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On Isaiah Berlin

In response to:

Getting Isaiah Berlin Wrong from the June 20, 2013 issue

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Dominique Nabokov
Isaiah Berlin, Oxford, 1969

To the Editors:

Aileen Kelly accuses me of “imaginative use of sources,” misquotations, hyperbole, and skewed selectivity [“Getting Isaiah Berlin Wrong,” NYR, June 20]. Intent on indicting me for bending professional standards, the reviewer performs quite astonishing interpretive acrobatics, misrepresenting and ascribing to me positions and attitudes I did not take. She does not provide exact page references for my purported claim that the distinction between positive and negative freedoms originated in Collingwood. There are none. Likewise with the causal argument that “Berlin’s decision to abandon conventional philosophy and turn toward the history of ideas” was a “result” of Collingwood’s influence upon him. I made no such argument. Nor can she point to a place where I present a normative argument that Berlin should have endorsed “Ben-Gurion’s intransigent defiance of the British.” At the same time, she hardly acknowledges my detailed scrutiny of Berlin’s fraught relationship with Zionism, which presents his political and moral philosophy in the making.

Riga, Berlin’s hometown, had a distinctive Baltic sociocultural makeup and history that made it quite different from urban centers like Moscow and from isolated Jewish shtetls. In my book I show that much of Berlin’s Russian-Jewish identity was a product of a post-immigration acculturation adopted on British soil. Eager to refute my thesis, Kelly accuses me of purposely cutting out the phrase in brackets from Andrzej Walicki’s insightful piece in which he described Berlin’s “spiritual Russification” as “a chosen stance, adopted already on British soil [and inspired by his studies of Russian writers and thinkers, mostly Herzen, whom he had chosen as his intellectual guiding light].”

I am delighted to reproduce the quote in its entirety, with the omitted brackets. I do not see how it refutes the argument that Berlin underwent a process of spiritual Russification already in England? If anything, the omitted phrase strengthens the argument that Berlin’s passion about everything Russian and his acculturation are intimately tied. Similarly, showing that Berlin enjoyed his “Russian conversations” with Chaim Weizmann is not indicative of an innate Russian identity. According to this logic, my enjoyment when communicating with my students and colleagues in English makes me an Anglo-American or indicates that I have assumed such an identity.

Dealing with the sensitive issue of Berlin’s almost complete silence about the Holocaust in my book, I tried to avoid speculations as much as possible. Instead, I reported a specific incident: in October 1943 Berlin, who was then the first secretary of the British embassy in Washington, D.C., was approached by Victor Gollancz of the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, who asked him to support a program to help Jewish refugees. The program included a call to revise the UK’s visa regulations, to encourage neutral countries to admit Jews who managed to cross the border, to open Palestine to refugees who could proceed from Turkey, and more. Berlin refused to help or provide advice on how to advance the committee’s cause. Failing to mention the details of the episode, Kelly asks, “What useful action could he [Berlin] have taken?” The answer is simple: he could have supported the committee. I would have expected that the details of such a sensitive affair would be told accurately. Kelly provides instead a remarkable example of scissors-history in which quotes are taken out of context and proportion.

“When a sage dies, all are his kin,” wrote Leon Wieseltier in memory of Berlin. In this case a former student appears to be a particularly protective kin. But framing criticism in ad hominem, generational terms and presenting me as “a young scholar anxious to proclaim…originality” at all costs does not add much to Kelly’s credibility. If anything, it suggests that the model scholar à la Kelly should be the aged unoriginal acolyte reiterating old truisms. Neither a historian of British liberalism and philosophy, nor of Jewish history and Zionism, the review she produced takes us backwards, calling to ignore new documents and interpretations. It tries to shut down a debate about a major intellectual figure that should be opened. Her condescending, brutal review provides entertainment for onlookers, but such gladiatorial contests shed rather more blood than light.

Arie M. Dubnov
Stanford University
University of Haifa

Aileen Kelly replies:

It is helpful to have the basic defects of the book so well stated as at the beginning of the author’s letter. Hyperbole can be set aside here, as a question of subjective taste. With the apparent exception of a quotation from Andrzej Walicki, the letter ignores the review’s examples of the other flaws. That silence speaks for itself.

As to the three opinions or messages disowned in his opening paragraph, the first arrives with a different meaning from what was actually said in the review. A reasonably attentive rereading of his pages 203–204 may refresh his memory on the second. Concerning the third—about whether Berlin should have endorsed Ben-Gurion’s “defiance,” there was no suggestion of any such thing—but a protest at Dubnov’s overlooking of directly relevant historical evidence and misreading of key facts in order to support his moral verdict on Berlin: a substantial criticism to which he makes no response. Par for the course, alas.

The overwhelming objection to the book is its selectivity in pursuit of originality. It purports to deal with Berlin’s development and distinctive nature as a Jewish liberal, indeed as Berlin tout court. But the author’s Berlin simply does not stand up: Dubnov has amputated one of his legs, and some other significant bits too. Berlin’s responses to Russian thought, plus European figures such as Herder, Vico, and Machiavelli, are barely recognizable in the pseudo-Berlin constructed to fit Dubnov’s thesis. Readers can be assured that there is no shortage of material in print, beginning with Berlin’s own writings, to establish his reality many times over.

It is fair to say that Berlin’s Jewish background and understanding of Zionism have received less attention in the past and therefore deserve more now. The references cited in Dubnov’s endnotes make that case; one may hope that someone will do proper justice to this dimension of Berlin in the future. But justice requires starting from the Berlin who is already reliably known, then illuminating him by adding information in a new perspective (as with the young scholar Jason Ferrell’s recent work on Berlin’s method of discourse), not defacing the picture in advance by hacking essential but inconvenient parts out of the canvas. Whether Berlin was in a position to support Gollancz—an original character, but a controversial one—and his committee, or whether such support could have had any effect, are questions Dubnov ignores.

The Walicki quotation is a cut in the same spirit, because of the message the pruning serves to promote in the book’s context. As the review makes clear, I take issue not with the view that Berlin’s identification with Russian thought occurred in England, but with the ludicrous implication that the Russian thinkers he came to admire were no more important to him than any other piece of a manufactured public front.

Nothing we have space to write in this exchange is likely to throw extra light on Berlin’s wartime interactions with Zionism. The more one reads of the literature on the various mutually suspicious and sometimes rival Jewish groups active at the time, and their difficulties in identifying openings for leverage on the American and other governments, the more complicated the questions become. The subject needs more specialist work. In the meantime, shooting from the hip on the basis of single events that may not be as simple as they seem on the surface is a risky exercise.

Happily for this reviewer, the book does not produce a uniform impression throughout. Light relief is also available here and there, as with the same Montefiore dying in 1885 on page 91 yet not dead enough to avoid cosigning a letter to the London Times in 1917 on page 92. Add the other instances of a similarly casual approach to detail and the result is a certain lack of confidence in the overall grand thesis, quite apart from whether the actual thesis withstands inspection.

The same problem affects the value of Dubnov’s comment about language and identity. Enjoying English (or Russian) does not automatically make a writer feel Anglo-American (or Russian), but from his citation of Berlin’s experience, a commonsense reader would suspect Berlin of having exactly such a view.

Nothing in the author’s letter advances or clarifies the book’s argument. The best answer to both is the review itself. Being original is no protection against being wrong.

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