Shortly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a small group of Jewish students at the University of Washington in Seattle decided that they needed to be more active in educating the campus about Israel’s achievements and more proactive in confronting speakers brought in by the Arab Student Association.
The group included a few graduate students from Israel, a medical student and his Israeli wife and a smattering of undergrads who had recently returned from extended stays in Israel. None of us understood the arcane bureaucratic procedures involved in getting registered as an official campus group, which would allow us to rent space for events and receive funds to pay for publicity and speakers’ fees and expenses.
Every registered student organization was required to have an official faculty adviser, who was supposed to help smooth the path to organizational success. Most of our group consisted of students in the sciences or engineering departments, and their requests to the Jewish professors they knew were largely met with indifference. As an undergraduate in the sociology department who was taking a heavy course load of English lit classes, I was designated to ask one of my professors if he would be publicly associated with our Jewish Information Society (JIS).
Edward Alexander, who died last week in Seattle at age 83, was a tenured professor in the English department and had just been chosen as a Guggenheim Fellow for 1974. He immediately agreed to take us on, and the JIS thrived with his input.
Many of my UW contemporaries who had the benefit of his counsel in Jewish activism went on to leadership roles as either professionals or in lay positions in the Jewish world. Eddie was one of the few professors who encouraged and supported Jewish student activism, and as a result, many of his students became lifelong friends. He kept up a running correspondence with several of us, and those of us in Israel made a point of visiting when we returned to Seattle. He often shared gems from his active correspondence with many prominent Jewish intellectuals, including Irving Howe, Marie Syrkin, Emil Fackenheim, Ruth Wisse and Cynthia Ozick, which were an education in themselves.
Throughout his career, Professor Alexander was an outspoken defender of Israel who did not hesitate to excoriate Israel’s critics in academia with whom he battled largely through the written word. He was the author of many volumes with titles such as The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies (1988), The Jewish Wars (1996), The State of the Jews (2012) and Jews Against Themselves (2015), as well as scores of essays about Israel and anti-Semitism in magazines such as Commentary, Midstream, Mosaic and Standpoint.
But it was his effort to promote Jewish studies on campus that is the other significant part of his legacy. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he helped form the Jewish Studies Committee at the UW and was responsible for bringing to campus the first full-time Jewish-studies faculty member, Deborah Lipstadt, the world-renowned historian who is currently the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.
Following his death, Lipstadt called Alexander, “A visionary and a fighter. Most people only saw the second part.”
In a 1981 interview, Eddie explained his passionate commitment to bring Jewish studies to the academy. “I did have the feeling that what Jewish parochial institutions had so notably failed to do, namely, to keep their own people within the fold, might in some way be done by a secular institution. Perverse, in a way, and ironic as this would be since it’s not the purpose of an academic institution to keep anybody in a fold or to exclude anybody from it. I suppose the alacrity with which the established Jewish community in Seattle has come to the support, especially the financial support of the Jewish-studies program, would indicate that my own feeling of desperation, illogical desperation it could be called, was shared by other members of the community who had the sense that what Jewish day schools and synagogue schools and synagogues themselves had failed to do somehow could be done at a secular institution which had no stated intention of doing anything of the kind as, of course, synagogues and day schools exist to do. That’s to say, to produce Jews or to maintain as Jews those who were born Jews.”
While his academic specialty was Victorian literature, he undertook to teach a multi-quarter course on Modern Jewish Literature in translation, as well as a class in Yiddish literature and Holocaust literature as part of his commitment to build a Jewish-studies program at the UW. I took every one of his classes over the three-year period until I graduated. In the 1981 interview, he admits that none of these areas had been the focus of his academic training and he felt he was an impostor in the field of Jewish learning, though none of his students saw it that way.
Outside academia, Eddie played an active role in the Jewish community. In 1976, he and his late wife, Leah, who passed away in 2017, traveled to Moscow to meet refuseniks and Jewish cultural activists. They were detained at the airport for almost two days and subsequently kicked out of the country. Upon their return, the Alexanders became members of Seattle Action for Soviet Jewry, of which I was president and took an active role on a day-to-day basis, placing phone calls to refuseniks, showing up to protest visiting Soviet delegations, writing to Soviet and U.S. officials until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Eddie was a regular at the Capitol Hill Minyan and was much in demand to deliver talks on the weekly Torah portion there, as well as at Shabbat services at the Kline Galland Home. Eddie’s mother was a resident there until she was 100 years old, and he would travel across town almost every day to visit her.
Eddie was born and raised in Brooklyn to an observant family. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He was a devoted son, husband, father and grandfather whose courage, intellect and passion will be missed.