Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Magnes Zionist’s Summer Reading List

Here are a number of very good books that came out last year and that you won't see reviewed in the mainstream press, because they are not by liberal Zionists. (Do you think I am kidding? Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review had books by two liberal Zionists, Benny Morris and Amos Oz, and reviews by two liberal Zionists, Jeffrey Goldberg and Liesl Schillinger. Phil Weiss put those reviews in perspective here.) They are mixed bag, ranging from scholarship to analysis to reportage to memoir.

Bernard Avishai, The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last. Harcourt, 2008.

Avraham Burg. The Holocaust is Over. We Must Rise From Its Ashes. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Dan Fleshler, Transforming America's Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change. Potomac Books, 2009.

Jeff Halper, An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel, by Jeff Halper. Pluto Press, 2008. London, Ann Arbor MI, in association with ICAHD).

Arno J. Mayer, Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel, Verso, 2008.

David N. Myers, Between Jew & Arab: The Lost Voices of Simon Rawidowicz University Press of New England, 2008.

In the coming weeks I will write about some of these books, especially, the book by David N. Myers, but let me first make some general comments about all of them.

All these books are written by Jews who have spent their lives being deeply engaged with, and enraged by, Israel and Zionism. Avishai and Halper made aliyah; the former, twice. Burg, of course, was Chairman of the Jewish Agency and Speaker of the Israeli Knesset. Some are on the left; some are on the center. But what they all share is a vision of different sort of Jewish State than the one founded in 1948. No, it is not just that they are critical of this or that policy of the state of Israel. They have fundamental problems with a state whose conception, they feel, is fundamentally flawed. This brings them to reject the reigning orthodoxies of the Zionist center, and to align themselves not with what Israel is today, but with what it could be – when it becomes a liberal democracy.

This is nothing new. In Zionist historiography, public intellectuals like Buber, Magnes, and others were routinely dismissed as "utopian," "elitist," and, "naive" by the Zionist "realists" such as Ben-Gurion, who shared much more in common with Jabotinsky and Begin than he would have cares to admit. These charges may have had some purchase at the time. History seemed to have vindicated Ben-Gurion back in 1948.

But after sixty years, Israel is still at war with some of its neighbors, rules over 3 ½ million people against their will, steals their land and denies them fundamental rights, and has a system of government that could charitably be called a sort of democracy. And there is no end in sight. I pass over the inconvenient facts that its former president has rape charges pending against him, and the last four prime ministers (Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, Olmert) have been accused, at various times, of corruption. Or of the monopoly of the orthodox in personal status matters. Or of the systematic discrimination against the Palestinian minority. Etc., etc.

Is Israel the worst rogue state in the world? Of course not, far from it. Compared to many other states, whose tyrannical governments come and go, it is more successful. But as a long-running problem state, Israel is right up there with the worst that I would ever care to be associated of it. And, of course, it is my state and my problem. And that's why it hurts.

It hurts the authors above, too. And that's why they write -- because they see what is precious to them (parents, religion, culture, people) dragged through the mud. And they have to shout out about it.




Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bluff, Bibi, Bluff!

(This post is brought to you by my yetzer-hara. That's the little devilish Donald-Duck that sits on your left shoulder, whispering advice you should ignore. Like writing a satirical post.)

"Mr. Netanyahu says he supports Mr. Obama's plan to engage the Iranians. He also supports the tightening of sanctions on the regime, if engagement doesn't work. But there should be little doubt that, by the end of this year, if no progress is made, Mr. Netanyahu will seriously consider attacking Iran. His military advisers tell me they believe an attack, even an attack conducted without American help or permission, would have a reasonably high chance of setting back the Iranian program for two to five years. "

Jeffrey Goldberg in the New York Times today

Dear Bibi,


Why not bomb, baby, bomb ? Or as the song goes,

Bomb, bomb, bomb! Bomb, bomb, Iran!

After all Iran is run by a Hitler-clone. Ahmadinejad is Amalek, according to your closest advisors. And we all know of the mitzvah to wipe out Amalek. Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe you off the map. He will bury you, and look what the US did to the Soviet Union after Kruschev made that threat….

I mean, the future of Israel, no, the Jewish people, no, the West is at stake.

You know that the policy of appeasement led by Barack HUSSEIN Obama is not going to work. Sure, give it some time, to make you and Israel look responsible.

But then bomb, baby, bomb.

Will you stop the Iranian nuclear program? Not according to your military advisors. You will only set it back a few years.

But think of the benefits:

  • You will no doubt kill a few thousand innocent Iranians. With any luck, that number may be contained to a few hundred. That will guarantee that Ahmadinejad is reelected for life by an enormous margin.
  • You will whip up the Muslim world into a greater frenzy against Israel and the US than it is in today. This means more terror, more suicide bombers, more Jews killed all over the world.

Does it get better than that, Bibi?

I mean, with more Jews dead, how can anybody pressure Israel to end the Occupation? With the international backlack creating the "New New Anti-semitism," will anybody worry about Gaza?

Think about it, Bibi….we want moshiach now.



PS. If you won't bomb Iran, you can at least plant an article in the New York Times by a friendly Jewish journalist – Jeffrey Goldberg will do the trick – that will exaggerate Israel's threat to bomb Iran. That way, you can win concessions from Obama without having to expend your capital. Goldberg is an Israeli citizen; he won't mind compromising journalistic ethics to help you out.

Bluff, Bibi, Bluff!


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How Ideological Funding is Harming Israel and Jewish Studies in the United States

Jewish Studies, and now also Israel Studies, did not arise on college campuses because the American academy recognized the importance of these areas. On the contrary, it was Jewish philanthropy that endowed chairs and centers of Jewish studies beginning in the 1970s and centers of Israel Studies beginning in the 1990s and accelerating in the first decade of the current century. Although the funding often came from wealthy individuals, the universities made it clear to the donors that faculty and curriculum would be unaffected by the philanthropists. One of the reasons that Jewish Studies flourished was because of the academic integrity and reputation of the discipline.

There are troubling signs that the "separation barrier" between donors with ideological axes to grind, and universities is breaking. In this post I will discuss three examples.

The Posen Foundation

Felix Posen is a very wealthy British Jew who, when it comes to matters Jewish, is interested in two subjects: secular Judaism and anti-Semitism. On the old model of Jewish Studies philanthropy, Posen would have given a lot of money to fund chairs and centers of the study of anti-Semitism, as well as the study of the secular Jewish writers and thinkers. But Felix Posen is ideologically driven – he wishes single-handedly to set the agenda for much of Jewish Studies because he has a vision of Judaism which he feels is not being taught or studied.

"The Posen Foundation works internationally as a service provider to support secular Jewish education and educational initiatives on Jewish culture in the modern period and the process of Jewish secularization over the past three centuries. At a time when the majority of world Jewry defines itself as secular and is not well educated in Jewish culture, the Foundation offers this growing community the opportunity to deepen and enrich the study of its cultural and historic heritage—from a secular, scholarly perspective."

What does this mean in practice? Well, it means that Posen's Foundation gives big bucks to scholars and universities that are willing to develop curricula in secular Judaism, curricula that are supervised by Felix Posen and his staff. They are willing to fund encyclopedias and series on secular and cultural Judaism that present Judaism as Posen wishes it to be presented. Some of the best-known names in Jewish studies in the US and in Israel are collaborating with Posen and his ideologically-driven agenda on popular works that include the encyclopedia, "New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age—An Encyclopedic View " , and a multi-volume anthology to be published by Yale University Press, the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. I do not know whether the latter effort will also have the hands-on involvement of Felix Posen (he is legendary for getting involved in the curricula that he funds). But the editors know where Posen is coming from, and I doubt that they will do anything that he will not approve of.

So what's wrong with this? After all, it is a free country and money talks. Why not take the Posen money and run? Well, the answer is obvious. The money comes with ideological strings attached. And there is always the worry that the ideology will spill over into the academic sphere. Call me old-fashioned, but academic integrity is seriously compromised when somebody with such an overt agenda starts throwing around dollars. I wouldn't take money from Chabad. Why should I take it from Posen?

How ideological? Check out the website. Note that very little money is given to fund original research(except for anti-Semitism). Posen wants to make his mark not in research but in anthologies, undergraduate curricula, encyclopedias – precisely where ideological biases can do the most damage.

His is not the only one.

The Tikvah Fund

With the Posen Foundation hawking (and paying for) secular Judaism, we now have the Tikvah Fund, funded by the late Zalman Bernstein, which pushes for Judaism in a rightwing mode. The mission statement of the Tikvah Foundation sounds innocent enough:

The mission of the Tikvah Fund is to promote serious Jewish thought about the enduring questions of human life and the pressing challenges that confront the Jewish people. Tikvah will support many programs, projects, and individuals—including new university centers and courses, books and journals, summer seminars and scholarships.  Tikvah's work will be grounded in these fundamental convictions: that the great ideas, texts, and traditions of Judaism are a special inheritance, with much to teach everyone in search of wisdom about the human condition; and that the fate of the Jewish people greatly depends on the education of intellectual, religious, and political leaders, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

No problem with the above, nor with the neocon slant of the projects funded by the Tikvah Fund (whose staff and board includes folks like Eric Cohen, Neal Kozodoy and William Kristol). It's a free country, and rich people can spend their money the way they like.

But now the Tikvah Fund has started branching out to university campuses and is taking on the trappings of a portable think-tank that sponsors conferences, seminars, summer sessions, etc. Consider the "Tikvah Project on Jewish Thought at Princeton University"

The Tikvah Project on Jewish Thought at Princeton University will support new teaching and research on the great human questions, bringing Jewish thought and ideas into conversation with other philosophical and theological traditions of Western Civilization.

Let me get this straight - the same Fund whose board is overwhelmingly neocon, and which gives significant funding to Shalem Center is also…sponsoring courses at Princeton?

But how in blazes does an ideological foundation sponsor courses at Princeton?

And it is ideological: consider the two-week course on reading texts in Jewish civilization that will be offered this summer to undergrads from around the country. You won't find much secular Judaism or "Jewish culture" there. The entire program is devoted to classical Jewish texts. The only historical session in the whole period is devoted to -- you guessed it -- Zionism. Reb Zalman would have loved it – but what the hell does it have to do with Princeton?

And, indeed, if you look carefully at the announcement, you will see that the only thing the summer program has to do with Princeton is that it will be located at Princeton. In fact, the Tikvah Foundation has teamed with the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think-tank housed at Princeton, to sponsor the summer program. And who does it wish to attract? Undergrads and beginning grads from around the country, who will not only get free tuition, but a one thousand dollar stipend to attend.

So what's wrong with this? Very simple: it weakens the "separation fence" between the Academy – whose faculty is eager to pick up money, prestige, and influence for these things – and the ideologically driven. The faculty at the first Tikvah Forum at Princeton looked like an advertisement for the Zionist consensus, and included folks, who range from the liberal hawk to the neocon, but failed to include anybody on the left. You certainly won't see Daniel Boyarin or Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin there. Folks like the latter have been ruled out of the community.

This cozy relationship between a university and an ideological fund is deeply troubling for anybody who still cares about academic integrity and freedom from outside interference.

The Schusterman Foundation and AICE

I will make this section short, as Richard Silverstein and I blogged on it last year. After Berkeley brought Ben-Gurion professor Oren Yiftachel as a Visiting Israel Professor, much to the consternation of the donor, the Schusterman family decided on a novel way to ensure that our campuses would be free of the corrupting influences of post-Zionist Israeli professors . They set up an organization, headed by polemicist Mitchell Bard, that would give grants to pre-approved Israeli scholars. Bard would then go to universities and offer them the scholars for free. Thus was born the involvement of the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) in academia.

When Richard Silverstein and I broke the story of AICEr, the reaction of AICE was to state simply (and truthfully) that the scholars represented the gamut of Israeli opinion from right to left. And AICE was right; certainly there were scholars identified with the (Zionist) left who were funded. And I, for one, don't know whether AICE turned down anybody of the post-Zionist or anti-Zionist Israeli left that applied for a Schusterman fellowship.

But once again, I find troubling the idea of an agenda-driven speaker's bureau, which, at the very least, is not philosophically congenial to many notable Israeli academics.

The Schusterman Foundation is not the only problem with Israel Studies. As long as Israel Studies is associated with Jewish Studies (as it often is), hires in Israel Studies will run the "gamut" from liberal to conservative…Zionist. That is because the search committees are mostly made up of Zionists, whether Jewish or Christian

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The First Palestinian-Israeli Illegal Outpost – Bravo!

Two very important news items have come my way. The first is the story of the first illegal outpost built by Jewish and Palestinian activists. It was built next to an illegal outpost put up by the settlers. Needless to say, only one outpost was taken down, and it wasn't the settlers'.

Until I get some more details, a very good description with videos is available here, at the wonderful Ibn Ezra blog, written by an Israeli peace activist.

In the meantime, Ezra Nawi, the legendary Israeli activist, has been arrested. An international campaign is underway. I urge you to read about it and act.

I read about the arrest of Ezra initially in Shammai Leibowitz's blog, Pursuing Justice, where he reproduces a Counterpunch article by Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion University.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jewish Voice for Peace Billboard Truck Spotted in DC

God bless Jewish Voice for Peace. I was driving out to work today on a rainy and dreary Monday morning, when I saw one of those billboard trucks (I am sure there is a proper term for it) making its way down Rhode Island Avenue. I assume it was headed for the AIPAC convention.

I think that the big billboard had the poster above. How appropriate that taking Obama's message of hope to Gaza and to the Palestinians results in bringing pictures of Gazan and Palestinian hope to Washington, DC.

We orthodox Jews would say, "Elu ve-Elu," 'these and those'. The AIPAC folks foster fear, hate, and Islamophobia; the other group foster hope, love, and respect for all peoples.

Good, luck JVP. I hope the truck doesn't get ticketed.