W.E.B. Du Bois’s Speech to Jewish Communists about the Warsaw Ghetto

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Communist monthly Jewish Life (later Jewish Currents) frequently published articles about the Holocaust—and especially about the April 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising—as well as on the plight of American blacks. After numerous attempts to recruit W.E.B. Du Bois to contribute to its pages, writes Jenna Weissman Joselit, the magazine’s editors convinced him to speak at a “Tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters” in 1952, and published his remarks in the following issue. Du Bois’s address drew on his 1949 visit to Warsaw, which had affected him deeply:

I have seen something of human upheaval in this world: the scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta, the marching of the Ku Klux Klan, the threat of courts and police, the neglect and destruction of human habitation, but nothing in my wildest dreams was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949. I would have said before seeing it that it was impossible for a civilized nation with deep religious convictions and outstanding religious institutions, with literature and art, to treat fellow human beings as Warsaw had been treated. . . .

Gradually, from looking and reading [about the ghetto uprising], I rebuilt the story of this extraordinary resistance to oppression and wrong . . . a resistance which involved death and destruction for hundreds and hundreds of human beings.

In 1954, Du Bois for the first time reached out to the magazine’s then-editor Louis Harap, requesting the text of a Hebrew blessing that he could put into the mouth of a character in a novel he was writing—a German rabbi and Holocaust survivor. Harap, a committed secularist, had to turn elsewhere for help; the result was a letter sent to Du Bois with a translation and transliteration of the priestly blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26. Joselit writes:

Du Bois would go on to make use of the blessing in the concluding pages of [his novel] Worlds of Color, the last volume of his Black Flame trilogy. At once a sweeping work of historical fiction and a rueful self-portrait, it follows the life and times of Manual Mansart, the president of a historically black college in Georgia.

In the 1961 novels’ last dramatic set piece, an aging Mansart is unceremoniously expelled from a conference. [Present is] Rabbi Blumenschweig, who turns out to be the character Du Bois had first mentioned to Harap. . . . The two men exit [the conference] together. Just as the ailing Mansart is about to get into a cab, the clergyman . . . places his hands on his old friend’s shoulders and blesses him. . . . Mansart dies several pages later, his legacy—and that of his creator—hallowed by an age-old Jewish prayer.

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More about: African Americans, American Jewish History, Communism, History & Ideas, Literature, Warsaw Ghetto

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times