Remembering One of Israel’s Fiercest Intellectual Defenders
Edward Alexander, the Jewish scholar and author who passed away recently at age 84, was called “Seattle’s Jeremiah” by his hometown newspaper. An Israeli publication once hailed him as “Jewry’s premier polemicist.” For more than half a century, Alexander fought for Israel and the Jewish people in the trenches of the battlefield of ideas.
Alexander grew up in the heavily-Jewish Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The “most vivid and satisfying memory” of his childhood occurred in May 1948, when he was 11. It involved Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson, whom he and his boyhood pals regarded as “the greatest man in the world,” and David Ben-Gurion who was “a close second to Robinson in our esteem.”
“These two heroic figures came together for me almost magically when I heard Robinson address a block party to celebrate Israel’s independence,” Alexander recalled.
“I consider myself lucky,” he wrote, “never to have been disillusioned about what my parents taught me: that both men symbolized the belated righting of ancient historical wrongs, that Robinson was indeed a uniquely courageous figure and that the birth of Israel just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry was one of the greatest affirmations of life ever made by a martyred people…”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in English literature at Columbia, Alexander completed his master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. That was where he met his future wife, Leah. She, too, was a scholar of English literature and her senior thesis, on Henry James, was published as a book. Leah passed away in 2017.
The young couple settled in Seattle in 1960, where Alexander became professor of English at the University of Washington and, later, the first chairman of the school’s Jewish Studies program.
Alexander’s academic career began in conventional fashion, teaching a full load of courses and authoring books that were well-regarded in his field although they did not attract the attention of the wider public.
He wrote volumes about such noted 18th-century literary figures as Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill, as well as more recent giants, including Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe.
But the UN’s 1975 Zionism-is-racism resolution and the rise of the Soviet Jewry protest movement in the 1970s inspired the Alexanders to dive head first into the world of Jewish controversy. In 1976, Edward and Leah traveled to the Soviet Union to assist refuseniks. They were detained by the KGB for 24 hours, and then summarily expelled.
A photo of the Alexanders taken shortly after their expulsion from the USSR, looking weary but unbowed, appeared in The Jerusalem Post. It would not be the last that the Jewish world would hear from Edward Alexander.
In late 1976, the Jewish Transcript, a Seattle weekly newspaper, inaugurated an unusual column called “From the Pit,” under the pseudonymous byline “Jeremiah.” Three then young professors at the United of Washington took turns ghostwriting the weekly installments: Alexander, historian Robert Loewenberg and religious studies professor Deborah Lipstadt.
An introductory note appended to the first “From the Pit” column explained the significance of the name: “Jeremiah, who prophesied in the period immediately prior to the destruction of the First Temple … sought to impress upon the Jews that their neighbors wished to destroy them,” the editors explained. “His countrymen refused to act to stave off this danger. They chose, instead, to silence Jeremiah by flinging him into a pit.”
Alexander, Lipstadt and Loewenberg took upon themselves the task of trying to awaken their readers regarding the threats facing Jews on campus, in the community and beyond.
Their hard-hitting columns make for especially fascinating reading today, because they show how little has changed. Topics included anti-Zionism on the University of Washington campus, hostility toward Israel from the political left, and attempts to enforce racial categories in Seattle’s public schools. Some readers appreciated “Jeremiah”’s frankness. Others reacted more like the Jews in the days of the original Jeremiah and put pressure on the editors to cancel the column. Eventually, an installment that was going to strongly criticize the Vatican’s hostility toward Israel unnerved the editors so much that they discontinued “From the Pit.”
For a time, Alexander, Lipstadt and Lowenberg continued working together as members of the Academic Advisory Committee of Americans for a Safe Israel — AFSI. Then they went their separate ways. Lipstadt launched a career in Holocaust studies, while Lowenberg created a think tank in Israel to promote free enterprise. At the time of his death, Alexander was serving on AFSI’s five-member Advisory Council. And Alexander continued to fight for Israel at the University of Washington, and beyond, with his most powerful weapon: his pen.
By the time the Jewish Transcript stopped publishing Alexander, his writings were already attracting a following in the broader community, and he had a fast-growing list of editors who were delighted to run his witty and sharp-tongued essays in defense of Israel, whether or not they agreed with his point of view. A visit to campus by the anti-Israel journalist Alexander Cockburn prompted Alexander to denounce him, in a Seattle Times op-ed, as a “basilisk, exhaling poison.” That essay not only “sent Times readers to their dictionaries” to find out what a “basilisk” was, a local reporter noted, but also triggered a series of “vituperative” and threatening phone calls to the Alexanders’ home. They reportedly bought an answering machine before Alexander’s next article was published.
Cockburn later called Alexander a “deranged Holocaust revisionist,” after Alexander wrote, in an American Jewish Congress publication, that while a number of groups were persecuted by the Nazis, the Jews were targeted uniquely because the Nazis were determined to murder every Jew on earth.
Although Alexander’s literary scholarship continued over the years, an increasingly large portion of his time was devoted to what he termed “the Jewish wars.” His books included The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies (1988), With Friends Like These: The Jewish Critics of Israel (1993), The Jewish Wars: Reflections by One of the Belligerents (1996) and Jews Against Themselves (2015).
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s US. division; Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education and is dedicated to the ideals of pre-World War Two Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Herut’s website is www.herutna.org.