To the Editor:
I am honored that Hillel Halkin has twice written about my book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, in the pages of Commentary, and has even, on further reflection, called it “well researched.” I cannot, alas, say the same about his essay, “Bloody Jews?” [May]. Michael Stanislawski and Ariel Toaff, authors with whom I am grouped, are certainly capable of replying on their own to Mr. Halkin’s tendentious comments about their aims and agendas in writing their own recent books. In my own case, he claims to have found evidence in my introduction for the notion that “Reckless Rites was stimulated . . . by Baruch Goldstein’s Purim-day murder of 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.” This is simply another of his misreadings, willful or otherwise.
What I write in the introduction is that at the time of Goldstein’s massacre, “I was working on a Hebrew version of an article about the history of Purim violence that became the genesis of this volume.” In other words, I was already involved with the subject of Purim violence—involved enough, in fact, that a draft of my article had been submitted to the venerable journal Zion, and sent out to readers well before the Purim massacre at Hebron. Both that article and a related one in English (in Poetics Today) appeared before the end of 1994. As Casey Stengel said, “you could look it up.”
To The Editor:
I fear that readers of Hillel Halkin’s essay, “Bloody Jews,” will be misled to believe that Michael Stanislawski’s superb book about the 1848 assassination of Rabbi Abraham Cohen, A Murder in Lemberg, is a politically charged polemic. Mr. Halkin attributes to Stanislawski all sorts of biases—ideological, political, and religious—that even the most careful and critical reader will not be able to find in the book’s pages. There is simply no evidence for his claim that Stanislawski “has chosen to understand the traditionalist-modernist conflict in 19th-century Galicia in terms of his own identification as a ‘progressive’ Jew aligned with the Israeli ‘peace camp.’”
I have benefited from reading many, if not all, of Michael Stanislawski’s writings. Nothing I have read has ever revealed, in even the most oblique way, anything of his personal, political, or religious convictions. Quite the contrary, Stanislawski’s 2001 book, Zionism and the Fin de Siècle deals extensively, and more than merely respectfully, with Zev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. Moreover, the only substantively personal and subjective part of A Murder in Lemberg is its postscript, in which Stanislawski shares impressions, in heartbreakingly elegiac terms, from his visit to modern-day Lemberg (or Lviv, as it is now known). His haunting description reveals how passionately he identifies with the European Jewish past and mourns its catastrophic losses. It is sad, and perhaps quite telling, that Hillel Halkin appears not to have been nearly as moved by Stanislawski’s evident affection for the vanished Galician Diaspora as he was agitated by the ideological motivations that he has falsely attributed to him.
Madison, New Jersey
To the Editor:
I was dismayed to read the article “Bloody Jews?” in which Hillel Halkin considers three books about Jewish violence in the past. Ariel Toaff’s Pasque de sangue (“Passovers of Blood”), which offers legitimacy to the medieval blood libel,
has been roundly condemned by serious scholars as a pathological fantasy. Elliott Horowitz and Michael Stanislawski, by contrast, have written books of history whose central events are solidly documented and beyond question. Mr. Hal-kin has a right to disagree with the conclusions they draw, but his equating their books with Toaff’s violates the standards of fair reviewing. The comparison elevates Toaff’s work into the realm of history, where it does not belong, and unfairly maligns two scholars who have painstakingly illuminated episodes that indisputably took place.
City University of New York
New York City
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin takes three scholars to task for linking their subjects—historical episodes of violence among Jews—to current events like Baruch Goldstein’s Purim-day massacre of 29 Palestinians in 1994 and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. He claims that all three scholars distort the past in an attempt to understand a present that alarms them, and concludes that “what is ultimately lacking in such historians is the kind of Jewish self-acceptance that would enable them to feel comfortable with the totality of Jewish experience rather than with just those parts of it that they identify with.”
I have not read any of the three books Mr. Halkin discusses, but I have written a book about violence against Jewish women, Silence Is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wife-beating. I show that Jewish texts (the rabbinic responsa literature, in particular) are not monolithic in their approach to wife-beating, and some rabbis have condoned the phenomenon while the majority has rejected it. During the first Gulf war, about ten women in Israel were killed by their husbands. This was assumed by the media to be related to the tensions of overly close proximity in the sealed rooms where Israelis took refuge during missile raids. Strangely enough, no one raised the possibility that there might be a connection to certain teachings in the Jewish tradition. In any case, making historical texts relevant by linking them to the present is perfectly legitimate. Today especially, when the distinction between history and historiography is disappearing, authors are entitled to take stands and to disapprove of their subjects, instead of maintaining distance and so-called neutrality.
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Hillel Halkin writes:
In his introduction to Reckless Rites, Elliott Horowitz declares:
Although my article on Purim [in the academic journal Zion], whose treatment began in the 5th century, stretched ambitiously into the 19th, I decided after the Hebron massacre of 1994 to be even more ambitious and extend my story to the present.
Perhaps, then, I should have said that Reckless Rites was “partially stimulated” by the Hebron massacre. If Mr. Horowitz will agree to such a formulation, so will I.
In response to Allan Nadler, permit me an extended quote from the conclusion of Michael Stanislawski’s A Murder in Lemberg:
[T]he assassination of Rabbi Abraham Kohn was a radical turning point in Jewish history because for the first, but alas not the last, time since the “wars of the Jews” under the Romans, do we encounter the murder of a Jewish leader by another Jew on the basis of political-cum-religious motivations. . . . [The Kohn murder was followed by] First, the murder on 30 June, 1924 of Jacob Israel De Haan, one of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel party in Palestine. . . . And on the other side of the spectrum, the assassination in June 1930 [sic; the correct date is 1933] of the Labor Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff. . . . And finally, of course, [there is] the most famous, and undoubtedly the most historically significant, political/religious assassination in modern Jewish history, that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on 4 November, 1995. . . . Although the vast majority of Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad abhorred [Yigal] Amir’s actions, he and his supporters (almost exclusively from the extreme right-wing groups in Israel that combine religious Orthodoxy and absolute opposition to the peace process) continue to insist that he was working in the name of the Lord. And, all too tragically, the debate about the extent to which Jewish law permits or prohibits such murders continues to this day (these words are being written in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and armed forces from Gaza).
Indeed, far more broadly, the Kohn assassination reveals a fundamental aspect of modern Jewish history that has heretofore remained all but unstudied: the alliance in many times and places between Orthodox (and other forms of traditionalist Jewry) and conservative and even reactionary political forces and states. . . . [W]e are just now beginning to have studies on such alliances in contemporary Israel, and even, most recently, in the United States as well.
The above makes it quite clear, I would think, that Michael Stanislawski (a) identifies with the Israeli “peace camp” against its religious opponents; and (b) thinks that certain “alliances” opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace pro-cess” have a parallel in similar alliances in Austrian Galicia at the time of the Kohn murder. I fail to understand why Mr. Nadler objects to my pointing this out in my article.
Had Elisheva Carlebach read the article more carefully, she would have seen that I draw a clear distinction between Ariel Toaff’s scholarship and that of Elliott Horowitz and Michael Stanislawski; Toaff, I write, has written “a harmful and irresponsible book in a way that neither Horowitz’s Reckless Rites nor Stanislawski’s A Murder in Lemberg can be said to be.” The reader can surely be expected to understand that the “equation” I draw among all three books has to do with their belief in a connection between certain kinds of Jewish violence in the past and certain kinds of Jewish violence in the present, not with the level on which they conduct their argument.
I have no disagreement with Naomi Graetz’s concluding point: historians are certainly “entitled to take stands and to disapprove of their subjects, instead of maintaining distance and so-called neutrality.” I would simply expect them and their supporters to acknowledge that this is what they have done.