Against the Grain: Jew­ish Intel­lec­tu­als in Hard Times

Ezra Mendel­sohn, Ste­fani Hoff­man & Richard I. Cohen, eds.

  • Review
By – August 21, 2014

This impres­sive anthol­o­gy pays trib­ute to the emi­nent schol­ar of Ger­man Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al his­to­ry, Steven Ascheim, whose work spans such dis­parate top­ics as the his­to­ry of cul­tur­al rela­tions between Ger­man and East Euro­pean Jews, the lega­cy of Nietzsche’s thought in twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Ger­many, and the lives and thought of those sto­ried Ger­man Jew­ish mar­gin­al intel­lec­tu­als,” whose con­tra­dic­to­ry rela­tions of attrac­tion, repul­sion, and cri­tique vis-a-vis both Ger­man and Jew­ish cul­ture ren­dered them para­dox­i­cal­ly cen­tral to both.

A first sec­tion, Strauss, Scholem, Arendt, and Ben­jamin,” fea­tures essays focused par­ticularly on polit­i­cal philoso­pher Leo Strauss’s rela­tion­ship to Zion­ism and to Marx­ism and on sub­tly clash­ing recon­struc­tions of the relation­ship between spec­u­la­tive reli­gion and Zion­ism in the thought and polit­i­cal prax­is of Ger­shom Scholem. The sec­ond sec­tion, Polit­i­cal Posi­tion­ings in Hard Times,” traces the social thought of the Weimar indus­tri­al­ist Walther Rathenau, the his­to­ri­an of nation­al­ism Hans Kohn’s pained but extreme rejec­tion of Zion­ism in 1929, and the endur­ing philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of Emmanuel Levinas’s indebt­ed­ness to the tar­nished lega­cy of Mar­tin Heidegger.

The third sec­tion, Broth­ers and Strangers,” takes up Ascheim’s clas­sic theme of Ger­man Jew­ish rela­tion­ship to authen­tic” iden­ti­ties both real and imag­ined through essays on the inter­na­tion­al­ist dimen­sions of the Pan-Asian­ist” Zion­ism of Eugen Hoe­flich, Ger­man-Jew­ish Amer­i­can approach­es to East Euro­pean Jew­ish immi­grants, and Vivian Liska’s illu­mi­nat­ing Der­ridean inter­pre­ta­tion of Paul Celan’s her­met­ic com­ments about Judaiz­ing one­self” after the Holocaust.

The final sec­tion, In the Shad­ow of the Holo­caust,” includes an illu­mi­nat­ing compari­son of com­pen­sato­ry his­to­ry writ­ing by Jews in Ger­many, France, and Hun­gary in the shad­ow of Nazism, method­olog­i­cal reflec­tions on the use of sur­vivor tes­ti­monies as a source, and re­construction of how the Nurem­berg tri­als pro­voked three Jew­ish jurists — Jacob Robin­son, Her­sch Lauter­pacht, and Raphael Lemkin — to artic­u­late ear­ly ver­sions of the three key alter­native visions of the Holocaust’s legal-eth­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance: as a slaugh­ter direct­ed specif­i­cal­ly against the Jew­ish peo­ple and thus demand­ing a Jew­ish nation­al response, as a crime to be framed in terms of invi­o­lable indi­vid­ual human rights, and as a dis­tinct sort of crime of exter­mi­na­tion against human col­lec­tiv­i­ties, geno­cide. Final­ly, in a tru­ly mas­ter­ful essay, Anson Rabin­bach revis­its the much-dis­cussed ques­tion of how — and with what degree of se­riousness — the unortho­dox Marx­ist Frank­furt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno addressed the Jew­ish Ques­tion” dur­ing and after the Holo­caust. In a bravu­ra com­bi­na­tion of archival research and close read­ing, Rabin­bach demon­strates the grow­ing urgency that these thinkers — often accused of Jew­ish self-hatred” — accord­ed anti-Semi­tism in their account of how moder­ni­ty had gone off the rails.

Against the Grain is a stel­lar anthol­o­gy that belongs not only in every uni­ver­si­ty library but also in the libraries of Jew­ish insti­tu­tions serv­ing seri­ous readers.

KEN­NETH B. MOSS (KBM) is the Felix Posen Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry at the Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty. His book Jew­ish Renais­sance in the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion (Har­vard, 2009) was co-win­ner of the Jew­ish Book Council’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture in 2010. He is cur­rent­ly writ­ing a book on Jew­ish polit­i­cal thought and the East Euro­pean Jew­ish con­di­tion in the 1930s.

Discussion Questions