Philo/Anti/Semitism/Zionism
March 20, 2012

The official logo of Taglit-Birthright Israel

The official logo of Taglit-Birthright Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Max Ajl at Jacobin Magazine circulates an open letter from the US Palestinian Community Network asking Palestinian solidarity activists to disavow the anti-Semitic ideas of one Gilad Atzmon. I was struck by this passage, describing Atzmon’s offenses [emphasis mine]:

Atzmon’s politics rest on one main overriding assertion that serves as springboard for vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with his obsession with “Jewishness”. He claims that all Jewish politics is “tribal,” and essentially, Zionist. Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical “Jewish” one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a Jew and also do work in solidarity with Palestine, because to identify as a Jew is to be a Zionist. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon’s argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist.

That’s exactly right and tracks with my experience on Birthright. The message of every Birthright representative I encountered in Israel (and quite a few Israelis who weren’t Birthright representatives) was that Israel was my home, whether I knew it or not, and that I basically had no choice in the matter. But what really drove home the basic proposition of Birthright Zionism — the Judaism is Zionism and vice versa — was an afternoon spent at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where our tour guide explained to us how Theodore Herzl become the first modern Zionist.

Herzl had originally been a journalist, and it was in that capacity that he covered the century-old French Jew-burning we know as the Dreyfus Affair. Watching Dreyfus be wrongfully convicted simply for being a Jew, our tour guide explained, was what taught Herzl that “the experiment in being both French and Jewish was over.”

That’s a pretty remarkable statement if taken to its logical conclusion. If the experiment of being French and Jewish is over, what does that say for the experiment of being American and Jewish? English and Jewish? Brazilian and Jewish? Are these all doomed to failure, or are they already pretty much over as well?

Forget “dual loyalty.” If I’m not really an American — if I’m just a Jew pretending to be an American — then why have any loyalty to the United States at all? What the tour guide seemed to be advocating was not dual loyalty but singular loyalty to the Jewish nation and the state of Israel.

I almost hesitate to relate that anecdote, because it so easily plays into some of the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes alive today. I have no doubt that Atzmon, for example, would take it as confirmation of his analysis. But that’s the point: right-wing Zionist attempts to define Jewish authenticity are the curious flipside of modern anti-Semitism. Not only does it give support to those who would equate Judaism with support for militarism and oppression — it also creates a class of Jews who can be despised for their “inauthenticity,” both by conservative Zionist Jews and and their Christian philo-Semitic allies. (Oh hai, Glenn Beck.)

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Scratching the Surface
March 13, 2012

English: Leeds Student Radio Web page article ...

Image via Wikipedia

Critic Aengus Woods gets at what’s so dissatisfying with Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

De Botton fluently identifies how religion traditionally addressed social needs before offering his own secular proposal for meeting them anew. For example, religion has traditionally provided a sense of community that can override divisions of class or income. We might therefore regain this sense of togetherness through rituals that mimic, say, the Eucharistic service. De Botton suggests a restaurant where “our fear of strangers would recede” and “the poor would eat with the rich.” And Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall might be replaced by electronic billboards “that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes,” thereby reminding us that “we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations.”

The problem with this approach is not simply that the solutions are trite or feel crassly commercial. The problem is that it is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted? If they are common-sense values, we will soon find a plethora of competing commonsensical values. We should remember how quickly Socrates’ ideal republic begins to look like a totalitarian state.

To put it another way: Religious rituals signify something, and figuring out what they signify — or how to translate the relationship between the signifier and the signified into something compatible with your own experiences — isn’t as easy as de Botton makes it out to be. A fully developed theology is born out of conflict and dialogue: dialogue with tradition, intuition, philosophy, the hard and soft sciences, and the critiques of other denominations and religions (not to mention atheists).

The idea that you can just skip the whole dialogue and get straight to establishing rituals that conform to your own vague pre-existing sentiments is frankly bizarre. In doing so, de Botton would have atheists export some of organized religion’s worst diseases: bland and indistinct “spirituality,” the thoughtless reenactment of ritual for its own sake, and the smug certainty of chronic incuriosity. These things are bad enough on their own, but — as Woods hints — terrible things can happen when they crash headlong into the inscrutability of life as actually lived.

If de Botton is truly intent on constructing a religion for atheists, he would be wise to start building from the foundation instead of the lobby. That would mean developing, yes, a theology. It would require seriously engaging with moral philosophy, epistemology, and even — perhaps especially — the theology of real-life theists. Kierkegaard and Buber aren’t a bad place to start. If there’s not something in their metaphysics and phenomenology that doesn’t resonate with you on a deep level, then why pillage the rituals they use to reaffirm their faith in these things?

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I've written a lot on this blog about theology and philosophy of religion from the perspective of a self-identified and resolute atheist, so for the sake of clarification I should probably note that the label "atheist" no longer reflects my philosophical commitments as accurately as it once did. If that sounds equivocal and wishy-washy, that's because it's not an easy position to condense into a pithy label. Probably the pithiest way to summarize it would be to say that I like Mordecai Kaplan's reconstructionist theology, and especially this Wittgensteinian interpretation of Reconstructionist Judaism, but I'm dismayed by Kaplan's Zionist nationalism. Martin Buber's I and Thou has also been extremely helpful in clarifying certain things, which is ironic, because very few people would accuse Buber of clarity. Or me, I suppose.]

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Back in the Diaspora
February 6, 2012

Tel Aviv

At around 6 AM this morning my plane touched down at JFK, and I resumed life in the real world. It will take some time before my thoughts are organized enough — and I’ve caught up on sleep enough — to make sense of the ten days I spent Birthrighting through Israel, but I thought I’d jot down some preliminary thoughts and assure you all that I hadn’t gone native.

For the last couple of weeks before I took off for the Holy Land, my mantra was: “Even if it’s terrible, it’s gonna be awesome.” Turns out I was being uncharacteristically prescient. The last ten days have been both sababa (Hebrew for awesome) and very much a balagan (loosely translated: a total clusterfuck). Never before I have felt so exhausted, exhilarated, inspired, dispirited, connected, and alone in such a compressed span of time. You might say it was a rich experience. Certainly an educational one.

Which is not to say that it was educational in the way I believe Birthright’s administration intended it to be. I have no interest in moving to Israel, nor in financially supporting the Israeli state, nor in becoming a mouthpiece for the Likkud Party. I stand by my pre-Birthright conviction that my Jewish heritage gives me no right or claim on the land of Israel, and that I would reject such a claim were it offered to me. My sentiments regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (which are — surprise! — significantly to the left of Birthright’s) remain more or less what they were, though I’ve managed to add just a little bit more nuance.

So my relationship with Israel remains more or less unchanged. But the personal relationships I formed in that week and a half have affected me deeply, and my relationship to Judaism writ large has altered in ways I’m still trying to parse. That’s not to say I’ve found God — far from it. But I may have found a suitable (which is to say, humanistic and godless) entry point back into the Jewish philosophy and theology I abandoned nearly a decade ago.

The tricky part is untangling all these separate threads — the personal, political, and (for lack of a better word) spiritual — and weaving something coherent out of them. Once I can do that, I’ll have a lot — a lot – more to write, either here or elsewhere, about what a Birthright trip can do to your brain. Or mostly my brain, I suppose.

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The “Second Holocaust”
May 17, 2010

Having now read the Beinart article I linked to earlier, I want to focus a little more on Phillip Klein’s response.

One can’t help but wonder how closely Klein actually read Beinart’s article, particularly when he says stuff like this:

While I would never suggest that Jews who happen to be politically liberal would want a second Holocaust to happen, I do think that by participating in a campaign to defang Israel and prevent it from taking the actions necessary to defend itself, that Jewish liberals are making things significantly easier for those who do want to carry out a second Holocaust.

Beinart actually addresses this “second Holocaust” nonsense in the article when he says:

But the message of the American Jewish establishment and its allies in the Netanyahu government is exactly the opposite: since Jews are history’s permanent victims, always on the knife-edge of extinction, moral responsibility is a luxury Israel does not have. Its only responsibility is to survive. As former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg writes in his remarkable 2008 book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes, “Victimhood sets you free.”

Sort of reminds me of this quote from Portnoy’s Complaint:

It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!

Psychoanalyzing Liberal Jews
May 17, 2010

I’ll admit that I haven’t yet had time to read Peter Beinart’s much-blogged essay on young, liberal Jewish Americans and Israel, but I do think it’s noteworthy that it has provoked the typical response from the gatekeepers of Jewishness:*

The problem, however, isn’t with leading Jewish organizations that defend Israel, but with liberalism. As sickening as it sounds, Jewish liberals see their fellow Jews as noble when they are victims being led helplessly into the gas chambers, but recoil at the thought of Jews who refuse to be victims, and actually take actions to defend themselves.

(Via Larison.)

My guess is we’ll be hearing a lot of similar sentiments (and even more toxic ones) from defenders of Israel’s behavior as we move towards the post-Jewish pro-Israel movement Yglesias describes.

*Explanation of the term here.

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