The Dark Side
To the Editor:
At the outset of his sensitive but skewed review of my book Reckless Rites [June], Hillel Halkin asserts that the book’s subtitle, “Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence,” promises more than it delivers; although he graciously acknowledges that the book is “replete with interesting detail,” he insists that I have simply misinterpreted (or overinterpreted) the historical evidence.
There is no “legacy of Jewish violence,” Mr. Halkin claims—or at least there was no such legacy until the meek, long-suffering Jews were rescued by modern Zionism, which “rightly convinced” them that “a people that would not fight for its independence would never get it.” He does not contend with the first five chapters of Reckless Rites, which discuss violence in the biblical tradition and carry the story forward to the 20th century. Instead, Mr. Halkin focuses exclusively on the book’s second half, rehearsing the record of individual acts of Jewish violence against Christians from late antiquity to the 18th century. Noting the relative scarcity of incidents in this period, he wonders “just what all the hullabaloo is about.” This is a bit like tuning in to a rerun of The Godfather after the wedding, the dead horse, and Michael’s return from Sicily—and then wondering what all the shooting is about.
The Godfather differs from a violent movie like Bonnie and Clyde in that it goes beyond the depiction of violence to explore a long and dark legacy—in much the same way that Daniel Goldhagen’s epic narrative in Hitler’s Willing Executioners differs from Raul Hilberg’s more clinical account in The Destruction of the European Jews. Just as Goldhagen devotes the first part of his book to the evolution of “eliminationist anti-Semitism” in German culture, I too, albeit less teleologically, devote my early chapters to the biblical legacies of Jewish violence. And just as it would be misleading to review Hitler’s Willing Executioners while ignoring its early chapters, so is it misleading to review Reckless Rites while focusing almost exclusively on its latter half. Unless, of course, the point is to deny the darker side of Jewish tradition and to separate the record of Jewish violence (whether in 7th-century Jerusalem or 20th-century Hebron) from the texts and tenets of Judaism.
Mr. Halkin acknowledges that the relatively small number of violent incidents by Jews in pre-modern Christian societies does not nullify my thesis. Given the restrictions on the “Jewish freedom to do anything,” he writes, the point is not “what Jews actually did to Christians” but “what Jews would have liked to do.” Yet it is precisely here that Mr. Halkin misrepresents one of my book’s major themes by declaiming that my “real subject” is therefore “not actual violence but the potential for violence in Jewish emotions.”
My book, for better or worse, has little to do with emotions; in fact, the word “emotion” is absent from the helpful concordance prepared by Amazon of the book’s 100 most frequently used words. Some of the words that do appear there are “Amalekites,” “biblical,” and “Germans.” Mr. Halkin credits me with showing that the term “Amalek” was applied “as a label [for] Christians by some medieval Jews.” But he neglects to mention that the term (as I show) was applied to Armenians in the 19th century, to Germans since the rise of Hitler and still today at Yad Vashem, and in recent decades to Palestinians. Since the bible commands Jews to exterminate all Amalekites—“male and female, young and old,” in Maimonides’ formulation—it would seem that attaching the appellation to peoples or individuals (as Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, did to Yossi Sarid when the latter served as Israel’s Education Minister) would be of some relevance.
The Germans are in my book not only because they have been labeled as Amalekites but also because the early chapters of my book are devoted largely to the merciless bashing the biblical book of Esther has received at the hands of Protestant scholarship since the time of Luther. W. M. L. De Wette of the University of Berlin, one of the giants of 19th-century biblical scholarship, criticized Esther’s “bloodthirsty spirit of revenge and persecution,” and his loyal student Friedrich Bleek referred to the book’s “very narrow-minded and Jewish spirit of revenge.” Jewish thinkers like Claude Montefiore and Samuel Sandmel were also deeply concerned about the discursive tradition generated both by the book of Esther and the biblical commandment concerning Amalek.
Toward the end of his review, Mr. Halkin oddly attributes to me the assumption that in order to account for Jewish violence, “we must invoke unique causes like the intolerance of Jewish monotheism [and] Jewish hatred for Gen-tiles.” These items appear nowhere in my book. With respect to “the intolerance of Jewish monotheism,” he was evidently thinking of Regina Schwartz’s widely maligned 1997 book The Curse of Cain.
In his final paragraph, Mr. Halkin invokes modern Zionism as a kind of deus ex machina that “successfully sought to reverse” the repression of violence that characterized Jews “for much of their history.” This argument has been made by scholars like Anita Shapira and Daniel Boyarin, although the latter would presumably replace “successfully” with “tragically.” Boyarin has heroically gone on record accepting that my book has undermined some of his arguments. Elsewhere, I have criticized Shapira for her Sartrian claim that “over the course of generations the aversion to force among Jews took on the proportions of a Jewish trait, distinguishing them as a distinct community from their neighbors.” Mr. Halkin, a competent professional translator but a less than competent historian, seeks now to resurrect this simplistic view.
No less simplistic is his psychologizing. “In the end,” he writes, I emerge from my own book as “a bit of a closet Purim Jew”—that is, a Jew who secretly revels in the joys of Jewish violence. This is about as profound as saying that director Francis Ford Coppola emerges from The Godfather as a bit of a closet mafioso. In each case, an Italian and a Jew have confronted problematic aspects of their respective heritages without hiding either their deep affinity or their deep ambivalence.
Hillel Halkin writes:
As I stated in my review, Elliott Horowitz wrote an interesting but not entirely honest book. Now he has written an uninteresting and thoroughly dishonest letter.
For instance: the holiday of Purim, apart from appearing as part of his book’s subtitle, is nowhere mentioned in Mr. Horowitz’s letter. Yet Purim figures on practically every page of his book, where it is repeatedly linked to a supposed “legacy of Jewish violence.” Much of my review was devoted to pointing out that Mr. Horowitz’s evidence for Purim’s having been an especially violent day in the annual cycle of the Jewish year is extremely flimsy. Instead of responding to this criticism, he has simply ignored it. I take this to be an admission of guilty as charged.
Having gotten Purim out of the way, Mr. Horowitz then says that I claimed that there is no “legacy of violence” of any kind in Jewish history. This is absurd, not only because I claimed no such thing—my review spoke in plain words of the great amount of violence in pre-exilic and early post-exilic Jewish history—but also because I made the hardly original observation that a strong predisposition to violence is universal to the human race, of which Jews (or does Mr. Horowitz disagree?) are a part.
What I also pointed out, however, and what Mr. Horowitz again does not respond to, is that throughout the Middle Ages, from early post-exilic times to the 20th century—that is, precisely the historical period on which he concentrates—this predisposition, for whatever reason or reasons, was held in check by Jews to a remarkably greater extent than it was by the Gentiles among whom they lived. Ruffled squawks about my historical incompetence aside, Mr. Horowitz does not argue with me about this, either. How could he? There is not a historical fact that he could have marshaled in his favor.
Mr. Horowitz seems to think that the fact that Jews, like every other people on the face of the earth, have resorted to violence on occasion—and that they have a literature in which such violence is sometimes condoned and praised and the destruction of their enemies hoped for—is a “dark” secret that he and a few other intrepid souls like himself deserve our admiration for exposing. But this dark secret is commonplace knowledge to anyone who has ever bothered to read a few books about Jewish history, or for that matter, to have attended a Passover Seder with its prayer of “Pour out Thy wrath upon the Gentiles.” If Mr. Horowitz wanted to write a Jewish version of The Godfather, a work he apparently takes as some kind of model, he should have done it as a movie script.