Remembering Irving Howe’s Abilities as a Literary Critic and Observer of the American Jewish Predicament

Last Thursday would have been the 100th birthday of the great American Jewish writer Irving Howe. A staunch socialist throughout his life, Howe—in the words of his protégé Michael Walzer—had an unwavering commitment to “defending freedom and democracy against Stalinist repression and its local apologists,” even when it meant provoking the ire of his fellow leftists. But Howe was also a gifted literary critic and eagle-eyed observer of American Jewish life. He exhibited both qualities in his 1946 review of Isaac Rosenfeld’s now-forgotten novel Passage from Home, in which he examines the protagonist, Bernard, as a peculiar of American Jewish type:

Bernard is oppressed by moral concerns. He is unable to view any action or attitude without searching in his mind for its meaning, without trying to strip its layers of significance and measure their distance from the truth. Superficial critics have seen in this extraordinary sense of complexity a maturity incredible in a fifteen-year-old, but their strictures merely indicate a lack of knowledge of the unusual circumstances of Jewish life in America—as well as a narrow conception of the function of verisimilitude in a creative work.

The Jewish immigrant is the most intellectualized of workers for a variety of reasons: the traditional forms of his religion are highly literary; the compensations of an urban, restless, and rootless people who can find sustenance only in internalized, that is intellectualized, experiences, lead him to an overvaluation of the significance—as well as the cash value—of verbal and written adroitness. Since he himself has not the opportunity to so develop but must, as he puts it, “spend the rest of his days in the shop,” he centers his hopes on his favorite son. The result is: precocity, internality, moral quest and self-judgment, a neurotic need for perfection. This is the pattern of Bernard’s experience in Passage from Home.

And together with this preoccupation with guilt and innocence, Bernard, bred in the idealist atmosphere of Jewish tradition, which persists regardless of the squalor of its setting, continues his search for perfection, for the true moment of life that is to sum up all meaning. Once he seems to find it: at a gathering of Ḥasidim who lose themselves in religious ecstasy; but the very choice of this incident to symbolize the true moment of life is highly significant, as if Rosenfeld were saying that here is an aspect of the past, enviable and total in its meaning, but lost to us, the Bernards. After he leaves the Ḥasidim, Bernard asks himself: “Why were people incapable of remaining fixed to the best moments of their lives?”

Read more at Commentary

More about: American Jewish literature, Irving Howe, Isaac Rosenfled, New York Intellectuals

While Israel Is Distracted on Two Fronts, Iran Is on the Verge of Building Nuclear Weapons

Iran recently announced its plans to install over 1,000 new advanced centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear facility. Once they are up and running, the Institute for Science and International Security assesses, Fordow will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for three nuclear bombs in a mere ten days. The U.S. has remained indifferent. Jacob Nagel writes:

For more than two decades, Iran has continued its efforts to enhance its nuclear-weapons capability—mainly by enriching uranium—causing Israel and the world to concentrate on the fissile material. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran has a huge stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent, as well as more enriched to 20 percent, and the IAEA board of governors adopted the E3 (France, Germany, UK) proposed resolution to censure Iran for the violations and lack of cooperation with the agency. The Biden administration tried to block it, but joined the resolution when it understood its efforts to block it had failed.

To clarify, enrichment of uranium above 20 percent is unnecessary for most civilian purposes, and transforming 20-percent-enriched uranium to the 90-percent-enriched product necessary for producing weapons is a relatively small step. Washington’s reluctance even to express concern about this development appears to stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of President Obama’s nuclear policy. Worse, writes Nagel, it is turning a blind eye to efforts at weaponization. But Israel has no such luxury:

Israel must adopt a totally new approach, concentrating mainly on two main efforts: [halting] Iran’s weaponization actions and weakening the regime hoping it will lead to its replacement. Israel should continue the fight against Iran’s enrichment facilities (especially against the new deep underground facility being built near Natanz) and uranium stockpiles, but it should not be the only goal, and for sure not the priority.

The biggest danger threatening Israel’s existence remains the nuclear program. It would be better to confront this threat with Washington, but Israel also must be fully prepared to do it alone.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy