Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Not teaching our kids about Israel

Marjorie Ingall writes at Tablet on how Jewish parents aren't teaching their children about Israel.
When you’re an American Jewish parent, ambivalence and sorrow about the state of Israel aren’t necessarily bad. Disengagement is. What I need to fight in myself is the tendency to tune out when I’m confused and upset. When I tune out, I can’t learn, and I can’t teach my own kids. Disagreement with Israel doesn’t mean not loving Israel, just as being upset with your own children doesn’t mean you don’t love them. But I need to engage with what frightens me, and my failure to do so is why it’s taken eight years to write this column.
I have a suspicion this is more significant than the many factors that have been blamed for the growing rift between Israel and American Jews. (Of course, when we say "rift" we should remember that even among young, liberal Jews most do believe Israel should exist.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ibish on Berman on al-Husseini

If you don't know, Amin al-Husseini was the Mufti of Jerusalem for a time. Promoted by the British, he was the strongest Palestinian leader (though not uncontested) during the Mandate period. He preached vicious antisemitism and gleefully collaborated with the Nazis. Hussein Ibbish continues his review of Paul Berman's latest here. Earlier, he had said it was "important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed." This post is more critical than the last (which I criticized here).

I'm not as familiar as I'd like to be with the subject matter here. I do know Mizrahi Jews often view the role of Amin al-Husseini in their Nakba as being greater than Ibish allows. I also wonder if Berman is making greater use of German historians, mainly Matthias K√ľntzel, who begin with the Nazi account of German/Arab collaboration.

Ibish does not address the role of the Mufti in antisemitic violence prior to 1948 and the role this had on the development of the conflict. That's not to criticize Ibish, since this is not the major topic of the post, but to point out that there are important points that would be integrated into a wider discussion.

In any case, the discussion is an interesting and important one, and I'm grateful for the following passage from Ibish. Arabs and Muslims are often leery of any discussion of antisemitism in their communities. To some degree, it's understandable, but it's also counterproductive and damned frustrating. At times, it can be profoundly patronizing to refuse to take groups like Hamas and Hezbollah seriously when they spout antisemitic crap, but many defenders will outright refuse to even read the Hamas charter. Anyway, Ibish:
Berman asks, "Will someone argue that in my presentation of these developments in the Middle East, I am making too much of the Nazi contribution?" Yes, indeed I will, and I think the passage cited above is a good example of that. There is no doubt whatsoever that much of the present Islamist movement is infected with a very virulent form of anti-Semitic paranoia, largely imported from the West and that was promoted by many forces, including the Nazis, but which has a complex and overdetermined political and cultural history. It is at very best a reductive caricature to imagine that at the center of this wretched turn of events were laughable and totally ineffective Nazi propaganda efforts, particularly radio broadcasts that very few people listened to and no one appears to have heeded, and that certainly produced none of their intended effects, made by a man who was partly discredited at the time and completely discredited within three years after the end of the war, and has been almost entirely forgotten by Arab political culture except as an embarrassment and the author of a gigantic defeat. There have been plenty of other very significant, and indeed much more powerful, sources of these terrible ideas, not least of them anti-Semitic Western Christian missionaries in late 19th and early 20th centuries. One might observe, very plausibly, that it really doesn't matter what the trajectory of the growth of the Islamist movement and the development of its anti-Semitic strain that combines certain Muslim traditions and anti-Israel fanaticism with modern European anti-Semitic political paranoia might be, but the fact remains that it exists and it is a huge problem. But I do think it's important to understand what phenomena really combined produced this effect and not to get sucked into false leads and incorrect analyses that will only complicate the process of developing the necessary correctives. History matters.
Also, I'd like to point out a very interesting point Ibish makes:
Had he paid attention to Achcar, Berman wouldn't have gotten so badly wrong the central role of Rashid Rida, one of the key founders of the Salafist revival movement and publisher of the hugely influential journal al-Manar, who Burman cites as "express[ing ] sympathy for the Zionist settlers" in the 1920s. This is correct, but it misses, rather badly, Rida's subsequent introduction of the very Nazi-like anti-Semitic ideas that Berman associates most strongly with al-Husseini, and probably in a much more lasting and influential manner. And, Rida was not the only such influential voice. Indeed, Achcar provides a far better, more sophisticated, and much better informed, roadmap to the development of Nazi-like anti-Semitism among Islamists and sympathy among them for the Nazism generally, than Berman's somewhat ham-handed attempt at this.
Rida died in 1935. Just one more thing that makes it ridiculous to dismiss Arab antisemitism as purely a reaction to Zionism, which is a too frequent way of ending discussion. (And, especially, consider the role of Jews and Arabs at the time. The present power of Jews in Israel cannot be projected onto the past.) Rather, it was only natural that Arab nationalism would draw some influence from European nationalism and even European fascism.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Saw the documentary Defamation, by Yoav Shamir, today. It's available for instant watching on Netflix. Here's David Hirsch's review at Engage Online:
The Bolsheviks used to aim to hit an enemy hard at its strongest point in the belief that a telling blow there would bring down the whole edifice. By contrast, Yoav Shamir, the Israeli director of the film Defamation, shown on More4 this week, chooses mainly easy targets. He presents some interesting material but he does so in a way that does not make the most of it.
My problem isn't the the filmmaker goes after easy targets, but he does so with a proud lack of context and an uninquiring mind. Hirsch also complains that the scene in which he appears was not accurately depicted. The filmmaker focused on some right-wing Jewish responses, ignoring most of the room. Hirsch, who found his way into the film by criticizing Israeli policy in the West Bank, goes on:
The truth is it doesn’t require much courage at all to stand up and oppose Israeli human rights abuses. People do it all the time. Israelis do it all the time. It is the illusion of the moment, pushed by films such as Defamation, pushed by the self-promotion of the anti-Zionists that there are fearsome prices to be paid for supporting Palestinian liberation. Personally, I find it much more frightening to stand up for a democratic and genuinely liberational kind of criticism against the current British orthodoxy of casting Israel, and the Jews who support it, as uniquely and especially threatening.
In many ways, Defamation seems to aim at a particularly sophisticated audience. One that will understand that when the director's voice says (about 11 min in), "The headline [on antisemitism] in the Israeli paper was quite worrying. I wanted to see how the Anti-Defamation League actually fights antisemitism" it's only the setup to a joke. The next shot uses a handheld camera, intentionally off-kilter, to suggest an unprofessional feeling and that the ADL isn't to be taken seriously. An audience that would understand why he contrasts his narrator's voice saying that he's never known real antisemitism, since he grew up in Israel, with his own grandmother saying, "Jews love money. Jews are crooks." In other words, an audience of Sander Gilman.

There are serious questions there, but Shamir has more fun playing around, poking fun at a particular Jewish self-image without ever looking at the context of the Jewish condition. However, it's well worth seeing just to get a look at how pathetic Norman Finkelstein is at the end. even though Shamir is predisposed to portray Finkelstein positively, as reminiscent of "the Biblical prophets of Doom, who were always being pelted with stones for saying things nobody wanted to hear," Finkelstein is himself a pretty soft target for abuse. Throwing Nazi salutes while complaining about being called a self-hating Jew is perfect material for Shamir. After being challenged on comparing Abe Foxman to Hitler, Finkelstein ups the ante, "It's an insult to Hitler." But he's also an important enough target and a public figure.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hussein Ibish on Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan

I haven't read the Berman, myself, but I think there's probably enough here to talk about the response from Ibish is a limited way. This interview of Berman may help set the stage. And here's Ibish:
Paul Berman's important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed, new book "The Flight of the Intellectuals" (Melville House, 2010) is an old-fashioned polemic that takes aim at two main targets.
Ok. Notably, Ibish praises Berman for reading Ramadan carefully and reporting on Ramadan's views accurately, despite disagreements on how to characterize and interpret those views.

Here's what I want to address:
Berman's efforts to paint Ramadan as an anti-Semite and an apologist for terrorism are somewhat weaker, and although there is no fire exactly, there certainly is some smoke. On anti-Semitism, the direct case against Ramadan is based on a fairly shoddy article he wrote about French supporters of Israel that casually and in some cases wrongly leveled the accusation of ethnic preference and tribalism. It was a bad article, and a bad argument, but hardly prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. If it is, the number of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigots in the United States is infinitely greater than anything I've ever imagined or claimed, and the standard for such an accusation really ought to be a lot higher than that.
This is defining away the middle, a common problem confronting all anti-racism. What does it mean to say there's "smoke" that is different from saying something is antisemitic?

And there's a curious phrase here, "prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism," that indicates that antisemitism is "what you are inside" (which can only ever be infered) rather than simply actions and statements. Yes, there're an awful lot of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigots in the US (and an awful lot of antisemites), but it's more important to talk about the power of that bigotry. The important point in talking about racism is the effect of racism on minorities, not the effect on the dominant group(s).

To be significantly wrong about the motivations of Jews in such a way, particularly if it is a peculiar inability to hear what Jews actually say about our own motivations (and this is probably a charge Ibish would accept), IS antisemitism. There is no need to prove that it is motivated by malice toward Jews. The behavior is in and of itself antisemitism. The effect of shutting Jews out of the public debate is powerful, dangerous, and real regardless of intention.

Here's what Berman wrote earlier in a lengthy piece (really, a short book) for The New Republic, Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan. If you never read it (or The Flight of the Intellectuals, which looks just like a longer version of the same), it's worth the time. Here's a sample:
Ramadan argued that, by intervening in Iraq, the United States "certainly acted in the name of its own interests, but we know that Israel supported the intervention and that its military advisers were engaged among the troops." More: "We also know that the architect of this operation in the heart of the Bush administration is Paul Wolfowitz, a notorious Zionist, who has never concealed that the fall of Saddam Hussein would guarantee a better security for Israel with its economic advantages assured." It ought not to require an exceptionally fine mind to detect the conspiracy theory at work in these remarks. I cringe at having to add that Wolfowitz, whatever his other sins, has never been known for his Zionism (though I realize that, given the confluence of z's, hardly anyone will believe me). Ramadan's description of the Jewish intellectuals in France pretty much harmonizes, by the way, with his description in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam of the American Jews as well--the American Jews who, en bloc, are said by Ramadan to form a "lobby" (the word has been internationalized) that advocates Jewish interests and the promoting of Israel in lieu of standing for "right, justice, and ethics," which is what he thinks that Muslims should do.
Yes, to assume that Wolfowitz is a Zionist when he isn't, simply because he is Jewish, is indeed antisemitism. Relatedly, to treat all Jews as a homogenous bloc "lobby" is indeed antisemitic. To emphasize a Jewish advisor as the "architect" of a policy -- practically erasing the much more powerful President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense, not to mention the powerful support of the populace at large -- is indeed antisemitic. And to suggest that Jews act selfishly and lack ethics and a sense of justice is indeed antisemitic.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"We're not like that" (Or, there are antisemites besides neo-Nazis)

This article from the Daily Mail has a few problems. First, as a British paper, it must feel like a great relief to criticize antisemitism in America. It isn't like we haven't got problems over here, but Britain (which invented the Blood Libel) has more than enough problems of its own. Second, the focus on neo-Nazis is always an issue. Yes, they're sensational and entertaining subjects, and news is ultimately an entertainment industry. But again, it's a great relief to swell our chests in pride and say, "we're not like those people." Antisemitism exists in different forms, and it can be difficult to criticize precisely because people only think of antisemitism as this kind of kooky far-right. When Jenny Tonge is criticized for antisemitism, she responds by saying, "I'm not like those people." Third, the beliefs of these neo-Nazis are hardly described. This article is actually better than most on this account, but still falls short of really informing anyone, focusing instead on the openness of the family's hatred. The family are described more than once as Holocaust deniers. Beyond that, there's this bit (toward the end, where an editor might have cut it off for length):
'I have read a little bit about their religion and a lot of it is very damaging to people,' she said.

'The Jews are definitely the worst race in America.'
But there is nothing more specific about their beliefs about Jews. Why do they think the Jews are the worst race in America? That's not to say that antisemitism is worse than other forms of racism. It's important to note the distinction that these antisemites make, which is not the same as reifying the distinction. They see people of color as animals but see Jews as demons. Animals could never take control of the government, but demons can and will. Watch The Omen if you don't already get why people who don't look so different can be so scary; the film features an infant as the ultimate evil for a reason. Neo-nazis view the US as occupied territory, controlled by a "Zionist Occupied Government." It's here that someone who likes to talk about the power of Jews (like Stephen Walt or John Mearsheimer or Jenny Tonge) might find a similarity they couldn't dismiss so simply by saying "We're not like that." And, of course, such a similarity is far more important than the swastika tattoos.

People simply don't know enough about antisemitism, which makes it difficult to keep antisemitism from being subsumed into a more general anti-racist effort that doesn't come close to meeting the needs of Jews. Articles like this, which discourage any sort of self-criticism, are part of that problem.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is a cultural boycott "non-violent"?

From the acceptance speech of Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood (via Adam Holland), awarded the Dan David prize in Israel:
We two fiction writers are very small potatoes indeed in the context of the momentous political events now unfolding. But writers everywhere are soft targets. It’s easy to attack them. They don’t have armies, they can’t retaliate. We have both received a number of letters urging and indeed ordering us not to attend, on the grounds that anything connected with Israel is tabu. (Oddly enough, neither the President of Italy, Giorgo Napolitano – winner of the “Past” category for reason and moderation in political affairs – nor the three computer scientists – Leonrad Kleinrock, Gordon Moore, and Michael Rabin – who were awarded in the “Future” category — were targeted by these correspondents.) We have both sent letters to many but not all of the urgers and orderers. (Not all, because in some cases the petitions etc. have appeared online without having been sent to us first.) The letters we have received have ranged from courteous and sad to factual and practical to accusatory, outrageous, and untrue in their claims and statements; some have been frankly libelous, and even threatening. Some have been willing to listen to us, others have not: they want our supposedly valuable “names,” but not our actual voices.

In other words, the all-or-nothings want to bully us into being their wholly owned puppets. The result of such a decision on our part would be – among other things – to turn us into sticks with which to beat other artists into submission, and that we refuse to do. We are familiar with what other artists of many countries have been put through in similar circumstances.
The metaphor of beating others into submission is apt. Even discounting the threats they received as the fringe of a movement (though I don't think it is the fringe), the boycott is fundamentally coercive. It is not about bringing people together. It is not in the tradition of nonviolent movements such as Gandhi's or Martin Luther King, Jr's. At least, not as I understand those movements. Looking through MLK quotes, I find:
At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
The "white intifada" has yet to take this step, loving and sacrificing for peace, rejecting hate. I hope it evolves. Perhaps it will evolve as Israelis respond in kind. Perhaps as it becomes less bizarre to Palestinians to reject violence. But for now non-violence is a tactical choice, not a moral decision.

I recently saw the film Budrus. One thing (among many) that stands out is how shocked Ayed Morrar, an organizer of non-violent protests, was that there are Israelis who would join them in protesting the separation barrier. The impression was that he had imagined Israelis as evil. Eventually, peace activists who hope to be truly effective must come to love even those who hate.

I don't say that as someone who embraces non-violence the way Gandhi did; I think it is often the only acceptable option, but not always. In fact, I have real problems with Gandhi's stance on WWII. But I do hope, in part because I believe only non-violence will work, in part because I think violence against Israeli citizens is wrong, that it becomes the dominant strategy among Palestinians. I hope the white intifada continues to grow and evolve.

The cultural boycott against Israel is not about making peace through love and sacrifice. The Montgomery bus boycotts were about proving Blacks to be an integral part of society; the boycott of Israel is about proving Jews to be dispensible in the world. It is about proving the weakness of Jews, incapable of standing up against the world. It is about making Jews weaker by depriving Israel of support. So, we should ask how history will one day view a boycott against a weak minority.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Paul Berman with Brian Lehrer

Because the hosts at WNYC are so great, this interview of Paul Berman surpasses, in some ways, (my memory of) Berman's well-known "book" on Ramadan. Here, for starters, Berman notes that he [Berman] has been as important as anyone in promoting Ramadan in America through his criticism. And he brings the critique to a sharp point: though Ramadan cites liberal values such as equality for women, he argues for an Islamic process of reverence for Islamic scholars. That's not necessarily so incompatible with Democracy -I wish I could ask Berman this- provided that one understands that such an inherently conservative, religious process is not and cannot be a political mechanism. But it is a question worth putting to Ramadan, to which Ramadan seems quite dismissive (or unaware). At the same time, he's clearer that Ramadan's family history does not determine his views. Further, Berman is quite right to criticize Ramadan's support for Qaradawi.

Oh, and the interview touches on other things, including Berman's flawed support for the Iraq War.

I see WNYC has a new (beta) format that requires logging in to comment. That should help the quality of discussion online. (Audio should be available within a few hours of this posting.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Kai Bird's Jerusalem

Two pieces from Kai Bird. First, an interview from NPR. As noted in the interview, he begins with an "Arab" perspective. His father was an Arabist, and he has many Palestinian friends. However, his wife was the child of Holocaust survivors, and he slowly came to understand the Jewish perspective somewhat better. Unfortunately, in the interview he describes both sides as victimized without recognizing how both sides continue to be victimized. And the host claims that millenialist groups are dominant on both sides. Though we could debate the significance of Hamas (and it's millenialist tendencies) among Palestinians, they have significant institutional power and the millenialist attitude cannot be ignored. However, it's untrue to say that of Israeli society, where security concerns are absolutely dominant and millenialism amounts to a tiny segment of society. But, with these reservations, people should listen to the interview.

Then, also read his op-ed in the NYTImes. It's biggest flaw is that it fails to mention his perspective. *East Jerusalem is not like the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.* It is more sensitive, and damage to the peace process by building in East Jerusalem is less easily reversed. I don't generally agree that settlement activity makes a two-state solution impossible; without a negotiated solution, Israel is likely to impose a unilateral solution, as with Gaza, by withdrawing inside the security barrier. The changed borders and new conditions would be less than ideal but wouldn't prevent an eventual peace. However, changes in Jerusalem are a much bigger deal.