Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Lovers’ Quarrels

A funny (peculiar) thing happened to me on the way to Hudson Bay last month. Two weeks into my month-long Canadian Rail Pass, I called my son Michael in St. Paul to check in from Churchill, Manitoba. “Did Rottenberg print my piece on Anti-anti-Semitism?” I asked him, after running through family business. “Run it?” my somewhat stunned son replied: “You kicked up a firestorm with that one. They’re calling you a Nazi, and not a nice one. The letters to the Welcomat are really pissed.” 

So, on January 6, two pieces by me had appeared—one in “After-Dark” on the Jewish museum boom so that readers could get into New York’s Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue to see the remarkable exhibition on the Dreyfus Affair before it closed on January 14, and the other, the controversial one on my misgivings about Jewish sensitivity to non-Jewish criticism.

As any contributor to the paper knows, Dan is the quintessentially autonomous editor. If something doesn’t teach him anything new, he returns the piece promptly. If it does teach him something new, he acknowledges it as about to appear “in the not too distant future,” as he searches for congenial pairs on his front page.

So the simulcast of the front page piece on Jewish sensitivity and the Hazard-at-Large column on Dreyfus was completely fortuitous. But I was retroactively pleased by the juxtaposition—while because I expected that some readers were going to be shook up by he former (I had been shook up myself by the gradual erosion of unquestioning belief in whatever happened to be current Israeli domestic or foreign policies), it caught me by complete surprise (and not a little dismay) to learn that readers were reading anti-Semitic sentiments into my praise of the Jewish museum boom.

What’s going on? I muttered across the tundra and mountains and plains of Canada, as I strained at the bit to get a look at the “hate mail.” I even went to the Post Office in Winnipeg to see whether Dan expressed me a swatch of the letters on a Thursday, I could formulate a response and have a rebuttal in his office by Monday. But Canadian metabolism doesn’t work that fast. My personal pique had arisen originally years ago from the gross unfairness of a few academics with whom I had policy disputes stooping to unfounded charges of anti-Semitism when they couldn’t meet my arguments fairly, and openly.

I had no idea either when I wrote the piece during Hanukkah week that it would be swept up by another fiercer firestorm in the Gaza and West Bank. All across Canada I read the Canadian and International press (learning incidentally a lot more than I do from the American media which tend to favor the client state statute of Israel) as the crisis deepened. 

The term “anti-anti-Semitism” I had coined in June at the Academy of Music in a conversation with Earl Abrahamson between sets of the Humor Summit; later that evening I explored it further at the Pen and Pencil Club with David Friedman, TV critic of the Daily News. The NPR piece on JAP-Bashing, then, merely precipitated a point of view that had been focusing for months. (The “simmering, simmering” metaphor, by the way, is what Walt Whitman said reading Emerson did to him—it gave him the courage to articulate his immensely unpopular vision.)

I don’t see how anyone can read the Museum piece and consider me an anti-Semite. But no one was required to read both articles. Still it is a grossly bum rap to infer anti-Semitism because I say Europe is “awash” with demobbed Israeli soldiers on their “Wanderjahrs.” I describe them as “extremely attractive young men.” To see negative connotation in “awash” is simply to invent figments. And to imply that the widely used term Wanderjahrs betrays Nazi sympathies is, to put it bluntly, fatuous.

I repeat: JAP and yenta are not terms invented by the goyim. The Jewish subculture devised them to deal with deviations from their spiritual traditions. I identify with those spiritual traditions. Let me tell you briefly why.

Until I entered the Navy in 1944 at 17, I had never known a single Jew, personally, so cocooned was I in the Irish Catholic ghettos of Michigan. Since I was in a high IQ aviation radar unit, I met a good many Jews in my boot camp company and in tech schools. The nuns who reared me at Holy Rosary were anti-Semitic. (They used to listen to Father Coughlin Sunday afternoons), but I was very early as contemptuous of that lack of Christ-like charity as I was of their racism toward the “colored.”

So, in the Navy, at the risk of parody, I must say that some of my best new friends were Jews.

But that was only the beginning. After a Catholic university education (which perversely deepened my radical rejection of American Catholic bourgeois values) I entered graduate school in Cleveland where my two mentors were Harvey Goldberg, a Marxist historian whose dissertation was a biography of the French socialist Jean Jaures, and Ray Ginger, whose biography of Eugene Victor Debs gave me an aphorism that has centered my life: “Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.” Harvey Wish directed my doctoral dissertation, and if he considered me an anti-Semite, he never mentioned it when he praised my research in his book on the history of American history.

At Michigan State, Herb Weisinger and Adrian Jaffe were the two best English professors I had there, Milton Stern was the graduate student I was closest to, and the Marxist art historian Walter Abell taught me more about looking at art than anyone else has since. And intellectual Charlie Hirschfeld insighted me into his field.

I later chose as my role models two Jewish literary critics, Irving Howe, because he alternated books, one on unions and politics, one on literature, throughout his prodigious career, and Leslie Fiedler, well, because he’s Leslie Fielder, a madcap quirky original. Not to be too boring about it, but my visual tastes ran to Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood and Jack Levine. My ear was in fealty to Aaron Copland and George and Ira Gershwin. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Stan Getz illumined my isolated youth. What rot to impute anti-Semitism. Harvard sociologist David Riesman’s teasing me twenty-five years ago as a certified Philo-Semite is closer to the mark.

When I became Radio-TV Editor of Scholastic Magazines in 1955, senior editors Ken Goldstein and Eric Berger became my mentors there. Al Holman (torchsinger Libby’s bro) gave me my first college teaching job at Trenton State. And when Walter Annenberg gave Penn $2 million while I was a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellow in American Civilization, I helped organize the first Annenberg School. It was I who recommended that Gilbert Seldes be the first dean because he had written the first book on American secular culture in 1924, The Seven Lively Arts.

Finally, my greatest hero in journalism was and remains Isidore Feinstein Stone, the inimitable Izzy. In 1975, when I was on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Free Library, I organized an arts festival, the centerpiece of which was an award for the best undergraduate journalism in Izzy’s tradition. So it’s simply poppycock (and prima facie evidence of the dangers of anti-anti-Semitism) to call me an anti-Semite. 

I may be wrong, I may be impatient, I may even sometimes be arrogant. But I’m no anti-Semite. Any more than I’m a racist when I chide Oliver Franklin for helping to establish an imperial mayoralty in Philly, far from his original Third World idealism; I’m having a lover’s quarrel with Oliver, just as my fear that the garrison state is undermining Zionist idealism deeply disturbs me as a partisan of Israel.

I also disagree with the publisher of this paper’s belief that “outsiders” shouldn’t criticize other subcultures. Every religion, ethnic group, and voluntary association in America has two dimensions—the private and the public. Its private domain is its own business, but when those beliefs and actions impinge on the common weal or ill, it is the duty of outsiders who value pluralism and diversity to have a lover’s quarrel with those they fear are harming themselves and the community at large in the process.

I grant that such external criticism should be done with tact and compassion. And there is at least one aspect of my original statement (implying that Jews were not much help to the NAACP while they made good use of colored ladies as help in their homes) which I feel was intemperate. While not perfect, the American Jews’ support for the beleaguered Negro has been so far ahead of the rest of the society that it was churlish of me to imply less. I apologize for that.

On the other hand, I’ve taken a beating that I didn’t earn. For God’s sake, I’ve even heard the preposterous hypothesis that because my ex-wife ran off (well, walked away, fast) with a Jewish man twenty years ago that I’m ipso facto an anti-Semite. Come on, hate mongers, you can do better than guilt by disassociation.

The publisher, finally, made a very shrewd observation when she noted that not a single non-Jew entered the forum with a letter. Odd, isn’t it? All the more so when the day after my casual encounter with Ms. Seiderman, a letter arrived praising my article on R. Tait McKenzie, Penn’s fabulous doctor / sports sculptor featured at the Calgary Olympics (February 17) and signing itself hate-filled self off with a jaunty “and beware of JAPS.” Yes, Susan, there’s hate out there. But it’s not Hazard’s…

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