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Violence Jewish Identity

Violence Jewish Identity

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Published by Marina Ta

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Published by: Marina Ta on Apr 10, 2012
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"They Fought Because They Were Fighters and They Fought Because They WereJews": Violence and the Construction of Modern Jewish IdentityElliott Horowitz (BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY) No War nor Wisdom yields our Jews delight, they will not study, and they dare notfight.These lines, penned by the English poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), sneered not onlyat the widespread preference of contemporary Jews for commerce over the liberal professions but also at their alleged cowardice and consequent aversion to militaryservice—a stereotype, Cecil Roth grimly noted during the 1940s, that had "persisted inspite of Jewish participation with his fellow-countrymen in recent wars."1 Roth, whoresided in Oxford (where he had been educated), knew whereof he spoke. In 1933, oneof his countrymen (hiding, rather pusillanimously, behind the pseudonym H.S. Ashton)had asserted that "it does, in truth, seem that the Jews lack that glorious spirit whichwill urge the majority of mankind to stand up in defence of their dignity and fight back." The Jew, Ashton asserted, is "long-suffering and resentful. . . but he does notcarry the fight into the enemy's territory. . . . He inevitably, as history has shown us,gains his end by pacific propaganda, and he eschews physical combat."2 To illustratehis point, Ashton included a humorous sketch of what the Battle of Waterloo (which,according to a popular saying, had been "won on the playingfields of Eton") might have been like had Wellington's forces included Jewish troops:Had the Jews' Free School [of London] supplied its contingent, there would have been parlays with the enemy, a fusillade of verbiage . . . excessive gesticulation, long drawnout negotiations with bargaining, and finally a money settlement with a discount for cash, whereby honour would have been satisfied but no blood spilled.3Ashton acknowledged that there were many Jews who had played their part "in the1914-1918 slaughter and served in the Armies of many nations," including his own. Nonetheless, he was certain that the Jew "cannot have liked his martial task." This harshdichotomy between the virile values exemplified by Eton and the excessive verbiageand gesticulation to be expected from graduates of the Jews' Free School2324Elliott Horowitz
 
could be shared by those who themselves were Jewish. The English poet StephenSpender, whose mother was of German Jewish background, recalled that when he wasat school during the 1920s he began to realize that he "had more in common with thesensitive, rather soft, inquisitive, interior Jewish boys than with the aloof, hard, externalEnglish." Yet at the same time, he acknowledged, "I despised some of these qualities inmyself which I thought of as Jewish, and my feeling for the English was at times almostlike being in love with an alien race."4 As I shall attempt to illustrate in this essay, theambivalent attraction of the soft toward the hard and of the timid toward the aggressivehas a more extensive and complicated role in the history of modern Jewish sentimentthan has heretofore been acknowledged. Although Ashton wrote as an antisemite, albeitof the genteel variety, similar views had been expressed by European authors of adecidedly more philosemitic persuasion. William Lecky (1838-1903), the greatVictorian historian and essayist, wrote of his Jewish contemporaries (in an otherwisegenerally sympathetic essay) that "nothing is more conspicuous among them than their unhealthy colouring, their frail, bent, and feeble bodies." This Dublin-born and-educated historian of European rationalism and morals acknowledged that "many Jewsno doubt serve in the great continental armies with honour," but confidently assertedthat "the Jew is naturally a pacific being, hating violence and recoiling with a peculiar horror from blood."5 Lecky's assertion dovetailed with another strand of Europeanthinking about the Jew and his innate proclivities, which found perhaps its purestexpression in a book that was published in the year of Lecky's death—Otto Weininger'simmensely popular Geschlecht und Charakter (1903), which went through six Germaneditions before it was published in English (as Sex and Character) in 1906. Weininger,a former Viennese Jew who had converted to Protestantism, saw the Jew basically as amale with a female sensibility. "The homology of Jew and woman becomes closer thefurther examination goes," he claimed, asserting also that the time he lived in was "notonly the most Jewish but the most feminine." 6 As John Hoberman has aptly noted, "bythe time Weininger absorbed it, this intuitive sense of the Jew's deficient masculinityhad been germinating for centuries, dating from the Middle Ages."7 Although overtclaims concerning such biological characteristics as male menstruation were no longer common in the 19th century, this "intuitive sense" could be expressed, even by Jewsand those sympathetic to them, in a variety of ways.8 A decade before Weininger  published his Sex and Character, the French author Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu observedthat "the Semites are said to be a feminine race, possessing to a high degree the gift of receptivity, always lacking in virility and procreative power." Although Leroy-Beaulieustrongly disagreed with the claim that Jews lacked originality (arguing, in fact, to thecontrary) he did acknowledge, in discussing the physiology of the Jew, that "hisfeebleness often gives him a somewhat unmanly appearance," adding that "in manycountries he is manifestly unfit for heavy work."9 Such comments by even philosemitically inclined European intellectuals help provide the background to Max Nordau's espousal of Muskeljudentum ("muscular Judaism," or "Jewry of muscle"),first in his 1898 address to the Second Zionist Congress in Basle and then in hiseponymous essay, first published in 1900. "For too long, all too long, we have beenengaged in the mortification of our own flesh," wrote"Thev Fought Because They Were Fighters and They Fought Because They Were Jews"
 
25 Nordau. "Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested,sturdy, sharp-eyed men."10 In his highly polemical Unheroic Conduct, Daniel Boyarintakes the opposite tack, arguing that a cultural process taking place in the late 19th andearly 20th centuries undermined "the tradition of the effeminate Jewish male" ascharacterized by "renunciation of the phallus." In place of the domestically orientedmentsh who pursued the ideal of edelkayt came the "new Jewish man" in pursuit of what Boyarin (with a nod to James Joyce) called "goyim nakhes," or "games gentiles play." Vienna, which spawned both Herzlian Zionism and Freudian psychoanalysis,was seen by Boyarin as the prime locus of this tragic transformation.'' Yet as AllanArkush has noted, there is little justification for Boyarin's linking this "moderndeformation of Jewish masculinity" (if indeed it is to be described as such) exclusivelywith Central European developments—ignoring, at the same time, such cultural phenomena as modern American Jewry's romance with sports.12 Although such figuresas Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand make cameo appearances in Unheroic Conduct,no mention is made of Benny Leonard (1896-1947), probably the greatest Jewish boxer (and greatest lightweight) of the 20th century, or Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, whoseiconic status has even made its presence felt in American Jewish art.13 Indeed, it isdifficult to understand how not only Boyarin but also scholars such as Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, in their otherwise excellent documentary history The Jew inthe Modern World (1995), could have ignored sports in general and boxing in particular.14 The boxing ring, more than the baseball diamond or the tennis court, provided an arena in which traditional images of Jewish weakness and timidity, whether internally generated or externally imposed, could be challenged (if not quiteundermined). Moreover, like other popular spectator sports, boxing appealed to thehearts and minds of those who often had little access to, or interest in, elite culture.During the early decades of the 20th century, such boxers as Benny Leonard (ne Leiner)and Barney Ross (Rasofsky)—both of them born on New York's Lower East Side andraised in observant families—became heroes for many young Jews. Leonard's impactwas wonderfully captured by Budd Schulberg in an essay written more than half acentury after the great lightweight's retirement as champion in 1925: "To see him climbin the ring sporting the six-pointed Jewish star on his fighting trunks was to anticipatesweet revenge for all the bloody noses, split lips, and mocking laughter at pale littleJewish boys who had run the neighborhood gauntlet."15 Was this merely goyimnakhesl Some of Leonard's older contemporaries, among them Barney Ross' parents,clearly thought so. In his (co-authored) autobiography, No Man Stands Alone, Ross,who was eight years old when Leonard won his first lightweight title, recalled his own pious father's dismissive reaction: "Once when somebody told him about the great boxing champ Benny Leonard, Pa's face turned blood red. 'What shame this Leonardhas brought on his mother and father.'" The elder Ross, who owned and operated"Rasofsky's Dairy" and who wanted his son to be a Hebrew teacher, never saw himfight, having been killed by would-be robbers when Barney was a boy. When thewidowed Mrs. Rasofsky learned that her son was beginning to box, she exclaimed: "Noson of mine is going to be a fighter, a bum. You are shaming your father's name." AndBarney himself later admitted: "If Pa had lived,

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