Friends and Politics, Part 2: Irving Howe. The prominent critic and I worked on Yiddish translations together, but a dispute over Israel and its Arab neighbors ruptured our relationship—until we reconnected over literature.
The fate of the Jews had not preoccupied Irving during the war or in its aftermath. As he wrote in his memoir, “I wasn’t one of those who danced in the streets when Ben Gurion made his famous pronouncement that the Jews, like other peoples, now had a state of their own.” Yet following the encirclement of Israel in 1967 and the extraordinary victory of the Six Day War, he came to see Israel as “one of the new redeeming events” in “this era of blood and shame.” This new appreciation for Israel prompted me to urge him to condemn the racist U.N. resolution on the grounds that only someone with his authority on the left could effectively counteract its distortions. His reply? “Ruthie, no one pays any attention to the United Nations.”
I understood his reluctance to engage a bloated international bureaucracy that lacked intellectual or moral credibility, but if the Arab-Soviet bloc had chosen the United Nations as its offensive platform, one could not ignore the aggression without forfeiting the war. Irving’s regrettable response brought to mind Saul Bellow’s much-quoted anecdote about his aunt who pronounced his intellectual friends “Smart, smart, but stupid.”
When students ask whether artistic and literary friendships can survive political differences, I suggest that it depends on the perceived political stakes at any given time. Dreyfusards had trouble fraternizing with anti-Dreyfusards when the liberality of the French Republic was at issue. Likewise, fascists with anti-fascists in the Weimar Republic. No civil-rights organizer would have enjoyed a beer with a white supremacist in the spring of 1965. Irving and I had no trouble overcoming our political rifts before the 1980s, but once anti-Israel terror and ideology began heating up, our incompatible responses to the crisis drove us apart. In article after article during those years, I tracked Arab and Muslim aggression that escalated after Anwar Sadat was assassinated for signing a peace treaty with Israel. I also tracked the tendency of some Jews to hold their so-called right-wing co-religionists responsible for the enmity that was leveled against the country of all Jews.
Irving moved from his earlier indifference to Zionism into Israel’s leftist camp, where he was warmly welcomed as an important American supporter. His attraction and subsequent marriage to Ilana Weiner, an intimate of these circles, was another effect and cause of this new alliance. The ostensible Israeli peace movements, Breira in the 1970s and Peace Now in its aftermath, claimed that if Israel took the option (breira, in Hebrew) of ceding territories to the Palestinians, it could bring peace now. I argued that this idea was based on an absolute fallacy: The war of 1967 had been launched by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan when the disputed territories had been in Arab hands. Given that Israel gained the disputed territories as a consequence of the Arab war against Israel, they could not retroactively have become its cause. One could legitimately promote the wisdom of ceding land—for demographic, strategic, or any other political advantage—but the idea that it would hasten “peace” was as misleading as when dangled by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939, and for the same reasons.
In the May 1988 issue of Commentary, where I had been publishing for a dozen years, I set out these ideas, describing how the Arabs had recast their crime against Israel as Israeli oppression of Palestinians: “The obvious key to the success of Arab strategy is the presence, in the disputed territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, of Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery. Indeed, if we were to measure reality by the degree to which we are exposed to it, no people in the world today would appear of greater substance or in a graver predicament.”
In my first draft of the piece, I had devoted considerable space to the real and palpable misery of Palestinian Arab society, applying to them Shylock’s rhetorical questions: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Whittled down in many revisions, the final version paired that “bleed” with “breed” to suggest that while reproduction and suffering were, indubitably, the condition of many refugee peoples, Palestinians had been encouraged to exploit their misery for bad political ends.
Commentary’s editors had always tried to instill in me the discipline of polemics without recourse to sarcasm or invective. By contrast, in place of any rebuttal to my article, the summer issue of Dissent carried a framed box labeled “Into the Depths:”
Each issue of Commentary strikes a new low in intellectual vulgarity and political reaction. In the May 1988 issue there appears an article, “Israel and the Intellectuals,” by Ruth R. Wisse, with the following sentence: “The obvious key to the success of Arab strategy is the presence in the disputed territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, of Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery. Indeed, if we were to measure reality by the degree to which we are exposed to it, no people in the world today would appear of greater substance or in a graver predicament.” This remark, verging on or crossing into racism, is an instance of that dehumanization of the adversary that has been a curse of our century.
Not having spent my youth, as Irving had, among the Stalinists and Trotskyists in the fabled alcoves of City College, I had never experienced anything quite so tacky. Here was my erstwhile literary associate—a far better reader and writer than I considered myself—allowing me to be smeared in his magazine in the very terms that Arab propaganda targeted the Jewish people. Rather than counter the U.N. anti-Zionist resolution, his magazine was attacking me for doing what he would not. This richly substantiated my contention that the left redirected anti-Jewish assault against fellow Jews, but I could scarcely take satisfaction from an insight so damning to Irving and our friendship.
Sidney Hook, one of my all-time favorite polemicists, once urged me to follow his example of never letting even the slightest attack go unanswered, but I felt it beneath my dignity to defend against a defamation that reflected worse on the socialist journal than it did on me. Nonetheless, I ought to have replied; I ought to have turned the accusation back on my accusers. Not least of all because, since then, lazy anti-Israel agitators like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Walt have joined Arab hate-mongers in recycling this canard about me, and Google tosses up this quotation as Sea World caretakers throw food to their fish. On the two occasions when I was being considered for a government assignment, this was the only action or statement of mine that I was asked to justify or explain. And yet, at the time, Irving shrugged off the whole thing and affected surprise that I took offense at the anti-Jewish ammunition he had supplied.
Irving and I never collaborated again, but we drifted back together after his daughter Nina, whom I liked very much, moved to Montreal, and he became a joyful visiting grandfather. We had much to tell one another about literature, where our tastes coincided, and about the teaching of literature, headed in directions neither of us favored. Irving’s last letter to me was written the day before he died, when he thought he was recovering from the prolonged aftereffects of surgery. He asked about the logistics of my recent move to Harvard, since he was planning to teach at Yale the following year. He was tender and elegiac: “I sometimes ruefully think of Robert Frost’s lines: ‘No memory of having starred,/ Atones for later disregard/ Or keeps the end from being hard.’” His sudden death was the more lamentable for me because so much between us was left unresolved, and for him because I felt he had never allowed himself to acknowledge all that he had come to know.
Friends and Politics, Part 1: Saul Bellow. The Nobel Prize-winner and I shared a love of literature and of Yiddish, but our friendship was tested by decades-long disagreements over politics.