Demonstration of Solidarity of Christians and Jews at Temple Adath Israel: Friday, August 18, 2017

Thanks to support from our Christian friends for the Jewish community on Friday. With me is Rev. Marsha Charles who helped to organize this demonstration of solidarity at Temple Adath Israel. She is a mensch and my former student at Lexington Theological Seminary!

 

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“Selma,” Film Criticism, History, and Racism

Radio show host Limbaugh speaks at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington

Here’s my take. Much of the criticism of “Selma” is accurate. However, why is there so much criticism of “Selma,” but not of other Hollywood historical films? it’s not the substance of the criticism which I find problematic, but the ferocity and amount of it.

From what I know, LBJ and King were partners in the civil rights process, but that relationship later fell apart over the Vietnam War. I’m sure that King was pushing harder for the Voting Rights Act than Johnson, but the dynamic was a lot more subtle than “Selma” shows. I also did not find Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson at all convincing. It just didn’t ring right for me. Personally, I was particulary bothered by the absence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was replaced by a Greek Orthodox figure. This photo of King and Heschel from the Selma march is iconic, and one has to wonder what was the motive for air-brushing out a prominent Jewish activist. Does this say something about current Jewish-Christian and African-American-Jewish relations? Was this an attempt at Christianizing a more diverse event? Is this about Israel? Or is there something else going on, some kind of Hollywood soap opera? Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that many Jews were saddened by this.

That said, “Selma” was a powerful film with brilliant portrayals of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King. It shows a flawed hero and the importance of community activism. King did not come out of nowhere, but emerges out of a broad movement (which also includes women).

Where was the same criticism of “Lincoln,” which edited out the prominent role of Frederick Douglas? More recently, the “Imitation Game” played fast and loose with the story of Alan Turing. Turing was not as difficult and rude a person as Cumberbatch portrays (though I thought his portrayal was nevertheless also brilliant). The Turing machine was much smaller than the one depicted. There were others that worked on this project before Turing, particularly Polish mathematicians (never once mentioned). And the depiction of Commander Denniston as a hectoring, bureaucratic bully is not accurate either (thanks to Dianne Bazell for this info).

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” won an Oscar for best picture in 2013, and yet the entire film was essentially a fiction that had little to do with the historical event depicted with Iran and the Khomeini revolution. “Argo” makes “Selma,” “Lincoln,” and “imitation Game” look like milquetoast documentaries (which I realize is unfair to documentaries–a genre that I love). Looking at “Argo” is no better than watching “Quo Vadis” in order to understand the historical Roman world and early Christianity. I noted this in an essay on my blog in 2013, and there were others who did so as well, but the bigger-click oped writers carried the day: and they loved “Argo.” There was very little prominent or strong criticism of “Argo.”

Why do “Argo” and others get of the hook, while “Selma” receives such deep historical analysis? Why didn’t David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress?

I think the answer is clear. There is an element of prejudice and racism in the focus on “Selma.” Critics (particularly white liberal critics) are much more defensive of “Selma,” because they feel a personal connection to the event which is not the case with most other films. And they feel hurt and slighted, because they feel lumped together with LBJ as resistant to civil rights progress.

I have never understood why drama and historical accuracy have to be opposed to be one another, but that is the way Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers seem to view the matter. That is the reality of these films. Critics, who know this full well, have to be consistent in their critiques. If you criticize historical inaccuracies, then you should do it consistently. Don’t lower the boom on one film, while letting the others slip through the cracks. If you do, be prepared for the return volleys that you will inevitably receive from the other side. This is rightfully so.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/21/maureen_dowds_clueless_white_gaze_whats_really_behind_the_selma_backlash/

 

Addendum:I keep looking at the thumbnail photo accompanying, and I just can’t it out of my mind how Heschel is air-brushed out. I still find “Selma” a superb film, but this erasure saddens me deeply. So here’s the original photo:

SelmaKingHeschelPhoto1

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Charlie Hebdo and the Comic Tradition

CHARLIE HEBDO AND THE COMIC TRADITION

I’ve read and watched an awful lot of news analysis of Charlie Hebdo, but rarely do pundits mention some of the salient facts about what Charlie Hebdo actually does and about the tradition of satire:

1) Charlie Hebdo mocks all three Abrahamic religions, not just Islam, and it does so offensively with no special favorites, but Jews and Christians do not attack and demonize Charlie Hebdo;

2) The tradition of satire and caricatures or religion in France is very old going, back to at least the French Revolution, and is tied to the deep distrust of religious institutions (the Catholic Church primarily) that was closely linked to the royal dictatorship that crushed economic, social, and political freedoms in France;

3) Charlie Hebdo does not only mock religion; it mocks other institutions and prominent public figures;

4) Charlie Hebdo is a part of a tradition of offensive satire that goes back to ancient Greek comedy. It includes writers such as Aristophanes whom many profess to love (mainly because they don’t understand, or care about, the ancient references). However, if Aristophanes were alive today, he would probably engender hatred among the people he would gleefully pillory and mock.

5) Commentators are shocked by all the sexual references in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. However, ancient comedy (and drama), which is the literary predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, was associated with phallus processions, accompanied by obscenities and verbal abuse.

So what some consider juvenile, stupid, and offensive in Charlie Hebdo has roots in literature and dramatic traditions that we profess to admire and call “classic.” We in the U.S. live in a culture that is still relatively Puritanical in its approach to public sexuality, and that is coming out in the U.S. media coverage.

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Holland Lee Hendrix Passes Away

HendrixHolland1

Sad news. Holly Hendrix was the man (then a senior Ph.D. student) who convinced me to go to Harvard Divinity School and study New Testament and Judaism for a masters degree on my way to a Ph.D. He gave me a whole slide show to get me interested and excited. Most of my family and friends thought I was nuts, but he was persuasive, and the course of my life changed.

I remember Holly chain smoking cigarettes in the library lounge during bull sessions. I roomed with him in Thasos (Greece) during a summer archaeological dig–he was the head of our team; I was a young graduate student. I recall swimming in the ocean in the afternoon with other grad students and him, laughing, and soaking up the sun. I recall evenings of ouzo and late nights of scotch (I was not much of a drinker, but he enjoyed himself), followed by cold Greek sink-water instant coffee in the morning (disgusting, but classic Holly). Holly would stay up half the night preparing for the next day of digging, while I tried to sleep.

Holly was a lot of fun to travel with. One time we went on a joint trip with HDS and Haverford (where he was teaching), and I watched him relate to his students who clearly loved him. He was also a fantastic dancer, and I saw him once walk into a Greek disco (Athens, I think) and just let loose. I still wish I could dance like that. Do people remember the string quartets with Helmut Koester? Helmut could not play the violin very well, but he loved to play. Holly played the viola (if I recall correctly), and he was a very good musician. I cannot get the picture out of my mind of Helmut sawing away with Holly and others masterfully playing their instruments: a very funny juxtaxposition both of musicianship and power.

I am sad to hear this news and recall him fondly as one of the primary people who set me on my professional path in life–in many ways.

http://utsnyc.edu/pages-primary/institutes–initiatives/institutes–initiatives—holland-hendrix-obituary

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Mizrahi Nation: Middle Eastern Jews in Israel and a Brief History of Jews in the Middle East

MizrahiNation1

A superb article by Matti Friedman, one of the best of I have seen not only on the history of the Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jews) in Israel, but on what it means to be Israeli, Jewish, and living in the Middle East. This article offers a perspective that is rarely found in discussions about Israel and the Israel/Palestinian conflict. After reading it, you may find your views on Israel, Jews, and the Middle East at least a little different.

I particularly enjoyed his characterization of the “religious vs. secular” Jewish dichotomy as a Western/Ashkenazi labeling. For Mizrachi, that distinction doesn’t exist. They have their own “liberal” form of Judaism which is not Orthodox, but “traditional”/Masorti–the name for Conservative Judaism, but different, because it has its own history and application that is completely different from the European-based movement. For example, some Mizrachi may go to Synagogue in the morning, head to the beach in the afternoon, text to one another, while celebrating Havdalah (end of Shabbat) later.

Overall the Mizrachi are much more “liberal” in practice than the Ashkenazi (European-based) religious, but more politically conservative than many Ashkenazi. Their conservatism is not based on ideology (as is typical of Ashkenazi on all sides of the political spectrum), however, but more on experience in having lived in the Middle East for many centuries (well before Islam ever got there).

http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/06/mizrahi-nation/

 

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The Christian Left and Jew-Hatred

bruce-shipman

Hard to see how anyone can rationalize Jew-hatred (antisemitism) by blaming it on Israeli policy, but many are doing just that now. Shipman and anyone else have the right to criticize Israel as they reasonably see fit (and I would do so as well), but they don’t have the right to excuse hatred–which is exactly what Shipman and others are doing. Attacking Jews on the street and putting swastikas on synagogues and fraternities does not happen because of Israeli policy. It happens because some people hate Jews. Period.

No one on the left (which is what many apparently consider me) would attribute assaults on women to provocative dress or police brutality toward African Americans on black-on-black violence, but somehow it’s OK for liberal Christian activists to do so when it comes to Jew-hatred. They don’t see how they’re drawing on 2000 years of ugly history. All this exposes the ugly underside of Christian prejudice toward Jews. Jewish-Christian dialogue has made progress since the Holocaust, but not as much as we had thought. We’re now seeing the public viewing of what was always there, but hidden.

All people have prejudices that are unknown even to them. I’m no exception to that. It’s part of the human condition. However, the most dangerous people are those who act as if they are immune to prejudice. If Shipman had apologized and reframed what he said differently, we could have moved beyond this. Not only does he refuse to do so, but he plans to continue in his crusade. Clearly we still have a long way to go: http://time.com/3340634/yale-chaplain-bruce-shipman-israel-anti-semitism/

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Gaza, Israel, and Media Coverage

Why are the global protests all focused on Gaza? Many more are dying in Syria: 700 over a two-day period.

Israel is the bogeyman for world media, but no one gives a hoot if Arabs are slaughtering other Arabs. What does this say about Israel and about antisemitism (yesterday protesters looted and ransacked Jewish businesses in a Paris suburb)?

Part 1: RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE ARGING THAT MEDIA COVERAGE OF GAZA IS SO EXTENSIVE BECAUSE OF ISRAEL’S FAILURE TO AGREE TO A CEASEFIRE

I don’t agree with you that the ceasefire issue is what drives the media.

The reason everyone pays attention to Gaza, and not to Syria, is because no one in the West gives a darn about Arabs and Muslims dying, but they do enjoy scapegoating Jews wherever they are. Whatever problems there are in the Middle East, blame it on the Jews. Now Muslims and Arabs have joined in on this. Take a look at Paris and its suburbs, where protesters have now burned and decimated French Jewish businesses. This is not primarily because of Gaza, but because fundamentally, at root, people blame Jews for whatever problems exists in their communities and cultures.

It’s sad, but it’s a fact. I don’t see a lot of people in Europe attacking Russian churches and community centers, because Russian separatists shot down a passenger jet. Where are the protesters on Iran’s treatment of the Bahai? Israelis are trying to protect their civilian population. You can argue about their tactics and effectiveness, but they do have a good argument based on self-defense.

No, fundamentally, the media and most people are fixated on Jews. This is a 2500-year-old problem, deeply rooted in history and culture. Those of us who devote our lives to working on antisemitism, Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, must face this on a daily basis. That’s the reality, and no amount of rationalizations get around this fact.

PART 2: RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE ARGUING THAT EXTENSIVE MEDIA COVERAGE OF GAZA IS DUE TO LIMITED FINANCIAL RESOURCES

a) It’s not just Syria that the media ignores. Last I heard France is pretty good digs for reporters. Yet how much media attention is focused on protesters burning down Jewish shops and businesses, calling Jews “pigs” and shouting “kill the Jews,” vandalizing and storming synagogues, and hunting Jews on the streets? There were similar (though less destructive) events in Germany. I don’t see much on the TV about that. Iran is a police state, but it’s relatively safe to travel in. Where is the attention on the Iranian treatment of the Bahai, who are viciously persecuted and murdered? What about the Iranian treatment of their native Arab population and political dissidents, whom they like to hang from cranes? Where is the attention on the destruction of indigenous communities worldwide (including in the US and Canada) for corporate profit (oil, minerals, gems, whatever)? What about China and Tibet? What about the treatment of women and gays in the Arab/Muslim world? How much media attention is there on that compared to Israel? I could go on and on. The fact of the matter is, the media, and people in general, are obsessed with Jews. Israel is a good proxy for that.

There is one financial factor you did not mention: Israel coverage markets well to a public that is focused on Jews and Judaism. In other words, “Israel” sells. As the newspaper people used to say, “Israel” makes good copy.

That said, I do agree that the safety and cheapness of travel to Israel is a factor in media coverage of Israel. Part of the attraction is also that Israel is a pleasant place to which to travel and a democracy with a free press. There’s just a lot more to it than your explanation.

b) Israel is in the news all the time. The media always has stories about the Palestinian situation–not as intensely as Gaza right now, but these stories are all over the place regularly. They’re hard to miss. I don’t see nearly as much attention on the stuff I describe above as I do on Israel, even when Israel is not involved in a war.

Beyond that, there has been massive violence (with concentrated deaths in short periods of time) in other locations over the past decades with relatively little media attention: Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Congo, Ivory Coast. Back in the 1960s through the 1990s we saw hideous numbers of deaths in conflicts in South America, Africa, and East Asia (remember East Timor) without comparable attention. Naturally disasters such as occur in Bangladesh and India attract relatively little attention. These are not all impossible to cover (not as easy as Israel, but not Syria), and yet we saw very little on them. I would not expect the equivalence of Gaza, but I would have expected a lot more than we got.

Somehow the media figured out a way to cover our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Vietnam. The media covered the breakup of Yugoslavia, including Bosnia/Serbia. They covered the Tiannamen Square uprising in China. They gave blanket coverage to the Indonesian tsunami. They focused on the 2009/10 election protests in Iran. In the U.S. the media covered the Tea Party, but much less the Occupy movement.

If it wanted to do so, the media could cover Syria to a greater extent than it has recently. Yes, it’s not easy, and, yes, it’s more expensive. Coverage of Syria would never equal coverage of Gaza, but the media could give Syria much more attention than it has–even without a lot of reporters on the ground. It chooses not to, because Syria, Arabs, and Muslims just don’t hold the attention of the public or of news decision-makers. They’re just not sexy or meaningful to enough people.

I’m not saying that it’s unreasonable to give Gaza a lot of attention. And I’m not saying that a Jewish fixation is the only reason the media focuses on Israel/Gaza/West Bank. I am saying that Gaza has attracted much more attention than other stories of similar magnitude and that part of it has to do with the public’s fascination (for both good and ill) with Israel and Jews. I’m also saying that the media picks and chooses what it decides to cover, in part based on what it thinks sells best. And Israel sells real well. And it has since 1948, especially since 1967.

And I can tell you this. Unless a miracle happens soon, stories about Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors will continue to abound (massive deaths or not), while stories about Ukraine and Russia will have long since faded into oblivion. This does have to do with the prominent place of Jews (in spite of their small numbers) and Israel in human culture and history.

c) All in all I just don’t buy this argument. It does not pass the smell test. The amount of coverage on Israel/Palestine (the former British Mandate), a tiny piece of land with a miniscule population of Jews and Arabs is massive and overwhelming, even without the current Gaza conflict. The overwhelming coverage cannot be explained away simply by reference to limited media resources. An alien from another solar system who dropped onto earth and saw the media coverage would assume that Israel/Palestine must comprise a large continent and a major portion of the world’s population. Obviously, that’s not the case. There are other reasons why the public and the media are obsessed with this little slice of our planet. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

d) I do think antisemitism is a major factor, but not the only one. It’s fixation on Jews that’s really at the core here. Even some supporters of Israel are motivated in part by the Bible and by their belief in Jews as part of God’s plan. And there are philosemitic non-Jews who focus on Jews and on Israel for a whole host of reasons. I wouldn’t call that antisemitism, but it does reflect a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Jews and Judaism. So fixation on Judaism is not simply antisemitism, but can actually be philosemitism as well. I would certainly rather have the latter than the former, but even that is a sword cutting more than one way.

I think it would be best for Jews if others would simply live their lives and leave us be. At the same time, I admit that Jews sometimes cultivate this fixation, and I’m certainly uncomfortable with that. There should be dialogue and conversation–not as an attempt to convert or to preach, but in order to learn and grow. I think it’s much better for Christians to become better Christians than to become Jews or something else, and I think it’s much better for Jews to become better Jews than to spend our time distinguishing ourselves from Christians and others.

As for one-sidedness, that’s a red herring. There are lot of one-sided conflicts in the world (some of which I already mentioned above) that do not get the same attention as Israel/Palestine. In Tibet, it’s mostly Tibetans getting killed, not Chinese. In Iran, no government officials get killed, only dissidents and disfavored minorities. In Central America, governments killed rebels and dissidents far more than the latter killed the former. In France, supporters of Israel are not attacking pro-Palestinian demonstrators, while Palestinians supporters are engaging in numerous attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions. Right now in Syria, ISIS seems to be inflicting most of the damage.

Actually, the death toll in Gaza is now over 700 Gazans and 32 Israeli soldiers, plus two civilians. Of course, that’s because Israelis try to protect their civilians, while the goal of Hamas is to have as many civilians as possible killed in order to promote their PR/media campaign. It’s amazing (though sadly not surprising) to me that the media mentions this only in passing or skeptically. Also, we have no way of knowing how many Gazan civilians vs. soldiers are being killed–Hamas is not exactly a trustworthy source for this kind of info.

In any case, the media would do well to spend more time looking more deeply at what’s going on and not simply reporting death numbers as if it’s a football game. From that perspective, however, Hamas is winning. For them the side with the most dead is the victor. So on the media scoreboard, Hamas is currently ahead of Israel, c. 1,058 vs. 53. That’s a lopsided victory for Hamas. I’m sure Hamas’ leaders are thrilled. The culture of death is winning in a landslide over the culture of life.

Perhaps, however, the distancing of other countries from Hamas that I have observed recently is a move in the right direction. That would certainly show some sophistication in not simply accepting Hamas’ explanations at face value. I hope the media will move in that direction as well.

 

PART 3: ON ISRAELI AND ARAB POSITIONS ON A PALESTINE STATE (INCLUDING THOMAS FRIEDMAN WHO WANTS ISRAEL TO FOCUS ON DEVELOPING THE WEST BANK AS A THRIVING DEMOCRACY)

I’m not a fan of Netanyahu and have never supported him or Likud. I’m not sure he’s as opposed to a Palestinian state as you think, but I’m not sure he believes in much of anything–except his own political survival. And I wrote on this blog that most Arab governments don’t want a Palestinian state either: see the same thing here-http://mysticscholar.org/whats-really-going-on-in-the…/

As far as the West Bank goes, Friedman is right in principle, but that’s no easy task either. Fatah is corrupt, inept, and non-democratic, and there is not much of a prospect for more salutary groups or institutions that could take the lead. The West Bank would need a massive shift in culture and outlook for what Friedman suggests to happen. And Arab governments, as well as Iran, have no interest in an autonomous, free, democratic Palestine. They will do everything possible to prevent that from happening. So that leaves essentially a mess for Israel to deal with. Netanyahu is not much of a leader, but I doubt that anyone or any Israeli party could deal with the current state of things. 

So what are the options? What should Israel do in light of all this? I have no idea. Neither does anyone else as far as I can make out. The best I can think of is play a waiting game and hope that the West Bank cleans up its act and that the Arab world develops some kind of democratic institutions (Tunisia??).

As far as handling Hamas, I don’t know what Israel should do. I’m not an Israeli, and I don’t live there. But I know I wouldn’t put up with rockets firing on my land and tunnels with terrorists pouring out. Perhaps there’s a better way to deal with Hamas, but I don’t know what it is, and I haven’t heard anything plausible. Demilitarizing Gaza would make sense, but that seems impossible, given Hamas and given the sentiments of Gazans. 

If you have something practical to suggest, I really would listen–really. But most of what I’ve heard out there is, quite frankly, naive, totally impractical, or simply wrong. I’m waiting–but sometimes, you just have to tread water for a while. 

Friedman can talk and talk, but his ideas are not really pragmatic or feasible; they just sound nice and thoughtful. He’s not really suggesting anything workable, just a lot of hopeful words.

In the meantime, I have to deal with the antisemitism that’s out there and that’s integrally related to the media’s depiction of Israel. France is a mess, and the attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions is reminiscent of Nazi-era events. And this is happening across Europe. The situation is ugly and screwed-up, and the media is making it worse by not explaining what’s going on.

It does bother me that Israel gets singled out for its deplorable conduct, while the other nations you mention get a pass. The BDS movement focuses on Israel, but shows no interest in advocating divestment in other countries with far worse human rights violations (in the Middle East, that would include Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, among others). This too is ugly and antisemitic, and the media does not address it at all. When you’re dealing with the detritus of the Holocaust that still remains with us and the burgeoning global antisemitism, this is very disturbing indeed.

 

Part 4: ON ISRAEL LEAVING THE WEST BANK AND THE CREATION OF A PALESTINIAN STATE THERE

The problem is: if Israelis pull out and declare a Palestinian state (so called Plan B, which many Israelis are discussing, by the way, including Netanyahu), then you are left with a disfunctional Palestinian government/society and major security issues right on Israel’s border. The West Bank Palestinian economy is not good, and no amount of help from Israel can fix a broken system. Israel has limited resources with its own enormous economic issues: a large population of young who do not have much upward mobility (just as is the case globally), an excessively high cost of living, a minority of ultra-orthodox who profit from the current welfare system without putting much back into it, an electoral system that promotes fragmentation (giving excess weight to small parties), and a military budget that will not diminish just because Israel leaves the West Bank.

Therefore, if Israel leaves the West Bank on its own or with an agreement, it will be faced with a restive, frustrated Palestinian population in the West Bank, a corrupt government that is anti-democratic and probably unable to improve the economy much at all, and the potential for a neighbor that will continue its war and terrorism against Israel as a way of casting blame away from itself. And you cannot forget that the Fatah government would have limited ability to govern, given that Hamas has considerable influence in the West Bank and that there are numerous other splinter groups in the West Bank committed to the destruction of Israel. There is no guarantee that Hamas, a fanatic group committed to the destruction of Israel and Jews worldwide, would not take over there. As we learned in Iraq, a democracy/free society does not emerge just because you wish it to be so. A lot has to be in place before that can happen. If it doesn’t, Israel will be in an even more precarious position.

Further, Arab/Muslim governments for the most part do not want an independent, free, democratic Palestinian state for a simple reason: they would be forced to face their own populations and explain themselves. Their opposition would create further difficulties for both Israel and Palestine and make the situation potentially even more volatile..

I do not support the continued building of new settlement outposts, and I’m not going to defend that. I think it’s wrong. But I don’t know what the way out is. There are many critics of Israel (including Israelis), but I have not heard much about how to solve this pragmatically other than hopeful words and pleasant thoughts. If anyone out there has read something or heard something that is practical and specific, I would be thrilled to read or hear it.

As to the media, I stand by what I’ve said. Israel/Gaza/West Bank is a tiny strip of land with a miniscule population. Even when there’s no major conflict, the media focus is enormous and disproportionate. That’s because it sells globally: in the U.S., in Europe, and in the Muslim world. It’s because it’s the land of the Bible. And it’s because Jews are involved.

PART 5: RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE ARGUING THAT THE CONCEPT OF THE “CHOSEN PEOPLE” AND OF “DIFFERENCE ARE WHAT DRIVE SOME OF THE ANIMOSITY TOWARD ISRAELIS AND JEWS

On the whole “chosen people” business, I rarely hear Jews, including most Israelis, talk about this. Most of the Israeli settlers are looking for suburban plots near Jerusalem and have no interest in theology. There are extreme settlers who talk about the Chosen People (Hebron, for example–and quite a number of them are American immigrants), but they are a small minority, and most Israelis (even religious ones) strongly dislike them.

It’s mostly Christians who talk about Jews as the Chosen People. I’ve led a lot of Jewish study groups, and that topic hardly ever comes us, except in response to Christians. Conservative/Evangelical Christians love the whole “Chosen People” trope and run with it non-stop. They have their own agenda, with end-time theology and mass conversion. Mainline and liberal Christians hate the whole idea of it and complain incessantly about Jewish superiority and tribalism.

Jewish sources talk about the Chosen People, but mostly not with pride. In Jewish tradition, God asked every other people to be the chosen ones, and they all refused. The Jews were the last, and they finally agreed to it–with a lot of complaints that have continued through the centuries. The concept of being “chosen” is not necessarily positive at all, but a burden that Jews are stuck with, forcing them to live difficult lives without much reward.

Even so, most Jews today don’t talk about it much, because it’s not an important part of daily life, of identity, or of practice. It’s mainly Christians (and now Muslims) who obsess over it.

Now, on the concept of “difference,” that’s a different matter. Lots of individuals and groups think of themselves as different. And, in fact, they are.

Teilhard de Chardin (who was a Catholic evolutionary biologist and theologian) had a concept known as the Omega Point, which he believed was the ultimate level of collective consciousness that human beings could attain in the distant future. He thought that collective consciousness depended not on homogeneity, but on hyper-individuality–each person’s authentic uniqueness.

We’re all different, and, yes, we’re all similar too, but Jews focus more on the “difference” part. They’re not the only group to do that. I don’t think that everyone should have to be the same. There should be a place (I hope) on the planet and in the human species for individuals and groups who focus more on difference.

 

ON THE DIFFICULTIES OF A TWO-STATE SOLUTION

The problem is: if Israelis pull out and declare a Palestinian state (so called Plan B, which many Israelis are discussing, by the way, including Netanyahu), then you are left with a disfunctional Palestinian government/society and major security issues right on Israel’s border. The West Bank Palestinian economy is not good, and no amount of help from Israel can fix a broken system. Israel has limited resources with its own enormous economic issues: a large population of young who do not have much upward mobility (just as is the case globally), an excessively high cost of living, a minority of ultra-orthodox who profit from the current welfare system without putting much back into it, an electoral system that promotes fragmentation (giving excess weight to small parties), and a military budget that will not diminish just because Israel leaves the West Bank.

Therefore, if Israel leaves the West Bank on its own or with an agreement, it will be faced with a restive, frustrated Palestinian population in the West Bank, a corrupt government that is anti-democratic and probably unable to improve the economy much at all, and the potential for a neighbor that will continue its war and terrorism against Israel as a way of casting blame away from itself. And you cannot forget that the Fatah government would have limited ability to govern, given that Hamas has considerable influence in the West Bank and that there are numerous other splinter groups in the West Bank committed to the destruction of Israel. There is no guarantee that Hamas, a fanatic group committed to the destruction of Israel and Jews worldwide, would not take over there. As we learned in Iraq, a democracy/free society does not emerge just because you wish it to be so. A lot has to be in place before that can happen. If it doesn’t, Israel will be in an even more precarious position.

Further, Arab/Muslim governments for the most part do not want an independent, free, democratic Palestinian state for a simple reason: they would be forced to face their own populations and explain themselves. Their opposition would create further difficulties for both Israel and Palestine and make the situation potentially even more volatile..

I do not support the continued building of new settlement outposts, and I’m not going to defend that. I think it’s wrong. But I don’t know what the way out is. There are many critics of Israel (including Israelis), but I have not heard much about how to solve this pragmatically other than hopeful words and pleasant thoughts. If anyone out there has read something or heard something that is practical and specific, I would be thrilled to read or hear it.

As to the media, I stand by what I’ve said. Israel/Gaza/West Bank is a tiny strip of land with a miniscule population. Even when there’s no major conflict, the media focus is enormous and disproportionate. That’s because it sells globally: in the U.S., in Europe, and in the Muslim world. It’s because it’s the land of the Bible. And it’s because Jews are involved.

 

ON PROSPECTS FOR A TWO-STATE SOLUTION

Actually, believe it or not, I think there will be peace some day. So I’m not pessimistic in the long term. I may be wrong, but, in my view, the Arab/Muslim world will have to move toward a more democratic system of governance before a two-state solution works. That’s going to take time. In spite of its shortcomings, the “Arab Spring” (which is not Spring in some places I realize) was a positive step. Tunisia will be interesting to watch.

Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians will also help over time. This will not transform the region over night, but it is slowly affecting the situation and will continue to do so..

As for your idea, Ehud Barak offered something similar in 1999. Arafat and the PLO rejected it. It may not have been the right time, and Barak was a terrible negotiator.

Israel did not “seize” Gaza and the West Bank. Israel entered them in 1967 after facing a massive Arab attack. When the Arab world decides to accept a Jewish state in the Middle East (which governments are beginning to), then it will be easier to deal with the logistics of this problem.

On the Arab right of return, this is obviously a thorny issue and will involve compensation. The Palestinians are the only group in the world given “refugee” status after multiple generations of absence from a territory. When the Arab countries expelled Jews after 1948, Israel accepted them as full citizens of the state of Israel. On the other hand, Arab governments forced Palestinians to live in refugee camps and did not integrate them into Arab societies.

Israel will have to deal with this issue financially, but it’s not as one-sided as your words imply. There are two stories here, each having legitimacy: two peoples with two painful histories and competing narratives and claims to the land.

As for Hamas, I’m glad you’re confident in Gaza tossing them out under the right conditions. I’m not. And I don’t think Israelis can assume anything. All I have to do is look at other parts of the Middle East to draw another conclusion.

Nevertheless, at some point, the day will come when a two-state solution can be put into action. I just don’t think that day has arrived yet. Let’s hope it comes soon.

RESPONSE TO A COLLEAGUE WHO ARGUES THAT ISRAEL IS NOT A DEMOCRACY, COMPARING IT TO ALABAMA 100 YEARS AGO

KantGazaExchange1

On the Barak proposal and the Camp David Summit, most observers (including many Palestinians ones) lay the blame on Arafat–that he never offered a concrete counter-proposal and could not give up on the right of return. In the end, Arafat could not accept a Jewish state on land that he still considered as belonging to the Palestinians. In other words, he was not ready to make a deal–Barak was (even with his weaknesses as a negotiator).

As for democracy, Israel is not a perfect society, and there’s racism and prejudice there, along with at times poor treatment of its Arab population. And, yes, it is a Jewish state, with Jewish governing principles and a Jewish majority.

That said, Arab citizens in Israel have more freedom and rights than they do in almost any Arab/ Muslim society that I can think of. The rights of Arab Israeli women are far higher than in any Arab society. Arab Israelis also have a considerable higher standard of living than in the surrounding societies and can actually be openly gay without being murdered.

In 2011, the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion commissioned a poll of Arab residents of Jerusalem. A plurality indicated that, if given the choice, they would choose to live under Israel rather than the PLO and that they thought their neighbors would prefer Israeli citizenship to Palestinian citizenship. Most Israeli Arabs vehemently oppose an Israel-Palestine settlement, because they do not wish to live under the PLO. Senior PLO and Hamas leaders (including three sisters of Ishmail Haniyeh, the top leader of Hamas) have sought Israeli ID cards so that they can live in Israel if they choose. Many of them have done so, including Haniyeh’s sisters. (Haniyeh’s sisters currently live as Israeli citizens in the Bedouin town of Tel as-Sabi near Beesheva on the edge of the Negev in Southern Israel; several of their children have served in the Israeli Defense Force/IDF!). I don’t know what the polls are saying now and who is living where and who holds which ID cards, but not all Palestinians and Israeli Arabs view Israel as a authoritarian state (as you suggest). Further, their view of the Israeli government versus the PLO and Hamas is filled with complexity, nuance, and contradictions.

If we consider Germany a democracy or Italy or France or Japan or South Korea (countries that presume ethnic/linguistic/cultural majorities), then Israel is no less a democracy than any of those. Israel believes it has a right to preserve its Jewish character, that Jews need to have a place where they can live without fear of persecution, discrimination, and murder. I don’t think that’s unreasonable or contrary to democratic principles. Perhaps others have a new definition of democracy with which I am unfamiliar.

Would you really compare Israel to Alabama a 100 years ago– lynchings; micegenation laws; separate water fountains, bathrooms, park benches; not to mention effective voting prohibition? Are you sure that you thought this analogy through? I don’t think there are many objective observers who would consider your comparison legitimate or reasonable. You might want to try a new tack.

 

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Evolution Gaining Greater Acceptance in the U.S.

Public views in U.S. are shifting toward support for evolution. I never understood this one. Maybe it because I’m Jewish and the child of a scientist, but I never saw the conflict with Genesis or the Bible. Genesis doesn’t really weigh in on the subject. Even a literalist view (which I certainly don’t have admittedly) could leave a lot of room for alternative interpretation. Opposition to evolution in the developed world is peculiar to the United States and is primarily found among evangelicals. Most others do not share this belief. I would truly like to better understand the reasons for opposition to evolution, because it’s so foreign to me. Perhaps there is a much deeper issue at play. If we could get at that, we might be able to address the real difficulty.

http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/

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PC-USA/Presbyterians Assault on Zionism and Judaism

The Presbyterian Church/PCUSA has recently promoted as a congregational resource a booklet called “Zionism Unsettled.” This has caused an enormous amount of controversy in the Jewish community (from the left to the right), as it essentially denies the legitimacy of Jewish aspirations and questions the right of Jews to have their own state.The attack on Zionism is not a critique of particular Israeli policies, but rather an assault on Israel as a Jewish state and an attack on Jewish history. It is nothing less than open and unapologetic antisemitism. Among other things, it claims that European Zionism ruined the lives of Middle Eastern Jews and that blame for the suffering of those Jews (the Mizrahi) should fall on European Jews who are colonialist usurpers. According to this narrative, European Jews have duped poor, benighted Middle Eastern Jews who were living blissful lives until those nasty Euro-Jews came along. This is a lie, pure and simple. Middle Eastern Judaism has a long history of love for Israel and hope for a return to their homeland, as do all Jews everywhere on the globe. And Jewish history in the Middle East is complex and often harsh. For example, in Yemen, Jews faced vicious persecution and lived lives of abject poverty and constant harassment and intimidation. They were not even allowed to own musical instruments, and the men were relegated to working in sewers. And, although there were times when Jewish life flourished in the Middle East, Jews throughout the Middle East also faced regular pogroms and persecution for centuries.

Many Presbyterians (if not most at the local levels) do not support this antisemitic position, but a small group of advocates and ideologues have hijacked their church. I wish the challengers all blessings and offer my support in whatever way I can be of use.

For these reasons, I am giving you links to a series of articles that Middle Eastern Jews have themselves written on this topic. I hope you find them of interest.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lyn-julius/presbyterians-have-it-bac_b_4896724.html

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/open-letter-to-the-presbyterian-church-from-an-iraqi-jew/

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/presbyterian-churchs-guide-is-dead-wrong-about-iranian-jewry/

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Review of Robert Nicholson, “Evangelicals and Israel”

The author is intelligent, knowledgeable, and thoughtful–but also generally wrong: http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2013/10/evangelicals-and-israel/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=share-via-email

I won’t go into great detail, but here are just a few points:

1) Eschatology is a BIG deal for evangelicals. In my many years of encounters, conversations, bull-sessions, and scholarly exchange with evangelical Christians, I cannot remember many times of serious interchange when the subject of eschatology did not come up. Nicholson is right that evangelicals do not agree on the details, but wrong when he downplays the importance of eschatology. In fact, I would go so far as to say that evangelicals are obsessed with both end times (all it takes is a cursory google search to see this), and that’s why evangelicals don’t always agree. In any case, in almost every scenario, Jews do not fare well. The “voluntary” conversion that Nicholson identifies is also generally accompanied (no matter which scenario) by the mass death and slaughter of the vast majority of the Jewish population. In fact, those Christian end time images of genocide (which one also finds in some Catholic depictions) have inspired antisemites for centuries, including the Nazis.

While eschatology may say nothing about the actual future, it does say something about the ways in which some Christians view Jews–and it’s not good. It says that Jews are not worthy of life in the same way that believing Christians are worthy of life. It implies, in essence, that Jews are somewhat less than human. To be fair, the view of Jews as sub-human (which the Nazis glorified) also applies to members of other faiths and to agnostics and atheists,* but Christians have had a special relationship to, and history with, Jews. For that reason, the symbolism and language of eschatological discourse and the implied status of Jews as sub-human means that Christian-Jewish relations are fraught with particular dangers and risks.

The relentless drive to convert Jews to Christianity, which characterizes most evangelicals, also presumes that Jewish practice and belief without Jesus Christ are insufficient for full human status.

2) Christian evangelical anti-Zionism is not simply a left-wing phenomenon. The author does not discuss the conservative Christians who hold disturbing views on Jews and Judaism and oppose the state of Israel. This is nothing new and has existed for a long time.

3) Since the topic of Christian Zionism, particularly CUFI (Christians United for Israel and John Hagee), has come up in many Jewish communities, I have warned that the worm will turn. There may be a substantial number of Christian Zionists today, but many of their ancestral co-religionists persecuted Jews and opposed the state of Israel. A movement which owes much of its theology to Martin Luther and other antisemites cannot just shed its inheritance in a decade or two without a serious discussion and eventual confession. And I have not seen that take place–not even remotely. Until I do and until enough time passes afterwards, I do not think that Jews should place much faith in alliances with Christian Zionists.

What’s more likely to happen is that Christian Zionists will eventually perceive Jews as intransigent and difficult because Jews are not willing to convert. Then, when their frustration reaches a tipping point, these same Christian Zionists will turn on Jews. That’s what I think is happening now. It’s not a question of “liberal” (whatever that means) evangelicals, but rather the inevitable reemergence of hatred and prejudice that has always sat lurking just beneath the surface.

This does not mean that I am opposed to conversations (which I still relish) or even to occasional alliances on very specific issues of mutual interest. I remain deeply committed to Jewish-Christian dialog, especially to the interfaith study of biblical texts, the history of Jewish-Christian relations, and theological reflection. However,it does mean that we Jews need to be clear-headed and honest about our interlocutors. The naivete, or perhaps willful ignorance, of many in the Jewish community (especially the organized Jewish community) is an even greater danger than the antisemitism of many Christians. If we Jews were more self-aware and sober in our understanding of the evangelical point of view, I would feel a lot more comfortable about Jewish-Christian relations on Israel.

And, by the way, I would have much to say that is critical of the mainline Christian community as well (especially their siding with Palestinians and their reflexive criticism of all Israeli policy), but they do not currently seem to present the same set of problems for leaders in the organized Jewish community that Christian evangelicals do. In addition, we Jews will have to confront our own prejudices and assumptions about all Christians, including evangelicals.

This article by Robert Nicholson has the potential to further cloud the minds of many in the Jewish community and lead them astray in a time of anxiety. In my view, especially when it comes to Israel, we Jews are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better off we’ll be. Hope, if I dare pronounce that word, comes from a survival instinct that has guided our community for over three thousand years and from the realization that resilience is part of our spiritual makeup.

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Is the U.S. Post-Christian?

BarnaPostChristian1

Evangelical Christian demographer, George Barna investigates whether the US is a post-Christian nation. He concludes that the US is moving in that direction:

http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/613-how-post-christian-is-us-society

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Matthew Fox’s 95 Theses for a Christianity for the Third Millennium

A powerful statement of Christian faith in a post-religious era (via Joseph Engelberg): http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/prayersaffirmationscollection/affirmationsmanifestos/95_theses_or_articles_of_fa.html

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Environmental Prophets of Doom

There is something I want to say about many in the environmental movement. I hear a lot of people predicting “The End” and the collapse of everything. In fact, I understand their point of view, and I have some sympathy with it. We as a species certainly can destroy the earth through pollution, nuclear catastrophe, destruction of eco-systems, and other means.

However, I don’t really see the value in this. What good does such pessimism and hopelessness do? If everything is going to be destroyed anyway in the near future, then please shut up and live your life. We don’t need to hear prophecies of doom any more than we need to have it rammed in to us that we are going to die some day. Yes, I know, but I don’t need someone screaming at me about it every minute of the day.

I guess I place these environmental prophets of doom in the same category as I place fundamentalist Christian evangelists who speak of the coming apocalypse. Doom-saying, apocalyptic Christians can go to Jerusalem or Texas or Salt Lake or wherever else they have a vision to await the return of Christ; ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch Hasidim can await the return of Rabbi Schneerson to Brooklyn and Jerusalem; Shiite Muslims (like the current President of Iran and many others) can go to Damascus to await the descent of the twelfth imam (the Mahdi); and perhaps secular environmental prophets should go to Greenland or the Antarctic or Alaska or Polynesia to await the final collapse of civilization and planetary life.

Yes, we have problems, and they’re serious, life-threatening, even cataclysmic. We’ve been around for a little while now, and empires comes and go, as do societies and peoples. But the earth has continued, so has life, in spite of what human beings have done to the planet (and they’ve done a lot even before now). And the earth is certainly not the only planet with life, nor is this the only universe, and there are other life forms we on the planet have yet to encounter (or perhaps don’t recall).

While there is reason for an apocalyptic voice now and throughout history, sometimes it enters into pointlessness, even silliness. Often it reflects a kind of species narcissism, as if our problems, however difficult, portend the end of all that is. There’s much we don’t know or remember about our our own lives, the history of our species, and the origins and characteristics of our solar system, galaxy, and universe. Yet we presume to predict future outcomes and events based on our own limited knowledge and life-experience.

Just because our efforts do not seem to have much affect, if any, does not mean that nothing is changing. When we assume we are failing or having no impact (and I’ve done that too), we are in fact acting selfishly, assuming the world depends on us, that we have some inherent right to see change, and that our individual lifetimes have a greater value than thousands upon thousands of generations that came before us and that will come after us–not to mention the millions upon millions of generations of every cell and life-form. Maybe we need to lighten up and enjoy the music. I know I need to do that.

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Mormon Women Protest by Wearing Pants

MormonWomenInPants1

In a move to assert their rights in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and to bring attention to gender inequalities, Mormon women put out a call to wear pants to church. We may think of women as having achieved parity in many sectors of American society, but in religious institutions women often find themselves caught in the backdraft of ancient traditions and historical precedents.

In my own Jewish tradition, for example, women have found themselves arrested by Israeli police simply for wearing a prayer shawl (talit) while praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In fact, there is nothing in Jewish law that would prevent women from doing this: it’s simply a custom that men in authority don’t like.

This is another example of religious institutions trailing behind other sectors of society in promoting economic and social progress. In the modern world, organized religion has in fact mostly stood as an impediment to the expansion of freedom and to cultural advancement. In contrast, spiritual thought and practice is much more attuned to the unfolding consciousness that is very gradually bringing humanity to a higher state of awareness and living.

Thanks to these Mormon women for helping humanity move forward just a little bit further.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/us/19mormon.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/us/19mormon.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121220&_r=1&

 

 

 

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The Middle East and the Israeli Political Scene

THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE ISRAELI POLITICAL SCENE

Laurence H. Kant

Thomas Friedman is right on the mark in this recent New York Times article, “The Full Israeli Experience,” describing (on the one hand) the justifiable frustration Israelis have with left-wing Europeans who don’t understand what it’s like to live in the Middle East and (on the other hand) pointing out the depressing absence of significant political support for peace initiatives among Israeli parties and political leaders.

As Friedman explains, Israelis will not listen if you don’t demonstrate you have a clue as to what’s going on in the Middle East. In my view, most left-wing Europeans–and some left-wing Americans as well–haven’t got the foggiest idea. They just don’t. They live in la-la land without a meaningful sense of the history of the Middle East or of Jews (or of Arabs and Muslims for that matter). Further, their own self-confidence leads them to think that they are somehow exempt from the prejudice and antisemitism that so deeply inhabits their being. They are just too arrogant and self-righteous to see it.

I would add, however, that Israelis are themselves naive at times. They think the US religious right is on their side, and they’re wrong. As some have said, fundamentalist Christians may love Israel, but they don’t like Jews much. Or maybe they like Jews from the “Old Testament” (as they envision it), or if Jews look funny in black hats from another time. However, such Christians are not very comfortable with mainstream Jews (secular, Reform, Conservative, and some Modern Orthodox, among others) who participate in global society, wear modern clothing, and constitute the vast majority of worldwide Jewry. Many millennarian Christians are not that different from the Palestinians in an odd sort of way. The PLO and Hamas are ok with the state of Israel as long as it’s inhabited by Arabs and Muslims. These evangelicals just replace “Arabs” and “Muslims” with “Christians” (after Jews convert, and Israel becomes a Christian state in the millennial age). Other evangelicals just want all Jews to convert to Christianity. Nobody, it seems, can envision Israel as Jewish, or can see Jews as staying Jewish, much longer. Apparently that concept is verboten.

The Middle East climate is rough right now, with the Arab/Muslim world in a whirlwind of tumult. In the midst of that, Israeli politics is more confused and chaotic than usual, an environment that is, to put it simply, a crazy mess (a mischigoss, balagan).

The main thing Bibi Netanyahu seems to care about is winning elections, while Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beteinu, is racist and authoritarian (though Lieberman is progressive on reducing the power of the religious). Lieberman and Netanyahu especially use the settlers (who constitute about 10% of the total Israeli vote) to drive their foreign policy and keep them in power, because in the fragmented Israeli system relatively modest numbers can drive your vote numbers high enough to win a lot of seats.  Moshe Kahlon threatened a breakaway party that would espouse a challenge to corporate interests in Israel, but he decided to stay with Likud and not run this year. Recently emerging further on the right is Habayit Yehudi (The Jewish Home),  a coalition of the National Relgious Party and the National Union, which are further to the right of Israel Beteinu, but represent a religious Zionist approach (in contrast to Likud/Israel Beteinu, which is secular). Led by Naphtali Bennett, this party is a settlers’ movement (closely associated with the West Bank settler’s council, Yesha) that envisions a greater Israel including the West Bank, opposes a two-state solution (in a wierd way, aligning with Hamas),  and takes away votes from Likud/Israel Beteinu.

The religious parties (who represent the ultra-Orthodox Haredi), besides bent on discriminating against women, primarily want welfare for themselves and military exemptions. They are not Zionist or genuine supporters of the Israeli political system. These include primarily Shas (representing the ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, led byEli Yishai) and United Torah Judaism (UTJ, representing the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi). They rely on the weakness of the Israeli political system to essentially shakedown whatever government (right or left) is in power. Despite the portrayals of them in Western media, these groups have very little interest in, or influence over, the debate on Palestinian statehood or on West Bank settlements.

The center- and left-wings of Israeli politics are splintered and in tatters, filled with narcissists and limelight seekers (there are plenty of them on the right also, but there are more constraints on them at the moment). Friedman’s favorite centrist, Ehud Barak just sold his Tel-Aviv apartment for 26.5 million shekels or 6.5 million dollars–now there’s a real man of the people at a time when many Israelis cannot make ends meet. Beside his fondness for intrigue and drama, Barak also badly misjudged negotiating tactics in the Camp David discussions with the Palestinians in 2000.  Tzipi Livni has added former Labor Party leader, Amir Peretz, to her new party (Hatnua) list so that we have two leaders whom many Israelis perceive as having failed miserably during the 2006 Lebanese war. Most Israelis naturally don’t want them in leadership. Shaul Mofaz, the current leader of Kadima, is not a popular leader, lacking charisma and political skills. Some have floated the name of Shimon Peres. While he’s been quite a statesman and leader (the man partly responsible for Israel’s nuclear program), he’s not at the right age to reenter politics at 89, and, though popular now, he did not inspire confidence in Israelis when he was in power as a Labor Party politician. Ehud Olmert has serious legal problems and his own political baggage. Shelly Yacimovich, the Labor Party leader, who is growing in popularity, has virtually no foreign policy or security experience. Yair Lapid, head of the new party, Yesh Atid, advocates for a secular society and for women’s rights in explicit opposition to the religious, but his platform is probably too narrow to attract enough  votes to make him a significant player. The left-wing party, Meretz, describes itself as the peace party and as socialist, but most Israelis view it as too idealistic and unrealistic.

Overall, most Israelis don’t particularly like Netanyahu, but at least he’s competent in their view.

HBO or Showtime could easily serialize Israeli politics into a weekly evening soap opera, with wild twists and turns, intrigues, plots and counter-plots, jam-packed with drama-kings and drama-queens.

At the same time, one can trace the currently disturbed state of Israeli politics back to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhaq Rabin by a right-wing settler (Yigal Amir) who was himself goaded by the inflammatory rhetoric of settler leaders, politicians, and rabbis. Many Israelis (and diaspora Jews as well) are still stunned by the idea that a Jew would murder the Jewish leader of a Jewish state. Just as it took the US a long time to recover from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, it may take Israel a long time to find its political way after this traumatic event. The incapacitating stroke of Ariel Sharon in 2006 just after he had successfully led Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza further exacerbated the political trauma and left Israel without another of its seminal leaders. Rabin and Sharon may not have seen eye to eye, but they were powerful leaders who had a vision for Israel and its place in the Middle East. They had obvious military credentials, were tough individuals with strong egos, and possessed a willingness to fight in the political underbrush. They also believed in seeking peace through strength, taking measures to demonstrate both their toughness and their openness to reconciliation. Their loss has had a deeply depressive effect on the Israeli body politic. We should not forget this.

Of course, the structure of the Israeli political system is flawed, allowing for the proliferation of smaller parties some of which wield power well beyond the numbers of their supporters. It makes coherence, consensus, and political stability more difficult to achieve than it should be. What we end up with is an already fragmented electorate even more fragmented.

Israelis are particularly bleak at the moment about the Arab world and about Palestinian society. All you have to do is take a look at the recent statement of Hamas leader, Khalid Meshal, about Israel: “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land.” How do you have a rational discussion with a group that openly states that it wishes to annihilate you? Plus, Israelis have their own internal problems with an outrageous cost of living and enormous divisions between the secular and the religious.

Yet, in the final analysis, most Israelis want peace and will go a long way out of their comfort zone to make peace. Eventually the political culture will reflect that. Unfortunately, it may take more time. Given the situation in the Arab world and the lack of acceptance of a Jewish state, Israel’s neighbors are clearly in no mood to recognize a Jewish Israel. And, given Israel’s own divisions, Israelis find it difficult to harness a unified vision and national identity.

Things never move as quickly as we would like, but still they’re moving, however slowly. For example, attempts to bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together are flourishing in all sorts of unlikely places in Israel and the West Bank. Within Israel we are seeing attempts from all sides of the political spectrum to lower the cost of living and help disadvantaged Israelis. And there are movements now to bridge the divide between the secular and religious in Israel.

Further, while the so-called Arab Spring could devolve into chaos or produce fanatic Muslim fundamentalist governments (see Iran, but this time potentially mostly Sunni rather than Shiite), it also presents the only real possibility for change in the Arab/Muslim world. The risks are enormous, but the previous corrupt, repressive governments of the Middle East (some of which still exist, with a few more barely holding on to power) would never have been able to bring about peace with Israel or democratic prosperity at home. Realistically, as dangerous and as anxiety-provoking as possible outcomes are, this change is the best hope Israel has for peace.

Part of the problem is that we can visualize peace, and that makes it seem closer than it actually is, but in reality peace is there on the horizon, just further out than we would like. Sometimes hope (as Pema Chodron says) holds us back and pushes us to do things which we should not. What we really need is neither hope nor despair, but an honest, clear-headed view of what’s in front of us, supported and nurtured by a fundamental trust in the universe (which is, after all, the Jewish way).

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/opinion/sunday/friedman-the-full-israeli-experience.html (Thanks to Nelson French! for this article)

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The Far-Right Goes after the Girl Scouts

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Right-Wing History Re-Writes

If you don’t like history, simply rewrite it and persuade people that lies are true. That’s the conservative method of attaining political victory.

http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/150937/the_right’s_’big_lie’_strategy:_when_losing,_simply_rewrite_history/?page=1 (via Dianne Bazell)

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Changing the Minds of Climate Change Deniers

It’s occasionally possible for the facts to change the minds of climate change deniers. The politicization of this issue in the U.S.. as well as the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific basis of American evangelical Protestants and the power of corporate interests, has made the U.S. one of the only places in the world to have such a substantial number of people who deny the clear conclusions of science.  In the U.S., this follows the pattern of denying other scientific assessments, including evolution, damage to the ozone layer, the use of marijuana, the age of the earth, the dangers of nuclear power. and much more.
http://www.slate.com/id/2293607/pagenum/all/ (via Dianne Bazell)

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Cairo’s Garbage People

A tour of a Christian district in Cairo where the garbage collectors live in squalor amidst sewage and garbage:
http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/279-82/6031-garbage-people

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How to Deal with Your Pets After the Rapture

At last a realistic and practical way to deal with the rapture and its aftermath: http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/ (via Michael Rebic)

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General Boykin and Christian Dominionism

Former General William “Jerry” Boykin is busy promoting Christian dominionism, targeting Islam, and promoting “Christian warriors.” This is one wierd world. George Bernard Shaw was right when he said that “earth is the insane asylum of the universe.” I guess General Boykin and his allies are not very familiar with cultures and traditions other than his own. Just living in his own little isolation chamber, I guess
http://coloradoindependent.com/85808/palin-to-honor-troops-in-colorado-with-christian-military-crusader-boykin

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Secret Mercenary Force Set Up by Blackwater Founder for UAE

Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater (now XE) is now working on building a mercenary force of mostly Latin American soldiers that will work on behalf of the UAE in order to put down internal revolts, defend pipelines, and combat terrorism. No Muslims need apply, because the leadership and Prince is convinced that Muslim soldiers will not shoot other Muslims.  Prince is also associated with Christian dominionism. Meanwhile, is this legal? Can an American citizen hire out a mercenary force on behalf of a foreign nation without permission of the U.S. government? At the least, this will not make the United States look very good to the Arab/Muslim world.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/world/middleeast/15prince.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

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Christian-Muslim Clashes in Egypt

Clashes leave twelve dead and two churches in flames in Cairo: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/world/middleeast/09egypt.html

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Israel and the U.S. Are Ultimate Allies

This is an excellent analysis and survey by U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Michael Oren: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/25/the_ultimate_ally?page=full

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Huckabee Indoctrination

Huckabee wants Americans indoctrinated at gunpoint by David Barton, pseudo-historian who claims the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. Barton apparently denies that the First Amendment protects the religious rights of all US citizens; rather it protects only those who are Christian. Another Oy vez.
http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2011/03/30/mike-huckabee-says-he-wants-americans-to-be-indoctrinated-at-gunpoint/

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The Power of Symbolism

Here is my dissertation:  “The Interpretation of Religious Symbols in the Graeco-Roman World:  A Case Study of   Early  Christian Fish Symbolism” (3 vols):  Yale University, 1993.  Please note that the pagination in the PDF files, though close, is not exactly the same as in my original dissertation (due to formatting issues).

I originally intended this as part of a comparative study of ancient symbols, including the menorah for Jews.   Given the length of the project, this was not practical.  However, I regard my dissertation as comparative project whose goal is to understand the nature of religious symbolism.

There are many things that I would now change, including writing style.  Of note is the Avercius (Abercius) inscription text, which has several errors; for a correct edition, see http://mysticscholar.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/AverciusText1a.pdf.  I also wish that I had  included a section on the use of fish and fishing symbolism in the gospels.  If interested, take a look at the text of a talk I gave on this topic in “Essays and Talks” in “Larry Kant” (http://mysticscholar.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/FishNTTalk1.pdf).

I have also somewhat changed my views of Freud and Jung.  I always appreciated them, but my dissertation is more critical of them than I would be now.

Diss1Diss2Diss3Diss4Diss5Diss6

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“Palestine, an Obsession of Radical West, Not Arabs”

This essay is impressive.  Brendan O’Neil absolutely nails it.  This is all about victims and who is the biggest victim.

Back when Israelis looked like victims in the fifties and sixties, the same lefties loved Israelis and Jews (by the way, I’m no conservative either).  Israelis and Jews were good victims then too.  Until Israel won wars in 1967 and 1973, the Israelis and Jews (because of the Holocaust experience) were the favored victims.  Many Jews were glad to have their support, but now I realize what that support actually meant.  Jews are fine for these protesters as long as they remain victims:  holocaust survivors, victims of anti-semitism, and poor Israelis facing massive odds against far more populous Arabs.  However, God forbid that they should defend themselves and emerge victorious.  Like the Palestinians, Jews were a tribe that middle-class empathizers could “coo” over.  We’re still a tribe.  Only we’ve made the mistake of forming a prosperous, democratic county and protecting ourselves.

There’s no question that Israel has done things that are problematic, especially the settlement policy.  Israelis have also fallen into the trap of responding to every Palestinian provocation with force.  There’s racism against Arabs that is prevalent in Israel.

Still this is a democratic society (the only full-fledged democracy in the Middle East) that is under siege from surrounding countries who want to annihilate it and to remove all Jews from the Middle East.  Israel’s own Arab citizens have more economic opportunity, mobility, and freedom than the vast majority of other Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East. It is a diverse society that has women serving in the military, gay pride parades, as well as Arab and Ethiopian Jews.

In the end, whether you are Israeli/Jewish or Palestinian, most in the West look at you as a symbol, a trope.  Not many really give a hoot about you, except in so far as you conform to some preconceptions that elicit feelings of tenderness or revulsion.  It’s not just liberals, but conservatives, as well, especially some fundamentalist Christians.  The latter see Palestinians as Muslim allies of the Anti-Christ ready to destroy Christianity, while Jews are ancient witnesses to Christ whose presence in the “Holy Land” will help usher in the Second Coming.  Of course, in this scenario, the returned Christ will pretty much kill all of us, Muslim and Jew alike, unless we convert.

It would be nice if people could look at us, both Jews and our Palestinian cousins, as fellow human beings.  Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/palestine-an-obsession-of-radical-west-not-arabs/comments-e6frg6zo-1226006572220

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DaVinci Code and Passion of the Christ: Two Peas in a Pod

See Dianne M. Bazell and Laurence H. Kant, “First-Century Christians in the Twenty-First Century:  Does Evidence Matter?”,  in Restoring the First-century Church in the Twenty-first Century: Essays on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in Honor of Don Haymes, pp. 355-66.  Edited by Hans Rollman and Warren Lewis.  Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock, 2005:  Haymes

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Translating “God” and “Lord”

Because of the anthropomorphic connotations of the English words, “God” and “Lord,” because of the human tendency to use “God” as a thing or object (thereby objectifying “God”), and because of their inherently gendered meanings (”Lord” as opposed to “Lady” and “God” as opposed to “Goddess”), these words have too much baggage to use in current translations of the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, I often replace “God” with “THE ALL” and “LORD GOD” with “ALL THAT IS.” For “LORD,” I simply use “SOURCE.” This will no doubt prove strange for many readers, but de-familiarization is part of the process of reacquainting oneself with the deeper meanings of the biblical text.      These translations also have the advantage of preserving the actual significance of the Hebrew words which have become ossified in English (and other modern languages) translations and consequently lost their original meanings.

YHWH comes from the Hebrew word, “to be” (hayah), and is explicitly associated with being, becoming, existence, etc. By using a verb to describe the Divine, early Jewish writers imply that the Divine is fundamentally not an object or a thing, but rather that it is relational in nature. One might describe it as “energy,” because it is a force, not an object. The English word, “Lord,” reflects the Hebrew vowel pointing of YHWH as adonai (a – o – ai), used by Jews from antiquity to the present day to avoid saying the Divine name. There are other circumlocutions used by Jews to avoid saying the Divine name:   e.g. “the name” ( hashem) and “the place” (hamaqom). By using “SOURCE” or “ALL THAT IS,” I maintain the original meaning of the word without using the Divine name.

Elohim  is the word that normally translates “God” (from El, the chief deity of the Ugaritic pantheon), but it is a plural form that naturally implies a multiplicity of deities. In the Hebrew Bible, it normally indicates the deity of the Jewish people: the One God, the Eternal. Occasionally it directly indicates more than one god (such as in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22), but even there the notion of oneness persists. As a plural form, Elohim suggests that one cannot limit the Divine to a single thing (which a singular form would connote) and actually implies that the Divine is so all-encompassing that no thing falls outside of its compass. Elohim means unity. From a metaphorical perspective, one might see the Divine as a choir rather than a soloist; here the many become one. This is why the term, “monotheism” (which implies singularity rather than oneness or unity) is inadequate for describing the Jewish and Christian concepts of Divinity. “THE ALL” preserves the all-encompassing character, relationality, unity, and oneness of the Divine.

See how I do this in “translations of Genesis by larry” in “about mystic scholar”: http://mysticscholar.org/about-mystic-scholar/translations-of-genesis-by-larry/

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Origins of Gnosticism

A friend of mine asked me about the origins of Gnosticism. Not everyone agrees on the origins of Gnosticism. The term itself is disputed, because many do not even believe that there is a coherent phenomenon called “Gnosticism.” Of those who do accept the idea of “Gnosticism,” there are some who see it as a second century C.E. Christian movement, but there are others who see it as first a Jewish movement (this is my view). And there are others who see Gnosticism as a kind of “pagan” (whatever that means) philosophical spirituality. Take your pick. It all depends on how one defines “Gnosticism,” I guess. My favorite sourcebook for Gnosticism is, Bentley Layton, Gnostic Scriptures (Anchor Bible Library).

For a comprehensive view of Gnosticism as a Christian movement, see Simone Petrement, A Separate God. For the Jewish origin view, see Guy Stroumsa, Another Seed; also Carl Smith, No Longer Jews. From my point of view, if you look at a text like the Apocryphon of John, for example, this essentially reads as a Jewish text. For Jews living in the Hasmonean and Roman periods, there was constant apocalyptic ferment and messianic crisis–even more so after the destruction of the Temple in 70. The Gnostic view makes sense in such a context. Elisha ben Abuya was not the only Jew to have speculated about a “second God” (hence his nickname, “Aher,” “other”); that kind of speculation can be found in one form or another in Jewish mystical texts in antiquity right through the Kabbalah and Lurianic mysticism. The Christian theory really only works if you define “Gnosticism” in certain terms, thereby making it Christian. I can define pretty much anything into existence by using that kind of logic. It’s like putting on blinders, and then saying that anything you could see without the blinders are really figments.

My own view is that Jews had more widespread influence on non-Jews during the Graeco-Roman period than is generally understood. “Pagans” may have picked up some of the ideas from Jews (as magical papyri seem to indicate). and that could have been one of the avenues that Jewish gnostic ideas traveled to Christianity. Also, as Jews,some early Christians would have received these ideas directly from Jewish tradition.

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Who Murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero?

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Resurrection

A discussion of resurrection in a modern context:

http://www.newsweek.com/2010/03/24/far-from-heaven.html

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Jewish Contract with God

From an e-mail I received

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To: The Lord G-d Almighty a.k.a. Ha’shem, Shadai, Elohim, etc.

From: The Jews: a.k.a. The Chosen People

Subject: Termination of Contract/Special Status (Chosen People)

As you are aware, the contract made between You and Abraham is up for
renewal, and this memorandum is to advise You that after, yea, those many
millennia of consideration, we, the Jews (The Chosen People) have decided
that we really do not wish to renew.

We should point out immediately that there is nothing in writing, and, contrary to popular beliefs, we (The Jews) have not really benefited too much from this arrangement. If You go back to the early years of our  arrangement, it definitely started off on the wrong footing. Not only was  Israel and Judea invaded almost every year, but we also went to enormous expense to erect not one but two Temples, and they
were both destroyed. All we have left is a pile of old stones called the Western Wall (of course You know all this, but we feel it’s a good thing to account for all the reasons we wish to terminate the contract).

After the Hittites, Assyrians, Goliaths, etc, not only were we beaten up almost daily, but then we were sold off as slaves to Egypt, of all countries, and really lost a few hundred years of development. Now, we realize that You went to a great deal of trouble to send Moses to lead us out of Egypt, and those poor Egyptian buggers were smitten (smote?)with all those plagues. But, reflecting on those years, we are  at a loss to understand why it took almost forty years to make a trip that El Al now does in 75 minutes.

Also, while not appearing to be  ungrateful, for years a lot of people have asked why Moses led us left  instead of right at Sinai? If we had gone right, we would have had the oil!

OK, so the oil was not part of the deal, but then the Romans came and we really were up to our necks in dreck. While it’s true that the Romans did give us water fit to drink, aqueducts, and baths, it was very disconcerting to walk down one of the vias, look up, and see oneof your friends or family nailed to a three-by-four looking for all the world like a sign post. Even one of our princes, Judah Ben Hur got caught up with Roman stuff and drove like a crazy man around the Coliseum. It’s a funny thing but many people swore that Ben Hur had an uncanny resemblance to Moses…go figure.

Then, of all things, one of our rabbis (teachers) declared himself “Son of You” (there was nothing said about this with Abe) and before we knew what was what, a whole new religion sprang up. To add insult to injury,
we were dispersed all over the world two or three times while this new religion really caught on! We were truly sorry to hear that the Romans executed him like so many others, but, …alas, (and this will make you
laugh,) once again WE were blamed.

Now here’s something we really don’t understand. That our rabbi really came into his own. Millions of people revered and worshipped his name and scriptures. ….. and still killed us by the millions. They claimed we drank the blood of new born infants, and controlled the world banks (Oy! if only that were so.) We could have bought them all off, and operated the world’s media and so on and so on. Are we beginning to make our point here?

OK so let’s fast-forward a few hundred years to the Crusades. Hoo boy! Again we were caught in the middle! They, the lords and knights, came from all over Europe to smack the Arabs and open up the holy places, but before we knew what hit us, they were killing us right, left, and center along with everyone else. Every time a king or a pope was down in the opinion polls, they called a crusade or holy war, and went on a killing rampage in our land.

Today it’s called Jihad. OK, so You tested us a little there, but then some bright cleric in Spain came up with the Inquisition. We all thought it was a new game show, but once again we and, we must admit, quite a few others were used as firewood for a whole new street lighting arrangement in major Spanish cities.

All right, so that ended after about a hundred years or so… in the scheme of things not a long time. But every time we settled down in one country or another, they kicked us out! So we wandered around a few hundred years or so, but it never changed. Finally we settled in a few countries but they insisted we all live in ghettoes…no Westchesters or Moscow for us. There we are in the ghettoes, when what do you know? The Russians come up with the Pogroms. We all thought they made a spelling mistake and misspelled programs, but we were dead wrong (no pun intended). Apparently, when there was nothing else for them to do, killing
the Jews (a.k.a. The Chosen People, are You getting our drift?) was the in thing.

Now comes some really tough noogies. We were doing quite well, thank You, in a small European country called Germany, when some house painter wrote a book, said a few things that caught on and became
their leader….whoo boy what a bad day that was for us…You know…Your Chosen People. We don’t really know where You were in the earth years 1940 to 1945. We know everyone needs a break now and then…..even Lord G-d Almighty needs some time off. But really…when we needed You most, You were never around. You are probably aware of this, but if You have forgotten, over six million of Your Chosen People, along with quite a few unchosen others, were murdered. They even made lampshades out of our skins. Look, we don’t want to dwell on the past, but it gets worse!

Here we are, it’s 1948, and millions of us are displaced yet again, when You really pull a fast one. We finally get our own land back! Yes!!! After all these years, You arrange for us to go back… then all the
Arab countries immediately declare war on us. We have to tell You that sometimes Your sense of humor really eludes us. Ok, so we win all the wars, but it’s now 2006 and nothing’s changed. We keep getting blown up, hijacked, and kidnapped. We have no peace whatsoever.

Enough is enough. So, we hope that You understand that nothing’s forever (except You of course) and we respectfully would like to pull out of our verbal agreement vis-a -vis being Your chosen people. Look, sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t.  Let’s be friends over the next few eons and see what happens. How about this? We’re sure You recall that Abraham had a whole other family from Ishmael (the ones who got the oil). How about making them Your chosen people for a few thousand years?

Respectfully,

The Commitee To Be UN-Chosen

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Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Mainline Christian Resolutions

I wrote the email below in response to a Jewish leader.

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I certainly do not have all the answers to this.  But I still believe that we cannot underestimate historical prejudices against Jews, both inside and outside of Christianity.  Anti-Semitism may not be the best term, but it’s the only one we have that has any real meaning to people (anti-Judaism is a soft term that renders hate academic and gets people off the hook).  Anti-Semitism is embedded in Christian consciousness and does not disappear just because we all get together in dialogue groups and feel good about our broad-mindedness.  Nor do scholarly discussions of the Jewishness of early Christianity substantially change the way large numbers of ordinary people still think and live.  And the problem exists just as much among evangelicals and fundamentalists.  Their agenda happens for a moment to align with the mainstream Jewish agenda.  That can change in the blink of an eye, however.  Considering the Jewishness of Jesus (and even Paul), this fact still amazes me, but it is what it is.

William Nicholls has written an excellent book on this subject (with a discussion of left-wing anti-Semitism as well) and offers some possible intellectual solutions:  Christian Antisemitism:  A History of Hate (Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aronson, 1995).  I highly recommend it to you (especially chapters 10-13).  In the meantime, we have to develop relationships with Christians (especially key leaders) in mainline denominations that are based on human connections and intimate friendships where we interact with one another in day-to-day life (not just in professional meetings or dialogue groups).  This is the key.  I believe that a divestment resolution was not proposed at the General Assembly in part because of the relationships I have with certain Disciples, my willingness to take time out to work with them behind the scenes, and their consequent willingness to put themselves on the line by standing up against some of their friends (as well as long-term allies) and opposing the resolution against the barrier.  This required tremendous courage on their part that none of us should underestimate.  We need to acknowledge them and thank them (and others like them) profusely.  Each one of them is a mensch.  The supporters of the resolution knew they had a fight on their hands and made a tactical decision to postpone divestment until another day.  They also were surprised by the number of people voting against the resolution (about one-third).  Bonds among people often transcend prejudices and ideologies by establishing a mutual basis for trust.  There were other factors at the Disciples’ General Assembly, but this one was fundamental.

If Jewish leaders can establish closer ties to certain Christians, this will have a profound effect.  Such a process may involve going to a church service as a Jew or discussing a Christian topic or going to hear lectures on Christian theology.  These are necessary steps to effect mutual respect and healing.  When I teach or write on a Christian topic, the response is always more positive than I anticipate, and it changes the way Christians view my presentations and publications on Jewish subjects (including political ones).  At the same time, one always maintains one’s Jewish identity and does not back down when presented with anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs.  Developing personal relationships allows for honest and frank conversation and exchange in a way that professional posturing does not.  The practical effect is the development of trust that can trump ideology. This may be difficult and uncomfortable, but it can work.  What we’re doing now does not. Admittedly, in Nazi-occupied Europe and (more recently) in the former Yugoslavia, friends and neighbors turned on one another in vicious ways.  So there are certainly no guarantees.  In that type of situation, the persecuted can only flee, resist, or hope to rely on the truly righteous (i.e. Righteous Gentiles).  I do not think that we now face such a predicament.  In the present circumstances, personal connections still offer us the best opportunities and the most hope.

Of course, we have to continue outlining the arguments (which I very much enjoy doing), but people tend to listen more attentively and openly when there is fundamental trust.  Obviously, the more of us engaged in building such relationships, the more effective we will be.  That’s my two cents, for what it’s worth.

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Musings on Jews and Christians: Israel

This is a substantial excerpt from a letter I wrote in 2005 regarding an anti-Israel resolution:

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Now that the Disciples’ General Assembly has finished its work (passing a resolution that denounces the Israeli defense barrier), we need to think long-term about how to respond to the current crisis in the mainline Protestant denominations.  As someone who is Jewish and works as a faculty member at a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) seminary (Lexington Theological Seminary), I would be glad to contribute to this discussion in any feasible way.  At present, we are in a troubling period (and for Jews an anxious one).  Though we can be glad that no one slipped in a divestment resolution at the General Assembly, I assume that this is coming down the pike.

Jewish-Christian dialogue has achieved some significant goals, but it has obviously not succeeded in getting enough Christians to understand and acknowledge the full extent of persistent anti-Semitism.  This problem of prejudice against Jews has several different elements in the context of Israel.

First, the right of Israelis and Jews to defend themselves evidently exists only when they are perceived as victims.  Once Jews are perceived as self-sufficient and secure, Jews are no longer seen as having the right to engage in the same security measures that other nations use to protect themselves.  For Jews this is painful, because it seems that the only palatable Jews in some Christian eyes are casualties (as in the holocaust) or submissive and self-loathing dependents.  What does it mean to have a right to exist, if you cannot defend yourself?

Second, Israel and Jews are held to different standards than are other countries and peoples.  Of all the nations and groups engaged in gross violation of human rights in the Middle East, mainline Protestant denominations have seen fit to condemn only Israel:  not Saudi Arabia nor Iran nor Syria, which have all engaged in various kinds of ghastly violence and oppression, including the killing of ethnic and religious minorities, mass murder, and imprisonment and execution of dissidents–not to mention promotion of anti-Semitic literature and videos.  Nor do some mainline Christians consider suicide bombings and other terrorist acts of Palestinians and others to be worthy of the kind of serious critique that they apply to Israeli actions.  Mainline denominations do not make proposals to divest from Palestinian businesses on account of their acts of terror.  In fact, divestment, and now educational boycotts (as now proposed by British higher educators), recall the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses during the 1930’s.  Apparently, in liberal Christian eyes, Israel’s human rights violations are viewed as the worst in the Middle East.  Israel has received virtually all the blame and responsibility, while Muslim nations and peoples barely register any notice for their human rights abuses.  As has happened throughout history, some Christians have developed a new twist on an old procedure to scapegoat Jews instead of recognizing the complexity and multi-faceted dimensions of a difficult problem.

Third, some Christians seem to believe that they understand anti-Semitism and can determine whether or not they are anti-Semitic.  After centuries of prejudice and persecution of Jews by Christians culminating in the holocaust, one might think that such persons would at least have the humility to keep silent on such matters.  It is true that not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but one-sided resolutions that do not acknowledge the pain of Israelis, that were composed without the consultation of mainstream Jewish leaders in the U.S. or Israel (but with the extensive consultation of Palestinians), and that treat the conflict in terms of simplistic cliches can only lead to the conclusion that the writers and supporters of such resolutions simply do not care much for Jews.

For those like me, deeply involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, this is all rather depressing.  I have devoted my entire professional life as a scholar and teacher to studying and teaching both Judaism and Christianity.  I studied New Testament and early Judaism at Harvard and Yale and have had the privilege to teach New Testament, Hebrew Bible, comparative religion, and Jewish studies (as well as many other subjects in religion) in several different contexts.  Now I teach at a Christian seminary and have always been committed to working in this kind of interfaith and intercultural context.  From time to time, I wonder what I’m doing when I see the same problems come up again and again and again.  But sometimes you have to follow Sisyphus–just keep trying to roll that rock up the hill.

I still strongly believe in dialogue.  Otherwise, the extremists win and the vast mainstream of peace-loving human beings lose.  In addition, many members of mainline denominations do not share the political beliefs of their leaders and representatives.  Somehow, we have to reach these people and empower them.  Anti-Israel resolutions are essentially done-deals before the national meetings take place and reflect the interests of certain elites.  Jews and Israeli victims of terrorism have certainly not been part of the process.  We need to move proactively at the beginning, not at the end, of the development of these resolutions, if we want to have a significant effect.  At the same time, dialogue has to begin from a different place.  No more can we simply sit and be nice to one another and muse about our commonalities.  We have to find a way to talk about painful topics that engender strong emotions and recognize and celebrate our different approaches to life and spirituality.  Honesty has to enter into the discussion.  Self-criticism on all sides is vital.  I certainly am ready to criticize Israel where appropriate (e.g. on settlement policy), yet am still strongly Zionist.

But, in the end, enough Christians have to decide that Jews are as fully human and as fully accepted by God as are Christians.   The view that they are not is something that ideologues on the Christian left and right seem to share.  Some liberal Christians engage in dehumanization by treating Israel unjustly and expecting Jews to sit quietly and meekly while under attack, by talking primarily to far-left, anti-Zionist Jews outside of the Jewish mainstream, and by viewing Zionism as contemptible.  Some conservative Christians engage in dehumanization by promoting the idea that Jews (and other non-Christians) will not be saved, by attempting to convert Jews to Christianity, and by advocating a conflagration in the Middle East that will culminate in the second coming of Jesus and the triumph of Christianity.

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Judaism and Social Action I

This is an email response to a friend of mine:

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I enjoyed your essay. There’s a lot there that makes sense. I think you’re right about the importance of “separation” and binary opposition. Have you read the work of the structural anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, on this general subject? He bases his theory primarily on the work of structural linguistics and its application in the study of kinship patterns. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas, has a lot to say as well (particularly in her book, “Purity and Danger”). Most recently, Saul Olyan has written a book that you might find interesting and relevant: “Rites and Rank: Hiearchy in Biblical Representations of Cult” (Princeton, 2000). I have not seen or read it, but he apparently deals with these issues in detail.

On the issue of polarity in Christianity, you definitely make a good point about the centrality of evil, the consequent concern for preventing it, and the resultant tragedies that have occured. Yet, it is also true that Christianity is fundamentally different from Zoroastrian religion in at least one respect. Christianity does not posit an equal force of evil (the devil) in the universe that is on a par with God (good). Gnostics, Mandaeans, and even some Jews (Elisha ben Abuya) may have done this, but not the mainstream Christian tradition as it has come down. Original sin is a human creation (Adam and Eve), not directly part of the original creation of God. So Christian views of evil are actually rather complex.

At the same time, Judaism was certainly influenced by Zoroastrian religion. The notions of an afterlife, physical resurrection, and paradise may all have part of their origin in Zorastrianism. And the Christian idea of a “devil” figure comes from Judaism! Satan occurs in Job, and in later intertestamental Jewish texts, Satan appears as an opponent of God. Many Jews have had, and continue to have, a preoccupation with evil forces in the universe. Evil is not an exclusively Christian concern, though I think you’re right that Christians may emphasize it somewhat more than Jews, especially as an abstract concept or force in the universe. You’re also right that Christians tend to place evil outside of ourselves and the world than have Jews. And your point about entropy and original sin is excellent.

Yet, I do believe that we Jews have had our own preoccupations as well and that this has led to our own process of externalization: unclean and clean, pure and impure, especially. While traditional Judaism has not posited “sin” as an outside force, we have tried to keep “impurity” and “uncleanliness” outside of our environments. Some have gone to great lengths to achieve this. Judaism has tended to envision these disturbing elements not in theological terms, but rather in ritual terms.

As for “gemilut hasadim,” I think “acts of mercy” or “acts of compassion” is a translation that does not quite catch the depth of this phrase. “Rahamim” usually translates “mercy,” and that’s what most translators have used. “Hesed” can mean “kindness, “love,” “affection,” “piety,” and more. “ahabah” refers to the concept of love, particularly between human beings (whether that of friendship or family). It’s a very common word in Hebrew. “Lovingkindness” is an English attempt at trying to convey two of the connotations of “hesed”: “love and “kindness.” I think “hesed” includes the quality of humaneness associated with the Yiddish word (from German) for a real human being, “Mensch”: Somebody who goes above and beyond their apparent obligations to take the pain, suffering (and joy!) of others into their hearts. It is a concern for others that includes an awareness of our fundamental connectedness to one another.

The noun, “gemilut,” comes from the Hebrew verb, “gamal”: “to do good/evil,” “to reward,” “repay,” “ripen,” “wean.” “Gemilut” is not used in the Bible, however, and we are not certain of its original meaning. It is my hunch that “gemilut” conveys a sense of “ACTION,” EDUCATION (broadly speaking), and also of “MORAL OBLIGATION`.” So “gemilut hasadim” is a moral imperative to love your neighbors, helping them when they need it and sharing in their joy: clothing the naked, feeding the starving, healing the sick, comforting the bereaved and the depressed, celebrating weddings, rejoicing in other’s successes, adding positive energy to the world. It’s that force of goodness in the world that maintains our existence, as Simeon the Righteous implied when he said, “On three things, the world stands: the Torah, worship, and acts of lovingkindness.”

So “gemilut hasadim” definitely calls us to act on behalf of others, including social action. As to the specifics of “sweatshops,” you have made some very good points. This is not an easy issue. Even so, I think, for example, we have an obligation to stand up for what we believe. If we believe that it is inappropriate and immoral for children to work full-time for low pay at factories which produce our clothing, we have an obligation to say so and work toward another means of production. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrialists and free market theorists offered the same arguments when they faced popular opposition to child labor. Yet, though the content of the arguments had changed, the assumptions have remained more or less the same since antiquity: cheap labor allows the production of more goods at a lower cost and greater profit.

But we decided to pursue another course, eventually resulting in a system of compulsory education for children. In fact, this gave us the skilled labor that allowed us to create the powerful economic engines characteristic of Western nations. I think we have the obligation to encourage other countries to take a similar course–to use the incentives at our disposal in order to produce more just societies. Do we want societies riven by the division of the population into small wealthy classes and large poor classes? I don’t think so. What threatens our national security? I believe it is no longer large armies, but rather unstable nations, much of whose populations live in poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and consequent despair. This produces terrorism, jingoistic nationalism, mass emigrations, environmental disasters, population explosions, drug economies, antagonism to the U.S. and the West, etc. It’s not just a moral or economic issue, but one of national security. By discouraging child labor and by encouraging education, we have the chance to see the formation of nations with dynamic middle classes and more powerful economies. In other words, we will have a more productive and safer world. At least, I hope so.

I’m by no means an expert on this, but it seems to me that the moral call to social action and economics actually conspired to create what we have now. Does it always work out this way? No. Do good intentions sometimes lead to bad results? Yes. Can bad intentions actually at times produce good results? Yes. Can good people disagree about a moral course of action? Of course. In fact, the discussion itself may produce an awareness and a plan of action that would not have otherwise existed.

I believe, however, that “Gemilut hasadim” does call us to take action on behalf of others, including those we don’t even know in parts of the world we may never have visited. We may make mistakes, but that does not mean we should avoid putting ourselves in the world. Not to do so is (in my opinion) an error and misses the thrust of “gemilut hasadim.”

Thank you for thinking about these issues so deeply. Your essay should help us all. I know it’s helped me. I think you’re absolutely right about God and the holocaust. We spend too much time thinking about God’s intentions and not enough looking at our own actions and foibles. Also, I had never thought about entropy in such positive terms as you put it. You really changed my view there Perhaps entropy is a gift that God has given us. Hmm . . .

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The Difference Between Christmas and Channukah

I received the following in an email:

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“If anyone asks you what the difference is between Christmas and Chanukah, you will know what and how to answer!

1. Christmas is one day, same day every year, December 25. Jews also love December 25th. It’s another paid day off work. We go to movies and out for Chinese food and Israeli dancing. Chanukah is 8 days. It starts the evening of the 24th of Kislev, whenever that falls. No one is ever sure. Jews never know until a non-Jewish friend asks when Chanukah starts, forcing us to consult a calendar so we don’t look like idiots. We all have the same calendar, provided free with a donation from the World Jewish Congress, the kosher butcher, or the local Sinai Memorial Chapel (especially in Florida ) or other Jewish funeral home.

2. Chanukah is a minor holiday with the same theme as most Jewish holidays. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.

3. Christians get wonderful presents such as jewelry, perfume, stereos….

Jews get practical presents such as underwear, socks, or the collected works of the Rambam, which looks impressive on the bookshelf.

4. There is only one way to spell Christmas. No one can decide how to spell Chanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukka, Channukah, Hanukah, Hannukah, etc.

5. Christmas is a time of great pressure for husbands and boy friends . Their partners expect special gifts. Jewish men are relieved of that burden. No one expects a diamond ring on Chanukah.

6. Wax candles are used for Chanukah. Not only are we spared enormous electric bills, but we get to feel good about not contributing to the energy crisis.

7. Christmas carols are beautiful…Silent Night,  Come All Ye Faithful…. Chanukah songs are about dreidels made from clay or having a party and dancing the hora. Of course, we are secretly pleased that many of the beautiful carols were composed and written by our tribal brethren. And don’t Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond sing them beautifully?

8. A home preparing for Christmas smells wonderful.  The sweet smell of cookies and cakes baking. Happy people are gathered around in festive moods. A home preparing for Chanukah smells of oil, potatoes, and onions. The home, as always, is full of loud people all talking at once.

9. Women have fun baking Christmas cookies. Women burn their eyes and cut their hands grating potatoes and onions for latkas on Chanukah. Another reminder of our suffering through the ages.

10. Parents deliver to their children during Christmas mornings. Jewish parents have no qualms about withholding a gift on any of the eight nights.

11. The players in the Christmas story have easy to pronounce names such as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The players in the Chanukah story are Antiochus, Judah Maccabee, and Matta whatever. No one can spell it or pronounce it. On the plus side, we can tell our friends anything and they believe we are wonderfully versed in our history.

12. Many Christians believe in the virgin birth. Jews think, ‘Joseph, you shmuck, snap out of it. Your woman is pregnant, you didn’t sleep with her, and now you want to blame G-d. Here’s the number of my shrink’.

13. In recent years, Christmas has become more and more commercialized. The same holds true for Chanukah, even though it is a minor holiday. It makes sense. How could we market a major holiday such as Yom Kippur? Forget about celebrating. Think observing. Come to synagogue, starve yourself for 27 hours, become one with your dehydrated soul, beat your chest, confess your sins, a guaranteed good time for you and your family. Tickets a mere $200 per person.

Happy Chanukah!”

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