Monday, March 5, 2012

Spinoza and the Heresy Hunter from Harvard

Theater J, which operates out of the DC Jewish Community Center, is currently producing David Ives’ play,  New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza. This is a reimagining and dramatization of Spinoza’s interrogation for which there are no records. Over four hundred years later, we still don’t know why Spinoza was “excommunicated,” or to be precise, ostracized by the Spanish-Portuguese community of Amsterdam. We do have the writ of excommunication, which speaks of  “wrong opinions,” “horrible heresies,” and “monstrous actions.”  Scholars have speculated that some of the more controversial doctrines taught in his Theological-Political Treatise, written years after the event, may have been responsible. They include the denial of the Mosaic origin of the Torah, the naturalistic interpretation of miracles, and the claim that scripture is not a repository of philosophical wisdom.

Spinoza was not the only person to be excommunicated by the Spanish-Portuguese community of Amsterdam but he may have been one of only a handful ostracized for his heterodoxical opinions .

Whenever I teach Spinoza, I  call his excommunication a  win for both sides. The Jewish community got rid of a heretic; and the heretic, free of  communal pressures, flourished as a philosopher. But it would not have been a win for Spinoza had he wanted to remain a Jew. Fortunately for him, he did not. There is no indication that Spinoza was terribly stung by his excommunication. Before he was booted out he was little more than a perfunctory member of the community; in fact, he was in arrears in paying his dues.  Nothing in his subsequent writings and correspondence suggest that he still considered himself a Jew after he left the community  (The notion that Spinoza was “the first secular Jew” is an offense against Spinoza and secular Jews.)

We are told by his early biographers that he prepared a defense. Why, if he didn’t care about his standing in the community, did he do that? I think that he believed  that what he taught was not harmful for religion per se, but only for a certain kind of religion,  the religion of the theologians, who had subordinated philosophy and rational inquiry to religion.  I can imagine that he wished to convince the Amsterdam rabbis, who were well-versed in philosophy, that what he taught was actually good for promoting piety among the non-philosophical.

How far we have come since then! When once rabbis pronounced the ban of excommunication, now we have Prof. Alan Dershowitz, the heresy hunter from Harvard, who not only decides what is admissible and what is beyond the pale in discourse about Israel, but also quite literally hounds his Jewish opponents with the zeal of a Torquemada.  Look at the man’s attacks on Norman Finkelstein, Rachel Giora, Anat Matar, Shlomo Sand, and Richard Goldstone (and these are only the Jews I know about; readers are invited to remind me of others.) Finkelstein, to be sure, had accused Dershowitz of plagiarism, which would naturally arouse the anger of any professor. But instead of merely rebutting the charges,  Dershowitz went after Finkelstein at every opportunity, threatening Finkelstein’s publisher, University of California Press, not to publish his book,  and then attempting to influence Finkelstein’s tenure decision. In the case of Giora, Matar, and Sand, none of whom had gone after him, Dershowitz “accused them of hurting students and harming the resilience of the State of Israel,” according to a letter of protest signed by Tel-Aviv university faculty members.

As for Judge Richard Goldstone --  well, read what I  have written here and here, and weep for Harvard.

I want to make something absolutely clear. Alan Dershowitz is not only allowed his free speech and academic freedom; he has the moral obligation to speak the truth as he sees it. But whereas others speak truth to power, Dershowitz seems to go after  people who lack real power and standing in the organized Jewish community. He doesn’t just speak out against his weaker opponents; he tries to destroy them – especially if he feels personally affronted.

His latest target is M. J. Rosenberg of Media Matters. Dershowitz was offended by M. J.’s use of the term “Israel-Firster,” and by some of his tweets. So he had the right to make his views known in the public domain, even in a forceful manner. But that is not the way of Prof. Dershowitz:

Not only will [the Media Matters controversy] be an election matter, I will personally make it an election matter…I will speak to every Jewish group that invites me, and I think it’s fair to say I speak to more Jewish groups than probably any other person in the world. I spoke to over a million Jews over the years,,,You know, just last Thursday I spoke to 1,200;  just in the next weeks alone I’ll be speaking — and in the past weeks — to thousands of American Jews. And believe me, I will not let them ignore this issue.

And lest you think Rosenberg will escape his ire, Dershowitz says

I don’t know whether President Obama has any idea that Media Matters has turned the corner against Israel in this way…I can tell you this, he will know very shortly because I am beginning a serious campaign on this issue and I will not let it drop until and unless Rosenberg is fired from Media Matters, or Media Matters changes its policy or the White House disassociates itself from Media Matters.

For years I have been waiting for Alan Dershowitz to meet his Edward R. Murrow, and I believe that he has met him in M. J. Let me tell you something about M. J. Rosenberg – to call him “anti-Israel” is as absurd as calling the New Israel Fund, J Street, the Meretz party, B’Tselem, anti-Israel – which, of course, is done everyday by the New Zealots, those self-appointed guardians of the Jewish state.  M. J has is a life-long liberal Zionist and supporter of the State of Israel, even when – especially when -- he has criticized its government.

M. J. accused AIPAC of being an Israel-firster organization, and that aroused the ire of Dershowitz? M. J. worked for AIPAC for years, and he knows whereof he speaks. I can tell you that many  AIPAC people I know, including relatives and friends, not only place Israel’s interests above American’s interest, they delude themselves into thinking that Israel’s interests are by definition identical with America’s interests.

M J allegedly tweeted in response to Dershowitz’s threats that he can go to hell. Dershowitz has responded by going nuclear.  Because of his fury at Rosenberg, he is willing to attempt to cost Obama the election if the White House doesn’t publicly distance itself from Media Matters, or if Media Matters doesn’t fire Rosenberg, such is his fervor of the heresy hunter scorned. This time he has set the bar high, and, optimist that I am, I trust that he will fail.

Liberal Zionists, I am talking to you! Stand up for M. J. and you are standing up for your own against the like of those who delude themselves into thinking they are liberal Zionists. Otherwise you will end up by saying

I was silent when Dershowitz went after Norman Finkelstein because I am not Norman Finkelstein. I was silent when he came for Matar, Giora, and Sand because, well, I had never heard of them. I was silent when he came for a liberal Zionist like M. J. Rosenberg because I don’t tweet. Then when he went after me, nobody was there to help me….

[Update, March 8:  Perhaps the Forward’s J. J. Goldberg’s heard this call, but whether he did or not, he has written a beautiful defense of M. J. here.]

Perhaps there is a ray of light in all this. The Israeli Reut Institute last year outlined an Israel advocacy  strategy of driving a wedge between the liberal Zionist and the extreme left in Israel and abroad. For the most part, it hasn’t worked.  There is indeed a gap, but it is between the real liberal Zionists like M.J., Peter Beinart, Naomi Hazan, Larry Derfner, Michael Lerner, Leibel Fein, David Grossman, Amos Oz, as well as the activist groups in Israel like B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence, on the one hand, and the faux liberal Zionists like Dershowitz, Abe Foxman, Benny Morris, Ari Shavit, and all those members of the so-called “disappointed left” in Israel, on the other.

How do you distinguish between the genuine and the fake liberal Zionist? After all, both kinds say that they are for two states, oppose settlements and settlers, support  territorial compromise, etc. It’s very simple: if they publicly criticize Israel’s human rights violations; if they support groups that expose such violations; if they call out Israel’s elected leaders on matters of policy and morality --  in short, if they adopt the stance of moral critic because that is deep in their Jewish and mentshlich soul – then they are true liberal Zionists. All the others are deluded into thinking they are.

And no one is more deluded into thinking he is a liberal Zionist than Alan Dershowitz, who never ceases to remind his readers that  he opposes the settlements and supports the two-state solution. Sorry, Professor, that is not enough to qualify. You also have to support harsh measures against the state if the settlements continue. You can’t be a liberal Zionist and support Binyamin Netanyahu, the arch-enemy of liberal Zionists.If you care about Israel as Jewish and democratic, to borrow the language of the liberal Zionists, you will – like M. J. and the others – have to fight against those Israeli government policies that are destroying the democratic nature of the state. You will join hands with human right activists, Jewish and Palestinian, who are fighting for justice. You will support, like M.J., Peter Beinart, David Grossman, and Amos Oz, boycotts against the settlers and the settlements. You will support pressure from the Americans and the European states to stop Israel’s slide into a Putin-style democracy,

If, Prof. Dershowitz, you are all about carrots but refuse to use  sticks – no, even twigs – in dealings with Israel, then your “liberal Zionism” is humbug and self-delusion that is designed for one thing – to allow you to face yourself in the mirror next time you read of some outrage in Haaretz, and say,

‘Hey, I’m a liberal Zionist. I am against the Occupation.”

The bullying has to stop.


Tamar Orvell said...

I adore this post. And your distinction between the genuine and the fake liberal Zionist easily answers the question asked of each kind, "Which Side Are You On?"

Unknown said...

I am reminded of Terry Jones' ( formerly a Monty Python now a medaevaliat) " The miracle of the Eucharist was it transformed dissenters into heretics". And in that vein "No one expected a Jewish Inquisition , Mr. Dershowitz "

Devir said...

Your distinction between fske and liberal Zionists is, after all, the distinction between intelectual dishonesty and honesty.
Spinoza is often quoted in chauvinist nationalist circles in my country due to his portuguese ancestry. But what he sould be praised for is his philosophical pioneer works, as you well know.
These circles normally hide that his parents and grand-parents had to flee Portugal due to the persecution of portuguese jews led by our monarchy and Inquistion...
What leaves me with a bit of pride is Antonio Damasio's book "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain". Damasio is a portuguese neurocientist at the University of Southern California.
I also read another interesting bokk by him: "Descarte's Error".

pabelmont said...

TheDersh as Torquemada is perfect. Or maybe the Pope v. Galileo. To compare the present time of extreme and hysterical attempts by right-wing-pro-war-lovers-of-Israel at thought control (and especially at expression control) to the Nazi period ("they came for MJR, but I was not MJR, and I didn't do noddink") may not win you friends with ECI, but it evokes the McCarthy and Stalinist and Nazi periods nicely.

Remember how many Jews failed to read the tea leaves and failed to get out of Europe when they still could? The huge number of Jews who, today, are not reading the tea leaves on the Heresy Hunters should think about them.

Gila Svirsky said...

I also love this post. Thanks for the articulate, reasoned, and non-hyperbolic critique. Ken yirbu!