Archive for June, 2012
Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, who heads a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem, goes “undercover” at a conference held by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, on the “threat” of recognizing non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel. The American-born “Rav Barry,” who was the much beloved interim rabbi at my own synagogue last year, sports a suitably rabbinic white beard, so it was easy for him to pass:
The rhetoric was militaristic. Rabbi Amar encouraged the rabbis to stand in front of the open Ark and to pray for the nullification of the “edict” [allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to be paid by local municpalities]; “to wage war” against those whose sole intention is to have the people drink “polluted waters” and to bring Israelis down to the non-Orthodox “pit of spiritual descent.”
After delivering tirade after tirade about the dangers of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, the rabbis charged each other with the objective of “guarding the vineyard of the House of Israel.” But, to guard from whom? From people like me, the so-called trespassers who aren’t worthy of planting anything in that metaphoric vineyard of Judaism? These angry, rejecting diatribes continued for an hour, and were hard to absorb.
The National Jewish Democratic Council is quick to celebrate Supreme Court decision on Obamacare:
The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) today lauded the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act — commonly referred to as Obamacare. NJDC Chair Marc R. Stanley and President and CEO David A. Harris said jointly:
“The National Jewish Democratic Council — indeed so much of the American Jewish community — is deeply gratified by today’s ruling. We are thankful that the Court affirmed the core constitutionality of this landmark legislation that will bring health care to tens of millions more Americans. The Court confirmed today what liberal and conservative legal scholars have said all along — that the individual mandate to purchase health insurance is constitutional and well within Congress’ jurisdiction to regulate. Now is the time for conservative critics of the President — especially the godfather of core components of the bill, Mitt Romney — to accept Obamacare and its provisions as the constitutional law of the land.
”We look forward to the continuing implementation of Obamacare in the months and years to come.”
Bradely Burston calls out the Zionist Organization of America for inviting Pamela Geller — “one of America’s most extraordinarily successful purveyors of unvarnished prejudice and unapologetic hatred” – to speak at the offices the ZOA rents in the headquarters of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. (The federation nixed the event, Geller played the martyr, and the ZOA — which has called for Jewish groups to ban Thomas Friedman and J Street — dealt the “free speech” card).
It might be asked why the ZOA, as a high-profile constituent of the Jewish community, felt it worthwhile to volunteer a platform to someone whose venom is so ecumenical that she has accused Barack Obama of being the love child of Malcolm X, and has charged that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who is Jewish, has a “love of socialism of the Nazi variety” – even promoting a photoshopped photograph of Justice Kagan wearing a swastika-laden Nazi helmet and uniform.
Does the ZOA really believe that the cause of supporting Israel is served by rank bigotry and a maniacal, ever-escalating flow of poison directed against all members of a certain faith? Does the ZOA really believe that the future of Israel is at all fostered by a person urging the removal of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock shrine, one of the holiest sites in Islam? “The Dome has got to go, ” Geller has written, and repeated for emphasis.
In my column this week, I started out writing about guns, and soon realized I was writing about Jewish boundaries. The gun debate was only a framework onwhich to hang an argument between those who argue that halakhic Judaism is the only “authentic” expression of Judaism, and those, like me, who believe that Jewish ethnic and cultural tendencies, even at their most secular, are also our birthright.
In other words, liberalism (to take one example) hasn’t “superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right,” as Norman Podhoretz insists. Jewish liberalism, even where it disagrees with halakha, is an authentic expression of Jewish history and culture. Our Jewish expressions are the sum total of our history, religion, sociology, geography, and pathologies (and we have a few). To say something isn’t Jewish because it doesn’t follow the halakha is a convenient way to negate hundreds if not thousands of years of Jewish self-understanding.
In my column I used guns as an example of the powerful notion of “goyishe naches” — that is, something Jews understand to be a “gentile thing.” I don’t mean to imply anything negative about gentiles or guns. I mean that throughout our history of exclusion and assimilation, Jews often defined themselves in opposition to the behaviors of “others.” That’s true of kashrut, but it is also true of a host of cultural markers. I suspect that the Jewish aversion to alcohol also developed as a response to the behaviors of non-Jews. So did our allergy to Wonder Bread.
(Yes, yes, these are stereotypes. More than one reader has pointed that out. But sometimes stereotypes develop because they are grounded in truth. Not every Jew favors gun control, and some of our grandparents were alcoholics. But there are strong tendencies in every group that cannot be denied out of fear what “others” might say.)
I insist that these sorts of folk behaviors are every bit as “Jewish” as the 613 mitzvot — maybe not in the ledger as recorded by Moses and maintained by the rabbis, but in the ”cultural DNA” that has created a sense of shared Jewish experience of which halakha is only one ingredient.
At least one reader got my point:
Andrew- gutsy and great piece. I have no problem with gun ownership. I do have a problem with those who decide that they and they alone determine who is authentically Jewish. The argument could be made that it is the “single issue” pro-gun advocates in the jewish community who are highly assimilated-they put gun ownership and political advocacy above and beyond the many halakhic issues raised by guns. (See J David Bleich on the halakhic problems raised by selling guns, for example.)
This discussion is bound to get more important the closer we get to November. The polls are going to show a decline in Jewish support for Obama, but nothing like the huge paradigm shift some Republicans are suggesting. And when Obama does get his 60-65 percent of the Jewish vote, disappointed Republicans will say that a lot of those Jewish voters are Jews In Name Only, and that the only “Jewish vote” that counts is among the most religious or most pro-Israel Jews.
Thee is another aspect to this, and that is the decline of Jewish “ethnicity.” What Steven M. Cohen calls the ”collective aspect of Jewish identity and community” (which I think is pretty close to my notion of “cultural DNA”) is clearly on the decline. This “social tissue” (as opposed to religious conviction) is what tied together my parents’ and grandparents’ generations as Jews, even as they drifted away from religion. So yes, if current trends aren’t disrupted or prove unsustainable, you will see American Jewry becoming smaller and more religious, as the non-religous fade into a post-ethnic, post-endogamous (look it up) twilight.
But the topic under discussion is not contuity. It is how we live now. If ethnic Judaism is not up to challenges of freedom and modernity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t Jewish.
As an English major, I love a good Mideast argument that hinges on the correct interpretation of the “hypotactic past perfect.”
The somewhat convoluted background: This week’s New Yorker includes a short story by Israeli Shani Boianjiu, which describes a confrontation between a female Israeli soldier and Palestinian demonstrators, told from the soldier’s point of view. Anti-Zionist blogger Philip Weiss calls it ”propagandistic fiction”; Open Zion’s Raphael Magarik responds that Weiss completely misreads what was intended as irony on the part of the author.
You’ll have to read the story and the two responses to get the gist, but I liked what Magarik had to say about the tendency of anti-Israel writers to ignore the facts or points of view — and, as important, the empathy — that might cloud their black and white picture of Israeli calumny:
Nobody likes seeing things from the perspective of his enemies, whether they’re suicide bombers or checkpoint-manning soldiers. It’s harder to fight “The War of Ideas in the Middle East” once you realize that Israelis—left and right—are self-reflective, critical, and smart, and that they care about lots of the same things you do. Things turn out be more ambiguous than they looked …. But if we don’t read “Israeli army fiction,” we’re shirking the demands of moral empathy. And that’s a lesson that American observers of the conflict cannot afford to miss.
This also seems to be the subtext of the Alice Walker affair, in which the novelist turned down a Hebrew publisher’s offer to publish her book, The Color Purple. Walker acknowledges that she would like to have her book read by “the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside.” But it is more important, she writes, that she support a cultural boycott of Israel.
It would seem that her book — about the corrosive effects of racism and human subjugation — would be the very kind of thing she’d want an Israeli to read, perhaps as “the spark that ignited a new dialogue,” as Amelia Cohen-Levy put it in Tablet. But Walker and other BDSers seem to fear the dialogue — afraid, I suspect, that they might find a situation far more complex than the one they project.
Cohen-Levy quotes Steven Spielberg, who has a great term for these kinds of reductionists: “The great simplifiers.”
UPDATE: The comments about the story, which appear at the end of Boianjiu’s interview with the New Yorker, offer an interesting and depressing view of how polarizing the Mideast debate can be. Choice comments include “blatantly propagandistic and one-sided”; ”reeks of privilege and one-sided ignorance”; and “Nakba Denying IDF porn.” (I agree with the reader who suggests many of these readers were driven to the New Yorker site by Mondoweiss and similar Israel-bashing sites.)
So maybe I am blinded by my own pro-Israel bias, but I saw the story as a fairly caustic comment on the Israeli army and its culture. The story is a deflating parody of the IDF’s ”rules of engagement,” and a pox-on-both-your-houses satire of two sides in an endless conflict who are caught in their respective “roles.”
A female officer mans a four-person checkpoint along a rode upon which (satire alert) no one travels. Three Palestinians — two adults and a child — approach the checkpoint and politely request that the soldiers suppress their “demonstration” so that their grievances make it into the newspapers. The action plays out like an outtake from “Catch-22″ — the officer is seen reading carefully through the absurd army instructions about when to use shock grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas to put down a demonstration, while the Palestinians patiently await her decision. The story does not suggest — as some crticis insist — that the rules of engagement prove the humanity of the Israelis. If anything, it conveys the opposite: The author forces you to imagine whether, in the heat of a tense standoff, any of these means of dispersal can be seen as humane, and whether their use should be up to the discretion of 21-year-old kids who were, as the story explains, banished to an obscure checkpoint because they literally couldn’t shoot straight.
Propaganda? Only if you take pride in an army whose soldiers, as depicted in the story, spend their days guarding empty highways and getting duped by friendly demonstrators, and spend their nights having rough sex and getting off on feel-bad stories from the day’s papers. Not exactly Cast a Giant Shadow.
My colleagues and I at the New Jersey Jewish News won a total of four first place Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism, which were announced Wednesday night in Philadelphia by the American Jewish Press Association.
Below are the prizewinners , with links to the winning entries.
Category 1: The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary
Division A. Newspapers over 15,000 circulation and all Magazines/Websites.
Category 12: Excellence in Graphic Design: Cover
Category 12B. Newspapers
Category 14: The Noah Bee Award for Excellence in Illustration and/or Editorial Cartooning
Category 14B. Illustrations. All Newspapers/Special Sections and Supplements/Websites.
New Jersey Jewish News, Whippany, NY
“Pretty, Pretty Sane” by Dayna Nadel
Category 15: Outstanding Website
Division A. Newspapers over 15,000 circulation.
New Jersey Jewish News, Whippany, NJ
http://www.njjewishnews.com/ by Aaron Fowler
I gave a synagogue talk a few weeks ago and was asked by a member of the audience why Jews seem to be so averse to guns and in favor of gun control. I gave a quick and I thought not bad answer: Jews have no real cultural history of hunting, and, with some notable historical exceptions, have had an ambivalent relationship with military service.
The laws of kashrut pretty much assured that Jews, even those living in rural areas, didn’t do much hunting. Kosher-keeping Jews can’t eat an animal that isn’t slaughtered according to kashrut. As for hunting for sheer sport, the rabbis put a kibosh on that. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague (18th century) wrote that killing an animal in order to satisfy “the enjoyable use of [a person's] time” is “sheer cruelty.” As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains, Landau’s response has long been considered the “normative Jewish position on hunting.”
Telushkin also suggests that the Jewish aversion to hunting is a matter of sympathy and transference, and quotes Heine: “My ancestors did not belong to the hunters as much as to the hunted.”
As for military service, Jews have a long and proud history as soldiers, going back to biblical times and including service in the armies of wahtever country they happened to be living in. Don’t get a Jewish war vet started on the idea that Jews don’t fight. And Israel has proven that when it comes to defending themselves, Jews take a back seat to no one.
But the Jewish relationship with the military has always been ambivalent. Many of the immigrants who fled Russia and the east in the 20th century did so to escape forced conscription for terms of two decades and more. The military could also be a hotbed of anti-Semitism, as Dreyfus learned so memorably. Through much of the last century Jews in the U.S. military academies spoke of their struggles for acceptance; those are the kinds of stories today’s adult Jews grew up on.
Put the two together and you don’t get a very hospitable climate for raising gun lovers.
They sum up their arguments thus:
Our research identifies ten reasons why these Jews feel the way they do about self defense in general, firearms specifically and your own right to keep and bear arms.
The adamantly anti-gun-rights Jews are bowing to:
1. A desire for utopian moral purity
2. A disproportional incidence of hoplophobia
3. A quest for power through victimization of peers
4. A utopian delusion that if guns would just “go away,”
crime would end and the world would be a peaceful safe place
5. Self hatred and a wish to be helpless, acting out guilt-based
behavioral problems that develop in childhood
6. The Ostrich Syndrome
7. Garden-variety hypocrisy
8. Adulterated religion — Jews In Name Only (JINOs)
9. Feel-good sophistry
10. Abject fear that yields irrational behavior
(Hoplophobia, I learned from the paper, is an irrational fear of guns [as opposed to ballistophobia, or fear of being shot].)
The authors, needless to say, don’t appear to be very proud of their fellow Jews. An inability to face reality, they suggest, has tempted Jews to embrace the words of Isaiah: “they shall beat their spears into pruning hooks.” The authors much prefer Talmud, Berakoth 58b: “If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.”
The paper isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, but it’s interesting reading.
UPDATE: Two other things occur to me: The Jewish aversion to guns, like so many of the behaviors Jews claim for themselves, comes out of a desire to distinguish ourselves from the gentiles. Kashrut, for all its biblical justification, is clearly a system for marking a boundary between us and them. It’s also a template for folk markers to come: There is no good reason why Jews don’t bring flowers to a funeral, but its assocaition as a gentile custom probably kept it from gaining a foothold among us. Hunting too falls under the category of goyishe naches; that is; what they do. In Arthur Szyk’s famous protrayal of the Haggadah’s Four Sons, the wicked son wears hunting gear.
I also don’t think Bendory and Korwin account for how much the sanctity of private gun ownership is a very American phenomenon, and a fairly recent one at that, as Jill Lepore demonstrated convincingly in the New Yorker. Instead of wondering why so many Jews remain so supportive of gun control, you might wonder why the zeal for gun ownership has taken on the sort of passion and defensiveness usually associated with religion.
Determined campaigns by noisy minorities or threats by a handful of major donors regularly silence voices deemed controversial. The most familiar flashpoint is Israel, a subject so charged for so long that we’ve come to take the suppression of dissent for granted, like a perpetual toothache.
The disinviting of Wasserman Schultz takes the stifling of free discourse into a new and alarming realm. In this case, a hugely popular elected official has been prevented from speaking on matters of national concern to an audience that overwhelmingly agrees with her, within the walls of an institution that is committed to the sorts of liberal views she represents. All because one donor objects.