Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Tom Wolfe’s message to the Jews

Tom Wolfe (1930-2018)

The author Tom Wolfe, who died this week at the age of 88, was decidedly not a Jewish writer.

But, he knew about Jews. Or, at least, some Jews.

The Bonfire of the Vanities opens with a confrontation between blacks and a Jewish mayor, snidely nicknamed “Goldberg!” by the crowd. The book also features a Jewish district attorney named Abe Weiss. The book’s main character, Sherman McCoy, is a “master of the universe” — which is a pretty good translation of ribbono shel olam — which is supposed to be God, not a highly successful bonds trader.

In A Man In Full; the main character, Charles Croker, accidentally calls a businessman named Herb “Heeb.” Awkward.

In I Am Charlotte Simmons, there is Adam Gellin, who tutors the star athlete Jojo Johanssen.

In Tom Wolfe’s honor, I re-read his classic piece of new journalism, Radical Chic and Ma-Mauing the Flak Catchers, published in 1970.

Wolfe tells the story of the famous fundraising party that conductor Leonard Bernstein (whose centennial we mark this summer) and his wife, Felicia, threw for the Black Panthers at their New York apartment.

The guest list included some of the most famous luminaries of American culture: Otto Preminger, Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and Barbara Walters, among them.

The guests sat, enraptured, as the Panthers regaled them with their platform.

We want all black men exempt from military service. We want all black men who are in jail to be set free…We’d like to take kids on tours of the white suburbs, like Scarsdale, and let them see how their oppressors live…We want peace, but there can be no peace as long as society is racist and one part of society engages in systematic oppression of another.

If anything, the almost half century since the publication of Radical Chic has only underscored how much work has been left undone in American society.

Black youths shot in the streets; black people ejected from a Starbucks; a black woman kicked out of a Yale common room for sleeping on the sofa – how little, pathetically, has changed.

But, this is not the largest takeaway from Wolfe’s groundbreaking work.

It is the nature of “radical chic” itself.

It had become chic to be radical.

Bernstein’s guests seemed willing to overlook, or discount, or relativize, the anti-semitism that was part of the Black Panther rhetoric.

Wolfe cited the August 30, 1969 issue of Black Panther, which carried an article entitled “Zionism (Kosher Nationalism) + Imperialism = Fascism,” and spoke of the “fascist Zionist pigs.”

As Wolfe put it:

Radical Chic invariably favors radicals who seem primitive, exotic, and romantic, such as the grape workers, who are not merely radical and ‘of the soil,’ but also Latin…

The purveyors of radical chic didn’t even mind, terribly much, when they read a poem published in Black Power magazine, which read: “Jew-land, on a summer afternoon; really, couldn’t kill the Jews too soon…in Jew-land, don’t be a Tom on Israel’s side. Really, cause that’s where Christ was crucified.”

Why didn’t the radical chic crowd protest this vile hatred?

Ever the armchair sociologist with a keen sense of class issues, especially regarding the Jews of New York, Tom Wolfe says:

“To be a UJA Zionist about the whole thing was to be old-fashioned, middle-class, middle-aged, suburban, Oceanside, Cedarhurstian…”

Translation: to be a Zionist just wasn’t chic.

To be radical – no matter the enormities and extremism of those whom you were scripted to support – that was chic.

It all started with Che Guevara, the strikingly handsome (and Jesus look alike, which totally helped his image and street cred) Argentinian Marxist revolutionary, and colleague of Castro.

Oh, how we loved him! How we had posters with his image in our adolescent bedrooms! Oh, how cool he was!

Except – Che Guevara was a homicidal thug.

And, except – the Cuban revolutionaries, presumably with Guevara’s blessing, trained the Palestine Liberation Organization in the arts of guerilla warfare. And terror. With Jewish blood on their hands.

You see how it worked? If you were a Third World revolutionary, there were no questions asked.

Which is how the keffiyeh became a fashion statement.

Which brings us to Gaza. The cult of Che Guevara – which is to say, the cult of radical chic, descended from the party at Bernstein’s pad – lives.

Because the truth is coming out. The majority of casualties along the Gaza-Israel border were, in fact, of Hamas operatives. Even and especially Hamas admits this, and is proud of it. What went down in Gaza depended on what you looked at, and what you saw – a true Rashomon.

On the one hand, there were peaceful protesters.

On the other hand, there were marauders who were rushing into Israel, ready to kill and kidnap Israelis.

And yes, horribly, there were children among the victims. When will Palestinian leaders stop worshiping Moloch, the ancient Canaanite god that desired the sacrifice of children?

Moreover, can we get real about Hamas? This is an anti-Semitic, misogynistic, anti-gay group. I don’t have to get into the whole thing about how (relatively, comparatively) tolerant Israel is on LGBT issues.

All I need to do is remind the radical chic crowd:  Hamas does not believe what you believe about the world and they deserve neither your support nor your silence. 

Here is what the anti-Israel crowd know.

An earlier generation of college radicals (myself included, at least for a while) successfully angered their bourgeois parents by joining the cult of Che and other leftist revolutionaries.

Perhaps the anti-Israel crowd can recruit this generation of Jewish kids to do the same thing — to overthrow their parents’ values.

Because, the BDS crowd on campus knows that when it comes to cool, Zionism ain’t cutting it.

If our kids do not know the truth; if they cannot hold up their end of an argument — which is to say, if we do not teach them and if their parents will not support their ongoing Jewish engagement and education — they will fall for this line.

Tom Wolfe totally nailed it. In fact, Radical Chic made me want to major in sociology — which I ultimately did, and which has informed my world view ever since.

In that sense, Tom Wolfe was one of my rabbis.

May his memory be a blessing.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


Click here to post a comment

  • What was that Hamas comment about?

    Do you know anything about the history of Zionist Israel?

    False equivalence is racist fallacy.

    Call the goddamned massacre of innocents what it is if your want to pretend to be moral.

  • Speaking not to Tom Wolfe, but rather in general, we really missed the best by not inviting and having 80% of the world’s Jewish people here with us in the USA instead of only 40% here and 40% in Israel as is presently the case.

    It would actually be easier to draw the correct conclusion that Islam (as represented by Hamas and other similar groups) is total-crock philosophy—–IF—–Israel was not so busy trying to make a religion into a nation in a hostile place.

  • It saddens me to say that Salkin gives evidence of following the example of those Jews who did not object to the anti-Semitism that was apparent in the Black Panther material or of those who unfortunately worshiped Che Guevara. For when condemning the PLO with the Jewish blood it has on its hands, he forgot to mention the problems and violence that brought the PLO into existence. Yes, the PLO does have blood on their hands but so does the Israeli military. And what is more important here: Is it the fact that both groups have blood on their hands or is it the ethnicity of the blood one has on on their hands?

    And what about the recent violence near the Gazan border? Were the majority of those protesters really Hamas operatives? And of those Hamas operatives how many really wanted to cross the border to kill and kidnap Israelis? Weren’t they at least also protesting the horrible conditions Israel has forced on them?

    Tribalism teaches us to ignore the faults of our own groups while reacting with hostility to those who don’t recognize the pedestal on which we have placed our own group. Due to tribalism, accepting the radical chic is as old as the hills. Cerainly Salkin is more than correct to object to the anti-Semitism of the Black Panther Party and to call Che Guevara a murderous thug. He is more than correct to note the blood that the PLO has on its hands. But what about the Occupation? And what about when women, children, members of the Press, and first responders are being shot with live ammunition by Israeli troops at the Gazan border? Salkin needs to ask himself if the current, dominant form of Zionism is also a radical chic group? From his other writings, I believe that Salkin can do much better than he did in the above article.

  • Re your middle paragraph:

    There is video of Hamas claiming that 50 of the 62 killed were part of Hamas. As for motives, people on both sides have lost sight that it wasn’t really about peaceful protest OR a plan to commit serious violence. Rather, it was carefully calibrated to be “just enough violence”: enough to provoke the Israeli military into a deadly response, but not enough to trigger another war. A totally peaceful protest might have been ignored by the Israeli army and therefore would not have attracted media attention or world outrage. Therefore, the perception of threat was created by burning tires, gasoline-soaked flaming kites, etc. and a mass of people against the fence. At the same time, they aren’t ramping it up into rockets this time, because actual military confrontation isn’t the goal. The Hamas leadership knows it would be too destructive. The goal was likely a PR victory, which they largely achieved.

  • Cynthia,
    This is part of the preferential treatment for Israel. Those who show preference for them never admit to the degree of unjustified violence they practice while they have problems right pointing to the unjustified violence of the Palestinians. That is preferential.

    Tell me, what violence justified the use of live ammunition on thousands of unarmed people including women and children, the press, and medical people? And tell me, what proof do you have that Israel would ignore a totally peaceful protest? Have you checked B’TSelem’s stats on how many innocent Palestinians have been the Israeli Army? Did you read Rachel Corrie who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer as it was trying to demolish a Palestinian home? That bulldozer had a spotter working with it. DId you know that Israel has shot other members of the press? Do you know that Israelis soldiers have fired on Palestinians as they are working in the fields?

    See, you start with an assumption of innocence for Israel regardless of all that they have done.

    I’ve been to protests before. I’ve never seen police use live ammunition on the people I’ve protested with. And when protests here get violent, rubber bullets are used.

    Let me ask this: Do you think that Israel’s recent actions should be investigated by the ICC? Or do you take Israel’s word for proof of their innocence? And, you need to consult more sources for your info in addition to what you cited.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.