Light blogging ahead — I’m off to Florida for the Memorial Day weekend.
Archive for May, 2010
From the JTA:
A “Nazi” and a “non-Jewish Shikse,” a pejorative for a gentile woman, are among the victims listed on the latest hate crimes report issued by Toronto Police…
The shikse incident occurred when the disapproving neighbor of a Jewish man who was dating a non-Jewish woman smashed the woman’s window, the Canadian Jewish News reported. It was not known whether charges were filed against the attacker.
“Non-Jewish Shikse” reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s short story, “No Kaddish for Weinstein.” As Weinstein tells an old lover:
“To you, any girl who’s not Jewish is a shiksa.”
This has to win some sort of award for “least promising book blurb”:
Good for the Jews is a smart, funny, sexy novel set in Madison, Wisconsin, during the Bush administration.
You had me at “Bush administration.”
Read on, however, and it gets interesting — Debra Spark’s novel is a modern-day reworking of the Queen Esther story. It got an excellent review on NPR, where Alan Cheuse called it “smart, sprightly, sex-drenched and neatly plotted.”
Elvis Costello is a brilliant musician and a seemingly thoughtful man, which makes his decision to cancel two concerts in Israel even more troubling.
As late as two weeks before the shows, Costello, in a Jerusalem Post interview, carefully distinguished between the “hawkish policy of the government,” with which he disagreed, and a citizenry which may in fact be divided over that policy.
But someone or something changed the musician’s mind. In a subsequent letter to fans he explained that “there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.”
In other words, the perception of ignoring Palestinian “suffering” outweighed his respect for the diversity of his Israeli audience.
I won’t argue with Costello’s interpretation of the Palestinian reality – he’s entitled to his opinion. And if cancelling his concerts moved Israelis and Palestinians any closer to peace, I’d be all for it.
But a cultural boycott of Israel does exactly the opposite. Here are reasons why:
1/ By singling out Israel for condemnation, a boycott emboldens its critics and enemies, many of whom have an animus towards Israel that has nothing to do with the fate of the Palestinians.
2/It enables Palestinians and their supporters in the belief that time and world opinion, as opposed to meaningful actions on their part, will bring them closer to their goal of “liberation.”
3/ Israel boycotts grossly oversimplify a tragic conflict, suggesting a dualist struggle between good guys and bad guys.
4/ Boycotts strengthen Israeli extremists, whose stars rise when Israelis are feeling most isolated and vulnerable.
5/ finally, cultural boycotts also insult the many, many Israelis who have been working for peace and reconciliation.
“It seems to me that dialogue is essential,” Costello told his Israeli interviewer. It is. It’s too bad that the man who sang “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding” chose to forego that dialogue, in favor of a blatantly one-sided and counter-productive political act.
Over at Tablet (again with Tablet!) Ron Rosenbaum reminisces about sharing an apartment building and some ethical dilemmas with members of the “militant” Jewish Defense Organization in the 1980s. When I was reporting for JTA in the late ’80s, I’d often hear from Mordechai Levy, the head of the JDO and as far as I could tell its only member (Rosenbaum suggests there were more).
More intriguingly, we’d get phone calls from various people, often describing themselves as members of the foreign press, who in spot-on accents would ask us for our opinion of the JDO. Had we heard the JDO was planning a “huge” demonstration when Farrakhan speaks at Terrace on the Park? Were we worried about violence when the JDO demonstrated at the UN? The caller would keep us engaged for a while, quizzing us on Jewish organizational politics, always circling back to the JDO’s activites and its growing reputation in their home countries.
After a while (and it took a while — I was a little slow on the uptake) we became convinced that it was Mordechai or one of his colleagues making these calls. If it was him, the guy can do killer accents, French, British, you name it.
Sure enough, Rosenbaum describes (but doesn’t name) a JDO member with a talent for mimicry. Like Mordechai, he’s “a nerdy looking bespectacled guy wearing a white shirt, tefillin, and a yarmulke”:
Through the half-open door I could hear this pitch-perfect lowdown redneck trailer trash deputy sheriff growl, talking big about his plans for big-time cross burnings and the like.
Then when I came through the door I saw that the Klan voice emanated from a nerdy looking bespectacled guy wearing a white shirt, tefillin, and a yarmulke.
The Infiltrator. Through his mastery of telephone hacking, organizational research, and perfection of accent he had—I got the impression—half the Kleagles of the Klan in the South convinced he was running a thriving Klavern out of Northern Louisiana. Or impersonating the guy who was. He was always setting up secret Klaverns and cross-burnings and then alerting the Feds who had paper out on most of these guys.
Tablet parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall explains why she “can’t talk to her kids about Israel”:
That’s because I am deeply ambivalent about Israel. Modern-day Israel, as opposed to historical Israel, is a subject I avoid with my children. Yes, of course I believe the state should exist, but the word “Zionist” makes me skittish. (I understand that I may be the Jewish equivalent of all the twentysomething women I want to smack for saying, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights.”) I shy away from conversations about Israeli politics. I feel no stirring in my heart when I see the Israeli flag. I would no sooner attend an Israel Day parade than a Justin Bieber concert. Neither Abe Foxman nor AIPAC speaks for me. I am a liberal, and I am deeply troubled by the Matzav, Israeli shorthand for tension with the Palestinians, and I do not have answers, and I do not know what to do about it, and I do not know what to tell my children.
I’m a fan of Marjorie’s writings, and I was at the Forward when we brought her aboard to do her “East Village Mamele” column, but this piece reveals an intellectual laziness towards Israel that drives me nuts. No, “laziness” is unfair — I think American Jews like her have a hard time thinking about Israel not because they are lazy, but precisely (davke, as the Israelis say) because the subject is so fraught. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you that the things we have so much trouble articulating are those that hit closest to home.
For example, Marjorie has a hard time responding to this, her daughter’s challenging but ultimately simplistic analogy:
“But having land is like having a seat on a bus,” Josie replied. “You can’t just push someone out of their seat, and you can’t just leave your seat and then come back to it after a long time and just expect the person who is sitting there now to give it to you.”
Well, she might start by pointing out that Jews also had a seat on the bus, continuously for at least 2,000 years. And that while the bus did become more crowded — owing in part to Jewish enterprise, and in part to a terrible slaughter that made it necessary for Jews to board the bus – many good people have been trying to share the bus, and many bad people hate the idea of sharing the bus. And that there are good and bad people on both sides, which has made the sharing even more difficult.
I doubt she would have as hard a time explaining a challenging American narrative — say, how can we love America if we used to own slaves? How can we celebrate the Fourth of July if the land used to belong to the Indians? At some point, you have to introduce your kids to the notion of cognitive dissonance. You have to teach them about the messiness of the world — the idea that good people sometimes do bad things, that worthy institutions sometimes don’t live up to their ideals, that no country can claim an unblemished or unambiguous past.
Many liberal Jews seem able to assimilate every complex historical narrative except Israel’s. That’s not because they are “self-hating,” as some truly loathsome people would have it, but precisely the opposite. I think they are in love with a conception of Judaism as wise, warm, liberal, humane, bookish. They love, as do I, the Jew’s role as permanent outsider, the critic who stands at a remove from his or her society and is thus in a better position to see and judge it clearly.
And ultimately, they are in love with Jewish powerlessness — not that they prefer Jews as victims (although some might), but because so many of the traits they associate with Judaism flourished when Jews lacked power. It’s easy to be the world’s conscience when we lacked the means to hold power and exert it.
But in Israel, Jews are in charge — of themselves, of others, of their history. I would argue to my grave that considering their adversaries and the example set by so many other countries in similar circumstances, Jews have passed that test of power with flying colors. The record is hardly spotless, and many of us worry that unless it finds a way to move beyond the status quo Israel will be forced to adopt the ugly ethos of many of its neighbors and the sorts of policies that undermine its own morality. But we’ve seen the alternative to holding power: the destruction of a Jewish civilization.
Like Marjorie, I revel in Jewish identity as revealed “through ancient history, through food, through songs and prayers, through the story of American immigration.” But to revel in these things without including Israel in the picture is a distorted and nostalgic view of Jewish identity — the Jewish equivalent of the Texas textbook controversy, where “patriots” worry that by teaching about the ambiguous currents of American history we undermine a love of country.
At the same time, it is a huge injustice to discuss Israel only as a sum total of its faults — as if the only way to engage with it is to condemn it or apologize for it. She might start by teaching about the kinds of people who make up its citizenry — not just settlers and politicians but tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who had nowhere else to go. Millions of Russian immigrants whose lives were made miserable under the Soviets. Mizrachi Jews who were kicked out of their own countries and given a haven in Israel. Some two million Arab citizens who both contribute to Israeli society and are struggling to come to terms with it.
I bring those examples not only to “justify” Israel’s existence as a haven for the Jews, but to give a sense of the multiplicity of Israeli society. Too many critiques of Israel treat it as an “idea,” a 19th-century nationalist “construct” whose time has passed. But Marjorie’s kids ought to know that there are millions of Israeli citizens who live there, work there, struggle not only with the “Matzav” (and they do — it’s important to remind the kids that they do) but with the everyday decisions and dilemmas we all face. These are seven million people who aren’t going anywhere. We owe them their realness — their actuality. Ppeople who treat Israel as an “idea” are often the same people who prefer to talk about “Zionists” rather than “Israelis,” because it easier to argue against an idea than real people, or harder to acknowledge the suffering on both sides.
You don’t have to start teaching your kids about Israel by focusing on the Matsav, anymore than you have to teach them about baseball by starting with the color line. They’ll learn about it soon enough, and it may challenge the things they came to cherish about the subject, but you can at least start by giving them an appreciation of the game.
In Israel’s case, that means showing them the country through the eyes of its citizenry. Not just the tourist stuff — the Western Wall doesn’t tell you any more about what it means to be Israeli than Mt. Rushmore reveals the everyday lives of Americans — but the things they eat, the schools they attend, the ways they have fun, the ways they celebrate and mourn.
Eventually that will lead to its politics and its intractable challenges, and maybe at that point they’ll appreciate the complexity of the situation and what — this is important — has made it so difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to solve their problems. They’ll appreciate that the solution rests on both sides finding the security and dignity they deserve.
Marjorie complains that the major Jewish organizations demand “blind fealty” to the Israeli government. To the degree that’s true, she and parents like her have to learn to say, “to hell with them,” and engage with Israel on their own terms. I don”t have to tell this to a parenting columnist: There comes a point where you have to take responsibility for yourself (and your own kids) and stop blaming your elders. The inspiring, messy, complex, genuine, uplifting, disheartening, sad and funny Israel is there for the taking — and teaching. You don’t need permission from anybody, and you don’t have to apologize to anybody.
A Forward editorial pursues the discussion of “Liberal Zionism” in light of the Beinart essay:
[T]he task of reconciling this tension between love for Israel and attachment to traditional liberal values such as human rights, religious pluralism, equal citizenship and territorial compromise has not been abandoned. It is being fully explored on our pages and in our blogs, in works by J.J. Goldberg, Leonard Fein, Yossi Alpher, Jay Michaelson and many others. More broadly, the wish to resolve the tension has fueled political movements such as J Street, and myriad efforts on the religious and cultural scene, here and in Israel, to express those liberal values in non-traditional venues and idioms.
UPDATE: The Forward has a news article on the “for the Sake of Zion” petition.
eJewish Philanthropy has posted my contribution to its Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times series. I ask if the communal emphasis on day schools hasn’t come at the expense of a more holistic approach to Jewish education. In other words:
“There is no alternative to day school” is problematic because there must be an alternative – simply put, outside of Orthodoxy, the majority of Jewish families do not and will not choose day schools, even if they were tuition-free. In a country in which K-12 education is free, and is central to the civic fabric, is or was day school ever a viable economic model for a voluntary Jewish community – and one with such an enormous historical and emotional debt to the public education system?
Read the whole essay here.
Hartman favors an interpration of Judaism in which the world is “shaped by human initiative and action,” as opposed to a life of faith that ”requires submission or silence” in the face of God’s plan. Hartman prefers the Abraham who argued with God over the fate of Sodom, over the Abraham who meekly submitted to God’s commandment to sacrifice his son.
There are essentially two ways to view our relationship with God: one approach says ‘I’m nothing; only in my relationship to God am I something.’ In the other approach, an individual’s relationship to God makes him or her feel enhanced, enriched, empowered. Covenantal spirituality moves us toward self-expansion. It endows us with the ability to trust our own moral intuition, our own moral sensibility, our whole spiritual hunger.
One problem in the Jewish world today is that we no longer consider this kind of language Jewish; we’ve abdicated the language of personal moral agency to secular humanists. Yet giving strength to that inner moral voice is in itself not only very deeply religious, it is also deeply rooted in the tradition. It’s not just a liberal perspective; it is fundamental to the God relationship that we not abandon our own moral integrity.
Hag sameach, and may you find your inner moral voice.
Another “Liberal Zionist” sighting: In an oped for JTA, Rabbi Sid Schwarz writes of straddling “two worlds,” as both a liberal activist and a Zionist with a “strong relationship to AIPAC”:
It has not always been easy to straddle these two worlds, and it is getting harder. My friends on the progressive left cannot fathom why I have had a close working relationship with AIPAC. And I have taken my share of lumps from “defenders of Israel” who have accused me of traitorous behavior for my activism with organizations that have challenged one or another policy of the State of Israel when I feel that it violates core principles of Jewish ethics and morality.
Schwarz writes in support of Makom, a Jewish Agency for Israel project to encourage what seems like a wider conversation on Israel than you often find in Jewish institutional settings. From its “about” page:
Israel excites, alienates, and compels. How are we as Jews implicated in Israel’s achievements, mistakes, and challenges? We at MAKOM don’t pretend to have simple answers, but we do know that without openly engaging with these questions, our Jewish lives are impoverished. We invite you to join an ongoing conversation about hugging and wrestling with Israel.
There are a number of interesting educators attached to the project, although I haven’t heard much talk about it since its launch. The goal seems to be to provide a semi-”official” place for those who love Israel but want to discuss its flaws — er, challenges.