In almost half a century at the helm of The New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers has crafted the essential journal for America’s 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 Ash’s 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 writer—and a writer of the left and former New York Review contributor, at that. Yet that’s exactly what appeared in the Review’s August 19 issue in the guise of a review of, among other books, Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals.
It’s understandable that the book—and, indeed, all of Berman’s work since the 9/11 terrorist attacks—would discomfit The New York Review. Just as his 2003 bestseller Terror and Liberalism did, Berman’s 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. Berman’s main exhibit for the intellectuals’ “flight” from universal liberal values is two members of The New York Review’s 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 historians—Jeffrey Herf, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, and Martin Cuppers—who 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 Rommel’s expected victory at El-Alamein. Rommel’s defeat aborted the plan, but al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood fought side by side with the mufti’s 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.
Berman’s 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 journal’s 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 Berman’s 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.
Ruthven’s piece continued at length, going on to consider volumes by Hirsi Ali, Buruma, and Garton Ash. But the story’s opening was perhaps its most telling part. Why, you might wonder, would a writer introduce a review of Berman’s work with Yad Vashem’s Husseini exhibit? The reason is that a staple of today’s 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 thesis—that “the poison of European anti-Semitism was subsumed in the broader eddies of Muslim totalitarianisms,” as Ruthven puts it—with Yad Vashem’s 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 museum’s 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. That’s entirely appropriate, because it’s 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 mufti’s Berlin broadcasts.
More significant is that the exhibit doesn’t come close to suggesting that Arab “enmity to Israel” has anything to do with Husseini’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis. An informational panel offers a short summary of the mufti’s 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 Husseini’s involvement with the Nazi murder machine. For example, the exhibit doesn’t mention Holocaust historian Christopher Browning’s 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: “Germany’s 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 omissions—to suggest that Yad Vashem goes out of its way not to connect the Arab world’s hatred of Israel to the Nazis—would, of course, ruin Ruthven’s 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.
There’s also the matter of Ruthven’s citation of “the Israeli historian” Tom Segev to support the charge that Yad Vashem associates Israel’s current enemies with the Nazis. It’s deceptive, to say the least, to describe Segev as just another Israeli historian—something like identifying Howard Zinn as just another American historian. Segev is one of Israel’s 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 state’s political objectives. Ruthven told me, by the way, that he drew his citation of Segev from Norman Finkelstein’s 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 Segev’s judgment on these matters has been rendered worthless—by Segev himself. In the New York Times Book Review in 2008, Segev excoriated David Dalin and John Rothmann’s 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 Israel’s 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 Berman’s book. He pounces on Berman’s 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; Franco’s 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 mufti’s wartime services to the Nazis this way. But it is precisely Berman’s contention (backed by Herf’s, Mallmann’s, and Cuppers’s research) that the Husseini-Hitler collaboration wasn’t a case of expediency. Rather, that particular partnership was nourished by deep ideological affinities—a “symbiosis” of Nazi and Islamist doctrines, according to Herf—about 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 Berman’s book. He insists defensively on Hassan al-Banna’s “stated belief that Nazi racial theories were incompatible with Islam.” Why, then, did al-Banna arrange—as Herf and other historians have documented—for the translation and distribution to the Arab world of Mein Kampf? Even Ruthven once admitted—in The New York Review—that 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, Hamas’s 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 today’s 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 Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The master postulate in this turn against Israel was laid down in 2003 by the Review’s 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 state—otherwise, the region would likely blow up and the collateral damage might harm even liberal, non-Zionist, New York Jews.
That’s why Ruthven’s article is significant. It doesn’t merely demonstrate The New York Review’s animus toward Paul Berman. Its distortions about Yad Vashem support the widespread canard that Israel misuses the Holocaust for the ruling regime’s 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 community”—which includes Segev and Finkelstein—to undermine one of the moral rationales for the creation of the Jewish state.
Yakira also offers an ironic reformulation of Tony Judt’s 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 we—Jewish American intellectuals, in particular—take 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.” Yakira’s 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 fascism’s target list. Even Paul Berman’s book doesn’t adequately condemn that dereliction.