Monday, August 31, 2009

privilege and forgiveness

I don't normally read Bitch, Ph.D., though my experience with it has been that it's an excellent blog well worth reading. But I've come across this post on Ted Kennedy and privilege:
Because the thing about being privileged is that hopefully it gives one *security*. It's actually a *good* thing to have privilege. Ideally--and it seems to me that, as social thinking animals, this should be the goal--privilege gives one not just personal advantages but also the security to be gracious, to empathize, to be kind.
Particularly in the wake of watching The Reader that's been on my mind. I'm not sure quite what the relationship -- necessary or sufficient, or maybe just helpful? -- between privilege and the ability to forgive is. But The Reader brings to my mind all of my insecurity about the Holocaust, and maybe that is part of the problem. Others who find it easy to forgive Nazi guards might investigate what it is that enables them. (And who are they to forgive?)

In the comments, there's a link to MJ Rosenberg on Kennedy, who I normally don't read because I don't find him compelling. (I tend to agree with him on policy, but find his reasoning offensive.)
The mindless jingoism of his colleagues was not his way (nor is it John Kerry's) and when he addressed the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he was compassionate and even-handed. He was not your standard "liberal on everything but Israel" type.
That's particularly interesting given how Jewish organizations are lionizing Kennedy as a friend of Israel. It's not that Kennedy wasn't willing to criticize Israeli policy, but he was willing to empathize with Jews and shape his criticism to ensure he didn't threaten Jews' security as he did so. So, so often, it's assumed (often by Rosenberg, for instance) that criticism of anti-Israelism is aligned with the right-most tendencies in Israeli society -- as if Jews had no reason to feel insecure, as if security was a non-issue.

But if Kennedy could criticize Israel, that doesn't mean, as so many anti-Israelists would have, that anyone can criticize Israel without having to worry about being antisemitic. Instead, it proves that being called antisemitic for criticizing Israel isn't simply for having criticized Israel.

I'm about to watch Forgiving Dr. Mengele, available instantly at Netflix. It's the un-The Reader.

The Reader -- far worse than I'd imagined

Wound up seeing it Saturday night. Had no desire, but Soo put it on our Netflix queue for some reason. It was for worse than I'd imagined.

Look at just the first 10 seconds of this trailer. A wealthy Jew in a large Manhattan apartment that must cost several million, handsomely appointed with art and furniture. A stern look on her face, arms and legged crossed. She's closed off and in control. A German, played by Ralph Fiennes, is bent over with his elbows on his knees. He's embarrassed and doesn't know quite how to begin his plea. The contrast is made even more striking by two shots missing from the trailer. Her face is shown in extreme close up, cutting off the top of her head and bottom of her chin, so that she dominates the screen. The camera cuts quickly back to Fiennes, palpably smaller, fragile. A very powerful Jew and a very meek German. The Jew, in this case, is a Holocaust survivor, and Fiennes is there to represent a Nazi guard. It's hardly typical of survivors that they are rich (even for those who have written memoirs), or for their Nazi guards to have been illiterate. An even greater inversion: the guard has committed suicide, but here the survivor continues on without any noticeable effects. She speaks of the sentimental value of a tea tin, not of fear and death. In order to elicit sympathy for the poor, unfortunate Nazi guard who was just a victim of her illiterate circumstances -- and how could an illiterate understand the moral weight of mass murder? -- the film inverts everything.

Though the intention isn't to trample on the memory of the Holocaust, by such inversions the film recreates the very same arguments about powerful Jews and weak Germans that led to the Shoah. Humanizing the Nazis is important firstly because the Holocaust didn't need monsters. Human beings with human failings and only good intentions so far as they could understand were enough.

In fact, my mother spent some time in Germany a little bit after the time of the film's trial. Germans were still very much in denial, convinced that "ordinary Germans" were completely unaware. The film is, in that simplest of ways, without having to resort to selecting unrepresentative cases, inaccurate. It assumes the moral weight of the Holocaust needs only allusion, but it was and is still debated. Not only are there still deniers of the crudest kind, but also those who wish to lock the Shoah in the distant and best forgotten past, who don't want to deal with the implications or how to make this world safe for Jews. Without a real, honest, and cutting portrayal of the suffering its heroine knowingly caused, The Reader cannot earn for her or for itself the redemption and sympathy it seeks.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Saw it last night. Enjoyed it. One of the major concerns of reviewers was that it was too violent, even sadistic. But for several reasons, including a cameo by Mike Myers, it's just too hard to take the film seriously enough for that charge to really stick. Some very real moments, like the inclusion of Emil Jannings, who really was awarded the title "Artist of the State" by Goebbels, ground the film in just enough fact to mean something beyond fantasy, but it was self-consciously an exercise in fantasy. Or, as some people have less generously offered, Tarantino is a parody of himself. For the same reasons, my concerns about portraying Jews as vengeful, a long-established stereotype that dominated my thinking about the film since I first heard of it, didn't seem significant.

On the other hand, there were several things that were worthwhile. Or perhaps could have been with more attention. An early speech by the "Jew Hunter" explains a particular sort (or aspect) of antisemitism. (It's early enough in the film that I don't really think of it as a spoiler. On the other hand, there are, naturally, later parts of the movie this scene relates to, which I am concealing.) This clip is shortened from what's in the film. In it the Jew Hunter explains that Germans are like hawks while Jews are like rats. Missing from that clip, however, is his explanation for why he's so good at hunting Jews. Unlike most Germans, he doesn't think it's a bad thing to be like a rat, and so he's able to think like a Jew. He goes to great lengths to compare rats to cute and cuddly squirrels to explain that there's nothing really wrong with rats -- before offering that "You don't like them [rats/Jews]. You don't really know why. You don't like them. All you know is you find them repulsive." So it isn't really that Jews are necessarily bad or even different. The Jew Hunter is the same. But not. Jews and the Jew Hunter are as alike as rats and squirrels. "Except for the tail, they even look alike."

And it really can't be that Jews are different. Even for the Nazis who went to such great lengths to explain why Jews are different, the laws they implemented went to great lengths to make it so that Jews were different. "Jews" (as the Nazis defined Jews, rather than how various German individuals would have identified) were forced to wear yellow stars, not because of difference, but to make difference. It's not Jewish difference that frightens; it's similarity. Or specifically, uncanniness. Most people have probably heard of the uncanny valley. So long as robots are obviously robots, we have no problem, but as they become too similar, we reject them as grotesque. And many antisemites have great love for Jews so long as Jews are oppressed, but they recoil at Jewish liberation.

The same is at work when Aldo carves a swastika (same spoiler disclaimer as above - it's an early moment) into a Nazi. After the war, he'll take off the uniform and become like everyone else. But even in a revenge fantasy, isn't there a real difference between an Nazi and a Jew?

On the other hand, like most Tarantino films, I don't think any theme is really carried through. There's a moment here and a reprise there. The analysis of this one moment (though there are many interesting moments and one or two elements I'd particularly like to discuss, but that really would be giving too many spoilers) shouldn't be taken as the suggestion that there's really anything heavy about the movie -- perhaps in a few years I'll return and decide -- or not -- beyond Tarantino's claim that Jews deserve an uncomplicated fantasy of killing Nazis. On that score, it delivers pretty well.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The FBI has some explaining to do

This is disturbing. Previously, the SPLC has provided evidence that white supremacist Hal Turner was an FBI informant.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan told U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Ashman on Tuesday that... Turner’s relationship with the FBI had ended “some time ago,” according to The Associated Press. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago had no additional comment.
Now, he's claiming the FBI trained him to be provocative. One of the examples of his provocations from the article:
He wrote in Internet postings the same month that the Illinois federal appeals judges "deserve to be killed" because they issued a ruling that upheld ordinances in Chicago and suburban Oak Park banning handguns. He included their photos and the room numbers of their chambers at the courthouse.
I'm not in the habit of believing white supremacists when they claim the sky is blue, but I still think the FBI owes us all a lot more than a "no comment" this time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Amos Kenan

Ameinu posts an open letter from 1968 by Amos Kenan. An excerpt:
I am used to being called a traitor by local patriots. During the Six Day War, in June 1967, the battalion I served in was ordered to supervise the demolition of four Arab villages: I considered it my duty to desert from my unit, to write a report of this action, and to send the copies to the General Staff of the army, to members of the government and to Knesset members. This report has been translated and circulated in the world as a proof of Israel's crimes.

But permit me to conclude the story. The action I undertook was in flagrant violation of any military law. I have no idea what would have happened to a Red Army soldier were he to violate national and military discipline in such a manner. After returning to my unit, I was ordered to present myself—I, in rank a private—before the general commanding all the divisions on that front. He told me that he had read my report, and considered it his duty to inform me that what had occurred was a regrettable error, which will not recur. Deep in my heart I disbelieved his statement that this was only a mistake. I was convinced that whoever ordered such an action did not expect such resistance from within—the men of my battalion refused to carry out the order—and was alarmed at the impression such an action might create abroad. But I was glad that he found it necessary to announce that this was only an error. I asked him how he intended to ensure that the 'error' will never recur. On the spot he signed an order permitting me free movement in all occupied territories, so that I could see with my own eyes that such an action had not recurred.

But since then, in all the peace-papers in the world, my report about the destruction of villages has been reprinted over and over again, as if it happened only yesterday, as if it is happening all the time. And this is a lie. It is like writing that witches have been burnt at the stake in England—omitting the date. I hereby request all those who believed me when I reported a criminal act, to believe me now too. And those who do not believe me now, I hereby request to disbelieve my former report too, and not to believe me selectively, according to their convenience. I should also add that the town of Kalkiliya, which began to be demolished during the writing of my report, is now in the process of being rebuilt, after the expelled inhabitants have been brought back.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos

On the 1961 album Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos, an all-star lineup of New York jazz musicians mashed up Jewish and Latin styles under the fake name Juan Calle & His Latin Lantzmen. Before a tribute concert this weekend at Lincoln Center, composer and pianist Arturo O’Farrill and music historian Roger Bennett join us to tell the "only-in-New-York" story of a Latin and African-American ensemble that recorded songs like "Havah Nagilah (Cha-Cha)."
Listen to the show at WNYC. One interesting question raised repeatedly is why this collaborative music has been so thoroughly forgotten.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

This is not anti-Zionism

Hordes of Jewish families in Buenos Aires headed downtown to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the state of Israel, an event sponsored by the city.

But the afternoon, in May, was interrupted when about 30 young men and women began wielding sticks amid the dancing and singing, leaving 10 wounded and the Jewish community shocked.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Drunken Pharoah

If you read Unkosher Cooking at Tablet, you should know the NYTimes has the recipe for the Drunken Pharoah:
1 1/2ounce bourbon
2 ounces Manischewitz wine
1/2 ounce lemon juice
Club soda, to top
Sugared matzo, for rimming glass.

Coat rim of a glass with simple syrup, then dip it into the matzo mix so that the matzo adheres to the edge. In a cocktail shaker, combine the bourbon, Manischewitz and lemon juice, with ice, and shake. Strain into the glass, over ice, and top with the club soda.

Yield: 1 serving

Note: For the matzo rim, crush a piece of matzo with the back of a spoon until coarse. Add about 1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar to the matzo, and mix.
I think I'll like the name better than the drink, but I'm gonna head down to give it a try soon.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Being wrong does not disqualify one from democratic rights

I'm listening to WNYC, and Ezra Klein and Luke Mitchell are on the Leonard Lopate show talking about healthcare reform. One big point of disagreement between the two guests is that Klein refuses to blame industry lobbyists or Republican partisans for trying to kill the bill currently up for debate. Mitchell takes the opposite view on that narrow topic. Though both support liberal reform, and so do I, it's that narrow topic that I find really fascinating. (In part, I think it parallels the debate over the "Israel Lobby," where some people argue the people are being misled by powerful Jews.) I think Klein is spot on and there's something fishy about Mitchell.

Klein argues from the recognition that there are, indeed, Americans who are deeply distrustful of the American government. And there are Americans who have all kinds of wrong views about healthcare, as well as all sorts of moral views about issues related to healthcare like abortion and euthanasia. He views these people as wrong on the issue, but he is respectful of their democratic rights. Perhaps he is soft on Republican partisans who put partisanship above good governance. On the other hand, Mitchell, it seems to me, is strangely distrustful of a democracy that allows people with wrong views to participate. So he blames the "powerful" as a way of not listening to the people.

Of course, the insurance industry is an incredibly wealthy sector, and that does give them meaningful power that should be critiqued. And it seems likely they're leveraging that power to try to make some spurious arguments. But those arguments work because there are people who already believe them. And those arguments are ultimately important because power in the US flows through "the people." Otherwise there would be little need for such arguments. This creates a problem for left-wing pro-democracy folks.

Those Americans in the insurance industry are still Americans. They are not any less American for arguing from their perspective in insurance. Even if they are terribly cynical and dishonest about it, their failing doesn't become that they aren't Americans. There are all kinds of ways people can be wrong or even awful without becoming not American, without disqualifying them from the right to participate in American democracy. More importantly, those people convinced by the insurance sectors specious arguments are still Americans, and their democratic rights are still meaningful and important. I'm impressed by Klein's handling of this dilemma here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Two old articles I've come across.

No particular relation between them, except that both deal with the complicated place of Jews in relation to non-Jews who are otherwise oppressed.

Albert Memmi (who, we should recall, fought for Algerian independence):
Now it is no longer a question of our returning to any Arab land, as we are so disingenuously invited to do. Such an idea would seem grotesque to all the Jews who fled their homes - from the gallows of Iraq, the rapes, the sodomy of the Egyptian prisons, from the political and cultural alienation and economic suffocation of the more moderate countries. The attitude of the Arabs towards us seems to me to be hardly different from what it has always been. The Arabs in the past merely tolerated the existence of Jewish minorities, no more. They have not yet recovered from the shock of seeing their former underlings raise up their heads, attempting even to gain their national independence! They know of only one rejoinder: off with their heads! The Arabs want to destroy Israel. They pinned great hopes on the summit meeting in Algiers. Now what did this meeting demand? Two points recur as a leitmotiv: the return of all the territories occupied by Israel, and the restoration of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinians. The first contention can still create an illusion, but not the second. What does it mean? Settling the Palestinians as rulers in Haifa or Jaffa? In other words, the end of Israel. And if not that, if it is only a matter of partition, why do they not say so? On the contrary, the Palestinians have never ceased to claim the whole of the region, and their succeeding "summits" change nothing. The summit meeting in Algiers is linked to that of Khartoum (1967), there is no basic difference. Even today the official position of the Arabs, implicit or avowed, brutal or tactical, is nothing but a perpetuation of that anti-Semitism which we have experienced. Today, as yesterday, our life is at stake. But there will come a day when the Moslem Arabs will have to admit that we, the "Arab Jews" as well - if that is how they wish to call us - have the right to existence and to dignity.
And Henry Louis Gates, Jr., from 1992:
During the past decade, the historic relationship between African-Americans and Jewish Americans -- a relationship that sponsored so many of the concrete advances of the civil rights era -- showed another and less attractive face.

While anti-Semitism is generally on the wane in this country, it has been on the rise among black Americans. A recent survey finds not only that blacks are twice as likely as whites to hold anti-Semitic views but -- significantly -- that it is among younger and more educated blacks that anti-Semitism is most pronounced.

The trend has been deeply disquieting for many black intellectuals. But it is something most of us, as if by unstated agreement, choose not to talk about. At a time when black America is beleaguered on all sides, there is a strong temptation simply to Ignore the phenomenon or treat it as something strictly marginal. And yet to do so would be a serious mistake. As the African-American philosopher Cornel West has insisted, attention to black anti-Semitism is crucial, however discomfiting, in no small part because the moral credibility of our struggle against racism hangs in the balance.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the instability of Jewish identities

You probably read Tablet. Make sure you read this. For many Jews, and I'm one, a Jewish identity isn't stable. It's a story that goes, roughly, "Yes. No. Well, yes, dependinig, but not really. Well, yes. And no. And, emphatically, yes."

I'm sure many minorities have that conversation with themselves, asking in what way their identity depends on that one fact and in what way their behavior depends on that identity. As a certain type of Jew, there's more hanging on this, because there's nothing else to hang my Jewishness on. It folds over itself, so asking the question becomes a major way I enact Jewishness.

Kafka once claimed he had nothing in common with himself. But the fact that he's someone who would say that is more than enough to have in common. One interpretation of The Metamorphosis is that Gregor Samsa's awaking to find himself a bug is a metaphor for being Jewish. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.

And, truly, everything has changed. Too much history rides on it to pretend it's an illusion.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Coen Brothers, Jewish filmmakers

Apparently, the film, Barton Fink, "has also been studied in circles devoted to Holocaust scholarship, of all things."
The year is 1941, Fink is recognized as a Jew (and subsequently slandered), and the other specifically Jewish character in the film is the subject of some racial slurs from his Hollywood exec boss (who briefly alludes to his Russian heritage). The image of the shoes left in the hallway for collection is striking, and Barton is unable to reach his family while staying in the hotel. Mayhew (the John Mahoney character) writes a book called Nebuchadnezzar, reviled in Judaism for the destruction of the temple, and later when Fink opens his bible he comes across a passage in which Nebuchadnezzar has people cut into pieces for failing to interpret his dream (also a connection to Barton's inability to interpret his own dreams as he faces writer's block). Then there are the two detectives, one German (detective Deutsch), one Italian. Most obvious, and the only thing that really directly suggests such an interpretation, is the finale, in which Goodman (whose real name is revealed as Mundt--a German name) kills detective Deutsch after proclaiming a "Heil Hitler."
That's about it from this article (via). The rest of the article is devoted to another interpretation. But, still, it's interesting. The Coen's are known to have more explicitly Jewish films coming up, including A Serious Man and an adaptation of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Previously, I asked about Burn After Reading, "I wonder if anyone else would argue for the film as a response to antisemitic conspiracism?"
It begins with a God's-eye view descending into a CIA building in DC. Inside, the camera follows, from floor-level, someone. Because the camera is so low, we are necessarily looking up at this person, giving them a sense of stature and importance. Yet we can hardly see above his knees. Immediately, the film jokes by contrasting the all seeing, which lacks detail, with the all-detailed, which lacks context.
At the time, I saw it as unlikely that there was an ethno-religious tint to the major themes, but it seems now harder to deny that the filmmakers are concerned with such matters and that such readings are appropriate (if only partial). Maybe time for a Netflixed retrospective for me.