Saul Bellow’s Indelible Judaism

Jan. 17 2019

Zachary Leader, having recently completed the second volume of his two-volume biography of Saul Bellow, discusses with his interviewer Robert Siegel the role of Jewishness in the Nobel Prize-winning author’s work and thought:

I think [Bellow] viewed [being Jewish] as an indelible fact of his life. Certainly for the first half of his life, a major part of his struggle was to gain the position of a writer who was not a hyphenate, who wasn’t limited by his background. He said, “I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I never had to say that I was not Jewish. I never had to say I was not an American.” But early on, being designated a Jewish-American writer was seen as a sort of ghettoizing. He didn’t want to be in the suburbs of literature. . . .

In the early part of his life, [Bellow] felt that the literary and academic establishment he wished to enter was dominated by WASPs and that he was at a disadvantage because of his Jewish background. There’s a famous story about when he finished as an undergraduate at Northwestern University: he asked whether he should do graduate work in English, and the head of the department said, “I don’t think it is a good idea. It isn’t your language [Bellow was born in Canada and wrote in no other language], and people would find it hard to give you the authority that you would need as a professor of English. Why don’t you do anthropology?” He did go on to study anthropology in Wisconsin. So the anti-Semitism part was there from the start.

And in the literary establishment, though it’s true that New York Jewish intellectuals were a power in the literary world, there were also the gentlemanly Southern Agrarians and the notion of New England WASP-dom. He felt he had to struggle to gain his position against anti-Semitic feeling.

Leader concludes the interview by noting that the current literary establishment has again excluded Bellow, thanks to what Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom famously called the “closing of the American mind”—in a book with a foreword written by Bellow himself.

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More about: Allan Bloom, American Jewish literature, Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Saul Bellow

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat