Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Archive for the ‘Zionism’ Category

Israel’s Three Solitudes

with one comment

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

Israel Through Its Cab Drivers

with 2 comments

David recently went on a trip to Israel with his father. Here is a brief reflection of his time there. More will follow.

My father and I had arranged for a cab to take us from Rehovot to Tel Aviv. The morning he was scheduled to pick us up, the cab driver called and asked: “Is it ok if I bring my cousin?” Only in Israel.

The cab driver, it turned out, was a Jew of Yemenite origin. His “cousin” was in fact a cousin through marriage, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor from Romania. Yet another example of the blended families that make up the Jewish melting pot that represents the majority of Israeli society.

I’m nor sure what, if anything, cab drivers as a category can tell you about Israeli society. They used to have quite a bit of political clout, and in the 1990s they even had a political party. The drivers themselves, almost universally male, have a weird, somewhat sleazy reputation: years ago I recall a cab driver trying charge me extra for turning on the air conditioning. Whereas in New York it seems the vast majority of cab drivers are foreign born, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel, though of course drivers are both Jewish and Arab.

Our first important cab driver, a man we’ll call Shmuel, took us around East Jerusalem and the old city. Though he asked if we wanted to go to the Kotel (Wailing Wall), my father and I had already been on the first eve of our trip, and on every trip before that. Why was this visit to Israel different than every other visit to Israel? This one, we’d be seeing some non-Jewish sites. Still, Shmuel insisted that we at least see something sheh-lanu (of ours). You see, Shmuel was an observant Jew, modern, with a knitted yarmulke on his head. In fact, he pointed out that he was the only Jewish cab driver for his company. The rest were all Arabs. Except the owner of the company. He was Jewish too.

In addition to being a good cab driver, Shmuel was a knowledgeable tour guide, of both Jewish and Arab sites. He spoke Hebrew, English, and some Arabic. He was of Iraqi origin, though his family had come to what was then Palestine over 115 years ago. In another post, I’ll discuss all the places he took us.

A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we took a ride with the most colourful cab driver yet. Let’s call him Yossi. He too was of Iraqi origin, but he was more secular. Some of the first words out of his mouth were criticizing the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have such a big influence in Israeli politics and life. “God doesn’t care about their peyes? God cares what’s in your heart!” He exclaimed. I don’t believe in God but I couldn’t really argue.

Then the topic of conversation became even more political, and Yossi provided evidence that secularism was no indication of sanity in Israeli politics. Perhaps foolishly, we asked him about the potential for the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks being organized by John Kerry. Yossi had no hope for the peace talks. He expected the Palestinians to all be expelled to Jordan, and he seemed to have no problem with that outcome.

He also had some not-so-nice things to say about the non-Jewish African foreign workers in Israel. He called them cushim, a derogatory term in Hebrew for Black, and seemed at least implicitly to distinguish them from the Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel, who he presumably liked better. He thought the African foreign workers would soon all be deported as well.

But the most interesting part of the conversation emerged when we asked him what languages he spoke besides Hebrew. English, he said, some Arabic, and Thai. Wait, Thai? “Why do you speak Thai?” We asked. “My wife is Thai,” he replied. Not a Thai foreign worker, mind you. Yossi had gone to Thailand, fallen in love, married a Thai woman, and brought her back to Israel. They had three children together. Those half Iraqi-Jewish half-Thai Hebrew-speaking children are Jewish in the eyes of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but probably not most Conservative ones and certainly not the Orthodox. They will one day be Jewish enough to serve in the Israeli army, but not Jewish enough to be buried at the Jewish military cemetery on Mount Herzl were they to be killed in action.

We asked Yossi if his wife, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had converted. They’d been trying, he said, but it was very difficult. Conversion to Judaism in Israel is held under Orthodox supervision, and the rules are very strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the local government in Tel Aviv called on her whenever they needed an interpreter for the community of Thai workers there.

After all that information, my father and I were bewildered. By then, the ride was over. As we left the cab, Yossi offered us a parting gift. He had enjoyed the conversation, and so he gave us something we could enjoy: his self-produced CD of Mizrachi (eastern/oriental) Jewish music. Only in Israel.

Written by David Weinfeld

August 16, 2013 at 17:57

Another Dreyfus Affair Moment for France? Musings on American and French Antisemitism, and the Jewish Diaspora

with 2 comments

by David

I was about to write a post about conservative blogger Brooks Bayne’s antisemitic rant directed towards Sandra Fluke’s boyfriend Adam Mutterperl, when I read the news about the horrific shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, that left four dead, including three children. We don’t know for certain that this attacks was motivated by antisemitism, but it seems likely, and kind of makes the Brooks Bayne nutjob variety seem less threatening, even if a Bayne is an admitted gun enthusiast.

What to make of these incidents? Is the recent shooting a Dreyfus moment, a wakeup call to French Jews, and Diaspora Jews in general? Contrary to popular myth, the Dreyfus Affair in France, did not launch Theodor Herzl’s Zionist beliefs, though it certainly helped reaffirm them. For those who don’t know, in 1894, French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, convicted, and imprisoned in solitary confinement on an island in French Guiana. Eventually, new evidence came to late proving Dreyfus innocence. The “Affair” really began in 1898, when author Emile Zola wrote J’accuse and blamed French antisemitism for the mistaken conviction. Riots rocked France, dividing the population between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards, generally liberal and secular), and those who condemned him as guilty (the anti-Dreyfusards, generally conservative and often religious). Eventually, in 1899, Dreyfus was retried, convicted for a second time, but then pardoned by the French government, though he was only fully exonerated in 1906.

Theodor Herzl, a journalist, covered the story for a Viennese newspaper. He went on to lead the modern political Zionist movement. And so, we must ask, does this recent shooting in France offer any Zionist lessons? After all, A.B. Yehoshua, left-wing Zionist author and activist, has just told us again (and again) that Diaspora Jews live only a partial Jewish existence, unlike the full Jewish existence that he and other Israeli Jews live. Perhaps the most interesting (and most new and original) thing Yehoshua said this time around was “I have never heard the Jews analyze the Holocaust as a Jewish failure, which was not anticipated.”

Of course, the Holocaust was sort of anticipated, by Herzl in the 1890s, by Leo Pinsker in the 1880s, even Karl Marx’s friend Moses Hess in his 1862 book Rome and Jerusalem, where he wrote “Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism. The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race – they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews, less than their peculiar noses.” (I like to chide my Marxist friends by saying that Hess was much more prescient than his friend Karl, though that prescience was tragic).

So I ask again, are these recent French shooting a similar warning sign? Or are they an aberration, the work of a lone lunatic? Neocon John Podhoretz has already jumped to red alert, declaring that “Jews are being hunted.” J-Pod brings up 9/11 in his article, which made me think of the 2002 essay in The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier (certainly his best work), “Hitler is Dead.” Jews in the Diaspora should not panic.

The irony, it seems, as Yehoshua well knows, is that for the most part, antisemitism does not threaten Jews in the Diaspora, at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrates. We all know this well.

So I’m horrified by the shootings in France. But I’m not going to go alarmist yet. Let’s focus on this incident, on who is responsible, and on honouring the victims and providing sympathy for their families. It seems like Jews are not the only target of this attacker. Let’s learn more before making sweeping judgments.

And I’m much less worried about the ravings of one antisemitic moron in the United States who thinks that “Brandeis University is one of the nation’s leading petri dishes for anti-American and neo-Marxist thought.” Has Brooks Bayne ever been to Brandeis? I think it’s more of a hot-bed for capitalist consumerism, like most educational institutions, Jewish or not (and Brandeis is not Jewish in the way Yeshiva University is, for example).

Brandeis is a great school, and indeed, one of our tentacles at PhD Octopus, Julian, actually goes there. Hey Julian, would you say that Bayne has pegged Brandeis pretty well? Do the undergrads you’ve taught ooze anti-American Marxism? Or is Brandeis one of those places where you find actual conservatives studying and teaching the humanities, at the undergraduate and graduate level? I think it’s more of the latter. I don’t want to give Bayne too much attention, and my friends Sarah and Liora have already trashed his post very effectively.

So I’ll conclude by writing that antisemitism in the US remains a minor phenomenon, in the words of scholar Stephen Whitfield, a “dog” that “did not bark,” or perhaps more accurately, barked but did not bite. Yes, there is American antisemitism, on the right and left (and yes, it can be different than anti-Zionism). It is a phenomenon that needs to be denounced, punished (in the court of public opinion, if nowhere else), and understood. But the real problem for the Jewish Diaspora’s future is assimilation, and that has been true for the past several decades.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 19, 2012 at 16:55

Tony Judt Retrospective

with 7 comments

by David

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

While Peter was participating in (and ably chronicling) the Occupy Chicago’s protest of the American Economic Association’s (AEA) annual conference, I stayed behind at the American Historical Association’s (AHA) annual meeting to attend a panel commemorating the late historian Tony Judt.

The similarity and contrast between the two events is revealing. Before succumbing to ALS in 2010, Judt became an intellectual leader to the left, most notably in his moving 2009 NYU address, “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” later expanded into a book called Ill Fares the Land. Had he lived, I think Tony Judt would have found a lot to admire in the broader Occupy movement and in this specific protest, for as Peter notes, he was an ardent critic of “economism,” the American cult of efficiency, and he howled against the decline of the welfare state and rising rates of inequality.

On the other hand, a central theme of the Judt retrospective, and of the latter half of Judt’s life, was his militant, strident anti-Marxism. All four panelists, John Dunn (Judt’s professor at King’s College), Marci Shore (eastern European historian at Yale), Peter Gordon (European intellectual historian at Harvard and my undergrad professor), and Timothy Snyder (also an eastern European historian at Yale) made this a major focus on their talks, particularly the last three presenters. Judt would have had no use for the Marxist and anarchist platitudes of the protesters.

Read the rest of this entry »

B-Hop, Booker T, and the Jews

with one comment

by David

Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins (left), the current light-heavyweight (175 lbs) champion, the oldest man to win a major title, and a future boxing Hall of Famer, recently gave yet another candid interview, complete with new musings on race. We’ve been here before, even on this blog. This interview, however, was a bit different. Here’s a sample:

You’re a very candid person, especially about race. Why are you so forthright? I’ve been around a lot of candid people, but I’ve learned it’s good to be certain things at certain times. Everybody doesn’t know when to be candid and when not to be candid. It’s a strategy, part of the Art of War that I use as a script for anything I do in the ring or out of the ring.

 I’m sure you’ve heard the term $40 million slave. What does that term mean to you?Just because you got a contract for $40, $80, $90, $100, $200 million, no matter what you have or what you think you are, in this country, unfortunately, to most people, not all, you’re still a n–. You just happen to be rich. They’ll open the door for you. They’ll carry your bag. They’ll call you sir and they’ll call you mister. They might even let you date their daughter — because of what you have and what you represent, not because of who you are. I won’t say everyone thinks this way, but I believe in my heart that the percentage is high. I can speak to the $40 million slave situation. But if you’re LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods, that’s pocket change. The stakes are higher now.

Is there any part of you that’s worried that people will say, “He sounds like a racist”?No. When I say things, I say it out of what I experienced. I believe that before I try to help another race, why not see if there’s something to be done in my hood? That’s not saying I’m anti-white or anti-Chinese or anti-Puerto Rican. Many of my business partners are Jewish. And boy do they stick together. I want to bring my own people up to understand that let’s learn from the Jewish people’s business minds. Everybody can’t dribble their way out of the hood. Let’s try to book your way out. I only learned what I’ve learned from other cultures. I have some Italian friends. Everybody knows how Italians stick together. Go to South Philly. Go to New York. I’m not talking about the negative, but the wholesome Italian families with unity. The Irish. The other cultures. It’s when you start saying I’m better than that other person, that’s when it becomes something different.

Why do you think so many black athletes are so hesitant to talk about race? Because they are told not to.

Who’s telling them? The system that pays them, the system that dictates how they speak, how they talk. Football players, basketball players, they don’t talk about politics. It’s modernized slavery. They’re not allowed to talk about things that are sensitive and incorrect in the political world.

One person who isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect is Floyd Mayweather. How do you think his image impacts how black athletes are perceived? I have a problem with it.

What do you have a problem with? The perception and the stereotype of how they view and judge us as athletes is a blueprint and a script from what Mayweather shows them all the time. You don’t see Steve Jobs — God rest his soul — talking with a stack of money on the phone. He never showed his wealth because his wealth was who he was, not what he had. 

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you’re calling Floyd Mayweather a modern-day minstrel. No. I’m calling him a guy who’s not conscious of the image he portrays to promote fights and the image he portrays to show who he is. But he happens to be the guy people are looking at in boxing as the man, other than Pacquiao. He has the power like Jim Brown had in his era. He has the power like the great Ray Leonard had. He has the power like Ali had, when he said, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me n–.” Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity. I don’t think Mayweather is a bad person, but his message is misleading.

 The part the stuck out to me, of course, was when Hopkins mentioned his Jewish business partners who “stick together.” Antisemitic? Hardly. Novel? Not even close. In his 1899 book, The Future of the American Negro, Booker T. Washington (below right) praised American Jews’ economic success and industry, highlighting their “unity, pride, and love of race.” He advised Blacks to “imitate the Jew,” because  “as the years go on, they will be more and more successful in this country,–a country where they were once despised, and looked upon with scorn and derision.”

Washington was not alone in this view. The Washington Bee, an anti-Booker T. Washington African American newspaper, expressed similar sentiments in an anonymous 1899 piece about the Dreyfus Affair in France, titled “The Persecution of the Jew.” The article, sympathetic to Dreyfus and to Jews suffering from oppression, noted:  “There are no class of citizens more industrious than the Jews. There is not as much discrimination against the Jews as there used to be. The time is fast coming when the Jews will be the financial rulers of the world.” Though tinged with some antisemitic fear, the authors clearly saw the Jews as a  people to emulate, observing, like Washington, that economic success led to a reduction in discrimination.

On the cultural level, Alain Locke (below), the first Black Rhodes Scholar and leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, said similar things. In 1911 speeches to the Negro Historical Societies of Philadelphia and Yonkers, Locke commented that Jews were “perpetuating themselves and garnering respect at home and influence abroad” for their display of “race loyalty and effectiveness.” He noted that the Jewish community in the United States “has contributed to its racial life the world over and stands today as the champion of some of its most significant reform movements.” Locke held Jews up as a model group who were able to maintain their traditions and cultural cohesion while at the same time integrating and contributing to broader American life. Locke’s 1925 manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro, specifically referred to Zionism as an inspiration, as did Marcus Garvey‘s Back to Africa movement of the same period.

The point is that Hopkins was simply advancing the same “do it yourself” Black nationalism (or maybe communitarianism) espoused by Washington, Locke, Garvey, Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and more recently, Bill Cosby (on Cosby, see this great piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates). Of course, there are significant differences between these figures and movement. And of course, Hopkins did not limit his comments to Jews. Among people of all ethnicities, there are some who want to  “stick together.” Saying so should be banal. Hopkins was simply offering a variation of the old argument about separation versus integration, particularism vs universalism, that has presented itself to minority groups, Blacks, Jews, and others, time and time again, in America and elsewhere.

There’s much more to say about Hopkins’ interview, especially the stuff about Mayweather and minstrelsy, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll just say that I like Hopkins. He’s a defensive master and boring inside the ring, though never outside of it. I wish him all the best in his future bouts.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 9, 2011 at 12:16

Gilad Shalit, Benny Morris, and Rachel Abrams

with one comment

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

with 2 comments

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

More Debate on Birthright

with 2 comments

by Weiner

A few more thoughts and links on my recent post on Birthright Israel, in response to Kiera Feldman’s critique of the program in The Nation. 

Blogger Phoebe alerted me to a 2007 article she wrote with a somewhat similar critique of Birthright. Unlike me, Phoebe thinks Birthright should be more Zionist and less about making Jewish babies. She provides an interesting exploration of early Zionist thought, including the well-known Theodor and the less well-known Jacob Klatzkin. She comes to what in my mind is a pessimistic conclusion: the Jewish future lies in either Israel or Judaism (that is, Jewish religion). Secular Jewishness in the Diaspora is on its way out. Here’s how she puts it:

The future of the Jewish people is in Israel and, to a certain extent, in religious observance. Guilt and vaguely familial pressure will not and, frankly, should not be what keeps people Jewish. Those who care about the continued existence of the Jews as a people must either become religiously observant and live in closed communities of other observant Jews, or they may move to Israel, the only country where, as Momo enthused, the hot girls on the beach are, more often than not, Jewish.

Critics will counter that cultural Judaism has existed throughout the modern era. True enough. Communities of Jews tied together not by religion, language or nationality are kept away from intermarriage and full assimilation when society around them is sufficiently antisemitic to keep them so. In a liberal, secular community, in which Jews blend in and are not systematically subject to discrimination, those who lack specific interest in things Jewish – or, to put it in less negative terms, whose interests lie elsewhere – will fall out of the Jewish people, and their descendents will not be Jews.

I fear Phoebe may be right, but I hope she is wrong, and will do my darndest to keep the secular Jewish faith alive (though not in my academic career, where I strive for objectivity). In any case, read Phoebe’s piece. It’s great.

More recently, Brian Schaefer, a Dorot fellow (that’s a 10 month fellowship for recent college graduates that I applied for in 2005 and was rejected from), offered his own critique of Birthright on the Jerusalem Post blog. Schafer thinks Birthright especially falls short in comparison to programs like Dorot. While he praises Dorot for the depth and nuance the fellowship offers, he calls Birthright a “free 10 day educational vacation” and concludes: “The main difference between the two programs is not their duration; rather it is how they conceive of and treat their participants: as consumers and cheerleaders, or as stakeholders and advocates.”

In response,  Gil Troy, an American historian at McGill and Hebrew University and a Zionist activist who heads Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, wrote a defense of Birthright in the same Jerusalem Post blog. Troy writes:

Yes, it is true, Birthright is fun. This exuberance is part of the Birthright magic and its success — 90 percent of participants reach Birthright thanks to word of mouth.  When is the last time we read in the Jewish press a complaint about Jewish kids having too much fun at an organized Jewish community event?  If Diaspora communities offered more exciting, exhilarating, engaging, enriching, enlightening programs for Jews growing up, we would not need the last-minute intervention of programs like Birthright to encourage young, frequently alienated, Jews to restart and reorient their Jewish journeys.
A gateway program, Birthright welcomes many Jews who are on the way out.  The gift comes with “no strings attached,” meaning no ideological, theological, political, or institutional demands beyond participating constructively. And it is a populist program – although most participants attend or graduated from America’s top 50 universities.  But to assume therefore it is all “Goldstar and humous,” misses its multi-layered educational process, both formal and informal. Birthright succeeds in being pro-fun and profound.
The jury is still out on how effective the Birthright program is in bolstering Zionist attachment and/or renewed Jewish commitment and identity. But I urge interested commenters to offer their thoughts on any or all of these pieces. Would love to hear from Birthright alumni or alumni of other Israel programs or those generally interested in the topic.

Written by David Weinfeld

June 24, 2011 at 14:54

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

with 8 comments

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

with 4 comments

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 139 other followers