FIGHTING WORDS (“WHATEVER CREDIBILITY THE ADL HAD LEFT” EDITION)

Paul Krugman: “It causes some people pain to see Jews operating small businesses in non-Jewish neighborhoods; it causes some people pain to see Jews writing for national publications (as I learn from my mailbox most weeks); it causes some people pain to see Jews on the Supreme Court. So would ADL agree that we should ban Jews from these activities, so as to spare these people pain?”

Jeremy Ben-Ami: “The principle at stake in the Cordoba House controversy goes to the heart of American democracy and the value we place on freedom of religion. Should one religious group in this country be treated differently than another? We believe the answer is no…What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States as they seek to whip up global jihad than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be.”

Adam Serwer: “Someone at the ADL needs to go back to Hebrew School.”

Jonathan Chait: “Maybe it’s time to start a new Jewish civil rights organization.”

I BET HE WANTS TO MASSACRE THE ANTI-ZIONIST JEWS TOO

Over at the Corner, Mark Steyn links the story of one (yes, one) protester yelling “slaughter the Jews” at Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister and smirks

But don’t worry. I’m sure it’s only “anti-Zionist.”

Besides humor (failed), what is Steyn’s point here? Maybe the “slaughter” guy can’t distinguish between the country Israel and the Jewish people. I can. Most Jews can, including the ones who live in Israel. Can Mark Steyn? (More in this vein here)

Meanwhile, Steyn’s corner colleague John Derbyshire (the Marty Peretz of the National Review is defending Tom Tancredo’s call for literacy tests at the polls. But don’t worry. I’m sure it’s only “literacy supremacism.”

TZOM KAL (AN EASY FAST)

Here’s a link to a Yom Kippur sermon I gave back in college about teshuvah/returning. And here (below) is one about the reading from the book of Jonah:

A few years ago, on a Yom Kippur much like this one – less late, more humid, equally hungry, my Rabbi stood up, looked across the sanctuary and said, “This is where Isaiah asks us, what the hell are you doing here?”

It’s not a flip question, although it’s irreverent; it’s not an easy question, although it’s direct. It may be the hardest of a barrage of difficult questions which weigh down on us on this weighty day. As we ask what we’ve done in the past year and what we’ll make of the next, we must start with this day – why, every year, do we spend these twenty-some hours judging, flagellating, and starving ourselves? Yom Kippur gives us the time to be all four children of the seder – sometimes intellectuals probing the meanings of our shared experience, sometimes as simple people seeking a foundation onto which to grasp, sometimes searching only for a question from which to begin. And too often, as strangers, spectators at the scene of someone else’s ceremony, someone else’s struggle.

Today we read about a stranger, a man we first meet as ben-amiti – “the son of my truth,” someone who can marshal truth behind him but cannot grapple with it in front of him, who gets it but fundamentally doesn’t get it. “Kum, laich,” God compels Jonah – get up and go. Jonah is one for two – “vayikam yonah livroach” – he got up, to flee. Faced with a moral crisis, Jonah rises so as to retreat milifnai Adonai – from in front of God, from facing God. And in the same breath, vayaraid – he goes down, in the first of a series of descents which will punctuate the narrative. The next of these descents will be into the hold of the boat, the belly of the boat as often translated, or perhaps the womb of the boat as best understood. It will be there that the Captain will find Jonah, sleeping fetus-like in a boat on the verge of destruction at sea – the lightning outside his window like a picket line marching through the garden of Eden. “Mah l’chah,” the Captain asks him. “What’s with you? What do you have? What is yours? What are you ready to own?” “Kum, kra,” – “Rise up, and cry out.” And again, Jonah rises, but in silence.
”Vayipol hagoral al Yonah” – and the lot they cast comes down on Jonah, weighs down on him, presses from above, and instead of rising he dodges in descent. Unable to reckon with his complicity in the harm visited on his fellow travelers, Jonah seeks solace in sacrifice and security in self-imposed exile. He casts himself from the boat into the sea, where he sinks into another moist belly – this time, of a great fish. And inside the fish, Jonah – whether out of contrition or convenience – prays to God in gratitude, and pleas with God to let him out so as to make good on a promise to offer greater praise. Be careful what you wish for. Jonah finds himself vomited out of the fish and back on land.

But why leave the fish? Presumably, if Jonah could last three days in there, he could have lasted three more days. Or weeks. Or months. No reason to think that belly was particularly uncomfortable. Rather, perhaps what’s most impressive, and most damning, about Jonah, is the way he manages to experience a life-threatening disaster, make a dramatic sacrifice, go through a drastic change of scenery, and still recreate precisely the conditions, challenges, and range of experiences which he left behind. Who’s to say the belly of a boat beats the belly of a bass? Both are slippery and solitary. Neither demands human interaction, or moral responsibility. Jonah moves from one womb to another. This, unfortunately, is something that we as a community know all too well how to accomplish. Daniel Boorstin in Hidden History once wrote that when we become tourists, “we go more and more where we expect to go. We get money-back guarantees that we will see what we expect to see. We go more and more, not to see at all, but to take pictures. Like the rest of our experience, travel becomes a tautology. The more strenuously and self-consciously we work at enlarging our experience, the more pervasive the tautology becomes. When we seek experience elsewhere on earth, we look into a mirror instead of out of a window, and we only see ourselves.” We live in a community here which too easily fosters tourists and quite compellingly needs travelers.

Last year, speaking in this space, Kofi Annan asked, “What will move us? What will shake us?” While we’re told Jonah prayed to be let out of the whale, the text gives little indication as to whether he would ever have brought himself to leave on his own accord. Was Jonah, who fled downward to escape God’s call to action, moved to return to the world, to leave the womb, by the churnings of his conscience – or by the churning of the stomach of the fish?

When we think about sin – a word many of us have difficulty using but few of us have ease ignoring, we tend to talk a great deal about descents into Hell, and less about descent into convenient hideaways from moral challenge. When we talk about inscriptions – whether inscribed up above or written by our own hand – we think a great deal about a book of Life and a book of Death, and less about our choices to live full, challenging, painful lives – or not to. HaYom Harat Olam, we chant on Rosh HaShanah – today the world was created. Why ten days, then, before Yom Kippur? What the hell are we doing here? Maybe today we leave the fish. Maybe this day is about being birthed or vomited into the world that’s been waiting for us. Adam shotaif b’ma’asey bereishit, the Rabbis taught – man is a partner in the ongoing work of the creation of the world. But one of the obstacles to partnership is that one partner is often more psyched about partnership than the other.

One of the lessons of the Jonah story, perhaps, is that we are not born all at once, but rather in halts and stops. Jonah goes to Ninevah, a huge and wealthy city, and tells its leaders, a couple thousand years before Led Zepellin, that there are two roads they can go down, but there’s still time to change the road they’re on. Hochiach tochiach, the Torah instructs – critically you must reproach, and Jonah rises, so to speak, to the occasion. He carries out perhaps the basic foundation of ethical monotheism and the central demand of liberal democracy: he speaks justice to power. And then he nosedives in a downward spiral from which he won’t fully have risen as the text closes. As Ninevah commits to change its ways, Jonah once again becomes set in his. Deprived of the fire and brimstone narrative he was expecting, cowed by the complexity of a communal struggle for greater justice as compared to a divine act of retribution, Jonah is rendered bitter, and resentful. He becomes only more so when he sees the divine punishment he was gunning for meted out against a leafy plant he found materially useful.

Jonah writes himself out of his own narrative with a convenient dichotomy – he doesn’t help Ninevah because it’s huge and distant, and he doesn’t help the plant because it’s small and immediate. These rationalizations are not new, and they haven’t gone out of style. It’s easy to perceive a world of institutions which are small, self-sufficient, and eternal, and institutions which are massive, complex, and inaccessible. It’s convenient to render involvement in a cause in which you don’t see a personal stake as meddling, and involvement in a cause in which you do as selfish. We do it every day.

Jonah never reaches Tarshish, the city to which he planned to sail away to escape divine responsibility entirely. So the text leaves us to construct what such a place would look like and where it would be. What are the habits, traditions, institutions, and practices which foster the insularity and alienation which Jonah seeks in Tarshish? Where can a man be an island? How does one travel into and out of the islands we fashion for ourselves and the islands we fashion out of ourselves? Would we know Tarshish if we lived there? Would we know Ninevah if we lived there?

Most of us in this room today are members of the Yale community in New Haven, and members of the Jewish community in the United States – both disproportionately affluent, both built on traditions and values of struggle and engagement, both at a crossroads between mobilization for just partnership and the politics of insularity. This is the time of year for an accounting of what, as individuals and as communities, we have contributed and what we have failed to contribute, and who has suffered for it. This is the time of year to recognize Ninevah and Tarshish and to build the cities and communities we want to inhabit. This is when we leave the womb and determine what the hell we’re doing here.

Fasting, Isaiah warns us, is not enough. “Behold, while you are fasting you engage in business, and your workers you continue to oppress! Behold, you fast in strife and quarrelling, and with a meanly clenched fist you strike.” But we know that to open our hands and our hearts is a difficult task. “Is not the fast that I desire,” asks Isaiah, “the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of all those oppressed, the breaking of the yoke of servitude?” This imperative – to pursue social justice and work for liberation – cannot be isolated from another one: to cry out, in Isaiah’s words, “like a shofar – tell my people of their transgression, the house of Jacob, their mistakes.”

Isaiah calls on us to be repairers of bridges, restorers of roads home. Today, here, we build bridges within and between ourselves, within and between our communities, within and between our values. Tonight we break our fast and start the physical construction work. Tonight, traditionally, we begin to build our sukkot, our fragile, open, exposed homes without walls which manifest the potential and the path for our redemption.

When we build a home, we claim a place, and own ourselves. We struggle to answer the question the Captain asked Jonah in the storm – “Mah l’chah?” Literally, what is yours? We struggle to answer God’s question to Moses at the Reed Sea: “Why do you cry out to me?” We struggle to answer God’s question to Adam and Eve in the garden: “Where are you?” We strive, like Eve, to seize moral knowledge and ethical responsibility, even at the cost of the idyllic pre-consciousness of the garden. We strive, like Nachshon, to take the first steps out of the stable suffering of slavery and into the troubled, tumultuous birth canal that leads through to the long march ahead. We strive, like Jonah, to leave the whale – and to learn from the mistakes he made once he reached dry land.

If, as Rabbi Ponet suggested last night, we Jews are an ever-dying people, then we must as well be a people that is continually being born. If, as Isaiah, suggests when we call out God will answer with the word of Abraham – hineni – then we must be first to utter it: Hineni, here I am. We must own our city and our nation not as tourists but as citizens, and own our community not as strangers but as partners. We begin to know what the hell we’re doing here, when we begin to know where here is and why it is our place to be there. We must dare, in Elliot’s words, “to disturb the universe,” so that we might too find, at the end of all our journeys, linear and cyclical, physical, temporal, and ethical, that we are home, and that we know the place for the first time.

FIGHTING WORDS (HOUSE OF CONTENTION EDITION)

Gershom Gorenberg: “The reflex hints at deeper problems: Barak is a kibbutz-born ex-general with no clear political positions, an embodiment of the old Labor aristocracy. Seen in a longer perspective, the conundrum of a movement that creates a state is how to reinvent itself afterward as a party that is relevant to the new reality. Labor hasn’t succeeded. ”

Avi Isaacharoff: “Leaving the home, one can hear a settler yell at a police officer: ‘Nazis, shame on you.’ Indeed. Shame on you. ”

Daniel Levy: “In the immediate term, the settlers were hoping to prevent the evacuation of the Hebron house by setting off violence across the West Bank and by trying to provoke a Palestinian response that would in turn require the IDF to focus elsewhere and therefore be unable to carry out the Hebron mission. But the real goal was to send a signal that any future settler evacuation would carry a price far more bloody and devastating than the Gaza Disengagement of summer 2005–namely, to inflame the entire Occupied Territories, if not the region.”

Jeffrey Goldberg:”So the question to the Conference of Presidents is: Was it not a pogrom, and therefore not newsworthy? Or are you simply too ashamed to report, amid your long list of Arab and Muslim sins, evidence of Jewish sin?”

STAND BY ME

One of the less than super features of my six years at the high school formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy was the seemingly endless succession of assemblies hosting guest speakers from organizations like the ZOA speaking on topics like the caginess of Arabs and the awesomeness of what we’ve since learned to call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Then my senior year I organized a human rights conference that included Ian Lustick, a Zionist with some concerns about human rights in Israel, and I got called into the Principal’s office and told that he didn’t like having controversial speakers without counterbalancing speakers there to offer “the other side” (in the end I was able to negotiate a compromise where Lustick would speak alone after an Ahmadinejad-at-Columbia-style introduction from the Headmaster and Lustick and Daniel Pipes would be invited to have a debate at Akiba later on).

A couple months later, the Headmaster announced that everyone in the school would be bussed to an “Israel Solidarity Rally” downtown. After a bunch of kids objected to being forced to participate in a rally defending the Likud government from criticism, Akiba agreed to let kids who wanted to skip the rally and stay at school to watch Exodus and think about what they’d done. A couple months after that, Akiba’s administration announced at my graduation that everyone in the Class of 2002 would receive a copy in the mail at college of Myths and Facts About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (“Myth: Palestinians. Fact: Israelis.”).

All this came to mind when I opened my e-mail and saw an e-mail circulating amongst Akiba Alumni to “Seek neutrality on political issues at Akiba.” What instigated it? Apparently some of my more right-wing friends were appalled that Akiba sent out an e-mail announcing an event hosted by the insufficiently-Likud-friendly New Israel Fund.

BIGOTS IN ABUNDANCE?

James Traub, in his Times Mag piece on ADL head Abe Foxman, notes that

Foxman upset many of his colleagues by extending a welcome to Christian conservatives, whose leaders tended to be strongly pro-Israel even as they spoke in disturbing terms of America’s “Christian” identity.

True that. Brings to mind the Zionist Organization of America’s decision to honor Pat Robertson with a “State of Israel Fellowship Award.” Abe Foxman at the time demurred that “He’s not deserving, but I have no objections to other groups honoring him.” This despite Robertson having literally written the book on how Jews conspired with Free Masons and Illuminati to engineer the major wars in American history in order to manipulate the global market (Norman Podhoretz argued at the time that that kind of antisemitism was rendered irrelevant by Robertson’s Zionism just as in the Talmud a tiny bit of treif can’t render a huge kosher vat no longer kosher). Robertson went on to raise the ire of the ADL, which had previously highlighted some of his rantings with concern, when he suggested that Ariel Sharon’s strike was punishment from God.

Perhaps the most telling piece of Traub’s article is this exchange:

I asked if it was really right to call Carter, the president who negotiated the Camp David accords, an anti-Semite.

“I didn’t call him an anti-Semite.”

“But you said he was bigoted. Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No. ‘Bigoted’ is you have preconceived notions about things.”

The argument that the Israel lobby constricted debate was itself bigoted, he said.

“But several Jewish officials I’ve talked to say just that.”

“They’re wrong.”

“Are they bigoted?”

Foxman didn’t want to go there. He said that he had never heard any serious person make that claim.

This is the Abe Foxman worldview. Intellectual and/or moral serious equals the belief that the pro-Likud lobbying infrastructure exercises no pressure on the scope of the Israel debate in this country. Concern about the role of that lobby (unlike, say, concern about the role of the NRA) in shaping public perceptions and policy outcomes equals bigotry. And acceptance of Jews equals support for the actions of the current Israeli government.

This despite the ADL’s own research showing antisemitism declining in Europe at the same time that “anti-Israel” sentiment rises. As my friend Jacob Remes wrote at the time,

Abe Foxman, while hailing European governments that have worked to differentiate Israel from Jews, fails to do so himself and continues to equate the two.

DUMP DENNIS

In the wake of Dennis Prager’s furious condemnation of Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison’s plan to be sworn in on his own holy text – a story Prager described this week as more important to the future of this nation than what we do next in Iraq – the Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling for his removal from the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. As M.J. Rosenberg notes, President Bush appointed Prager three months ago to the Council, which oversees the Holocaust Museum.

That appointment demonstrates that George W. Bush has not fully learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

That language bristles no doubt, because there’s an unfortunate tendency to see big, dramatic historical events on whose moral character there’s a broad consensus – the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolition movement, the Holocaust – as somehow beyond the bounds of politics. But these are all political events. They are seismic moments not because they transcend politics but because they both expose and transform fundamental conflicts between different social visions held by different people and advanced through the exercise of power.

The Holocaust was a genocidal murderous enactment of an ideology of racial, religious, and sexual hierarchy and bigotry. It was an act of murder writ large in the name of Aryan heterosexual non-disabled Protestants being more human, having more worth, and possessing more rights than others. There are still those in this country who hold some or all those prejudices. There are some who will say so openly.

History does not interpret itself. But it demands meaning-making by responsible citizens.
That is not and never has been a process divorced without influence from or impact on our politics.

The Holocaust Museum’s “primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.”

No one espousing the view that the “acceptance” of Judaism “as equal” to other religions “signifies the decline of Western civilization” would have a shot at a spot overseeing the Holocaust Museum. But someone who believes such about homosexuals was appointed to the Board three months ago by the President. That’s because the full humanity of Jews is considered a settled question in mainstream American political discourse, and therefore inappropriate to “politicize,” while the full humanity of gays is up for debate, and therefore it’s inappropriate to judge those bravely taking the “politically incorrect” stance.