Monday, October 26, 2009

Mizrahi Zionism?

Over at Point of No Return, there's a story from JTA News about:
They call it the 'Sephardi Spielberg' project. An international effort to gather the oral testimonies of Jews displaced from Arab countries before they all disappear, and record these stories on videotape, is gathering steam.
A wonderful effort.
As part of an international consortium led by Hebrew University and the University of Miami that is collecting and documenting testimony from these Mizrahim, or Jews from Arabic-speaking countries, Jimena has launched a visual history project to interview those now living on the West Coast.

Jimena's East Coast partner, the American Sephardi Federation in New York, began its interviews of New York-area Sephardim in September, while partners in several other countries are working to collect oral testimonies in their regions. Each project is responsible for its own funding.
Jimena, btw, has a FAQ with an interesting emphasis. Mizrahim have been claimed for a variety of political agendas, often at odds with each other and often with a galling refusal to actually listen to what Mizrahim say. So there's an impulse for me not to try to speak for Mizrahim and to stick to my own experiences. Except that would mean abandoning a role as an ally. So, hopefully, I can do a fine job of listening while drawing attention to the difficulty of my role. In this particular moment, however, I don't think there's much difficulty in listening to what Jimena is trying to say:
Q. Is there a connection between the Palestinian issue and the Jewish refugees from Arab states?

A. Yes. Much of the responsibility of the expulsion of the indigenous Jews of the Middle East and North Africa by Arab governments lies with the Palestinian political leadership who engaged in anti-Jewish incitement throughout the Arab world, with the help of Nazi Germany during World War Two, and after the war.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jeremy Ben-Ami, not in a world of his making

My nephew is 100 days old today. For Koreans, this is an important milestone. Baptism, Christening, and other traditions are similarly timed and perhaps arose in similar fashion, but Koreans are clear that the celebration is for having survived this time. He and his family have gone now, but woo hoo for Ted!

Or Sidney, or Hoep-bang (a nickname that means round bread), or Eun Jae. We still haven't settled into how we'll call him. At least he won't be Il Sung, which was recommended as an auspicious name. And my wife made japchae that's the best I've ever had.

Anyway, Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Jeremy Ben-Ami. Ben-Ami's views are worth reading because they are almost exactly, I think, that of the mainstream of American Jews. Inlcuding his assessment of Meirsheimer and Walt's thesis (though I think we ought to interrogate that "effective" there at the end):
However, when the analysis of that lobby veers over a line and essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line. I believe that the analysis in the Walt and Mearsheimer book and article crossed that line, but this doesn't take away from my view that this is an incredibly effective lobby.
Well, we [JStreet] are unabashedly for a Jewish home in the land of Israel, that there should be a Jewish home that is a democracy, that has a Jewish character and a Jewish flavor and where the law of return is a fact... I think that the notion is that there should be a homeland that is a Jewish homeland. That is the founding principle of J Street. The question is, how do we preserve it? That's where we seem to be getting attacked. Our view is that in order to preserve this, there just simply has to be an independent state for the Palestinians next door, and that's where they will live. And we live in Israel and we live there and there's always going to be a minority in Israel that is not Jewish and we need to treat them like equal citizens and value their participation in our democracy, but it is a Jewish home. This is the Jewish homeland.
If anyone isn't sure, I think it would be well worth reading that article just for the articulation of such basic positions.

However, the problem with J Street -- this isn't their fault, necessarily -- is the argument that has surrounded it without regard to it's positions. That is why Stephen Walt endorsed J Street. That argument is about the power of AIPAC and asserts that the power of a Jewish lobbying group is acceptable if and only if that group substantially agrees with Walt. The problem there is that this immediately subordinates all Jews to Stephen Walt. Jews are declared to be Unamerican or to have dual loyalties while Walt is free to speak without his loyalty to America being questioned. Jews may or may not have views that happen to coincide with American interests, but Stephen Walt, an American, naturally only has American interests on his mind. Never mind that most Americans are in greater agreement with Jews than with Walt -- what defines American interests has nothing to do with what interests Americans and everything to do with the Americanness of Stephen Walt as he declares his ostensibly objective interests.

It isn't really even the point that Walt treats Jews he disagrees with as a cabal of sorts. The more important lever is that membership in the cabal is largely based on opposition to Walt's brand of antisemitic conspiracism. (Which means J Street might no longer be acceptable to Walt, now that Ben-Ami has compared his work to The Protocols.) In other words, Jews are suspect when we actively participate in politics without Walt's approval.

So, to repeat myself:
The root of the problem is that American Jews need to be represented to the American elite because there is otherwise no concern for Jewish interests. Even though my views are more in line with J Street than AIPAC, it's that subordinate position that I think progressives ought to challenge.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On colonialism, AIPAC, and J Street

For a while I've been arguing that AIPAC is not about representing Jews to the American elite but about representing the American elite to the Jews. To gain access to power, it was necessary to assimilate to the thinking of the powerful, which fundamentally constrained the way a Jewish organization could operate in Washington. If AIPAC is hawkish, it is not because this is the habit of American Jews but because that is the habit of American foreign policy inevitably arising from America's position as a superpower.

There's something like that idea here (via):
YOU CAN SAY that AIPAC was misguided, that it's even become a pernicious force, but you can't deny that it got its strategic premises ordered properly. One cannot just assume that the Congress will care what Jews want. One has to start with America's foreign policy strategy and then apply its logic to the Middle East. Crucially, this means building coalitions with non-Jews as well, as any watcher of FOX News can see.
Quite right that we can't assume Congress cares what Jews want. Here's where I disagree with Avishai: The root of the problem is that American Jews need to be represented to the American elite because there is otherwise no concern for Jewish interests. Even though my views are more in line with J Street than AIPAC, it's that subordinate position that I think progressives ought to challenge.

When Congress genuinely cares about what American Jews want, because it is right that Congress should, then this argument (which has been particularly awkward on Jeffrey Goldberg's pages lately) will go away.

Did you read Sander Gilman... Tablet?
Jews are smarter and morally better than everyone else. At least they have “smartiness,” a quality analogous to and proven by Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”: “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” It isn’t really that Jews are smarter than everyone else; it is just that everyone believes they are.

Monday, October 19, 2009

national identities

This post by Ralph Seliger contains an important argument:
With regard to #5, I've already discoursed somewhat on this in an earlier posting: "The Zionist movement successfully remade the Jewish people as a nation in the land of Israel. It took a series of scattered religious and ethnic communities and – with the ‘help’ of pervasive and (eventually) genocidal antisemitism – gathered them up and transformed them. ...”

Prof. Sand admits that there is such a thing as "Jewish identity," apart from the religion. But he doesn't seem to understand that all national identities are "invented." I blogged on this as well: "This is one of the lessons I drew from an insightful book by Prof. Rashid Khalidi: Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997). He makes the point that 'National identity is constructed; it is not an essential, transcendent given....' Khalidi proceeds to relate how Palestinians didn't see themselves as a distinct people until well into the 20th century. Just as anti-Zionist writers and activists would never think of denying Palestinians their understanding of themselves as a people, they should not be denying the Jews their sense of peoplehood – a consciousness born of centuries of persecution, discrimination and worse, not to mention strong religious and cultural continuities."

Early Reform Judaism, born in 19th century Germany and the US, attempted to recast Jewish self-definition into only a religious frame; classical Reform Jews were Americans or Germans of the "Mosaic" faith. The traditional or Orthodox view of Jews is of "Ahm Yisrael" -- the people or nation of Israel (even among anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews). The left has generally granted people the right to define themselves, to "national self-determination"; only with regard to the Jews does this seem not to be the case.
For me, personally, it's meaningful that we Jews have always understood ourselves as a people, well before the advent of nationalism. I've seen that denied too many times. The attempt among some Reform Jews to recast Jewishness as just Judaism, should be understood as assimilation in a colonial context. But it's particularly galling that those who deny Jewish national identities insist on a Palestinian national identity that is somehow "authentic." Jews, it seems, are just inauthentic.

Btw, the ideas that Ashkenazi Jews are descendents of the Khazars and that Jews are more converts than descendents of the original Jews both strike me as not only politically irrelevant but also as likely false. Of course, as Seliger writes, such a discussion in a genuinely scholarly environment wouldn't be open to the same kinds of criticism whether right or wrong. However, some classically antisemitic motifs can be understood as inauthenticity -See Occidentalism for numerous examples- and I wonder if these notions of Jewish ancestry stem from a general view of Jews as inauthentic.

Monday, October 12, 2009

book review at h-net

This book looks fascinating.
Given the political, economic, social, cultural, and historical diversity in the Arabic-speaking world, any effort to understand and assess adequately the nature of Arab responses to National Socialism and the Holocaust must fulfill two requirements: familiarity with the historical and cultural context of the modern Middle East and research in appropriate Arabic-language sources. Meir Litvak and Esther Webman bring these components to bear on the tasks addressed in their excellent new book. Although not specifically a study of Arab attitudes and opinions toward Nazism and the Jews during the interwar and wartime periods, the book directs a useful lens at Arab responses to the Holocaust since World War II, answering questions for which previous studies have proven inadequate. Litvak and Webman examine post-Holocaust Arab responses to the Nazi mass murder of the Jews of Europe, but do so within the context of the recent history of the Arabic-speaking regions of North Africa and the Middle East, specifically the conflict between Jews and Arabs over the land of Israel/Palestine since the post-World War I mandate period. Moreover, they do not draw their conclusions solely on the basis of the mufti and a few other exiles or imply the existence of an "Arab world" that made a singular, uniform response to these events. Instead, they mine effectively a huge array of Arabic-language newspapers, periodicals, and other publications to assess the varied, complex, and often contradictory opinions of Arab journalists, politicians, academicians, and other intellectuals since 1945.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Are 'Arab Jews' really accepted as Arabs?

I'm pretty sure the rumors of Haim Saban buying part-ownerswhip in Al Jazeera are false -and I also think any creator or the Power Rangers has a lot to answer for- but I also think this commentary is worthwhile:
It's what Richard Silverstein calls 'an AIPAC wet dream'. Further proof, if proof were needed, that 'Arab Jews' like Saban are only acceptable when they are not also Zionists. After all, who in the Arab world would watch al-Jazeera if it were more sympathetic to Israel?
Now If Saban is really accepted as an 'Arab Jew' -that is, if he's understood as Arab- then what would be the problem with an Arab having part ownership of Al Jazeera? The problem is that Arab Jews are understood as minorities without power in Arab society. To claim power of any sort would be uppity, and so Jewish otherness is foregrounded. Silverstein, for example, refers to Saban as an Israeli-American rather than as an Egyptian Jew, entirely hiding the fact that Saban was born in Alexandria in 1944.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jewish Self-Hatred

It's common in anti-racism to talk about internalized oppression. When Bill Cosby gave this controversial speech, a lot of people, including many anti-racists, said it was a manifestation of internalized prejudice. In talk about the Log Cabin Republicans, it's not uncommon to hear that they're voting against their interests as gay people. These, I think, are complicated examples, but there are other examples that are considerably less complicated. Phyllis Schlafly was, at one point, perhaps the most prominent anti-feminist. "By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don't think you can call it rape." Then there's Ted Haggard and Larry Craig. Haggard has been to rehab a few times to try to get over his habit of having sex with men; Craig was arrested for soliciting sex in a airport mens' room; yet both are outrageously homophobic. Although it can, at times, be difficult to address, internalized oppression is an important concept in anti-racism. For some reason, when it comes to Jews, the rhetoric is different. I don't come across anti-racists who would insist that other Blacks should be ignored because of Cosby. I do come across anti-racists who think they can choose who are the "good Jews" whose views should be promoted by anti-racists.

And I do come across anti-racists who would deny that Jews suffer from internalized antisemitism. Contemporary examples of antisemitism in Jews are not hard to find. Perhaps the most dangerous antisemite today considers himself an "ex-Jew." (I won't name him, because that would be an invitation for his participation here.) Not too long ago, I stumbled across this article, wherein Jews are "the enemy of the people." Self-identified anti-racists often defend and even repeat such expressions on the grounds that it is unimpeachable because the source is a Jew. Oddly, I am never seen as unimpeachable.

Anthony Lerman writes in the Guardian on Jewish self-hatred (via). First, he claims it doesn't exist.
If anything finally shows up the concept as bogus and bankrupt, it should be the use of it against Goldstone.
Now, for the record, I buy Dan Fleshler's take on Goldstone's psychology. [Update: here's the link.] I'm not going to argue that Goldstone is a self-hating Jew, but Goldstone is merely the occasion for Lerman's article, not the point. After saying that self-hatred in Jews is "bogus and bankrupt," Lerman goes on to say Zionists may be self-hating Jews. That's pretty confused.
This is sheer intellectual laziness, or an ideological or political predisposition dressed up in academic language, or both. In fact, the way all of the key historical figures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who are used to prove the existence of Jewish self-hatred – [Otto] Weininger, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Heinrich Heine – related to their Jewishness has been shown to be far too complex to allow the self-hating Jew label to be anything other than a crude mis-characterisation. Moreover, the perceived antisemitism in their writings was mirrored in the writings of Zionists, especially the founder of political Zionism Theodor Herzl. He painted the weak ghetto Jew, in his 1897 essay "Mauschel", as "a distortion of the human character, unspeakably mean and repellent", interested only in "mean profit". Far from being the antithesis of Jewish self-hatred, it is arguable that Zionism was actually a display of it.
The major thrust of Lerman's article is about who gets to speak for Jews. Given the charges he levels at Zionism, it's hard to avoid the impression that he seems to think he does, but explicitly, he doesn't think the Jewish community should be able to silence him with the "a way of delegitimising the views of Jews with whom you violently disagree." He's half-right; truly, no one gets to speak for all Jews. All Jews are equally entitled to their own individual views, even if those views are ugly antisemitism or just plain wrong. But then, neither can contrarian voices, like Lerman's, be given prominence by non-Jewish institutions like the Guardian to speak over the majority or plurality views of Jews worldwide. Sometimes, we call that colonialism.

Neither should people be given space to spout nonsense. Weininger, for example, was genuinely self-hating. Lerman's claim otherwise is based on the notion that self-hating is either absolute or not at all. If a Jew doesn't aim to be Hitler, so it seems, they're not self-hating. As Lerman writes,
Jewish self-hatred means rejecting everything about yourself that is Jewish because it is so hateful to you.
Here's a bit from Wikipedia:
In a separate chapter, Weininger, himself a Jew who had converted to Christianity in 1902, analyzes the archetypical Jew as feminine, and thus profoundly irreligious, without true individuality (soul), and without a sense of good and evil. Christianity is described as "the highest expression of the highest faith", while Judaism is called "the extreme of cowardliness". Weininger decries the decay of modern times, and attributes much of it to feminine, and thus Jewish, influences. By Weininger's reckoning everyone shows some femininity, and what he calls "Jewishness".
Here's what Richard Newman says (in a series I recommend, despite differences) about Weininger:
In 1903, Otto Weininger, a baptized Jew, published Sex and Character, a highly influential book in which he rendered the conceptual parallels I have just outlined in concrete biological and psychopathological terms. Human psychology, Weininger argued, existed along a continuum running from the Jewish mind on one end to the Aryan mind on the other, and this continuum, he asserted, runs parallel to another one, defined by masculinity and femininity. The connections Weininger makes between these two continuums are many. Neither Jews nor women, he says, possess true creativity; both are congenitally dishonest, lack a genuine sense of humor, and each exists without fully believing in the authenticity of that existence.
To call this "far too complex to allow the self-hating Jew label to be anything other than a crude mis-characterisation" is odd, to say the least. Especially when Weininger was claiming that Jews are congenitally self-hating! His definition is so strict that one could declare Jews to be uniformly, morally inferior, but still not be considered "self-hating" because of a love of bagels.

Also, although Lerman is right that there is some similarity, what Zionists said was quite different from what Weininger said. (But again, odd that Lerman would quote Herzl as saying, "a distortion of the human character, unspeakably mean and repellent," when Lerman is intent on denying Jewish self-hatred exists.) While Weininger converted to Christianity to try to overcome his congenital Jewish inferiority (and eventually committed suicide), Zionists claimed it was a consequence of Diaspora. As I'd put it today, though I'm not certain whether Herzl would have agreed, a consequence of Jewish oppression in which Jews were (are) dependent on antisemitic neighbors for insuring Jewish safety.

And that's the real rub. When Jews are not taken seriously on Jewish oppression - and Lerman is part of this process as he is often presented as a "good Jew" in order to silence those of us who are "bad Jews" - our options for insuring our safety are either to conform to outside injunctions that immediately subordinate us or to try to separate ourselves from that position of needing allies. In the case of the Goldstone report, originating from an institutionally antisemitic UNHRC, these issues of Jewish autonomy are poignant. I won't say Lerman is a self-hating Jew, because, like all ad hominem attacks, it would be pointless. Besides, I think all of us have various kinds of harmful, internalized beliefs, so that it would be pointless to single Lerman out that way. Even if, in another article, he were to say something truly offensive, I would hope (though it is, admittedly, difficult in such cases) to see him sympathetically as a victim of a colonial oppression. Despite being quite clearly wrong in a very basic way he's entitled to his views, but it remains vital that Jews generally are entitled to critique that which affects us, especially antisemitism, regardless of the source. Lerman's article is an attack on that basic right.