JStreet is an organization that describes itself as “pro-Israel” and proclaims itself “devoted and committed to Israel’s future.” Yet, as Edward Alexander observes in an important new book, J Street “misses no opportunities to blacken Israel’s reputation and very few opportunities to encourage campaigns to delegitimize it.”
And J Street is not alone. Similar Jewish organizations, some without J Street’s pretensions to Zionist commitment, have been proliferating in recent years both here and abroad. In the United States, they include, among others, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews against the Occupation, Jews for Free Palestine, Jews for Justice in the Middle East, and a multitude of local chapters, offshoots, and branches.
In Jews against Themselves, Alexander takes up the curious and disturbing phenomenon of his volume’s title. A professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Alexander is a distinguished student of American and English literature and an essayist whose erudition is ornamented by a coruscating wit. Among his highly regarded books is The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies (1988), an examination of the various intellectual strands—liberalism, rationalism, relativism—that, emerging from the Enlightenment, have long been in tension with, or in outright opposition to, central tenets of the Jewish tradition.
In Jews against Themselves, Alexander engages in a related project but one that entails turning over a rock. His inquiry examines the disfiguring yet critical subject of Jews who defame their own people. Over the centuries, Alexander writes, there has been “fruitful interaction” between Jewish apostates and the world’s anti-Semites, making for a distinctive Jewish contribution to “the politics and ideology of anti-Semitism” itself.
The pattern recurs with uncanny persistence. In the 13th century, Nicholas Donin of Paris left Judaism for the Franciscan order, where his first act was to help stir up Crusaders against his French coreligionists; thousands perished as a result. In the aftermath of Donin’s testimony against the Talmud in the so-called Disputation of Paris (1240), the Jews of France were compelled, on pain of death, to surrender their sacred rabbinic volumes to the flames. Later in the same century, the apostate Pablo Christiani prevailed upon King Louis IX to compel his former brethren, per papal edict, to wear an identifying badge. At the dawn of the 15th century, another apostate, Johannes Pfefferkorn, came to prominence preaching the message that “Who afflicts the Jews is doing the will of God, and who seeks their benefit will incur damnation.” Terrible afflictions followed.
But Alexander’s principal focus in Jews against Themselves is modern times, beginning with the 19th century. By that juncture, the route to treachery via the stations of the cross had been supplanted by the easier but still thorny route of assimilation. Alexander dwells on the example of Karl Marx. Born a Jew, baptized at the age of six into the Lutheran church, militant atheist by conviction, yet contemptuously regarded by many as “the Jew Marx,” the revolutionist unleashed his fury first and foremost on his former kinsmen, particularly if they happened to be his political or intellectual rivals. To Marx, the social democrat Eduard Bernstein was “the little Jew Bernstein,” the socialist Ferdinand Lassalle was “a descendant of the Negroes who attached themselves to the march of Moses out of Egypt (assuming his mother or grandmother on the paternal side had not crossed with a nigger”), and Polish Jews, who multiplied like lice, were the “filthiest of all races.”