The mostly left-leaning Jewish Students Press Service “New Voices” magazine and the “Azure” Journal of the conservative Shalem Center in Jerusalem have formed an unusual partnership to co-sponsor a conference of Jewish student journalism and writing in New York, March 28-30. I attended its inaugural event, a panel discussion with Ruth Wisse (the Harvard professor of Yiddish literature), Nathan Glazer (Harvard’s emeritus professor of education and sociology) and Michael Walzer (political theorist at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ), following a screening of selections from the 1990s documentary, “Arguing the World.”
“Arguing the World” depicted the “New York Intellectuals,” radical Jews of working class background who emerged from the political hotbed of the City College of New York in the 1930s and ‘40s to leave their indelible mark on politics, literature and culture. It focused mostly on Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell. All eventually moved at least somewhat rightward, but only one became conservative. That was Irving Kristol, a founding father of neoconservatism and the biological father of William Kristol, the founding editor of the bellwether neocon periodical, The Weekly Standard. Collectively, they had a tremendous influence on the world of intellectual journalism — founding, editing, reshaping and writing for a host of prominent magazines of opinion, including: Partisan Review, the Public Interest, Commentary and Dissent.
Howe went from being a fierce left-wing (but anti-Stalinist) sectarian to being a highly respected democratic socialist thinker and a popularizer of Yiddish literature in translation. It was he, to a large degree, who introduced Isaac Bashevis Singer to non-Yiddish readers. And, in The World of Our Fathers, Howe immortalized New York’s Jewish Lower East Side. At the same time, he and the other New York Intellectuals battled Stalinism in the ‘40s and ‘50s and clashed with the New Left of the 1960s because of the latter’s indifference to the problem of communist totalitarianism.
So far, only Irving Howe of the original four has passed away. Nathan Glazer, although bent from age, is perhaps the most publicly active of the remaining three. Of the three panelists, two are members of the Meretz USA advisory board — Glazer and Walzer (this could constitute a “message from our sponsor”). And Walzer had a small role as a talking head in the movie.
Politically, one could classify the three panelists thus: Ruth Wisse as very much on the right, Glazer in the center, and Walzer on the center-left.
Wisse began with a critique of the film that these intellectuals, all Jews, were not Jewish minded. Glazer demurred to some extent; typical for him, he also agreed to some extent, but pointed out that he was and remains a Zionist or pro-Zionist, and Howe became very Jewish through his embrace of the world of Yiddish. Furthermore, he indicated that there were many hours of interviews not included in the film in which Jewishness was discussed in great detail.
Wisse mentioned her collaboration with Howe on one or more of his works and of having a long friendship with him that became strained because of their growing political disagreements over Israel. Howe became a champion of Israel, but he was supportive of the dovish variety of Zionism, represented by people in the Shalom Akhshav/ Peace Now movement.
Although she and I are not in the same camp regarding Israel, I found Ruth Wisse correct in stating that “Israel is the target of a ‘politics of blame’,” not simply “criticism.” Typically, she attacks critics; “never defend” is her dictum. She proudly illustrated this tact by describing her response to an Arab who challenged her at an event by asking, “What about Israel’s apartheid policy?” She disoriented the questioner by asking a nonsensical question of her own, “Why did you murder your grandmother?” One may disagree with her on whether this is the best way to respond to the apartheid charge, but it apparently worked for her that day.
Michael Walzer, like Howe a dovish Zionist, stated that “It is possible to maintain a radical critique,” even as one fights against the politics of blame.
Glazer, who had been involved in Zionist groups that advocated bi-nationalism prior to Israel’s independence, very much under the tutelage and influence of Hannah Arendt, pointed out that, although one can see Israel making mistakes at times, “we may come to the point that we have to live with Israel’s mistakes.” I took this to mean that we can remain partisans of Israel’s existence even if we know that it has taken a bad turn.
This related to Glazer’s recounting of Arendt’s reply to Gershom Scholem’s accusation that she didn’t “love the Jewish people.” Her response was that she couldn’t love the Jewish people or any people – an abstract entity – because loving an entire people makes no logical sense. Arendt could only speak of love with regard to friends and family, people she knew. (Glazer recommends the new anthology published by Schocken Books, “The Jewish Writings,1930-1975 [of Hannah Arendt].”) Still, Glazer noted ironically that Arendt was committed to the idea of a Jewish army even before there was a State of Israel.
Walzer very sagely remarked that while it’s not difficult for him to love a people, he has trouble with the notion of love for a state, which he regards as a form of “idolatry.” This does not mean that Walzer is against the existence of the State of Israel — au contraire. It means that he has no problem with being a critic of this or any state.