Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The trip to Poland: Shortish version

Czech beer is great (and cheap). Hungarian beer sucks.

Most of the trip was overscheduled - it was a multi-city tour - so really it was more about hanging out with the Zen sangha than actually visiting Europe. But that was fun, too. Among the Zen activities, we saw a transmission ceremony, where Mu Shim Sunim officially become Zen Master Dae Jin Sunim. ("Sunim," btw, means "monk" in Korean. I'll use it again.)

There's an obnoxious cross in Prague that basically says, "Judaism sucks; Christ rocks" in Hebrew. (The actual phrase is from Isaiah, beginning "Holy, Holy," so that making it about Christ appropriates the Jewish text in a terrible way.) The legend, as explained by our tour guide, was that a Jew was fined for laughing at the statue of Jesus on the Cross, so the city used his money to add the words in Hebrew. Clearly, the city understands it to be antisemitic, but it's also clear they haven't managed the necessary ju jitsu to remake the statue to be about antisemitism. It still functions as a taunt, and it would probably be best if they'd take down the Hebrew letters. Recently, we were told, someone tore some of it off and threw it into the river. It was, however, restored.

I'm not quite sure what to make of these figurines, so perhaps someone can explain it to me.

(If you look really carefully, there might be a reflection of me in the glass.) There were such Jews for sale in many places. That photo was from Prague, near the Old-New Synagogue, and the figures seem much kinder. In Krakow (we were nowhere near the Jewish Quarter), the noses were longer and peyos more significant. I have trouble taking them as anything but racist, except that they might be intended as Judaica for Jews to buy.

Auschwitz was sad, of course, but doing morning practice at the Warsaw Zen Center in the days before helped. (I usually have a terrible time getting up in the mornings. That's no different when getting woken up at 4:30 am while visiting Zen Centers, but I do like when I've started the day with practice.) Also, having so many sangha members around really helped. At Birkenau, we did a little meditiation and soft Kwan Seum Bosal chanting.

Kwan Seum Bosal is the Boddhisattva of compassion, with 1,000 eyes to see all the suffering of the world and 1,000 hands to help, who cries at the enormity of her vow to save all beings from suffering. We generally chant to Ji Jang Bosal to help the dead, but I often find myself drawn to Kwan Seum Bosal when someone has died, in order to comfort those who have to go on. So for me, it was appropriate, in this world where we've still only begun to digest the fact of the Holocaust, to chant Kwan Seum Bosal.

Afterwards, on the bus, there were Dharma talks. First, a Jewish Zen Master who lives as a sunim in Korea. It wasn't surprising, but I think it was notable when he spoke of the Jewish concern for Israel. It was the usual pattern of Jews that I always find interesting: where the Holocaust only seems to serve as a justification before a more elaborate and sound justification is offered as an empassioned afterthought. After suggesting that we could perhaps now better understand the common Jewish concern for Israel, he went on to say that Jews had moved to Poland because it was a democratic place where they expected good treatment. Though I wouldn't suggest Sunim held personally to any ideology, as Buddhism teaches against all -isms, this is like Herzl's response to the Dreyfus affair. So it wasn't the Holocaust that was ultimately important in justifying Zionism, but that the Holocaust happened even in the context of liberal, Western society.

Then a Polish teacher (with a title just below that of Zen Master), was very interesting. He echoed the guide from Auschwitz, who had talked of the liberation from the Nazis as a cruel joke that brought totalitarian communism.

Then this senior dharma teacher from England, living in Brno, spoke. His talk wasn't as personal. Mostly, he was very animated by the depth of the tragedy and a feeling that one must respond to it. But he brought his talk back to the Four Great Vows and I really teared up because the vows cut through all the traps of trying to speak about the Holocaust.
Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all. Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all. The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all. The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.
I think those may be the only words I've ever heard that manage to capture the magnitude of tragedy without trivializing, that also speak to the present without demanding to own the past, that correctly demand strong action without the fascist habit of action for action's sake.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

OMG! Tikkun has been silenced!

One more before I go. In the debates on antisemitism and Israel/Palestine, people are always complaining of being silenced. Well, how would you have had this matter go?

Off to Poland

I'm not always the most regular blogger, but I doubt I'll post anything at all for the next week and a half. I'm headed to Warsaw for a Buddhist get together and then a week of touring.

Partisan politics in Israel

In April, I wrote about the Israeli electoral system. I recall seeing arguments in several places (some just silly), but The Economist in particular wrote that the dysfunctional system needed to be fixed. Further, they made what seems like an odd claim that this excess of democracy diminished the influence of the electorate on the government. I suggested that it was more important to include Arab parties in ruling coalitions. Politically, it might be difficult, but it wouldn't require any changes to the formal electoral system.

Today, Ralph Seliger at Meretz USA discusses the same issues as raised by someone else. Bernard Avishai argues that peace and security issues in Israel are so polarized that this extreme proportional system acts more like a two-party system. But:
The problem is trying to make any deal stick without precipitating violent national kulturkampf. The hard right has killed one prime minister. It owns the streets of Greater Jerusalem. Even lesser fanatics know full well that a Palestinian state will put an end, not to Israel, but to their dreams of Greater Israel, let alone most settlements across the Green Line. That is why, as I've said, the only leadership that can make a difference now is the one being elected in Washington.
That's not really a political problem, though, is it? It's about a small minority willing to abandon politics, and I think it's a bit bizarre that this pretends to be politics. Of course such people can have an impact, precisely because they're willing to abandon politics, but I think that impact is being mischaracterized. I certainly can't claim the familiarity with Israeli politics either Avishai or Seliger has, but it seems more likely to me that the focus should be on those to the right of center for whom a hawkish security attitude, absent any desire for any Greater Israel except as it would be more secure, are paramount. Though I don't think there's the need for such proof, the rise of Kadima including the defections of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert from Likud to form Kadima proves the existence of these people. But what's happened so far is that Kadima has failed to provide security or prove that they can. In such a circumstance, how is it surprising that they would side with other hawks? But that line of thinking directs back to Israeli politics and the peace process (and perhaps a need for patience, which is running out in all kinds of places), not, as Avishai suggests, outside intervention. I might be allowing a Buddhist concept to overly determine this, but I think the frustration Avishai voices comes from dividing people up into camps instead of asking, "How can we do this?" where "we" is very inclusive.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tikkun publishes vicious antisemite

This is just shocking. There is an editor's note at Tikkun:
Like most of what Israel Shamir writes about Israel, this article reflects a perspective that has far too little sympathy for the fate of those killed and wounded when the Palestinian named Hosam charged his huge tractor into a bus in the center of Jerusalem. We publish it here nevertheless because of our commitment to provide our readers with perspectives that they are unlikely to hear in the mainstream media and which present ideas with which we must grapple.
That is a terrible misrepresentation of Shamir who, in books like Bloodcurdling Libel or The Shadow of Zog, seeks to promote the most blatant antisemitism. If his view is absent from the mainstream media, we should all be grateful. His ideas are not anything with which Tikkun's readers "must grapple." They are, at least, subdued in the article, but still not entirely absent. You judge this passage:
The Russians are a breed apart in the social mosaic of Israel. Though nominally “Jewish”, they have kept their Russian identity, and their own ways. They were not infected with Jewish chauvinism in the cradle. For Russians, Jewishness is a private thing, not a public identity. In the internationalist Soviet Union and in its successor states, boys and girls fall in love with or befriend a person without regard to his or her ethnic and religious origin, and it does not cause a ripple, let alone a storm. Upon arrival to Israel, these good-natured young people are classified by rather arrogant Israelis as “Johnnys-come-lately”. They are snubbed and socially rejected. They have little contact with youth of good social standing, while the children of poor Oriental Jewish suburbs are too foreign for them. The Russians do not share the ideals of other Israeli Jewish communities, i.e. military valour and the amassing of wealth.
I see the references to "Jewish chauvinism" and "amassing of wealth" as calculated to promote antisemitism. Also, the I find it offensive to suggest that Jewish identities must be covered up in public. The claim about Russian tolerance, on the other hand, is merely laughable.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A broad spectrum of Jewish views

From time to time, I'm dismissed as one among many Jews. Of course, I am merely one among many, but the implication is that my view is hardly representative. The person implying this almost always means that someone like Norman Finkelstein should be included in debate, even though most Jews find him deplorable. There are a lot of problems with this, including that this "wide spectrum" of Jewish views is expected to speak out against the supposed abuses of the Jewish establishment - suggesting that there must be a silent majority of Jews who disagree with the vocal majority Jews. If the vocal majority were actually an insignificant minority, why would there be a need for anyone to speak out? If the silent majority aren't actually a tiny minority, why the need to include them as representative of anything? I thought I'd present a more honest spectrum of Jewish thought. I'm maybe one standard deviation to the left of center. I think I'm probably a fair bit more radical on anti-antisemitism than most Jews, and because of a specific focus on that I don't always speak out against Israeli abuses as often as some others (it's simply a matter of focus), but when it comes to Israel I'm pretty solidly among the Jewish left. Yaacov Lozowick is maybe one standard deviation to the right:
There are a small number of well-known Jewish settlements on the West Bank - Yitzhar, Tapuach and the Jewish Quarter of Hebron spring to mind as the most obvious, but there are a few more, only slightly less malicious places - which are dominated by violent evil men, thugs of the worst degree. These thugs terrorize their Palestinian neighbors, and do so mostly unrestrained by the Israeli security forces who are in charge of those areas. The thugs are a blemish on our face and defilers of our honor, but the long-standing inability or unwillingness of our security forces to stop them is even worse, as they have the power to do so, but don't use it.
So, the vast majority of Jews lie - this should be unsurprising to any serious anti-racist activist - within a fairly reasonable spectrum of reasonableness. Instead of trying to pit me against other Jews as the representative of collective Jewish thought, which is how the demand for additional Jewish voices functions, someone who doesn't know if my views are representative of other Jews should probably settle for dealing with me as an individual.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Catholic Vote

Catholics are a more important swing demographic than Jews, but you almost never hear about them on the news.

An interesting article on Obama's troubles with Catholic voters:
If emotional and stirring, the Protestant cadences of African American speech, for example, resonate with a kind of moral uplift that seems alien to some Catholics. The moral earnestness in Martin Luther King’s talk sometimes made Bobby Kennedy cringe, for example. Not just too academic and cold, then, Obama may also be too emotional and “hot,” for Catholics who appreciate gritty ironies and earthy skepticism.

Translating Darwish

Darwish also wrote for us. Many of his poems address us-Jewish Israelis-directly. The poem "State of Siege" (translated by Ghaneim and edited by Anton Shammas) reads in Hebrew as if it was written in the language, and the first to call this to my attention was Darwish himself.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

DC area antisemitism

The Jewish community of Rockville, Maryland was shaken up over the weekend, after unknown perpetrators spray-painted several swastikas early Saturday on homes in a predominantly Israeli neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. suburb... Several months ago, Israeli children were attacked in what residents say was an anti-Semitic assault.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Suing PA in NY

This is an odd story.
The family of the sole American, Aharon Ellis, killed in the attack, charged the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority with orchestrating the shooting that killed him. The suit was brought under a law that allows American victims of international terrorism to sue for triple damages in federal court...

A federal judge awarded the family a default judgment of $192.7 million in damages after the P.L.O. and the Palestinian Authority refused to defend the suit on the merits.

But now the Palestinians, holding themselves out as a partner in the Middle East peace process, have changed lawyers, and asked the judge for a second chance. The judge, Victor Marrero of Federal District Court in Manhattan, has agreed to set aside the judgment and give them that chance.

But there’s a catch. He is requiring the Palestinians to post a bond of $192.7 million so that if they lose again, the damages would be paid.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How To Tell People They Sound Antisemitic

There's a bit of a debate going on between David Hirsh and Eamonn McDonagh over something that kind of surprises me. It strikes me as something that's been pretty thoroughly hashed out in other contexts.

Hirsh likes to talk about institutional antisemitism. McDonagh has replied that there can be no antisemitism without antisemites, and Hirsh seems to have left standing the notion that there can be.

I'd like to recommend this video. As Jay Smooth says, "The most important thing that you've got to do is to remember the difference between the 'what they did' conversation and the 'what they are' conversation." There are a lot of reasons this is important, including, as Smooth says, it's a more productive conversation. But also, you can't determine whether anyone is antisemitic without first discussing what antisemitism is, which means the 'what they did' conversation has to come first.

To say of someone that they collude in institutional antisemitism is not a way of denying that they are antisemitic - or at least I don't think it should be. Instead it should be a way of not talking about what's in their soul and focusing on what they did. Even better, it can be a way of focusing the conversation on a Jewish view of the environment before even talking about who did what.

Addicted to Race

Worthwhile episode of Addicted to Race featuring John Safran on Racialicious. Safran is an Australian Jew, and it seems that informs his perspective significantly.