Some Books that I have Enjoyed




History Lesson, A Race Odyssey, by Mary Lefkowitz. Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780300126594

This absorbing, short book is the tale of a very brave woman. All those who care for the survival of humane values owe her a tremendous debt, for writing the book, and for having fought the difficult, courageous fight that it recounts.

The author is a distinguished scholar of ancient Greece, and a professor emerita at Wellesley College. As part of her responsibilities at this elite institution, she was required, as were all faculty members, to scrutinize and to vote on the course descriptions of all the College's offerings. When she found that one of these courses taught racist myth as true history, she objected while many of her colleagues pretended not to notice. For her troubles she was vilified and denounced in the hate literature, one of her offenses being, according to those attacking her, that, basically, she was a Jew, one of those with hooked noses, part of an alleged "Jewish Onslaught."

She was also sued for her temerity to speak out. This litigation was ultimately found by the courts to have no merit, but not without five years of legal harassment by her tormentors.

Those pursuing the attack against her did so in the guise of alleged African-American, Afrocentric concerns. One of the heartening aspects of her story is that several of her African-American colleagues stood by her throughout her ordeal. It is also comforting to read that a number of well-established groups and institutions managed the courage to support her against an all too prevalent political correctness.

The simplistic, mythic, hateful "Afrocentric" doctrine that Lefkowitz had to confront in Massachusetts is also the inspiring ideology of Trinity United Church of Chicago, where Senator Obama worshipped for twenty years. Others left this church when the doctrine became established there, but not Obama. Unlike Lefkowitz at Wellesley, Obama in Chicago avoided his eyes.


The Best Book on the Holocaust

The Years of Extermination, by Saul Friedlander. Harper Collins. 2007. ISBN 0060190434

This cataclysmic modern catastrophe that we now call the Holocaust has now, at last, found its first truly magisterial, comprehensive treatment in Friedländer's "The Years of Extermination."

Previous attempts at this task (by Lucy Dawidowicz, Raul Hilberg, and some others) have suffered from being premature (i.e. they were conceived before some of the more important archives were available), and, in some cases, by having a whiff of eccentricity about them. This latter criticism applies particularly to the writers of some of the more specialized monographs. Many of these have flogged particular insights, which, while often valuable by themselves, were sometimes exaggerated and promoted for polemical purposes.

Was the Holocaust a natural outcome of German anti-Semitism? Was it a matter of greed of the Germans who wanted to rob the Jews? Was it mostly a matter of injustices inherent in the Versailles treaty, as some of the older commentators have urged? Was it partly a matter of German Protestants and their Lutheran heritage, as a recent writer would have us believe? Friedländer, to his enormous credit, pays close attention to all such partial insights but transcends them all. He has read everything and has considered everything (well, almost - see below). He distills for us all of the extremely rich specialized literature and gives us a coherent, full, rich, detailed, satisfying picture of what happened to the Jews in the Second World War.

When I say that he considers all the specialized research, I mean of course the work that needs consideration. He wastes no time on the so-called Holocaust deniers, nor, indeed, on those who insist that the moon is made of green cheese.

Obviously no book -- the Messiah not yet having come - is perfect. Alas. The outstanding fault that I find in this volume is its failure to as much as mention the (admittedly very minor) role played by Arab politicians in making the Holocaust possible.

Almost all other general books on the subject find at least some room to mention the Palestinian leader of the day, Hitler's great friend and supporter, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini. Of course no book can cover absolutely everything, and Husseini's role was small. But Friedländer does find room to point to the (very minor) roles of the Swiss and Canadian governments, who, while culpably indifferent to the fate of the Jews, were in no way actively hostile, as was the Mufti. Those interested in the story of the Mufti will wish to look at the section devoted to it in Robert Wistrich's much smaller and much more modest "Hitler and the Holocaust" (New York, 2001).

But of course I cannot end on a negative note in writing about this great book. I have read most if not all of the previous comprehensive work on the subject, as well as a good deal of the more specialized literature. In studying this new book by Friedländer, I found new and surprising material on almost every page. I am completely confident that this book marks a turning point in what we know about the Nazi era. Both specialists and general readers owe a tremendous gratitude to the author for having given us this absolutely marvelous work.

The Best Book on Anti-Semitism

The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism, by Walter Laqueur. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0195304292

As I see it, Laqueur's book has advantages over the many other works on the same subject:

1) The author has a sure footing in two millennia of European history. Here and there I found myself in disagreement on matters of fact and interpretation. I looked these things up and found that in all of these cases Laqueur was right and I was wrong. This is not to say that there won't be specialists who can find errors here and there. There is no book that is immune to error. But I do not think that such errors will be numerous or grave.

2) The author is even-handed and sober. He flogs no ideology or partisan program. He is patient with the views of others, even when these are offensive.

3) He has taken the trouble of studying, in depth, what anti-Semites have to say. There are no second-hand condemnations based on handed-down opinions.

4) He knows the byways of history: shadowy characters like Abram Leon, the National Bolshevists, Michael Neumann, Horst Mahler, to name just a few, wander through these pages. Generally it is only the sectologists -- the historians of Trotskyism, the chroniclers of neo-Nazism, etc. -- who bother to tell us much about such figures. But where sectologists are interested only in these shadows, Laqueur shows us the shadows by way of illuminating the broader picture. He lets us travel both byways and highways.

When the messiah finally arrives, books will be perfect. This has not yet happened, and I must report that, indeed, there are things that I wish were better in this book.

Laqueur has no footnotes and only rarely makes direct reference to other scholars. Most of the time this is not a big problem since the facts that he adduces are generally well known, and, with Wikipedia and other internet resources widely available, a reader can often provide his own references, as indeed I have done. Sometimes, however, a topic cries out for emendation by footnote. On page 49, for example, the author mentions the "Deutsche Christen," a Nazi formation of Protestants who repudiated the Old Testament as Jewish. ("Deutsche Christen" is not found in the book's index.) Well, the reader should have been referred here to more information on this group. As it happens, the group Deutsche Christen was repudiated by the Nazi leadership and lost all influence after 1933, and the reader of the present book will be misled if all he reads is what he reads here.

I am also not happy with the long list of (unannotated) recommended readings. It is too long to be of much help. I would have liked to see a much shorter, annotated list of things that the interested reader should look into.

Laqueur tells us that there are about 40,000 books about modern anti-Semitism. My own overall opinion of his work is best expressed by the fact that I have ordered a copy for each of my nine grandchildren. I have included my youngest, now three, because of my confidence that by the time he reaches reading age for this sort of thing -- roughly ten years from now -- this book will still most likely stand as the best scholarly treatment of anti-Semitism.



History of the Ethiopian Jews: A Scholar Separates Fact from Fiction

The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia. From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century. By Steven Kaplan. New York U.P., 1992. ISBN 0814746640

The study of this book proved to be a distinct pleasure. It was exciting to see Kaplan clear away the accretions of ignorance and superstition about Ethiopian Jews, one piece after another, relentlessly. That is the polemical aspect of the book, important now, but not necessarily as important in time to come, as the main outline of the history of Ethiopian Jews becomes better understood.

Briefly put, Kaplan shows that Ethiopian Jews are unlikely to have come to Ethiopia from some other place. They are not likely to be some lost tribe of the original children of Israel, for example. He shows the deep Ethiopian roots of these "Beta Israel," which they share with Ethiopian Christians. The latter are more Jewish, and the former more Christian, than the Jews and Christians of Europe. Furthermore, it seems most likely that these Ethiopian Jews, though in some sense continuing earlier Ethiopian Judaism, arose as a group, more or less gradually, only between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The sources that Kaplan describes are early reports by travelers on the one hand, and the Ethiopian writings in the Ge'ez (and later Amharic) languages on the other. He also utilizes the oral traditions of today's Beta Israel. In the main, other scholars have confirmed Kaplan's principal conclusions, particularly James Quirin("The Evolution of Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920," 1992) and Kay Kaufman Shelemay("Music, History, and Falasha History," 1989).

Kaplan's last two chapters, as well as the concluding one, are particularly fascinating. They tell the story of the Beta Israel's growing Jewish self-identification and indeed Zionism during the last two hundred years of their history, much of it in response to both European Christian and European Jewish contacts. The earlier five chapters, covering a period of about a millennium, is more hurried and, to this reader, sometimes confusing in its plethora of names and dates.

Kaplan is not interested in a history of ideas, not even religious ideas. Certain groups are introduced as "Judaized" or even Jews, but it is not always clear how their religious ideas differed from those whom he calls Christian. We can suspect, but often it is only a suspicion, that the Jews did not accept Jesus as god while the Christians did. Rarely does this become explicit in the book. Moreover, we are told that the Beta Israel's Torah is called orit, and that, like other Beta Israel literature, it seems to have come from Ethiopian Christian sources after some changes were made. We are not told quite what these changes were. It would have helped to define Jewish-Christian differences, in the realm of religious ideas, more sharply.

Notwithstanding these reservations, I see this book as of very fundamental importance. It is one of those works that have changed the thinking of a generation. We owe the author a very profound gratitude.


How the Ethiopian Jews Made it to Israel

Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews by Stephen Spector, Oxford U.P., 2005

ISBN: 0195177827

Over 14,000 black Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Addis Ababa to Israel within a day and a half in 1991. It is an outstanding event in Jewish history, an outstanding achievement for Israel and its helpers among the Jews of the world.

This book tells the story in exciting detail. The author, a professor of English at SUNY Stonybrook, guides us through the labyrinthian detail of infighting, political machination, financial hanky-panky, but eventual triumph. His tone throughout is admirably objective. He tells us about the arguments for and against the project. He leaves it to the reader to provide a final judgement, but there will be few who can withhold admiration for the achievements of those most closely associated with this airlift.

Among these latter, notably, is a group of American Jews who stood outside the Jewish establishment and, often acting fanatically, seem to have made all the difference. One of these, Susan Pollack, deserves more than a footnote when the history of modern Judaism is written.

The author has interviewed hundreds, both in Israel and the United States, and he seems to have read everything that has any bearing on the subject. One of the best features of the book is the exhaustive bibliography and suggestions for further reading, which are sprinkled throughout the book.

But since the author is not an expert on either Ethiopia or Ethiopian Jews, there are some notable weaknesses in the book. He tells us (p. 136), on the authority of gossip by an American embassy official, that "Oromo kids" created havoc on the streets of Addis Ababa at a certain point. Anyone more sophisticated about inter-ethnic conflict in Ethiopia would be wary about making such a reckless, undocumented charge.

In the end, the book is what it is: a remarkably detailed, documented account of one of the greatest events in Jewish history. And it is also contains references to some of the scholarly literature on the Ethiopian Jewish background. It would be churlish to ask for more. For those interested in the scholarly literature, I have given some sources in my review of Shelemay's book (see below).


How to do research on Ethiopian Jews

A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey by Kay Kaufman Shelemay; ISBN 0252064321; University of Illinois Press, 1991, 1994 (p.b.)

This is a book of great scholarly significance which also happens to be a thrilling read. It tells how a distinguished scholar goes about her work when that work is both demanding and dangerous.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay's sojourn among the Beta Israel in rural Ethiopia in the 1970s was accomplished against great odds, and stands as a monument to anthropological field work. Think of it: before she ever went, in preparation for work in northern Ethiopia and while still an American graduate student, she studied Hebrew and Amharic in Israel, then more Amharic and Ge'ez (the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christians and Jews) in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. And, now in retrospect, the study of these difficult languages appears as the easy part. She often had to work without any of the comforts of Western life, sometimes while bullets were literally flying around her. How many people bring so much courage, so much mental, emotional, and sheer physical determination to a study of anything ?

Once her work was accomplished, Shelemay was able to join the small handful of distinguished scholars who, in the course of about twenty years, revolutionized our understanding of Ethiopian Jews. Among the others are, most notably, Steven Kaplan ("The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia," 1992) and James Quirin ("The Evolution of Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920," 1992). Shelemay's own major work is "Music, History, and Falasha History," 1989.

To put it briefly, these scholars have shown the Ethiopian Jews to share with Ethiopian Christians a long history of Judeo-Christian culture in Ethiopia. It is not for nothing that the Ethiopian emperors were considered descendants of King Solomon. These scholars have shown Ethiopian Christians and Jews to share a now-sacred language (Ge'ez), as well as much of their liturgy and their religio-cultural outlook. If one were to look for something to fault Shelemay, it may be her emphasis on Christian-Jewish similarity to the exclusion of some very real differences. This latter task, clarifying the differences, has now been undertaken by a younger Israeli scholar, Hagar Salamon ("The Hyena People," 1999).

Shelemay's "A Song of Longing" only touches lightly upon the results of her field work. Most of the book is taken up with a very detailed account of the nuts and bolts of doing the work: all the unbelievable difficulties, all the dangers, and, perhaps most striking of all, the details of the Marxist takeover that occurred while she was there and that ultimately ended her stay in the country. There is even a love story with a happy ending, but I must leave that to the reader to discover for himself.

In a book of such exceptional quality, the editorial blemishes can almost be overlooked. Almost, but not quite. The publisher and his copy editors were clearly asleep while this book was in production. It is riddled with typos, grammatical errors, malapropisms. The index is almost a joke. The Ge'ez language, so crucial to the author's story and frequently mentioned by her, cannot be found in this index ! The publisher owes it to his own conscience -- not to speak of the world of scholarship -- to prepare a corrected edition forthwith.


Greater Ethiopia

Greater Ethiopia; The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, Second Edition, by Donald N. Levine, University of Chicago Press, 2000

The great contribution of Professor Levine's book, as I see it, is its very broad picture of the history and ethnography of the various people who inhabit what he terms Greater Ethiopia. This would includes, at least, the current countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea. He manages to give an extremely valuable accounting of both the ethnographic (anthropological) and the historical scholarship -- two worlds that are not customarily combined.

By and large, he sees two contrasting cultures: a) that of the Amhara (and associated Tigreans), and b) that of the Oromo, also known as Galla. The ancient civilization of the Amhara is Christian and Jewish, while the culture of the Oromo is, traditionally, African pagan, although today the Oromo have largely adopted Christianity and Islam. In Levine's view, it is the synthesis of Amhara and Oromo, under emperors who trace their origins to King Solomon, that makes for the unique social system that he calls Greater Ethiopia. The key to the self-understanding of the people who embrace this synthesis, according to Levine, is the fourteenth century Tigrean literary work "Kibre Negest" ("Glory of Kings," sometimes transliterated as 'Kebra Nagast').

Levine's work is now more than thirty years old, so we would not expect it to cover all of the latest scholarship. The second edition of 2000 has a new introduction and additions to the bibliography, but is otherwise unchanged. One of the virtues of these additions, however, is that Levine explicitly mentions the fact that "three important studies have transformed our understanding of the Beta Israel (Falasha)," i.e. the Ethiopian Jews. Here he lists the works of Steven Kaplan, Jim Quirin, and Kay Kaufman Shelemay.

In addition to the history and ethnography in this work, there is also an attempt to apply the theories of Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, S. N. Eisenstadt, and other "grand theorists" of sociology. Being more empirically minded, I do not find this kind of theory very helpful in the present context. This may very well be my own shortcoming rather than that of the author. In any case, no amount of "grand theory" can substantially diminish the value of this book for anyone looking for empirical description. All around: an astounding feat of scholarship.



An insider's description of French Trotskyism: Goon Squads and Cult of Personality

Les Lambertistes : Un courant trotskiste francais by Philippe Campinchi

The Trotskyists in France have, as these things go, struck it big. Unlike their comrades elsewhere, they now have quite a respectable number of people voting for them. Some ten percent of the French electorate, in fact, currently votes Trotskyist.

There may be dozens of Trotskyist groups in France, but only three sizable ones: a) Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, led by Krivine, et al.; b) Lutte Ouvrière, nominally led by Arlette Laguiller but actually by a mysterious old man known as "Hardy," and finally c) the Parti des Travailleurs, led by an octogenarian known as Pierre Lambert.

This last group, the "Lambertistes," is the topic of this altogether extraordinary book.

I have more than a dozen books in my home that deal with the French Trotskyists. Most of them (but not all !) have added to my knowledge to some extent. But only this volume, by the ex-Lambertiste Phillippe Campinchi, is totally satisfactory. He does tell us enough of the dreary version of Marxism espoused by Lambert, but that is not the main contribution of this book, nor is it an inherently interesting subject. What is interesting, and what Campinchi tells in detail and with verve and wit, is how this Trotskyist cult operates from day to day: the absolutism of its leadership cult, the group's obsession with secrecy, the intrigues that allow the group to manipulate trade unions and other organizations, and, not least, the goon squads of toughs that it employs and that compete with the goons of other groups.

For me, the description of these goon squads ("service d'ordre [SO],") was a highlight in the book. These "comrades of violence," always male and muscular, march in front of Lambertist parades, carrying wooden sticks. They are led by a member of the Polical Bureau, who marches a few paces ahead, and is responsible for the operation.

This book is about the Lambertistes, but, by implication, it also tells us about a great many other political extremists.


If you are serious about your pictures...

Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 Complete Course by Jan Kabili
ISBN: 0764540939

"Pas sérieux, s'abstenir," ['if you don't mean it, leave it alone'] French saying.

If all you want to do is rotate your picture, lighten it up a bit and crop out what doesn't belong, in other words if you are a point-and-shoot person, don't get PSE or this book. There are easier programs that do such elementary chores. To get involved with PSE you have to be more serious about your pictures than that. But, now, let's say that you are serious, that you are willing to invest some hours to learn a little more about the possibilities of digital photography. In that case, there really is nothing better than the combination of this excellent book and a sophisticated camera. (I use the Nikon D-70, which has provision for interchangeable lenses. Canon makes something similar.) This book, while written in simple language and not requiring any particular background to read, does require effort. You need to spend quite a few hours to study this work. But the rewards of this effort are great. The book takes you through every nook and cranny of the PSE, and, believe me, there are quite a few such nooks and crannies. Once you have studied this book, you will be a better person -- well, a better photographer anyway. But if you are not serious about spending the time and effort, forget it; just click with your point-and-shoot and let it go at that.


Just why did Hiss insist on innocence to the end ?

Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy by G. Edward White

ISBN: 0195153456

When Alger Hiss was interviewed by the Washington Post in 1986, he answered in the affirmative when asked whether he admired Stalin. "Oh yes. In spite of knowing the extent of his crimes...." G. Edward White reports this incident without comment, as if it were of no import. This light-headedness about Hiss's hard-core Communist commitment makes this important book less useful than it could have been.

The essential work about Alger Hiss, of course, is the book entitled "Perjury" by Allen Weinstein (second edition, 1997). The present volume adds additional details that buttress Weinstein's conclusions that Hiss was guilty of espionage for the Soviets. But White is particularly strong in biographical and psychological details. Hiss is shown to have been a particularly intelligent, well-spoken, urbane, educated, and kind-hearted person. The fact that this man was also a traitor to his country and a persistent, life-long liar about his espionage is treated by White as a psychological puzzle. But White's psychological explanations are not convincing. There are, after all, many well-educated, charming WASP Americans who never become traitors. Why did Hiss ?

Hiss spent many decades of his life insisting that he was "inncocent" and wrongfully convicted. In this campaign he was assisted by The Nation magazine and others with connection to the political Left. For former and continuing Communists especially, it remains an absolute article of faith that both Hiss and the Rosenbergs were "innocent," despite the completely air-tight proof that they were intelligence agents for Stalin. What accounts for this discrepancy between the evidence on the one hand and these persistent, apparently sincere, self-righteous professions of "innocence" ?

In the case of the Rosenbergs, it has been suggested (and unfortunately I cannot remember by whom) that from the point of view of committed, devoted Communists, there was nothing more heroic and moral, and therefore completely innocent, than service to international Communism (in the days when there still was such a thing). So the self-righteousness of Hiss was perfectly sincere. He was innocent in every possible way that makes sense to a Communist. In fact, anyone who doubts this supreme innocence is himself a depraved red-baiter, anti-Communist hysteric, McCarthyite, and so forth.

To White, living in a mental word in which treason and perjury are crimes, Hiss's self-righteousness is a problem to be explained psychologically. But once the nature of Communist devotion is understood, the mystery vanishes.


There's less to the inkblots than meets the eye

What's Wrong with the Rorschach? Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test by James M. Wood, et al

ISBN: 078796056X

Almost everyone has heard of the Rorschach test. It consists of a series of ten ink blots that are presented to the patient with a request to tell what he sees in them. The responses constitute, or so it is claimed, something of an x-ray of the respondent's total personality and character.

Why should such perceptions of ink blots give a such a powerful picture of mental life ? The reasons are said to lie in psychoanalytic theory, which hold that unconscious motivations, unique to an individual, govern our every perception. Moreover, it has been said, the Rorschach test "works," i.e. it can predict behavior, and it can tell the mentally sick from the healthy.

But, as these authors painstakingly demonstrate, there is amost no validity whatever in these claims. It is true that gross mental illness can generally be detected by this test, as, for instance, when a patient claims that he can very clearly see God conversing with Elvis Presley in Card I of the test. But then again, this kind of diagnosis surely needs no Rorschach. Beyond that, the test has failed each and every reasonable attempt at validation. Scientifically oriented psychologists have rejected the Rorschach a long time ago. Some clinical psychologists hold on to it, for reasons that are not -- to put this politely -- edifying.

To someone like me who has been exposed to Rorschach instruction in graduate school many years ago, this book gives truly fascinating information. The abysmal failure to validate the test, of course, is no news. But the details about the internal battles within clinical psychology give a rare insight into the foibles of apparently educated men. The authors are particularly good at analyzing why it is that for certain people the test, to this day, retains credibility. The answer here turns out to be strikingly similar to the reasons why fortune tellers can thrive in a presumably science-dominated world.

When I was an undergraduate psychology student a truly long time ago, I had a great teacher, Gardner Murphy, whose memory I cherish to this day. Upon reading this book, I took Gardner Murphy's old text from my shelf to see what he had to say about the Rorschach. I was shocked to find that he accepted the unfounded claims of the Rorschachers of his day, citing studies that were never replicated by anyone else. So it turns out that Murphy had feet of clay.

But Murphy wrote long before the devasting negative findings that Wood, et. al. cite in this book. So he had something of an excuse for his gullibility. No such excuse can be advanced for those who support the Rorschach today.

I think that this is an exceedingly important book, and I reward it five stars without qualm. Nevertheless I must mention that it could have benefitted from more than a bit of editing. It is inexcusably repetitious. Beyond that, the prose is needlessly rough. But these are minor complaints. The book is a jewel, a rough diamond to be sure, but a true jewel.


Playing politics with the Middle East

Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Policy Papers (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), No. 58.) by Martin S. Kramer
$16.96; ISBN: 0944029493

The topic, at first glance, is very narrow. This is not a book about how to study the Middle East, nor about American academia, but about the intersection of these: how the Arab Middle East in fact is and has been studied in American universities.

Once this narrow focus is understood and accepted by the reader, there is a fascinating read here. Kramer is very knowledgeable about the inner workings of "Middle Eastern Studies," and more particularly about the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). The story he has to tell is actually more entertaining than most of the novels with academic settings, and the humor more mordant, because it is all true, alas. The second chapter about Edward Said is worth the price of the book.

Of course the Marxists and other Israel-bashers won't like this book -- it tells us too much about them.

That said, there are regretful lacunae in Kramer's book. It would seem that "area studies," of which the Middle Eastern is but one, can lend themselves to superficiality perhaps more than the traditional disciplines of history, language study, sociology, religious studies, etc. Kramer is a bit evasive on this. And Kramer is also a tad too fond of social science jargon. "Paradigm," a word introduced with the present meaning by Thomas Kuhn back in 1962, appears on practically every page of Kramer's book. Kuhn himself, in the second edition of his book, in 1970, found himself obliged to clarify his meaning.

But these are minor quibbles. I learned a great deal from this book, especially about the pretensions of (some of) America's academics. Five stars here, well earned.



Those notorious "Protocols"

Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Norman Rufus Colin Cohn, Norman Cohn
$13.57 ISBN: 1897959257

The New York Times of October 26, 2002 tells us, in a front-page story, that "Anti-Semitic 'Elders of Zion' Gets New Life on Egypt TV." So now, almost 60 years after the downfall of Hitler, his favorite book and his favorite mania are once more resurrected. What to do ? The first thing surely is to consult the most scholarly study of the topic, by a namesake of mine (but no relative). I first purchased this volume in a Pelican edition back in 1976. Since then I have read much on the notorious "Protocols," but nothing else can compare to this outstanding treatment by one of the great historians on the 20th century.


Synagogue politics

The New Rabbi : A Congregation Searches for Its Leader by STEPHEN FRIED

The book gives us quite fascinating details of the inner life of a Philadelphia Conservative synagogue, and, by implication, all synagogues. Even people who have belonged to synagogues for years will find much of interest and many insights.

But when the book purports to tell the story of rabbinical succession, it falls short. The author interviewed an admirable number of the players in this drama. But what he has learned does not add up to a coherent account.

The author focuses on the "search committee," and, indeed, it would seem that this is where most of the decisions were made. But he fails to give us the context: 1) what are the rules for appointing such committees ?; 2) how in fact was the committee appointed ? 3) how were committee decisions ratified by the board and/or congregation ?

To answer 1), we need to know something about the bylaws of the congregation. Bylaws are never mentioned in this book. Nor is the Religious Corporation Law of the state, which generally sets a legal environment for the congregation.

To answer 2), we need to know something about the politics of the congregation, and its factions and cliques. The author suggests that at least one member of the congregation wanted to be on the search committee but was not appointed. But he doesn't follow up by asking who, why, and how one makes it to a committee of this sort.

To answer 3), we would again need to know about the bylaws. Do they require ratification by the congregation, by the board, by whom ? Beyond the bylaws which set the formal rules, again, we need to know how the procedure works in practice.

In short, the book does not tell us about the actual group dynamics, that is to say the politics of the congregation. Internal politics work by factions and cliques. To learn how these work, we need to know who talks to whom and how, inside and outside the formal meetings.

But despite these shortcomings, this is a book that anyone with an interest in the sociology of American religion will want to read.


Hitler's "Final Solution"

The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: A Reconsideration by Mark Roseman
$23.00 ISBN: 0805068104

On the surface, this short, brilliant study deals primarily with the notorious Wannsee Conference of January 1942, at which top Nazi officials decided on crucial modalities of the Holocaust.

But below the surface, the book does much more. The greatest of its many virtues is that it brings us up to date on the the most recent scholarship concerning the whole of the Nazi persecution of Jews, including the historical roots of the policy. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Roseman gives them to us: who did what and when and how. It is the details that tell us how the previously unthinkable -- the cold-blooded murder of six million Jews -- was accomplished by the highly educated elite of the Nazi state.

In the past historians have argued about the precise personal responsibility of Hitler. Some have insisted that this responsibility was overwhelming, others have held that the main motive force came from the workings of the Nazi bureaucracy. Roseman shows that the most recent findings give credence to both factors: without Hitler's very personal involvement, there would have been no Holocaust; nor could it have been carried out without the enthusiastic complicity of hundreds of major Nazi officials.

It is in the nature of this kind of book that it will perhaps be of greatest interest to those who have already read other, more general works, for instance Wistrich's equally brilliant but more introductory "Hitler and the Holocaust." Nevertheless, Roseman's volume can be recommended even to beginners in this area.

Among the facts shown by Roseman that may be new to many readers are the the following: the greatest responsibility for the mass murder, after Hitler, belongs to Heinrich Himmler; the Nazis planned to kill eleven million European Jews, almost twice as many as they ultimatelymore than half of the Holocaust victims perished succeeded in reaching; more than half of the Holocaust victims perished between March 1942 and February 1943; and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the titular head of the Arab Palestinians at the time, visited Hitler in November of 1941 and was given assurance by Hitler that he would "solve" the problem of Jews.


What everyone needs to know about the Holocaust

Hitler and the Holocaust (Modern Library Chronicles) by ROBERT S. WISTRICH

What makes this fine book such an outstanding achievement is that it combines two qualities that rarely go together: a) an authoritative introduction to a complex subject, suitable for a beginner; and b) a summary of the most current technical findings, suitable for the expert. This book can confidently be given to a high school student, whose knowledge of modern history will, with this book alone, take a qualitative leap forward. And it should be read by those who have already read everything else on the subject, whose knowledge will be brought up-to-date. As always, Professor Wistrich's style is fluent and engaging, and the Modern Library has done its part by producing a physically attractive object.
I do have just two little quibbles. It would have been useful, particularly for the beginner, to include suggestions for further readings in a special section. Professor Wistrich does make such suggestions, but they are somewhat buried in his Notes. And for the serious student, an alphabetic list of all the cited references would have made life just a little easier.


Communism in summary

Communism : A History(Modern Library Chronicles) by RICHARD PIPES
$19.95; ISBN: 0679640509

The Modern Library is to be congratulated on its short, authoritative summaries of historical research by outstanding historians. I refer not only to its volume by Richard Pipes, "Communism," but also to its altogether excellent "Hitler and the Holocaust" by Robert S. Wistrich. The Pipes volume, as is to be expected from Richard Pipes, is a tour de force of historical summary and interpretation. It is one of those books that can be given to a teenager for a quick introducction to an importatnt subject, and can also be read by knowledgeable adults for its often new and striking insights. But excellent as it is for its overview -- particularly in its introductory and concluding chapters -- this book also shows signs of haste in its composition. Its weaknesses, as I see them, are four: 1) The tone is often overbearing, opinionated, arrogant. Reasonable people can have different views on many of the issues that it discusses, but Professor Pipes shows little patience to entertain any such dissent. 2) In his apparent haste to do this overview, too many topics that should have been included are not. The important French, German, and American Communist leaders, for example, cannot be found in the index. 3) The Suggestions for Further Reading, which should be so important in a work of this kind, are inadequate. 4) There are more errors than can be justified. It is not true that Lenin's Council of People's Commissars consisted "exclusively of Bolsheviks," as is claimed on page 40; on page 45, a non-Bolshevik on this Council is quoted and named. It is not true that Djilas was the first to speak of a new Soviet exploiting class (p. 167). This had been done many years earlier by Bruno Rizzi, James Burnham, Max Shachtman, and others. It is not true that Lenin was unaware of the negative aspects of Stalin (p. 57). In fact, Lenin had warned against Stalin in his famous "Testament." A more leisurely writing and a more careful editing could have eliminated such howlers. Nevertheless, overall, this is a very valuable summary statement of what Communism was like.

A literary sendup of Trotskyism

A Way in the World : A Novel by V.S. NAIPAUL
ISBN: 0679761667

My primary interest in this book is the fifth story, "On the Run." This is the fictional rendering of an actual person, viz. CLR James, the Black literary Trotskyist originally from Trinidad, the home of Naipaul. In the story James is called "Lebrun," and some of the unimportant details have been slightly altered. James, who died in 1989 in his eighties, has recently enjoyed a bit of posthumous lionization at the hands of certain left-wing writers. While Naipaul deals with him with utmost gentleness, there is no escaping the fact that James was an inveterate sorehead, a notorious womanizer, an energetic blowhard, a careful organizer of his own coterie in several countries. Naipaul suggests that there may also have been a sinister side to Lebrun/James. He doesn't insist, but the suggestion is there. Let the reader decide !


The must-have dictionary

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language by American Heritage Dictionaries (Editor)
$40.80; ISBN: 0395825172

I am a man of many dictionaries, in many languages. I keep a Webster-Merriam Unabridged in my study, plus earlier editions of the American Heritage, and I also keep one-volume dictionaries in each room of my house. But this present 4th edition American Heritage is very special; it has quickly become my favorite of all the English-language dictionaries that I own. First, there is the physical layout -- the beautiful pictures, the type face that makes for easy reading, the wonderful color. But mainly it is a matter of sheer amount and quality of information. Try, for instance, the "f-word." Of course we all know how to spell it and what it means when a teenager yells it. But did you its history in the English language ? The 4th edition tells it. You may think that you don't want to know, but after you read this word history, and many others in this book, you know that you will not want to do without this dictionary ever again. Of course, this book is no substitute for an unabridged. I tried it on the phrase "term of art," something that comes up frequently in court opinions and other learned discussions. This dictionary will not tell you what the phrase means, but my trusty Webster-Merriam Unabridged will. So you see, you too need to be a person of many dictionaries, or at the very least of two.


Living as a Nobel laureate

Bellow - A Biography by JAMES ATLAS
ISBN: 0394585011

Everyone who loves Bellow will need to read this book. It is breathtaking in its thoroughness. It is a very detailed, masterful description of Bellow's life and work, though perhaps a bit more "life" than "work". There is a question of whether quite as much life, especially love life, is really needed, but then the reader of this biography will get insights not only into Bellow's life but also into the life of our time. Atlas obviously has tremendous admiration for Bellow, and the reader of this biography -- THIS reader did-- will go away with a far greater appreciation of Bellow than he had before. And yet there is a problem in Atlas's disapproval of aspects of Bellow's life. There are no doubt moments in Bellow's exhuberant public pronouncements where prudence would have required more tact and more taste, but Atlas surely goes too far when he accuses Bellow -- repeatedly ! -- of such non-PC lapses as "racism" and "misogyny". On the evidence, these accusations are unwarranted, in my opinion.


Lyndon LaRouche and other comrades

On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left by Dennis Tourish, Tim Wohlforth
$31.43; ISBN: 0765606399

The misdeeds of cultists like Lyndon LaRouche and Fred Newman should be better known, and here is the book that deals with them authoritatively. (One of Newman's followers, Lenora Fulani, is actually a bit of a menace because of her promotion of fringe candidates like Buchanan and Ross Perot). The book also gives juicy details about some of the Trotskyist groups, mainly in England. But when it comes to right-wing extremists, the book is less authoritative. And the theoretical discussions, borrowing from social science speculations, are fairly weak.


What the Supreme Court says

The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions by Kermit L. Hall (Editor), Kermit Hall (Editor)
$31.97;ISBN: 0195118839

I found this work fantastically helpful in locating and reading the gist of all the important cases that the Supreme Court has decided. Just a little complaint, however: the index of cases, said to be complete, is not. Loewe v. Lawlor, described on p. 163, for instance, is not listed in the index of cases. Unfortunately, I also found a few other cases which, though treated in the book, are inexplicably missing from this index.



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