On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review August 26, 2002/ 18 Elul, 5762

Robert Leiter

Guns or Gerber's?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | We learn nothing from history.

Last time, I was bemoaning the fact that Jews had learned nothing from history and was begging to be proven wrong. Well, it seems to my surprise that some Jews, albeit of a very specialized but quite important nature, have learned --- and not only from world and Jewish history, but from their own as well.

I am speaking about some of the Jews who were instrumental in the creation and now the continuation of one of the premier intellectual journals in American history, Partisan Review. From the 1930s to the early '60s, before the hooliganism of the New Left came to dominate the political scene, the magazine, which began as a monthly and slowly evolved into a quarterly, had widespread influence on political and literary taste and opinion in this country and beyond.

Some of its most famous editors and contributors included Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin and Philip Rahv, who was also one of the magazine's founders. These names were once known to all literate people, especially in left-leaning circles. The project is kept afloat these days by William Phillips, the editor in chief, who co-founded the magazine with Rahv in the '30s, and increasingly so by his current co-editor, Edith Kurzweil. Despite the undeniable brilliance of these writers and editors, they had one blind spot - and that was their Jewishness. They mistrusted any particularistic Jewish expressions, considering them to be parochial and limiting. This led these truly brilliant minds to turn their backs on the Jews of Europe during the interwar period, and to even argue that World War II was not their battle and not even worth fighting. Their disdain eventually extended toward Zionism and Israel.

It took years for certain of these folks to realize how often, in Howe's phrase, they had subordinated their sense of Jewishness to "cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics." But Phillips did eventually realize his error, and in time opened the pages of Partisan Review to Israeli writers, discussions of the Holocaust and evaluation of the mistakes of the past. Zionism was given a central position in this new configuration.

It took courage for a publication that still sees itself as "of the left" to make such a move. Kurzweil has been continuing the tradition, making it a staple of every issue over the last decade or so.

The current Summer 2002 issue is a case in point. There are two articles that deal directly with the current situation in Israel, and not simply in the knee-jerk critical way of, say, The New York Review of Books. One is Aviya Kushner's "After a Terror Attack"; the other, Alan Kaufman's "Baby Food Bullets and Nose Drop Bombs." Both are exceptional, the latter especially so.

Kaufman tells of how he accompanied Breda Fitzpatrick, a native of Northern Ireland, now a registered nurse and paramedic with Hadassah Hospital, from the Har Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem to the adjoining Arab village of Beit Jalla, where she smuggled in illegal medical supplies for Arab patients. The article contains one of the most extraordinary sequences in recent reportage about this intifada.

At one point, Fitzpatrick says, " 'There, to the left, that's the army checkpoint to Beit Jalla.' " She bears to the right, slowing to let Kaufman "absorb the immense tank cannon pointed straight at us. ... 'We don't want to enter there with what I've got in the trunk,' she says.

" 'What is it?' I ask nervously.
" 'Baby food. Medicines.'
" 'What will the IDF do if they find it?'
" 'Nothing,' she says. 'They actually turn a blind eye to what I do, though they always search, which is a pain. The Palestinian Authority are the ones I worry about.'

Fitzpatrick explained to Kaufman that the P.A. had a tendency to swap any supplies they got their hands on for guns or other weapons. She had tracked the cases of some of her Palestinian patients at Hadassah Hospital and had found that they had not received their rations.

Thirty years ago, if such an article were published in Partisan Review at all, the Israelis would have been made to look like the bad guys. But no more, thanks to the courage of two enterprising editors.

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002 Robert Leiter