Category Archives: Books and Book Reviews

Tanenhaus on Conservatism, Podhoretz on Liberalism

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Sam Tanenhaus has been getting a lot of coverage for his new book, The Death of Conservatism. I saw him on the Open Mind (Part 1 here and Part 2 here) and C-SPAN this weekend. I’ll post the video from the C-SPAN segment when it becomes available. I rushed to my local book store to pick up a copy but they do not have it yet.

From what I have heard from Tanehaus, it sounds like he is calling on conservatives to reclaim their intellectual tradition (James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, and others) and abandon the bombastic conservatism of people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. While this is certainly appealing to me, I don’t know how much resonance this book will find among social/religious conservatives and nativists who are the largest bases of the Republican party at this time.

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Tablet has a symposium on Norman Podhoretz’s new book, Why are Jews Liberals? There is also a review by Seth Lipsky here (an excerpt):

Podhoretz explores several mysteries, and he does not fail to put them in a way calculated to touch on the exposed nerves. One example: if the Jews “never took it as a mark of friendship that under Christian rule they could escape the disabilities and dangers of being Jewish simply by ceasing to be Jewish, why did they fail to recognize that the Enlightenment was offering them the same bargain in modern dress? Why were they unable to see that the French philosophes and their counterparts in other countries were in their own way no less an enemy to them as Jews than the early Fathers of the Church?”

A second mystery he investigates in a chapter on the Marxists and other radicals, including some on the right. He puts it this way: “The question thus arises of why the Jews who joined the radical camp were not put off by the egregious anti-Semitism of Marx or that of several other major figures of the socialist movement, including Charles Fourier (to whom the Jews were the ‘the leprosy and the run of the body politic’) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (to whom the Jews were ‘the race which poisons everything [and] the enemy of the human race’).” Podhoretz has mined the literature for choice nuggets, such as Rosa Luxembourg (“Why do you come with your special Jewish sorrows?”) and Marx, who was baptized and had a flirtation with Christianity before moving to materialism. (“What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.”)

Bob’s Book Meme

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H/t to Bob for this one on academic books “fit for human consumption”.

I have two lists. A “then” list which reflects my politics/perspective in my 20s and a “now” list which reflects my perspective ten years later. You’ll notice some overlap.

Both lists are in alpha order according to author’s last name:

Then:

Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices. What can I say? This book is one of those that led me to anarchism in a concrete way. Here is an excerpt (p. 329) from the interview with Julius Seltzer, an activist in the Jewish anarchist movement in Toronto during the first decades of the twentieth century. How times have changed…

The people in the anarchist movement were the most wonderful in the world. That alone made the movement great. It was one big family. Some of the best were not well-known but were dedicated, simple people, such as Lilian Kisliuk of Washington, D.C., a schoolteacher and daughter of a veteran anarchist. The anarchist ideal is zaftig [juicy]. I am with it all the time, all my life, always get great pleasure from it, from the ideas, the people the comradeship. You meet an anarchist and a socialist and they are completely different. The anarchist is soft, mild, warm–the other dried out.

George Esenwein. Anarchist Ideology and the Working-Class Movement in Spain, 1868-1898. An excellent text for anyone interested in the precursors to the Spanish Anarchism of the Civil War era.

Benjamin Martin. The Agony of Modernization: Labor and Industrialization in Spain. Martin is a labor activist who spent years mining the archives. The result is a somewhat dry, yet nonetheless readable account of Spain’s transition from craft to industrial production with much attention paid to the various organizational, political and ideological divisions and schisms within the Spanish labor movement.

James Martin. Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism, 1827-1908. Biographical snippets on some of the key minds in the individualist anarchist tendency.

William Reichert. Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism. From the preface:

This book is the result of my concern that the record ought to be made more accurate with reference to what anarchism is all about, and thus I have attempted in the pages that follow to give as honest an account of what American anarchists have said and [viii] believed as is humanly possible. I say “humanly possible” because I fully recognize how difficult it is to construct an accurate report of what anyone believes in the realm of ideology where subjective feelings and hard objective facts stand back to back in a shadowy twilight that invites the observer to interpret what he sees after the familiar patterns of value he holds in his own mind’s eye. In order to minimize the distortion that inevitably accompanies any social or political writing, I have attempted throughout this study to report what anarchists have said as closely as possible after their own viewpoints with as little interpretation of my own as possible; I may well have failed in my quest for objectivity but this has not been because of a lack of good intentions on my part.

William I. Robinson. Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony.  A Gramscian approach to international relations.

William H. Sewell. Language and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848. At the time, this book blew my mind. For the first time–for me at least–here was an author arguing that labor organization in Europe did not result as a reaction to industrialization. Instead, the modern labor movement was built on the previous craft and guild structures and ideology. A wonderful read.

James Weinstein. The Corporate Ideal and the Liberal State, 1900-1918. Read this book during the Clinton years. At that time I saw very little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, especially regarding their aquiessence to business interests. Weinstein posits two theses:

The first is that the political ideology now dominant in the United States, and the broad programmatic outlines of the liberal state (known by such names as the New Freedom, the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society) had been worked out and, in part, tried out by the end of the First World War. The second is that the ideal of a liberal corporate social order was formulated and developed under the aegis and supervision of those who then, as now, enjoyed ideological and political hegemony in the United States: the more sophisticated leaders of America’s largest corporations and financial institutions.

Now:

Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices.

George Esenwein. Anarchist Ideology and the Working-Class Movement in Spain, 1868-1898.

George Nash. The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America Since 1945. Absolutely required reading for anyone who considers herself an American conservative or an opponent of American conservatism.

Karl Popper. The Open Society and its Enemies,   Vol. 1 and 2. From the publisher:

Written in political exile in New Zealand during the Second World War and first published in two volumes in 1945, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies is one of the most famous and influential books of the twentieth century. Hailed by Bertrand Russell as a ‘vigorous and profound defence of democracy’, its now legendary attack on the philosophies of Plato, Hegel and Marx prophesied the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and exposed the fatal flaws of socially engineered political systems. Popper’s highly accessible style, his erudite and lucid explanations of the thought of great philosophers and the recent resurgence of totalitarian regimes around the world are just three the reasons for the enduring popularity of The Open Society and Its Enemies and why it demands to be read today and in years to come.

William H. Sewell. Language and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848.

Michael Seidman. Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War and Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts. Seidman’s approach is eclectic and unique. Rather than viewing ideology as a major factor in collective action, he addresses human physical needs like hunger, thirst, and shelter.

Robert Steinfeld. Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century. Steinfeld shows how the division between “free” and “unfree” labor is not as clear-cut as some authors claim. Sources referenced by Steinfeld include parliamentary minutes, court cases, bills and prosecutions under the Master and Servant Act. From the Introduction:

The account presented in this book turns the traditional narrative of free labor on its head. It shows that the introduction of free contract and free markets in labor in the nineteenth century did not produce what we in the twentieth century consider free labor. It produced a regime that employed nonpecuniary pressures to extract labor from workers, pressures that by twentieth-century standards make the wage work a form of coerced contractual labor.

Zeev Sternhell. Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France. Is fascism an ideology of the extreme right or the extreme left? If you spend most of your time in leftist circles, like I once did, it is clearly the former. If you are a die hard conservative,  fascism is national socialism, with the emphasis on socialism. Like all great historians, Sternhell attempts to understand fascists and fascism on its own terms. Not according to analysis of fascism’s opponents.

“Few books on European history in recent memory have caused such controversy and commotion,” wrote Robert Wohl in 1991 in a major review of Neither Right nor Left. Listed by Le Monde as one of the forty most important books published in France during the 1980s, this explosive work asserts that fascism was an important part of the mainstream of European history, not just a temporary development in Germany and Italy but a significant aspect of French culture as well. Neither right nor left, fascism united antibourgeois, antiliberal nationalism, and revolutionary syndicalist thought, each of which joined in reflecting the political culture inherited from eighteenth-century France. From the first, Sternhell’s argument generated strong feelings among people who wished to forget the Vichy years, and his themes drew enormous public attention in 1994, as Paul Touvier was condemned for crimes against humanity and a new biography probed President Mitterand’s Vichy connections. The author’s new preface speaks to the debates of 1994 and reinforces the necessity of acknowledging the past, as President Chirac has recently done on France’s behalf.

Report Back: Hope Not Fear

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[H/t to Flesh is Grass for encouraging me to post a write up of this event]

I recently attended a talk by Edgar Bronfman and Beth Zasloff at Congregation Beth Elohim. The event was held in the sanctuary. Since it has been under construction for a while I had never seen the inside. Take a look:

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The focus of the discussion was Bronfman and Zasloff’s recent book, Hope Not Fear. I have not had an opportunity to read the book but the description sounded interesting:

After a lifetime of fighting the persecution of Jews, Edgar M. Bronfman has concluded that what North American Jews need now is hope, not fear. Bronfman urges North American Jewry “to build, not fight. We need to celebrate the joy in Judaism, even as we recognize our responsibility to alleviate suffering and to help heal a broken world. We need to understand Judaism as a multi-faceted culture as well as a religion, and explore Jewish literature, music, and art. We need to understand our tradition of debate and questioning, and invite all to enter a conversation about our central texts, rituals, and laws. We need to open our book anew, and recreate a vital Judaism for our time.”

Through a reexamination of important texts and via interviews with some of the leading figures in Judaism today, Bronfman outlines a new agenda for the Jewish community in North America, one that will ensure that Judaism grows and thrives in an open society. He calls for welcome without conditions for intermarried families and disengaged Jews, for a celebration of Jewish diversity, and for openness to innovation and young leadership. Hope, Not Fear is an impassioned plea for all who care about the future of Judaism to cultivate a Jewish practice that is receptive to the new as it delves into the old, that welcomes many voices, and that reaches out to make the world a better place.

The sound was very low but I was in the third row so I was able to make out what they were saying. Rather than a formal presentation, this was a conversation between the authors and Rabbi Andy Bachman.

Rabbi Bachman’s questions moved between biography, philosophy and action. Why was Bronfman drawn to this topic? How can one be Jewish and not believe in God? How are his ideas received in the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities? Why does he think we are experiencing a Jewish renaissance?

I am especially moved by Mr. Bronfman’s perspective on intermarriage:

At one time in my life, I thought that the high intermarriage rate was just awful. Then of course you start to think further, and, slowly, if you meet enough people who are thinking differently, like those I write about in my book, you begin to learn that this could be an opportunity; not the end of the world but maybe the beginning of a new path. We need to change the attitude and education of Jews. Instead of trying to force them to fall out of love with someone, let us try to help them fall in love with Judaism.

As most regular readers know my wife and I are an intermarried couple. She is Hindu. Intermarriage is a big concern in both communities. Not at all Jewish congregations (Rabbi Bachman married my wife and I) nor at all Hindu temples (we had our ceremony in Chennai officiated by a pandit from the Arya Samaj). Nevertheless, it is still a highly contentious issue.

Unfortunately I some of Mr. Bronfman’s answers a bit vague. For example, Bronfman wants to create a more inclusive Jewish community (who would disagree with that?). Yet he provided no concrete examples on how to achieve this beyond a vague call to challenge the divisions of the denominational system. I suspect there is more on this issue in the book but I still wish he had let the audience know of successful endeavors in this regard.

Another thing, in place of the synagogues that exist in America today, he would like to see much more small-scale local synagogues rather than large congregations. While he did not mention it, I think this is how things are in Israel. It seems like every neighborhood has a synagogue and some have more than one. But a big difference between Israel and the U.S. is the majority of the population is Jewish in Israel. Therefore it makes sense to have lots of small shuls. Here in the U.S., the Jewish population is generally spread out. The shul is a place to bring the people together and foster a sense of community. Yes, there are large concentrations of Jews in neighborhoods like Borough Park but that is far and away a minority situation in the U.S.

I still plan on reading the book and may post a review at some point.

Samuel Kassow: Who Will Write Our History?

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Trinity College History Professor Samuel Kassow discusses his recent work, Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto on C-SPAN 2’s “Book TV” program.

Click here to watch the video.

From the Book TV website:

Samuel Kassow recounts the efforts by Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum and a group of amateur and professional historians, the Oyneg Shabes, who worked secretly from 1940 to 1943 to record Jewish suffering and subsequently hid thousands of records prior to the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. This event was hosted by the Tenement Museum in New York City.

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Hope Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance

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[H/t Congregation Beth Elohim]

This is happening at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn tomorrow night (7:30PM). I have not read the book but it sounds interesting and it is always a joy to hang with Rabbi Bachman. Maybe I will see you there?

From the website:

In Hope, Not Fear, internationally renowned philanthropist and community leader Edgar M. Bronfman proposes a new direction in Jewish life for the open societies of North America–a direction in which Judaism will not merely survive but will in fact flourish. Arguing that the Jewish future cannot be grounded in fear of anti-Semitism and intermarriage, Bronfman reexamines important texts and interviews Jewish leaders to identify a new course for revitalizing the faith and community.

Rabbi Bachman will moderate the discussion.

For more information about the book, please click here.

Democratiya 16 (Spring-Summer 2009)

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[Selections from the newest Democratiya. Looking forward to see what changes they make to the format and website this fall.]

Michael Walzer: Symposium: For the Two-State Solution

John Strawson: Symposium: Time to Compel the Parties?

Ghada Karmi: Symposium: For the One-State Solution

Donna Robinson Divine: Symposium: Beyond the Clash of Narratives

Martin Shaw: Symposium: Revisit ’48 as well as ’67

Alex Stein: Symposium: We Need More Imagination

Menachem Kellner: Symposium: Two States – Ultimately

Fred Siegel & Sol Stern: Symposium: There are no ‘solutions’ for now

Hazel Blears: Preventing Violent Extremism

Gina Khan: Reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Birmingham

Rashad Ali: Islam, Sharia, and the Far-Right

Eric Lee: Global Labour Notes / Jews, Gaza and the Unions

Susan Green: Archive: Debating World War Three

Rachel Shabi and “Israel’s humiliating discrimination against Arab Jews”

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[H/t to Point of No ReturnZWord and TNR]

This is a guest post by Point of No Return at ZWord:

The Daily Telegraph, Britain’s centre-right mass-circulation newspaper, today carries a review of Rachel Shabi’s new book – unpromisingly titled ‘Israel’s humiliating discrimination against Arab Jews’ – about the discrimination faced in Israel by Jews from Arab countries, Not the Enemy.

The reviewer calls the book ‘eye-opening’, ’sobering’ and ‘disturbing and important’. He seems to nod in horrified agreement at Shabi’s catalogue of humilations inflicted on Mizrahi Jews by Ashkenazim (European) Jews. They were made to feel ‘excluded’ and ‘inferior.’

What’s more, Ms Shabi must know what she is writing about: she is after all the descendant of Iraqi Jews herself.

But this is no ordinary reviewer. This is Gerald Jacobs, literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

He hardly attempts to challenge Shabi’s narrative that the Mizrahi migration to Israel was ‘imposed by Zionist pressure and even acts of sabotage’ (Ah yes, those Zionist bombs).

One would have expected of a man in Jacobs’ shoes to know that, as I have already pointed out, Israeli popular culture is today dominated by Mizrahi influences. The stories of discrimination belong in the 1950s. Intermarriage is rife, and Mizrahim have reached the highest echelons of power. Jacobs does not even sniff a whiff of tendentiousness in Shabi’s anti-Zionism and her downplaying of Arab antisemitism – curiously it largely seems to begin in 1948 – nor does he question her spurious assumption that Jews from the Middle East are really Arabs.

If this is what we can expect from an editor of the leading organ of British Jewry, Lord help us.

Shabi is part of small group of post-Zionist Mizrahi intellectuals who want to reclaim the non-European aspect their identity. I think this is a positive thing. But some of these post-Zionists have a tendency to borrow analytical frameworks from Marxists and others who view Ashkenazim and Zionists in general as imperialists and colonialists. In this narrative, the Mizrahim are indigenous people who have been victimized by Zionism, just like the Palestinians. In other words, Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians are people of color and Ashkenazis are whitey. Shabi and her political allies, in turn, are part pf the global resistance against the forces of global empire. It is a very tired and played out perspective which is why I won’t be spending time reading the book.

However, to claim there is no discrimination against Mizrahim in Israel is not accurate. Most of my Israeli friends are Mizrahi and they see elite positions in universities, the armed forces and politics continue to be dominated by Ashkenazim and that Mizrahi families are generally less well off than Ashkenazi families. They see institutional inequality in Israel that is not as pronounced as that experienced by African Americans in the United States but still similar. Yes, they see their faces reflected in popular culture and entertainment but to a much lesser extent in the sciences, engineering, law, medicine, finance and politics.

Take a look at the Katamonim neighborhood in Jerusalem or Yeroham and other development towns in the Negev. What is the ratio of Jews from Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Ethiopia, etc. compared to those from Europe? From my experience (I realize this is totally anecdotal) most Ashkenazim avoid those places.

This is not meant to diss Ashkenazi Jews–I love my peeps–but one of the perennial downfalls of the Jewish people is our lack of unity. Acknowledging that these tensions exist is only the first step. The next step is addressing the inequality, perhaps above all in education. To provide one example, the Kedma School is doing some great work to assist Mizrahi students in achieving their bagrut:

Before Kedma was founded, only 10% of high school-age children from the Katamonim area completed high school with a bagrut certificate, and many students dropped out of school altogether. Ten years later, in 2003-2004, the percent of 12th-grade Kedma students who completed a full bagrut certificate was higher than the national average: 57% finished with a full bagrut certificate, and 30% were missing only one or two exams to complete the bagrut (click here to view a comparative chart). The first senior class graduated in 2000, and today there are 150 students in grades 7 through 12 who study at Kedma.

I agree with Noga (The Contentious Centrist) when she writes:

Imagine, that Jews can actually be like any other people, have their prejudices and cultural biases and seek to feel that they are better than their neigbours! Wow!

Yet when I look at what is going down in the world today I see a real need for Jewish unity. Not only between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi but between secular and religious and across all the other boundaries that keep the Jewish people divided.

OK, rant over.