(August 27, 2020 / JNS) Edward Alexander, the Jewish scholar and author who passed away last week at age 84, was called “Seattle’s Jeremiah” by his hometown newspaper. An Israeli publication once hailed him as “Jewry’s premier polemicist.” For more than half a century, Alexander fought for Israel and the Jewish people in the trenches of the battlefield of ideas.
Alexander grew up in the heavily Jewish Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The “most vivid and satisfying memory” of his childhood occurred in May 1948, when he was 11 years old. It involved Brooklyn Dodgers’ star Jackie Robinson, whom he and his boyhood pals regarded as “the greatest man in the world,” and Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion, who was “a close second to Robinson in our esteem.”
“These two heroic figures came together for me almost magically when I heard Robinson address a block party to celebrate Israel’s independence,” recalled Alexander.
“I consider myself lucky,” he wrote, “never to have been disillusioned about what my parents taught me: that both men symbolized the belated righting of ancient historical wrongs, that Robinson was indeed a uniquely courageous figure and that the birth of Israel just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry was one of the greatest affirmations of life ever made by a martyred people … .”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in English literature at Columbia University, Alexander completed his master’s and a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. That was where he met his future wife, Leah. She, too, was a scholar of English literature; her senior thesis on Henry James was published as a book. She passed away in 2017.
The couple settled in Seattle in 1960, where Alexander became a professor of English at the University of Washington and, later, the first chairman of the school’s Jewish-studies program.
Alexander’s academic career began in conventional fashion, teaching a full load of courses and authoring books that were well-regarded in his field, even though they did not attract the attention of the wider public.
He wrote volumes about such noted 18th-century literary figures as Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill, as well as more recent giants, including Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe.
But the 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution at the United Nations and the rise of the Soviet Jewry protest movement in the 1970s inspired the Alexanders to dive head first into the world of Jewish controversy. In 1976, he and Leah traveled to the Soviet Union to assist refuseniks. They were detained by the KGB for 24 hours and then summarily expelled.
A photo of the Alexanders taken shortly after their expulsion from the USSR, looking weary but unbowed, appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Writing that pushed the envelope
In late 1976, the Jewish Transcript, a Seattle weekly newspaper, inaugurated a column called “From the Pit,” under the pseudonymous byline “Jeremiah.” Three young professors at the University of Washington took turns ghostwriting the weekly installments: Alexander, historian Robert Loewenberg and religious-studies professor Deborah Lipstadt.
An introductory note appended to the first column explained the significance of the name: “Jeremiah, who prophesied in the period immediately prior to the destruction of the First Temple … sought to impress upon the Jews that their neighbors wished to destroy them,” the editors explained. “His countrymen refused to act to stave off this danger. They chose, instead, to silence Jeremiah by flinging him into a pit.”
Alexander, Lipstadt and Loewenberg took upon themselves the task of trying to awaken their readers regarding the threats facing Jews on campus, in the community and beyond.
Their hard-hitting columns make for especially fascinating reading today because they show how little has changed. Topics included anti-Zionism on the University of Washington campus, hostility towards Israel from the political left and attempts to enforce racial categories in Seattle’s public schools.
Some readers appreciated the frankness. Others reacted more like the Jews in the days of the original Jeremiah and put pressure on the editors to cancel the column. Eventually, an installment that was going to strongly criticize the Vatican’s hostility towards Israel unnerved the editors so much that they discontinued “From the Pit.”
For a time, Alexander, Lipstadt and Loewenberg continued working together as members of the Academic Advisory Committee of Americans for a Safe Israel/AFSI. Then they went their separate ways. Lipstadt launched a career in Holocaust studies, while Loewenberg created a think tank in Israel to promote free enterprise. At the time of his death, Alexander was serving on AFSI’s five-member Advisory Council. And Alexander, however, continued to fight for Israel at the University of Washington, and beyond, with his most powerful weapon: his pen.
By the time the Jewish Transcript stopped publishing Alexander, his writings were already attracting a following in the broader community, and he had a fast-growing list of editors who ran his witty and sharp-tongued essays in defense of Israel, whether or not they agreed with his point of view.
A visit to campus by the anti-Israel journalist Alexander Cockburn prompted Alexander to denounce him in a Seattle Times op-ed as a “basilisk, exhaling poison.” That essay not only “sent Times readers to their dictionaries” to find out what a ‘basilisk’ was, a local reporter noted, but also triggered a series of “vituperative” and threatening phone calls to the Alexanders’ home.
They reportedly bought an answering machine before Alexander’s next article was published.
Cockburn later called Alexander a “deranged Holocaust revisionist,” after Alexander wrote in an American Jewish Congress publication that while a number of groups were persecuted by the Nazis, the Jews were targeted uniquely because the Nazis were determined to murder every Jew on earth.
‘Part of his “adolescent rebellion’
Alexander was unfazed by the enemies he has made while defending the Jewish state in periodicals around the world, starting with the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
The ADC called Alexander “the intellectual hit man for the Israeli right-wing” after he wrote an essay in Commentary exposing the pro-terrorist positions taken by Edward Said, then a rising young star in the academic world.
ADC president Abdeen Jabara tried to orchestrate a counterstrike against Alexander by mobilizing academics to write ostensibly independent letters to the editor of Commentary. Jabara sent a form letter to numerous professors, alerting them about Alexander’s critique of Said and imploring them, “It is important that Commentary receive feedback in response to this unconscionable piece. … The most effective response is to ensure that individuals with professional credentials such as yours respond directly to the magazine.”
Letters responding to Alexander’s article filled 12 pages in a subsequent issue of Commentary.
Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing magazine Tikkun, accused Alexander of “verbal violence” because Alexander uncovered a series of extreme statements that Lerner made in the 1960s. Among other things, Lerner had written, “The Jewish community is racist, internally corrupt, and an apologist for the worst aspects of American capitalism and imperialism” and “The synagogue as currently established will have to be smashed.”
In response to Alexander’s article, Lerner said that he was sorry he had made those statements, but they were part of his “adolescent rebellion,” although he was 27 at the time. Lerner announced that he would sue any newspaper that published Alexander’s article. The Jewish Voice and Opinion of New Jersey published it anyway. Lerner did not sue.
His anger at Alexander did not quickly subside. Three years later, Lerner and Alexander were invited to participate in a panel discussion in New York City about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Lerner said he would not participate if Alexander was included. Alexander was bumped.
A star in the field of English literature studies, Alexander was repeatedly invited to serve as a visiting professor at Hebrew University. He and Leah lived in Jerusalem for a number of years, and their home became the center of a group of influential Zionist intellectuals. Alexander was particularly close to Shmuel Katz, the former member of the Irgun High Command and biographer of Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Although Alexander’s literary scholarship continued over the years, an increasingly large portion of his time was devoted to what he termed “the Jewish wars.”
His books included The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies, With Friends Like These: The Jewish Critics of Israel, The Jewish Wars: Reflections by One of the Belligerents and Jews Against Themselves. Earlier this year, he stood for election as a candidate to be a delegate to the World Zionist Congress with Herut Zionists, the slate associated with the activist Zionist ideology of Jabotinsky. It was the first time he was a Zionist Congress candidate.
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division. More information is available at: www.herutna.org.
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