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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2006
Number 64
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

An Exceptional Collection

Classical Liberalism and the Jewish Tradition
by Edward Alexander.
New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

A Review Essay by Rafael Medoff

Edward Alexander is one of the very few scholars who is able, in a single volume, to analyze the writings of such disparate figures as John Stuart Mill, Edward Said and Irving Howe, and make a convincing case that they exemplify a common and compelling theme. Such is the unique astuteness of his mind and the depth of his learning that Alexander manages to bridge the centuries and issues separating those and other personalities, by viewing them through the prism of the uneasy relationship between liberalism and Judaism.

Much has been written by Professor Alexander and others about some liberals’ unfriendliness towards Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, or the State of Israel. It will surprise some readers to discover, in the opening essay of this book, that aspects of this phenomenon were manifest as long ago as the mid-1800s, when Mill, author of the famous treatise On Liberty, displayed what Alexander calls a “Jewish blind spot” — championing liberties for all, but showing only slight interest in Jews’ lack of civil rights. Alexander wonders aloud “whether the inadequacy of his treatment of Jews and Judaism was not a foreshadowing of the failures of his intellectual inheritors.”

Alexander follows this theme through subsequent essays which focus on, among other topics, Karl Marx’s hostility to Jews and Judaism; the tendency of some Israeli “post-Zionists” to reject Zionism and Jewish identity altogether; and the willingness of the leaders of the Modern Language Association to tolerate statements and actions by the then-president of the MLA, Edward Said, in support of violence.

Sarcastic wit and intriguing literary allusions abound in approximately equal measure in this stimulating volume. Alexander can be rough with those at whom he takes aim — no rougher than they are with Israel or Judaism, he would say (with justification) — yet he succeeds in making every essay enjoyable reading even for those who will not agree with every word.

Several of the essays also offer rare and rewarding glimpses at the author’s personal side. In “A Talmud for Americans,” we learn something of his Jewish education as a child and young man. In essays on Howe and Isaac Bashevis Singer, we read of his friendship with those two extraordinary figures. In “Saying Kaddish,” we join Alexander in a deeply moving elegy for his father.

Accomplished authors (and sometimes some who are not as accomplished as they imagine themselves to be) are often tempted to assemble collections of their previously published essays. It is, if nothing else, an easy way to add to one’s trophy shelf. In many cases, however, one wishes the temptation had been resisted, for some “greatest hits” volumes are, to put it gently, considerably less than great. Edward Alexander’s Classical Liberalism and the Jewish Tradition is a remarkable exception, weaving together older essays as well as new ones in a way that makes every one of them seem fresh, interesting and relevant.

Dr. Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on America’s response to the Holocaust (

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