“Who is a Jew? A Jew is someone with Jewish grandchildren.”
— Yosef Haim Brenner
In February of this year, Elie Wiesel asked Mitt Romney to urge his Mormon co-religionists (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to repudiate their practice of “proxy” baptism requests for Holocaust victims, including Wiesel’s own ancestors. Jews have long objected to the Mormon practice of “vicariously” converting their deceased ancestors, especially those who perished in the Holocaust, to the Mormon faith, a practice that has seemed to them more brazenly dogmatic than the worst excesses of the Inquisition. But now it seems that Jewish Israel-haters, people who define their “Jewishness” almost entirely by their repudiation of the Jewish state, have developed their own brand of Mormonism. It consists of converting deceased Zionist grandparents (especially of the female sort) to their own pseudo-religion, which starts from the premise that when a person can no longer be a Jew, he (or she) becomes an anti-Zionist.
In the December 21, 2010 issue of the National Post (Canada) the astute journalist Barbara Kay expressed the hope that “after I have shuffled off this mortal coil, none of my granddaughters will turn into useful idiots for a rotten political movement riddled with antisemitism.” Kay was alluding to two unusually foul volleys of fire and vitriol shot in the direction of Israel and her Jewish supporters by Canadian Jewish women , Jennifer Peto and Judy Rebick.
Peto, a 29-year old activist on behalf of lesbian and anti-Zionist causes (sometimes happily intermarried as “Queers against Israel”) has gained notoriety for a master’s thesis with the bombastic title (The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education), submitted to and approved by the “sociology and equity” cranny of a minor branch of the University of Toronto called Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE). In its regurgitation of hoary antisemitic tropes directed at “Jewish privilege,” “Jewish racism,” and the “apartheid” state of Israel, the thesis reminded many of the pseudo-scholarly materials studied (and brilliantly dissected) in Max Weinreich’s “Hitler’s Professors” (1946), a book that showed how German academics were the first to make antisemitism both academically respectable and complicit in murder. Peto’s malice towards, and ignorance about, Jews and Israel know no bounds. Jews who wish to remember the Holocaust are “racists” (an epithet without which she would be rendered nearly speechless) who want to monopolize all that beautiful suffering which other peoples would very much like, ex post facto, to share. Israel, not only a country in which Arabs and Jews share the same buses, beaches, clinics, cafes, soccer pitches, and universities, but the only country in history to have brought thousands of black people to its shores to become citizens and not slaves, is for her the quintessentially “apartheid” state. Chief among the multifarious abominations that Peto imputes to the wily Jews is “Hegemonic Holocaust Education.” Professor Werner Cohn, the first to call attention to the scandal of Peto’s thesis (and the still greater scandal that her academic advisor, one Sheryl Nestel, routinely encourages and approves such theses), noted that Peto uses the word “hegemonic,” with hammering insistence, fifty-two times but defines it just once: “I am defining hegemonic Holocaust education as projects that are sponsored by the Israeli government, and/or mainstream Jewish organizations.” Since Peto thinks (mistakenly) that “hegemonic” is a pejorative term, she defines it as whatever Israel or Jews do.
What distinguished Peto’s rehashing of the ravings of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as modernized by assorted Chomskys, Finkelsteins, and Walt-Mearsheimers, was her dedication of the thesis to her dead and defenseless grandmother, Jolan Peto: “If she were alive today, she would be right there with me protesting against Israeli apartheid.” Like most dead people, Peto’s grandmother is vulnerable to assaults on her memory by an unscrupulous and ruthless grandchild. (Jewish mothers, one notices, rarely receive these accolades from their Israel-hating daughters; often still alive, mothers constitute too great a risk.)
But, although unlucky in her granddaughter, Jolan Peto has been redeemed by her grandson, a Houston physician named David Peto. He published on December 16 an open letter to the press in which he urged his sister to respect the dead and cease to conscript their grandmother for her sordid vendetta against the Jews:
“It is not my desire to get involved with the details of my sister Jenny Peto’s thesis, which has recently generated tremendous controversy. There are people far more qualified than I to debate the merits of the thesis, or lack thereof. There is, however, one point that I would like to contest. My sister dedicated her thesis to our late grandmother, Jolan Peto. She asserted that if our grandmother ‘were alive today, she would be right there with me protesting against Israeli apartheid.’ Our grandmother was the youngest teacher at the Jewish orphanage in Budapest during the Second World War. She, along with my grandfather, saved countless children from death at the hands of the Nazis. After the war, she saw firsthand the brutality and baseness of the communist regime that came into power. She, along with our grandfather and father, escaped to Canada, and celebrated the day of their arrival each and every year. Freedom was not an abstract idea to her; it was alive and tangible for her. Our grandmother was a soft-spoken woman, but she had an iron will. She taught us to abhor hatred, and to strive for excellence in everything we did. She was a woman of endless patience and generosity, and boundless love. She was uncompromising in her dedication to truth and honesty, and was also an ardent supporter of the state of Israel. My sister is simply wrong; our grandmother would have been entirely opposed to her anti-Israel protests. Our grandmother had a tremendous impact on my life, and her memory continues to be a source of strength and inspiration to my family. My daughter is named after her, and we pray that she will emulate her namesake. I cannot in good conscience allow my sister to misappropriate publicly our grandmother’s memory to suit her political ideology.”
For this act of decency, Dr. Peto was pilloried by his ever-predictable sister “a right-wing fanatical, racist Zionist.”
The other “useful idiot” (and cemetery desecrator) to whom Kay alluded is one Judy Rebick. She is a practitioner of no known discipline at all (not even the one prohibited by W. H. Auden’s Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not commit sociology”). Rather, she is a “chaired” professor (at Ryerson University in Toronto) of “Social Justice”, that prolific generator of ferocious do-gooders, people who confuse doing good with feeling good about what they are doing. She is the author of a number of feminist tracts (including “Barack Obama is ‘our sister’s keeper'”) and a book called Politically Speaking (co-authored with a scribbler named –by himself, one hopes–Kike Roach). She too has a dead grandmother to sacrifice at the antisemites’ new altar. A year before Peto vaulted to worldwide infamy, Rebick came to the defense of yet another prodigiously busy Canadian-Jewish Israel-hater, Naomi Klein, by announcing in September 2009 that her own grandmother, who had survived a pogrom, indeed (she implied) because she had survived a pogrom, “would have been so proud of Naomi Klein” for exhorting the Toronto Film Festival to shun the city of Tel-Aviv.
The line of succession among these anti-Zionist converters of their deceased grandmothers may, however, be traced a bit farther back than Kay’s Canadians, to a public intellectual of far greater weight and prominence than either Rebick or Peto: England’s Alain De Botton. Mr. De Botton is the author of several “self-help” books with titles like “How Proust Can Change Your Life”; and to his actual publishing record has recently been added a fictional string of titles invented by Howard Jacobson, author of The Finkler Question. This satirical novel portrays the spiritual anemia of England’s anti-Zionist “ashamed” Jews, who are ashamed not of their own perfidy and cowardice but of Israel’s existence. The character who gives the novel its name, Samuel Finkler, is a composite figure based in part on De Botton. Finkler has written such best-sellers as The Socratic Flirt and The Existentialist in the Kitchen. For declaring on the BBC (just as the pudgy little English character-actress Miriam Margolyes had done) that, “as a Jew,” he is “ashamed” of Israel, Finkler is promptly rewarded with an invitation to join a group of “well-known theatrical and academic Jews” who offer to rename themselves, “in honour of his courage in speaking out—Ashamed Jews.” Flattered by the attention of the third-rate actors, he accepts the honor. The narrator adds, for no readily apparent reason, that Finkler cares as little for the praise of his fellow academics as for “the prayers he had never said for his grandfather.” The pointed acerbity of that remark about how Finkler cynically manipulates the memory of his grandfather is puzzling unless we are aware that, in this roman a clef, Finkler’s exploitation of his grandfather is probably based upon De Botton’s exploitation of his grandmother in the Anglo-Jewish and Israeli press.
We do not know whether De Botton—who is proud to call himself an atheist—has been more attentive to the soul of his grandmother than that of his grandfather, but, like his Canadian emulators, he has gone to the trouble of disinterring and resurrecting her, as if to invoke ancestral authority for his repudiation of his ancestors. In a September 22, 2009 interview with the London Jewish Chronicle, De Botton replied to a question about what Israel meant to him as follows: “Israel is for me a country I will always associate with my grandmother, Yolande Gabai, who played a central role in the founding of the state through her activities in Egypt with the Jewish Agency, a country whose current state she would deplore, for she knew that peace with the Arabs was at the core of the challenge facing the new country.”
We are all too familiar with the smug, self-satisfied assurance of these smelly little orthodoxies about “deplorable” Israel; they say, in effect, the following: “Despite superficial evidence to the contrary, such as the absence of peace since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in favor of Hizbullah or from Gaza in favor of Hamas, all of us thinking people who read The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, and The New Statesman know that Israel is responsible for the absence of peace with her neighbors because she has not yet fully withdrawn from the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria (which, lest it be forgotten, were entirely in the hands of the Arabs, theirs to do with whatever they liked, from 1948-67, when they decided to go to war against Israel). But this is not quite blatant and gross enough for De Botton: he must also invoke the authority of his dead grandmother.
Yolande Gabai Harmor De Botton was indeed an important figure in the Zionist movement. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, she spied for the Jewish Agency during 1947-48, risking both her own life and that of her son while posing as a Palestine Post journalist, and earning the nickname of “the Jewish Mata Hari.” In July 1948 she was imprisoned in Egypt and later deported. In 1948-49, she worked for the Middle East Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. She died in 1959, ten years before her grandson Alain was born, and left behind precious little evidence that she would have become a willing recruit to the view of Anglo-Jewish leftists that if Israel has a raison d’etre at all, it is, as De Botton suggested in an egregious interview with Ha’aretz in October 2008, to “humiliate” Arabs and “kill” their olive trees. (Allegations of Israeli attacks on Arab olive trees flare up frequently in the propaganda war conducted by Arabs and Arabophiles in the west. Although never attaining the scale of such gigantic frauds as “Jeningrad” or “Mohammed al-Dura,” they never go away either. In October 2002, for example, as a distraction from the news of the latest intifada savagery, bien-pensant Jewish leftists shrieked about “the cruel and vindictive destruction of …venerable olive groves under the pretext that they were hiding places for snipers.” Alas, as Israel Radio reported, the terrorist who had just murdered two little Jewish girls and a woman in Hermesh exploited the olive trees to reconnoiter the area and then slip under the fence to do his murderous work.)
De Botton seems to take the fact that his grandmother got along nicely in Egyptian society (while concealing her work as a spy!) and believed the foundation of a Jewish state would benefit Arabs (towards whom she felt kindly) as well as Jews shows that she would now, if resurrected, be an avid conscript to his own trendy prejudices and the “Palestinian” irredentist cause.
Ben-Gurion, of course, believed the very same thing that Grandma Yolande did; but he has yet to be conscripted by the grave-robbers. Moreover, it does not occur to De Botton that the Palestinians have become one of the world’s most ruined peoples not because Jews won’t “make peace” with them but because, encouraged by the Petos, Rebicks, and De Bottons, they have devoted themselves not to the building up of their own society but to the destruction of the society of their neighbor.
In addition to being a writer (at times, as in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, a very good one), De Botton is the founder of an institution in central London called “The School of Life.” Repudiating the Renaissance tradition of liberal (or “useless”) education in favor of what John Henry Newman called the servile (or “useful”) kind, the school offers courses in (to quote De Botton) “marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, changing the world and death.” The curriculum does not, however, appear to include a course in the Fifth Commandment, and De Botton’s violation of the injunction to honor your father and mother (and, by extension, your grandfather and grandmother) suggests that he (and Peto and Rebick and all the other aspiring Jewish Mormons) would do well to make honest people of themselves before setting out to convert the dead and change the world.
This essay is adapted from a chapter of Edward Alexander’s book The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers, 2012).