Time to Dig our Heels in and Stand up for Principles: A Book Review

by NORMAN SIMMS September 30, 2015

Dvir Abramovich, Flashpoints: Israel, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.  Melbourne, Vic: Hybrid, 2014. xi-  292 pp.

In May of this year I wrote a review of Phyllis Chesler's Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews, 2003-2015.  I now have the privilege to examine another collection of short essays, letters-to-the-editor and op-ed pieces from Australia on the same period and covering many of the same topics.  It is an exercise that allows me to re-live the events, recall the persons, and grow angry at the same perverted systems of thought that denigrate Israel, cast aspersions on Jews, and mock the very principles of freedom and democracy that the United States, Australia and a small-perhaps dwindling number-of civilized nations stand for. Again, having gone through these books, I must give thanks to Phyllis and Dvir for their perseverance, clarity of vision, and loyalty to essential values of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Over the past ten years (from 2003 through 2013) Dvir Abramovich, Director of Jewish Studies at Melbourne University in Australia,  has written short essays, book reviews and letters-to-the editor on three main topics-Israel's struggle to defend itself and justify its actions against an increasing horde of detractors and intellectual enemies; the insidious and never-ending influence of Holocaust denial in generations of young people with no knowledge or understanding of history; and the more pernicious growth of anti-Semitism as it mixes and excretes new forms of racial, religious, political and epistemological hatred.  In addition to these fifty-nine brief essays-29 on Israel, 14 on Anti-Semitism, and 16 on the Holocaust-he adds a fourth miscellaneous set of 30 pieces on "People and Events", for a total of  eighty-nine.

For the most part, these short pieces arise in medias res, in the midst of things, as events occur and before they have reached their conclusions and can be seen in retrospect. They are reactions of the moment and written in the language of current knowledge and outrage, frustration, and hope.  As the author himself indicates, as time passes and perspectives clarify, new information comes to hand, and consequences solidify, he looks back at what he said, not with regret or shame, but aware of how difficult it is to see clearly in the thick of battle, and in the middle of a picture composed as much by smoke and mirrors as by facts and accurate documentation.

If Abramovich errs in his early prognostications, or even diagnoses, it is because he was too optimistic, too willing to accept people at their word and to hope for the best, where, at best, only caution and hesitation were actually required. More often than not, however, in hindsight, he was correct; his fears have been fulfilled by an inexorable march towards hatred of Jews and mistrust of Israel's intentions.  The promise of a lessening of tensions in the Mideast has fallen flat.  The expectation of compromise and moderation has proved an illusion.  The aspirations of the Arab Spring have been choked by the fog of war and the stench of poison gas. The efforts by George Bush and Ariel Sharon to reach accommodation and peaceful coexistence have been drowned in a sea of media vilification and street-chanting lies. The United Nations has proved itself more useless and more hostile to Jews and Israel than seemed possible a decade ago.  The spread of terrorism, the infiltration of western institutions and ideals by invidious myths and propaganda, and the inability of the United States, the European Union or any other organization of states to deal with new crises-and they loom up almost daily, out of the same cesspool of resentment, envy and nihilism-makes earlier hopes seem incredibly naïve. 

It is not pleasant reading, this collection of essays written on the hoof, but interesting and salutary.  For all the changes, and by that I mean the intensification of dangers to the existence of Israel and the safety of Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora, the same problems appear again and again, the changes merely variations on the names of people and places, the dangers ratcheted up several notches but essentially out of the same points of tension, and the confusion and misunderstanding amongst too, many Jewish organizational leaders, academics, intellectuals and media personalities further enmeshed in self-loathing and misplaced optimism. 

From month to month, sometimes from week to week, the essays track out the incidents and events that mark contemporary Jewish and Israeli experiences in the twenty-first century.  The author matures, his comprehension increases, his analyses grow more poignant, and his tone gains in gravitas.  He has become a more responsible figure in his own community of Melbourne, Australia, and he speaks with greater dignity as a spokesman for that community, not just as a voice crying out in the wilderness.  As a husband and a father of a growing family, he looks at the issues in terms of social impact, emotional stability, psychological depth, not just as an academic observer of world affairs.  As a spokesman for his community, he weighs his words carefully and tries to control his anger at the sheer stupidity and perversity of the media in general.  There are times when you can see the author's patience wear thin, his frustrations mount as stupidity and lie are reported as the truth about Israel, and the rage almost break out.  Can it be surprising that neither the press nor the general public ever learn or figure out how much they are being duped?

In some ways, history is full of surprises.  George Bush has passed into the background, Barack Hussein Obama has risen to the heights of power out of virtually nothing-a career on the streets of Chicago as a social worker and legal adviser, a brief stint in the Illinois State Legislature and a most unremarkable term in the US House of Representatives.  Ariel Sharon fell into a long coma and died almost without notice. American influence in the Middle East has dwindled to an embarrassingly low level.  Dictators have fallen in the Arab and Muslim world, including the non-existent state of Palestine, only to be replaced by worse tyrants, and fanatical gangs have claimed to be an Islamic State or Caliphate.  Elections have been held here or been delayed there or in many incipiently failed-states passed like empty shadows on the stage of history.  Civilized cities in Europe have witnessed beheadings, terrorist attacks, mass murders and pogroms against the Jews, and now face even greater numbers of disaffected young men (and a few women and some children) fleeing endless civil strife in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, until the old cultural maps lose their meaning and national identities lose their meaning. 

Meanwhile, Israel remains safe and strong, for all the problems it still faces, and long-established Jewish communities in France and America ponder their future as never before in recent memory.  Vicious voices, once confined to right-wing street mobs or neo-Nazi rallies, are heard in all seriousness on mainstream news programmes pretending to be liberalism, and respectable universities in Europe, the USA and Australia close their doors to Israeli academic and Israeli scholars and ring with the shrillness of 1930s hatred of Jews and Judaism.  The United Nations, not least its so-called Human Rights Committee and the Refugee programme, turn all the founding values of the organization upside-down, inside- out and back-to-front. Now almost everything that was supposedly learnt from the Holocaust has been lost-or adapted to the most perverse ideologies. 

Not all is gloom and rage, to be sure: Abramovich praises good people who speak up for and act on behalf of human rights, hopeful signs in the media of that sympathy and support for Israel has not completely disappeared, meditations on the passing of great men and women, growing unity and determination in the Jewish community to resist Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic outbursts. 

While Abramovich discusses many of the same people, places, events and ideas that Phyllis Chesler did and which are central to the worries of readers in America and Israel, he also adds reports on what has happened in Australia, how Jewish organizations have measured up in analogous crises, and how he himself has moved from an outside observer to a community spokesperson for his own Jewish community in Melbourne. 

It is therefore time to dig our heels in and stand up for what matters-before it is too late.

Norman Simms’s latest book is entitled DUST AND ASHES (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK) and is about several modern Jewish intellectuals and artists (Sarah Bernhardt, Arthur Meyer, Bernard Berenson, Aby Warburg, André Suarès, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Catulle Mendès, Maurice Schwob and Georg Brandes) who believed that they were entering a new kind of paradise, one of inclusion, assimilation and acceptance. Though they were brilliant and talented and they accomplished great things in scholarship, philosophy, literature and theatre. For most of them, the dream crumbled into dust and ashes.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as amazon.com and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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