From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History

Here are some excerpts from this 2020 book:

* “[Salo] Baron was quite right in saying that until Emancipation Jews survived because of their national religion. Not that there was first a people and then a religion, but that both were forged together.”53 His comment, and, indeed, Baron’s perspective on Jewish modernity, betrayed a pessimism—or at least a qualification—about the cohesion of the Jewish collectivity in modern Europe. In this pessimistic view, the liberal emancipatory state, which affirmed individual rights over the group, could not be hospitable to Jewish national claims.54 Baron also expressed severe reservations about the fate of the Jews in the context of the modern nation-state’s drive toward ethnic homogeneity, concluding that “the status of the Jews was most favorable in pure states of nationalities (i.e., states in which several ethnic groups were included, none having the position of a dominant majority); least favorable in national states (i.e., where state and nationality, in the ethnic sense, were more or less identical); and varying between the two extremes in states which included only part of a nationality.”55 This insight was not lost on Kalmanovitch and other Jewish intellectuals in interwar Poland, where supporters of Polish nationalism increasingly viewed the Jews as a foreign element alien to Polish society. Kalmanovitch concluded that the best option was a territorialist solution that allowed for the flourishing of an autonomous Jewish collectivity.

* Antisemitism was the ever-present shadow enshrouding Lucy’s Vilna year. The antisemitism she observed was not limited to disgruntled lower social classes but also permeated the most educated and elite strata of society.75 Writing about Polish antisemitism in From That Place and Time, she linked hooliganism with the university, uncoupling the liberal Enlightenment assumption that aspiration for broadened intellectual horizons meant an equally expansive conception of ethnic and civic toleration. The numerus clausus and the ghetto benches encouraged the view—even among the country’s “enlightened” professoriate and youth—that Jews were not Poles. Indeed, Lucy noted, “The most zealous practitioners of hooliganism and the most reliable source of supply for hooligans were the students at the University of Vilna.”76 In 1979 she recalled the part that the university elite played in demonizing the Jews in interwar Poland.

“I remember the shock of my first encounter with that Polish nationalist anti-Semitism. It was just then the beginning of the school year and Polish university students were picketing a stationery store—a Jewish stationery store—which sold school supplies. The store was on one of Vilna’s main streets. School children as well as adults who wanted to buy there were assaulted and even pedestrians walking by who looked Jewish were insulted and abused. . . . For me it was the first lesson in what would become a system of continuing political education: the university was no bulwark against prejudice and neither the study of philosophy nor the pursuit of literature would prove to be a defense against the sickness of bigotry and anti-Semitism.”

* In two articles for the New Leader, a socialist anti-communist paper sponsored by the Tamiment Institute, and one for Commentary, Dawidowicz condemned the Rosenbergs’ actions and the tactics of the Committee to Secure Justice for the Rosenbergs, founded by the communist journalist William A. Reuben in 1952. Her positions were clear. The US government was not antisemitic; the guilty conviction of the Rosenbergs was deserved; and their punishment befitted the crime. They were unrepentant, she believed, not because they were innocent but because they desired to be communist martyrs. Had the Rosenbergs cherished their lives—and their children’s—they could have pleaded guilty and plea-bargained, as did Morton Sobell.37 In “ ‘Anti-Semitism’ and the Rosenberg Case: The Latest Communist Propaganda Trap,” Dawidowicz traced what she saw as the bald manipulation of American Jewish fears of antisemitism by communists, particularly by Jewish communists writing in both Yiddish and English.38 In her view, the claim that the Rosenbergs’ “Jewishness” informed their arrest and sentence had no foundation.

* She remained skittish about the Jewish attraction to the Left throughout her life. In 1961 she wrote to John Slawson, noting that Nathan Glazer’s The Social Basis of American Communism was perceptive about the party’s appeal to Jews, but concluded that she was “not at all sure that its publication is particularly good for Jews.”

* Consistent with the AJC’s default liberal optimism regarding conflicts between varying ethnic and religious minorities in the United States, the memo made clear that “the rising proportion of non-whites in our big cities—Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans (i.e., Mexican Indians, for the most part)—is not responsible for the woes of the metropolis.” The crisis in cities began with poor planning that did not accommodate the rapid growth of the urban population, many of whom were poor, and that targeted nonwhite areas for urban redevelopment. The memo highlighted social class, race, and geography as a combustible trio leading up to the current urban malaise affecting, most prominently, Newark, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Segregated housing undermined educational opportunity for poor, inner-city nonwhites: “Bad neighborhoods had bad schools—antiquated, hazardous and inadequate for the swelling school population.” Yet civil rights solutions, such as voluntary school desegregation, had aroused public protests. So too had the strategy, urged by some black civil rights activists, for blacks to “buy black” and boycott white establishments. The close contact and unequal social status between middle-class whites and lower-class nonwhites had unleashed acts of violence that, in turn, “have intensified white hate, fear and prejudice.” The memo recognized the special plight of nonwhites whose racial difference was a “double burden” compared to the discrimination faced by earlier urban immigrants. Still it warned that “Negro Militancy” nurtured by profound economic inequity held “explosive potential” for conflict.

The memo also underscored the problem of “scapegoating.” Scapegoating persisted because most Americans viewed African Americans and Puerto Ricans—a minority group sometimes grouped with African Americans in the AJC’s literature—as a group, not as individuals, treating the sins of one as the sins of all. “It is a simple step from the stereotype of group behavior—the notion that delinquency is characteristic of a group, whether for reasons of environment or of culture—to the idea of collective guilt,” which had to be avoided at all costs. Discrimination in housing, education, and employment; the use of negative imagery and stereotyping; and poor media coverage of intergroup relations were all characteristic parts of the Committee’s work, but the memo urged the AJC and its chapters to push further to rectify these social ills.

* Between 1920 and 1960, Jews constituted the city’s largest “ethnic-religious” element in New York City schools. At their highest numbers, 33 percent of all students and 45 percent of all teachers were Jews.

* The cracks in northern Jewish support for civil rights grew from 1964 forward as American society imploded… In 1963, Murray Friedman published “The White Liberal’s Retreat,” tracing the worries of northern white liberals confronted with African American political demands on their own doorstep. “Northern migration has shifted the center of the race problem to the metropolitan areas of the North and West,” Friedman wrote. “The Negro is no longer an abstraction to the white liberal but a concrete reality—in many instances, a potential or actual next-door neighbor, a classmate of his child’s, a coworker at office or workbench.”97 The “retreat” of white liberals from the radicalizing civil rights movement, he concluded, was not simply a display of hypocrisy but reflected actual changed priorities on the part of middle-class liberal whites who had moved to the suburbs, chosen private over public education, and advocated for grouping or tracking students in classes based on performance. These decisions reflected the desire for upward mobility, societal security, and maintenance of educational standards, values that, while deeply ingrained in American society, served to reinforce color lines and further systemic racism.

* The riots of the long hot summer of 1964, which targeted white-owned businesses, pointed to the gap between the leadership of the civil rights movement and the African American masses. While Martin Luther King Jr. condemned the looting of Jewish property in the Southern Israelite, pledging to uphold “the fair name of the Jews,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency estimated that 80 percent of the wrecked and looted businesses were owned by Jews. It was difficult to assess how much of the violence had been directed at Jews as Jews or as whites.

* The Cold War’s depiction of the Soviet Union as both totalitarian and godless shaped the ways in which postwar American culture positioned religious practice as the linchpin of a healthy democracy. Defining the Jews as a religious group, not a national one, the AJC’s leadership believed that the Jews’ best interests were served not by special Jewish pleading but by making the civic sphere religiously pluralistic, a process that both abetted the secularization of postwar American public life and allowed for Jewish religious distinctiveness. The AJC’s religious definition of Jewishness married harmoniously with Cold War liberalism’s affirmation of religion as a bulwark against the compulsory atheism of communism. Liberal Catholics and Protestants welcomed Jews as an equal partner in the postwar construction of the Judeo-Christian tradition, viewing it as a fundamental component of the American democratic ethos.

But defending Judaism as a religious foot soldier in the battle against atheistic totalitarianism was different from asserting that it belonged in the public sphere. Earlier than most of her AJC peers, Dawidowicz challenged the liberal organization’s assumption that the Jewish community’s best interests were served by an iron wall of separation between church and state.

* In her memo to John Slawson on July 25, 1960, Dawidowicz expressed concerns with the absolute separation of church and state, challenging a cardinal position of the AJC. “We speak always of the Jews as one of the three great religious groups in America,” she wrote. “We stress the religious rather than the ethnic or cultural character of the Jewish group. Yet we consistently—inconsistently, to be correct—take secularist positions on matters affecting church-state relations.”18 In support of her claims, Dawidowicz referred to her earlier December 1959 paper, “The Jewish Position on Released Time and Bible Reading.” The twenty-eight-page memo surveyed the history of the American Jewish communal opposition to any forms of religious education in the public schools. It noted that only the Hasidim consistently supported measures that would allow Jewish parents to educate their children in Judaism on public time and in public space. She qualified the opinion that strict separationism was ultimately in the Jewish interest and provided evidence of successful release time programs that benefited the Jewish community by providing religious instruction to highly assimilated Jewish youth with no or little Jewish educational background. She cautioned that Jewish opposition to Bible reading could backfire. Arguing that most Americans felt completely comfortable with some short reading of scriptural passages in the schools, she noted that “Jews seem[ing] to be the only important religious group contesting Bible reading may create an undesirable impression.”

* In the spring of 1963, Dawidowicz sent a memo to Milton Himmelfarb, “List of Examples Where Church and State Are Not Firmly Established.” The list included “1. personal status, such as marriage ceremonies and baptismal records; 2. the Federal hiring and salarying of chaplains; 3. the participation of clergy in public ceremonies, such as inaugurations, as well as the use of a Bible for official ceremonies; and 4. Federal aid for a whole host of religious purposes.” She noted that religious institutions were exempt from federal taxes. Federal money through the National School Lunch Act supported school lunch programs for the poor, whether in public, private, or parochial schools. Hospitals and other welfare agencies run under religious auspices regularly received federal grants-in-aid. The G.I. Bill, providing veterans with low-cost educational loans, did not distinguish between religious and nonreligious institutions. From her personal experience working with the JDC after the war, she noted that sectarian agencies had played a major role in postwar reconstruction, providing direct and indirect support: “Surplus commodities, free transportation, cooperation with American military forces are the most important instances.”21 Her list made her position clear: the AJCs’s dogmatic view of the inviolable wall separating church from state had to be rethought in light of the glaring inconsistencies in the way the First Amendment had been interpreted and applied in actual federal and state programs. Furthermore, in her view, the complete divorce of issues of “church” and “state” was impossible for the Jews, whose ethnic and cultural bonds inherently blurred the distinction between the two spheres.

* Recognizing the “variety among Americans about the role of religion in society and a desire to take account of these differences in some suitable civic arrangement,” Dawidowicz urged a less separationist interpretation of the First Amendment. She suggested “Shared Time” programs and the exemption of Saturday Sabbath observers from the Sunday closing law as possible solutions to the current stalemate between Americans who wanted more religion in the public sphere and those who feared its influence. Dawidowicz emphasized that new conceptions of civic pluralism required increased tolerance of religious difference and observed that even stalwart Jewish separationists were changing their views: “The once seemingly monolithic Jewish position advocating the complete separation of church from state and of religion from society seems to show signs of breaking down.” As proof, she adduced the fact that the entire rabbinate, not merely the Orthodox, had begun to seek federal aid for Jewish schools.

* In a memo to AJC staffer Anne Wolfe in March 1965, Dawidowicz summed up the work she had done on church-state matters, wryly noting that the Jewish position on federal aid was simple: only Orthodox Jews are in favor. “All other Jewish organizations, except the AJC (and I still don’t understand that one), appear not to be interested either in Jewish education or any education for that matter. They just want to make sure the Catholics do not get a penny.”

* Historians have generally attributed the American Jewish communal elites’ “inward” turn to the years after 1967, spurred by the rise of Black Power, the threat to Israel’s existence evidenced by the Six-Day War, and the rise in Holocaust consciousness.56 Yet Dawidowicz’s internalist turn began much earlier. Even before 1967, she had already begun to pull back from the liberal Jewish consensus that characterized so many of her peers in New York City and at the American Jewish Committee. In many ways, the men who would later become prominent neoconservatives were just catching up with her. Her coworkers at the AJC, such as Milton Himmelfarb, Nathan Perlmutter, and Norman Podhoretz, were already well aware of Dawidowicz’s reassessment of Jewish liberalism as well as of her capacious knowledge of and commitment to Jewish life. But it would take the publication of her first major book, The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, written in the last years of her AJC tenure, to bring her personality, worldview, and erudition to the general public’s eye.

* Even without a formal kahal (the Jewish municipality or institution of self-government in Europe) to compel Jewish group identity, postwar American Jews felt a sense of community, and their electoral choices both reflected and maintained those communal bonds. Dawidowicz’s research affirmed her belief that Jewish communal life was a source of Jewish national, political, and spiritual vitality.

The AJC, however, had to walk a tightrope between affirming Jewish communal life and its values and preventing the perception that those values created a “group” political stance, which could lead to anti-Jewish discrimination. In fact, at a Domestic Affairs Committee meeting in September 1960, concern was voiced about the upcoming presidential election and the prospect of anti-Catholicism harming Kennedy’s candidacy7 and about an article in the New York Times that alluded to the existence of a Jewish voting “bloc.”8 The meeting’s minutes called the article “deplorable,” criticizing “the kind of loose talk about an alleged Jewish vote that has been a part of every election campaign since 1940.” They also noted that only in the case of a “demonstrably anti-Semitic” candidate would the AJC counsel “legitimate Jewish partisanship,” stressing that the Committee’s public mission disavowed any specific Jewish group “interest” except combating anti-Jewish discrimination.

* Dawidowicz positioned her interpretation against the historians known as “functionalists.” Broadly speaking, their view, as evidenced in the work of the German historians Uwe Adam, Hans Mommsen, Götz Aly, and Martin Broszat, was that the Final Solution was not a product of one man’s ideological fervor but rather the evolutionary product of competing Nazi bureaucracies during the expansion of the Nazi war effort into Russian territory.34 The functionalists viewed totalitarianism, not antisemitism, as Nazi Germany’s fundamental problem. In this reading, the victimization of the Jews was a by-product of National Socialism’s push toward the creation of a homogeneous ethnic state. Ideology, for the functionalists, was at best merely instrumental.

The interpretations against which Dawidowicz found herself most in contention were those of Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt. In fact, she conceptualized The War Against the Jews as an argument against Hilberg’s pathbreaking study of the Nazi bureaucratic machine, The Destruction of the European Jews, and Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, works she viewed as the first texts of the functionalist school in the United States.

* The deteriorating relationship between Hilberg and Dawidowicz can be traced in their personal correspondence, book reviews, and memoirs.1 The two died, respectively, in 2007 and 1990, and today their defining books, The Destruction of the European Jews and The War Against the Jews, are read primarily as exemplars of “old school” Holocaust historiography, with Hilberg seen as the quintessential functionalist and master of perpetrator history and Dawidowicz as the foremost proponent of intentionalism. While Hannah Arendt continues to spark intellectual inquiry—as evidenced by monographs, conferences, and symposia devoted to her oeuvre; a 2012 biopic, Hannah Arendt; a 2015 documentary, Vita Activa; and an opera, The Hat, about her first meeting with Martin Heidegger2—Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s persona and work have largely fallen by the intellectual and public wayside.

The relative status of Dawidowicz’s and Arendt’s public reception today presents a reversal of the 1960s and 1970s, when Arendt’s star dimmed and Dawidowicz’s rose. Their oscillating reputations, along with their conflicting perspectives on the destruction of European Jewry and on the Jewish response to Nazism, have mirrored long-standing debates among Jewish intellectuals grappling with the security and vulnerability of the Jews in the modern world.3 At stake were questions about whether Jews should maintain principal loyalties to fellow Jews or embrace the universalist perspective of the Enlightenment; whether they should assimilate and pursue individual freedom or maintain a distinctive collective and national identity; and whether they had genuine allies within gentile society or needed to rely exclusively on Jewish modes of political life. Though these questions had been posed already in the late eighteenth century, they resonated acutely among the New York intellectuals, who struggled to find a balance between their commitments to universalist and particularist values as they integrated into American culture.4

The New York intellectuals’ enthusiastic reception, and then rejection, of Arendt’s person and thought and their subsequent turn to Dawidowicz can be read not merely as a response to their internalization of the horror of the Holocaust but also as a marker of their faith—or lack thereof—in total assimilation….

Given their rush to acculturate, it is no wonder that the New York intellectuals were enthralled with Hannah Arendt. Arriving in New York during their cosmopolitan peak, she perfectly represented their aspirations and values in numerous ways. Born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, Arendt studied at the Universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg, writing a dissertation on the concept of love in St. Augustine’s thought. Fleeing Germany after Hitler came to power, she went to Paris, where she did social work for Youth Aliyah, and in 1941 escaped to the United States, where she was granted entry through a limited visa program for German intellectuals. She quickly mastered English and within two years was writing for a host of English-language journals, both Jewish and general, including Jewish Social Studies, Partisan Review, and The Nation.22 Working as research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations and as chief editor of Schocken Books from 1945 to 1951, she was also associated in varying capacities with Salo W. Baron’s Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. But Arendt’s passion was for the intellectual life of reading, writing, and teaching.23 Writing for Partisan Review was the union card necessary to being considered a New York intellectual, and Arendt, though a late arrival and female, was soon welcomed into what Norman Podhoretz called “The Family.”24 Her pathbreaking book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, founded a whole school of thinking that viewed Nazism and Soviet communism as analogous forms of state terror and secured her place among the New York intellectuals. The book touched a particular chord, outlining the threat to individual freedom posed by these two monstrous twentieth-century state systems whose bureaucracies institutionalized state terror in the form of the Nazi death camp or the Gulag. Arendt became a fixture in the academy, teaching at Princeton University, the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and the New School for Social Research.
Literate, engaged with politics and high culture, and herself a product of the modern German culture so coveted by the New York intellectuals, Arendt personified the cosmopolitan ideal in which Jewishness and universal culture were a seamless whole. Richard Wolin, assessing Arendt’s protean German-Jewish identity, has remarked that the ferocity of attachments and attacks on Arendt illustrates the “profound intellectual magnetism she must have exuded.”25 Steven Aschheim has explained that her appeal reflected “her capacity to integrate Jewish matters into the eye of the storm of world history, to make them explanatory factors in the great catastrophes of twentieth-century history”—and in so doing, to provide “a kind of dignity and importance to a previously marginalized, even derided, existence.”26
As a German-Jewish cosmopolitan intellectual, Arendt commanded intellectual and cultural “capital” for the East European Jewish New York intellectuals. Yet these factors alone do not explain the ease with which she was accepted by them. Arendt also possessed a kind of sexual agency or power that captivated many of these male intellectuals; she had “feminine” or “sexual” capital.27 In New York Jew, Alfred Kazin wrote evocatively of his friendship with Hannah and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, recalling his first meeting with them at a Commentary dinner in the fall of 1947, where he had been “enthralled [by Hannah], by no means unerotically.”28 Richard Cook, Kazin’s biographer, remarked that “Kazin was crazy about her, even in an erotic sense,” and that he described how “he blushed with pleasure holding her arm on the subway.”29 Kazin told his young fiancée, Ann Birstein, whom he once abandoned in the balcony of a lecture hall so he could sit in the orchestra with the object of his infatuation, that he could not love her if she did not love Arendt.30 Diana Trilling recalled that Arendt was attracted to her husband, Lionel Trilling, and “made believe that I did not exist even when we were a few feet apart, staring into each other’s faces.”31 Irving Howe, looking back in his autobiography, recalled that “While far from ‘good-looking’ in any commonplace way, Hannah Arendt was a remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette.” He noted, too, that Arendt “made an especially strong impression on intellectuals—those who, as mere Americans, were dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy.”

“But I always suspected that she impressed people less through her thought than the style of her thinking. She bristled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone in sight to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender in gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm.”32

Her allure resulted in two marriages and what we now know was a lifelong love affair with her philosophy professor at Heidelburg, Martin Heidegger.33 Arendt’s sexual confidence could be felt by men and women in her circle.34
Then came Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book’s publication in 1963 and the controversy it enflamed were part of the process by which the cosmopolitan New York intellectuals began a reassessment of Jewish concerns and, in some cases, a renewed commitment to them. To many of the New York intellectuals of Jewish origin, Eichmann in Jerusalem constituted a perverse moral inversion: the absolution of an arch-Nazi and a crude blaming of his victims. Arendt’s accusation that the Jewish communal leadership had aided the Nazis—when coupled with her German-Jewish dismissal of the East European Jewish background of the defense attorneys and her damning side comments about the irritations of modern Hebrew and the foreign quality of Israeli society—seemed to give the lie to Arendt’s claim that her book was merely a trial report. Clearly it was much more: a referendum on Jewish history and identity.35 For the New York intellectuals, the book challenged their universalist assumptions and punctured their long-held fantasies of the superiority of German culture.
Arendt and Dawidowicz represented the two streams of the same historical-cultural process by which Ashkenazic Jewry—western and eastern, respectively—had negotiated its entry into the modern world. Symbolizing opposing positions on the relationship between universalism and Jewish particularism, they triggered different receptions among the New York intellectuals as they grappled with the major existential and political questions facing western Jewry in the twentieth century. Dan Diner has categorized Arendt’s perspective on the destruction of European Jewry as part of a “Western Jewish narrative,” which took the individual and her break with community and tradition as a starting point.36 The “Eastern Jewish narrative,” in contrast, was constructed upon a basis of collective, national experience that assumed the existence of and ties to a people. Gershon Hundert described the worldview that shaped this narrative as a mentalité. Polish Jewry was secure in itself and experienced “elemental continuities that persist[ed] from the early modern period almost to the present.”

Enter Lucy S. Dawidowicz as the personification of this “Eastern Jewish narrative.” With their turn toward Jewish particularist concerns, the New York intellectuals discovered Dawidowicz and the world of their fathers: not the world of Berlin but rather that of Warsaw, Łódź, Minsk, and Vilna or of one of the hundreds of market towns, shtetlakh, that defined the Jewish landscape of Eastern Europe. In the voluminous literature on the Eichmann controversy, Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945, published twelve years after Arendt’s book, generally falls out of the historiography on the New York intellectuals. Yet it was a signal text in their reconceptualization of the balance between universalism and particularism.
Dawidowicz was unknown to the New York intellectuals in their cosmopolitan peak in part because of her age. Born in 1915, she was only fifteen years old when Partisan Review first appeared.38 Moreover, she only briefly shared their fervor for universalism. And she was not considered an object of sexual desire. The immigrant sons distanced themselves not only from the cultural world of their fathers but also from the domestic world of their mothers.39
Whereas Arendt represented the unattainable German-Jewish ideal, intellectually and sexually, Dawidowicz initially represented the attainable, but unattractive, East European archetype. Maleness and male sexuality were the tickets of admission to the New York intellectuals’ group.40 Only the comeliest women gained entry into the group—Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Diana Trilling, and, much later, Susan Sontag—and then only one woman at a time. As Norman Podhoretz commented in Making It, there could be only one “Dark Lady” of American letters, and she had to be “clean, learned, good-looking, capable of writing family-type criticism as well as fiction with a strong trace of naughtiness.”41 Dawidowicz lacked the academic pedigree, the universalist bona fides, and the requisite “feminine capital” to be accepted into the inner circle.42 She herself felt insecure about her physical attractiveness. Her private papers reveal her disparaging comments about her own looks, height, and general lack of sexual appeal.43 Dawidowicz married at thirty-three, late by the standards of the time. Her husband, Szymon, was twenty years her senior, and while she adored him, and the few letters between them express ardor, Dawidowicz kept a strong wall between her personal life and her scholarship. With no public sexual allure, she could not captivate the attention of the male New York intellectuals.

* Dawidowicz’s rejection of feminism came from her hostility to utopian politics and her concern with the content of Jewish identity that she felt guaranteed her people’s survival.

Dawidowicz’s anti-feminism set her apart from some of her female friends. In 1985, Marie Syrkin addressed the tension between the individualism of feminism and the collectivism of Jewish national movements in her Midstream essay “Does Feminism Clash with Jewish National Need?” Dawidowicz’s rejoinder concluded that second-wave feminism clashed with Jewish national needs because it bore all the signs of the exclusivist vanguardism of earlier revolutionary movements. Feminists were willing to run roughshod over the Jewish common good in order to realize single-minded, separatist goals. Pointedly, she wrote to Joel Carmichael, Midstream’s editor, “Feminism is actually intellectually tiresome, since it is utterly without ideas. It’s really only a politics of resentment. I wrote this piece only to show my respect for Marie.”76 Moreover, sex for Dawidowicz was a private matter, and she rejected second-wave feminism’s assumption that male and female needs were inherently antagonist. The essential binary for Dawidowicz was “Jew” and “non-Jew.” Her primary loyalty was to the Jewish people, not to her sex.

* Among her friends and like-minded colleagues, “On Being a Woman in Shul” was very well received.88 Even Michael A. Meyer, an ordained Reform rabbi and professional historian of German Jewry, found himself in agreement with her conclusions and shared with Dawidowicz an essay he had written as a student at Hebrew Union College in the early 1960s.89 Hardly part of the neoconservative camp, Meyer was concerned with the vitality of non-Orthodox Judaism and argued that the breakdown of gender distinctiveness in liberal Judaism had resulted in passionless, feminized services. What was missing was the “release of emotion we find in the Hasidic Shul and we nostalgically long for it in our own congregations.”90 Reform Judaism had to “regain its virility,” and its rabbis needed to “put back into [their] ministry the masculinity of hard logical thinking.”

Dawidowicz’s essay, and her exchanges with Meyer and other American Jewish intellectuals over the challenges of creating a vital liberal Judaism, formed part of a continuum of Jewish intellectual debate over the competitive pull of Enlightenment values, including gender equality,92 with the equally powerful force of Jewish survival in the modern world. Dawidowicz chose survival over liberalism. Yet in her turn to Jewish practice, she was quintessentially modern and American. Pushed by Carole Kessner to explain her partial embrace of Jewish ritual, Dawidowicz admitted that she was incapable of adopting certain practices, such as “the counting of the Omer” between Passover and Shavuot—“I don’t even know what that means.” She continued, “When people ask what kind of a Jew I am—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform—I joke and answer that I belong to the Selective branch of Judaism. I love the Orthodox service; nothing else will satisfy me, but I observe only what makes sense to me.”93 Moreover, despite her rejection of the feminization of Jewish ritual and of feminism itself, Dawidowicz was aware of her singularity as often being the only woman at scholarly and board meetings or on the roster for public lectures. Speaking with the alumni of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic school in 1971, she thought to begin her remarks, though she later excised them, by noting her sex, warning the “gentlemen” in her audience that “you may be in trouble for talking overmuch with women.”

* When William Styron gave literary expression to Christian Polish suffering in his best-selling novel Sophie’s Choice, Dawidowicz, among other Jewish intellectuals, was outraged.22 She resisted the universalization of the Holocaust with every fiber of her being and could not countenance the book’s focus on gentile Polish victimhood as a representation of the catastrophe. All the dedications of her major works invoked the destruction of European Jewry.23 Her intense identification with the Polish Jewish victims of Vilna and Warsaw meant that she never forgave the Polish Christian population for its behavior under German occupation, whether as bystanders or collaborators. Yet her negative assessment of Sophie’s Choice owed just as much to her view that Styron’s novel was making a leftist political statement, promoting a universalism that shared the New Left’s bias against Jewish cultural distinctiveness.

* Dawidowicz’s post-1982 position rejecting all public criticism of the Israeli government pitted her against many friends. Her letters from the last decade of her life express her new opinion on the limits of American Jewish dissent on Israel’s policies and her decision to disengage from relationships with former friends whom she now viewed as political opponents.46 In October 1983, she informed Leon Wieseltier that since the war in Lebanon, “I prefer the company of like-minded people,” a comment that “rankled him.”47 Lore Segal, the refugee novelist who was part of the coterie of Dawidowicz’s female Jewish writer friends, was unable to win back her favor after they disagreed about politics.48 Her correspondence with the two lodestars of the New York intellectuals, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, illustrates the hardening of her position.

* A child of the 1930s, when ideological passions ran high and so much was at stake, Dawidowicz, a “quasi-survivor,” in her own words, now considered the security, vitality, and autonomy of Jewish collective existence a nonnegotiable component of her identity. By the early 1980s, she had cast her lot with Jewish neoconservatism because she believed its adherents would not tolerate anti-Jewish hatred or bargain with Israel’s future.62 As she had earlier articulated to Irving Howe, Dawidowicz now believed that Israel represented “the embodiment of the Jewish people and concentration of a Jewish cultural and political center.”63 Defending it was an act of diaspora nationalist honor, necessary to protect from the left flank within the Democratic Party.

* In the 1986 reissue of The War Against the Jews, Dawidowicz wrote that her intentionalist views were “now widely shared.”8 This belief in the universal acceptance of her historiographic claims was, as we have seen, wishful thinking. Dawidowicz’s perspective on the causes of the destruction of European Jewry, on the centrality of Hitler’s persona and ideology to the prosecution of World War II, on antisemitism’s long history in Europe and its relation to the Final Solution, and on antisemitism’s elusive, yet tenacious, transmigration onto American soil was soon viewed as amateurish and parochial.

* No discussion of the disjunction between Dawidowicz’s stature in the late 1970s and today would be complete without facing the wide gulf between the scholarly and public reception of The War Against the Jews. That divide emerged again in the response to the publication of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust in 1996.42 Goldhagen focused on the Sonderweg of German antisemitism and, in so doing, reawakened the intentionalist/functionalist debate of Dawidowicz’s period.43 His argument was straightforward. Nineteenth-century antisemitism, an admixture of older Christian anti-Judaism and modern political, economic, and racial forms, prepared German society for what he called a distinctly “eliminationist” attitude toward the Jews, which penetrated into every social class, profession, administrative body, and cultural form in twentieth-century Germany. Employing Alltagesgeschichte, Goldhagen turned this historical methodology on its head. He argued that the German people as a collective whole, not merely the Nazis and their official leadership cadres, embraced the eliminationist view of the Jews that made the Final Solution a German national project. The endemic nature of German antisemitism meant that hatred of the Jews inhered in German society even during the liberal Weimar Republic. In Goldhagen’s reading, German antisemitism produced Hitler—not the other way around.44 As Dawidowicz had done, Goldhagen argued that the antisemitic rhetoric and policies of the 1930s paved the way for the “genocidal solution.”45

Goldhagen’s book garnered stellar reviews and went into numerous reprintings in the United States. It was also very well received by the German public.46 Yet professional historians and scholars of modern German history and the Holocaust sharply critiqued his interpretation.47 Steven Aschheim noted that the scholarly opprobrium of Hitler’s Willing Executioners was directly correlated to its public approbation. Scholars criticized Goldhagen’s book for its monocausality, its lack of nuance, and its simplistic archetype history that posited an essential divide between good and evil, German and Jew, perpetrator and victim, banality and monstrosity, and particularism and universalism,48 charges similar to those cast against Dawidowicz.

* Dawidowicz did, nonetheless, judge the interiority of Germans, writing that “in planning and executing the Final Solution, [they] played the role of the Devil and his hosts.”54 The elite leadership among the Nazis, inspired by Hitler’s demonic antisemitism, had historical agency. With free will, they trespassed the universal human commandment not to murder by designing a genocide. For many years after the war, Dawidowicz grouped “ordinary Germans” into her condemnation of Nazi brutality. Convinced that they had been indoctrinated with antisemitic views, she found them as guilty as their leaders in “the war against the Jews.” Yet by 1986, she allowed that a new generation of (West) Germans could once again assert their free will, reentering human society with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. The Sonderweg was not immutable.

This concession, however, did not extend to those subjects of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Dawidowicz’s anti-communism and her view of the totalitarian nature of Soviet society left no room for “Soviet subjectivity.” As we have seen from her assessment of Polish communist historiography, her book reviews, and her articles on Soviet society and culture—and on the Jews who lived within the Eastern Bloc—anyone who supported the Communist regimes relinquished historical agency. She had retorted to Reuben Ainsztein, “It is commonly known—or so I had thought—that freedom of historical inquiry was destroyed in the Soviet Union and in other Communist dictatorships.”55 In Dawidowicz’s view, Soviet, Polish, and East German citizens—including Jews—constrained by totalitarianism, could not be free historical actors. History was the handmaiden of the state and party. Taking her cue from Zelig Kalmanovitch, among other anticommunist Yiddishists whom she knew in Poland and in the United States, Dawidowicz believed that Bolshevism could not a priori allow any form of autonomous Jewish historical agency.

Thus, although Dawidowicz absolved the men of the Judenräte of their morally problematic actions because they had limited agency to defy the Nazis’ genocidal policies, she did not absolve Jewish communists of their actions, which she saw as tantamount, if not equivalent, to the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. Jewish communists, in Dawidowicz’s view, aided the destruction of Jewish culture, the source of the Jewish people’s survival. Nothing they did could mitigate their support of the Soviet Union and its universalist agenda.

* Despite her East European diaspora nationalist sensibilities and her commitment to the Jews as a transnational people, Dawidowicz absorbed and promoted the American view of religious liberty as a sine qua non of the definition of freedom. Without Judaism, no Soviet Jew or Polish Jew under communism could remain Jewish because, as she reasoned, no American Jew—particularly as the ties of ethnicity loosened—would be able to remain Jewish without Judaism.

* Dawidowicz’s politics also informed her view of the historical agency—or lack thereof—of unlikely bedfellows: African Americans and Polish gentiles. Conflating the postwar conflicts among urban African Americans and Jews as an iteration of East European tensions between rural gentile peasants and urban Jews, Dawidowicz viewed the historical agency of African Americans who demanded group rights—in a manner that, in her assessment, compromised the liberal institutions that had safeguarded Jewish mobility—negatively. Civil rights tactics that crossed the boundary of “responsible” activism and employed violence—both imagined and real—triggered Dawidowicz’s deep-seated fear of East European peasant violence and street hooliganism.59 She never forgave the Poles for what she believed was their willing cooperation with the Nazi regime and did not trust the historical agency of nationalist African Americans. In her October 1958 memo “Negro-Jewish Tensions,” written while working at the AJC, Dawidowicz concluded that Jewish and African American aspirations for separatism derived from different causes. Jews, she wrote, want “to preserve their distinctiveness of culture and group, while Negroes are not typically concerned about preserving distinctiveness.” Relying on Gunnar Myrdal’s work, Dawidowicz concluded that African Americans avoided white society “from a need to find shelter from bad treatment,” while “deliberate Jewish separatism is likely to arise . . . from survivalist calculations.”60 In short, Jewish historical agency was proactive, while that of African Americans was reactive.

* A diaspora nationalist to the end of her days, though no longer wedded to Yiddishism as an ideology, Dawidowicz tirelessly defended the legitimacy of the Jews’ claims to self-definition and self-determination wherever they lived. Just as she was aware of the political shifts in the American Jewish landscape, she also sensed the growing tension for American Jews, who, reluctant to insist on Jewish group rights, nonetheless began to feel challenged by a cultural climate increasingly inhospitable to Jewish collective distinctiveness. She may have doubted that America, which had granted European Jewish immigrants such unlimited possibility, freedom, and security, was still truly hospitable to the holistic civilization of East European Jewish peoplehood. Even as Dawidowicz moved toward an embrace of Jewish religious practice, and politically from left to right, it was East European Jewish culture, written from right to left in her “beloved” Yiddish alef-beys, that formed the deepest wellspring of her Jewish identity. Yet yidishkayt, her anchor, fit uneasily into the post-ethnic, multicultural landscape of late twentieth-century America.

* Insisting that the hallowed “American Jewish liberal tradition” was historically contingent, she anticipated many of today’s political polarities and cultural challenges.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Jews. Bookmark the permalink.