Two Great Thinkers, Hounded from Germany as Jews, and Their Very Different Paths

Gershom Scholem’s vast scholarship, especially his magisterial works on Jewish mysticism and messianism, still plays a foundational role in the field of Jewish studies. And even if he is read less than he once was, Scholem’s friend Theodor Adorno—whose synthesis of Hegel, Marx, and Freud helped to shape the New Left—has etched an enduring mark on the academy and beyond. Their correspondence, stretching from 1939 to Adorno’s death in 1969, has recently been translated into English and published in full. In his review, Adam Kirsch reflects on their similarities and differences, and on their mutual friendship with Walter Benjamin—a thinker who, unlike them, didn’t survive exile from Germany. (Free registration required.)

Born around the turn of the century into assimilated, bourgeois German Jewish families, they were radicalized by modern literature, World War I, and the rise of fascism and Communism. But they responded to an age of crisis in very different ways, particularly when it came to the Jewishness that determined the course of their lives.

Scholem’s and Adorno’s contrasting attitudes can be seen in their very names. Gerhard Scholem was born in Berlin in 1897 and became a Zionist as a teenager; in 1923 he moved to Palestine and adopted a Hebrew name, Gershom. Scholem’s letters to Adorno are often signed Gerhard—it must have felt natural when he was writing in German—but when Adorno invited him to lecture in Frankfurt, Scholem noted, “A friendly reminder: it is important to me that, in all official correspondence and announcements, I am referred to only by my legal name, Gershom Scholem . . . and not by the German Gerhard.” The name declared Scholem’s rejection of Germanness, and he wanted his postwar German audience to be aware of it.

Adorno, on the other hand, changed his name to minimize its Jewishness. He was born in Frankfurt in 1903 as Theodor Wiesengrund, the son of a German Jewish father who had converted to Protestantism, and his first letter to Scholem is signed “Teddie Wiesengrund.” But as an adult he began to use the name of his mother’s Italian Catholic family, and his signature in the letters soon changes to “Theodor W. Adorno.” After the war he was one of the few Jewish exiles to return to Germany, spending his last twenty years as the influential leader of the Frankfurt School of critical theory at the University of Frankfurt.

This difference was also reflected in Scholem’s and Adorno’s intellectual paths. Scholem, whose Zionism was always more spiritual and cultural than political, learned Hebrew and pioneered the academic study of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. In his writings on antinomian mystics and false messiahs, like the 17th-century heretic Sabbetai Tsvi, he redrew the conventional map of Jewish history, emphasizing the irrational, transgressive forces that came to the fore in moments of catastrophe and renewal—like the one Scholem himself was living through.

Read more at New York Review of Books

More about: German Jewry, Gershom Scholem, Nazi Germany, New Left, Zionism

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