The Assault On John Judis

February 26, 2014 Topic: Ideology Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

The Assault On John Judis

Leon Wieseltier's risible attack on his colleague.

John Judis, whose new book Genesis is critically and soberly reviewed by the eminent historian Bernard Wasserstein in the new National Interest, has been coming under fire from a number of conservative outlets for allegedly displaying hostility toward Israel. He was also disinvited and then reinvited to speak about his work at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Now a new and perhaps more unusual denunication has surfaced in the form of a letter to the historian Ron Radosh that has appeared in the neoconservative organ the Washington Beacon. In it, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier alternately mocks and dismisses his colleague, a vocation he specializes in. Though the letter was sent privately by email, it was clearly intended to go public.

Wieseltier complains that Judis' book is  "shallow, derivative, tendentious, imprecise, and sometimes risibly inaccurate—he is a tourist in this subject. Like most tourists, he sees what he came to see. There is more to be said also about the utter shabbiness of discovering a Jewish identity in—and for the purpose of—criticizing the Jews: it is not only ignorant but also insulting." This, of course, amounts to a psychoanalysis of Judis rather than an actual refutation of his main contentions. Their contentiousness rests in Judis' depiction of American Jewish organizations as muscling over Harry S Truman to win American recognition of the fledgling Jewish state. It is possible to dispute Judis' arguments—to maintain that he is right for the wrong reasons—as Wasserstein does quite eloquently without resorting to character assassination.

Wieseltier adds,

my favorite bit of self-congratulation on Judis’ part is his belief that he is heroically defying the Zionist thought-police at the New Republic. For three decades and more we—by which I emphatically mean Marty [Peretz] too—have been publishing criticisms, even bitter ones, of Israeli policies by myself, Michael Walzer, and many others. True, we have not published pieces rejecting the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism or wishing away the Jewish state, and we have published pieces defending Israel against states and non-state actors (and intellectuals arguing on their behalf) who have denied the right of Israel to exist and have used violence in the name of that idea—and all this, I know, makes us highly unsatisfactory as progressives. Israel was indeed a house obsession here—but not any single idea or image of Israel. There has been no conformity of opinion in this office about this subject or any other subject in the two hundred years I have worked here. And now comes Judis’s nasty little book to prove this definitively! By jumping on a bandwagon he has rescued our reputation for freedom of thought!

While it's true that Wieseltier could write whatever he wanted about Israel, he himself is being rather slippery, to use one of his favorite words, about the state of affairs at the magazine itself. (In his own writing, for the most part, Wieseltier is a master at playing the anti-anti-Israel card.) And the blunt fact is that Peretz was unwilling to tolerate pieces that he perceived as anti-Israel, a term that has always had a rather expansive meaning. Yes, there were a few who enjoyed exemptions such as Walzer, one of Peretz's oldest friends. But it clearly reached the point where Peretz didn't have to say anything—a form of self-censorship took hold. To act as though an intellectual free-for-all took place is more than a little, to use another favorite Wieseltier term of opprobrium, risible. Which is why Judis' comment in his acknowledgment—"During the time Martin Peretz owned it, the magazine tolerated a variety of views on various subjects but not on Israel ...I suppose that having to be associated with a publication whose views on that subject I often disagree with led to a buildup of repressed indignation that fueled the years I spent on this book"—seems understandable.

Closer to the truth than Wieseltier's noisy denials, I think, is the apprehension expressed by Ron Radosh in his own review of Judis' book. Radosh writes that Judis is "a senior editor of the once pro-Israel publication, The New Republic." The blunt fact is that the ancien regime, now that TNR has a new owner in Chris Hughes, is gone. (Judis notes in his book that Hughes "doesn't impose strictures on what the magazine writes about Israel and the Middle East.") Wieseltier is its last remnant.

What Wieseltier represents, then, is something almost historic. As TNR morphs into a general interest magazine, he is a living mummy, a repository of the ancient feuds that convulsed the New York intellectuals during the 1950s and 1960s. In some ways his vituperativeness evokes a sense of nostalgia. Like the Partisan Review crowd, he specializes in intestine feuds.

For as anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Wieseltier's writings knows, he has a proclivity not only for extremism, but also for attacking his brethren. To put it more precisely, he is an expert practitioner of what is known as prolicide—in his case, the killing of one's intellectual children.

Among those who have felt the lash are Andrew Sullivan, Peter Beinart, James Wood and Louis Menand. The latter two worked directly for Wieseltier, and he championed both Sullivan and Beinart, at least initially. Some of the quotes that a brief web search excavates includes these morsels. On Menand: "Menand is the professor of littleness. He is a man in flight from the seriousness of his own vocation." Menand's offense? Not to bow sufficiently at the shrine of Lionel Trilling. In the case of Sullivan, he diagnosed "something much darker," namely, anti-Semitism: "To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left. He is the master, and the prisoner, of the technology of sickly obsession: blogging–and the divine right of bloggers to exempt themselves from the interrogations of editors–is also a method of hounding." In another piece, Wieseltier offered a twofer, criticizing (if that is not too andoyne a word) Beinart and Wood simultaneously. On Beinart: "Beinart's pseudo-courageous article is an anthology of xenophobic quotations by Israeli hawks and anguished quotations by Israeli doves: familiar stuff." Then came Wood's spanking: "So what if Wood’s authorities are Jews? Can Jews not be wrong, or anti-Semitic? Wood’s Jews are certainly anti-Zionist." Is it really an accident that, having left the New Republic, several of its editors have repudiated its long-time reflexive support for Israel?

In retrospect, much of this is actually quite comical. Andrew Sullivan has called Wieseltier a "connoisseur and cultivator of personal hatred," which is true but far from the whole story. The truth is that hysterical petulance is at the bottom of much of Wieseltier's fulgurations. The contrast between the lofty principles that intellectuals such as Wieseltier purport to espouse and the childish sniping is what emerges most conspicuously in his latest fusillade. In the end, the stakes aren't really that high and, in any case, until recent decades many Jewish intellectuals were, more often than not, indifferent to Israel (Lionel Trilling) or dubious about it. Now Judis has written a mildly critical account that is triggering a furor. That his detractors would respond so extravagantly and violently may say more about their dispositions than his.