Are Jewish Intellectuals Beggars?

Dear Friend,

A couple of years back I was visiting my old office location, near the Garment district, in New York City. It was late night and I was hungry for a prune Danish. It was around midnight on a cold Saturday night. The only store I found was a large kosher bakery, packed with young ultra-orthodox Jewish customers entering and leaving on a constant basis.

In front of the store was a Hasidic man with a cup. From a distance I was not sure what he was doing. He was getting more dollar bills than coins. I thought maybe he was raising money for a fundraising drive.

As I got closer, the more I saw of this man the more I doubted he was raising money for a cause. The Hasidic was disheveled and the garb he was wearing was filthy. Where I live is the most concentrated block in Manhattan of kosher eateries. It may come as surprise to many outside of New York City, to see a man with a yarmulke in front of a kosher restaurant begging for money. It happens. In my old Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1970s it was a common sight to see old Jewish people dig through store garbage for food. Even today, in Brooklyn, there are many former Soviet Jews on welfare. Across the street from where I live is a religious Yemenite Jew who begs on the weeknights. Those who attend the same shul as him, know him on a first name basis. One, in particular, I have spoken with, prides in living under the tunnel in a nearby park. His name is Buttons. His clothing is always covered with buttons. All his buttons are political slogans and pictures with a socialist theme. Once I saw him at a food fair, that was being sponsored by the Italian Chamber of Commerce, where free food samples were being offered. He recognized me from the neighborhood and greeted me. I asked him if he liked the food. He would tell me he couldn’t eat it, because it wasn’t kosher. Go figure. A homeless man searching for free kosher food.

Sorry for the digression. This was the first time I ever saw an Hasidic begging. I couldn’t help but stare at him, while I was hailing for an available cab. He was near the curb and I spoke to him. I asked him a stupid question, “are you begging?” He shook his head yes. There was silence on his activity after I asked the question. As the yellow cab stopped to the side of me to enter, he rushed up to me yelling “no!” to say: “a Gentile begs; a Jew asks.”

It was mind-boggling. I couldn’t get it out of my head the entire cab ride home.

Two years later, I’m listening to Norman Finkelstein at the Brecht Forum I attended this past February (2001). In his talk he said: “American-Jewish intellectuals are diseased.” I thought he was being harsh. In reflecting on those remarks, I’m now wondering about the Jewish beggar who says: “A Gentile begs; a Jew asks.”

Is it an “ask” or a “beg”? We say a writer is being intellectually dishonest or intellectual honest, when we are referring to his work.

The honest intellectual doesn’t “ask” for you to believe him. When you need to have an understanding, the honest intellectual welcomes the question. He will explain his thinking with a response that is artful, logical and cogent. He doesn’t “beg” for a cover.

The dishonest intellectual “asks” to believe him. The dishonest intellectual wants to manipulate you. He will often have an artless response. When a dishonest intellectual is caught exaggerating or lying in his “asking” he “begs” for a cover.

Elie Wiesel is caught “asking” the reader to believe in his lying. He “begs” for a cover. By name calling those who question the integrity of his written work. He often says “they are anti-Semitic.”

Even when the writer is faking it as a Jew. As in the famous case of Binjamin Wilkomirski. He accused his critics (truth-seekers) of the most “begged” cover in the history of our times — anti-Semitism. When this Swiss writer (his wife is Jewish) was caught lying about his book Fragments the following was the reaction of Jewish intellectuals, as summarized by Mark Weber in the Journal of Historical Review:

Reaction by Jewish Holocaust scholars to the new revelations has been instructive, because they seem more concerned about propagandistic impact than about historical truth. Their primary regret seems merely to be that the fraud has been detected, not that it was perpetrated.

In an essay published in a major Canadian newspaper (Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 18, 1998), Jewish writer Judith Shulevitz arrogantly argued that it doesn’t really matter much if Fragments is authentic. Her main misgiving, apparently, is that the deceit was not more adroit: “I can’t help wishing Wilkomirksi-Doesseker [sic] had been more subtle in his efforts at deception, and produced the magnificent fraud world literature deserves.”

Deborah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University (Worcester, Mass.), and co-author of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (Yale Univ. Press, 1996), agrees that Fragments now appears to be fraudulent. At the same time, though, she expressed sympathy for Wilkomirski, saying that when she met him he appeared “to be a deeply scarred man.” Amazingly, Dwork does not blame him for the imposture, “because she believes in his identity.” Instead, she takes the publishers to task for having “exploited” Wilkomirski. (New York Times, Nov. 3, 1998).

Deborah Lipstadt, author of the anti-revisionist polemic Denying the Holocaust, has assigned Fragments in her Emory University class on Holocaust memoirs. When confronted with evidence that it is a fraud, she commented that the new revelations “might complicate matters somewhat, but [the work] is still powerful.” Daniel Ganzfried reports that Jews have complained to him that even if Fragments is a fraud, his exposé is dangerously aiding “those who deny the Holocaust.”

American Jewish writer Howard Weiss makes a similar point in an essay published in the Chicago Jewish Star (Oct. 9-29, 1998): “Presenting a fictional account of the Holocaust as factual only provides ammunition to those who already deny that the horrors of Nazism and the death camps ever even happened. If one account is untrue, the deniers’ reasoning goes, how can we be sure any survivors accounts are true … Perhaps no one was ready to question the authenticity of the [Wilkomirski] account because just about anything concerning the Holocaust becomes sacrosanct. Wilkomirski himself has responded to the new revelations by going into hiding, although he did issue a defiant statement describing the climate of discussion about his memoir as a “poisonous” atmosphere of “totalitarian judgment and criticism.”
[http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v17/v17n5p15_Weber.html]

And so…

For most of the above intellectuals, any constructive criticism (of a Jewish agendum) you make will be construed or twisted as “anti-Semitic.” And if you are Jewish as “self-hating.”

You have a noted Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein (always accused of being a self-hating Jew) saying “American-Jewish intellectuals are diseased.” I’ve encountered an Hasidic beggar, who thinks only Gentiles are beggars.

Now, I think to myself, what’s the difference between a diseased Jewish intellectual who is always trying to explain to me, that his critics are anti-Semitic, or self-hating Jews; if the diseased Jewish beggar is trying to explain to me only Gentiles beg. If you tell the beggar he is lying, why can’t he defend himself the same way as the diseased intellectual. Should he meet a non-diseased Jewish beggar, who disagrees with him, his cover will be, that the other beggar is a self-hating Jew. In this diseased beggar’s mind, if a you are a Gentile that disagrees, his cover will be, that you are anti-Semitic. One begs for your money, the other begs for your brain. For both it’s “asking” and “begging” with a cover.

Peace.

Michael Santomauro