Sunday, August 12, 2012

Loving Fellow Jews, Loving Fellow Humans, Loving "Folks Like Us"

I suppose I should be pleased that Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, whose blog I occasionally read with pleasure, contrasted favorably the Magnes Zionist's posts with Avraham Burg's recent op-ed in the New York Times. Burg was indirectly admonished by the rabbi for criticizing Israel harshly to an external audience, whereas he singled out the  Magnes Zionist for his harsh criticisms of Israel to an internal audience. Since the subject of Rabbi Rosen's blog was "Ahavat Yisrael," love of one's fellow Jews, one can reasonably infer  that he thought that Mr. Burg was more deficient in that trait than is Jeremiah Haber.

I certainly hope that wasn't his point!

For one thing I write a blog that, while having a tiny fraction of the circulation of the New York Times, is addressed to anybody who can read it, and I have a lot of readers who are gentiles. True, I have a tendency to talk insider language, but that is just because blogs are "unbuttoned" affairs, with scads of spelling mistakes and punctuation errors.  I do want to address Jews, of course, but not just. At times I am very happy to be seen in other company.

For example, I just published an essay in an anthology called, After Zionism, ed. by Antony Loewenstein and Ahmed Moor. Among the other contributors were Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy, Diana Bhuttu, Jeff Halper, Joseph Dana, Ahmed Moor, John Mearsheimer, Phil Weiss. The audience of this book is not mainly a Jewish one, and I would not be surprised if those individuals  fail to make most people's Ahavat Yisrael list. (Some of them WILL make mine.)  I wrote in my essay that not all forms of Zionism are treif (there I go again), and that there is a place for a certain kind of Zionism in a transformed Israel/Palestine.  My essay sticks out like a sore thumb in this company, but the editors accepted it because they felt that this book is about trying to envision a more just Israel/Palestine than is the horrible state of affairs today.  

As for Mr. Burg -- well, I assume that he wished to publish his piece in the New York Times because he wanted to reach Americans (including more American Jews than all the readers of all the Jewish media outlets combined)  who consider themselves liberal and supporters of Israel. He has been carrying on a debate with Rabbi Daniel Gordis about Jewish fundamentalism on the pages of the Economist, even though the both of them work withing a five-minute walk of each other. Is this bad? To some it may suggest a lack of ahavat Yisrael to wage the wars of the Lord in the goyyische press.  I don't see it that way. I see Burg's writings as a kiddush ha-Shem, a sanctification of God's name. 

Re ahavat Yisrael, I once wrote:

When people ask me whether I am pro-Israel, I unhesitatingly and unabashedly say yes. I am for Israel, which is the classical name for the Jewish people, I believe in and practice, to the best of my limited capacities, the love of the Jewish people, ahavat Yisrael. But what does that phrase mean? Hannah Arendt pleaded guilty to Gershom Scholem’s charge that she lacked ahavat Yisrael, stating that she loves people, not “the people”, not an abstraction. But even if “Israel” is not taken to represent an abstract collective but rather each and every individual Jew, it is arguably impossible, not to mention undesirable, to love people you have never met, or worse, whose ideology or character revolts you, simply because you are a member of their tribe. (Do you love everybody in your family?)

And yet, for me, ahavat Yisrael means to accord members of the Jewish people a special place in my heart, because I view them as extended family. And that is why as a member of the family I feel worse when some of family act atrociously. 

The basis for the commandment of ahavat Yisrael is the rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The philosopher of education Akiva Ernst Simon wrote an essay in which he showed (much to his dismay) that the rabbis interpreted "neighbor" not as one's fellow human being, but rather as one's fellow Jew. That much is clear; there is love for one's fellow Jew and respect for God's creatures. Still, one does hear the phrase nowadays, "ahavat ha-adam," love of human beings, if not as much in traditional rabbinic Judaism, than at least in the Judaism I admire and cherish.

But I propose here another reading of the verse, "You shalt love your neighbor as yoursefl" -- you shall love the neighbor who is like yourself, that is to say, you should love like-minded individuals, or what we Yanks call, "folks like us."

In my case, "the folks like us" are composed of what my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, would call kol ha-minim, 'all kinds': Jews, Christians, Muslims, lefties, righties. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with all of them provided that we share the same values. As the song goes, "We are family." True, the family may not be a traditional one, but it is family nonetheless. And if this non-traditional family can help members of my traditional family do the right thing...well, that's fine.

Of course it is also nice when members of your family are also "folks like us" -- in this case, folks like Rabbi Jeremy Rosen and Avraham Burg.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bring Back Beinart

Recently, Forward contributing editor Jay Michaelson wrote a long piece challenging the leftwing critics of Israel to reveal their endgame. According to Michaelson, Jewish Voice for Peace says that it is agnostic but the JVP folks he has talked to are for one state. And a one-state solution involves nothing less than the "cultural genocide" of Israel. "There is no way that a binational state will be a safe haven for the Jewish people or that it will preserve Jewish culture." Well, so much for those benighted fools like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Rabbi Benjamin. To quote Michaelson, "NO WAAYYY".

May I respectfully suggest to Michaelson that he stick to issues he knows about in the LGBT community, instead of spouting Hasbara 101, the sort of stuff that intelligent rightwingers would never demean themselves by doing

Let me just take thirty seconds or so to answer his main assertions.

JVP hides its endgame, which is the one-state solution. No it doesn't, and no it isn't.  Had Michaelson bothered to google that organization (he doesn't bring a single reference, or link, to anything he asserts) he could see that they have a whole list of principles including, "Israelis and Palestinians have the right to security, sovereignty, and self-determination within political entities of their own choosing." Now what Michaelson should have least argued was that that's what they say, but you can't believe those "cafe leftists" (his offensive dig).  Instead he writes that the JVP people he has talked with are one-staters. So what? The organization includes one-staters, two-staters, no-staters, etc. I, for one, am not a one-stater. I am not at all agnostic on what I want for the endgame, which is that Israelis and Palestinians will have security, soveignty, and self-determination. On Michaelson's logic, if there are gay-right activists in an organization  who prefer Obama over Romney that commits the organization to being a front for the Democrats.

The one-state solution is "anti-Semitic"  because it means that "every people on the planet, from Peruvians to Pakistanis, deserves self-determination — except one. This is where anti-Zionism slides into anti-Semitism. Why are Jews to be treated differently from every other nation on the planet? Is Jewish nationhood more dubious than others?" In fact, there are many nations that don't have a state, including the Palestinian nation, which was repeatedly  promised a state, but whose territory is under the control of the "Jewish nation." I never knew that peoples have a right to a state at the expense of another people's, or on that people's territory. And, let's face it, shouldn't a liberal have problems with any nation-state who accepts new members into the nation on the basis of  religious conversion alone? 

Israel is singled out for moral opprobrium by the left. Oh, how I wish that  were true  -- the left, including the Arab left, has spent enormous time in the last year or so on something called the "Arab spring" and "Arab civil society," the Syrian civil war. And, darn it, the human rights organizations are always devoting most of their time and resources to other countries besides my own. But Michaelson bizarrely insists that the left -- including the Jewish and the Palestinian left -- are anti-Semitic unless they show more concern about the plight of the native Americans than about the fate of the Palestinians. But that is nonsense and offensive nonsense at that. Michaelson himself cares more about the plights of US gays than about the genocide of the Native Americans. Does he really think that gay rights in the US is more important  than the fate of the Roma in Europe? And if he does,  should he be suspected of bigotry toward the Roma for that? For that matter, does he think that leftwing criticism of Israel is a greater tragedy than the Chinese suppression of Tibetan rights? So why is he writing about Israel and not writing about Tibet? (For more on this ridiculous hasbara point see my essay here.)

Michaelson and I write on Israel because we are Jews and stakeholders. Palestinians and their allies are also stake-holders. If I arrange for a family member who has committed a crime to be arrested, am I to be criticized because I didn't tell the cops to go after more serious killers?  Should I have merely tried to solve the problem within the family? Written a letter to the editor? Flaunt my liberal creds?

I have a lot to disagree about with Peter Beinart, but at least Beinart makes arguments, cites sources, and takes his subject seriously. When I read stuff in Jewish media outlets like Michaelson's piece here, I am reminded of Maimonides' point about the illness that afflicts experts in a certain field who feel that they can make pronouncements in areas outside their expertise.  

Had he lived today Maimonides may have called it "contributing editor syndrome." 



Wednesday, August 1, 2012

NGO Monitor Coins an Anti-Semitic Slur: "Jew-Washing"

It's perfectly kosher for a rightwing Jewish organization like NGO Monitor to disagree vigorously with a leftwing organization like Jewish Voice for Peace. But in a recent op-ed in the New York Jewish Week,  Yiktzak Santis and Gerald Steinberg use the trademark tools of their organization --lies, half-truths, and insinuations -- to smear an organization they don't like. 

Still, something that is worth noting is their invention of a new anti-Semitic slur: "Jew-washing."

Before I get to that, let's start with the facts. 1. The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to boycott settlement goods by a whopping 71% of the general assembly's membership. 2. A decision to divest from companies that profit from the occupation was narrowly defeated (by two votes). 3. The assembly voted to accept a recommendation that would allow individual pension holders to invest their pensions in companies that do not profit from the occupation.

Now let's move on to the Santis and Steinberg lies and half-truths. They begin their op-ed as follows:

At the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this month, a motion to adopt a boycott of three companies for doing business with Israel was hotly debated and narrowly defeated.  At this Christian gathering, a group of “young Jewish activists” provided important “testimony” supporting the motion to isolate and demonize Israel 

Lie.  There was no motion to boycott any company for doing business with Israel. As reported in the JTA, the motion was to divest from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank, i.e., that directly benefit from the occupation. Santis and Steinberg knew this, and one can assume that they wrote what they do in order to defame those who supported the motion.

Even if JVP supported a total boycott of Israel, which it does not, that would be entirely irrelevant to the authors' misreporting of the motion. (And while we are on the subject of "lies," JVP is not  an "anti-Zionist group." It  includes Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, two-staters, one-staters, no-staters, etc.)

Slur. The authors have the right to believe that this the motion isolates and defames Israel. But there was no "motion to isolate and demonize Israel." 

Half-truth.  Note that Santis and Steinberg referred to the defeat of the divestment motion. They did not mention the approval of the settlement boycott or providing their members with a way to divest personally. That would have made Jewish Voice for Peace less "fringe" like.

And now for "Jew-washing":

These were the “Jew-washers” – very visible actors in many such political attacks on Israel, particularly in Christian frameworks.  They are influential beyond their actual numbers, providing a convenient means for cleansing such actions from the stains of double standards, demonization and sometimes anti-Semitism against the Jewish state of Israel, and even Judaism itself.

"Jew-washers"? I guess what the authors mean is that JVP and other Jewish groups presents a veneer of Jewish respectability, a hekhsher, for the anti-Israel activities of the BDS'ers. And this is the first slur of what I shall call the "Nu, anti-Semitism!" 

What is the "Nu,  anti-Semitism!"? It is saying to Jews, "Nu, you have no right to say or act upon what you think. because that aids and abets  the anti-Semites” (defined as "people who provide criticisms of Israel that  we at NGO Monitor consider to be unfair.")

The "Nu, anti-Semitism!" is occasionally charitable enough to believe that the Jews in question are self-hating, or naive, or have unreasonable expectations of Israel, etc., etc. As the authors say, their intentions are irrelevant (in other words, such Jews lack the basic human right to be judged on the basis of their intentions.) But by hanging out the dirty laundry of the tribe for all to see, and, worse, by joining with the tribe's enemies (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, etc.), they are "Jew-washing."

And the "evidence" for "Jew-washing" provided by Steinberg and Santis?

In many cases (sic) Jew-washing is also used to whitewash the blatant theological anti-Semitism that accompanies the church-based BDS attacks on Israel.  One example is Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian group that is very influential in those mainline churches active in the BDS wars.  Its theology includes supercessionism – a reading of the New Testament that considers the Church to have superseded the Jewish people in God’s promises – and deicide – the charge that “the Jews” killed Jesus – that served as the basis for centuries of anti-Jewish persecution.

Giving Sabeel a thorough Jew-wash is JVP’s Rabbinical Council, which in its “Statement of Support for the Sabeel Institute” acknowledges “the more radical incarnations (sic) of some of [Sabeel’s] theological images.”

Yet, Sabeel’s frequent denigration of Judaism as “tribal” and “primitive” and comparisons of Palestinians to Jesus on the cross put there by the Israeli government’s “crucifixion machine,” does not seem to affect JVP’s rabbis, who assert that it is “a mistake to dismiss Palestinian Christian theology wholesale.”

Now, if I said that an organization "whitewashes the blatant theological anti-Semitism that accompanies the church-based BDS attacks on Israel' (Note that Steinberg and Santis just called a bit under half of the Presbyterian General Assembly "blatant theological anti-Semites" ), I would be prepared to show how Jewish Voice for Peace gives some Jewish cover for this.  Instead, the authors refer to a JVP statement that says as follows:

We are aware that many Jews point to the more radical incarnations of some of Ateek's theological images. We believe, however, that it is a mistake to dismiss Palestinian Christian theology wholesale. As Jews, we are much more troubled by the “End of Days” theologies of fundamentalist Zionist Christians such as Pastor John Hagee, who believe that Jews will either convert or go to hell when we've fulfilled our theological purpose. This is anti-semitism par excellence. 

In other words, JVP's rabbinical council, while not endorsing Ateek's theological images, say that they have to be understood in light of the ongoing suffering of Palestinian Christians at the hand of Israelis. One may consider this too forgiving on the part of JVP, but the point is that they are not excusing or whitewashing such images, but saying that they should not be allowed to get in way of the bigger picture.

Should we accuse rightwing groups of "Jew-washing" because they form coalitions with John Hagee's ministry? Or "Christians United for Israel"? Of course not.

For all I know, Christian Zionists  who eagerly await the mass conversion of Jews have contributed to NGO Monitor. 

I say, "for all I know" because the trademark smear of NGO Monitor has yet to come. Of JVP they write,

Their motivations, like their financing, are unclear and irrelevant – the fact that they provide a useful cover for non-Jews to justify gratuitous. Israel-bashing is what counts.

If their financing is irrelevant to the author's argument then why make the remark  that it is "unclear"? Oh, that's an easy one: This is NGO Monitor, which has made a career of insinuations about the "unclear sources of financing" of the organization it "monitors." In fact, even when the source of funding is entirely transparent, they either use the sources to delegitimize the organization or  raise the specter of secret funding.

In NGO Monitor-ese, "unclear funding" means "funding by donors whose identity we cannot discover, and therefore smear through association, no matter how much our staff Googles.”

This wouldn't be so bad were it not that NGO Monitor's own funding is no less "unclear" than that of Jewish Voice for Peace. Last spring  Haaretz published an expose showing how NGO Monitor hides the identity of its donors. That is in Hebrew, but a good account of it in English is here. NGO Monitor's funding is a lot more unclear than that of the NGOs the organization purports to monitor, whose transparency is mandated by law.

But rest assured, NGO monitor, most of JVP's budget is made up of individual donations. They lack the heavy guns that you have, but they would not demean themselves by saying that you provide cover for the anti-Semites.

The "Nu, anti-Semitism!" slur of “Jew-washing” demonizes, and in general, impugns the character of Jewish critics of Israel.  If you think that leftwing Jewish groups are not allowed to join coalitions with non-Jewish groups that criticize Israel's  existence as a Jewish state; then you target leftwing Jews  as Jews. If you believe that Jews are not allowed to make certain arguments or take certain actions because they are Jewish, then you claim that Jews are not allowed to possess the basic human right of expressing their opinions and acting on them in a responsible, non-violent manner.

That’s what makes "Jew-washing" an anti-Semitic slur. It unfairly singles out Jews by judging them by a double standard. And it denies them fundamental human rights.