George Steiner’s Vapid Excuse-Making for Anti-Semitism

The philosopher, cultural critic, and novelist George Steiner died on Monday at the age of ninety. A French-born Jew, Steiner wrote extensively about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Yet for all his proclamations about the moral gravity of the Shoah, his sophisticated explanations for anti-Semitism often became indistinguishable from justifications. It is perhaps not surprising then that he was also a pioneer of the vicious hatred of Israel that has become so fashionable in left-wing circles. In a 1972 review of Steiner’s collection of essays In Bluebeard’s Castle, Irving Howe was among the first to detect this moral perversity:

Steiner . . . sees the triumph of Nazism as the last in a series of impulsive rebellions by natural man against the noble tyranny of monotheism, that dubious and unwanted blessing the Jews lowered upon the world. . . . If at first glance it seems flattering to the Jews to be told that they have been the “bad conscience” of Western history, bringing with them “the blackmail of transcendence,” a moment’s reflection ought to reveal that it is empty talk, at once grandiose and trivial.

Of what use is it, therefore, to remark [in response to Steiner] that “Western culture” can hardly be said to have killed the Jews, it was the Nazis who killed them, and indeed, it might be a little more plausible to say that “Western culture” destroyed the Nazis?

Steiner’s theory [moreover] has the immediate effect of releasing major institutions from their moral responsibilities. [If, as Steiner claims], “instinctual polytheistic . . . needs” lie behind the horrors of Auschwitz, then the Christian churches, with their frequently disgraceful records in regard to anti-Semitism in Germany, may partly be let off the hook. Indeed, if such overpowering instincts are at work, instincts that have kept breaking out through the entire course of human history, then how can anyone be held morally responsible for the Nazi murders?

In his 1983 novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.—the initials standing for “Adolf Hitler”—Steiner took these reflections even farther, leading Gabriel Schoenfeld to classify him alongside the notorious Hitler apologist David Irving in a 1998 essay:

Steiner presents a Hitler [in this novel] who has survived the war, is tracked down in South America by Israeli agents, and is permitted to make a statement justifying his deeds. He does so in a lengthy and brilliant set-piece in which he asserts that the Nazi notion of a master race is nothing more than a borrowing from the Jewish conception of the chosen people; blames Judaism for provoking the Holocaust by bringing into the world a superior morality that “left man a guilty serf” and caused a festering, murderous resentment; and claims credit for saving the Jewish people because his Shoah led to the birth of the state of Israel.

Hitler’s soliloquy goes pointedly unanswered in Steiner’s novel, where it constitutes virtually its closing words. [In a later interview], Steiner confide[d] that the speech does not merely express the viewpoint of a fictionalized character but is intended as his own rationalization for the mass slaughter of European Jewry.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Holocaust, Holocaust fiction

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus