Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Some five hundred years ago François Villon (1431-1463) wrote his Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis about important women, who, alas, were no longer. At the end of each such evocation he concluded with the wistful mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?, ‘ where are the snows of yesteryear ?’ This line, frequently quoted in the original even by speakers of other languages, may well be the best loved in all of French poetry.

Now fast forward a few hundred years. Back in the 1940’s I was part of the Trotskyist movement in America, some decades before this movement turned more or less anti-Semitic (for an account of this development, see my old essay on this). While in this movement, I was fortunate enough to enjoy the friendship of an exceptional group of people, all, I was sure, brilliant like me, all able to see the unspeakable evil and ignorance of the non-Trotskyist world.

Now and then, the Internet being informative about the famous and obscure alike, I get glimpses of these erstwhile comrades. Some seem to be as smart as before (i.e. they evolved their thinking as I have), but about some there is a cloud of uncertainty. In this latter group there is X, who had been, as a girl, really, but really smart. In those days of our youth, that is to say the 1940’s, X had known all about the pretense and phoniness (a favorite term then) of conventional big shots. But I did hear, over the years, that perhaps X turned into a bit of a pretentious windbag herself. Could it be ? What is she like today ?

Recently I was involved in a project that led me into some collaborative work with Y, a long-term colleague of X at an institution of higher learning. I asked Y: you know X as a colleague. What is she like today ? I understand that X may have political opinions that differ from ours (Y and I are together in our work now), but, surely, beyond that, and remembering her from days of old, she is still a very decent human being ?

So here is Y’s report, which I have every reason to trust completely:

I doubt that I knew X. in the days of which you speak. She should live and be well, but she very much hates me, and I have to admire her capacity to hate lastingly. Not many civilians have it. Has she gone all the way to Chomsky? That is far.

So here is the lesson about the snows of yesteryear, as I see it: those snows that looked so bright and white probably never were what they seemed; as is the case with so much that glitters clean and white, they more than likely always had plenty of dirty mud just below the surface.

The Imam and the Sergeant: Open Letter to Mr. Jeffrey Goldberg

Dear Mr. Goldberg,

In your Atlantic article last week (“‘Ground Zero’ Immam…”) you heap praise on Imam Rauf and excoriate his critics:

The right-wing campaign against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” includes vicious personal attacks on the Muslim cleric who leads the Cordoba Initiative, the organization behind the plan. I know Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, and I know him to be a moderate, forward-leaning Muslim — yes, it is true he has said things with which I disagree, but I have never expected him to function as a member of the Zionist Organization of America.

Now here is why I am writing. You no doubt know of Sgt. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was abducted from Israel by Hamas more than four years ago and who has been held hostage, incommunicado, for all this time. International groups like the Red Cross have been denied access to him. It is a barbaric action by these Islamists, and it is ongoing. So here is my thought. You tell us that Imam Rauf, while devoted to Islam, of course, is also both moderate and forward-leaning (whatever that means), and you tell us that he is a man you know. You vouch for him. So this is my suggestion. Get the Imam to prevail upon Hamas (a group the Imam has always refused to criticize), to prevail upon this group of fellow-Muslims to end their barbaric imprisonment of Sergeant Shalit.

Can you do that, Mr. Goldberg ? That would be, how can I put it, very forward-leaning on your part.


Werner Cohn

Dystopia on Bedford Avenue

Brooklyn College

Every transfer student to Brooklyn College must read one and only one book: “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem,” by BC’s own Associate Professor of English, Moustafa Bayoumi. I suppose that there is no penalty for reading more than this one book, but only one book is required. And all freshmen at BC are also required to read this book. Moreover, the students are then to hear Prof. Bayoumi, and only Professor Bayoumi, at a presentation of his views.

The book is all about Arab immigrants to Brooklyn. There are five or so case studies, with no indication of how typical these may be for Arab Americans in general. The case studies are then distilled in the author’s thesis in an “afterword” as follows: Arab immigrants suffer here because of American imperialism. (For a moment the author hesitates between blaming American “hegemony” or American “imperialism,” but he quickly decides for the latter, without explanation.) In any case, it is this U.S. imperialism that deprives the Palestinian people of their right to self-determination, since, he says, the US takes the side of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And it is this pro-Israel US imperialism, if I understand Professor Bayoumi at all correctly, which makes the life of Brooklyn Arabs so difficult. That is the thesis, that is the book that every student at BC must read, and that is the only book that every incoming transfer student to BC must read.

So far so good. Surely Professor Bayoumi (known also as a regular writer for The Nation, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, and as a tireless polemicist against Israel) has a right to his opinions, this being a free country. And of course BC has every right to require its students to study him. But does he have a right to have his book used as the only source in a discussion of a public issue, at an institution of higher learning ? And does BC have a moral right to give him a monopoly in the presentation of his views ?

I asked these very questions of Dean Donna Wilson of BC, and this is what she replied:

Each year professors in the English Department and I select a common reading for our entering students. We choose memoirs (a genre familiar to students) set in New York City, often reflecting an immigrant experience, and written by authors who are available to visit campus. Students in freshman composition respond to the common reading by writing about their own experiences, many of them published in ‘Telling Our Stories; Sharing our Lives’. This year we selected How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by one of our own faculty members, Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, because it is a well-written collection of stories by and about young Arab Brooklynites whose experiences may be familiar to our students, their neighbors, or the students with whom they will study and work at Brooklyn College. We appreciate your concerns. Rest assured that Brooklyn College values tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing points of view in all that we do.

Naturally I was happy to learn of Dean Wilson’s commitment to tolerance, to diversity, and, most of all, to respect for differing points of view. So I wrote to her again, and again, and then again once more, suggesting that she provide some balance to Bayoumi’s book, that she provide additional authors and additional speakers. I even suggested another author, Paul Berman, also resident in Brooklyn, also writing on Arab themes, also willing (I would assume) to speak to her students. And what did Dean Wilson reply to these repeated suggestions of mine ? You guessed it, she did not deign to reply at all.

As the saying goes in dystopia: Big Brother (or here, Big Sister) knows best.

Update, Aug. 30:

The Jewish Week in its online edition has additional material on Professor Bayoumi:

But Bayoumi , an associate professor at the school, also recently published “Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: the Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict.”
A publisher’s blurb describes the book this way:

“In these pages, a range of activists, journalists, and analysts piece together the events that occurred that May night…Midnight on the Mavi Marmara reveals why the attack on Gaza Freedom Flotilla may just turn out to be Israel’s Selma, Alabama: the beginning of the end for an apartheid Palestine.”

The book includes contributions by prominent Israel critics – including Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Walt and Philip Weiss.

The Two Faces of Tariq Ramadan

Paul Berman: The Flight of the Intellectuals

Tariq Ramadan, Arab but Swiss-born, Francophone but professor at Cambridge, has two faces. The first is that of the liberal, thoroughly European and Westernized liberal, charming and a good conversationist at cocktail parties at the Guardian and New York Review of Books. The other face is that of an insistently loyal grandson to Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and exponent of Hitler and the Mufti al-Husseini. It is the first face that has so much impressed the writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, but it is with his second face that Ramadan has written an article so anti-Jewish that the leftist press in France could not print it, and it is also with his second face that Ramadan has endorsed suicide attacks against the Israeli public.

Berman, to his great credit, has waded his way through this morass of two faces, and he has written his report with tremendous intellectual verve. It is a cautionary tale. Berman rightfully points to the deadly danger we face from the terrorist Islamists, but also, and perhaps even more deadly, from their sophisticated, leftist, voguish fellow-travelers. He gives due credit to some European writers who have preceded him in this — Pascal Bruckner and Caroline Fourest in France and Ulrike Ackermann in Germany — but it is Berman’s book that is immediately accessible to the American reader. Berman has been rewarded by an appreciative reception from thoughtful people. And he has also been rewarded, as were the pioneers of anti-Stalinism some sixty years ago, by sneers and hostility from fellow-travelers and their apologists.

Anthony Julius: "Trials of the Diaspora"

Anthony Julius

When I was a boy in Berlin in the early years of the Nazi regime, some five or ten years before the Holocaust, a young rabbi broke the conventions of rabbinical discourse and managed to bring solace and spiritual strength to the Jews of the city. He created a sensation. Jews who would never enter a synagogue otherwise made their way to hear him. This rabbi’s name was Joachim Prinz (in due course he became a leader of American Jewry). In the early 1930’s he held the rapt attention of his people in Berlin, speaking approximately as follows from the pulpit of several Berlin synagogues:

“Everywhere you read and hear that you are ugly and hateful. Right now, look at the person next to you: is he hateful ? Is he ugly ? “

Joachim Prinz (1902-1988)

And suddenly Rabbi Prinz’s listeners, cowed as they had been by the incessant propaganda of the haters, could see the truth: no, the Nazis were not right. They could see the irrationality of all that hatred. They could see, and they knew that they should have seen all the time, that it was not they who were the ugly and the hateful.

This book by Anthony Julius performs something of the same function for us today that Rabbi Prinz performed for the Jews in the 1930’s. All around us “enlightened” people tell us of the perfidy of the Jews (nowadays called Zionists). If only Israel (read, the Jews) behaved better, all would be well. In the meantime, it is important to punish the “Zionists.” Boycott them ! Divest from Israeli investments ! Sanction them !

On the notion of boycott, as on many other issues, Julius is particularly revealing, showing the ancient, irrational hatreds that move people to call for boycotts of Israel, the only country so singled out.

There are scores and maybe hundreds of books on the modern anti-Semitism. I am familiar with many of them. But Julius has historical material (mostly from England) and thoughtful analyses that break absolutely new ground. The book will not and cannot change the mind of anyone who is infected with anti-Semitism, but it will greatly inform the rest of us. And yes, it will confirm that which in theory needs no confirmation: there is no reason, no excuse, nothing whatever acceptable in the anti-Semitic hatreds of our day.

There are several features of this book that set it apart from other treatments of the subject. First, and most obviously, is the close reading of anti-Semitic “tropes” in high-culture British literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and others. (That word “trope” is found throughout the book; it is a fitting term for the handed-down formulas and assumptions in the anti-Jewish tradition of the British isles.) I find this literary discussion revealing, but of course it is the literary scholars who will need to debate its strengths and possible weaknesses as an approach to English literature.

Then there is the detailed and close examination of the anti-Semitic component of contemporary anti-Israelism, including that of certain well-known Jews. Tony Judt, for instance, is quoted here as he relies on the ancient anti-Semitic trope of a Jewish conspiracy when he delivers his attack on his fellow Jews.

With regard to these Jewish opponents of Israel, Julius is quite right in rejecting the notion that they are “self-hating.” On the contrary, these men and women think very highly of themselves. What they hate is other Jews, not themselves.

Julius is also good on the details of British anti-Israel parties and institutions, including those of the left wing, and including, most particularly, the working alliances between Muslim and Trotskyist formations.

There is not, to my mind, sufficient attention given to an analysis of the extent to which anti-Semitic tropes are accepted by the larger public. We do learn, in connection with the Jewish contingent of anti-Semitism, that roughly 80% of Britain’s Jews identify with Israel, so we can deduce that the anti-Israel Zeitgeist, as the author calls it, has made little headway among the Jews. But in the English public as a whole ? To be sure, the anti-Semitic and partially anti-Semitic (“fellow-traveling”) voices are conspicuous in some of the media — the Independent, the Guardian, the BBC, etc. — but to me it seems that there is reason to remain hopeful that good sense still prevails in the public opinion as a whole.

Despite its truly abhorrent subject matter, this book is a pleasure to read. The pleasure is intellectual. It arises from the wealth of new knowledge and new insights that, I dare say, is in store for even the best informed of readers.

The American Communists, 2010

Apparently THEY think that they’re still alive

Things to watch for in this revealing little video:

1) Watch them sing “We Shall not Be Moved.” I heard them — the comrades of the CPUSA — sing the very same song in 1940, but the words were “Browder is our leader, we shall not be moved…” Today, Browder is no longer mentioned by these folks. He has been air-brushed out of their history.
2) Watch the demeanor of the comrades when they sing the Internationale. Those are still the holy words to them.
3) And finally, where are all those starry-eyed, good looking young people of yore ? Not in this crowd.

Do you have it in your heart to spare them a little pity ? (I don’t, actually)