Ruthven should have known that Segev’s judgment on these matters has been rendered worthless—by Segev himself. In the New York Times Book Review in 2008, Segev excoriated David Dalin and John Rothmann’s book on the mufti, Icon of Evil, observing that it “belongs to a genre of popular Arab-bashing that is often believed to be ‘good for Israel.’ It is not. The suggestion that Israel’s enemies are Nazis, or the Nazis’ heirs, is apt to discourage any fair compromise with the Palestinians, and that is bad for Israel.” The Middle East reporter for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, rightly observed that Segev “has stringent standards for what makes a good Middle East book: Above all, it has to be helpful to the ‘peace process.’ Its truth, or falsehood, is not quite so important.”
Ruthven does occasionally offer a reasonable criticism of Berman’s book. He pounces on Berman’s statement that “the Arab zone ended up as the only region in the entire planet in which a criminal on the fascist side of the war, and a major ideologue, to boot, returned home in glory, instead of in disgrace.” Ruthven is correct that other Nazi collaborators returned to their native lands not “in disgrace” but rather in some favor with their countrymen. He cites two instances: the Finnish ally of the Nazis Gustaf Mannerheim and the Indian anti-British activist Subhas Chandra Bose. He might have mentioned other cases: Communists after the Nazi-Soviet pact; Franco’s Blue Division, which “voluntarily” fought on the Nazi side; even the tiny Jewish terrorist group LEHI (also known as the Stern Gang), with its harebrained scheme to convince the Nazis to help them liberate Palestine from the British.
Ruthven scores a small point, but he obfuscates the larger issue. Other collaborators might have cooperated with the Nazis because of political expediency: the enemy of my enemy is (temporarily) my friend. Tariq Ramadan has tried to rationalize the mufti’s wartime services to the Nazis this way. But it is precisely Berman’s contention (backed by Herf’s, Mallmann’s, and Cuppers’s research) that the Husseini-Hitler collaboration wasn’t a case of expediency. Rather, that particular partnership was nourished by deep ideological affinities—a “symbiosis” of Nazi and Islamist doctrines, according to Herf—about how best to solve the infernal “Jewish problem.”
Ruthven cannot allow himself to deal forthrightly with this issue of Islamic fascism, a central theme of Berman’s book. He insists defensively on Hassan al-Banna’s “stated belief that Nazi racial theories were incompatible with Islam.” Why, then, did al-Banna arrange—as Herf and other historians have documented—for the translation and distribution to the Arab world of Mein Kampf? Even Ruthven once admitted—in The New York Review—that Nazi doctrines about the Jews had infected Muslim Brotherhood offshoots like Hamas. “Imported European anti-Semitism is now embedded in the charter of Hamas, whose thirty-second article explicitly cites the Protocols as ‘proof’ of Israeli conduct,” Ruthven wrote in 2008. “As Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian philosopher and former PLO representative in Jerusalem, has observed, Hamas’s charter ‘sounds as if it were copied out from the pages of Der Stürmer.’”
But that was a rare moment of clarity on Islamism for today’s New York Review. For liberal intellectuals, it would seem that looking too deeply into the fascist roots of movements like Hamas could endanger the “peace process.” Fascism? What fascism? Instead of demonstrating a smidgen of sympathy and support for Israel, the democratic country that most directly faces the threat of Islamist aggression, New York Review writers now routinely question Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The master postulate in this turn against Israel was laid down in 2003 by the Review’s most iconic intellectual, the late Tony Judt, when he declared that Israel was an “anachronism” and a colossal historical mistake. Judt insisted that the mistake must be corrected forthwith by turning Israel into a de-Judaized, binational state—otherwise, the region would likely blow up and the collateral damage might harm even liberal, non-Zionist, New York Jews.
That’s why Ruthven’s article is significant. It doesn’t merely demonstrate The New York Review’s animus toward Paul Berman. Its distortions about Yad Vashem support the widespread canard that Israel misuses the Holocaust for the ruling regime’s political ends. This contention is repeated ad nauseam in post-Zionist and anti-Zionist polemics questioning the moral legitimacy of Israel. In his essential new book, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, Hebrew University philosopher Elhanan Yakira shows how the contention is used by an “opprobrium community”—which includes Segev and Finkelstein—to undermine one of the moral rationales for the creation of the Jewish state.
Yakira also offers an ironic reformulation of Tony Judt’s complaints against Israel: “Given the fact that Israel is an anachronism and a burden and that the Israelis are infantile, unreliable, and politically hopeless, it is appropriate that we—Jewish American intellectuals, in particular—take matters in hand and impose order on the Middle East. Nor need we take too seriously what the Israelis themselves say, except for a few outstanding figures who tower morally and intellectually above the rest of the country.” Yakira’s sad parody applies as well to other liberal intellectuals and to their appalling abandonment of Israel, the embattled Middle East democracy that is first on Islamic fascism’s target list. Even Paul Berman’s book doesn’t adequately condemn that dereliction.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.
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