In almost half a century at the helm of The New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers has crafted the essential journal for Americas liberal intellectual elite. Silvers is celebrated by his distinguished writers as a scrupulous, old-fashioned editor who fusses over their every word. The British historian Timothy Garton Ash tells of receiving a transatlantic phone call from Silvers just as his family was sitting down to Christmas dinner: the editor wanted to discuss a dangling participle he had spotted in the galley of Garton Ashs next article. Silvers subjects manuscripts to pitiless scrutiny, says New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. So the last thing you would expect to see in The New York Review is a factually challenged hit job on a serious contemporary writerand a writer of the left and former New York Review contributor, at that. Yet thats exactly what appeared in the Reviews August 19 issue in the guise of a review of, among other books, Paul Bermans The Flight of the Intellectuals.
Its understandable that the bookand, indeed, all of Bermans work since the 9/11 terrorist attackswould discomfit The New York Review. Just as his 2003 bestseller Terror and Liberalism did, Bermans new volume criticizes liberals for their frequent denials when confronted with violent assaults against their own democratic societies by radical Islamist movements. This failure of nerve Berman attributes partly to political correctness (excessive multiculturalism and moral relativism) and partly to cowardice. Bermans main exhibit for the intellectuals flight from universal liberal values is two members of The New York Reviews all-star team: the aforementioned Timothy Garton Ash and the Anglo-Dutch journalist Ian Buruma. Berman skewers both writers for bestowing respectability on the self-proclaimed Islamic reformer Tariq Ramadan, despite his abhorrent views on women and gay rights and his tortured apologetics for radical Islam. While going easy on Ramadan, Garton Ash and Buruma scorn the courageous Muslim dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her enlightenment fundamentalism. These impeccable liberals, writes Berman, sneered at Ayaan Hirsi Ali for having taken up the ideas of Western liberalism and celebrated Tariq Ramadan for having done nothing of the sort.
The Flight of the Intellectuals also summarizes recent archival findings by three historiansJeffrey Herf, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, and Martin Cupperswho provide the clearest picture to date of the fascist roots of violent twentieth-century Islamist movements, beginning with the World War II collaboration between the Nazis and the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. The victorious Allies should have tried the mufti as a war criminal. Instead, he escaped to Egypt and formed a bloody-minded alliance with the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna (the grandfather of Tariq Ramadan). Al-Banna welcomed Husseini to Egypt and called him the hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone but Amin al-Husseini will continue the struggle. Berman describes the Nazi plan (in which Husseini would play a key role) for the physical destruction of the Jewish community in Palestine after Rommels expected victory at El-Alamein. Rommels defeat aborted the plan, but al-Bannas Muslim Brotherhood fought side by side with the muftis cadres in the 1948 Arab and Palestinian war against Israel with the same goal of destruction in mind. The Muslim Brotherhood is alive and well today, with hundreds of thousands of followers in many parts of the world. In Gaza, the movement is called Hamas, and its charter mimes the World War II symbiosis between Nazi eliminationist anti-Semitism and radical Islamism.
Bermans reason for pointing out the disturbing connections between Nazism and Islamist extremism is to remind Western liberals of their honorable antifascist traditions, challenging them to apply the same principles to the contemporary world. But his call to arms goes against everything that The New York Review stands for now. Instead of seriously debating the issues that Berman raises, the journal summoned Malise Ruthven, a sometime contributor to the magazine on Islam and the Middle East, to deliver the hit. His review of The Flight of the Intellectuals, which was featured on the journals cover under the headline THE TERROR OF PAUL BERMAN, began:
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, stands an exhibit that is for some more unsettling than the replicas of the Warsaw Ghetto or the canisters of Zyklon B gas used at Auschwitz and Treblinka. Next to blown-up photographs of emaciated corpses from the death camps there is a picture of the grand mufti of Palestine, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, reviewing an honor guard of the Muslim division of the Waffen SS that fought the Serbs and antifascist partisans. The display includes a cable to Hajj Amin from Heinrich Himmler, dated November 2, 1943: The National Socialist Party has inscribed on its flag the extermination of world Jewry. Our party sympathizes with the fight of the Arabs, especially the Arabs of Palestine, against the foreign Jew. There is also a quote from a broadcast the mufti gave over Berlin radio on March 1, 1944: Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This is the command of God, history and religion.
As the Israeli historian Tom Segev suggests, the visitor is left to conclude that there is much in common between the Nazis plan to destroy the Jews and the Arabs enmity to Israel. Paul Bermans new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, makes the connection even more explicit. Although defeated in Europe, the virus of Nazism is, in his view, vigorously present in the Arab-Islamic world, with Hajj Amin the primary source of this infection. Instead of being tried as a war criminal, Hajj Amin was allowed to leave France in 1946, after escaping from Germany via Switzerland. A trial, Berman suggests, might have sparked a little self-reflection about the confusions and self-contradictions within Islam on matters Jewish, comparable to the postwar self-reflections that took place inside the Roman Catholic Church.
Ruthvens piece continued at length, going on to consider volumes by Hirsi Ali, Buruma, and Garton Ash. But the storys opening was perhaps its most telling part. Why, you might wonder, would a writer introduce a review of Bermans work with Yad Vashems Husseini exhibit? The reason is that a staple of todays anti-Zionist polemics is the idea that Israel manipulates the Holocaust for narrow political purposes. What better way to discredit Berman than to associate his thesisthat the poison of European anti-Semitism was subsumed in the broader eddies of Muslim totalitarianisms, as Ruthven puts itwith Yad Vashems allegedly much broader contention that all Arab hostility to Israel has Nazi roots?
Though that guilt-by-association tactic would be unworthy of The New York Review even if Yad Vashem did make that contention, the fact is that the museum goes out of its way not to. To begin with, the Husseini exhibit is not in the museums Holocaust memorial, as Ruthven claims, but in its new Holocaust History Museum. There are no blown-up photographs of emaciated corpses from the death camps at the exhibit. The two panels on the mufti, which constitute a tiny portion of the museum, do include two small pictures of SS mobile killing units shooting Jews in the Balkans and Russia. Thats entirely appropriate, because its where the mufti recruited Bosnian and Croatian Muslims for the Waffen-SS. The exhibit has no Himmler cable to Husseini, and there is no quotation from the muftis Berlin broadcasts.
More significant is that the exhibit doesnt come close to suggesting that Arab enmity to Israel has anything to do with Husseinis wartime collaboration with the Nazis. An informational panel offers a short summary of the muftis activities in the thirties and forties:
Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, incited the Arabs of the Land of Israel against the British and the Jews. As far back as 1933, he expressed support for the Nazi regime. In October 1939, Husseini fled to Iraq where he played a central role in organizing the pro-Nazi uprising in April 1941. After the uprising was suppressed, he went into exile in Germany where he served the Axis states in their war against the Allies. Husseini conducted virulent anti-Jewish propaganda and tried to influence the Axis powers to expand their extermination program to the Middle East and North Africa. In the spring of 1943, he mobilized and organized Bosnian Muslim units in Croatia, who fought in the ranks of the S.S. in Bosnia and Hungary.
In fact, the exhibit actually downplays Husseinis involvement with the Nazi murder machine. For example, the exhibit doesnt mention Holocaust historian Christopher Brownings revelation that the mufti was the first non-German with whom Hitler shared plans for the Final Solution. At a private meeting in Berlin in November 1941, Hitler informed Husseini about the coming elimination of European Jewry and added, according to an official summary memo of the meeting: Germanys objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere under the protection of British power. Nor does the exhibit remind visitors that in 1943, the Nazis considered a proposal to release 5,000 Jewish children in return for captured German soldiers held by the Allies, but that Husseini lobbied Himmler against letting the children go. The children were eventually deported to the death camps.
But to notice these omissionsto suggest that Yad Vashem goes out of its way not to connect the Arab worlds hatred of Israel to the Naziswould, of course, ruin Ruthvens preconceived notions about Israeli manipulation of the Holocaust. After I e-mailed Ruthven and asked for the source of his inaccurate description of the exhibit, he answered: My description of Yad Vashem came from a visit (actually two visits) I made in 2004, so the exhibits may have changed. I take him at his word. But a writer less eager to prove his prejudices would have made sure that his story fit the facts before publishing it.
Theres also the matter of Ruthvens citation of the Israeli historian Tom Segev to support the charge that Yad Vashem associates Israels current enemies with the Nazis. Its deceptive, to say the least, to describe Segev as just another Israeli historiansomething like identifying Howard Zinn as just another American historian. Segev is one of Israels most prominent post-Zionist journalists. His work seeks to deconstruct and ultimately undermine the Jewish character of the state. He has an ideological axe to grind, indicting the entire Zionist leadership, starting with David Ben-Gurion, for cynically using the catastrophe of European Jewry to achieve the states political objectives. Ruthven told me, by the way, that he drew his citation of Segev from Norman Finkelsteins book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. In that notorious book, Finkelstein offers his own fabrication about the Husseini exhibit, writing that the Mufti gets top billing at Yad Vashem.
Ruthven should have known that Segevs judgment on these matters has been rendered worthlessby Segev himself. In the New York Times Book Review in 2008, Segev excoriated David Dalin and John Rothmanns book on the mufti, Icon of Evil, observing that it belongs to a genre of popular Arab-bashing that is often believed to be good for Israel. It is not. The suggestion that Israels enemies are Nazis, or the Nazis heirs, is apt to discourage any fair compromise with the Palestinians, and that is bad for Israel. The Middle East reporter for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, rightly observed that Segev has stringent standards for what makes a good Middle East book: Above all, it has to be helpful to the peace process. Its truth, or falsehood, is not quite so important.
Ruthven does occasionally offer a reasonable criticism of Bermans book. He pounces on Bermans statement that the Arab zone ended up as the only region in the entire planet in which a criminal on the fascist side of the war, and a major ideologue, to boot, returned home in glory, instead of in disgrace. Ruthven is correct that other Nazi collaborators returned to their native lands not in disgrace but rather in some favor with their countrymen. He cites two instances: the Finnish ally of the Nazis Gustaf Mannerheim and the Indian anti-British activist Subhas Chandra Bose. He might have mentioned other cases: Communists after the Nazi-Soviet pact; Francos Blue Division, which voluntarily fought on the Nazi side; even the tiny Jewish terrorist group LEHI (also known as the Stern Gang), with its harebrained scheme to convince the Nazis to help them liberate Palestine from the British.
Ruthven scores a small point, but he obfuscates the larger issue. Other collaborators might have cooperated with the Nazis because of political expediency: the enemy of my enemy is (temporarily) my friend. Tariq Ramadan has tried to rationalize the muftis wartime services to the Nazis this way. But it is precisely Bermans contention (backed by Herfs, Mallmanns, and Cupperss research) that the Husseini-Hitler collaboration wasnt a case of expediency. Rather, that particular partnership was nourished by deep ideological affinitiesa symbiosis of Nazi and Islamist doctrines, according to Herfabout how best to solve the infernal Jewish problem.
Ruthven cannot allow himself to deal forthrightly with this issue of Islamic fascism, a central theme of Bermans book. He insists defensively on Hassan al-Bannas stated belief that Nazi racial theories were incompatible with Islam. Why, then, did al-Banna arrangeas Herf and other historians have documentedfor the translation and distribution to the Arab world of Mein Kampf? Even Ruthven once admittedin The New York Reviewthat Nazi doctrines about the Jews had infected Muslim Brotherhood offshoots like Hamas. Imported European anti-Semitism is now embedded in the charter of Hamas, whose thirty-second article explicitly cites the Protocols as proof of Israeli conduct, Ruthven wrote in 2008. As Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian philosopher and former PLO representative in Jerusalem, has observed, Hamass charter sounds as if it were copied out from the pages of Der Stürmer.
But that was a rare moment of clarity on Islamism for todays New York Review. For liberal intellectuals, it would seem that looking too deeply into the fascist roots of movements like Hamas could endanger the peace process. Fascism? What fascism? Instead of demonstrating a smidgen of sympathy and support for Israel, the democratic country that most directly faces the threat of Islamist aggression, New York Review writers now routinely question Israels legitimacy as a Jewish state. The master postulate in this turn against Israel was laid down in 2003 by the Reviews most iconic intellectual, the late Tony Judt, when he declared that Israel was an anachronism and a colossal historical mistake. Judt insisted that the mistake must be corrected forthwith by turning Israel into a de-Judaized, binational stateotherwise, the region would likely blow up and the collateral damage might harm even liberal, non-Zionist, New York Jews.
Thats why Ruthvens article is significant. It doesnt merely demonstrate The New York Reviews animus toward Paul Berman. Its distortions about Yad Vashem support the widespread canard that Israel misuses the Holocaust for the ruling regimes political ends. This contention is repeated ad nauseam in post-Zionist and anti-Zionist polemics questioning the moral legitimacy of Israel. In his essential new book, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, Hebrew University philosopher Elhanan Yakira shows how the contention is used by an opprobrium communitywhich includes Segev and Finkelsteinto undermine one of the moral rationales for the creation of the Jewish state.
Yakira also offers an ironic reformulation of Tony Judts complaints against Israel: Given the fact that Israel is an anachronism and a burden and that the Israelis are infantile, unreliable, and politically hopeless, it is appropriate that weJewish American intellectuals, in particulartake matters in hand and impose order on the Middle East. Nor need we take too seriously what the Israelis themselves say, except for a few outstanding figures who tower morally and intellectually above the rest of the country. Yakiras sad parody applies as well to other liberal intellectuals and to their appalling abandonment of Israel, the embattled Middle East democracy that is first on Islamic fascisms target list. Even Paul Bermans book doesnt adequately condemn that dereliction.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.