The parallels between American slavery and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians

o13-iconEva Illouz writes: [T]he critiques of Israel in the United States are increasingly waged by Jews, not anti-Semites. The initiators and leaders of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement are such respected academics as Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Rose and Larry Gross, all Jews.

If Israel is indeed singled out among the many nations that have a bad record in human rights, it is because of the personal sense of shame and embarrassment that a large number of Jews in the Western world feel toward a state that, by its policies and ethos, does not represent them anymore. As Peter Beinart has been cogently arguing for some time now, the Jewish people seems to have split into two distinct factions: One that is dominated by such imperatives as “Israeli security,” “Jewish identity” and by the condemnation of “the world’s double standards” and “Arabs’ unreliability”; and a second group of Jews, inside and outside Israel, for whom human rights, freedom, and the rule of law are as visceral and fundamental to their identity as membership to Judaism is for the first group. Supreme irony of history: Israel has splintered the Jewish people around two radically different moral visions of Jews and humanity.

If we are to find an appropriate analogy to understand the rift inside the Jewish people, let us agree that the debate between the two groups is neither ethnic (we belong to the same ethnic group) nor religious (the Judith Butlers of the world are not trying to push a new or different religious dogma, although the rift has a certain, but imperfect, overlap with the religious-secular positions). Nor is the debate a political or ideological one, as Israel is in fact still a democracy. Rather, the poignancy, acrimony and intensity of the debate are about two competing and ultimately incompatible conceptions of morality.
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[W]hat started as a national and military conflict has morphed into a form of domination of Palestinians that now increasingly borders on conditions of slavery. If we understand slavery as a condition of existence and not as ownership and trade of human bodies, the domination that Israel has exercised over Palestinians turns out to have created the matrix of domination that I call a “condition of slavery.”

The Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Ministry has documented that between 1967 and 2012, Israeli authorities arrested some 800,000 Palestinians by power of the “military code.” (A more conservative assessment from Israeli sources documented that 700,000 Palestinians were detained between 1967 and 2008.) This number is astounding, especially in light of the fact that this represents as much as 40 percent of the entire male population. When a large part of the adult male population is arrested, it means that the lives of a large number of breadwinners, the heads of a family, are disrupted, alienated and made into the object of the arbitrary power of the army. In fact, which nation would create a Prisoner Affairs Ministry if imprisonment was not such a basic aspect of its life?

These facts also mean that a significant portion of the non-incarcerated population lives under the constant fear and threat of imprisonment. [Continue reading...]

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The latest threat to Jewish continuity

n13-iconThe Times of Israel reported in late January: Yair Netanyahu is “spitting on the grave of his grandfather and grandmother,” Dr. Hagai Ben-Artzi, brother of Sara Netanyahu, said Monday of his nephew’s relationship with a non-Jewish Norwegian woman.

News that the prime minister’s son, who is 23, is dating Sandra Leikanger, 25, was first reported by the Norwegian daily Dagen. The tall, svelte blonde met the younger Netanyahu at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, where the two study.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week that his son traveled with Leikanger in Norway over the summer, and that the two had been dating for months.

In an interview with ultra-Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat, Ben-Artzi urged his nephew to cut ties with his new girlfriend, and warned him that should he choose to pursue the relationship, Ben-Artzi would personally see to it that he would not be allowed near his grandparents’ graves.

“It’s terrible,” Ben-Artzi said. “Just terrible, and the son of the prime minister no less. It is the worst thing that is threatening and was a threat throughout the history of the Jews.”

Should his nephew marry Leikanger, Ben-Artzi said he “would bury myself, I don’t know what I would do with myself, I’d take to the streets and rip the hair out of my head — and here it’s coming true.”

If his father was alive, Ben-Artzi added, that is precisely how he would respond too.

Ben-Artzi and Sara Netanyahu have not been in touch for years for undisclosed reasons.

Earlier on Monday, ultra-Orthodox Shas MK Arye Deri responded to news of the relationship by saying, “If God forbid it’s true, then woe to us, woe to us.”

Deri told the Kol Barama radio station the relationship was no mere personal matter because Netanyahu is a “symbol of the Jewish people.”

“I know friends of mine who invest tens of millions and more, hundreds of millions to fight assimilation in the world,” Deri said. [Continue reading...]

Elianna Yolkut, a Conservative Rabbi in New York City, writes: Though it might sound fatalistic, if our Jewish leadership and institutions do not stop obsessing over demographics and statistics, we will lose the true fight. Judaism will lose its wisdom, its value and its meaning. We must, as a community, dedicate our resources, time, money, leadership and energy to being the voice for the powerful messages Judaism can bring to the world, and to Jewish community; message of love and responsibility, of hope and possibility, of compassion and commitment.

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Whose Holocaust?

FeatureThe genocidal policies of the Nazis resulted in the deaths of about as many Polish Gentiles as Polish Jews, thus making them co-victims in a Forgotten Holocaust. This Holocaust has been largely ignored because historians who have written on the subject of the Holocaust have chosen to interpret the tragedy in exclusivistic terms — namely, as the most tragic period in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. To them, the Holocaust was unique to the Jews, and they therefore have had little or nothing to say about the nine million Gentiles, including three million Poles, who also perished in the greatest tragedy the world has ever known. — Richard C. Lukas, preface to The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944

We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contrary to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil. As The Los Angeles Times recently stated, the number of books in various languages which deny that the Holocaust ever took place, that it was invented by Jewish propaganda, has exceeded one hundred. If such an insanity is possible, is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable? And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering or poisoning of the natural environment?

For the poet of the “other Europe” the events embraced by the name of the Holocaust are a reality, so close in time that he cannot hope to liberate himself from their remembrance unless, perhaps, by translating the Psalms of David. He feels anxiety, though, when the meaning of the word Holocaust undergoes gradual modifications, so that the word begins to belong to the history of the Jews exclusively, as if among the victims there were not also millions of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and prisoners of other nationalities. He feels anxiety, for he senses in this a foreboding of a not distant future when history will be reduced to what appears on television, while the truth, as it is too complicated, will be buried in the archives, if not totally annihilated. — Czeslaw Milosz, 1980

The Polish-American poet John Guzlowski writes: My mother wasn’t an educated woman. She had no college, no high school even. She couldn’t read the books that argue about who was and who was not in the Holocaust.

When I was growing up, she never said she was in the Holocaust. She wasn’t a talker, but she talked a little about what happened to her family. Her mother and sister and the sister’s baby were killed by German Soldiers and Ukrainian neighbors. She had two aunts who died in Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands. My mother spent a couple years in a slave labor camp in Germany. There were Jews and non-Jews in her camp; people suffered and died there. She didn’t talk about any of this much, and when she did she didn’t use the word “Holocaust.”

This changed as she got older. Toward the end of the 1990s, she started talking about how she was in the Holocaust. I think part of this might have come from the fact that people in general, not historians or academics but “just plain folks,” were using the term more often. They had seen Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful and Holocaust and other films about the Holocaust. I heard her using this word and saying that she was in the Holocaust. She said this to Christians (she was Catholic) and Jews alike. Maybe it was a sort of short hand for her. She was getting older and it was harder for her, I think, to try to explain to people that Polish Catholics also were in death camps and slave labor camps like their Jewish neighbors.

Was my mother right to use this word “Holocaust”? Did she have a right to use this word?

I think she had a right. When my father tried to talk about what happened to my mother during the war, he couldn’t say much. Sometimes, he would start crying, and all he could say then was, “She suffered so much.”

I have an education, and I’ve read about the debate concerning the word “Holocaust.” I think I can lay out some of the arguments from each side in a rudimentary sort of way given the complexity of everything that happened in World War II. One side feels that the Holocaust is what happened to the Jews alone. This side feels that the Nazis and their anti-Semitic allies in all countries worked to eliminate the Jews, and that what happened to the Jews was unique. The other side of the argument has it that Non-Jews by the millions from all of Europe suffered and died alongside the Jews, and that the term Holocaust should apply to all of those who suffered and died in the camps.

So, you ask, what do I think about using the word “Holocaust.” First, I’d have to say that I would never have told my mother that she wasn’t in the Holocaust. I think she had a right to describe her experiences in any way that she saw fit. She was there, she suffered. If she felt she was in the Holocaust, I wouldn’t argue with her.

Second, let me say, that I believe that what happened to Jews was different from what happened to non-Jews. Jews were singled out for immediate destruction. They suffered, they starved, they waited, they died, they waited, they died. Non-Jews who were considered non-Aryan (the Poles, the Italians, the Russians, the Rumanians, the Czechs, and others) were not singled out for immediate destruction. They suffered, they lingered, they starved, they waited, they died, they waited. My father used to talk about the difference between the death camps that the Jews were in and the slave labor camps he was in this way: The Jews, he would say, were in the death camps; he was in the slow-death camps.

To me, it doesn’t seem necessary to spend time discussing the word “Holocaust” and whether it’s applicable to what happened to my parents and other non-Jews.

I think about the Jewish dead and I think about the non-Jewish dead. They are dead.

What I know of hell comes to me primarily from my reading of Dante’s Inferno. In his hell, no one is untouched by pain. Everyone suffers. Some suffer more. Some suffer most. What I know of pain and suffering teaches me that I cannot judge the suffering and pain another feels. I can try to ease that pain and suffering. That is pretty much all I can do.

Let me also say this, I think that all of us who talk about what happened in those dark years of Hitler’s ascendancy and power and the Holocaust and suffering he helped to bring about finally cannot fully understand what happened or what it felt like or what it was like. In this respect, all of us, despite our very best efforts, cannot know what the Holocaust was. We are finally tourists in the kingdom of the Holocaust. We look, we wonder, we cry, we look, we turn away, we look again.

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Sharon: A Jew can only ‘live as a Jew’ in Israel

In a profile of Ariel Sharon written by James Bennet that appeared in the New York Times in 2004, Sharon indicated that he didn’t see Israel as simply a homeland for the Jewish people but rather that the perpetuation of Jewish identity depended on the ability of Jews to isolate themselves from non-Jews.

For those who regard assimilation as a threat, it’s hard to imagine that they can really embrace the idea of peaceful co-existence — be that peaceful co-existence with Palestinians, Arabs, or anyone else. Why? Because peace inevitably leads to the collapse of barriers and if the enduring existence of ones identity is seen as dependent on the perpetuation of such barriers then the enmity which sustains division is preferable to peace.

In the 50′s and 60′s, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, took a shine to the brash leader of Israel’s commandos. Much to the irritation of Sharon’s superior officers, Ben-Gurion would invite him for private chats in his office or even his home. Ben-Gurion’s papers reflect a fatherly interest in Sharon, whom he referred to as Arik and whose roguishness both charmed and worried him. During this period, Ben-Gurion was in his 60′s and then 70′s, Sharon in his 20′s and then 30′s. Their chats followed a tender pattern. Sharon would describe and sometimes defend his exploits. He would complain about his superiors. While lending a sympathetic ear, Ben-Gurion would gently relay to Sharon some of those officers’ concerns, and his own, about Sharon’s behavior. Prodded by Israel’s white-haired founder, Sharon would admit that he lacked discipline and even that he lied, sometimes to Ben-Gurion himself.

“An original, visionary young man,” Ben-Gurion noted on Jan. 29, 1960. “Were he to rid himself of his faults of not speaking the truth and to distance himself from gossip, he would be an exceptional military leader.”

On Nov. 24, 1958, Ben-Gurion recorded an unusual encounter with Sharon. Sharon was just back from 13 months of military study in England. “This was the first time he met with Jews, and he is anxious about the future of our relations with them,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal. By “Jews,” he meant non-Israeli Jews living in the Diaspora. Born and raised in what is now Israel, Sharon had not encountered such Jews before.

“The Jews in England are not accepted in the English clubs and golf courses, and they have to situate themselves in Jewish institutions,” Ben-Gurion wrote, recounting Sharon’s impressions. Sharon, he continued, was astonished that these Jews nevertheless did not feel “any personal connection of any kind with Israel.”

It was an insight with a great impact on Sharon. He still speaks about it. When I quoted the passage from Ben-Gurion, it triggered an 18-minute monologue about his fears for the survival of the Jews. “I have many worries, but something that really bothers me is what will happen with the Jews in the future — what will happen to them in 30 years’ time, in 300 years’ time, and with God’s help, 3,000 years’ time.” He laughed. “But I don’t think that then I’ll have to take care of that.”

Returning to his stay in England, he recalled how British officers aimed their anti-Semitism at British Jews but not at Israelis. “It was a kind of an attempt to draw a distinction between Israel and Israelis and ‘their own Jews,’ I would say — Jews in the Diaspora,” he said.

“That worried me,” he continued. “It worried me. I didn’t like it.” He added, “I felt it’s going to be a danger.”

That is classic Sharon: the sweep of the sense of duty, the depth of the tribal consciousness, the sensitivity of the antennae to any threat, maybe real, maybe merely perceived. He regards Israel as a worldwide Jewish project, and he did not want to see any divergence in the Israeli and Jewish identities.

After a few years, Sharon thought the problem went away. “I would say the European countries — maybe others as well — they started to treat us as Jews,” he said. In other words, the danger receded as European Christians began treating Israeli Jews with the same prejudice with which they treated Jews at home. It seemed an odd source of comfort.

Sharon plowed on. A Jew, he said, can only “live as a Jew” in Israel. There were many fewer mixed marriages, he said. “All the time I worry — and I check it all the time — that Jews, I would say, might disappear,” he said. That is, the threat to Jews’ survival exists if they are physically in danger or not. If they are safe and welcomed where they are, they are threatened with assimilation.

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Go south young Jew to a land you’ve never seen

Nefesh B’Nefesh’s appeal to young American Jews to “go south” involves a cultural mashup, mixing the promise of an open frontier ready to be settled by adventuresome pioneers, along with the idea that the Negev desert is part of their ancestral homeland.

A would-be recruit says that as a Jew in America he’s “living in exile.”

What apparently hasn’t dawned on him or any others who swallow Nefesh B’Nefesh’s bait, is that this sense of exile might have more to do with being American than being Jewish.

The American fascination with roots springs precisely from the fact that nearly everyone comes from elsewhere, yet from exactly where is for so many very hard to trace. What distinguishes the Zionist hucksters is that they can easily trade with a ready-made answer to this question: where do I come from?

Alex Kane writes: On the 17th floor of a Manhattan conference building, young Jews from the New York area listened intently to two Israeli-Americans speak of the wonders of the Jewish state. They were going through the finer points of emigrating to Israel, talking up the varied benefits those who become citizens receive. Outside, it was a dreary and overcast Sunday. But the atmosphere inside was sunny: the banter light-hearted, the jokes from the speakers free-flowing, and all happy to be at the “Think Israel” conference (held on November 17th).

There was a serious task at hand, though: deciding how to choose a community in Israel where they would feel at home, which is part of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s core mission of encouraging aliyah to the Jewish state.

Ravit Greenberg, an Israeli citizen from upstate New York now working for Nefesh B’Nefesh, had just the right answer for them. They should move to the Negev in the south of Israel. It’s an area the government is encouraging Jews to move to with a variety of incentives. Greenberg was asked why the Negev was attractive by a boisterous and overeager pony-tailed man named Aaron.

“They want to encourage development,” Greenberg told him, talking about the Israeli government. And to help the Israeli government, Nefesh B’Nefesh seeks to enlist young North American Jews in the a key state project: populating the Negev with more Israeli Jews. [Continue reading...]

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Jewish Americans see generational split on Israel-Palestine

Sarah Posner writes: In an eatery here, 28-year-old Israeli human rights activist Avner Gvaryahu described the first time he came face to face with a Palestinian.

He was 19 and serving in the Israel Defense Forces when his unit invaded the home of a Palestinian family in the dead of night. They were there to perform a “straw widow,” a raid during which soldiers forcibly seize control of a Palestinian civilian home.

“This is the reality of the occupation,” said Gvaryahu, now the Jewish diaspora coordinator for the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence, which, using the testimony of veterans such as himself, educates the Israeli public about military tactics and abuses in the occupied territories.

“This is the story of my generation,” said Gvaryahu, who said only a small fraction of Israelis serve in combat units in the West Bank. “No one knows about it. They don’t really understand what we’re asked to do.”

He was on tour for Breaking the Silence’s book “Our Harsh Logic,” the timing of which coincided with the publication of the Pew Research Center’s major survey of Jewish American attitudes. The survey showed an increasing secularization of American Jews, and decreasing affiliation with synagogues and organized religion, a phenomenon that exists within American Christianity as well. It also tracked changes in Jewish American attitudes to Israel.

While 30 percent of respondents professed to be very attached to Israel and 39 percent said they felt “somewhat” attached, 31 percent answered that they felt not very or not at all attached to Israel. Asked whether caring about Israel was an “essential” part of being Jewish, 43 percent answered in the affirmative. And the Pew researchers noted a demographic shift: “Older Jews are more likely than younger Jews to see caring about Israel as an essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” the study noted, with more than half of respondents over 65 believing that caring about Israel was an essential part of their Jewish identity, whereas only 32 percent of respondents under 30 shared that belief. [Continue reading...]

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More white evangelicals than American Jews say God gave Israel to the Jewish people

Pew Research Center: Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, and most Jews in the United States say that emotionally they are either very attached (30%) or somewhat attached (39%) to Israel. But on some measures, Jews’ feelings for Israel are equaled or even exceeded by those of white evangelical Protestants.

For example, twice as many white evangelical Protestants as Jews say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God (82% vs. 40%). Some of the discrepancy is attributable to Jews’ lower levels of belief in God overall; virtually all evangelicals say they believe in God, compared with 72% of Jews (23% say they do not believe in God and 5% say they don’t know or decline to answer the question). But even Jews who do believe in God are less likely than evangelicals to believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people (55% vs. 82%).

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Hollywood’s collusion with Hitler

Alexander C. Kafka writes: A debate is raging over Hollywood’s alleged collusion with the Nazis. At stake: the moral culpability of Jewish studio heads during cinema’s golden age.

The catalyst is a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, by the 35-year-old historian Ben Urwand. The book is still several months from publication, but emotions are running high after an early review in the online magazine Tablet, followed by an exchange of rhetorical fire in The New York Times between Urwand and Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University who this spring published his own account of the era, Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press). The clash comes during a period of heightened scholarly attention to Nazi infiltration and counterinfiltration in Depression-era Los Angeles, complicating the story of Hollywood’s stance toward fascism.

Urwand’s Hollywood-Hitler focus began in 2004, when, while pursuing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, he saw an interview with Budd Schulberg in which the screenwriter mentioned that in the 1930s, the head of MGM would show movies to a German consular official in LA and they’d agree on cuts. Urwand knew that anti-Nazi pictures didn’t start appearing until 1939, and he suspected that indifference or passivity couldn’t fully explain that. He smelled a dissertation topic. “It was the spark,” he says, and he spent the next nine years traveling to dozens of archives, piecing the story together.

At Sandrine’s Bistro, off Harvard Square, Urwand, a slender junior fellow in Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, sits down to lunch in short sleeves on a hot, humid day. The Sydney, Australia, native’s accent sounds as though it has been gently sanded by a decade and a half in the States. He is affably intense, no less so after a two-espresso appetizer to his gazpacho and lobster salad. The lunch is a break from sorting out his book’s index while navigating a steady stream of press calls and e-mails in English and German, although The Collaboration is not due out until October. (In response to the controversy, the press bumped up the release from mid- to early October.)

Urwand’s forthright, deadpan expression bursts intermittently into an engaging smile. Should you wish to see that smile vanish, mention Doherty. You’ll get a somber look, a mild shake of the head. Urwand won’t discuss Hollywood and Hitler specifically, only the more general “mythology,” as he puts it, of the studios’ staunch antifascism.

Yes, after the Anschluss, in March, 1938, the Munich Agreement, in September, and Kristallnacht, in November, Hollywood’s stance toward the Nazis changed, though even then, the films strangely ellipted explicitly Jewish characters. But why did it take so long for the studios to cross cinematic swords with the Führer?

For Urwand, the answer is in the archival evidence: bald complicity with the Nazis. [Continue reading...]

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Hannah Arendt: The woman who saw banality in evil

The New York Times reports: Fifty years ago, a small book called “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” by a New School philosophy professor named Hannah Arendt set off a storm like few books before or since. Among Upper West Side intellectuals it sparked, as the critic Irving Howe put it, “a civil war,” siring vicious debates and souring lifelong friendships. It also sold more than 100,000 copies and reshaped the way people have thought about the Holocaust, genocide and the puzzle of evil ever since.

“The Controversy” — as people simply called the growing dispute — is largely forgotten now, and the intense rancor it inspired might seem improbable. But a new movie about the episode, “Hannah Arendt,” which opens Wednesday at Film Forum, revives the debates and the era.

Its director, Margarethe von Trotta, a veteran of the New German Cinema, was skeptical when a friend suggested she make this film 10 years ago. “My first reaction was, how can I make a film about a philosopher, someone who sits and thinks?” she recalled in a phone interview from her home in Paris.

She and her American screenwriter, Pamela Katz, wrote a treatment that covered Arendt’s whole life, but it was too long and diffuse. They decided to focus instead on the Eichmann affair. “It’s better for filmmakers to have a confrontation, not just abstraction,” Ms. von Trotta said.

In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann — the last surviving Nazi higher-up, who had fled to Argentina at the end of the war — was kidnapped by Mossad agents, flown to Jerusalem and tried for crimes against humanity.

Arendt, a Jewish-German refugee and author of a celebrated tome, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” offered to cover the trial for The New Yorker. (Her book originally ran as a five-part article.)

She made two particularly provocative points. The first was that Eichmann, a senior SS officer, was not the malicious organizer of the Nazi death camps, as Israeli prosecutors charged, but rather a mediocre bureaucrat, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time,” as Arendt put it; “not a monster” but “a clown.” Hence the enduring phrase from her book’s subtitle: “the banality of evil.”

Arendt’s second point was that the “Jewish Councils” in Germany and Poland were complicit in the mass murder of their own people. They helped the Nazis round up the victims, confiscate their property and send them off on trains to their doom. Without these Jewish leaders, Arendt wrote, “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four-and-a-half and six million people.” She added, “To a Jew, this role of the Jewish leaders” was “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of this whole dark story.” [Continue reading...]

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Reflections by an Arab Jew

Ella Habiba Shohat writes: I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S. Most members of my family were born and raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the U.S., England, and Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the ’50s, she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so differently–the European Jews–were actually European Christians. Jewishness for her generation was inextricably associated with Middle Easterness. My grandmother, who still lives in Israel and still communicates largely in Arabic, had to be taught to speak of “us” as Jews and “them” as Arabs. For Middle Easterners, the operating distinction had always been “Muslim,” “Jew,” and “Christian,” not Arab versus Jew. The assumption was that “Arabness” referred to a common shared culture and language, albeit with religious differences.

Americans are often amazed to discover the existentially nauseating or charmingly exotic possibilities of such a syncretic identity. I recall a well-established colleague who despite my elaborate lessons on the history of Arab Jews, still had trouble understanding that I was not a tragic anomaly–for instance, the daughter of an Arab (Palestinian) and an Israeli (European Jew). Living in North America makes it even more difficult to communicate that we are Jews and yet entitled to our Middle Eastern difference. And that we are Arabs and yet entitled to our religious difference, like Arab Christians and Arab Muslims.

It was precisely the policing of cultural borders in Israel that led some of us to escape into the metropolises of syncretic identities. Yet, in an American context, we face again a hegemony that allows us to narrate a single Jewish memory, i.e., a European one. For those of us who don’t hide our Middle Easterness under one Jewish “we,” it becomes tougher and tougher to exist in an American context hostile to the very notion of Easterness.

As an Arab Jew, I am often obliged to explain the “mysteries” of this oxymoronic entity. That we have spoken Arabic, not Yiddish; that for millennia our cultural creativity, secular and religious, had been largely articulated in Arabic (Maimonides being one of the few intellectuals to “make it” into the consciousness of the West); and that even the most religious of our communities in the Middle East and North Africa never expressed themselves in Yiddish-accented Hebrew prayers, nor did they practice liturgical-gestural norms and sartorial codes favoring the dark colors of centuries-ago Poland. Middle Eastern women similarly never wore wigs; their hair covers, if worn, consisted of different variations on regional clothing (and in the wake of British and French imperialism, many wore Western-style clothes). If you go to our synagogues, even in New York, Montreal, Paris or London, you’ll be amazed to hear the winding quarter tones of our music which the uninitiated might imagine to be coming from a mosque. [Continue reading...]

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Jerusalem attack a ‘microcosm of a national problem’: Jewish racism

The Times of Israel reports: Last week’s attack on Arab youth in the heart of Jerusalem was a symptom of a larger national issue, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said on Thursday.

Rivlin visited 17-year-old Jamal Julani, who was hospitalized after being severely beaten by a group of Jewish teenagers last week in the widely publicized incident.

“I came here to apologize,” Rivlin told Julani and his parents, who hail from East Jerusalem. “We believed that incidents like this were on the fringes, but that is not the case.”

Rivlin called the occurrence, in which a group of Arabs were assaulted by around 15 Jewish teenagers in the heart of Jerusalem while dozens of bystanders looked on, a “microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy.”

Yossi Gurvitz amplifies on the nature of the problem: Israel officially condemned last week the fact Jewish terrorists attacked a Palestinian vehicle with Molotov cocktails, wounding six of its passengers. Prime Minister Netanyahu quickly had an envoy call Palestinian President Abbas, and promised him Israel would put those responsible on trial. If Abbas is buying this, given Israel’s record regarding the price-taggers, then I have some juicy bridges to sell him at very reasonable prices.

This attack took place on Thursday afternoon. Several hours later, a gang of proud Jewish hoodlums tried to lynch three Palestinians in Jerusalem. The attackers, most of whom appear to have been juveniles, were uttering cries like “a Jew is a soul, an Arab is a son of a whore” and the all-time crowd pleaser, “Death to Arabs.” The goons also tried to prevent emergency forces from treating the victims. One of them is critically wounded.

During the attack on the dorms of Palestinian students in Safed two years ago, inspired by the town’s rabbi Shmuel Eliahu’s ban on renting apartments to non-Jews, the calls of “A Jew is a soul” were heard (Hebrew). The same cry is common (Hebrew) among the fans of racist group Beitar Jerusalem (which sidelines as a soccer team). The supremacists we’re dealing with have nothing to be proud of aside from the fact of their Jewishness, used in the minimalist Orthodox sense of thinking every Jew is a priori superior to every non-Jew.

Hence the speaking of “souls” as a battle cry: a common Orthodox concept is that non-Jews do not have souls. This concept is very strong in Kabbalah (I guess Madonna is in for some nasty shock; being not just a gentile but a woman makes her a particular object of hatred), but exists elsewhere (such as in the Talmudic concept of “you [Jews] are human, they [non-Jews] are not, and Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, which rates being on an “inanimate-vegetable-animal-speaking being-Jew” scale).

The attackers quickly spread the lie that they went on the warpath because one of the victims tried to flirt with a Jewish girl. This fiction, the attempt to violate a pure-blooded female of the master race, is well known to us from any racism regime, from the American South to Nazi Germany. [Continue reading...]

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How Islam saved Judaism

David J Wasserstein writes: Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth. The argument for it is double. First, in 570 CE, when the Prophet Mohammad was born, the Jews and Judaism were on the way to oblivion. And second, the coming of Islam saved them, providing a new context in which they not only survived, but flourished, laying foundations for subsequent Jewish cultural prosperity – also in Christendom – through the medieval period into the modern world.

By the fourth century, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Roman empire. One aspect of this success was opposition to rival faiths, including Judaism, along with massive conversion of members of such faiths, sometimes by force, to Christianity. Much of our testimony about Jewish existence in the Roman empire from this time on consists of accounts of conversions.

Great and permanent reductions in numbers through conversion, between the fourth and the seventh centuries, brought with them a gradual but relentless whittling away of the status, rights, social and economic existence, and religious and cultural life of Jews all over the Roman empire.

A long series of enactments deprived Jewish people of their rights as citizens, prevented them from fulfilling their religious obligations, and excluded them from the society of their fellows.

This went along with the centuries-long military and political struggle with Persia. As a tiny element in the Christian world, the Jews should not have been affected much by this broad, political issue. Yet it affected them critically, because the Persian empire at this time included Babylon – now Iraq – at the time home to the world’s greatest concentration of Jews.

Here also were the greatest centres of Jewish intellectual life. The most important single work of Jewish cultural creativity in over 3,000 years, apart from the Bible itself – the Talmud – came into being in Babylon. The struggle between Persia and Byzantium, in our period, led increasingly to a separation between Jews under Byzantine, Christian rule and Jews under Persian rule.

Beyond all this, the Jews who lived under Christian rule seemed to have lost the knowledge of their own culturally specific languages – Hebrew and Aramaic – and to have taken on the use of Latin or Greek or other non-Jewish, local, languages. This in turn must have meant that they also lost access to the central literary works of Jewish culture – the Torah, Mishnah, poetry, midrash, even liturgy.

The loss of the unifying force represented by language – and of the associated literature – was a major step towards assimilation and disappearance. In these circumstances, with contact with the one place where Jewish cultural life continued to prosper – Babylon – cut off by conflict with Persia, Jewish life in the Christian world of late antiquity was not simply a pale shadow of what it had been three or four centuries earlier. It was doomed. [Continue reading...]

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Passover: “Pour out your wrath!”

On the eve of Passover (yesterday), Uri Avnery wrote about the Haggadah, the book which tells the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt: The Passover story does not derive its immense power from any claim to be history. It is a myth that grips the human imagination, a myth that is the basis of a great religion, a myth that directs the behavior of people to this very day. Without the Exodus story, there would probably be no State of Israel today – and certainly not in Palestine.

THE GLORY: One can read the Exodus story as a shining example of all that is good and inspiring in the annals of humanity.

Here is the story of a small and powerless people that rises up against a brutal tyranny, throws off its chains and gains a new homeland, creating a revolutionary new moral code on the way.

Seen in this way, the Exodus is a victory of the human spirit, an inspiration for all downtrodden peoples. And indeed, it has served this purpose many times in the past. The Pilgrim Fathers, the founders of the American nation, were inspired by it, and so were many rebels throughout history.

THE OTHER SIDE: When one reads the Biblical text attentively , without religious blinkers, some aspects gives us food for other thoughts.

Let’s take the Ten Plagues. Why were the entire Egyptian people punished for the misdeeds of one tyrant, Pharaoh? Why did God, like a divine Security Council, levy on them cruel sanctions, polluting their water with blood, destroying their livelihood with hail and locusts? And, even more gruesome, how could a merciful God send his angels to murder every single Egyptian firstborn child?

On leaving Egypt, the Israelites were encouraged to steal their neighbors’ property. It is rather curious that the Biblical story-teller, who was certainly deeply religious, did not omit this detail. And this just a few weeks before the Ten Commandments were handed down to the Israelites by God personally, including “Thou Shalt Not Steal”.

No one seems ever to have given much thought to the ethical side of the conquest of Canaan. God promised the Children of Israel a land which was the home of other peoples. He told them to kill these peoples, expressly commanding them to commit genocide. For some reason, He singled out the people of Amalek, ordering the Israelites to eradicate them altogether. Later, the glorious King Saul was dethroned by His prophet because he showed mercy and did not murder his Amalekite prisoners-of-war, men, women and children.

Of course, these texts were written by people living in times long past, when the ethics of individuals and nations were different, as were the rules of war. But the Haggadah is recited – today as before – uncritically, without any reflection on these horrible aspects. Especially in religious schools in Israel today , the commandment to commit genocide against the non-Jewish population of Palestine is taken by many teachers and pupils quite literally.

INDOCTRINATION: This is the real point of these reflections.

There are two sentences in the Haggadah that always had – and still have – a profound impact on the present.

One is the central idea on which almost all Jews base their historical outlook: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us”.

This does not apply to a specific time or to a specific place. It is regarded as an eternal truth that applies to all places, all times. “They” is the entire outside world, all non-Jews everywhere. Children hear this on Seder evening on their father’s knee, long before they are able to read and write, and from then on they hear or recite it every year for decades. It expresses the total conscious or unconscious conviction of almost all Jews, whether in Los Angeles, California, or in Lod, Israel. It certainly directs the policy of the State of Israel.

The second sentence, which complements the first, is a cry to God: “Pour out your wrath upon the nations that do not know you…for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home…Pour out your wrath on them! May your blazing anger overtake them! Pursue them from under the heavens of the Lord!…”

The word “nations” in this text has a double meaning. The Hebrew word is “goyim”, an ancient Hebrew term for “peoples”. Even the ancient Children of Israel were called a “Holy Goy”. But over the centuries, the word has taken on another meaning, and is understood to refer to all non-Jews, in a very derogatory way. (As in the Yiddish song “Oy, Oy, Oy, / Drunk is the Goy.”)

To understand this text properly, one has to remember that it was written as a cry from the heart of a defenseless, persecuted people who had no means to take revenge on their torturers. To raise their spirits on the joyful Seder evening, they had to put their trust in God, crying out to Him that he should take revenge in their stead.

(During the Seder ritual, the door is always left open. Officially, that is to allow the Prophet Elias to enter, if he should miraculously rise from the dead. In reality it was to allow the Goyim to look in, so as to disprove the anti-Semitic libel that Jews baked their unleavened Pesach bread with the blood of kidnapped Christian children.)

THE LESSON: In the Diaspora, this craving for revenge was both understandable and ineffective. But the founding of the State of Israel has changed the situation completely. In Israel, Jews are far from being defenseless. We don’t have to rely on God to take revenge for the evils done unto us, past or present, real or imagined. We can pour out our wrath ourselves, on our neighbors, the Palestinians and other Arabs, on our minorities, on our victims.

That is the real danger of the Haggadah, as I see it. It was written by and for helpless Jews living in perpetual danger. It raised their spirits once a year, when they felt safe for a moment, protected by their God, surrounded by their families.

Taken out of this context and applied to a new, completely different situation, it can set us on an evil course. Telling ourselves that everybody is out to destroy us, yesterday and most certainly tomorrow, we consider the grandiloquent bombast of an Iranian bigmouth as a living proof of the validity of the old maxim. They are out to kill us, so we must – according to another ancient Jewish injunction – kill them first.

So, on this Seder evening, let our feelings be guided by the noble, inspiring part of the Haggadah , the part about the slaves who rose up against tyranny and took their fate in their own hands – and not the part about pouring out our wrath.

Meanwhile, Christians around the world are focusing their attention on the central bloody image of their faith: a man nailed to a cross.

Whatever might be said of the virtues of the monotheistic faiths, their roles in the promotion of warfare and the glorification of violence, seem inescapable. No wonder Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have made such a volatile mix.

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Philip Weiss reclaims his American spirit

Philip Weiss writes: I need to reclaim my American spiritual roots. This website [Mondoweiss] has been about Jewishness for me because the neoconservative project for the Middle East made me Jewish (as I have said many times) but I will have a Jewishness that is authentic to my experience. I love the Passover deliverance story only if it is shared. I hate the Purim story, I don’t even know what my Torah portion was about. The story of the binding of Isaac has helped me understand my relationship with my father, and all authority, but honestly I was more thrilled by getting to the place it took place in Minnesota when I was 21 — Dylan’s Highway 61– than by Mount Moriah in occupied East Jerusalem.

I don’t need Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount to believe in the binding. Any more than my wife needed Christian sovereignty in Jerusalem to bring me along when a group of English nuns she’d met took her on the Stations of the Cross last year, a powerful story about heresy and excommunication.

I find as much power in Jim’s beating his deaf daughter in Huck Finn as I do in the binding of Isaac, and I want an identity politics that respects my spirit and the American winds that move it, from Mark Twain to Melville to Carson McCullers to Isaac Singer to Schocken’s translations of Kafka to my lapsed Protestant wife’s yoga and ayurvedhic medicine and Tarot. I don’t want chosenness. Not when I’ve learned so much from lapsed Catholics with values of humility and egalitarianism. And J Street has credibility in part because its leader’s father was in the Irgun? What does the Irgun have to teach me?

Do I sound like a nativist? I don’t care; Israel never called to me. I believe Zionism’s greatest achievement is the idea of Jewish physical labor. I don’t want my foreign policy guided by Jeffrey Goldberg who felt unsafe here and emigrated to Israel. I would rather a nativist foreign policy that is thoughtful of the Americans who are likely to have to go off and do the fighting (not us).

I can’t understand Hebrew because I had American enthusiasms. I was listening to the Wailers and role-modeling Joseph Pulitzer who said that his job was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and Harrison Salisbury who put out the Pentagon Papers and Sy Hersh who exposed My Lai and Melville who said that all men wear muzzles on their souls and he wanted to undo the muzzles, anticipating gay liberation by 100 years.

I am sick of our media valorizing a democracy that has not had our hard lessons in liberation.

That has not integrated the armed forces—we did that in 1948.

That excludes minorities from the governing coalition – we fixed that in 1964.

That redlines Palestinian home sales—we got rid of the gentleman’s agreement in the 60s.

That has segregated schools– we attacked that in 1954.

That breaks historic compromises and extends rightlessness into the territories—we did that between 1854-1861, till that regime was washed away by “verry much bloodshed,” as John Brown prophesied.

I’m proud of a country that gave a home to Ali Abunimah when Israel wouldn’t let him or his family go to the place his parents were born. And if Israel ceases to be a Jewish state it will be no spiritual rubble for me, no, it will be because it honors a principle that my forefathers put down in the Declaration of Independence and our leaders are still struggling to make real.

Religion is the thing that gives your life meaning. It’s the codes and ideas and koans and dreams and stories that sustain you and give you purpose and explain your responsibilities to yourself and others and the land. It’s not a book in a church. Emerson said the dead books scatter your force, lose your time and blur the impression of your character. My codes are American ones, shot through with Jewish diaspora yearnings and my wife’s mystical explorations, and my story is American and my guides are American pantheists from Thoreau to Joan Osborne.

My story is only half American — I was 29 when I arrived here — but having been guided by Thoreau most of my life, I can say Phil and I share the same faith.

Beyond that, there is something about Jewish identity in America that I not only can say as a non-Jew, but that is a dimension of Jewish identity that must in fact be illuminated by non-Jews.

In a society in which there is little evidence of any remaining institutionalized mainstream antisemitism, for the vast majority of us non-Jews, Jewish identity is something about which we are indifferent. Whether someone is or is not a Jew simply does not matter. No one scores or loses any points on account of being Jewish.

Hearing Peter Beinart describe his grandmother’s experience of repeatedly being uprooted because she was Jewish shows the stark contrast with different places and times where Jewish identity was not simply an internal and communal self-identification, but was a target for hatred.

As much as such memories remain embedded in the Jewish experience, they are at least for most American Jews not a significant dimension of contemporary Jewish life in this country. And in the absence of external forces of negative reinforcement, the only thing that really threatens Jewish identity is that individual Jews become tired or see no reason to labor at differentiating themselves from non-Jews.

When identity can only be sustained through a firm grasp, it seems inevitable that over time that grasp will loosen and the identity will gradually dissolve and transform.

As much as modernity may have made all of our identities much more difficult to grasp, we are less at risk of becoming untethered than at risk of tying ourselves to false anchors.

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Brooklyn DA accused of failing to tackle Orthodox Jews’ cover-up of sex abuse

This might seem like a local story of interest and concern primarily to the residents of Brooklyn, yet at a time when numerous state legislatures across America have occupied themselves with countering an imaginary threat from the implementation of Sharia law, little to no mention is made of its Jewish equivalent, Halakha.

The Guardian reports: A systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves continues to obstruct justice for young victims, despite claims by religious leaders and the Brooklyn district attorney that the problem is in hand.

A long-standing culture of non-cooperation with secular justice by Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jews keeps many child sex offenders out of the courts and at large in their communities.

Victim advocates say Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes has failed to wrest control from rabbinic leaders, who continue to hamper efforts to uncover abuse. Hynes’ recent claim to have radically increased prosecution rates for these crimes has drawn scorn from critics.

Brooklyn’s Jewish communities, home to the largest number of ultra-Orthodox Jews outside Israel, are insular and close-knit. They maintain their own shadow justice system based on religious halachic law, enforced by religious courts known as the beit din. In recent years, they have also established their own community police force, the Shomrim.

Like the Catholic bishops before them, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who lead these communities are charged with the concealment of crimes stretching back decades, and of fostering a culture where witnesses are silenced through intimidation.

“The rabbis are still, to an unfortunate degree, protecting the system,” said victims’ advocate Rabbi Yosef Blau, a more moderate Orthodox rabbi than his Brooklyn counterparts and spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University. Blau said the community feels it has to protect its image. “The battle is over the cover-up. That’s what we’re fighting now.”

Until the late 2000s, only a handful of ultra-Orthodox child sex crimes made their way into the criminal courts. But in April 2009 – as pressure from victims’ advocates, whistle-blower blogs and parts of the secular Jewish press intensified – District Attorney Hynes launched Kol Tzedek, a community outreach effort to encourage community leaders to report child sexual abuse. The DA’s Orthodox community liaison Henna White plays a key role in Kol Tzedek, which features a reporting hotline staffed by a culturally sensitive social worker.

Hynes’ office says that between April 2009 and November 2011, there were 85 arrests with 47 of those cases pending. Of the 38 closed cases, it said, six had gone to trial, 23 had ended in plea deals and nine with acquittals or dismissals. These figures contrast sharply with the negligible prosecutions in the years between Hynes taking office in 1990 and the start of Kol Tzedek.

But they also represent a mere fraction of the incidents of abuse that advocates say they hear about. Because of scant reporting, there are no statistics for child sexual abuse in these communities. Most, however, believe the numbers are at least consistent with broader society if not higher.

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Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer talks to Al Jazeera

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