Guest Post: Book Reviews: Four books on antisemitism

This is a guest post by long-time reader and contributor Brian Goldfarb. This time Brian has produced a different kind of post. It is his review of four books on antisemitism, each book approaching the subject from a different viewpoint.

Brian explains:

Two of them are source books – the information people need to inform themselves in order to confront the anti-Zionists and the antisemites, as well as the ignorant, and the other two are for those who might not believe that there is still antisemitism around, 75 years after the end of WW2.

This post is particularly timely given the sharp rise in in antisemitism and Israel-hatred worldwide (see a few of my recent posts for example) and also since tomorrow night we mark the start of Yom Hashoah in Israel.

At a time like this, who needs books?

The four books reviewed are:

John Mann: “Antisemitism: The Oldest Hatred”

David Brog “ Reclaiming Israel’s History”

Deborah Lipstadt “Antisemitism: Here and Now”

Bernard-Henri Levy “The Genius of Judaism”

* * * *

John Mann: “Antisemitism: The Oldest Hatred”:

Let me start with John Mann’s book. For those who have never come across him, John Mann is one of life’s heroes. He is the Labour Member of Parliament for a constituency in the English Midlands and has been since 2001. As he jokingly notes, it is possible that there might be as many two or even three Jews among his constituents. Despite this, he is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism and also Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Antisemitism. If this wasn’t enough, he also confronted Ken Livingstone [see YouTube video at the link] after the latter had made his infamous comment, live on television, that “a real antisemite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate the Jews in Golders Green and Stamford Hill as well” (where many ultra-orthodox Jews live), and, having asked Livingstone, rhetorically, whether he was mad, looked as though he was about to hit him. Fortunately, Mann restrained himself.

John Mann MP (Wikipedia)

His book “Antisemitism: The Oldest Hatred” is a collection of essays, speeches and other writings, only one of which is by him (his acceptance speech when being given the Jan Karski Award*). The others are many of the classic, modern, discussions of and about antisemitism. Thus, Mann includes a translation of Emile Zola’s classic diatribe against the unjust verdict handed down to Dreyfus, “J’Accuse”. This is preceded (as are all the entries) by an introduction setting the essay in the context of its time.

Here also can be found Albert Einstein’s 1938 essay “Why  Do They Hate the Jews?”; an extract from Jean Paul Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and Jew”, written in 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris; articles by Willy Brandt, Elie Wiesel, Albie Sachs, Chaim Weizmann and many more.

This book is a resource, into which one dips for inspiration and reflection, but not necessarily counter-arguments against the bad guys. What these articles and essays will do is confirm what you already knew: antisemitism, for no good reason (we Jews, collectively, haven’t done anything wrong, wicked or evil: we’ve just been), has been around for a very long time. It is indeed both the socialism of fools and the idiocy of murderous hate-mongers.

I am reading my way through John Mann’s book, and am being enlightened as I go. I hope you will be as well.

[* Jan Karski smuggled himself (as a member of the Polish resistance to the Nazis) into the Warsaw Ghetto and then escaped to the West to report on his findings. He can be seen bearing witness in Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust.]

* * * *

David Brog “ Reclaiming Israel’s History”

To indulge what might, at first glance, appear to be a non-sequitur: we are frequently told that Amazon (or any other online book seller) are killing bookshops.

Happily, not so. On our last trip to New York to visit the family there, I was browsing the appropriate shelves of the local (Upper West Side of Manhattan) Barnes & Noble to see if another book on this list was on the shelves (it was!). While doing so, a different book leapt off the shelves and into my receptive hands, which would never have happened had Amazon “won”. Fortunately, many bookshops have found ways of fighting back to preserve the joy of browsing. It’s also how I found yet another of the books in this article, of which more anon. But the “Barnes & Noble” book in this case is David Brog “Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace”.

Catchy title, yes? Actually, no, but it is true to the contents.

David Brog (Wikipedia)

My first reaction on taking the book from the shelves was to look very carefully at the description of the contents. This told me that David Brog was not only a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, but is also (at the time the book was published in 2017) executive director of Maccabee Task Force and the founding  executive director of Christians United for Israel. He also served as chief of staff to the (now late) Senator Arlen Spector (of Pennsylvania), another one of the good guys. So he seemed okay. And the book showed that my initial judgement was correct.

Brog starts well. He has a quote from Thomas Friedman, author of “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, published in 1998 (and which I read back then), at the head of his Preface: “Criticising Israel is not anti-Semitic (sic), and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction…is anti-Semitic(sic), and not saying so is dishonest” (2002). Friedman also, in the 1998 book, also called for an evacuation of the West bank, but for Israel to retain control of the ridges of the Judean Hills and mount a series of radar “listening posts” aiming well into Jordan, Syria and beyond, as a Distant Early Warning line. Very prescient of him.

At one level, one can (and, in my view, should) see this book as a replacement, or at least an updating of Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel”. which was first published in 2004 and a quick online search shows no reprints/updates since. Given that Dershowitz has become a champion for Trump, this might well be about time for this to happen. And I’ll argue that in the comments, if you wish, readers and other naysayers!

How good is Brog? How about this: page ix in the Preface: “We now know about…Israeli transgressions in detail. We know about them because Israeli scholars have documented them. And we know about them because the Israeli media has publicised them. Such is life in a free society.”

Difficult to argue with that.

Okay, so David Brog is pro-Israel. And your point, Brian, is what? It is that if we are to promote the Israel we love, the land that, despite, often, its politicians, manages to retain, against the odds, a democratic, parliamentary system, in which office-holders are not above the law (at least one ex-President has been jailed for offences committed and its current Prime Minister and his wife have been indicted for alleged offences – it is irrelevant at this stage as to whether they will be found guilty or not: the important point is that they are not above the law, unlike some high officials in allegedly democratic states who appear to claim that it is impossible to indict them while they are in office), then we need the arguments…and we need to keep them up to date.

Cheap points aside, Brog devotes his first chapter to the Jewish case for Israel and then his second to debunking the Palestinian (or, possibly, Arab, as the Palestinians weren’t invented until the late 1960s) case. Thus, he spends time examining, critically, the main early proponent for the Palestinians: Amin Al-Husseini, aka the Mufti of Jerusalem. It is important to note that, among other things, Al-Husseini was pro-Nazi and, indeed, spent World War 2 in Germany, persuading Bosnian Moslems to fight for the Nazis and encouraging the Final Solution. Why, after the war, he wasn’t arrested and made to stand trial for war crimes remains a mystery, except that an expert on the trials and tribulations of the Mizrachi (Jews from Arab lands) has suggested (as I commented here in another article a year or two ago) that the French asked for him to be let off, to avoid “trouble” in the French-controlled North Africa and Levant (Lebanon and Syria) immediately after World War 2.

So we have this from Brog:

“Thus the man who dominated Palestinian nationalism before 1964 was a shape shifter who repeatedly reinvented himself. In the span of one lifetime, Husseini was an Ottoman. a Syrian, a Palestinian, a pan-Arab, a Palestinian once again, and finally a Jordanian. In each case he embraced his new identity with convincing conviction.” (p.50)

Brog then goes on to quote Ben-Gurion (via Efraim Karsh) as saying (in 1918, note) that:

“Palestine is not an unpopulated country…By no means and under no circumstances are the rights of these inhabitants to be infringed upon – it is neither desirable nor conceivable that the present inhabitants be ousted from the land. That is not the mission of Zionism.” This gives the lie to the claim that Zionism proclaimed that “Palestine” was a land without a people waiting for a people without a land. Not even the Revisionist (right-wing) Zionists under Jabotinsky claimed this. But the anti-Zionists and the antisemites did, and do, try to argue that this is exactly what the Zionist movement, from its very beginnings, said.

Moving further into the 20th Century and the war between the Arab militias and the Jews of the Yishuv (not yet the State of Israel – after the passing of the UN Partition resolution but before the British had fully withdrawn and the Declaration of Independence had not yet been made and the Arab states had not yet invaded), Brog uncovers some fascinating quotes from Palestinian militia leaders, such as the following (p. 123)

“…Ismail Safwat – the commander of the Arab Liberation Army fighting Israel in the north – acknowledged that ‘the Jews have constantly endeavoured to narrow the theatre of operations and have not attacked a single Arab village unless provoked by it’.”

When we talk about who was to “blame” for the fighting and the deaths after the UN Resolution, it is interesting and important to note that Brog picks up a quote from a (British) Major-General Hugh(?) Stockwell  – which Benny Morris, in his book “1948: The First Arab-Israeli War” appears to miss – concerning the battle for Haifa and the Arab decision to abandon the city:

“ ‘You have made a foolish decision,’” he told Haifa’s Arab leaders. ‘After all, it was you who began the fighting, and the Jews have won’.”(p. 129)

Clearly, I could go on. As Brog does, up to the present. Indeed, he produces example after example of the Arab/Palestinian propensity, in Abba Eban’s immortal phrase, to “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

However, my intent is not to tell you the whole story but to let you know that there is a new kid on the block providing you with the arguments to refute the BDS (to be polite about them) mob when they come round, foaming at the mouth, and it’s in paperback, so you can carry it about with you when you need chapter and verse.

* * * *

Deborah Lipstadt “Antisemitism: Here and Now”

We were lucky enough to get tickets for a Q & A with Deborah Lipstadt at the London equivalent of the Manhattan Jewish Cultural Center (or JCC) about her new book “Antisemitism: Here and Now”. I had tried to order the book in the UK, but Amazon informed me that the book was “not available” here (despite its presence on their website), so I ordered it to be sent to our daughter’s home in New York. Thus, I missed a signature on the book and had to be content with a signature on my ticket! However, I did get my question in (as a question, and not a thesis on antisemitism, followed by a “sort” of question): did Prof. Lipstadt think that August Bebel’s aphorism that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools” applied to the current Labour Party leader? The simple answer is “yes”. David Hirsh (of Engage Online) afterwards complimented me on my question (which was nice), but wished I hadn’t raised it (I want to get it put there: that antisemitism is the socialism of fools, that is): he doesn’t want to give it oxygen. Ah well, can’t win them all.

Deborah Lipstadt ((Osnat Perelshtein)

Anyway, a little later, we were in New York (see above re the Brog book) and I collected her book and started reading it. I didn’t read the review that Anne linked me to until I’d formed my own opinion. Prof. Lipstadt explained in her Q & A that the book was not going well: it was proving difficult to write…until a colleague, to whom she explained her problem, suggested the “question and answer” format she adopted. Then, she said, the book started to write itself. I can understand Prof. Lipstadt’s problem: as a former academic, writing should come easy. However, some topics prove far more difficult than others and antisemitism is one of them. Why should someone as experienced in the field as her be exempt from this potential tripwire?

Before coming to the book itself, allow me a digression: as well as the Jerusalem Post review that Anne linked me to, I  found 4 others: two from the Times of London (The Sunday Times & The Times itself), one each from The Washington Post and the New York Times, which can, now and then, get it right on antisemitism and Israel, if it tries hard enough. [Anne notes: There is another interesting review from the Jewish Book Council].

What do the reviews tell us? The JPost one came across as a snipe at the style, never mind the content: it was all about how Lipstadt’s method fails to convince. While the (unnamed) Sunday Times reviewer does complain about this at the start of the article, s/he does allow that it makes Lipstadt’s point most convincingly, once one is used to it. Both Bret Stephens (in The New York Times) and Randy Rosenthal (in The Washington Post) get to the point without digression. The most interesting (because, oddly enough, the most “journalistic”) is Daniel Finkelstein’s in The Times. If you need reminding, he is the grandson of Alfred Wiener, the eponymous founder of the library bearing his name, and subtitled “the Holocaust Library” (and where I volunteer twice a week). His is also the most “Jewish”: he starts with an albeit sick Jewish joke and then goes on to make the point (that the other three make, in fairness) that antisemitism has never gone away, despite our best hopes since the end of World War Two and the destruction of Nazi Germany.

I would urge you all to search out these reviews (and any others you can find) for yourself.

So, all that said, what of the book itself? I found the book thoroughly readable and convincing: indeed, I’d put it on the same level as Dave Rich’s book about the UK Labour Party: “The Left’s Jewish Problem”. The Lipstadt book, like his, is not an instruction manual for fighting antisemitism and the BDS movement: rather, it is for those who either are not sure that the problem is as bad as so many appear to think or, alternatively, that it can be, in effect, ignored as being confined to the lunatic fringe. The bad news is that is that bad, indeed, it may even be worse than we think (which is not something that I ever thought I’d hear myself say, in 2019, three-quarters of a century after the end of WW2).

Unlike the Mann and Brog books, this is a book for those who need to remind themselves that antisemitism, even when disguised as anti-Zionism, is, sadly, alive, well and as malignant as ever.

* * * *

Bernard-Henri Levy “The Genius of Judaism”

So, that’s three of the four books: two source books (or “how to confront the unbelievers with the facts”) and an “if you think it’s all over, think again” refresher. What, then, of there fourth book?

I had high hopes of this: I noted, above, of the serendipity effect of browsing in bookshops. Having collected the Lipstadt book from our daughter in New York, we went off to visit friends in Connecticut. They took us to New Haven, where Yale University is situated. Opposite the Yale University Museum of Art is a bookshop, called Atticus (and for those of you who are ahead of me, yes, their complimentary bookmark carries a…Finch: the link between Harper Lee, “To Kill A Mockingbird” and Yale is beyond me, but it’s a good literary joke). Browsing the store, I found a book by the wonderful US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “In My Own Words”, specifically for my wife, the lawyer and judge, and she found for me “The Genius of Judaism” by Bernard-Henry Levy. My initial thought was that here was a book by a genuine public intellectual (despite that being an over-worked label, even if justified in his case) that I might actually understand.

Bernard Henri Levy (Times Higher Education)

I need to explain that last comment. This is not meant to be an example of false modesty: outside my own subject (Sociology), I find that experts in other fields do sometimes find it difficult to communicate with us lesser mortals (something, I suspect, all experts are guilty of, without exception).

As far as the first half of his book was concerned Levy proved me wrong: it is very clear exposition of the nature of antisemitism, especially as he came across it in France and in the wider literature he read as he was growing up. However, the second half of the book left me behind. It might be the translation or it might be the style, but I found myself unable to complete the book, partly because it seemed to become increasingly metaphysical as he delved into his own journey into his Jewish heritage. I accept that the failing might be mine, not his.

Anne adds:

Brian, thank you very much for these very interesting book reviews, and in fact for bringing them to our attention in the first place. I don’t necessarily agree with all the views in the books (Brog’s especially seems likely to grate on my political nerves), but they are all addressing the issue with the same wish – to educate the world and to protect the Jewish people.

It is so sad that 70-80 years after the Holocaust, we still need to educate ourselves and the wider world about the nature of antisemitism while at the same time suffering from it all over the world, from America to Britain to France, Germany. Let us also not forget Israel, where the antisemitism suffered by Israelis takes the form of a refusal by the Arabs to accept any Jewish presence anywhere in the land of Israel, and expresses itself in vicious war.

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7 Responses to Guest Post: Book Reviews: Four books on antisemitism

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Book Reviews: Four books on antisemitism – 24/6 Magazine

  2. Reality says:

    Thank you for this timely article.As we approach Holocaust day this week(why doesn’t the rest of the world commemorate Holocaust day on the same day as Israel,has always felt like a slap in the face) this is neccesary reading,and those books should be part pf every university curriculum.

  3. Earl says:

    Excellent, succinct digests. Thx!

  4. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Thank you all for your comments: they are much appreciated.

    Reality, re Yom HaShoah, yes I agree, but we (Ros and I) have just come home from a Yom HaShoah event at our local synagogue, and the Rabbi made this very point. But he also noted that tonight is when we – the Jewish community worldwide – remember the Shoah. Holocaust Memorial Day is when the rest of the world (or at least many parts of it) remember both the Shoah and other mass murders: sadly, the Shoah was not the last time mass-murder was committed, although it should have been.

    The trouble is that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana)…and far too many across the world prefer to forget the past because they are convinced that they have a monopoly on truth and virtue and to the devil with the rest of the world and humanity in general.

  5. Brian Goldfarb says:

    I intended to add to the comment immediately above that the speaker at this evening’s Yom HaShoah talk was Anita Peleg, the daughter of Naomi Blake an Auschwitz survivor. Naomi first went to what was then Palestine, joined the Haganah, was wounded and missed, by just one day, the massacre of the medical convoy to Hadassah Hospital before coming to the UK and becoming a sculptor: you should google Naomi Blake/go onto as appropriate to see some of her fantastic sculptures, as well as possibly buying either the book of her sculptures (edited by her daughter) and/or the biography, also by her daughter – which will benefit her daughter’s charity seeking to encourage second generation members to bear witness down through the years.

    • anneinpt says:

      It sounds very interesting. We had a fascinating talk in our shul too, about Israeli society and Shoah survivors in the early years of the state. The speaker was from Yad Vashem. She covered the entire period from 1945 to the present day. It was riveting.

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