The New Yorker's Holocaust Problem -- Once Again.
The book aroused a terrific storm of controversy primarily because it alleged that the Jews had cooperated significantly in their own destruction: "Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership," Arendt maintained, "almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis." Except among her most passionate disciples, it is now generally accepted that Arendt was woefully and willfully mistaken in this central assertion. At the time she wrote, very little serious historical research had been done on the subject of the Judenrate, the Jewish councils that the Germans established to help them administer the ghettos of Eastern Europe until they were disbanded and their inhabitants deported and murdered. But even to the meager historical material available she paid little attention, preferring to use secondary sources that would lend support to her accusation of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. The abrasive effect of the book was increased by the fact that it first appeared in The New Yorker--the discussions of mass murder alongside the ads for perfume, mink coats, and racing cars--and that the sections on the Jewish leaders were in a tone that the great scholar Gershom Scholem, Arendt's old friend, characterized in a letter to her as "heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious."
Irving Howe, for one, was deeply troubled by Arendt's articles, both by their content and by their location in a magazine then infamous for not allowing letters to the editor challenging or refuting articles it had published. Made Syrkin, one of Arendt's most trenchant critics, had urged Howe to consider: how many New Yorker readers had ever before cared to read a word of the vast literature about Jewish resistance, martyrdom, and occasional survival during the Holocaust? How many of these readers would ever know that the distinguished historian Jacob Robinson had discovered a huge number of factual errors in Arendt's articles (which he later enumerated in a page by page refutation of her book called And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight )?
Howe was incensed by the fact that Arendt's articles, which had brought the most serious charges against the European Jews, their institutions and leaders and character, had been distributed to a mass audience unequipped to judge them critically, and had then been sealed shut against criticism in The New Yorker itself. "For The New Yorker, as for the whole cultural style it represents, the publication of Miss Arendt's articles disposed, in effect, of the issue: there was nothing more for it to say or allow to be said in its columns, except to defend Miss Arendt in a lugubrious editorial against those who had presumed to notice that she wrote with insufficient scholarship or human sympathies." Arendt had branded the Jewish leadership in Europe as cowardly, incompetent, collaborationist; she had accused it of helping the Nazis destroy the Jews of Europe; and she had alleged that if the Jews had not "cooperated" with the Nazis many fewer than six million would have been killed. Responsible and scholarly opponents disputed her factual statement and her conclusions; yet as far as the imperious New Yorker was concerned, "Miss Arendt has the first, the last, the only word." Thus Howe saw in the Arendt controversy not mainly a Jewish problem, but one of social control and the nature and power of modern journalism.
The recent publication by The New Yorker (16 April 2001) of Ian Buruma's account of Hitler-admirer David Irving's lawsuit in London against Deborah Lipstadt shows that, whatever else may have changed in The New Yorker since 1963, its Holocaust problem continues much as before. The article, a review-essay perversely rifled "Blood Libel," begins with the nonsensical declaration that "Irving is not so much an outright Holocaust denier as a Holocaust minimizer." Thus does Buruma, who certainly approves of the court's decision in favor of Lipstadt and against Irving, in a curious way also support the complaint of Irving. His odd distinction suggests--what the rest of the piece amply demonstrates -- that Buruma, The New Yorker's designated expert on the trial, has not read the very book that occasioned the lawsuit. In that book, Denying the Holocaust (1993), Lipstadt claimed that Irving had "advanced" in 1988 from Hitler-worshiper to spokesman for Holocaust-denial; it was that claim which Irving challenged, along with aspersions on his scholarship, in court. Either there was a Holocaust -- that is to say, a systematic German campaign to destroy European Jewry -- or there wasn't; Irving either denied it took place, or he didn't. To say he "minimized" it is to talk jabberwocky.
After this unhappy beginning, Buruma informs his readers that Irving is deemed a "serious," indeed a "brilliant" historian by "serious admirers," including such "serious people" as the military historian John Keegan and the journalist Christopher Hitchens. (That omnipresent expert on all matters touching the Jews pronounced Irving "a great historian of Fascism.")
Buruma's preferred guide to the whole business, however, is yet another exemplar of "serious reflection," the "brilliant" D. D. Guttenplan, from whose book on the trial Buruma borrows the sublimely condescending formulation that "Lipstadt's concern was that Irving was bad for the Jews." At this point in Buruma's quaint and curious lucubrations upon the trial, one begins to wonder: how, from this superabundance of "serious" and "brilliant" fellows, does such egregious nonsense emerge?
Antisemitism has a long history in Europe, but the Holocaust gave it a bad name, even among people who thought it a perfectly respectable piece of bigotry prior to World War II. But now come the Holocaust deniers, the assorted Butzes, Leuchters, Faurissons, to proclaim that the Nazi form of antisemitism was not that bad after all: so why not give Nazism a second chance? But Buruma thinks that a Nazi revival in Europe is essentially a parochial "Jewish" concern, even now that there is a certain paucity of Jews in Europe outside of the cemeteries.
Buruma also borrows from Guttenplan the equation between sectarian "narrowness" and Jewishness, a nearly fatal speck so close to Lipstadt's vision that it blots out more grandiose concerns and makes her book "problematic." (One wonders whether David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, would let pass an equation between being devotedly Catholic and being narrow, or between being devotedly liberal and being narrow.) But it is axiomatic for Buruma as for Guttenplan (as also for his inspiration Peter Novick, whose popular, and in Guttenplan's estimate -- what else? -- "brilliant" book The Holocaust in American Life contends that their Holocaust memory is a Jewish scheme for self-aggrandizement at the expense of other victimized peoples) that dedication to "Jewish" causes such as Holocaust memory and the survival of Israel constitutes "narrowness." (Just how nasty Buruma can get when confronted by someone who is Jewish in other than a passive, technical sense was evident when, in the New York Review of Books in February 1998, he linked Cynthia Ozick to the antisemitism of the Nazis because she had applied the word "deracinated" to Otto Frank.)
Offensive and jejune as this equation, dredged up from the most unsavory depths of Christendom, ordinarily is, it requires special obtuseness to apply it to Holocaust memory and Israel, Lipstadt's "sectarian" causes. One is almost embarrassed to have to point out to this fraternity of the "serious" and "brilliant" that precisely because the Germans cut off Jews from humanity and denied them the right to exist, Jews have since Auschwitz come, in Emil Fackenheim's words, to "represent all humanity when they affirm their Jewishness and deny the Nazi denial." That is why the foundation of Israel was one of the few redeeming acts of the century of blood and shame just ended.
Like many who eschew Jewish "narrowness" for universality, Buruma opts for a narrowness of his own, in the form of adherence to the English code of manners. In a way, he is the suitable chronicler of the London trial for a country like England, where disputes about beliefs and ideas are often reduced to distinctions of manners, and traitors who continue to wear their Cambridge ties in Moscow and order their suits from Savile Row elicit much sympathy in intellectual circles.
Although at first Buruma seems to mock this anti-intellectual bent as it appears in both Irving and some of his apologists, he finds himself strongly tempted "to share Keegan's view of Irving as a class act marred by some crazy ideas" because Irving is excellently dressed and has a "posh accent." Irving's historian adversary Richard Evans, by contrast, addressed the court, sneers Buruma, "in the nasal monotone of the outer London suburbs, [and] came across as the kind of state-educated Briton who gets jumpy at the sound of an upper-class voice." This is low-level Anthony Trollope, but what can it possibly tell American readers about the ideological motives of the principals in this conflict? Are Hitchens's effusive praise of Irving and compulsion to throw rotten eggs at the "Zionist establishment" (Buruma's phrase) functions of his father having been in "the middle ranks of the Royal Navy" and of his own education in a "minor" private school? Or do they have something to do with his having graduated with honors from the Alexander Cockburn-Edward Said Institute on the Israeli Question?
In fact, the most disingenuous feature (and there are plenty) of Buruma's piece is its silence about the place of Israel in the writings of Holocaust deniers and their apologists and defenders. Nowhere does he mention Irving's boast that he is carrying on a "one-man intifada" against the accepted version of the Holocaust. If Buruma is to be believed, "left-wing radicals" like Hitchens and Noam Chomsky have come to the defense of right-wing Holocaust deniers mainly because of their devotion to free speech and their desire to epater le bourgeois; but nothing could be farther from the truth. Israel occupies a crucial place in the demonology of Hitchens and Chomsky, just as it does in the world of the deniers. "Chomsky's defense of [Robert] Faurisson," wrote Nathan Glazer a few years ago, "is connected to some of Chomsky's deepest political orientations, in particular his unwavering animus toward the United States and Israel." Even though Chomsky does not directly endorse the claims of the French Holocaust-deniers, he wishes them well in their endeavors; for he evidently believes that to undermine belief in the Holocaust is to undermine belief in the legitimacy of the state of Israel, which many people suppose (mistakenly) to have come into existence because of Western bad conscience over what was done to the Jews in World War II. As Pierre Vidal-Naquet wrote in his discussion of Chomsky's collaboration with French neo-Nazis in Assassins of Memory (Columbia University Press, 1992), the linguist's zeal on behalf of Faurisson is unlikely to cool until the French republic passes a law "requiring that Faurisson's works be read in public schools" and "advertised and sold at the entrance to synagogues."
But of this seething cauldron of Israel-hatred, The New Yorker's readers are kept blissfully ignorant by Buruma. Is this merely the laziness of a journalist who can't take the trouble to read the book that provoked the trial he is reporting (or bother to check Irving's allegation that Lipstadt is not a professional historian), or something worse?
Whatever the underlying reason, Buruma, like his predecessor of 1963, Hannah Arendt, is more disapproving of those vulgar Jews who unaccountably (and so unreasonably) "reduce" the Holocaust to "good Jews and bad Germans" than he is of Irving and his apologists for their assault on memory and truth.
Now that two months have passed since the publication of Buruma's article, it is clear that in 2001, as in 1963, The New Yorker will print no letters challenging or refuting its designated expert.
EDWARD ALEXANDER's most recent book is Irving Howe -- Socialist, Critic, Jew (Indiana University Press).
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|Date:||May 1, 2001|
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