessly the reported concerns of Palestinians are being dismissed here. While I have no reason to believe Palestinians origins were stolen for transplant, it seems rather likely some Palestinians organs were among those stolen for research at Abu Kabir, and the difference in intent doesn’t rightly make the crime any less is heinous. Dismissing such concerns outright simply because the Aftonbladet article tied them into conspiratorial conjecture is just as intellectually dishonest than the article itself.
I can’t help but wonder how Wieseltier took Bush bowing over to Abdullah to get a medal draped around his neck and then diving in for a bit of kissy face.
Also, the “self-hating Jew” meme is just outright absurd, as the whole concept of “race treason” is built on the bigoted idea that individuals should be allied on the grounds of perceived “races” in contest to others. Such accusations along with charges of “anti-Semitism” for criticising Jewish individuals or the state of Israel gives the impression that the accusers are diluted into believing they are part of some vast conspiracy which all but a few “self-hating Jew” embrace. Granted, best I can tell, bigots have to convince themselves that all people are bigoted in one way or another to feel vindicated in their own prejudice.
You don’t know who Wieseltier is. He’s poison, he’s a disgusting pro-Israel Jew. He’s something you find under a rock.
Richard Silverstein says
I don’t agree. I disagree with Wieseltier strongly. But your rhetoric is too strong.
I think richard is playing on what Wieseltier said about Norman Finkelstein. He said those exact words except “self-hating Jew” instead of “pro-Israel Jew”. But, yeah, without that reference I would be bothered by the statement, too.
You give Wieseltier more credit than I would. He is obviously an intelligent man, and he is a fairly good prose stylist (not entirely synonymous with being a good writer) , but his writings are so infected by his intense tribalist outlook that he rarely says anything interesting. He very much reflects the magazine he works for in that way.
True, he doesn’t come across as as much of a chest-thumping jingoist as Peretz does, but my impression is that they basically come from the same place, view of the world. Their prism of Jewish chauvinism & nationalism ultimately overrides any other consideration. That’s why for culture criticism I’m far more likely to turn to the more neutral & universal sensibility of the New Yorker (mainly for Alex Ross and Anthony Lane), or the Nation magazine. And yes, the Nation has a politically liberal slant but no particularly narrow and cock-eyed tribalist cultural frame of reference I’m aware of.
Such a strong particularist outlook does ultimately stunt one’s intelligence in the end, because one’s understanding of the world becomes so much more limited and circumscribed. Take a writer like Kurt Vonnegut, he displays more wisdom and insight in his little pinkie than Wieseltier exhibits in his collected prose gushings, I would suggest part of this fact naturally flows out of Vonnegut’s wholehearted embrace of the world in all its diversity and contradiction.
At the same time, great intelligence, even great genius, has co-existed with deep-seated bigotry to match and surely trump Wieseltier’s, look at Richard Wagner, for example. So, this is a tricky, complicated issue. If somebody’s work can universally transcend the personal prejudices they demonstrate in other contexts, maybe then you can appreciate it on its own terms. Anyhow, this subject demands a much fuller analysis than I can give here.
(also, comparing Leon Wieseltier to Richard Wagner maybe is a bit of a stretch. Wagner’s eventual influence and place in the culture gave the legacy of his intense, despicable racism much more of a pernicious influence than anything Wieseltier could achieve sputtering and spouting from his little rag; it’s also a-symmetrical in that you are comparing world-historical artistic genius, Wagner, to an obvious second-rater in comparison, Wieseltier).
I think I’m rambling at this point…
Extra points will be awarded for warren’s accurate identification of the quote in question.
Weisetlier points to the absurdity of the self-hating Jew meme, then turns around and uses it at every opportunity against anyone who fails to be sufficiently deferential to the vermin of Israel.
In fairness, Weisetlier had good grounds for being furious with Norman Finkelstein, after Norman exposed his tiresome lies in support of Joan Peters, even after her book was identified as a threadbare hoax.
ps: his writing is abysmal, but as Gore Vidal perceptively remarked, Weisetlier “has very important hair.” .
richard, using language like “the vermin of Israel” is offensive and inappropriate and does absolutely nothing to further the conversation. That rhetoric also has a pretty dark historical shadow.
Just as it’s not right for extreme right-wing Israelis and their American friends to have internalized such language and turned it around on the Palestinians, it’s not right to use it about Israelis or Jews. In fact, such language to describe a people or nation has no place anywhere.
One can speak out in the strongest possible terms against what Israel is doing and has done to the Palestinians and others without resorting to such Goebbels-esque rhetoric. Such language on a blog like this also serves the malign purpose of “confirming” for those who wish to portray liberal progressives who protest Israeli policy as having something against Jews deep-down, that they are correct. So, that language is harmful on a bunch of levels. By the way, richard, Israel’s right-wing supporters absolutely love that kind of language and eat it up, it’s their bread and butter.
The only objection I can really see to the phrase “Israeli vermin” is that it is a bit of a redundancy. Even were I not Jewish, I’d feel entitled to so refer to anyone who applauds the massacre of Arab children with white phosphorus (as nearly 100% of Israelis do, according to polls from Tel Aviv University). If anything, I’m being overly diplomatic.
Israel is now an intolerable threat to humankind. It has to be dealt with, and the special pleadings on behalf of these monsters have to stop. Step one should be a naval blockade, followed by more serious modes of persuasion. The Jewish state should be reduced to Gaza-like conditions, if that is what is required.
You don’t play games with an enemy like this.
Richard Silverstein says
First, thank you to Warren for catching that highly offensive phrase which violates my comment rules. I strongly agree with Warren on this, Richard H. & urge you not to engage in hyperbolic offensive speech of this sort.
There is a place for energetic criticism of Israel, but not of this sort. At least not at this blog.
I’m not aware of Wieseltier “applauding” the massacre of Palestinian children w. white phosphorus. Is that what you’re claiming he’s done or is this more hyperbole??
Israel is no more a “threat to humankind” than Iran is & you are making the same mistake the anti-Iranian war party makes. It simply discredits yr argument when you engage in over the top rhetoric of this sort.
Israel has an atomic bomb & this does post a threat to the region. But all other nations possessing nuclear weapons pose a similar threat.
I will simply not allow such comments here. The immorality of Israel’s treatment of Gazans in no way justifies the same treatment of Israelis.
You are on notice. Any other rhetoric like this in future and yr comment privileges will be removed.
You can remove my comment privileges. Erasing the facts however is not possible.
” Israel is no more a “threat to humankind” than Iran is.”
A transparently absurd statement, in light of the fact that Israel possesses a massive nuclear arsenal and has attacked every country in the region except for Cypress, murdering tens of thousands of people, most of them, civilian.
Iran has a legal right to enrich uranium under the NPT, the very same treaty the gangster state of Israel refuses to sign. It’s quite clear who the rogue state is. Any other country behaving as Israel has would have been subjected first to sanctions and second to military assault, to overwhelming global approval. Were Iran (or anywhere else) engaged in the abominations Israel routinely commits, it would already have been attacked. You know it. I know it. Everyone else knows it. The hypocrisy is so blatant it hardly bears mention.
It is the duty of conscientious Jews to condemn israel without qualification and to urge measures to protect humankind from the Israeli contagion, a modern incarnation of the Nazi ethos. Their ghoulishness we now know extends to international organ harvesting, as the outstanding Allison Weir reports:
“Just as in the case of the rampage against Jenin, the attack on the USS liberty, the massacre of Gaza, the crushing of Rachel Corrie, the torture of American citizens, and a multitude of other examples, Israel is using its considerable, worldwide resources to interfere with the investigative process.”
If such a state is not a threat, I don’t know what is.
Richard Silverstein says
You make the same mistake that all grandstanding demagogues do whether of the left or right, you mistake yr partisan opinions for facts or the truth.
Israel has not used its nuclear arsenal on anyone as has the U.S. I’m opposed to Israel having nuclear weapons. But claiming Israel is a greater danger to the world than any other nuclear power is specious.
Calling Israel a gangster state is a violation of my comment rules which you clearly spurn. You can peddle your trash elsewhere as your comment privileges have been revoked.
And don’t bother as a non-Jew telling me what my duty or the duty of other Jews is. I can define my own moral dimensions w/o yr dicta, thank you.
Of course it is a threat. But that’s what you claimed. You claimed it was a world threat, which it is not. It is a regional threat. There is a diff.