The Comments and Columns Begin to Come In re: “David Horowitz Responds” & “Willy Holtzman Rebuts”

Here’s the beginning of Athur Hessel’s excellent comment on the controversy and the Saturday night (9:30 pm) discussion we’ll be having about the Horowitz-Holtzman discourse.

Saturday night’s talk back at Theater J should be fascinating. The main question will revolve around the question as to the degree which a play dealing with history can re-invent that history on stage. David Ives, in “New Jerusalem”, reworked Spinoza’s life and excommunication trial so that it bore little or no relationship to the actual events. My problem with the otherwise excellent play and production is that the audience thought they were watching a dramatization of actual history. “Imagining Madoff”, which I have not seen, created a make-believe conversation between Madoff and Elie Wiesel and did not purport it to be historically accurate, but Wiesel believed that it would have been viewed historically in spite of the author’s assurance that it was not a dramatization of actual history. “Something You Did”, another excellent play and performance, if viewed without context by an audience, does not present either of these problems, but because the author has stated that the play was based (alibeit loosely) on the crimes of Kathy Boudin and the reaction of David Horowitz, an audience viewing the play in that context could assume that the Gene Biddle character is a doppelganger of Horowitz, which makes his reaction quite understandable…

To finish reading Arthur’s comments, click here to the comments section.

Beyond this, Jonathan Fischer’s blog on the Washington City Paper site. It’s just hit the airwaves and gets almost everything right. Except this line: “Moulton’s timeline is condensed, and she is jailed for a murder that is, essentially, an accidental one. The real Boudin was involved with a bomb plot that would’ve killed people; 10 years later she was involved in the murder of two police officers.”

Jon Fischer (who’s very good) doesn’t get this part of the history right.  In March of 1970, a nail bomb blew up a Greenwich Village town house being used as a Weathermen safe house. The blast killed several members of the NYC Wetherman leadership, including Terry Robbins. Robbins’ girlfriend Cathy Wilkerson and fellow Weatherman Kathy Boudin escaped the blast.  They escaped because they were several floors above the bomb making factory in the basement and have all along insisted that they knew nothing of the nails being planted in the incendiary devices that had hitherto not included shrapnel and were meant, initially, only for the symbolic destruction of property.  Boudin has maintained that she was no party to the nail-bomb making, and that was one of the principle reasons she went underground for ten years.

But glad this is being discussed.  Hessel and Fischer see the full dimensionality of what’s being discussed here and make useful comparisons to previous theatrical works.

The following extended comment, by University of Maryland historian Jeffrey Herf (who studies the intersection of ideas and politics in modern European history, specializing in twentieth century Germany), is a rough and disappointing reduction of Holtzman’s play. But with all the praise its received from audiences, we post this response in the spirit of uncensored intellectual expression.

Here’s Herf’s appreciative letter to us after serving on our September 19 panel. After reading David Horowitz’s essay, Herf sharpened his critique of Something You Did and wound up concluding (and agreeing with Horowitz) that the play–or at least the character of Eugene Biddle–was “anti-Semitic.” With all due respect, I think he’s very wrong. But what about others? We’ll discuss this too.

Here’s the letter:

First, it was a pleasure to participate in the panel on Sunday. Thank you
for inviting me.

I have read David Horowitz’s statement about the play and thought about the
play more myself. As you know, I am a historian of modern European history
and have published a great deal about the history of antisemitism. So, I
regret to say that the more I reflect on “Something We Did” the more I come
to the conclusion that the character of Biddle is not only, as David
Horowitz points out, a grotesque distortion of what the real David Horowitz
did and said. The character is also a familiar bundle of antisemitic
stereotypes rooted in an unfortunately long standing leftist tradition.

Both right-wing and left-wing antisemites have associated the Jews with
money in a pejorative sense. For both, the Jew is a soulless and superficial
sort, one without character or integrity who is driven, as Karl Marx
famously argued, by the desire for money. The leftist tradition of viewing
Jews as the embodiment of capitalism is a large and vigorous one. In the
play, Biddle is presented as a man who becomes a conservative in order to
make money. This depiction lies in the tradition of literary antisemitism. He is
presented as, in effect, the Shylock of the post-1960s era.. Leftist
anticapitalism has too often flirted with this kind of thing. The play does
it front and center.

The second antisemitic line in the play concern’s Biddle’s supposed
tribalism evident when he expresses mourning for the deaths two Jews in
Mississippi freedom summer but not for the third, African American victim of
racial murder. David Horowitz has pointed out to you how absurd such a claim
is about him but the playwright apparently thinks that such ethnocentrism,
and let’s be frank, racism, is a defining feature of neo-conservatism. The
stereotype of the ethnocentric Jew who cares only for his/her own kind, the
famous “clannishness” of yore, has also been a staple of antisemitism for

Theater J and the Jewish Community Center of Washington, DC have every right
to criticize neo-conservatives. They even have a right to present a play
that depicts neo-conservatives with antisemitic stereotypes. Yet I had hoped
that my fellow Jews, and especially Jews working at the Jewish Community
Center, would recognize an antisemitic depiction for what it is. The play
has been running for several weeks now. I would be very disappointed if this
is the first comment you have received about it that makes this point.

There are many critics of neo-conservatism. Many have noted the role of some
prominent Jewish intellectuals in its history yet have managed to express
their disagreement about American economic, social, cultural, political and
foreign policies without resorting, at least in public, to antisemitic
arguments. It is my impression that “Something We Did” is the first to use
antisemitic stereotypes to make its critique.

So I have a suggestion. How about inviting the British author Anthony Julius
to speak at the JCC in Washington. He has just published Trial of the
Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England, which deals extensively with
antisemitic literary and dramatic depictions of Jews. Or, if Julius can’t come, perhaps a panel discussion among literary scholars about his book or about the issue or perhaps a discussion of Philip Roth’s magnificent trilogy of works about the 1960s and their aftermath.

Again, my thanks to you for inviting Ron and me to speak on Sunday. It’s
good to know that the JCC is a place where serious and open debate about
important issues takes place.

With best wishes,

Jeffrey Herf


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