Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Palestine’ Category

Israel’s Three Solitudes

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by David

In light of the recent article by Peter Beinart on “The American Jewish Cocoon,” I composed this post, which may seem a bit dated, on the various “cocoons” in Israel.

Diverse Passengers on Jerusalem Light Rail

I was in Israel, but I thought of Quebec. Specifically, I thought of Montreal, my hometown. In 1945, Hugh MacLennan wrote a novel called Two SolitudesI never read it, but I know what it’s about. It’s about the deep, historic, and persistent divide between Francophones and Anglophones in Canada and especially in Quebec.

I lived in Montreal for the first nineteen years of my life, and I felt that divide. Growing up, I had no French Canadian friends. I still don’t. This  is not that surprising. I went to Jewish elementary and high school for all but grades five and six, where I went to an overwhelmingly Jewish public school with a Jewish heritage supplementary program. I lived in a bubble. I had no non-Jewish friends either, except briefly an Irish kid from hockey who had a French Canadian mom but identified as Anglophone. I had a handful of somewhat Francophone Jewish friends, mostly Sephardic Jews of Moroccan origin, some of whom spoke French at home. But most Moroccan Jews attended French Jewish schools, or French public or private schools, rather than my overwhelmingly Anglophone institution.

After high school, I attended CEGEP, a sort of non-remedial junior college designed to prepare students for university (what we in Canada call college). I went to Dawson College in the Liberal Arts program, and had two of the best years of my life. I learned the whole scope of European history, extensive philosophy and literature as well. I also made non-Jewish friends. Most were wealthy WASPs or other Anglophones. I became friendly with two Francophone women. I remember this because we called them Francophone Jen and Francophone Emilie to distinguish them from their Anglophone counterparts with the same names (we did not call the others Anglophone Jen and Anglophone Emily).

Ironically, I had my first serious conversation with a French Canadian sitting next to one on the bus from Boston to Montreal. A fellow Harvard student, he came from a working class Quebecois background, was extremely bright, hard-working, and ambitious. He spoke perfect English, and we conversed the whole ride. I asked him if he felt any affinity with the Harvard Canadian Club, whose members periodically pestered fellow Canadians to attend parties and drink Canadian beer. He was quite clear in his response. No, he did not feel any affinity with them, or any other Canadian from Vancouver or Toronto. He felt like he belonged to a different group of people, and in some ways was from a different country.

I thought about these things when I rode the bus in Israel, or took the new light rail in Jerusalem. I saw all sorts of Jewish passengers, soldiers and civilians, religious and secular, Sephardi and Mizrachi and Ashkenazi and Ethiopian and Russian and everything in between. And they’d be sitting or standing next to Arabs: Muslims and Christians, secular and religious. And neither group noticed the other. It’s as if they weren’t there. Not only did they never ever talk, they barely acknowledged each other’s existence. They were taking the same mode of transportation, sometimes getting off at the same stop, but clearly going to very different places.

I felt this separation when we visited a small mosque in East Jerusalem. Our (Jewish) cab driver told us to speak only English, not Hebrew, so that the people in the mosque would think we were non-Jewish tourists. We did so, and had a very hard time communicating with the three Palestinian Arab Muslims who were in the mosque at the time. They were very friendly, doing their best to explain so of the rituals and the layout of the main rooms. We only stayed about 10 minutes, and it was very interesting. I wondered how often Jewish Israelis or Jewish tourists to Israel ever set foot in a mosque.

I felt this separation again when we visited the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Behind the hotel lay a small museum, the Palestinian Heritage Museum. Much of it consisted of artifacts, or perhaps replicas of artifacts, from the Palestinian past, clothing and other essential items. But one room was labeled the room of “destroyed villages.” And that room had lists, and photos, and some artifacts from the villages destroyed by the nascent Israeli Defence Forces in 1948. There was a model of Deir Yassin, the Arab village that was site of the most infamous Zionist massacre of Palestinians, but which was one example among many. Both sides committed atrocities, of course, but for so long Jewish Israelis pretended that they were blameless, that Palestinians had willingly fled and abandoned their homes. It was not true, and eventually the Israeli academy, and to a lesser extent the public, began to accept that fact. But here, the Palestinians had preserved a record, a monument, to those tragedies.

What struck me, however, was the language of the museum display. It was in Arabic and it was in English. There was no Hebrew. This suggested to me that Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israelis seldom made their way to this museum. But it also suggested that the Palestinian citizens of Israel who ran the museum had very low expectations of their Jewish neighbours. Perhaps those expectations were and are justified. But I wonder (and I really wonder, as I don’t know), does Yad Vashem have signs in Arabic? How many Arabs visit Yad Vashem? And is that different because Yad Vashem chronicles German and not Palestinian crimes?

Another time I felt this separation between Jews and Arabs was when I explored the old city. Walking through the Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters, we saw barely any other Jews. We came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where hundreds of tourists poured in and out. They came from all over the world. I saw women in hijabs and the Muslim men who accompanied them. But I did not see a single yarmulke. Not one person who appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. And  few appeared to be secular Israelis either . Indeed, very few of the tourists appeared to be Jewish, if any. This made me sad. How could someone live their whole life in Jerusalem without the intellectual or cultural curiosity to visit this church, one of the world’s most significant historic sites? It made no sense to me.

And yet Israel was racked with even more divisions.

You can tell a lot about a (Zionist) Jew by what city is his or her favourite in Israel. If it’s Tel Aviv, he or she is probably secular, if Jerusalem, probably religious. Jews who keep kosher rave about the food in Jerusalem, those who don’t recognize it as thoroughly average (like my father says, “nobody goes to Jerusalem for the food” by which he means nobody secular).  The two worlds are so different, it’s like religious and secular Jews are visiting different Israels. To visit Israel means something very different for religious and secular Jews.

I felt this immediately on the plane I took to Israel. It was a United flight, and it left on a Friday morning, flying through shabbat into Israel. It was the first flight to Israel I had ever taken without any religious Jews on it. There were secular Israelis, some Arabs, and lots of Christian tourists. But no frum Jews.

After my stay in Jerusalem, I spent to time in Rehovot with my step-family. The story of how we’re “related” is an amazing one. My dad’s parents survived the Holocaust, and married after the war, and had my dad in Montreal. My dad’s mom died when he was in his 20s. Sometime after that, my grandfather reconnected with his childhood sweetheart from Poland. She had immigrated to Israel, married, and had a daughter. Her husband died, and so, in the 1970s, in his 70s, my grandfather moved to Israel and married his childhood sweetheart from Poland. He became like a father to her daughter, and like a grandfather to her daughter’s children, particularly her older daughter. I always felt a special connection to her daughter, because she knew my biological grandfather as her “real” grandfather, whereas I saw him only 4 times in my life, as he lived in Israel and died in 1990. We shared him in a very powerful way.

I love my step-family. But what struck me was how secular their lives were, like those of so many other Israelis. They seemed to have no religious friends, nobody who was shomer shabbat, nobody who was seriously observant in any way. In fact, my cousin’s husband liked to “celebrate” Yom Kippur every year with a giant barbecue and loud music and dancing. While that might be extreme, the secular isolation from the religious (and vice versa) seems all too common.

This divide has entered popular culture. Watch the Israeli TV show Srugim (which is totally awesome), about single Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and see how the Orthodox struggle in their limited relationships with non-Orthodox (and at least thus far in my watching, Arabs are completely invisible).

I have no answers, no conclusion. Only hope for rapprochement. In Quebec today there is tension between the secular and the religious, between French and English. But in Israel and Palestine it remains much worse, much more explosive.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 2, 2013 at 17:38

A Real Palestinian Peace Movement

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by David

About 10 years ago, in May of 2002, as a college freshman, I wrote an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson titled “An Arab Peace Movement.” I wrote:

Palestinian peace advocates should do two things. First, they should organize. Second, they should protest suicide bombings in addition to the Israeli occupation.

A model for Arabs to follow is Peace Now, an organization founded by Israeli reserve officers in 1978. With branches in the U.S., Canada and Europe, it is the foremost Jewish peace organization. It organized massive protests throughout the 1980s and 1990s that influenced Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Even Israel’s Labor party under former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak eventually adopted many of its views. In response to the current conflict, Peace Now advocates a withdrawal from the occupied territories, a two-state solution and an end to violence.

There is no Arab or Muslim equivalent to Peace Now.

I actually think this article holds up pretty well. It’s true, there is plenty of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though still perhaps not enough. But that’s not the whole of it. Palestinians cannot simply adopt the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They need to advance the only pragmatic end goal: a peaceful, two-state solution.

Norman Finkelstein, defender of Israel?

This is the crucial point. Calls for a one-state solution are de facto calls for the destruction of Israel. Even Norman Finkelstein (Norman Finkelstein!), a critic of Israel so vociferous he makes Noam Chomsky look like a Likud party apparatchik, recognizes that the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement is simply a front for a group dedicated to Israel’s peaceful destruction.

As I wrote ten years ago:

Some non-violent anti-occupation Arab organizations do exist, including Addameer, LAW (a Palestinian human rights organization) and the Arab Association for Human Rights. But compared to Peace Now, these groups are tiny.

More importantly, Peace Now does not exist to oppose Hamas; it opposes the Israeli occupation. There is no broad-based Arab equivalent.

Today, in addition to Peace Now, there is also J-Street. There remains no Palestinian equivalent. If there are, I haven’t heard of them, and you probably haven’t either. Their voices are muted, and their members can meet in a phone booth. They need better PR. And they need a better message. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just preach non-violence, he told whites what they wanted to hear, namely, that his goal was peaceful integration, not separation.

In this instance, Palestinians must peacefully advocate the opposite goal. They must say: we recognize Israel, and we simply want our own state, and we will do anything peaceful to achieve that result.

As I concluded my article:

Peace comes through compromise, admission of guilt and self-criticism. Arab progressives need an organization like Peace Now. No such organization exists, and Arab voices of peace are reduced to whispers.

I’m proud of what I wrote 10 years ago. Things have gotten worse since then. But I don’t think the answers have changed. We still know the way forward, even though it seems even farther in the distance. But we still have to try to get there.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 9, 2012 at 13:13

Posted in activism, Israel, Palestine

The Best Journalist on Israel-Palestine: Khaled Abu Toameh

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by David

Khaled Abu Toameh

In light of the discussion generated my last post on the Harvard conference on a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (on this blog and my Facebook page), I decided to write a very short post about the person who I think is the best journalist and best source on Israel/Palestine: the Palestinian-Israeli Khaled Abu Toameh. I saw him speak in Israel back in early 2006, I was impressed when someone asked him about the peace process and he replied: “Peace process? What peace process?” I’ve tried to follow his work ever since, and though I followed it much more closely a few years ago than I do now, it’s still more relevant than ever.

As his Wikipedia page notes, Toameh was born in Tulkarem, in the West Bank, but grew up in an Arab village in Israel proper. He is an Arab Muslim, of Palestinian ethnicity, with Israeli citizenship. He calls himself an “Israeli-Arab-Muslim-Palestinian.” He became controversial writing for the right-wing Zionist paper The Jerusalem Post, who seemed to love him because he was hyper-critical of the ultra-corrupt Palestinian Authority, even more so than he was of Hamas. Toameh was and is a vital source for the conflict between the PA and Hamas, which has occasionally turned into a civil war involving violence, atrocities, and torture on both sides. Many in the PA hate and even think of him as a traitor, but he is extremely effective at talking to high level officials and getting a sense of the Palestinian street.

Here is a list with some links to his most recent pieces.

Though he is clearly cynical, and no supporter of right-wing Israeli governments, Toameh seems to endorse a two-state solution and appreciates his Israeli citizenship. Some quotes from his Wikipedia page:

On his vision of peace:

If there is a Jew who would like to live in Palestine he is welcome, and if there is an Arab who would like to live in Israel he is also welcome. In an ideal situation, peace means that people can live wherever they want. (2010)

On living in Israel:

Israel is a wonderful place to live and we are happy to be there. Israel is a free and open country. If I were given the choice, I would rather live in Israel as a second class citizen than as a first class citizen in Cairo, Gaza, Amman or Ramallah. (2009)

On Arabs in the Israeli Knesset using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel while in South Africa:

And then they come here to tell us that Israel is a state of apartheid? Excuse me. What kind of hypocrisy is this? What then are you doing in the Knesset? If you are living in an apartheid system, why were you allowed, as an Arab, to run in the election? What are you talking about? We do have problems as Arabs with the establishment here. But to come and say that Israel is an apartheid state is a big exaggeration. I am not here to defend Israel, but I think that Knesset members like this gentleman are doing huge damage to the cause of Israeli Arabs. I want to see the Knesset member sitting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, and fighting for the rights of Arabs over there.

Obviously Toameh is not the be all and end all of truth regarding the conflict. But he is provocative and provides novel insight and information and is essential reading for anyone concerned with the region.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 4, 2012 at 14:37

The Harvard Conference on the One-State Solution in Israel/Palestine

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by David

This weekend, my alma mater, Harvard University, is hosting the “One State Conference,” subtitled: “Israel/Palestine and the One State Solution.” Lots of people are up in arms about this, it’s become something of a controversy. I don’t need to rehash the arguments here. We’ve been through them before, especially with the late Tony Judt’s controversial 2003 article, “Israel: The Alternative.” I’m a big critic of the current Israeli government, I support a just two-state solution, and equal rights for all people in both states, while maintaining a Jewish character in Israel and an Arab character in Palestine.

Very briefly, a one-state solution would be a logistical nightmare that the vast majority on both sides don’t want. When Palestinians say they want a one-state solution, it means one in which they ultimately become the majority and the Jewish voice is denied. This would mean the destruction of any real Jewish autonomy in the region as we know it.

Still, I won’t sign a petition against the conference at Harvard: they have every right to debate this in an university setting. The Crimson, my old paper, basically came to the same conclusion. Apparently Harvard Students for Israel, a student group that I used to participate in, also came to this position. So did active Zionist and free speech supporter Alan Dershowitz. That’s all good. I support the principle of open inquiry and academic freedom. Actually, an academic setting is perfectly appropriate, as the one-state solution is purely academic – nobody on the ground actually wants it and it will not happen in our lifetime.

 But I think something needs to be said about even the academic support of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think it’s morally consistent to support the one-state solution, but only if you really support a “no-state” solution, that is, if you believe in a universal, one-world government, maybe divided into loose geographic units. And some, on the far left, claim that is their position. That’s the theory. The reality, however, is quite different. In fact, their position is best summarized this way:

Ethnic nationalism is bad, and all ethnic nation-states should cease to exist…um… (awkward pause)… starting with Israel.

This “Israel-first” position (as in, the first to get axed), under the pretense of leftist internationalism, is frankly antisemitic, in effect if not in intent, as Larry Summers would have it, and should be described as such. It is a position that I think many of my colleagues on the left take, though they probably don’t think of it in these terms. But they should. And that’s all that really needs to be said about the matter.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 2, 2012 at 14:35

Gilad Shalit, Benny Morris, and Rachel Abrams

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by David

I’m very happy that Gilad Shalit has come home safely. And I’m ok with the fact that 1000+ Palestinians, some of them violent murderers and thugs, are in the process of being released to achieve that result.

I wasn’t always so sure of this. About a year ago (maybe more), I heard a talk at NYU by Benny Morris, the controversial Israeli historian. I generally appreciate Morris’ commitment to objective scholarship, but his political views can rankle. And on the question of what to do about Gilad Shalit brought a shocking response (I’m paraphrasing). Morris said something to the effect of:

On the question of Gilad Shalit, I take my cue from Josef Stalin. During WW2, the Nazis captured Stalin’s son, and wanted to trade him for a couple of German generals. Stalin’s refused, and basically replied, “kill him.” Israel should not take ridiculous risks to save one soldier.

I looked up this story later, and apparently there’s a good chunk of truth to it. Morris’ answer shocked me, but from a cool, calculating, pragmatic point of view, it sort of made sense. Maybe even from a utilitarian point of view. I recently argued with a friend that trading these prisoners for Gilad Shalit showed the Israeli society highly valued human life. He responded, with good reason: what if those released kill many more Israeli citizens? Wouldn’t that mean they value human life less, because more people will die?

That was a fair response. Except I think sometimes utilitarianism isn’t enough. Pragmatism isn’t enough. Societies need values and principles. And I think it’s a positive value to say that, if you’re going to war for us, we will do everything in our power to get you back. Even if it means freeing murderers to secure your release. Because that builds the sense of social cohesion Israel needs to survive. Bradley Burston, a Ha’aretz columnist, expressed this well:

The deal is a remnant of an Israel which is fast disappearing. It is a remnant of a particular brand of quiet, exceptional courage. It is an expression of a national character that goes generally ignored in a media environment which prizes the extreme over the honorable. It is evidence of a people true to values which time and sectarian agendas may appear to have diluted and erased.

The deal for Gilad Shalit is a remnant of a promised land that – to those everyday people who donate their very youth, their very lives, in order to defend it – still believes it important to keep its promises.

The first of those promises is a simple one. When they draft you and process you and inoculate you and arm you and begin to use you, they spell it out, to you and your family both: If you are lost on the field of battle, we will get you back. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. Even if it takes much too much.

In addition, there may be some hope, maybe a sliver, that this deal will lead to an advancing of the peace process. Gilad Shalit sure hopes so:

“Of course I miss my family very much. I also miss my friends,” [Shalit] said. “I hope this deal will lead to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and that it will support cooperation between both sides.”

Shalit also said he would be happy if remaining Palestinians held in Israeli prisons were freed to return to their own families, so long as they wouldn’t “go back to fighting against Israel.”

Contrast this with what Rachel Abrams wrote:

Celebrate, Israel, with all the joyous gratitude that fills your hearts, as we all do along with you. Then round up [Shalit's] captors, the slaughtering, death-worshiping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages who dip their hands in blood and use women—those who aren’t strapping bombs to their own devils’ spawn and sending them out to meet their seventy-two virgins by taking the lives of the school-bus-riding, heart-drawing, Transformer-doodling, homework-losing children of Others—and their offspring—those who haven’t already been pimped out by their mothers to the murder god—as shields, hiding behind their burkas and cradles like the unmanned animals they are, and throw them not into your prisons, where they can bide until they’re traded by the thousands for another child of Israel, but into the sea, to float there, food for sharks, stargazers, and whatever other oceanic carnivores God has put there for the purpose.

Yes, that’s Rachel Abrams, who as Glenn Greenwald tweeted, is “true neocon royalty,” wife of Eliott Abrams, daughter of Midge Decter, step-daughter of Norman Podhoretz, half-sister of John Podhoretz and Ruthie Blum Leibowitz.

The neocons prepare for war on behalf of all Gilad Shalits. But the real Gilad Shalit, so it seems, is looking for peace.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 19, 2011 at 12:20

Gay Paradise in Zion? A Commentary on The Enlightenment Project

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by Weiner

Several years ago, I was having dinner in Dupont Circle, a gay-friendly neighbourhood in Washington, D.C., with a gay Jewish friend and his boyfriend, also a Jew. My friend, who describes himself as both a “professional Jew” and a “professional gay,” brought up the topic of Israel. I don’t recall exactly what was said, but both he and his boyfriend expressed pride in the fact that Israel was rather tolerant towards gays and lesbians, much more so than its Arab neighbours. I agreed with the sentiment, but expressed some skepticism as to its value.

I remember saying that many right-wing, hawkish supporters of Israel, would proudly praise Israel’s record on gay rights, or women’s rights, or any other issue that showed that Israel was a modern, western, country, with a tolerant, progressive society, not unlike that of the United States or Canada. I remember thinking that these people didn’t give a rats ass about gay rights in America, or about feminism anywhere in the world, apart from trumpeting Israel’s superiority over its backward Muslim enemies. This was especially true for Israel’s Christian Zionist supporters, many of whom were actively hostile to gay rights and women’s rights.

This sort of analysis always made me a little uncomfortable, like comparing the Israeli military’s efforts to reduce civilian casualties with the goals of Hamas suicide bombers, who hoped to maximize them. Having the best human rights record in the Middle East is a little like being the best student in a remedial math class: not something you should really be boasting about. Sure, Israel is more tolerant of gays and lesbians, and more progressive on women’s issues than Syria, but so what? As a modern, western, democratic state, shouldn’t it aspire to play in the big leagues with the United States, Canada, western Europe and the like?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

July 11, 2011 at 16:00

Birthright Israel is about Birthing Babies, not Zionism (and That’s a Good Thing)

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by Weiner

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9e/Birthright_Israel.jpgBirthright Israel is a program that provides Diaspora Jews ages 18 to 26 with free 10-day trips to Israel. Founded in 1999, and funded largely by American Jewish philanthropists, especially Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, along with some help from the Israeli government, Birthright has spent nearly 600 million dollars to send over 260,000 Jews on all-expense paid tours of Israel.

The program is not without its critics, especially from the left. “The Romance of Birthright Israel,” appeared in the pages of The Nation last week. Its author, Kiera Feldman, “a baptized child of intermarriage,” recently participated on a Birthright trip, and has lots of complaints about the large doses of Zionist propaganda she received.

A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel.

Feldman is right about Birthright’s origins, but wrong about its current incarnation. In fact, Birthright, like William James called Pragmatism, is “a new name for an old way of thinking.” Like the very pragmatic American Zionism of yore, it exists primarily to bolster the American Jewish community, not the Israeli one.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

June 21, 2011 at 17:48

The Case Against Cases For or Against a Jewish State, or How Nation-States are like Big Macs

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We’ve got a guest post here from Gruber, who is doing his PhD in modern Israeli history.

By Gruber

Last night when I was out to drinks with some friends of college, one of my close friends, who happens to be Israeli-born and works for an Israel-advocacy organization asked me flat out “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” This is not an unfamiliar question, especially in light of all the recent brouhaha regarding the American Jewish community and Israel, provoked especially by Peter Beinart’s now infamous article and the Gaza Flotilla fiasco, which PhD Octopus has certainly examined before.

Of course, I had provoked this question to a certain extent, as I make no attempt to conceal my views on Israel/Palestine, especially among friends and family who I know consider me a radical when it comes to the topic, and accordingly may make snarky comments about the conflict that are framed playfully enough to avoid a full-blown argument which I know will devolve into back and forth yelling. So after comparing his disproportionate response to a small prank with Israeli policy, my friend stopped and asked me to answer this to-the-point question. “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” After attempting to engage in a round of semantic acrobatics and careful qualifications, he demanded that I first answer the query with a simple yes or no. “No”, I said unhesitatingly. I quickly followed up however, saying that neither do I believe there should not be a Jewish state. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2011 at 14:46

Passover Reflections on Judaism and Identity

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by Weiner


I have mixed feelings about the Jewish holiday of Passover. I absolutely love the seders, but I hate the other six days without bread.  You can insert the standard jokes about matzoh causing constipation here, as the goyim don’t seem to be aware of this. I’m also bothered by the capitalist cooptation of the holiday, and of kashrut in general. Jewish dietary laws have become a means to jack up prices. Even more egregious, on Passover, products emerge like kosher for Passover cakes and cereal, which kind of defeat the purpose of the whole holiday and exemplify the notion of obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

Still, every year, despite my reservations, and despite being a secular-minded atheist, I endure eight days of the bread of affliction. Why?

The reasons I tell people are the same reasons I practice any Jewish rituals in my own modified and modernized Reconstructionist Jewish way, from fasting on Yom Kippur to lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. It all boils down to three things:

1) Observing these rituals connects me with a sense of my own personal past. That is to say, it is something I grew up doing, and so I feel some obligation to continue practicing the rituals, and derive some joy from fulfilling that obligation and keeping up the tradition. And I’m a historian, so my personal history is important to me.

2) Observing these rituals connects me to the long arch and narrative of Jewish history. In some way, shape, or form, Jews all over the world have been performing these same or similar rituals for thousands of years. I derive pleasure from feeling connected to this historical chain. Again, I’m a historian, so this makes sense.

3) Jews all over the world still today perform these rituals. So by performing them myself, I feel connected to a global Jewish community, which fills me with warmth and pride.

In my mind, these reasons all operate within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, which posits that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Reconstructionism endorses full equality for women, gays and lesbians, converts, and Jews of patrilineal descent. Kaplan argued that Jewish law should get a vote but not a veto. His movement makes room for atheism, progressive Zionism and a great deal of diversity within its inclusive tent.

These reasons also have a lot to do with the dreaded “I” word, “identity,” the bete noir of many academics. But they also have a lot to do with the “C” word. No, not that one. I’m talking about “community,” which is held in a much more favourable light.

I guess I care a lot about my identity and my community, and more broadly about identity and community in general. And that of course seeps into my historical work, which is specifically about Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, but more generally about changing intellectual understandings of Jewish and African American identity and community.

And that’s why I post so much about intermarriage, and Zionism, Jewishness, and identity. Because I feel heavily invested in the struggle for Jewish continuity, even if I try to not let that distort my analyses as an academic historian. And so I tend to devalue ideologies like Marxism or extreme libertarianism, which deny significance and merit to cultural differences.

I try to be objective in my work, as I believe objectivity is often undervalued or downright ignored in today’s academic climate. Still, I admit that my biases do seep in. And if I do have one bias, I guess I should proclaim it loudly here, on this openly biased blog: I think ethnic particularlism is good. By ethnic I mean ethnic, religious, and cultural particularism.

Not always good though. When it becomes violent, chauvinistic nationalism that leads to murder and genocide, it is bad. I try to separate between the benign particularism that comes from  lighting Shabbos candles and the pernicious particularism that emerges when right-wing Zionists tell Arabs they can’t live in certain neighbourhoods. And I think the two are probably and unfortunately connected in ways that should and do make me uncomfortable, even if I can’t quite explain those connections.

In his book, The End of Faith, militant atheist Sam Harris argues that religious “moderates” are almost as much to blame for the ills of faith as religious extremists, because they provide moral legitimacy to religion itself, the source of violent fundamentalism. I actually have some sympathy for this argument, and yet here I am, a passionate if moderate ethnic particularist, giving legitimacy to my more violent and extreme brethren.

But maybe it has to be this way.

Let me illustrate with a little anecdote from my college days. Back then, I moderated an Arab-Jewish student dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some ways it was your typical Arab-Jewish student dialogue, featuring a smattering of left-wing Jews and wealthy, often Christian Arabs getting together to bash Israel. There were of course numerous important exceptions to that, which made it a rewarding if frustrating experience. One of those exceptions was, on the surface, one of those left-wing Jews, and I mean really left-wing: lived in the Dudley Co-op, active in radical student movements, strongly opposed to American hawkish foreign policy, very concerned with social justice and very critical of the Israeli government. And yet, during one dialogue session, she followed the more vociferous anti-Israel sentiment to its logical conclusion, and proclaimed she didn’t like it.

If peace in the Middle East means there would be no Jews, then I would rather there be war, forever.

I can’t say that I disagree. Because my sense of Jewish identity and Jewish community is one of the many things that provide meaning in my life. And I think these forms of communal identification and affiliation make the world interesting.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 19, 2011 at 10:13

Dueling Protests, Israel, Palestine, and Kif Kef (Kit Kat)

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by Weiner

Walking outside in the rain by New York University’s Bobst library, I encountered two protests at the corner of Washington Square South and Washington Square East. One, on the south side of the street near Bobst, was the Free Gaza protest, complete with its makeshift apartheid wall. The other, on the north side of the street, near the Starbucks, was the Zionist counter-protest.

Both groups looked relatively orderly, alternating shouted slogans. The Free Gaza crowd shouted things like “Not Another Dime for Israel’s Crimes!” And the more basic “What Do We Want? Justice! When Do We Want It? Now!” The Zionist group, on the other hand, shouted things like “Invest in Peace” and held signs that read “Boycott = Hypocrisy.”

I examined both of the protests, read through some of the signs, grabbed a free Kit Kat (actually, the Israeli version, Kif Kef) and then left. I used to be deeply invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Read about it all the time, wrote about it, organized an Arab-Jewish dialogue group on campus while in college. I don’t do that stuff any more. I feel removed from it. Not too removed to feel nothing at all, but removed enough not to be as passionate as those standing in the rain.

Politically, I’m still a Zionist, but my policy preferences probably run closer to those standing by the fake apartheid wall. Actually, one fellow holding up a sign with the Zionist crowd probably came closest to summing up my views: “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace.” See I’m a strong two-state solution guy, but think it’s in Israel’s best interests, morally and pragmatically, to make major concessions to the Palestinians, end the occupation, increase Arab and other minority rights within the Jewish state, and recognize an independent Palestine. My Zionism makes me pro-peace.

But I guess that’s what bothers me about protests like this. I’ve been in the Ivory Tower a long time now (going on 5 years as a grad student), but this sort of sloganeering abandons all nuance, and that irks me. Israel has committed its share of crimes. But so have the Palestinians. And sure, we should “invest in peace.” But Israel’s the one with the power to end the occupation, and they should do it already. I love Israel, but I also support justice for Palestine, which seems to be the more pressing cause.

Still, emotions come into play. I’m not immune to Albert Camus’ sentiment: “I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice.” And my mother, metaphorically, is hanging out with the Zionists, handing out Kif Kef. And that piece of chocolate is probably the most I got out of these dueling protests. Apparently, though, Kit Kat is one of the companies people who oppose Israeli policy are supposed to protest. I ate it anyway. Give me a break.

Kit Kat - barred

Written by David Weinfeld

April 5, 2011 at 14:21

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