Archive for the ‘Zionism’ Category
Another Dreyfus Affair Moment for France? Musings on American and French Antisemitism, and the Jewish Diaspora
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Birthright 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.
We’ve got a guest post here from Gruber, who is doing his PhD in modern Israeli history.
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 »
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.
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.