Friday, July 31, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

USHMM shooter may get death

The USHMM shooter may get the death penaly, according the the Washington Post (via).
The six-page indictment says that von Brunn "willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation" shot Johns. Von Brunn was charged in the indictment with first-degree murder and related hate crime and gun violations.

Von Brunn could face life in prison if convicted on the charges, but four counts in the indictment make him eligible for the death penalty if the Justice Department and prosecutors choose to seek it, federal prosecutors said.
Certainly, the crime he's accused of is accurately described by the charges that make him eligible for death. And I think Jewish law would say he deserves death. But I cannot tolerate the death penalty. Or, for that matter, harsh, punitive justice. I hope -- and this hope is grounded in compassion for the shooter, not in some belief that rotting in jail is a greater punishment -- that he isn't put to death.

Despite having grown up apart from the Jewish community, I think this view ultimately does come from my Jewish background. That doesn't mean I look at Jewish law in a religious way, but it surely informed my mother and ancestors as they tried to instill values in their children. So let me explain, though I'm no Talmudic scholar, what Judaism says about the death penalty, at least as well as I can.

This is one of the many differences between Christianity and Judaism. When I've spoken to Christian supporters of the death penalty, they often point to the Old Testament phrase, "an eye for an eye." I say "Old Testament" because that's what it is for them, though the Old Testament to me is a doppelganger to the the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh or Torah. The tendency in other Abrahamic religions to see Judaism as familiar is based as much on ignorance as on shared scripture, and this particular phrase has had a prominent role in that problematic history. There are many times I've come across the phrase where it suggests that Judaism is barbaric and archaic or that Jews are a vengeful people. And it's no coincidence that in looking for facts to flesh out my understanding here, my web searches have brought up a great many hate sites.

Judaism doesn't understand that phrase to mean the same things Christianity understands it to mean. For Jews, the phrase is to be read as "in no circumstance may more than an eye be taken in exchange for an eye," and it is already understood that the assailant will pay damages to the assailed. What the phrase really deals with is the problem of "whose eye?" If a photographer puts out the eye of a grave-digger (the examples comes from this lengthy discussion), their eyes aren't equally valuable to them. The grave-digger's eye is valuable, as are all eyes, but the photographer's eye is his livelihood and identity. So more thought is needed to find a resolution.
What Rabbi Eliezer meant was that "an eye for an eye" must be taken literally in the sense that the amount determined as the monetary damage must be based on the eye of the assailant. If the victim was a photographer and the assailant a grave-digger, we determine the value of an eye based on the assailant. Even though the photographer's eye is more valuable, the assailant only pays his "eye" for the eye he damaged.
But explaining that is a diversion. More importantly, the passage is completely irrelevant to a case such as this. Crimes such as murder are dealt with separately. Technically, Jewish law allows for the death penalty. And a crime such as this certainly meets the criteria of Jewish law. But Jewish law as I understand it also says we should look for every reason not to put anyone to death, no matter how much they might deserve it.

Although Jewish law does say such a crime deserves the death penalty, Jewish law also says that a court should be tolerant. Rabbis discuss the death penalty in the Talmud. They first note that the death penalty was to be meted out by the religious courts that no longer existed, and so there was a question if the death penalty could ever again be applied. Then one says, if he had been on the court that once existed, he'd have found so many reasons not to execute people that the court wouldn't have put anyone to death more than once every seven years. Another Rabbi tops him by saying seventy years.
"A Sanhedrin that puts one person to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: Or even once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say: Had we been the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death." Mishnah Makkot, 1:10 (2nd Century, C.E.)
And so any court that orders capital punishment more than once every seventy years is tyrannical.

In modern day Israel, since the establishment of the state, with it's history a bit short of 70 years, only one person has been sentenced to death. That person was Adolph Eichmann. The USHMM shooter, as awful as he is, was no Eichmann. And, as awful as he is, like all awful people, his failings surely come from a place of pain and torment. I hope for him that he can find peace.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Leonard Cohen is a mensch


Eric Lee post

Really powerful piece from Eric Lee.

Columbia University petition

I wish I could sign this petition. I'm almost tempted to go to Columbia just so that I can. That link points to this Higher Ed article as background.
A new book examines American colleges’ ties to Nazi Germany in the 1930s -- and chronicles a record characterized by indifference, complicity and collaboration.
The petition calls on Columbia to posthumously award a degree to a student expelled for protesting the Universities relationship with Nazi Germany. Really is the least they could do.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A coincidental mention of Rachel Corrie

Strangely, however, Jerome clearly intends Einstein on Israel and Zionism to be a powerful anti-Zionist statement. All the parts of the book that are not from Einstein’s own hand—the extensive passages of historical and biographical background, the introduction, the notes—are written in a spirit not just critical of Israel, but basically hostile to the very notion of a Jewish state. The book’s politics become clear as early as the dedication page, for Jerome has dedicated Einstein’s words “to the memory of Rachel Corrie,” the American teenager accidentally killed when she tried to stop an IDF bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.
Of course, Einstein was quite the committed Zionist. The article does deal with many ways in which he was a left-Zionist, but he was nonetheless a Zionist. I've seen people claim Einstein was an anti-zionist before. And Hannah Arendt and any famous Jew who never moved to Israel. Arendt wasn't a Zionist, but she supported the creation of a Jewish army and helped smuggle Jews into Palestine. But for anti-Zionists to claim these figures (who would surely disagree profoundly with a great deal of what passes for anti-Zionism today) is only an obnoxious attempt to salvage a good-Jew/bad-Jew dichotomy, to tell Jews how we are allowed to think.

Of course, Einstein was a Zionist. Though he favored cultural Zionism over political Zionism, he remained committed to Zionism after '48, when that choice became moot. As he said:
My relationship with the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Closing comments

Over at Alas, A Blog, Ampersand has a strange accident of a post called an open thread where comments are closed. One of the items, a link to Muzzlewatch [and the real point of this post], which I normally will not read, is on the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which showed a film on Rachel Corrie. Upfront: every time I've come across the name Rachel Corrie, it's been about how evil I, personally, am. It's never been part of a real discussion of Israeli policy. Instead, I've been called to denounce Jews who support Israel's existence (for very good and real reasons I share) as evil and racist. Often enough, with the suggestion that I'm to blame for antisemitism because I won't. (And there's something, frankly, creepy about the way in which Palestinian supporters use Corrie's whiteness.) So, every time her name comes up, I have a Pavlovian reaction of ducking my head as if I were about to be hit. I find it threatening. And silencing, as well as simply not productive. I don't know specifically about the people who have called for the film to be removed from the film festival, but I have quite a bit of sympathy for the position.

Here's what Amp writes:
Jews censoring Jews department: The controversy over a documentary about Rachel Corrie being shown at a Jewish film festival, as well as over whether or not Cindy Corrie (Rachel’s mother) should be allowed to speak: “this woman has no business attending and speaking at a Jewish event like the film festival.” Disgusting.
From that, one might expect that the film wasn't allowed to be shown. Or, perhaps that Cindy Corrie is Jewish. She's not, and that's also not what happened. From the JTA (and Jewlicious):
Despite festival director Peter Stein’s plea not to interrupt or disrespect any element of the screening, including speakers before or after, many audience members hissed, booed and shouted at those whose opinions clashed with their own.

The booed opinions nearly always were supportive of Israel.
Although Jewish Voice for Peace, which runs Muzzlewatch, claims to take antisemitism seriously, the truth is, they only sometimes do. (They did, however, stop allowing comments when they were attracting a great deal of antisemitism they couldn't ignore. They do not seem to have considered how they contributed to that.) They don't consider, for instance, that concerns about antisemitism genuinely ought to limit the scope of debate in a great many ways in order to ensure that discussion is less hurtful and more productive. Or, rather, they claim the sole right to determine when the discussion is hurtful or productive. For them, other Jews do not have a right to say "I find that antisemitic." To do so would be "muzzling." Let me use an image (source) to point out that Jews muzzling debate is not a new idea. Notice "The meeting the Jews want banned." And "Come and hear what the Jews fear." Also note it's sponsored by the National Socialist Movement -- in fact, 1960s, British neo-Nazis.

If you look under the label anti-semitism at Muzzlewatch, it is the rare piece that is actually about fighting antisemitism. It is instead, "like a powerless female character in a film who threatens to yell ‘rape’ if someone gets too close, some Jewish groups are only too happy to cry ‘anti-Semite’ if you get too close." Although they describe this as "the nuclear option for powerless people," at least acknowledging Jewish oppression, even if it has no role in their analysis, I find that an obnoxious and stereotypical depiction of Jews. Their view is routinely so one-sided that they can get the facts of the SFJFF completely backwards. In short, I don't think they're a very good source of information.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

boycotts of Israel illegal under European law

According to the AJC, "AJC welcomed the decision of the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights that boycotting Israeli goods is illegal."

....waiting for Sean Wallis to blame rich, Jewish lawyers.

The shpilkes of punk

“The shpilkes, the nervous energy of punk, is Jewish,” Mr. Steven Lee Beeber argued in his 2006 book “Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s,” subtitled “A Secret History of Jewish Punk.” “Punk reflects the whole Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging, always being divided, being in and out, good and bad, part and apart.”
I love that quote, here lifted from here. Especially that sense of "belonging an not belonging.. part and apart." I've never come across that so well put.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bearing Witness to what exactly

I actually didn't know that Bernie Glassman is still alive. But he is. Here's a talk entitled "Bearing Witness", on returning to Auschitz-Birkenau year after year.
The famous prayer about oneness, the Sh'ma Yisrael, begins with Listen: Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Not only does oneness begin with listening, listening begins with oneness. And Zen Peacemaker Order's Buddhist service begins similarly: Attention! Attention! Raising the Mind of Compassion, the Supreme Meal is offered to all the hungry spirits throughout space and time, filling the smallest particle to the largest space.

Listen! Attention! Bear witness!

It can't happen if you want to stay away from pain and suffering. It probably won't happen if, like most people, you go to Auschwitz, look over the exhibits, and return to the buses for a quick getaway. When you come to Auschwitz, stay a while, and begin to listen to all the voices of that terrible universe -- the voices that are none other than you -- then something happens.
It's an interesting contrast to Jamie Kastner's Kike Like Me. There's more to the film, which I may return to, but one of the most controversial aspects is his trip to Aushwitz. After seeing German memorials to dead Jews that are resented by the local Jewish community, Polish restaurants with Jewish themes but no Jews, and synagogues staffed by gentiles that serve as museums, Kastner is not in the same frame of mind as Glassman. Not to mention, antisemitic Ajax fans with Magen David tattoos and everthing else he sees in Europe. He wants something more than a memorial. And he's right.

But so is Glassman:
During our 1996 retreat, a man of Jewish descent living in Denmark stood up one evening and spoke about forgiving those who had perpetrated cruelties at Auschwitz. A short while later I stood up and suggested: "And then what? So you forgive, and then what? Is that the end of it? Or is there something else to be done?"
Glassman offers something of an answer. It seems awkward, at first, since he takes a lot of responsibility onto himself, but he takes responsibility for the only thing he can. And offers himself as a teacher.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


My sister-in-law just had her second child. And here's Riley watching over her new baby brother. I just hope they don't name him Rex.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Yoo Hoo!

I saw the documentary, Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, by Aviva Kempner, last nigh. Here's the film website, a NYT article, and here's Rotten Tomatoes, where the film is rated 92% fresh. Unfortunately, it's in limited release, and Molly Goldberg/Gertrude Berg will probably remain for most people the most famous woman you've never heard of.

That so few know who she is shouldn't be understood to qualify her fame. She was incredibly popular, ranked by a popular magazine (I forget which, unfortunately, but a major, widely read mag) as the second most influential woman in America behind Eleanor Roosevelt (and the richest woman ahead of ER). Her television show was the highest rated on television for almost a decade. The radio show that preceded tv was as popular for twice as long, so her rain as a pop icon ("The Oprah of her day") ran from the early 30s into the mid 50s. And if not for McCarthyism, Lucille Ball might never have had a shot to replace here.

The audience was lively. Judging by their accents (it was too dark for racial profiling) and their vocal or otherwise palpable reactions to much of the film, most in the theater were Jewish. My wife might have been the only one who wasn't. And the two of us might have been the only ones this side of 60. People were there to revel in nostalgia. Like my mother, they grew up watching The Goldbergs, and that was very much their story. Of course, as the film makes clear, it was the story of anyone who grew up in a family. But if you were other than WASPy, it was even easier to identify with it as your story. And if you were a New York Jew, then you might have felt like you owned the story. (And if your name happened to be Goldberg, well..) Before the show, one woman asked the assembled, "Anyone here from the Bronx?"

A few things in particular caught my attention. One, the early success of the radio show was around the same time as the rise of fascism world-wide. Given her success, it might have been easy to argue the US was incredibly tolerant to Jews in a way that ignored that it was also a time when the German-American Bund, Charles Coughlin, and the America First Party were popular and influential. Unlike Hollywood, she even had an episode (only one) with a brick thrown through her window. This really drove home to me something that's been true of antisemitism at least since Augustine, that elements of tolerance and success for Jews are not dispositive of Jewish oppression. In fact, they coexist rather well.

Two, Ed Asner's interview was quite different from the rest of the film. Though Gertrude Berg herself was born in the US, the character Molly Goldberg had some vaguely Eastern European accent. Through most of the film, I was amazed at this brazen willingness to express difference, something I wish was more pronounced today. But for Asner, who grew up wanting to fit in and hide his difference, that foreign accent made him incredibly uncomfortable.

Three, and for this you see the film (in part because I don't want to render it superfluous for you and because I really couldn't convey this) was the role of antisemitism in McCarthyism. When her costar Philip Loeb was targeted as a supposed Communist (he was a prominent trade union activist), Berg fought for him and stood up to General Mills - and it ruined her. There was a certain Catholic cardinal who could have made it all go away - but he insisted she convert. It was a proud, but unsurprising moment when then off-Broadway play that played a huge role in breaking McCarthyism was The Life of Sholem Aleichem.

At present, it's only showing in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema or the Quad Cinema. Tomorrow it opens in DC and one theater on Long Island. Next week, it goes into somewhat wider release. Check at the film's website to see if it'll be near you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When oppressors promote contrarian minorities

I just did a google image search for "Orthodox Jews." I wanted the image to show how Jews often can stand out as quite different in a visual way. A huge number of the early results are Neturei Karta. Seven images of 19 images (I'm ignoring a Barbie Doll in Tefellin) on the first page.

Neturei Karta, which has maybe 5,000 members (of whom perhaps only a tiny minority are politically active), and more specifically a one-dimensional representation of even this group as anti-Israel that ignores their stances on a million other issues, has come to represent for many people what Orthodox Judaism is.

Well, no. NK is a tiny group that doesn't represent Orthodox Judaism. Chabad-Lubavitch, for example, has over 200,000 members worldwide. And because they're very active, it would make a lot more sense to me if people took C-L as representative of Orthodox Judaism, even if they're not even as large in number as Modern Orthodox.

But C-L and Modern Orthodox have much more pro-Israel stances than NK. So when people who aren't Jewish (or Orthodox Jews) want to talk about Judaism in a way that fits their anti-Zionist views, they pretend NK are "true Jews." This, of course, means I get Christians and Muslims trying to tell me, effectively, that I'm not Jewish enough to speak from a Jewish perspective -- which is just insane. And Racist. It's colonialism, plain and simple.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mom's film reviews

I've talked a bit to my mother about Holocaust films. (Here's a piece I wrote for Racialicious.) For some reason, she saw two over the weekend. Boy in the Striped Pajamas didn't move her at all, since it wasn't really about Jews. Defiance did move her, and she wants to buy the DVD.

Btw, in Koreatown yesterday, the book store that rents DVDs in back had the poster for Defiance up in Hangul. Soo tells me it was a pretty big hit in Korea.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Left(?) Antisemitism

On Chavez's antisemitism, at the Boston Review (via Bob). Honestly, I don't know how anyone has ever considered Chavez a Leftist. Petty fascist from the first.

And, while I'm at it, David on Naomi Klein. I think I can understand why David is as angry as he is (or seems), but I'm not sure Klein deserves language such as, "Klein's antics reveal her true colors -- as an ally of hate, of the fury and bigotry that threatens to consume us all." And yet, to say she seems confused rather than hateful would be condescending given that political theory is her thing. And David's criticism is far too cogent to let Klein's offense pass.
Seriously, this is victim-blaming at its most blatant. Klein admits that Ahmadinejad's speech was racist, but still faults Jewish groups for opposing the conference that gave him an open mic. Because we refuse to be abused, we're committing sabotage at an anti-racism conference. Here's a thought -- maybe if putative anti-racists like Klein would step up and refuse to tolerate anti-Semitism, then Jewish students wouldn't need to dress up like clowns to draw attention to it.

Alice Walker once wrote that "No person is your friend who demands your silence." In the face of growing anti-Semitism -- a rise in racism that has occurred on both the left and right, in Europe and worldwide -- Klein's demand of Jews is that they shut up and let the real people talk. No dice.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Absence of Closure

A recent article at HNN by Gustav Schonfeld begins in an interesting way:
Except for the year from May of 1944 to May of 1945, my life has been very satisfactory. However, that one year left an indelible mark upon my life, a mark which affects me still. It was the year my relatives and I spent in four Nazi German concentration camps: Auschwitz, Warsaw, Dachau, and Muhldorf.
Often, I think, people assume the Holocaust was a natural progression from ubiquitous, European antisemitism. I guess it's fair to say that it was, except that "ubiquitous" suggests that antisemitism was salient at all times. It wasn't.

Most Jews experienced the period from the late 19th century into the earliest part of the 20th as exceptionally tolerant for Jews. So today, when many Jews experience this period as exceptionally tolerant, a question ought to arise. Will this moment last?

But this question doesn't arise for those who don't understand the period leading up to the Holocaust. It's assumed that because today is a tolerant period that it is fundamentally different from times long past. But that difference is imagined. Anyone who has confidence that serious antisemitism is a thing of the past is simply ignorant of history.

This introduction at HNN -- and the title of Shonfeld's new book, Absence of Closure -- suggest a compelling reason for another survivor's memoir. The Holocaust cannot be safely sealed in the past.