Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

On Anne Frank and Justin Bieber

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by David

Though teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is a fellow Canadian, I’m not usually in the business of defending him. I do not have “Bieber fever.” I can’t say I know any of his work, except for “Baby” featuring Ludacris, a song so catchy you’d have to be without a soul not to hum along. I know Bieber hails from western Ontario, I know that he was discovered on youtube, and I know that there is a website dedicated to lesbians who look just like him.

So I was pretty surprised when Bieber came up today in the context of every Jewish studies student and scholar’s favourite inescapable topic: the Holocaust.

You see, apparently Bieber and buddies were over in Amsterdam, and they decided to pay an after hours visit to the Anne Frank House (presumably they weren’t baked at the time). Anne Frank House is museum set up in the house where Anne Frank, the most famous victim of the Holocaust, stayed hidden for two years in the early 1940s. The teenage girl chronicled her life in her famous diary before the Nazis finally captured her and sent her to a concentration camp. I visited Anne Frank House in 2001. It’s a pretty moving place. And apparently Bieber was moved too, so moved that he left this note in the museum’s guest book:

Truly Inspring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

At first glance, this story seemed more like an incident from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, a show with a distinguished record of hilarious Holocaust humour. It mixed the solemn with the silly so effectively it had to be some kind of joke, right? But no, it was the real life Justin Bieber expressing his genuine feelings after visiting Anne Frank House. He hoped she would have been one of his screaming, adoring fans. A belieber. So what are we to make of this?

Many have remarked that Bieber displayed an amazing degree of narcissism. He went to a museum that highlighted the horros of the Holocaust, and yet he made his reaction all about him, indeed, all about his celebrity. Unbeliebable!

And yet, and yet… here’s the other thing. Justin Bieber may have been right.

If you look at Anne Frank’s journal, later titled The Diary of a Young Girlyou’ll notice how incredibly normal she was. Frank was, in many ways, your typical teenager. She cared about her appearance. She had a crush on a boy hidden with her. She complained of boredom. She gave gifts to her family. She was aware of the latest fashion and literature and music. And so, in another setting, in another lifetime, Anne Frank might very well have been a belieber.

Inadvertently, through his arrogant and asinine message, Justin Bieber reasserted and clarified the central message of the diary. Frank should be remembered for her resilience, for her nobility in the face of mortal danger. She was indeed “a great girl.” But she was great precisely because she made her life so relatable, even under a Nazi occupation to which few can relate. Her diary is an account of her struggle for normalcy under hideously abnormal circumstances. But under other circumstances, she’d probably be singing along to “Baby’ just like the rest of us.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 16, 2013 at 10:44

New Book on Race on the Canadian Campus

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by David (shameless self-promotion)

 In line with our series of three posts on affirmative action, I thought I would mention this cool new book that just came out called “Too Asian?” Racism, Privilege and Post-Secondary Education. The title is a response to Canada’s Maclean’s magazine article “Too Asian?” from 2010. It just so happens that I contributed the second chapter, “Asians and Affirmative Action on Campus: An Historical Canada–US Comparison.” That chapter came out of this blog post. Here’s the blurb on the book:

The now notorious Maclean’s article “’Too Asian?’” from the magazine’s 2010 campus issue has sparked a national furor about race in Canadian higher education. Since the founding of the federal policy of multiculturalism, Canadians have prided themselves on their ability to integrate diversity into a broader multicultural environment, but the often heated discussions about race point to fissures in this national project. This collection uses the controversy about the Maclean’s article as a flashpoint to interrogate issues about race and representation on Canadian campuses and what it means for students and learning across the country.

Anyhow, if you’re interested in buying the book, you can do so at this link.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 29, 2012 at 16:52

Investment Banking Sucks Everywhere, Including Canada

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by David

In Toronto, Wall Street is called Bay Street. We do some things different in Canada: cheaper, better, affordable healthcare for all, better gun laws, younger drinking age (though who knows how much of that the catastrophic Stephen Harper will change?). But one thing that is apparently pretty similar between Canada in the United States, and probably everywhere in the world, is the culture of greed and douchebaggery that exists in the financial sector. In Canada, various regulations have made our banks more stable. But that doesn’t mean that the culture of investment banking and other financial wizardry isn’t rotten to the core.

A few days ago, we had Greg Smith, a South African Jew who just left Goldman Sachs after working there a dozen years in New York and London, telling us how corrupt that company had become in his time there (though in fact the sleaziness goes back much further). Today, we have Toronto’s Globe and Mail journalist Tim Kiladze telling us  why he left a six-figure salary working on Bay Street for the investing arm of the Royal Bank of Canada to become a journalist for the aforementioned Globe.

Kiladze’s piece is much better than Smith’s. You should really read it. In a much more interesting, and less-resume like fashion, Kiladze shows just how bad things have gotten on Bay Street.  I’ll provide some choice excerpts here to tantalize you: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

March 17, 2012 at 22:03

Blame Canada (or maybe just its press)

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By Julian 

If you came across a newspaper headline that reported, “remark reveals underlying narcissism, analysts say” who do you think the story would be about? You could be forgiven for assuming the article might profile, Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed world-class historian, moon bases advocate, and “teacher of the rules of civilization.” On the other hand, maybe you’re thinking that the story profiled the recent college graduate who applied for a finance job at J.P. Morgan by bragging about his ability to bench press double his body weight and do 35 chin-ups? Obviously, the headline could describe any number of things uttered by Donald Trump.

If you’re familiar with Canadian politics, however, there’s probably a good chance you correctly guessed that the headline described the psychological condition supposedly afflicting federal Member of Parliament, Justin Trudeau. The son of a famed Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau received a virtual tarring and feathering in the Canadian press this past week because of some comments he made about Quebec separatism. In the offending remarks, he explained that as,  “I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.” In short, if Canada ever moved so far to the right that it became unrecognizable, a wintery East Texas on the 49th parallel—well, if that day ever came, Trudeau might be open to the possibility of Quebec forming its own country.  Still, in no uncertain terms, Trudeau rejected separatism. Instead, he argued that Quebecers (who tend to be more socially progressive than the rest of the country) had an important role to play spreading their values across Canada.

Were Trudeau's remarks on Quebec separatism simply a beard for his beard?

The responses to this story in Quebec and in the rest of Canada are instructive. In Quebec, views like Trudeau’s are utterly uncontroversial. In the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, 49% of Quebecers voted for independence. While support for separatism has declined somewhat since then, 60% of Quebecers still identify primarily or exclusively with Quebec.  And these numbers are significantly higher when you poll only Quebec’s French-speaking majority. Even the current Prime Minister, Steven Harper, has officially recognized that the Quebecois form a unique “nation”—with their own language, culture, and history—within Canada.  The only reason Trudeau’s remarks initially received any attention in Quebec was because they avoided the polemical flourishes against separatists, which helped make his father, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, so famous.

If you read the press outside of Quebec, however, you might have thought that had Trudeau called for armed insurrection. In Parliament, Conservative MPs attacked his loyalty. Pundits lashed out at Trudeau’s supposed ignorance, immaturity, and vanity. So did several political scientists: one even went so far as to label his remarks “treasonous.” In Quebec, what looks like a nuanced position in favor of national unity, seems closer to separatist posturing in much of the rest of the country.

Estimated cost to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee 7.5 million. The Queen's picture on a bilingual stamp, priceless.

The context for the “Trudeau Affair” is the fact that Canadians have recently elected their first majority Conservative government in almost two decades. After only a few months in office, the Conservatives have moved the country sharply to the right. The government  has reduced restrictions on gun control, passed a crime bill that relies almost exclusively on harsher sentencing, and have strongly hinted at reducing pensions for the elderly. To defend deeply controversial environmental and Internet surveillance policies, conservative ministers have lashed out at their opponents as agents of liberal billionaire George Soros and child pornographers (I’m not kidding). In terms of Canadian identity, the government has made major efforts to strengthen the country’s ties to the British monarchy (which will probably never be something very popular in Quebec).

Fortunately, many Canadians—not just Quebecers—reject the atavistic impulse to return their country to the halcyon days of the British Empire. While the Conservative Party formed a majority government in the last election, it received less than 40% of the votes cast. It also turns out that numerous law-abiding Canucks don’t like having their ministers accuse them of supporting “the pedophiles” when they  oppose unlimited government surveillance.  In fact, the comment sections on the many articles denouncing Trudeau were filled with citizens from across the country sympathetic to his views. These readers empathized with Trudeau’s frustration at divisive right-wing politics and realized that he was in no way endorsing separatism.

While Quebec might be a distinct society, nation-wide dissatisfaction with the Conservative government may yet provide some hope for national unity.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 19, 2012 at 22:22

A Montreal Jew at Harvard: The Insularity Contest

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by Weiner

When I first read this piece by Misha Glouberman in The Paris Review about being a Montreal Jew at Harvard, I felt an instant rush of familiarity. Was Glouberman not telling my own story about 20 years earlier? I felt as if I could have written the first paragraph:

I grew up in Montreal and went to an upper-middle-class Jewish day school where kids had parents who maybe owned a carpet store or maybe were dentists. And then I went to Harvard for college. And it was pretty weird.

It certainly seemed weird at the time. And sometimes it still does. But upon further reflection, I realize that it wasn’t that weird. Sure, Harvard was and is a unique institution. I suspect going there for college is a very different experience than going to Penn State or UCLA or any university in Canada, England or elsewhere in the world. But it’s probably not all that different from going to another Ivy League school, or Stanford or MIT.

More important, in one crucial way, Harvard is like everywhere else: there are good people and bad people, interesting people and boring people, and yes, even smart people and dumb people. In fact, I’d argue that the Montreal Jewish community is a far weirder environment than Harvard was. I’ll try to explain what I mean by examining Glouberman’s essay in more depth, and sharing some of my Montreal, and especially my Harvard experiences.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

July 14, 2011 at 16:00

Asians in Universities: A Canada-US Comparison

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by Weiner

A recent Maclean’s magazine article reported that some white Canadians students worried about the growing Asian and Asian-Canadian presence of university campuses. Originally titled, “‘Too Asian’?” (now retitled “The Enrollment Controversy”), the piece noted:

When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.” …

Alexandra… explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.

Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.” ….

…an “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.”….

…“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say). Asian kids, meanwhile, say they are resented for taking the spots of white kids. “At graduation a Canadian—i.e. ‘white’—mother told me that I’m the reason her son didn’t get a space in university and that all the immigrants in the country are taking up university spots,” says Frankie Mao, a 22-year-old arts student at the University of British Columbia. “I knew it was wrong, being generalized in this category,” says Mao, “but f–k, I worked hard for it.”

The article has generated a good deal of controversy, along with spirited defence from Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail and fierce criticism from  Jeet Heer in The National Post (as well as Heer’s response to Wente in The Walrus). There is no question that the original article, by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, made some sloppy arguments. As Heer correctly observes, it over-generalizes based on only a few schools and few departments, it lumps Asian foreign students with Asian-Canadians, counts east Asians but not south Asians, dismisses the plight of non-Asian foreign students, ignores working class white students (and any notion of class really) and stereotypes many groups unfairly.

And yet, Heer’s criticism of the article “obfuscates” (to use his word) as much as Wente’s defense of it does. He misses two crucial aspects of the story: 1) the potential pitfalls of Canada’s purely numbers-oriented university admissions system and 2) the very interesting–from an objective, academic perspective–statistical over-representation of students of Asian background in elite Canadian and American universities.

The Maclean’s article, along with Wente’s defense, runs off a number of statistics: 38% of Vancouver’s University of British Columbia students self-identify as white, compared to 43% as Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, in a city in which only 21.5% of the population falls into one of these three groups. In California, Asians make up 40% of the student body in public universities, despite only forming 13% of the state population. In the United States more broadly, Asians are 5% of the population but between 10 to 40% at elite colleges. They make up especially large portions at science oriented schools like Caltech and MIT.

I don’t have access to the data on-hand, but I have no reason to dispute these numbers. Rather than run away from them, however, I think we (referring to those people, regardless of race or ethnicity, interested in higher education) should try to ask questions: what do these numbers mean? How can we explain them? And to what extent, if any, should our investigation affect education policy?

The authors of the Maclean’s article insist, “that Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data.” I’m not sure how “hard” the data are, but I suspect that there is a great deal of truth to this assertion. But this “fact” plays out differently in different contexts. Certain Asian groups are statistically more over-represented in public American universities, Canadian universities, and science-oriented universities (CalTech, MIT) than they are in top American private schools, like the Ivies, Stanford, Duke, and elite liberal arts colleges. Why is this the case?

I’ll try to answer this question with a personal anecdote. When I applied to college, I applied to only one Canadian school, McGill. I wanted to apply for a scholarship there. In order to do so, I needed an “R” score of 33. I was never quite clear on what the “R” score was, except that it was some figure tabulated using my grades in CEGEP (a two-year non-remedial form of junior college that Quebec students attend before beginning their undergraduate career) as well as some grades from the end of my high school career. When I was applying to college, my “R” score stood at 32.9. I thought, surely, at only a fraction of a point under the requirement, some exception could be made. I called the admissions office. My father, who is a professor at McGill, called the admissions office. There would be no exceptions. I tried to tell them that I participated in extra-curricular activities. That my grades had steadily improved, and would continue to improve in my final semester at CEGEP (they did). None of this mattered. Scholarships to Canadian universities, like admissions, are a numbers game. If you don’t make the cut-off, you’re out. My R score was good enough to get in to McGill (which I did) but not good enough to even apply for a scholarship.

This was in stark contrast to my experience applying to American colleges. I applied to all the Ivy League colleges (except Dartmouth, which my parents deemed too goyish). Every one of them read my entire application. Canadian university applications often require only a transcript. American schools want much more. Beyond transcripts and standardized test scores,  elite American schools typically require an application essay (sometimes multiple essays), a CV and letters of recommendation. They also accepted poetry, artwork, musical recordings, and other evidence of extra-curricular talent. I submitted the 100 page non-fiction self-published book on baseball that I wrote at age 13 (my wife submitted her award-winning photography portfolio). I got in to Harvard, and off I went.

In setting up this contrast, the strengths and weaknesses of each approach appear quite clearly to me now. On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about the more purely “meritocratic” Canadian system. School is about academics: those with the highest grades should get in. While the Canadian system favours the wealthy, who benefit from tutors, better schools, more access to books and other class-based advantages, the American system is even more class-biased. Entire industries serve to help richer students best the SAT, write the perfect application essay and sufficiently pad their resumes. Canadian schools also lack the resources to use the more “holistic” approach that American schools do for each and every one of their applicants. Instinctively, I sympathize with the Canadian admissions system, even if I had my own (albeit very minor and ultimately inconsequential) difficulties with it.

There are benefits to the American holistic approach, though. I clearly didn’t suffer because my scholarship application was not considered. But it’s certainly conceivable that some Canadian students do suffer: students from under-privileged backgrounds who have to work jobs which cut into their studying time, or have to help raise brothers and sisters because their single parent is at work. These are the kinds of circumstances that are often communicated in application essays, which Canadian universities, because they don’t require them, never see. Indeed, even if poorer students are too ashamed to mention these things in essays, American schools demand to know the incomes of their applicants’ families, what schools their parents went to, and yes, their race and ethnicity. All these factors are carefully considered in weighing applications. Some students are advantaged by being “legacies,” i.e. their parents went to Harvard, or because they are recruited athletes (by far the most advantaged) and so they get in as well. But others are “advantaged” because they grew up on welfare, or one of their parents died when they were in elementary school, or any other reason that might compensate for a less-than-perfect academic record.

I’m frankly not sure which system is better. But implicit in the absurd and offensive question “Too Asian?” are more reasonable questions as to whether there are other admissions processes which might be more “fair,” at least in terms of admitting people of lower socio-economic status.

In comparing the article to anti-Jewish quotas at Ivy League schools before WW2, Heer misses the irony. Today, quotas in American colleges, which exist more informally than they did back then, serve to INCREASE the presence of disadvantaged minorities, namely Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. At least that is the theory. In the famous 1978 US Supreme Court Case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke which enshrined the principle of Affirmative Action into American law, quotas were rejected, but race was allowed to be considered as a factor in university admissions in order to promote the court-sanctioned goal of diversity.

And so we get to the crux of the matter. Are Asians “disadvantaged” and do they promote or stifle “diversity”?”

Of course this is a matter of opinion. The important opinion here is those of admissions committees at selective American schools. Without all the data, I can only speculate as to their criteria. My suspicion is that Asian immigrants might be treated as somewhat disadvantaged, and thus given some preference, while the evidence seems to show that native born Asian-Americans are penalized because there are so many strong applicants that fit that ethnic profile. I don’t know if the different immigration policies in each country lead to large differences in the make-up of the Asian communities therein. Canada tends to favor educated, middle-class immigrants, so it’s possible that Asian-Canadians already have a leg-up, though I’ve heard similar theories about Asian Americans.

Again, it’s important to remember not to lump all Asians together: Chinese and Korean and south-Asian students perform better, on average, than Filipinos and Pacific Islanders. I don’t know the data for Cambodians, Thai, Vietnamese, and other groups. But the point is that even among Asian groups, and within those groups, large differences exist.

Also, while students of colour (in Canada, called “visible minorities”) face racial discrimination, many of these students at elite universities come from relatively privileged backgrounds. So determining who if anyone deserves preferential treatment in admissions requires looking at race and class. Some even argue that class-based preferences make more sense, to make sure that the iconic white “coal miner’s daughter” is not passed over in favour of a wealthy suburban African American or Latino applicant.

The take-away here is: the issue is complicated. Canadian universities’ relatively simple “meritocratic” approach avoids these difficulties. This is another huge point in its favour.

At Harvard, they used to say that they could fill their class with people who got 1600 on their SATs, or people who went to Stuyvesant High School in NYC, but that wouldn’t create the diverse student body they’re looking for. This leads to questions as to what the university’s mission is all about: is it to educate in the classroom and prepare students for careers that require some form of expertise, or is it to expose them to different cultures, to build future leaders and active participants in the local, national and international community? As an aspiring academic, I’m sympathetic to the former goal, though I also understand the desire for the latter. My impression is that in Europe, higher education seems to be about the schooling, not about “campus life.” In the United States, it’s the opposite: a rite of passage on the way to adulthood. Canada might be somewhere in the middle. And maybe that’s the right place to be.

Last, there’s the issue of explanation. Why do some Asian and Asian-American and Asian-Canadian groups perform so well in school? There are probably lots of good historical, cultural and socioeconomic explanations. But the point is that we should work to answer these questions, rather than run away from them. Let me refer to the 2004 essay by historian David Hollinger, which argues that “the failure to pursue this question implicitly fuels largely un-expressed speculations that Jews are, after all, superior.” Hollinger is right. And if you switch Jews for Asians then you have the Maclean’s story. So lets ask the question, and try to answer it.

Postscript: Since I began writing this post, Maclean’s has responded to the controversy surrounding the initial article with an emphatic defence of “merit.” It reiterates the claim that Canadian universities are “pure meritocracies.” The editors “find the trend toward race-based admission policies in some American schools deplorable.” They write:

Our article notes that Canadian universities select students regardless of race or creed. That, in our view, is the best and only acceptable approach: merit should be the sole criteria for entrance to higher education in Canada, and universities should always give preference to our best and brightest regardless of cultural background.

Again, this is true and isn’t: Canadian schools may not not discriminate based on race or creed, but they still do favour the middle and upper classes, who apply with distinct advantages. Still, I think the Canadian university admissions system is probably more fair than the American version. Last, I think the Maclean’s editors are right: Asian and Asian-Canadian academic success, like all academic success, should be celebrated. That way, humour like that of the Family Guy clip above becomes funny rather than offensive.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 4, 2010 at 18:27

American Jews, Assimilation, Liberalism and Zionism

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by Weiner


Every Jew and their mother has emailed me this article by Peter Beinart from The New York Review of Books. Matt Yglesias has posted about it here and here. I implore readers of this blog to read the whole piece. It’s well worth it. I’ll give a bit of summary and some quotes below.

Beinart’s piece presents in crisp, moving prose what many Jews on the Left have known for a long time. The “American Jewish Establishment” has moved to the Right. Most Jews are liberal. Young Jews don’t really care much about Israel anymore. If they do have opinions on Israel, they are mostly dovish, sympathetic to both Israelis and Palestinians, supportive of territorial compromise and to the left of the “American Jewish Establishment.” The Establishment is filling its ranks with right-leaning, often religiously Orthodox Jews. And all this is very bad.

Here are the key paragraphs:

Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.

Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

And these putting the situation in some historical perspective:

In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionism—with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise—has been drained of meaning. It remains the lingua franca in part for generational reasons, because many older American Zionists still see themselves as liberals of a sort. They vote Democratic; they are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank; they see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders; and they are secular. They don’t want Jewish organizations to criticize Israel from the left, but neither do they want them to be agents of the Israeli right.

These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967 and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their memories.

But these secular Zionists aren’t reproducing themselves. Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.

What do I make of all this? Well for one I think Yglesias is right that if American Jewish Zionist numbers are dwindling, there are plenty of Christian Zionists ready to take over. But that interests me less than the broader implications of these divisions in the Jewish community, between a conservative, hawkish Zionist establishment and a liberal apathetic-on-Israel majority. American Jewish affluence and assimilation, more than Israeli power, is the cause of this division. But I have no real answers.

In his concluding words, Beinart hopes that young Jews establish “an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.”

Even a liberal Zionist movement of the J-Street type only appeals to those who care. So many Jews go on Birthright, some will tell you the love Israel if you ask them, but do they really think or care about it? Some do, but I bet most don’t.

Maybe things are a bit different in Canada. I don’t know. In 1997, at age 15, I went a on 7-week summer trip with my high school, Bialik. There were probably about 75 of us on the trip out of a class of 125. Everyone had a great time (this was during the relatively quiet Oslo years, though a July 30 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem mall killed 16). But I venture a guess that many of them would have had just as good a time touring Europe, or the West Coast of the United States. And in fact, some students opted to go on those kinds of trips, rather than go to Israel. And many that did go to Israel, I think, saw this simply as an opportunity to party, to be with friends, go to the beach and see some tourist sites without appreciating the meaning of it all, without feeling any special connection to the land.

I’ll never forget one day in high school when I discovered that a fellow student, a relatively bright student, didn’t know who Yassir Arafat was. At the time, I was furious. Now, I don’t really care as much. I mean, she should have known Arafat like any person following current events should have, but why, in Montreal, should Arafat have mattered to her? How did he affect her life? He probably didn’t. That was in the 1990s. The Middle East situation may be worse, but the apathy has grown since then.

Some young Jews get turned on to Zionist activism in college. That certainly happened to after rioters forced the cancellation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Concordia University. But I think many just tune out. And that’s not because of Zionism’s lack of liberalism. It’s because they don’t care.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 18, 2010 at 19:18

Deli in Israel inspired by Montreal

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by weiner

I always wondered whether Israel had any real North American style Jewish delis. Wonder no more. This post from blogger Phoebe alerted me to the existence of Ruben’s, a North American style deli in Tel Aviv, soon to open a second location in the city.

Phoebe is right to note the Zionist rejection of galut, i.e. Exile, as a prime cause for the lack of deli in the Holy Land:

The traditional Israeli wariness about the Diaspora probably lumps together presumed-self-hatred, 19-year-olds without hot bods, and matzo ball soup, rejecting all of this in the name of creating and sustaining the New Jews.

Phoebe is a bit off track, though, when she notes that “if this deli is inspired by NY delis, it will be somewhat like the delis in NY.” For a closer reading of the article makes mention of another important deli city:

“Ruben’s success has exceeded our expectations,” bragged Gavriel Zilber, 31, one of the restaurant’s owners. “I think we’re successful because Israelis recognize the quality of our product. But also, it reminds them of visits to New York and Montreal.”

Indeed, Zilber admits that his inspiration came not from Kats’s in New York’s Lower East Side, but Schwartz’s, Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen.

Most Israeli customers at Ruben are unaware of the Jewish roots of the food they’re eating. Zilber, a native-born Israeli, downplays the connection, although he admits that his inspiration is the legendary Schwartz’s deli in Montreal.

“I was working as a chef at a restaurant in Montreal, and every night after we closed, we could help ourselves to all the steak and caviar we could eat. Still, we’d end up going to grab a bite at Schwartz’s,” Zilber recalled. “That’s when I said we have to have something like this in Israel.”

Beyond my Montreal deli pride, I think something important is emerging here. It’s interesting that a lot of Israelis aren’t aware of deli as Jewish food, but I guess this is because deli, as we understand it, is an American invention. As Gil Shefler of The Forward notes:

Delis serving hallmark fare like oversized sandwiches and matzo balls larger than baseballs are a distinctly American creation. Eastern European Jews invented them only after their arrival in the New World, around the turn of the 20th century, and combined Old Country staples with local favorites and ingredients.

As David Sax, author of Save the Deli and the blog of the same name, writes, political as well as geographic reasons led a separate Israeli culinary tradition, and “falafel became the official food of Israel.”

This all reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with an Israeli student in my department, who told me that in Israel, the stereotype of the “Jewish mother” is called the “Polish mother.” This makes sense, as most of the mothers in Israel are Jewish, but it showed that American Jewish culture doesn’t always resonate in the same way in the Jewish State.

That’s why Zilber emphasizes the “quality” of his deli as the major selling point. He does, however, also recognize the familiarity for those American and Canadian ex-pats living in Israel. I think the latter factor may more important than he realizes. And an Ashenazi North Amerian style deli might have even more success in Jerusalem than Tel Aviv.

In the Emek Refaim area of Jerusalem, there are tons of American Jews doing study abroad. Walking around that neighbourhood, one almost hears more English than Hebrew. My rule of thumb there is that if I see a yarmulke or a long skirt, it probably means the person is American.

I suspect that these Americans would love to have a real good kosher deli to remind them of home.

Of course, the tragedy is that those Jews who abide by the Orwellian money-making scam that is glatt kashrut have likely never tasted Schwartz’s or Katz’s or any real good deli. Though maybe this is an advantage, because even if Ruben’s isn’t up to those lofty standards, the kosher-keeping customers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2010 at 10:25

Arizona, Ethnic Studies and my Canadian elementary school

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by Weiner

The wonderfully tolerant people in charge of Arizona are at it again. This time, they signed a bill attacking some high schools’ ethnic studies program.

State schools chief Tom Horne, who has pushed the measure for years, said a Tucson school district program promotes “ethnic chauvinism” and racial resentment toward whites while segregating students by race.

“It’s just like the old South, and it’s long past time that we prohibited it,” Horne said.

The measure prohibits classes that advocate ethnic solidarity, that are designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group. It also prohibits classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Growing up, I mostly attended Jewish day school, which certainly advocated ethnic solidarity and was designed specifically for Jews (I’d like to think it didn’t promote any resentment, except for other Jews). For two years, grades five and six, I attended Royal Vale School, a public school (then part of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, now called the English Montreal School Board).

The school was founded by a bunch of disgruntled Jewish parents who were fed up with the Jewish day schools in Montreal. Thus Royal Vale, in addition to providing a supposedly enhanced math and science curriculum, also offered a required supplemental course, for two hours per week, in either “Language Arts” or “Jewish Heritage.” Keep in mind, this was a public school, part of the Protestant school board. And yet about half of the students took Jewish Heritage classes every Tuesday and Thursday (the student body was probably 75-80% Jewish).

Maybe this has something to do with the possibly mythical, possibly real difference between the American “Melting Pot” and the Canadian “Mosaic.” The Canadian government actively encourages multiculturalism, while the US government advocates assimilation. Or something like that.

In Arizona’s case, I think it’s likely that those in favor of the bill are doing more than advocating assimilation, though. They are being prejudiced against African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. They are trying to put down minority cultures by censoring content that deals with oppression.

Beyond this, however, my problem with the bill is that it opposes ethnic “solidarity” along with propagating ethnic resentment. Now clearly the latter is bad. The former, however, is neutral. I think ethnic solidarity can be a positive good provided that it is tempered with values of tolerance and pluralism and a commitment to obeying the laws of the land, in so far that those laws are just.

Some think Canadian multiculturalism has gone too far. I don’t think so. But I certainly think that Arizona has gone too far in the other direction. It’s time for Americans to not simply accept but also embrace their country’s diversity.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 12, 2010 at 17:37

England and Canada, electoral reform buddies?

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by Weiner

So apparently there’s an election in England today. I can’t profess to know a great deal about English politics. As a progressive, I suppose I’d like to see some sort of coalition between Labour and Lib-Dems. But what the hell do I know?

One thing I’ve been hearing a lot about though is the issue of electoral reform, how the Lib Dems will be vying for a shift to a proportional representation system, rather than the “first past the post” system they have know, where the winner in a particular riding (or do they call it district) gets the seat if he or she gets the majority of the votes, and all the votes for other candidates count for nothing.

This is also the current system in Canada for electing Prime Minister. And while the United States can use its fair share of electoral reform, I wonder if people are as in to this in Canada. I mean certainly these people are. I confess I haven’t been keeping up with Canadian coverage of the English elections. Do Canadians care about this issue? I have to say it would be nice if my NDP vote in my riding, a Liberal stronghold, would finally count for something.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 6, 2010 at 10:04

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