Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

A Different Cracow

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by David

Cracow I remembered. My memories of Warsaw from 12 years ago were much dimmer, but Cracow stood out in my mind. I remembered the old synagogues, the oldest built into the ground so as to avoid being taller than churches. I remembered hassidim scurrying about. I remember standing by the Wawel Castle, though all our guide told us was that Nazis set up their Polish General Government there and placed a swastika flag atop one of its towers.

A lot has changed in 12 years. Despite the old buildings, Cracow feels like a new city, the economy revitalized, tourists heading from shop to shop. The place is almost painfully charming, and pardon the pun, you get the feeling that hanging out in city’s medieval central square never gets old.

Of course, I’ve changed a lot too. When I came to Cracow in 1999, I was a boy of 16. I didn’t know any history at all, especially non-Jewish history. Since then, I’ve been privileged to attend Dawson College’s Liberal Arts program, where I received a steady grounding in European history, reinforced by my bachelor’s degree at Harvard. At NYU, my focus shifted to the United States, but I took a couple of courses, in eastern European history and eastern European Jewish history, that gave me the knowledge, if not the languages, to understand the region. Frankly, I think both me and the city have changed for the better.

This time around, I made a point of not limiting myself to the Jewish sites. I actually entered Wawel Castle, explored its state rooms, and stood in awe of its beautiful cathedral. I hit all the major churches listed in Cracow’s In Your Pocket guide. I don’t think I went to a single church in 1999, and what a shame that was. But I doubt I would have appreciated them then anyway. I’d have been amazed by their beauty, but without any understanding of the role Catholicism has played in Polish history. Wawel Castle was so much more meaningful now that I know something about the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, and about the three partions of the battered nation in the late 18th century.

I know more Polish Jewish history now too. I understand the role that antisemitism played in revitalizing Polish nationalism, particularly in Galicia, in the late 19th century. From David Engel, I learned that Jews had been invited into the Polish kingdom, but the population expected them to behave like guests, not citizens, placing them a good distant apart even when citizenship was finally granted to them. I’m no expert, but apart from knowing whether to spell Cracow with a “c” or a “k,” I think I have a decent handle on the place.

And this time around, going to those synagogues was more meaningful. Instead of focusing on the death and destruction, I imagined that my grandfather and great aunt may have prayed at any one of them while they attended the Jagiellonian University in the 1920s.

Walking around the Jewish neighbourhood of Kazimierz, I saw life rather than death. The place had certainly changed since 1999. It was somber then. Now, tourists, Polish and foreign, populate the streets. The hassids are still there, but they seem more comfortable. And the kitsch has exploded. One Jewish history professor I know compared it to Disneyland. I see it more like Colonial Williamsburg, except without the tacky costumes and with a death camp an hour away.

This didn’t entirely bother me though. Sure, tour go-courts whizzed past us advertising trips to Schindler’s Factory (unopened in 1999) and visits to nearby Auschwitz. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry comes to mind, except I see no need for that degree of cynicism. Tourists should see the death camps. And seeing death camps costs money. And that money is lining some businessman’s pockets, not advancing the Zionist cause. If capitalism helps people learn, in the most vivid way possible, about the defining tragedy of the 20th century, then so be it.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 12, 2011 at 17:26

There’s a Tooth in my Vagina: Horror, Sci-Fi, and Feminism

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by Weiner

A few nights ago, my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of watching Teeth, the 2007 comedy/horror by writer, director, and co-producer Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the famous artist Roy Lichtenstein. As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a big horror movie fan. But Teeth interested me for political reasons as well. Call it a horror film or a dark comedy, Teeth was in fact a brilliant political satire. And it was totally awesome.

The plot is simple enough: protagonist Dawn O’Keefe suffers from the mythological condition of vagina dentata: she has razor sharp teeth in her vagina. What gives the film its gravitas, and its humour, is the broader context. Dawn is the leader of an abstinence group in her high school, she dons a promise ring vowing to wait until marriage, and embraces traditional gender roles prizing women’s purity, all in a clearly over-the-top satirical manner. It seems as if nearly all the male characters are potential rapists, and several appendages meet their untimely demise beneath the sharp, interlocking teeth at Dawn’s crotch, and no, I’m not talking about her zipper.

Though I know many are turned off by gruesome horror (I’m thinking of you, Luce), this movie is really the ultimate in feminist schadenfreude. It’s a little scary, a little gory, but mostly funny, and with brilliant parodies of the Religious Right and the latent sexism and fear of women that lurks in the hearts of heterosexual men. This movie is truly great.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 27, 2011 at 21:05

Ideology versus Principle

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by Weiner

There’s a great guest post at US Intellectual History blog by Corey Washington and Johanna Carr about the problem with ideology.

It is clear that for most people support for their policy views follows from an underlying ideology rather than from strong evidence. They argue for no taxes because they believe small government is better. They argue for legalizing cocaine because they believe in the right to privacy. In very few cases, do they present a well-formed opinion based on research and evidence. And as any rational person knows only evidence, not ideology, is a sound basis for such empirical claims. 

My friends are not unusual. Political beliefs, like religious beliefs, are usually based on very weak, and selective, evidence. People tend to have the same political orientation as their parents, which may result from environment, i.e. growing up in their parents’ household, or a genetic predisposition to a particular political orientation, as recent studies have indicated. People also often develop views as a result of hanging around others with a certain political orientation. Once formed, political views are maintained and reinforced by reading material that supports one’s positions and by discounting material that conflicts. Likewise, people often embrace views advocated by the “experts”, they find idedologically appealing, while discrediting those with equivalent credentials, whom they do not. (When I discuss economics with my friends in Amherst, MA, they quote economist Paul Krugman about as often as Christians quote Jesus.) 

In short, ideology seems to be the equivalent of religion, without the God stuff.

Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

I don’t agree with everything in the post. I think leftists and libertarians can and do point to the lack of evidence of success in the drug war in support of their views on drug legalization, much like atheists point to the lack of evidence for God in support for their atheism.

Still, Washington and Carr moved me because I am definitely guilty of holding Paul Krugman up as a divine-like authority, just as others do with Karl Marx or Ayn Rand. I think Krugman is more pragmatic and less ideological than those two, which is why  I think that more extreme ideologies, like Marxism or Rand’s Objectivism, are more pernicious in the ways they resemble religion.

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Written by David Weinfeld

April 23, 2011 at 16:17

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

The Tiger Mom and Ethnic Identity: The Jewish Angle

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by Weiner

I recently attended an interesting panel on Jewish secularism put on by the Posen Foundation. The speakers were historian David Biale and philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein. In her talk, Goldstein insisted that Jewish secularism was alive and well, judging by all the book competitions she had been asked to judge, requiring her to examine numerous volumes which served as examples of the subject. In the Q and A, however, I asked about what this all means to the Jewish demographic future, noting: “Secular Jews are good at producing books, but not so good at producing children.”

This leads me to a belated follow-up to my previous post on America’s most infamous mother, Amy Chua (pictured left), and the discussion in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about the constructed nature of ethnic identity, as well as what Chua’s family tells us about intermarriage and Jewish demography.

Lots of Jews have responded to Chua, chiming in with references to the stereotypical Jewish mother, as featured in novels such as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (my favourite book of all time). There’s this little bit in The New Yorker. Ayelet Waldman, who famously claimed that she loves her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her children, thus rendering her the exact opposite of the crude stereotype (the caricature of the Jewish mother dotes on her children and castrates her husband), nonetheless defended Jewish mothering in The Wall Street Journal, the same publication that printed the excerpt from Chua’s book that caused all the controversy. Wendy Sachs takes a more benign view of the Jewish mother than Roth does in her comparison. The best of these pieces, believe it or not, is by neoconservative royalty John Podhoretz in The New York Post, who closes his commentary with this perceptive analysis:

My guess is that [Chua's] book gives us a portrait of Chinese tradition that is ultimately about as deep as the “ancient Chinese secret” that was revealed, in that classic 1970s commercial, to be Calgon detergent.

J-Pod isn’t completely right here: I think Chinese and Asian parents more broadly have in general a good parenting method that produces hard-working and successful children. But he is right to point to the constructed, artificial nature of Chua’s Chinese identity, and indeed, of ethnic identity in general.

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 14, 2011 at 16:35

The Legacy of Malcolm X: Universal or Particular?

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by Weiner

It being Martin Luther King day, I figured that I’d discuss Malcolm X instead. The latest issue of Ebony has an article (print only) by Kevin Chappell titled “The Battle for Malcolm X.” The author interviewed three of Malcolm’s six daughters, Ilyasah, Gamilah, and Malaak, who have been attempting to reclaim their father’s legacy ever since their mother, Betty Shabazz, died in 1997.

Like Che Guevera, Malcolm X went from being an inspirational symbol to a commodity. In Chappell’s words: “Books were being written, T-shirts printed and hip-hop artists were using Malcolm X–and everything that rhymed with–interchangeably to push their often-convoluted ideas of Black power and nationalism.”

The sisters’ ideas, however, don’t seem entirely clear either, at least, not from this article. They do emphasize a few things that their father was not. Most strongly, they argue that for the importance of Malcolm’s own parents on his intellectual development and activist fervor, while denying the significance of the Nation of Islam. According to Malaak: “Our father took the baton from his father, not the Nation of Islam.”

The sisters also think their father has been mistakenly remembered as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, when in fact he was a global figure concerned with human rights. “He was the one who let us know that we were descendants of Africa.” They note that they get greater praise and recognition as children of Malcolm X in the Caribbean and Europe than they do in America.

Interestingly, though Chappell uses the universalist language of “human rights,” the sisters’ universalism is rather particularistic, or to be more precise, Afrocentric. Entertainment lawyer L. Londell McMillan, who helped bring the sisters together after years of infighting, stated that “the sisters want to connect the struggle and journey of Black people worldwide the way Malcolm did.”

Strangely absent from this article is significant discussion of religion. My knowledge of Malcolm X is far from expert, but from my understanding it was his discovery of traditional Islam, rather than the racial version espoused by Elijah Muhammad and The Nation, that led him to his more global perspective. For Malcolm, Islam was his path to universalism, to human rights. As Malcolm X, he was leader to African Americans, but as El-Hajj Malik El Shabbazz, he aspired to be a leader to people everywhere.

This reminded me of Nemo’s shout-out to Andrew Hartman’s post about ethnic studies, of using the particular to get to the universal. As Hartman wrote about Mexican-American nationalist and poet Corky Gonzales:

[Corky] Gonzales saw Chicano nationalism as a stepping-stone to an international movement of oppressed peoples, in turn a springboard to universal human liberation. However, there was a proper order of struggle, and the particular preceded the universal.

It strikes me that Malcolm X, at the end of his life, hoped to use Black nationalism in precisely the same way. Of course, Malcolm never abandoned his loyalty to African Americans or Black people around the globe. His importance as a Black leader should not be downplayed or forgotten. But neither should his universal significance as leader and inspiration to the downtrodden everywhere, a symbol of power and pride to all human beings, irrespective of race or religion.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 17, 2011 at 22:32

The Intellectual Blame Game and Why It’s Silly

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by Weiner


On Nemo’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a terrific book, Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (more on this in a future post). This of course got me thinking about Rand, and how I need to include her in the syllabus for the American Intellectual History course I’m leading next semester. I lamented on Twitter, “Can anyone recommend an essay by Ayn Rand that offers a decent summary of her thought? It’s for my students. Sadly, Rand is important.” My free market friend Josh tweeted in response: “hey, at least she didn’t lead to the death of millions, like Karl Marx.”

I eventually responded that Marx’s ideas having led to the death of millions made him “more important, not less.” But my initial response, perhaps more instinctive, was to say, “or Jesus.” And that made me think about the intellectual blame game, and why it’s silly.

From a causal point of view, Josh is right. Even the most elementary student of history can’t deny that Karl Marx’s ideas, however distorted or misinterpreted, led to immense suffering, from Stalin’s purges and Soviet gulags to Mao’s reeducation camps and Polpot’s genocidal class warfare. Indeed, leftists of all stripes have argued as to whether Marxism inevitably leads to Stalinism, or something like it. Since I’m not a Marxist, I don’t believe anything is inevitable. Clearly, though, the path from scientific socialism to Stalinism is a possibility, maybe even a probability. But that’s another argument altogether.

The point, however, is this is no reason to dismiss Marx. Because lots of people had ideas that led to terrible things. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection led to social Darwinism, perverted by the Nazis into an ideology that instigated the Holocaust. But it’s still important that we read him. Nietzsche (pictured above) was misinterpreted by both Adolf Hitler and Ayn Rand, but his writing remains compelling to figures far less misanthropic. And we needn’t lay the evils of capitalism (and they are legion) at Ayn Rand’s feet: we can go back further, to Adam Smith himself, even if some of his better ideas, like the ones about “moral sentiments,” have been mostly ignored and are now being reclaimed by the left. Jean Jacques Rousseau can perhaps be blamed for inspiring Robespierre’s “reign of terror” after the French Revolution, yet his proclamation that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains” remains a reasonable rallying cry for progressives. Thomas Hobbes may provide justification for dictators, but no more than Plato, whose Republic is elitist to the core but also a brilliant piece of philosophy on a range of issues.

Lots of thinkers have influenced lots of people to do terrible things. If we move from philosophy to religion, it gets even bloodier. Jesus preached peace and love, yet millions have died violent deaths at Christian hands, the Crusades being the best known example. The Hebrew Bible’s rigid and divisive particularism has led to great strife in the Middle East and elsewhere. Militant Islam is similarly guilty, as are many other faiths, if our standard is simply crude causal connection. Yet the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qu’ran all contain many worthwhile passages, despite all the crap they inspired.

My point is that Marx, and Nietzsche, and Smith, and Plato, and Jesus, are all important thinkers, worthy of study not only because of the deaths their ideas may have caused, but also because those ideas themselves had at least some merit. How people used or misused their ideas is not only worth studying, but is an important part of understanding how those ideas functioned in the world. But blaming them for the terrible things done in their name is silly and unfair. Blaming Marx for Stalin is like blaming Einstein for nuclear weaponry. Causally true, but not morally. So don’t blame Nietzsche for Hitler; blame Hitler.

The difference with Ayn Rand–who grossly misinterpreted Aristotle and Nietzsche–is that people did not really misinterpret her ideas at all (except her modern followers ignore her hatred of religion and particular hatred of Christianity). Her ideas are really stupid and harmful. But that’s another post for when I’m finished with Burns’ biography.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 15, 2010 at 21:34

The Sounds of Ethnic Particularism: Matisyahu can Stand Up and Sing

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by Weiner

Depressed by current events, I’ve turned to Matisyahu for comfort. The former Matthew Paul Miller, a secular Jew turned baal tsehuvah (i.e. he has become an extremely religious Jew) is a hip hopping hasid  strongly influenced by reggae music. He frequently rhymes about Jewish themes, which I enjoy, even if his religiosity can make me, an atheist/agnostic Reconstructionist Jew, somewhat uncomfortable. My favourite song of his, however , speaks to the secular and religious. It’s called “Jerusalem,” and I’d like to nominate it for our “Stand Up and Sing” political song contest.

The chorus, “Jerusalem if I forget you, fire not gonna come from my tongue, Jerusalem if I forget you, let ye right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,” is a Biblical reference, from Psalms 137:5-6. The actual passage reads: “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” This is classic (if not classical) Judaism: even when you’re happy, even when you’re celebrating, like at a wedding, for example, you should still remind yourself of tragedy, so break a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The first verse of Psalm 137 is the famous, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion,” made famous by the reggae band The Melodians as “Rivers of Babylon” in the soundtrack for 1972 Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. The Rastafarian/Jewish-Zionist connection rears its head again. Supposedly, the prophet Jeremiah penned Psalm 137 by those very rivers of Babylon sometime after 586 BCE, where he lamented his people’s exile aka The Babylonian Captivity, praying for a return to his homeland, Ancient Israel, and its capitol, Jerusalem.

Of course, one needn’t read this passage so literally. In fact, Matisyahu himself doesn’t. In the song’s first verse, he sings:

3,000 years with no place to be
And they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty

I guess Matisyahu is including the Jewish people’s sojourn in Egypt, but he’s referring to 3000 years of life in the Diaspora (Jewish life outside of Israel/Zion). Or is he? For it seems that the “milk and honey” he’s being forced to give up is not something physical, “not the country,” but in fact “the dwelling of his majesty.” This is not referring to the King of Israel, but probably to God himself/herself/itself. But that’s only if you read the song religiously. If you read it as a proud secular Jew and ethnic particularist, like I do, you can still read it in a depoliticized fashion: this is not Zionism (the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew have a complicated relationship with modern Zionism anyhow). Instead the “dwelling of his majesty” could mean the spirit of Judaism, or Jewish identity, if your heart and mind. I think that’s how Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism (the denomination to which I belong, as did the pre-hassidic Matthew Miller), would probably read it.

The next verse is more expressly political, or at least historical.

Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century
And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep
They come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory
Change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history
Why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree
Don’t you know that’s not the way to be

The first line here may refer to the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Yet the next verses are clearly about the Holocaust, and about Jewish assimilation after the tragedy. The last lines, “cut off the roots of your family tree, don’t you know that’s not the way to be,” is quite clearly a paean to Jewish cultural retention, yet it too need not be read religiously. It can just as easily refer to Jewish culture as Jewish religion. In fact, it need not be read Jewishly, but might simply be interpreted as a paean to ethnic particularism. The key idea: it’s schmucky to abandon wholesale the culture from which you sprang. Obviously reality is more complicated than that, but the words get me going each time.

Matisyahu’s message is clearly more religious than political. And yet, he is also trying to bring people together through music. And that’s not just instilling pride in Jews left and right, secular and religious. He’s also performed with Muslim beatboxer Kenny Muhammad. And in a version of one of his most recent hits, the catchy if somewhat naive and generic antiwar song, “One Day,” he performs with Akon. Yes, that Akon: the Senegalese-American Muslim and another of my favourite recording artists. It’s not peace in the Middle East, but it’s something.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 8, 2010 at 21:55

Middle East Mixup in NYU History Course Offerings

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by Weiner

For those New York University undergraduates interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a great course offered by the history department is available on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00 am: Zachary Lockman‘s “Palestine, Zionism, and Israel.”

Of course, if you’re really interested, you can stick around until 2:00 pm, and then attend David Engel‘s “Zionism and the State of Israel,” offered by the very same history department.

That’s a bit strange, don’t you think? Two courses on almost the same topic, offered only a few hours apart by the same department?

I’m sure both courses will be excellent. I’ve never studied with Lockman but I saw him speak and I was very impressed. I took Engel’s superb graduate level class, “History of the Jews of Russia and Poland,” and his undergraduate course on the Holocaust regularly gets rave reviews. Undoubtedly the professors will offer different and interesting perspectives, and probably use some different material. Still, it seems absurd to offer two history courses on roughly the same topic during the same year or semester, let alone the same day.

I don’t blame either professor. From what I’ve heard, neither one even knew the other one was going to offer the course. I blame the terrible lack of communication between the NYU History Department, which I belong to, and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies (the co-sponsor of Engel’s course) which I also belong to. For all I know, there may also be a lack of communication between NYU’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies department (MEIS, the co-sponsor of Lockman’s course) and the History department as well.

I know that the uneasy relationship between Skirball and History has been an on-going problem, in terms of arranging qualifying/comprehensive exams, prospectus defenses, course requirements and other bureaucratic issues.

There’s also a problem, though, concerning the lack of communication between Skirball, where David Engel has a chair, and MEIS, to which Lockman is affiliated. The problem is apparent in the very names of the departments. MEIS has Lockman, who is an expert on Israel-Palestine, but it doesn’t really have any Israel Studies. Those belong in the Taub Center, which is affiliated with Skirball. In fact, Skirball has several students, some historians, others not, who are getting their PhDs in Israel Studies. At the same time, the Skirball department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies does not have any faculty who know Arabic or who has any training about the larger Middle East from a non-Jewish perspective.

Israel is part of the Middle East. Islam is not the only religion in the region. To understand Israeli history, some knowledge of Arabic language, Arab culture, Islam and the larger Middle East is essential. The divisions between the two departments, Skirball and MEIS, which often seem to operate within isolation of each other, hampers NYU students’ education.

It also speaks to larger issues more important than two similar courses being offered in the same day. If NYU can’t coordinate these two departments to work together, getting the people of the Middle East to live together peacefully seems even more out of reach. You never know though. Netanyahu and Abbas are talking. Maybe academics are more divided than those outside the Ivory Tower. In any case, talking is an important first step, for politicians and professors.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 9, 2010 at 18:52

“Culturism” on Campus

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by Weiner

While studying in New York University’s Bobst Library, I came across this frightening sticker on one of the desks on the sixth floor.

Horrified, I decided to explore the link. I received further shock when I visited the author’s website. Here’s some full disclosure: John Press, a former high school teacher was a fellow NYU graduate student, studying for his doctorate in history of education. Apparently he got his doctorate, having written a “culturist dissertation.” We’ve taken two classes together, a 20th Century US History Literature of the Field colloquium, and a seminar on American Jews and Race. I occasionally saw him around campus. Our interactions were pleasant if a bit awkward, though I had no idea about his “culturist” movement. My most distinct memory of John from the Lit of the Field course was his defense of Japanese internment. I don’t think anybody from the class will ever forget it.

John claims he’s not a racist. That may be true. But his “culturism” is equally bigoted, ill-informed and misguided. His blog is downright scary. Of course, he’s the one that comes off as scared: of Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants more generally. Through it all, he uses “history,” presumably some of which he learned at NYU, to advance his claims. I don’t feel the need to combat this ignorance here, though I will say this: what scares me the most is that John just received his PhD from the same academic institution I attend. Though his arguments are easily crushed, the PhD grants them some form of legitimacy, and/or calls my own future academic credentials into question.

I’m a big believer in academic freedom, and the university tolerating a multitude of views. If John Press’ doctoral work stands the test of academic scrutiny, he deserves his PhD. But he sullies that PhD, and all of NYU, with the bigoted “culturist” movement he is trying to spread, especially if he uses NYU to add some purported intellectual heft to his unsubstantiated ideas. John was clearly very influenced by Frances Kellor, the subject of his dissertation. In his book, he celebrates Kellor as a “culturalist,” along with Francis Scott Key, Noah Webster, and Martin Luther King Jr. Somehow, I don’t think MLK would have bought into John’s culturalist garbage. So once again, we have the misuse of history for political purposes. And the value of my NYU degree takes another hit.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 6, 2010 at 18:00

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