In September 1974, I arrived in Israel as a Guggenheim Fellow to teach American history at Tel Aviv University. Having visited Israel for the first time two years earlier on a two-week trip sponsored by the American Jewish Committee for “disaffected Jewish intellectuals” (for which I was eminently qualified), I knew that Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, was where I wanted to be. I sensed that in that ancient holy city I could better learn about Jewish history in the Land of Israel, the history of the Jewish state that was 12 years younger that I was, and my non-Jewish Jewish self.
It was not an easy transition. There was the Rehavia neighborhood, where my family (including two young children) lived, to explore. There were food stores, outdoor coffee shops and a post office (where I encountered a cousin I had not seen for decades) to discover. And there was the best path to the Old City, where my fascination with Jerusalem and Jewish history in the Holy Land had been sparked during my previous visit. My mornings began after breakfast when I walked my nine-year-old son to school, hearing Hebrew spoken all around me, not a word of which I understood. But several weeks in, I followed behind another man with children — and he too was speaking English. I was thrilled.
So began a friendship with Edward Alexander, a professor of literature at the University of Washington, that would last 45 years.
We never saw each other again, but our commitment to Israel — and what we learned about a Jewish state surrounded by hostile enemies that was targeted for unrelenting criticism by our American academic colleagues — bound us together in mutual determination to defend Israel against those who maligned its very existence.
The titles of Eddie’s books — among them The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies (1988), The Jewish Wars (1996), The State of the Jews (2012), and Jews Against Themselves (2015) — left no doubt about his love for Israel and loathing for its enemies. The adjective that came to mind most frequently when I read his essays was “scathing.” The “Jewish Idea” for Eddie was “the call into existence as a people by a covenant with God that is as real and living today as it was at its inception.” Eddie admired “the continuing power of the Zionist ideal to inspire Jews to make great, heroic sacrifices in order to return to [their] homeland,” while directing his wrath against “the enemies of the Jewish idea.”
Eddie understood, as the titles of his essays revealed, “Why Jews Must Behave Better Than Anybody” and “The Theory and Practice of the Double Standard” that was obsessively applied to Israel for doing what any other endangered country would do to protect its citizens. Among his Israel-hating targets, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky ranked high, and he lacerated academic boycotters of Israel, “multiculturalism,” and Holocaust-denial. In his wise judgment, no one offered more penetrating insight and stronger nerve than Ruth Wisse, who “shouldered her obligations” in the unrelenting war to defend Israel against its obsessively hostile critics. So too did Eddie.
Targeting “ashamed” Jews, who “blush for the existence of a Jewish state,” Eddie compared them to “the assimilated Jews of old, insisting that Jewish particularism, Jewish peoplehood, a Jewish state constitute the sole obstacles to universal brotherhood and peace.” Nothing enraged him more than “Jewish Israel-haters” and “ashamed Jews” among the so-called “Jewish progressives against Israel” who advocated “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” of the world’s only Jewish state.
Edward Alexander refused to accept the conventional wisdom about Israel’s “malfeasance.” His courageous defense of the world’s only Jewish state, especially against its self-promoting academic and “intellectual” enemies, was eviscerating and unyielding. His voice of wisdom, Jewish passion and love for Israel will remain his legacy.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.