Google “Eric Hoffer” and one is bound to stumble across articles and posts extolling the longshoreman philosopher as one of America’s great Jewish intellectuals. I certainly shared that assumption when researching him for my book, Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America. But when I brought up Hoffer’s religious background to Lili Osborne, his late, longtime, lady friend, she responded with a quizzical stare. Eric Hoffer wasn’t Jewish, insisted the person who knew him best.
But he had read Ernest Renan’s five-volume History of the People of Israel. This set of books, coupled with the experience of living through what he referred to as the Hitler-Stalin decade, provoked both a great admiration for, and an instinctual defense of, the Jewish people. His quarter-century as a stevedore stemmed from the fortysomething’s thwarted attempt to enlist during World War II. He wished to fight against totalitarianism the best he could, and in the wake of his rejection from the armed services he reasoned that working the San Francisco docks was the way to do that. He later tried to make sense of the bewildering Hitler-Stalin decade in 1951’s The True Believer. The agnostic warned of the irreligious making politics a religion. “The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross,” The True Believer noted. “The ceremonial of their parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession. They have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers.”
In the late 1960s, Israel had come under attack in a figurative sense from the intellectuals and in a literal sense from neighboring Arab states. Whereas the author of The True Believer had been caught flat-footed by the events of the thirties, he reacted in real time, and with a massive megaphone, to sixties anti-Semitism. Hoffer took up his pen in defense of Israel.
“The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews,” he wrote in a 1968 op-ed. The piece, and subsequent ones that ran in the 400 or so newspapers that carried his column, outlined the peculiar indignation raised against Israel by those silent to offenses committed by non-U.S.-allied states.
“Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms,” he noted. “But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace. Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world.” He continued, “Other nations when they are defeated survive and recover. But should Israel be defeated it would be destroyed.”
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